This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
Even before I saw him in action and discovered his proclivities for food storage, he first reminded me of a nerdy rodent in a children’s cartoon: large, round eyes encased in over-sized glasses, rounded pouches for cheeks apparently designed for smuggling, and an overbite and front choppers custom-made for cracking nuts. When I first laid eyes on him he was sitting across from me at the table in the chow hall. I know it’s not polite to stare, but I couldn’t help myself.
The meal was sloppy joe with hash brown potatoes, a bun, mixed vegetables, and canned peaches. A disposable, plastic Spork is the universal utensil provided on each tray, but it’s the first thing the man set aside with a persnickety, pinched-face show of disdain. Reaching into the depths of his ancient jean jacket, he pulled out a cloth napkin with a plastic fork, spoon, and knife set wrapped inside. The utensil set had once been available on commissary ages ago, so it’s likely he had been using that same set for years. The napkin was a creation all his own, probably fashioned from some sheet or pillowcase.
Next, he pulled from his jacket a small container that I recognized as having once held pomade, untwisted the top, and gave the inside a good sniff. After it passed the smell test, he spooned the mixed vegetables into it and closed the lid. He then stowed it into an unseen pocket, only to pull out another container—this one flat and round, and which had once contained cheese spread. The sniffing and storing process was repeated. This time the potatoes vanished into his special coat before his hand returned with another squat container identical to the one he’d used for the mixed veggies.
Using his fork this time, he gathered all the meat from the runny sloppy joe, straining it so he got as little of the excess juice as possible into his plastic smuggling conveyance. Moving as though he were dealing with some dangerous or combustible substance, he slowly shuttled each portion with extreme caution to ensure he wouldn’t spill or splash a single drop against the outside of the container. Even though it was pristine, he wiped the napkin around the lip and outside of the sloppy joe container before spinning the lid on with precise, practiced movements of his long, slim fingers—a violinist’s fingers. With the meat safely secured, a re-sealable plastic bag that had been sold with tortilla shells in it appeared as if by magic, and into the folds of his coat went his bun, leaving no distinguishable sign or telltale bulge to betray its presence.
Having all his precious “nuts” safely saved, this fastidious squirrel set upon the canned peaches with an economy of movement that was as measured and regular as a metronome, which lent a hypnotic and mesmerizing quality to it. His left hand held the knife, and he used the tool to cull a single piece of peach from the pile. Once he had one singled out, the fork in his right hand speared it and placed it into his mouth. He chewed the minuscule morsel exactly five times—no more, no less—before swallowing and beginning the process again. Cull, spear, chew. Cull, spear, chew. Twenty-seven times, without deviation in motion or tempo, until he’d cleared his tray of its final scrap of sustenance.
With a careful, prissy daintiness, he placed the fork, knife, and spoon crosswise on the tray and poured a slow trickle of water from his cup across them. Then, taking them into his hand, he scrubbed each of them individually before a final rinse of both hands and utensils that exhausted the contents of his cup. He used his bootleg napkin to dry the three items thoroughly and to wipe each finger one at a time along with his palms, the back of his hands, wrists, and halfway up his forearms. Since the cloth was damp from drying utensils and limbs, it was his lips, chin, and the area immediately around his mouth that next received its attention until he was satisfied that he had fully and properly cleansed himself. Once he was satisfied, the utensils were re-wrapped in the napkin and returned to their accustomed spot within his spacious coat, along with the rest of the goodies he’d scrounged to take back and dress up a naked noodle.
I’ve seen guys bring a burger or piece of chicken back to put with a noodle, but this was much more extensive. He had the operation down to a science. His precision and economy of motion spoke to years of experience, and as he appeared to be somewhere in his sixties, I couldn’t help wondering how long he’d been doing his prison-squirrel routine—and how much longer he’d be doing it.