This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
I lay there on my sticky mat and tried not to move. My body was emanating more heat than an Easy Bake Oven as my cellie retched out the few remaining contents of his stomach into the steel toilet. He had spurned my courteous warnings and was reaping the regurgitative rewards, but I didn’t have the strength to say, “I told you so.”
I was on a court writ in The Birdcage. Summer was finally stretching its legs after a long dark winter that held the sun hostage behind dreary gray clouds for six months. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies, cotton-candy clouds, and more UV rays than my body had seen in four years. My Caucasian complexion had paled so much from a complete lack of natural light that blue veins stood out starkly below the surface of my skin. I was practically translucent. All that would change, however, because I was about to go to the yard—the only yard that would be offered all week. Even though my cellie hadn’t been sun-starved for nearly as long as I had, we were both as giddy as little kids on Christmas morning.
Despite the fact that we were grown men and hardened criminals, it felt more like recess in elementary school. The occupants of three gallery rushed into the huge expanse of green grass, which was bordered on two sides by an impressively intimidating thirty-foot wall and a rusted ten-foot fence topped with barbed wire on the other two sides. I’d been warned about groundhog holes and how easily an ankle could be twisted or snapped in one of them, but I was caught up in the frenzy of the moment and sprinted across the yard—oblivious of the dangers and fueled by sheer childlike whimsy.
My cellie made a beeline for the basketball court, while my destination was much less defined. I had no other agenda than to soak up some sun and walk so I could knock the rust off. I’d been cooped up in a cell for over a week, and I just wanted to enjoy the glorious day.
After one lap around the edge of the yard, with only one close call as my foot slipped into an unseen hole in the ground, I stripped my shirt off to better let my body catch some of the rays I’d been denied for so long. It was a hot day, but not terribly humid, with a perfect whisper of breeze to chase away any trace of stagnant, oppressive heat. I made my way to the middle of the yard where the grass was a lush, thick, dark green; I wanted to harness as much solitude as I could muster, considering my circumstances. The sun’s wonderful warmth felt amazing on my bare shoulders. I closed my eyes and turned my face upward to greet the smiling sky. The day glowed like a ripe orange against my eyelids, and the sounds of my fellow convicts were little more than distant murmurs. I breathed in the smell of the grass beneath my feet and felt at peace, as if I were standing in some far-off field filled with wide open space instead of this counterfeit one where walls and fences stymied my freedom. Basking in the sun like that, I stood there until I felt weak-kneed and dizzy, drunk on the sun. My reveling in the sunshine continued for hours; I gorged myself on it, as if it was food and I’d gone without a meal for days. I was a glutton for it.
Yard was meant to last for three hours, but that deadline came and went. The sun crept into the steeple of the sky and became less lovely, and increasingly uncomfortable. The ice-filled garbage bag that the C/O had tossed onto the ground when we came out at 9:00 a.m.—the water supply for about 70 guys—had long ago melted to nothing more than a soggy mess. Hiding in the bit of shade provided by the towering walls became impossible as the sun burned down without an ounce of mercy. My speedy walking had long ago become a crawl punctuated by periods of standing around talking to a few guys. I had done time with some of them in other institutions and was reconnecting with them after several years apart.
On one of my leisurely strolls, I observed my cellie doubled over at the waist in the center of the basketball court while midway through a one-on-one game. He was hugging the ball to his belly as he dripped sweat and heaved air in and out. I hollered genially for him to sit his ass down before he passed out. He waved me off and tried to stand, but had to hunch back over immediately. I walked to the edge of the basketball court to tell him that he was probably dehydrated and should rest. In case he hadn’t realized it, I also informed him that he’d been going at it non-stop for four hours. Both of us were only being housed at this particular joint for temporary court writs, so we’d only known each other five days. He swiveled his head in my direction, twisted his face into a sneer, and hurled angry curses at me. I took that as my cue to leave him be.
I took up a position with my back against the fence and felt the sun beat against my body with a brutality that wouldn’t let up. The pleasant morning breeze had long since ceased, so all that remained were conditions commensurate with a convection oven; the inmates were pieces of meat left to sizzle too long. All told, we were outside for just under five hours, with no lunch. I’d only had a mouthful of melted ice to combat the effects of dehydration. By the time the C/O wandered out to bring us back inside, I felt like a dried-out chunk of old beef jerky.
Back in our cells, our Styrofoam trays of lunch were waiting for us—cold and surrounded by a dozen flies desperately trying to get at the sustenance inside. I had been at the front of the long line of inmates moving two by two while my cellie lagged at the rear. This gave me a few minutes to myself in the cell, enough to douse my head and torso in cool water and taste the glorious elixir one sip at a time.
By the time my cellie stumbled into the doorway of the cell, I felt, if not normal, at least well on my way in the right direction. The exercise and heat had sapped me of all energy, and even though my stomach was in my back, all I wanted was to lie down for a moment. Meanwhile, my cellie had stalled in the doorway and was being yelled at to get in his cell. He slumped against the jamb, his shirt off and tucked into his waistband; his skin was suspiciously clammy but not slick with sweat.
“Cellie,” I said in a loud voice meant to cut through his obvious exhaustion. He moaned a little, and the C/O yelled at him some more. He sounded angrier this time, and called out our cell number as if there was some confusion as to who exactly was blocking their cell door. I placed my hand on my cellie’s shoulder; it was cool to the touch. Somewhere deep in the muddled and malnourished recesses of my mind, I knew that this was a sign or symptom of something bad, but I was preoccupied with several other things, not the least of which was getting my cellie inside the cell. He responded to my touch with a grunt, but also allowed himself to be directed into the cell before leaning against the wall and using it to keep himself upright while sliding his way to the sink. I got out of his way, and the door closed behind us.
He plunked his head into the sink, making a sound that seemed like it would be painful, and pushed the button for the cold water. A stream arced up for ten seconds before cutting off, and he pressed the button half a dozen times to soak his head before raising his mouth to the spigot to slurp greedily at the water. “Cellie, you want to go slow or you’ll be sick.” Again he turned his head to glare at me, but this time he let the look do all the talking for him. Then he returned to guzzling as much H2O as he could force down his throat.
I put my food tray onto my top bunk and dragged my weary body up next to it, but didn’t even bother to open the lid and check what sloptastic dish we’d been served. Instead, I sprawled out with my toes pointed to the corners of my narrow bunk and the tray safely in the space between my knees. I was shirtless, as I had been for nearly the entire time outdoors, and my flesh was giving off so much heat I could feel it rising from me in waves. I wished I had my fan to provide some relief, but they’re not allowed on court writs. My personal reverie was destroyed by the sounds of my cellie first moaning loudly, then expelling copious wet vomitus.
Each retch was accompanied by the attendant splashing sounds and punctuated with a pained groan before further puking ensued. While I felt sorry for the guy, I don’t deny that I definitely derived a bit of satisfaction from his suffering (which he could have avoided if he’d listened to me). Eventually, his regurgitating subsided, and I dozed off for a while.
When I awoke, my cellie was unconscious and unresponsive to my calls. His cheek was balanced on the seat of the toilet, his arms were wrapped around the bowl like it was a lover, and his legs were curled up beneath him. I crawled out of bed, careful of my still-uneaten tray of food, and roused him with increasingly not-so-gentle nudges to his back and shoulders until he finally moved and seemed mostly alive. He drank some water, this time following my directions to sip carefully. He looked pale—which wasn’t easy because he was an African American with a rather dark complexion. I made him sit and eat from his tray, even though he protested that he just wanted to lie down. Then I let him sip more water before letting him rest on his bunk. He was unconscious and breathing loudly through a wide-open mouth within a minute of reclining.
My short nap had refreshed me somewhat, and I devoured the chicken stir-fry with big chunks of onion and green pepper. It was orgasmically delicious. Once my hunger was satisfied and my thirst slaked, I felt alive again, rather than half-deceased from sunstroke. I noticed little bumps on my shoulders and thought it was perspiration erupting on the surface of my skin, but it wasn’t. It was blisters already arising on my scorched flesh. The skin would become painfully shredded and peel over the next week. It was so completely desiccated and raw that my shoulders didn’t appear to belong to a human.
Having been deprived of the sun’s effects for so long, I went overboard and tried to make up for all my lost time. A spray of freckles across my shoulders remains as a testament and reminder of my reckless behavior and to the wreckage my shoulders had once been. Soaking up the sun is a wonderful feeling and a necessary activity, but it’s always best done in moderation.