The Conundrum

Jake was wary as he eased his way hesitantly toward the door from which the voice was coming. There was only darkness from within the cell, which gave the disembodied voice the eerie effect of calling to him from an endless malevolent void. Jake knew from experience that it was ill advised, and potentially dangerous, to get too close to the cell doors. He worked in a psych joint, specifically the section that served to keep confined the most violent and/or unpredictable inmates who suffer from various and often severe mental health issues. Even with only a perforated steel grate through which the inmate could get to him, Jake had witnessed spit, shit, and piss pass through the small holes on multiple occasions. When the chuckhole was open, a deluge of waste and refuse could pour out. Yet even armed with this knowledge, Jake continued to advance upon the door from behind which someone was calling his name.

Fair Warning
“Hey, man. Hey, Jake. Howyadoin’, man? Look, you’ve always been cool with me, never had any problem with you. You’re good with me, ya know? So I just wanted to give you a heads up. As soon as that C/O opens this chuckhole, I’ve got a whole cup of shit I’ve saved up for him, and it’s going in his face. Just so you know. You might want to stay back. Okay, Jake. Thanks.” The man’s tone was matter-of-fact, friendly, calm, casual. He could have been discussing a movie he saw recently, or the outcome of some sporting event rather than a planned fecal barrage. Once he fell silent, the man receded into his cell, leaving Jake to wrestle with what to do.

Dilemma
Jake worked amongst this collection of mentally unstable men five days a week and had managed to cultivate a decent rapport with many of them. It made for a slightly less stressful work environment and worked to keep him from becoming a target for an attack. All of that goodwill that he had built up, however, would evaporate if it were to be discovered that he had warned the C/O of the impending shit storm headed his way.

The warning would be perceived as snitching and make Jake ripe for revenge. On the other hand, if Jake didn’t tell the officer about the planned poop-throwing, blame would almost certainly land in his lap which would result in him probably being fired or worse. While this particular officer had always been cool with Jake, a C/O with a face full of feces is an unpredictable but volatile individual. Jake waffled over the decision briefly, but he knew what had to be done.

Betrayal?
Each chuckhole door slammed open on its hinge with metronomic regularity. With every turn of his key and resounding metallic bang that resulted, the C/O edged ever closer to the cell where a calamity of crap awaited him. Upon arriving at the door in question, the C/O inserted his key as usual, but paused before turning it. “Back away from the door, “ he instructed the unseen inmate within. After a lengthy silence, there finally came a hesitant response.

“What? Um…no. Open my chuckhole; I want my food. Give it to me.”

“I said back up. Get away from the door.” The C/O had adopted his full-throated authoritative voice—similar to the tone a trainer would use to command dogs. “Back away or you can go hungry.” The C/O awaited a cogent response, and Jake stood to the side with a tray at the ready as it was his duty to pass it in through the chuckhole once it was opened–provided, of course, that poop wasn’t on its way out through said chuckhole.

Without warning, a bestial and unnerving noise erupted from the cell, a sound of equal parts frustration and rage. These were also the sentiments that colored what was said next.

“Jake! You told! You told, Jake! You’re a snitch!”

The C/O had enough presence of mind to backpedal with haste, and the splattering of excrement that managed to force its way through the small holes of the perforated steel window was minimal and ineffectual. The unstable inmate had mostly managed to merely splash his own waste back in his own face and coat the inside of his cell door with it. As Jake and the C/O bypassed the befouled cell and continued passing out trays, the disgruntled inmate carried on with his hollering of accusations concerning Jake.

Conflicted
It was a long two months of taking extra precautions and keeping his head on a swivel to avoid any payback before Jake was able to get a different job and get away from the house of the severely mentally ill. He didn’t exactly feel guilty for informing the C/O, but it also didn’t quite sit right with him that he had broken the trust of the feces-flinging inmate. It wasn’t snitching in Jake’s estimation, but rather something more like a gray area, and he never did come to accept what he had done.

 

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Misfits

Weirdo Factor

Feeding time in prison is always accompanied by the dividing up into factions as the line begins to wind its way to the chow hall. The most obvious criteria is the racial barrier, and to a large degree the blacks, whites, and Latinos all do tend to gravitate to their own kind.

However, there is also plenty of racial mixing together, and it is almost entirely accepted. The less obvious but far more important factor to consider is where the weirdos are. There is a lengthy list of less-than-desirables who you don’t want to get stuck beside while trying to eat the already barely stomach-able cuisine. Some guys stink, others talk and spit food, some chew loudly. Aggravations abound to create an atrocious dining experience. It all starts on the walk to chow where you must maneuver as best you can so that you’re surrounded by a decent group of guys.

Miscalculation

On this particular occasion I was distracted by a conversation with my buddy Brady who was in line next to me and consequently I miscalculated our proximity to the group of weirdos who all tended to flock toward the front of the line. I preferred leaving a buffer of five to ten people just to be safe, but there was no space at all between myself and them. Once we reached the chow hall the order was set because several lieutenants and sergeants bark at inmates to prohibit them from changing their position in line. There are eight seats to a table, and upon performing a quick count I discerned that I was right on the cusp of disaster. I was side by side with Brady, so I slowed imperceptibly, but just enough to put him in the lead and place him in the last seat with those ahead of us while I would breeze by to a new table. All if fair in love and war. And prison chow time.

Trickery

We grabbed our trays and headed toward the table, but Brady never slowed as instead he breezed right past the empty seat and headed toward the next table. I was a half-dozen paces behind him, and while his deception had gone unnoticed, the sergeant on duty was paying attention as I tried to sneak by, and I was instructed to fill in the empty seat. As I took my place at the table of misfit toys I shot a withering look at Brady who was grinning wide and guffawing over the misfortune he had fostered upon me.

A Motley Crew

A quick glance at my de facto companions let me know that I was in for a decidedly unique dining experience. Starting at my left and moving clockwise there was Bankie, a bona-fide crack-baby all grown up. He wore a perpetually dazed grin on his face with vacant eyes. He mumbled to himself incessantly, that is, when he wasn’t laughing at whatever he was mumbling about. Bankie put no premium on personal hygiene, so he smelled incredibly ripe. He also had no sense of personal space so he crowded my tray as I tried to eat.

Angie and Hyena were next, the former about six and a half feet tall and stout; the later barely five feet and pushing seventy years old. Where one went the other followed. Angie was big and dumb ala Steinbeck’s Lenny, and Hyena spoke little to no English and talked with a high-pitched amused chortle when he wasn’t whistling an unending, unidentifiable, tuneless tune.

Then came Paprika, and he was the epitome of a dirty white boy. Broke, scheming, two-faced, grimy, thirsty. Beside him was Rosy, and compared to Paprika, Rosy looked downright normal and well-adjusted, although he exhibited many of the same aforementioned dirty white boy attributes. Rosy also talked constantly, usually about cartoons, mostly Japanese anime. Life of the party he was not.

Scraggles looked exactly, and I do mean exactly, like the character Shaggy from the old Scooby Doo cartoon. In fact “Shaggy” would’ve been a much better nickname, but that’s not how it went. Scraggles was a young, dumb, know-it-all who wasn’t even yet old enough to drink legally. He also talked constantly, often complaining, mostly about inconsequential nonsense and trivialities. Lots of macho posturing from a guy slim as a popsicle stick and just as brittle.

Old Man Chevy (pronounced like the car) was the final of the not-to-magnificent seven. He was sitting to my right and creeping up on eighty or death—whatever came first. He wore several layers of clothes, including two hats, nearly year round and carried a musty smell with him wherever he went. Characterizing it as “old man smell” would be an affront to elderly males everywhere. Chevy had concocted and festered an odor all his own. An amalgam of dried sweat, urine, and feces with a hint of soap and a sprinkle of talcum. Then there was me, wishing I could scarf my food and get out immediately.

An Assortment of Annoyances

Angie asked if I was going to eat my Sloppy Joe before my butt had even grazed the seat. After my “yes’, Angie then had to translate Hyena’s broken English and wild gesticulating to ask if I was planning to eat my mixed vegetables. Paprika asked after my Sloppy Joe, then my bread, then my mashed potatoes, and finally my two pats of butter. Rosy wanted my bread. Chevy wanted to know if he could have my orange, he didn’t even bother inquiring if I planned on eating it. I hadn’t yet picked up m utensil to begin eating. Scraggles complained about the mashed potatoes, then the Sloppy Joe, then the bread, then the water, then the plastic spork, then the cracked tray. Bankie chuckled at what I’m assuming was some hilarious observation from one of the voices inside his head. I took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh, and set to the task before me.

Weirdos Galore

I nibbled at my food unenthusiastically and kept a keen eye on the odd eaters all around me. Bankie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, oblivious to what he left sitting on his bottom lip or dribbling down his chin. Angie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, not a morsel of food was missed or wasted even between bouts of yammering to Hyena in Spanish. Paprika and Rosy blabbered about cartoon bare-breasted babes between bites while bits of spittle and food flew back and forth between them.

Chevy packaged his food into different little containers and baggies, disappearing each one into his multiple layers of clothes as they become filled. Scraggles only stopped complaining long enough to toss in a comment to Paprika and Rosy’s twisted conversation. I just wanted to eat my terrible food in peace, but with the dual pungent foul fragrances of Bankie on my left and Chevy on my right that was clearly too much to ask. Then Hyena suddenly began screaming in fast-paced Spanish to someone behind me, sending half a mouthful of food splattering across the table right in front of my tray.

Everyone erupted into uproarious laughter except me. I found it to be more revolting than hilarious. Throughout all of this I had maintained a passive, noncommittal look on my face, not wanting to engage with any of the weirdos. However, once the laughs subsided, Scraggles turned to Old Man Chevy and said something that, after all that I had seen, heard and endured was the final straw of stupidity for me.

Momma’s Boy   

“You want my orange?” Scraggles asked Chevy, holding it aloft for him. “What, you don’t like them?” Paprika asked, sticking his nose in business that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Chevy snatched the fruit and wordlessly stuffed it in his coat pocket before the offer could be rescinded. “No, I like oranges,” Scraggles said. “I just can’t peel them. I don’t know how to peel them. My Mom peels my oranges for me.”

My hand stopped halfway to my mouth with a spoonful of food suspended in mid-air. I was entirely dumbstruck. I did a double, then a triple take at him before finally being unable to control my outburst.

Flabbergasted

“What? What!? Are you freaking kidding me!?” I waited for a response. “Are you?” Everyone at the table was looking at me as if I were the loony one. The fact is, at the weirdo table, I was the misfit.

I snorted out a sound of derision and disgust before turning my back on the lot of them and leaving my tray picked over but largely uneaten. After about a minute Angie spoke up. “Are you going to eat that?” Paprika tried to lay claim to the bread or Sloppy Joe or both. I stayed out of it and waited impatiently for rescue.

Wanton Waste

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This past Christmas season was filled with gifts of kindness and generosity from various businesses in the surrounding community. I’d never seen anything quite like it before in nearly fourteen years of incarceration. Perhaps those years had given rise to the cynic in me, but I was instantly suspicious of all this free stuff. However, since the usual prison cuisine is terrible—a criminal offense in and of itself—I wasn’t about to turn down the new, exciting, and scrumptious substitutes.

Smorgasbord

www.nh.gov
http://www.nh.gov

The bread was the best item that graced my chow hall tray. All those empty carbs were too tasty to turn down as every meal became a special surprise treat. Rye, pumpernickel, cracked wheat, cinnamon raisin, and half a dozen others showed up soft, moist, and fresh. After a steady, depressing diet of tasteless “enriched white bread,” these new varieties were exotic and delicious.

Oscar Mayer and Jimmy Dean brands were also served, and after so much low-grade “meat” fortified with high percentages of soy filler, I had somehow forgotten how heavenly a bologna sandwich could be, or the simply salty pleasure of a pork breakfast sausage patty.

The gargantuan bags of dill pickle-flavored popcorn were a bit more of an acquired taste. When some fancy name-brand yogurt cups and yogurt energy/protein drinks were handed out, guys couldn’t get enough of them. I have no earthly idea what a probiotic is, but I can attest from firsthand experience that Activia certainly gets digestion moving right along like a well-oiled machine. With all these freebies, there was a perpetually festive mood in the cell house.

Holding Back
Different donated items began showing up for sale on the black market. These products had been smuggled out of the warehouse by intrepid businessmen looking to turn a profit, or taken from the officers’ kitchen in the chow hall where the prison staff had been enjoying the gifts that had been donated for the inmate population.

Gummy worms, peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, egg nog, banana walnut bread, honey ham lunchmeat slices, 100% beef hot dogs. Rather than serving these treats to the inmates, they were consumed by officers or else left to sit in the warehouse and get freezer burn. There were also approximately 20,000 bottles of the aforementioned yogurt drink that simply stopped being served and were left to sit in cold storage.

As January dragged on, the special bread became a less frequent addition to meals, and everything else had dwindled to perhaps once or twice a week if we were lucky. Even more products, however, continued to show up for sale by the many hustlers who populate prison. This means the donations didn’t stop, they just stopped being handed out to the inmates.

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http://www.columbian.com

Wanton Waste
With the onset of February, the warehouse workers began backing up their fifteen foot box truck to all the different dumpsters peppered around the prison compound and unloading their cargo directly into the trash. At first I was willing to, I wanted to, believe this to be nothing more than another stupid rumor. It wasn’t until I watched this wasteful act with my own eyes—multiple cases of merchandise discarded—that it was confirmed to me that those in authority would literally rather throw food in the garbage than let inmates have something special. Such a petty and small action for those who control all the power over us, but with zero oversight, they can essentially do whatever they want.

I wish I knew just who and where the donations were coming from so I could alert them to the wanton waste of the prison administration, but I’m not the one with the knowledge or power. I’m merely one ID number among thousands, caught in the unfeeling system, wishing for a tasty beef hot dog or a single slice of honey ham.

Apparently, that is too much to ask.
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Shorty and the Milk Man

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

Since he always went by his street name, Shorty, I can’t for the life of me recall his actual name, even though he was my cellie for nearly half a year. This isn’t uncommon, especially since I only heard his government name a handful of times when the C/O called it out before passing mail under the steel door of our cell. My cellie didn’t get much mail.

Shorty and I got along just fine and talked easily, if only occasionally. He had recently learned how to make prison pizza, so he wanted to practice his new skill all the time. He gave me a prison slideshow of his many pictures, proudly showing off his aunts, uncles, mother, nieces, nephews, and his many cousins. Shorty was a Latino and a gangbanger—but please erase all the negative stereotypes coursing through the wrinkles of your brain. I always knew him to be a relatively quiet, respectful, calm, and pleasant guy. My personal experience with him made it even more of a shock when I saw him punch a C/O in the face.

It all happened so fast, as is often the case with fights in prison. Some seemingly insignificant incident or perceived slight can be all it takes to push a person over the edge. The problem is that, as a rule, guys keep their emotional life buried as deep as they can manage, so it’s often impossible to tell that someone is on the edge until he goes careening over his psychological precipice by lashing out violently. In Shorty’s case, whatever underlying, complex issues he was wrestling with, the inciting act came when he didn’t get his full glass of milk.

photo by SOMMAI www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by SOMMAI
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When the inmate pouring milk emptied the two pitchers he was carrying, Shorty only got a splash, barely enough to cover the bottom of the plastic cup. The Milk Man assured my cellie he’d be back, but after refilling the pitchers from the milk reservoir, he took his fresh supplies to a different table and began filling cups there. My cellie stood up in the chow hall (which is something you just don’t do) and walked over to The Milk Man and grabbed his shoulder from behind (another thing you just don’t do, unless you’re looking for a fight). He got his cup filled with milk and returned to his table, but had barely sat down before The Milk Man was standing over him

I was a few feet away, facing my cellie with a clear view of it all. Shorty got his nickname not only from his young age, but because at five and a half feet, he wasn’t exactly tall. When he stood to face The Milk Man, he was face to chest with him and dwarfed by The Milk Man’s swole chest and arms. A few words were exchanged that I couldn’t hear, and then my cellie stole on him—punched him right in the face. The milk pitchers splashed into the air, but The Milk Man seemed practically unfazed by the cheap shot and started pummeling his huge fists against Shorty’s face and head. He was so focused on hitting my cellie, and I was so focused on their fighting, that neither one of us saw the tray coming.

As Shorty and The Milk Man exchanged blows, Shorty’s buddy, The Tall Guy, who was skinny and muscular, took it upon himself to step in with his assistance. My tunnel vision didn’t let me see it coming, but I saw it happen—like seeing an actor suddenly stepping into the frame of a film to unexpectedly alter the movie forever. Shorty and The Milk Man were in profile to me when the tray smacked against the side of The Milk Man’s head. The tray shattered into three or four plastic chunks. Splashes of sauce and bits of spaghetti noodles flew in my direction, but this didn’t slow down any of the assailants.

My cellie and The Milk Man kept whaling on each other, while The Tall Guy who had come to Shorty’s aid joined in the assault. The Milk Man managed to retreat until he had maneuvered around a table which forced both his opponents to be squarely in front of him. He stood toe to toe with them—taking brutal blows, but delivering just as many.

This was not some well-rehearsed and choreographed fight in some karate movie, and none of these guys had any kind of training. From the moment the milk pitchers fell to the ground, it was a relentless onslaught of violence with whirlwind punches, so fast they were little more than a blur. Faces changed color and spouted blood as if by some sick kind of magic. Seeing this level of violence up close and personal—not even five feet away—is so unnerving that it makes the stomach squirm. It’s a strange mix of fear and excitement, fueled by a sudden torrent of adrenaline raging through the bloodstream. There’s an immediacy and undeniable reality to it that no 3D technology could ever hope to duplicate—and even if it could be captured and replicated, only the most amoral, sadistic, and twisted people could endure the show, let alone want to see it. There’s no way to dress it up or romanticize it. These were three animals trying to inflict as much damage as possible.

C/Os descended on the scene, coming from behind on my cellie and his confederate, who reacted instinctually given the heightened circumstances—they assaulted the officers and sent them to the ground with arms flailing uselessly. The Tall Guy collapsed his lanky frame on the C/Os and beat them as they tried to stand up again, while Shorty returned to face The Milk Man solo. They exchanged only a few more blows because the chow hall was being flooded by C/Os and white shirts all running in response to the alarm that had gone out over the radios after some officer had pushed his panic button. When Shorty turned in response to all the yells from the oncoming officers, it provided The Milk Man the opportunity he needed.

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Exhibiting liquid speed, his arm shot out and wrapped around Shorty’s neck so that his python bicep covered Shorty’s windpipe and pulled him into a choke-hold. As soon as he had his hold firmly in place, The Milk Man collapsed onto his ass, as if his legs no longer had the strength to hold him up, and I suspect that was precisely the case. Shorty feebly tried hammering his fists against The Milk Man’s tree-trunk thighs, but each pathetic punch was weaker than the last, and the usual tanned complexion of his face was taking on an undeniably red shade as he was denied oxygen. I was only dimly aware that The Tall Guy had been subdued and cuffed up, since my attention was consumed by The Milk Man. He was looking right at me.

I was seated at my table, and just three feet away, my cellie was being choked. I did not know The Milk Man, had only ever mumbled a polite, “Thank you,” as he had filled my glass over the previous month or so. Now he was undeniably looking me in the eyes, as he not so gently walked my cellie along the path to unconsciousness. For a frightening moment, everything else in existence fell away, and it was just The Milk Man and I locked in unexpected wordless communication.

The Milk Man’s chest was heaving as he tried to catch his breath after all that exertion. His eyes bulged wildly at me, and I could see the rage burning within him. When his forearm flexed into what I was sure would be the final move to send Shorty into blackness, I shook my head without intending to. It was a simple, sad maneuver—left to right once—but my eyes begged him to let Shorty go.

A profound exhaustion and resignation seemed to droop his features, then The Milk Man relaxed his grip and pushed Shorty to the ground. Half a dozen C/Os and three loos came running in—all of them screaming for him to lie down, that it was over. After a final glance at me, he lay prostrate and allowed himself to be cuffed easily and led away.

My cellie, having recaptured his breath, somehow still had some fight in him. It took four C/Os to wrestle his limbs into submission and a white shirt positioning a can of pepper spray an inch from his eye with the threat, “Stop or I’ll do it,” before Shorty was cuffed up and hauled onto his feet. His face had a thin film of blood from various wounds and abrasions, and his left eye was already swelling and quickly on its way to being swollen shut. Like a madman, he let out a few wild whoops and cries of joyful exuberance, like he had just enjoyed a thrilling roller coaster ride rather than having had his face rearranged.

This, Shorty’s final act as he was dragged away, was nearly as unsettling as all the violence I’d just seen. It made something abundantly clear: this deranged person had been lurking in the cell with me the entire time, and I’d had no idea.

Shorty and The Tall Guy both received a year across the board for hitting a C/O and were shipped to a Seg joint. The Milk Man wasn’t shipped and only got thirty days in Seg because he only hit another inmate. I had to pack Shorty’s possessions, and a C/O came and removed them from my cell. I never saw Shorty again. A dozen hours later, when the cell was empty except for me and my belongings, I was still shaken by the incident.
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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.

Porcupine Chicken

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It doesn’t matter who a person is or how much money he may have on the books, there will come a time in prison when his stomach’s in his back and he’s feening for just about anything to quell his hunger. It may be because commissary is so far behind schedule that he hasn’t hit store in over a month, and all that’s left in his box is clothes and hygiene. It could also be because he’s in the process of a transfer from one joint to another, and his property hasn’t caught up with him yet—a common occurrence and cause of stress. Either way, it results in the same thing: fierce hunger. It’s a constant presence, always pestering and nagging. As the hour approaches for the next chow, minutes drag themselves out as if time itself has a personal vendetta against inmates.

Sometimes, even after every morsel, scrap, and crumb of food is devoured at chow time, it never satisfies. At the time, we’d been enduring a steady diet of nothing but slickmeat sandwiches along with a snack-size bag of chips and an apple, orange, or brownie. This is a reasonable portion for a child’s lunch, but a grown man needs something more substantial—and slickmeat shouldn’t be inflicted upon anyone.

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On a diet consisting solely of chow hall food, maintaining any kind of workout regimen is impossible. All one can do is lie down and try to burn as few calories as possible, which helps, mostly. Still, the yearning for sustenance comes: it’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Hopefully, one’s paltry portion can keep the need to feed at bay for a few hours rather than a handful of minutes. Unfortunately, slickmeat is more likely to turn the stomach than satisfy it. First, the smell has to be surmounted, then the texture, followed closely by the actual taste. It’s a feat just to choke this stuff down, no matter how famished a person is or how badly hunger is tearing at his gut. After the disappointing lunch comes hours of anticipation and hope for something more substantial, even tasty.

chiliAfter a particularly brutal hiatus between meals, during which my stomach gnawed on itself until I felt like it was chewing at my spine, I went bounding from my cell like I had springs in my heels. Running on the walk would’ve gotten me booked, but I stretched my long legs to their max and moved faster than an average trot to ensure I’d get a spot near the front of the line. My belly ached for the forthcoming food; my pulse quickened for it. I shuffled from foot to foot, ready to be on the move, angry and frustrated at the stragglers taking their time and dragging their feet to line it up and pair it up. My stomach had no patience for their lazing. Finally—after what was maybe a minute and a half tops, but which felt like a tiny eternity—we headed to the chow hall. I couldn’t get there fast enough.

As soon as I entered the chow hall, my nostrils flared with pleasure at the warm smell of chicken, and saliva flooded my mouth in involuntary anticipation. A lurching growl grumbled in my abdomen, and though it sounded like an angry cur, the noise was joyful—food was on its way! I’m not sure what the day’s meal was—either chicken stir-fry, chicken-a-la-king, chicken soup, or chicken stew. They’re all basically the same assortment of frozen vegetables and pieces of chicken bathed in a sauce that varies in color from lemon yellow to muddy brown. It definitely wasn’t the dish known as Mexican stew because, while it may contain the same ingredients, it’s dark red (and also vaguely racist, I think).

Whatever the dish was, it came on a bed of rice along with a dinner roll and pat of butter. Steam rose from the tray, a rare occasion since chow hall food is mostly lukewarm at best. Logic and experience dictated that I eat it slowly, let it cool for a moment and check for bones, but it was all I could do to make it to the table without shoveling the tan slop down my gullet. Neither logic nor experience could stand in the face of my extreme hunger.

A spoonful, chew twice, swallow. Repeat.

A dim voice in the back of my mind urged me to slow down, to chew more, to make the food last longer, but it was wasting its proverbial breath. My fourth convulsive swallow posed a problem, as a chicken bone as sharp as a splinter lodged itself into my throat and dug securely into the soft wet flesh. My hunger instinct dictated that I just force the whole thing down, but I was able to cut that impetus off quickly. I tried to regurgitate the partially-swallowed offending agent. I coughed and made choking noises, but I only felt the bone dig in deeper.

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Breathing through my mouth and around the obstruction became difficult, making an unnatural panic leap within me. Horrible thoughts of a bloody end to my situation careened through my mind. I sat straight and tall in my seat and tried to calm myself. Then everyone at my table watched as I carefully, delicately, reached the index finger and thumb of my right hand deep into the tunnel of my gullet to pull out a cluster of bone and cartilage the size of a Ping-Pong ball. It had enough spiny offshoots to rival the proudest of porcupines. Revulsion rippled my middle as I inspected my would-be killer and noticed a speck of blood that had been pricked from the intimacy of my throat.

My voracious appetite had evaporated, but my body’s need for fuel remained. As I stared at what remained of the meal that had almost been my demise, conflict raged within me. I knew full well that I had a long night ahead with no prospect of food. A tentative swallow of lukewarm water informed me that my ravaged throat couldn’t take much more abuse.

Images of a painful, bloody, gurgling, choking death tickled my mind and turned my stomach, but I closed my eyes against them (which didn’t help) and teased another trickle of water past my wound (which hurt like hell). Opening my eyes, I glared at the wad of spiked chicken with an intense hatred and found the resolve to finish my food. I refused to let the porcupine chicken defeat me. So, after depositing the disgusting and dangerous clump on the edge of my tray, I inspected each bite carefully before placing it gingerly on my tongue, chewing it thoroughly, and forcing it down my injured esophagus.

The Fastidious Squirrel

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

pomadeThe 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.

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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.

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