Robbie the Cell Rat


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on now.

When a guy in prison chooses to grow a large beard, he is generally perceived to be at least a bit of a bug. This embracing of one’s hirsuteness is usually interpreted as a descent into depression and a loss of one’s will to maintain his appearance. While these are stereotypes, and largely unfair, when I first met Robbie I was guilty of jumping to some of these same conclusions.

Hair was everywhere. Pulled back across his scalp in a tight ponytail, you could see where it was thinning to baldness at the crown, even as it fell past his shoulders. More hair enveloped his face like weeds overtaking a forgotten garden. One massive eyebrow, like a thick, bushy pipe cleaner, marked the upper border. Thin, liver-tinted lips peeked occasionally from between the follicles of his stache and his beard, the latter of which was a monstrous thing that surrounded his jawline like enemy fortifications. It obscured his neck entirely and covered much of his chest and was shaped like a stone arrowhead that had lost much of its point through the erosions of time and pressure. With all that crazy hair it would’ve been easy to write him off as a bug, but there was something about him that made me think twice about it.

His eyes were hidden behind his hairiness and further obscured by a pair of thick, black-framed glasses. Once I took the time to peer past all of that, however, I found a lively intelligence dancing in his mischievous pale blue eyes. When I could actually see his mouth through the camouflage, it was upturned into a smile. Despite these glimpses of normalcy, Robbie exhibited a perpetually nervous and cowed air about him. At times he reminded me of a dog that has been beaten so often that when its master raises his hand it becomes docile and cowers on the ground, with flattened ears and sad eyes. Whenever Robbie was around people—and he wasn’t often around people—there was a twitchiness about him that manifested in jittery eyeballs and a mouth that constantly cycled between smiling and a pinched-lip grimace that only occasionally showed through his facial fur. His hands, too, delicate things that they were, would join in the dance as they fluttered and flitted like spastic hummingbirds around his face and body. Smoothing over his beard, straightening his ponytail, swatting at wrinkles in his shirt—the hands never stopped.

As a porter, I was able to observe Robbie in his natural setting, or at least one where he clearly felt more comfortable: securely locked behind a steel door in the confines of his cell. Within that tiny world, as I spoke with him through the door and watched him through a skinny window of perforated steel, he became animated and loquacious. He discoursed on various philosophies and histories that were well beyond my ken, but I smiled and nodded politely; it was obvious how much he was enjoying our largely one-sided discussion. It was clear that he was well-read, highly intelligent, and that under the right circumstances he could talk a person’s ear off. Yet mostly he stayed ensconced in his cell.

Robbie used the phone once a week, took advantage of the three showers per week we were allotted, and never missed a call for commissary. But that was the extent of his movement outside the cell. It was an extremely rare thing to ever see him at chow—he perpetually ate out of his box—although I don’t believe he ate much.

Catching a glimpse of Robbie walking back to his cell from the shower in only his shorts was a somewhat sobering experience, and not a little harrowing. His hair was frizzed out around his head like a strange black wiry corona that gave a manic wildness to his appearance. His chest was sunken in on itself, the skin pulled taut across his ribs, his arms were little more than spindles, and his shinbones jutted out so prominently from his emaciated calves they looked sharp enough to cut a cord of firewood. Robbie was cadaverously pale. His ghastly whiteness was set off by the black scruffiness all around his skull. He appeared creepier under the fluorescent bulbs that illuminated the stark darkness of the blue veins that ran just below the surface of his skin.

Robbie’s confining himself to his cell to such a degree was extreme and unnecessary—a self-imposed limitation. It was a choice he made that I still don’t fully understand. I don’t purport to know the inner workings of the man’s mind, or to understand the entire scope of social anxiety. I do know that seeing the startling physical ramifications of Robbie’s life as a cell rat made me want to rein in my own proclivities for reclusiveness. I wanted to feel the strain of my muscles as I ran on the yard, and to experience the warmth of the sun on my face.


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