I know myself. The perspiration from thousands of confined sit-ups has pushed the dew point up a few notches in here. Guys are running in place, doing dips off the window sill and curling up to knees slung over bunk rails. To the left of the computer monitor, a metallic burgundy coffee cup has stood obscured in the rush of comers and goers for three days now. I never get more than a sip or two down before the cappuccino is set aside to brew curdled foam. My leather briefcase is a snarl of risk assessment forms, detainer notices and post-it reminders that have dropped out of order and nest in a heap of pens at the bottom.
There is little option other than dribbling Greek yogurt and raspberries over the sheaths of paperwork while I type in the quiet just before roll call sets the shift in motion. Once inside the housing unit, there is no stopping the outflow of a need so aching and overwhelming, you can feel it throbbing behind the walls and up the main corridor. As the days boil down into vicious sameness, this distant mark on the calendar becomes a raving obsession. All eyes are fixed on the one egress that leads out to the real world.
The fervent prayers of Muslims, Catholics and Native Americans alike begin and end with the same petition. The windowless office has absorbed the odor of four hundred damp Nikes. The one ancient desk fan putters to a palsied hum. The copy machine is broken. Fuck, I say. One by one, they start lining up outside the door. Pardon my language, I add for the benefit of the twenty peeping eyeballs that glare through the slats in the lowered blind.
Fuck is just fine with them. The morning is well underway with few snags in the sequence of men who file in empty-handed and back out with new parole dates, updated money accounts, pending warrants to serve or a care package of dwarfed toothpaste and bars of soap that smell like kerosene. Suddenly, the door flies open crashing its leaden weight against the back of the chair where Mr. Dwyer sits sorting the daily mail. Tommy is in high mania now.
Saliva pools in the corner of his dry lips. Sweat clamps the front of his grayed tee shirt. A flame-red rash runs the width of his neck. Dwyer, the B-dorm block worker, whips to his feet and turns to face his bunkie. He says nothing, just hangs his head in the face of this tirade. A lifetime of it. Hold on, Tommy. Not now… Dwyer stutters with his hands at his side, disarmed.
I move between the two men and face the provoker. You need to step out, Mr. My right hand is just out of reach of the inmate receiver. If I jiggle it off the hook, then the signal will be sent to Control to send cops running this way. Calm down. He works for me. You know that. I asked him to be in here, I tell Pisano and move closer, creating more space behind me and less room for him to maneuver his fists into striking range.
Just go. The situation is too volatile and the noise is beginning to draw attention from the other inmates. Take a seat, I say harshly. Pisano slams his body down into the plastic chair. Can I call my lawyer now? I wrote you, he says calmly as if nothing out of the ordinary just happened. I pretend the tachycardia in my chest is imaginary and the cold pit of fear in the gut is only the natural pang of a mid-morning blood sugar drop. I ask. Pisano beams and pulls out the business card to a Frank Solomon in Dorchester.
The win goes in his column today. I dial up the number, wait on the line to identify the law firm and then signal for him to pick up the inmate phone. I quietly replace the receiver and without making any sudden movement, turn back to the computer screen. As client and public defender converse, I pull up the inmate query system, making sure the monitor is tilted away from his line of vision.
Assaultive: 5 Severity of Violence: 5. Mental Health: 5. You never call me, man! You told me to cop to this plea and now here I sit…Bullshit! The receiver slams down so hard that a plastic splinter from the cradle flicks on top of the file cabinet. Tommy Pisano stands up, satisfied. I could very well write him a Class A ticket for Threatening and get him removed from General Population.
Never has. The bell rings for Rec time and the officers reluctantly stand and begin yelling orders. They amp up the decibel level with raunchy jokes, football stats and a general need to out-shout their captives. Every day, a jockey for survival on a walkway of concrete. My spotters are lazy and lean up against the desk with menus of double-stuffed pizzas in hand.
They wear stately blue and parade around the perimeter with their eyes on the prize of their own fat retirement. Forget about the circus girl who takes center stage, dangling by her gums and guy-wires in a cellblock of two hundred violent men. Even on their wobbly rope, the Wallendas were more likely to fall among friends and survive. I head first to the upper level that is stale with the overflow of forced heat. The lifers there live in single cells with Muslim prayer rugs angled south to southeast.
Cardboard stolen from the kitchen deliveries covers the open toilets when the convicts-turned- converts kneel down to pray. Thirty feet below, bolted tables sport red and black checkerboard squares painted on the cement tops so no one can steal the fun. The young bucks with taut bare chests decorated in tribal ink are loose down there and start up the chorus. I keep walking above them, following the numbered cells in a clockwise rotation laid out like a postal route with odd numbers on the left side and evens on the right. Did you do what I asked you to do? I indicate with a circling motion of my hand that I intend to keep on track.
Did you take care of that thing for me? They keep at it, whining, asking the same questions over and over when the answers are not to their liking. One lap complete, I head down to the next level. Eyes intently peer through gaps between doors. Small shards of mirrors poke out and are angled to see who walks this mile. The self-consciousness has never disappeared; my heightened state of alertness is permanently ingrained.
The difference now is the amount of years under my belt. I do not shirk away from discomfort. I apologize to no one. My kindness is a defect, a weakness grown out of trust, that genetic crack in the female armor that evil men count on and act upon. I passed your time sheet on to Records to double-check. His shoulders relax and a faint grin smoothes out that snarl. It is enough that I know his name, that his question has not been forgotten in the barrage of needs. Thank you, Miss Abrams, he says cordially and steps back into his cell to let me pass. The charges were pressed by her parents when they found out he decided to break up with their slutty daughter.
He was subsequently charged and sentenced to ten years with mandatory time. He took it very hard yesterday when I had to tell him he was stipulated to the year-long in-house sex offender treatment program. I left him sniffling and rubbing his acne-covered cheeks after I put him on the phone to his mom despite the directive that prohibits that. Sometimes empathy has to overrule ethics. Seventy-two cell is at the back corner of the middle tier tucked away where the rolling laundry bins for B-block are kept. I hate this kind of case.
It has injustice stamped all over it. I pull up in front of the cell door. A draft of frigid air is blowing through from the north side. This corner of the block is dark and devoid of direct sun. Both bunks are empty. The blanket on the top is missing and the mattress bare and free of the usual crowd of GED books and papers. Was he moved out? And then I see the limp body partially concealed by the front of the metal bunk and the plastic chair tipped on its side. The braid of shredded linen sheet around his neck has done its job.
A bustle of foam leaks from his nose. I push the button on my body alarm and freeze in place. Code purple, I stutter as the first two guards arrive on the scene. All my training goes out the window. I forget about the glass box on the wall with the cutting tool that could free him.
And the incident report I will be required to fill out, the one that will claim the officers did their thirty-minute tours per post order which I will eventually sign to confirm that all protocol was followed and no one is at fault. The banging of multiple levers starts up as the cells are popped open, prisoners pushed back and then locked up. Everyone herded away from the truth. It all comes rushing back.
The movie starts up. Now over twenty-six years old, the film has lost its color and is only a flickering series of black-and-white frames. I close my eyes and put a hand on the railing to steady myself. Counselor Abrams. Are you alright? The trusted tier men come to the rescue with wet rags and a small carton of sour orange juice.
I feel them lower me to the gritty floor where there are more germs than the number of stars that have passed over this prison in the past eighteen years. Their strong hands touch my skin.
Good men with bad choices or bad men with good intentions? Decades ago, these kinds of men had left me for dead. A memoir; a horror story; a frenzied dream flapping madly off its reel in the haste to get back to its beginning. My first thought was that the Rapture must have happened.
Jesus had finally made the trip down to meet his children halfway to heaven, gathered his latch-key kids up out of this disappointing world and brought them to the eternal party. But if so, then God had split the Second Coming right down the middle of the long stretch of Barnum Boulevard which opened up like a parade route minus the spectators. All the evangelists apparently had lived on the north side of the street.
In the ten minutes that it took to browse the shelves, not one customer stepped in the establishment. I paid for the discounted Riesling and walked outside. Restless men collected in shadows under the pharmacy awning. Still too early for trouble, they mimicked and swaggered and shouted instead. It occurred to me suddenly that it was Spring Break which explained the absence of activity on the academic side of town. People had cleared out in Dodge Darts or on Greyhound buses headed towards Lauderdale; everyone except a twenty-year old over-achiever who cared more about my suma cum laude honors than dangling my breasts over balconies.
It was dusk by then, that uncertain hour which was not yet night but well beyond the clarity of day; certainly not a great time to be walking alone up this deserted stretch. I picked up the pace, clutching the bottle that threatened to slip from its paper bag sleeve. The city bus stopped a few blocks back at the intersection of Walden and Highlands Avenue and even if I rattled together the right amount of change, it seemed a contraindication to walk back through dark territory to meet it.
I crossed the recess playground of Revere Elementary which sprawled in empty abandon with a few lone tetherball poles that dangled limp rope. On the far side of the fenced lot, modest bungalows and pre-World War II homes started up and ascended in stature and glory as the streets backed farther and farther away from downtown. I kept heading north. As each subsequent block unfolded in a darker cast of shadow, I checked and double-checked my surroundings. Small details caught my eye. It was times like these I regretted not having my car but off-street parking had proved fatal to my Buick Apollo.
Its transaxle had been pinned against the curb by the epileptic neighbor who came roaring out of his garage mid-seizure. I crossed for the last time just south of the Victorian Tudor that was my temporary home. Schuster, the next door neighbor, was sitting at her card table on her allseason porch sipping tomato soup while her cross-eyed, urine-colored poodle dug frantic nails against the glass. I jumped two steps at a time up onto the pressure-treated deck at the back of the house. The tiny plum-colored buds on the Japanese maple had already begun to swell and ripen.
The atmosphere was moist and expectant, a perfect climate for couples. The key turned in the dead-bolt and as soon as the door swung inward, I heard the ringing of the wall phone. I jimmied it again to quickly lock the bolt but it resisted, so I yanked the key out and ran to catch the call. I just went to do a few errands.
You getting ready to leave? He was all too aware of how disappointed I would be. Our opportunities to see one another had dwindled as each of our separate lives picked up momentum and responsibility. My plan is to get everything running smoothly on the first shift production run tomorrow and then I can check out. This means I could probably be there by dinner time tomorrow. Well, I wish we had more than twenty-four hours together but I understand. Like maybe you had plans, too. I do love you, Aaron said, followed by an audible sigh of relief.
The grocery stock boy turned food manufacturing supervisor was off the hook. There was plenty of time now to chill the wine and beer which I popped onto the top shelf of the refrigerator next to the tray of gouda cheese, half-sours and sliced kielbasa. Food could wait. The hallways, study and parlor housed a collection of museum-quality souvenirs from numerous sabbaticals.
I loved to float from room to room revering each intricate and valuable object; items like the hand-stitched table tapestries from Calcutta with lavish beading and jeweled embroidery or the Sese grinding bowls from Acra carved into a swirl of safari animals. The hallways were decorated from floor to ceiling with grainy photographs, visual tributes to travels where elephants lolled on their sides in septic rivers spraying joyous loops of water in a heavenly arc over the malnourished backs of their trainers and young women in royal kaleidoscope silk scraping the skin off their heels as they padded dusty miles to a school with no desks or books.
The irony of temples besides tents and palaces besieged by peasants. The dichotomy was both cruel and captivating, no different than the families back home living in broken-down Buicks with skinny dogs and shiftless husbands, their women, ugly-mouthed from stringing up wet diapers kid after kid. Their poverty in stark contrast to the Village Improvement Society whose aim it was to clear the unsightly clutter from view as their sloops sailed around the leeward side of the Point.
I headed up the main staircase to my room.
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It mattered little what clothing covered up these delicates. The outer garments would be stripped and flung in a boisterous display of hasty conquest; but from there, the pace always became a ritual of worship. Aaron liked to linger over lingerie tracing fingers on lace straps and elastic hem, pressing down, rubbing inwards, nudging and nuzzling the thin fabrics that prevented him from having me.
And when the gorgeous, slow dance ceased and he finally peeked beneath, it was the like the first time, each time, as he gazed fully on the fragrant mysterious folds between my legs.
But tonight, I would relax in casual comfort and use my thinking cap instead. I switched off the light and walked back down to the kitchen. I hopped back on the IBM computer Dad had donated as a going-off gift. It was no small sacrifice on his part, even with regular overtime.
I picked up the thread where I had left off in my analysis of the self-destructive dynamic of Prader -Willi Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes the sufferer to gorge himself to death, if allowed. Charlie Kravit had all the classic signs: the prominent nasal bridge, high narrow forehead, tapered fingers and thickened middle. This piece of cutting-edge research might just seal my chance of making the leap from a state university to Northeastern, the golden sister school down the way.
One reason may have been Himes' unusually candid treatment — for that time — of a homosexual relationship. Originally written in the third person, it was rewritten in the first person in a more "hard-boiled" style. The novels feature a mordant emotional timbre and a fatalistic approach to street situations. Funeral homes are often part of the story, and funeral director H. Exodus Clay is a recurring character in these books.
But, they also cover many of the other issues specific to the work and to the world today. Because of this, she and officials at the annual NAACP image Awards program decided that she should not accept the award. Bob derives satisfaction from the fact that he can purchase something not currently attainable to some rich whites; for him this is a sign that at least some part of FDR liberalism works according to its newly minted rhetoric of color-blind merit, rather than its ongoing practice of racial inequality. Metress, Christopher. Her father was a fair-skinned man who was adopted by a black woman. But tonight, I would relax in casual comfort and use my thinking cap instead.
Cotton Comes to Harlem was made into a movie in , which was set in that time period, rather than the earlier period of the original book. Skinner, published by University Press of Mississippi in From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Chester Himes. Novels portal. The New York Times. Retrieved August 13, Books and Writers kirjasto. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on February 8, Archived from the original on March 11, Retrieved January 28, City of Quartz.
Verso, , The Guardian. Retrieved January 7, Retrieved November 19, Fabre, Michel; Skinner, Robert E. Conversations with Chester Himes. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi. Franklin, H. Bruce February 16, The Nation : 28— Freese, Peter Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule. Lipsitz, George Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the s. Urbana : University of Illinois Press. Lundquist, James New York: Ungar. Margolies, Edward , and Michel Fabre. The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, Milliken, Stephen F.