Eating Fire


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I was on the floor with my stomach in my back, which means I was broke and starving. It also means there was no way I was going to miss chow, even though prison chili isn’t exactly a gourmet meal or even all that appetizing.

The familiar warm, sour smell of food going to rot assaulted my nostrils the moment I entered the chow hall, and saliva flooded my mouth in anticipation of the impending food I’d come to associate with that fetid aroma. The shuffle toward the slot in the wall where the trays were pushed out for inmates was unbearably slow. Once I finally got there, I was simultaneously uplifted and disappointed by the sight that greeted me.

The thick, pasty chili was served directly onto my tray—no separate bowl. Steam rose in a furious rush from the heaping wet pile of orange-red chili—which was a rare occurrence, since food was hardly ever served above room temperature. Both the large portion of chili and its piping-hot nature were blessings to be counted. Unfortunately, the accompanying piece of cornbread was little more than a sliver from the edge of the pan; the person cutting it had evidently been too quick with his knife and left a skinny, pathetic excuse for a full serving. Experience told me that it would do little good to stop the moving chow line to complain. The unwritten but strictly adhered-to policy when it comes to food service is that you get what you get, and you have what you have. It keeps the feed process moving along. Besides the cornbread, I was further disappointed by the wilted salad, paltry scoop of green beans, and cup of lime sherbet that was sure to be a sticky, melted mess by the time I got to it.

Once I was seated, I grasped my Spork with a hand that fumbled due to my overeager hunger, and I managed to deposit a single serving of searing chili into my maw. The shock of burnt tongue made my hand jump, my heart quaver, and my mouth open wide as I tried to drag cool air in past the fire I’d just fed myself. My eyes watered, and I swallowed convulsively to remove the flame from my mouth, only to feel it scorch my throat and innards all the way to the bottom of my belly. The gulp of lukewarm water did nothing at all to help, and by the time I recovered my composure, an unspeakable horror greeted me. My utensil had careened from my fist in all the commotion, and now it lay on the filthy, grimy ground directly between a few errant green beans and a sticky smear of milk left over from breakfast. I was eating dinner.

There was no way I would use that utensil to feed myself.

But there were few alternatives and precious little time to waste. Meals are timed in prison. Regulations state that inmates get ten minutes to eat. In reality, it’s usually closer to five. I stood from my seat and got the attention of the C/O monitoring the chow hall. Our exchange only brought more disappointment.

C/O: Sit down.

Me: Hey, C/O, I dropped my Spork on the floor; can I go get a clean one?

C/O: No. Go sit down.

Me: Well, how am I supposed to eat?

C/O: I don’t fucking care. Now go sit down or get a ticket.

I wouldn’t say that it’s a prerequisite that a person must be a complete jackstick to be hired as a C/O, but it is certainly a predominant personality trait amongst them.

I returned to my seat, disappointed and starving with a hellified dilemma to face. My stomach growled and howled for further feeding, my single burning bite having only teased its appetite for more sustenance. To my eyes, the chili suddenly resembled lava more than ever. The steam rising from it hadn’t abated much at all. I tried dipping into the mess to extract a chunk of the meat substitute that passes for cuisine and got burnt for my trouble.


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After a short pause to think it over, I crumbled the cornbread up and pushed it down into the brightly colored ooze. Then I added the green beans to the mix, scooping them out of their section of the tray and adding them to the communal mush I was creating. I ate the few pieces of lettuce by themselves, dipping them into the juice not yet soaked up by the cornbread. That didn’t take long, but I was running out of time. I couldn’t afford to baby my delicate fingers any longer, so I ignored the painful sensation and dug in.

Four awkward and messy fingerfulls later, with two digits and a thumb coated in magma, I was fighting against another heated mouthful and furtively glancing around my immediate area to see if anyone was pointing and laughing at me. Mostly I just got looks that conveyed a sentiment that can be summed up in the phrase, “What the hell…?” It wasn’t until I happened to see one of my fellow inmates remove the lid from his lime sherbet container that inspiration struck.

The circle of cardboard that covered the sherbet would be a perfect improvised tool to scoop some slop into my maw. No sooner had I realized this and reached for my dessert than the same C/O who had been compassionless to my Spork plight began to start shuffling guys out of the chow hall. I had almost an entire heaping serving of chili, cornbread, and green beans to be eaten by using a cardboard lid, and the C/O was only two tables away. I shoveled and swallowed; there was no time to chew. Chewing was for the weak. My makeshift spoon ferried food to my face with a speedy and metronomic pace that was uncanny. Kidney beans, green beans, tomato chunks, and faux meat were all forced down my gullet without thought. It was practically robotic.

I slurped my final bite off the sherbet lid just as the C/O was telling the occupants of my table to leave. He gave me a confused look while I licked the lid clean before tossing it on the tray. Once he recognized me as the guy who he’d denied a utensil, the edges of his lips tried to curl up into an amused grin, but he squelched it. He wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of seeing him as anything but a humorless crank.

I waited until I was the only one left at the table before picking up my mostly melted lime sherbet. I looked him directly in the eye, and then slammed the entire mucus-esque mess as if it were a shot of slimy, viscous liquor. Only then did I stand to leave. In so doing, I tried my best not to let the excruciating effects of my sudden brain-freeze show. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had rushed me, or that I had been deprived in any way of enjoying my state tray to the fullest.

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