Sparring Partners

By Stu Dearnley Illustration by Cun Shi

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Sparring Partners:

County jail’s not like TV would have you think. The cells have doors instead of bars, then there’s a sink, a toilet and twin bunks with four to a room. A row of cells line the second floor, overlooking the rec room—called the pod—where 48 inmates share picnic tables, plastic chairs, a microwave and a TV that’s usually on Springer or Dr. Phil. It’s pretty cush. My first day in, an older inmate called off the social worker so he could ride out the winter with free heat and square meals.

That was Kenneth. He’s one of three white guys in A-pod, myself included. Most socialization is segregated by ethnicity. This being Washington County, about two thirds of the population is Hispanic. These are small-timers—vandals or aliens whose offense was not knowing English when a cop asked them something. From what I’ve seen, the white boys are the least savory of the lot. I’m the only one with a formal education. Kenneth had been living on the streets. He talks about his illiteracy as if it took him a lifetime to perfect. The guy called Noise is a druggie who yells after lights-out. He’s not much for conversation because he steers whatever you’re talking about back to the Arkansas decision to be methadone-free. This doesn’t leave me with a pile of options. I joined the contraband weight-lifting circuit, but boredom’s far and away my biggest gripe.

My third day in, they post a sign-up sheet for the gym and I’m one of only a handful of guys to sign up. Even folks who spent the morning running laps around the pod don’t sign. Turns out the gym’s just a basketball court with some benches bolted into the floor along the sidelines. No weights. No speed bag. Not even a jump rope. They put two pods on a court with a ball and some officers to ensure everyone plays nice. I don’t do basketball, so instead I’m calling score from the sideline, which brings me to the attention of Tucker, my old sparring partner.

“Enus!” Tucker says my name like he’s won something, then turns to the benches and continues the thought, “This is Enus Lockhart, y’all! Jasper Lockhart’s old man!” Tucker pulls me in for a hug, showing his friends how tight we are as everyone gathers around. “Last time I saw you, you was a middleweight.” He shadowboxes with wide elbows. “So, tell me about your son and how much pussy he’s getting.”

I give the crowd what they want, laying it on thick, embellishing on my imagination’s ideal for the sex life of a 20-year-old football star. Pussy’s a hot topic, and the crowd eats it up. When they ask how many and how often, I’ve got answers at the ready. Then I shake a bunch of hands—the gym’s new mayor.

When the pack disperses and I get to talking with Tucker, I ask him, “What are you in for?”

And he says, “You’re not supposed to ask that.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Just the way it is. Everyone likes keeping up the mystery. So, you still boxing?”

I say, “Not in 10 years.”

“Has it been that long?” I nod. Close enough. “Shit. We’re old.”

“You were always old,” I remind him. He’s got eight years on me. Always has. “So, tell me about this place, man.”

“What do you want to know? The food’s awful.”

I say, “I got that far.”

“Try to get a job. In the library or kitchen or outside—doesn’t matter. Fills the hours, and they pay you too. Not much, but more than nothing. Most guys are in here learning how to be better criminals, so you give them a sign you’re trying and they’ll help make it easy on you.”

“How safe is it?”

“Mostly safe. I don’t know. They keep gang members together—like, guys with the same tattoos can hang, but guys with different tattoos can’t.” The basketball game ends, and Tucker waves off joining the next one.

“Doesn’t sound safe to me. Last night they locked us down early. There was a siren and a whirly light and we weren’t allowed out till the morning. The rumor is someone got stabbed.”

“Yeah. Dude in F-block. I hear he’s dead now. But that’s jail for you. Violent offenders are in smaller pods with higher security, but there’s only so much they can do. A-pod’s not so bad. My pod’s one of the nasty ones.” He points to the court. “For most of them, jail’s just a wait station. Any sentence over a year goes to prison, so they’re just here pending trial. Look out for those guys. Some of them are looking to make a name for themselves.”

“That’s what I’m asking for—I don’t want my number called and was wondering if I should put a whupping on someone. Make a statement. I didn’t come here for the sex.”

He throws me this disbelieving look and says, all serious, “There’s gangs, Enus. Real gangs. Guys who’d die before they let their people down. This one son of a bitch got arrested just so he could kill this white boy in D-pod. They say he broke a car window and waited for the cops. These guys come in facing two-year sentences—20 months with good behavior—and now they’re looking at 15 to life. Too stupid for 15 years to mean anything to them, but that’s why they can make the rules.”

I nod, taking it in, and we watch the ball move up and down the court a few times. Then I say, “Kids on the outside are getting stupider too.”

“You talking about Jasper? We watch him every chance.”

“Yeah. He just turned 20. He knows he’s got a future in the NFL, and he thinks he knows everything else. Give a dumbass a look at some money and you’ll see just how dumb he can be.”

“Y’all ever make up?”

“Yeah. We patched things up,” I lie.

There’s a scuffle under the far basket. They’re all pushing and shouting, ignoring the ball, up in one another’s faces. The officers let everyone work it out without getting involved. In admissions they warn you against calling them guards. “This isn’t a mall,” you’re told, and the guy saying it is so scary even the guy with DT piped down for his spiel.

“Glad to hear it. We get the Hogs games in the rec room. They’ll even let you sign up for special permission if it’s a night game. Especially with you here.”

“Sounds all right. Too bad there’s no beer.”

“We take turns making hooch about once a week.”

“Hooch, huh?”

“We brew it in the toilet where the guards don’t check. Make sure you get in that rotation and make a big batch when it’s your turn.”

“Sounds tasty.”

“It’s foul, but it’s stronger than tea leaves. Ain’t nothing else going on.” He checks both directions as if freshly disappointed by his surroundings. “Just lasagna on Saturdays and hooch on the good days.”

“Shit. I already had the lasagna. Toilet booze might be the only thing that’d get rid of the taste.”

There are a number of hours the state lets you spend outside, and I’m spending mine chattering cold, pacing the wall that blocks the wind, shaking too much to get any reading done. I’d wondered why so few people signed up. There isn’t even a ball to throw, just grass-flecked dirt to the fence, then a lush field of brown on the side the officers aren’t patrolling.

A lot of what Tucker’d said is in the yard staring back. My pod is with a new one Tucker isn’t part of, and folks are broken into small groups with everyone next to the people that look most like them. I’m the only guy without an entourage, and I’m perfect-10 miserable, half reading Lonesome Dove when this top-bulked Latino in a head rag gets to howling. I don’t think much of it—people sometimes howl here—but then he’s whapping his chest and moving toward me.

“You think you’re something special?” he’s yelling. He looks dangerous. Not just big, but crazy. There’s no predicting crazy or stupid, and this guy looks to have piles of both. “I see you looking over here. Think you’re too good for the rest of us?”

“I’m looking at my book,” I tell him, holding up the proof.

“I know you’re not calling me a liar. You were looking at me, boy. So I want to know what you’re looking at me for.” Up close, he has a wandering eye and an overbite, like his parents wouldn’t spring for the nontoxic Play-Doh. It makes sense enough he’d be self-conscious, but I want no part of his something-to-prove.

I back away with my hands up. “Sorry, man. I wasn’t trying to look at you at all. It won’t happen again.”

“You’re damn fucking right about that.” He’s weaving as if to music, looking to his boys in the head rags, all of whose skin is the same shade of tan. Then he lunges high. Mistaking my reluctance for fear. Not recognizing the hands above my head are sprung like traps. Not knowing I hold state titles as Enus “the Meanest” Lockhart. I pop a jab into his temple and follow with a shovel-hook liver shot. He drops so fast you’d think he was diving, then doesn’t cover up on the ground. He just lies there whimpering, sucking in lungfuls of dusty air.

A crew of six fills the space he just dropped from, and adrenaline makes the yard clear and crisp. I’m hit twice in the mouth from outside my periphery, then I block the third fist but not the fourth. When I fall it’s into a kick rising for my ribs, and I’m covering my head as boots and Spanish bombard me from every angle.

For all their numbers, no one delivers the knockout blow before officers storm in and drag me out of the yard, down a corridor and slam the door to a small, dark cell that’s far taller than wide. They hoist the slop-slot to say, “Count your blessings. Someone’s looking out for you.” Then their footsteps fade off down the hall.

There’s not room to stretch out, but it’s still five-star when the alternative is a beating. Sleep’s not happening anyway. My face and side ache, and my brain’s not in a great spot either. I’ve got my arms curled under me for a pillow when I hear a murmur and can’t tell where from. I hold my breath until I pick up it’s coming from the wall opposite the door, then I ask it, “Hello?”

“The name’s Randy,” he says, then repeats. Randy and I get to talking. The conversation is marked by long pauses because falling behind’s a lot easier than catching up. He volunteers that he’s in for assault, and it’s not long before we’ve run out of conversation, so I ask if he follows football.

He replies as enthusiastically as the concrete buffer lets him. “Jasper Lockhart! Shit, I wish I could shake your hand. How’s your boy doing?”

“Dumber than a shit stack.”

“What’s the problem?”

I think there’s more to the question and wait on it, but nothing else comes, so I go, “He’s got no common sense. You can’t beat common sense into a kid.” I leave out that the last time I tried to was the first time I met the Honorable Judge Pritchet. “College is paying his way, but he didn’t know better than to get himself fucked by a credit-card company. He pissed away $10,000 in six months. Even worse, that dumb shit had them send the bill to me. Trying to keep it from his mother.”

I’m wondering how much of my rant made it through when he says, “You need anything while you’re inside, you find me, okay? The name’s Randy. You got that?”

“All I need’s a key.”

“I ain’t got that.”

“All right. Well, if I think of something. Thanks, Randy.”

“No problem, Enus. You and me are buddies now. We gonna take care of each other.” He says it like the decision’s been made, but it’s hard enough hearing through the wall that I could be getting it wrong.

We sit in silence for a spell, and by the time I think to ask, “What’s the story on the head-rag gang?” no one’s answering, which leaves me an untold number of hours to think on all the things I would go back and do differently.

They return me to general population after three meals’ time, transferring me to Tucker’s pod, C, where there are fewer inmates and more face tattoos. Looking around, it’s no wonder a jury of their peers voted these guys off their streets. Each of them would’ve been a walk-through for the prosecutor.

My new cell mates are normal enough. One of them spends all day in bed, and the other two have harmless eccentricities that are easily ignored. No one screams in his sleep, at least. But C-pod seems to notice me in a way that’s discomforting. Folks twice my size eye me up, then step away like I take up more room. I don’t know much about jails, but this isn’t how I’d imagined them to work. Even Tucker’s keeping his distance. He walks away from two conversations in as many days, so on the third I’m all up front about it. I walk over and say, “My boy’s playing tomorrow,” but he only nods in response.

There are horizontal windows like a fringe around the rec room you can only peek through from the stairs. One guy is halfway up the steps using sign language to communicate between the pods. I used to appreciate this resourcefulness—like it was a bit of humanity the officers couldn’t take away—but now it’s got me paranoid, and since I’m jonesing for conversation, I ask, “How do you figure those guys work out a code when no one’s here more than a year? Seems like the guards would be the only ones with time to figure it out.”

“Not these guards. They’re a bunch of fucking ducks.” I ask what a duck is, and he tells me to “ask someone else.”

I go, “What’s eating at you?”

“I’m not the problem here, Enus.”

So I say, “What’s that mean?” just wanting to know what he knows.

“Look, I can’t get tied up in your shit.”

I keep pushing, “What shit? I don’t have any shit.”

“Who do you think you’re fooling? You’re in less than a week and you’ve already got enemies.” His voice has the tone I used to use when I was tired of giving Jasper advice he wasn’t hearing. “You’ve got to calm your shit, man. I’ve seen a lot meaner than Enus the Meanest go down nasty. Being a fighter might be more dangerous than being a pussy in here.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” I say, and I’m thinking up something more when an officer comes through and asks if I’m Lockhart. He says I have a visitor and holds up cuffs I’m meant to be wearing. Once I’m shackled, he leads me out the door by the officers’ station and down a hallway to an elevator, which we take to the first floor. We pass the main officers’ quarters, then through two doors to a row of desks, where he uncuffs me and points to a booth where my ex is on the other side of some plexiglass.

Candice and I have been split for nearly five years. We never divorced, on account of her needing insurance, and have been trading that for child support, which works better for both of us. Sitting on the other side of the glass, she looks better than my best memory of her, with red hair, a blue blouse and the anxiety of someone overdressed for the service of a religion they don’t subscribe to.

I pick up the phone, leading with, “I don’t suppose you’re here for a conjugal visit.”

If she’s tickled, she hides it well. “Good guess. I brought you some cigarettes, but the officers took them.”

“Yeah. Guys smoke tea bags in here.”

“Tea bags?”

“They roll up the leaves and light them in the microwave knowing full well they’re getting sent to the hole.”

“Christ.”

I say, “The hole’s not so bad,” then wish I hadn’t and move on with, “Thanks for trying. Really, it means a lot that you came.” We used to fight a lot—argue a lot, I should say—even before the fallout with Jasper.

She asks, “What happened to your face?”

“Nothing worth talking about.”

“You need some money or anything?”

I say, “Not yet I don’t.” Fool that I am.

“How’s it looking for you getting out of here?”

“Seven months. Five and a half with good behavior. My old record’s gone—totally expunged. This is its own thing. It was all up to the judge. Pritchet again. He definitely remembered me. There was no jury, just him, so it might’ve come down to what he had for breakfast.”

We sit like that a minute, and then she gets to it with, “I got some news you’re not going to like.”

“Is there any other kind?” She used to doll up for no reason—dolling up even before visiting the salon, where she’d pay them to spend two hours dolling her up. But I swear this is the best she’s ever looked, and it’s been a long time since I thought she looked decent, including most of the time we were together. The pregnancy glow is a myth.

“Jasper’s having problems with school.”

“You call that news?”

“They’re threatening his scholarship if he can’t get his grades up.” She’s using her heads-will-roll face—wide eyes with a wrinkly brow. Must have forgotten I’m immune to it. “The school’s dean made it sound like he was doing me a favor warning me. And that’s the dean, not a coach.”

“They don’t flunk their superstars, Candice. What would I do about it anyway?”

“I’m just telling you what they told me.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. For snapping at you. Not for his grades—they’ll get a cheer-leader to write his papers or whatever. Did he get my letter?”

“I don’t know, Enus. I’m sure he did if you put a stamp on it. He doesn’t hate you the way he used to,” she says, but it sounds like she’s projecting more than speaking for him. I was kind of rough on the boy. Nowhere near as rough as my old man was on me, but kids have rights these days they didn’t have when I was young. I was only toughening him up. Then Candice got custody and started rewriting our past and letting Jasper do as he pleased—damn near giving up on parenting to make herself even more his favorite. Telling him I don’t send checks when my not sending checks was her idea from the beginning. Or taking the phone off the hook so he’d think I missed his birthday. Ruthless, psychological shit there’s no way of undoing. “He said he ran into a friend of yours on campus. Some weird-acting guy, as if that narrows it down. Not that he’d recognize any of your friends.”

“I guess I’ve been out of the loop for a while.”

“He said he’ll visit one of these days, but I’d be as surprised as you if he did. He’s a busy kid. You should see the way they follow him around. It’s like he’s Jesus.” I can see it like I’m a step behind him: Jasper Lockhart, walking through the quad with folks bowing in deference. Journalists taking pictures of my nose on his face for a feature in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Girls with flawless skin stuffing phone numbers into his Jockeys.

Candice asks, “Did you catch his last game?”

“You bet. Three touchdowns. Tell him I saw it. Tell him I’ve been thinking about him. Tell him they treat me good in here because my son’s a celebrity. Tell him I said to get low before impact and hit the defender instead of getting hit by him.”

“Are you kidding, Enus? If you want him to do anything, you’re better off telling him the opposite.”

I swallow a couple of times, taking my lumps, wondering what Jasper thinks of my situation, or if he even bothers thinking on it. I used to take Jasper to boxing lessons. He didn’t like going, but sometimes a kid has to do shit he hates. When he turned 13, his school made football an option. The coach had him practicing during all the hours boxing took up, and while I wanted him to pick the sport I’d picked, we got along better with more time apart. Then he started practicing off-hours—one-on-one with coach Newsome. I thought the coach was overstepping his bounds, which is exactly what Candice accused me of when I went in for what I’d thought would be a friendly discussion. After that there was no questioning who was at fault.

An officer breaks my trance by rapping the glass above me, saying, “Two minutes.”

I look back to Candice. “So you came in here ’cause you want me to tell Jasper to run high into tackles and try his best to fail out of school?”

“No. I came in ’cause I need you to sign some papers. No big surprises, just legal stuff that lets me go my way and you go yours.” She’s eyeing the plexiglass frame as she says this, pressing the papers against the window. “I was going to hand them over, but they won’t let me, so I’ll mail it——”

“Ask to leave it with my social worker.”

“You can mail them to my lawyer in this.”

“Why didn’t you just——”

“Because I know you,” she says. “Please don’t make me come back here.”

I nod, trying to hold on to my fantasy. “Hey, tomorrow’s the big game. Tell Jasper I’ll be watching. Tell him I said…” but then I can’t think of anything, and Candice wouldn’t tell him if I could. The officer comes back, and I know what it means. “Just make up something nice.”

Back in C-pod it’s less pleasant than ever. Pepper spray coming through the vents tells us admissions have been busy. Then a new crop of inmates marches in wearing it like cologne. One of them, a black kid just 18, was all over the news -after shaking his girlfriend’s baby to death. The grapevine says the girl’s uncle lives in H-pod and no one’s talking about anything but, nor are they listening when I make out like Jasper visited just to dedicate tomorrow’s game to his old man and the boys of the Washington County Detention Center.

Mealtime’s another bit the movies get wrong. There’s no cafeteria line where they spoon slop in turn. Instead, the food’s rolled in on shelved carts with each tray preportioned. Today it’s unsauced macaroni and meatballs with corn, white cake and an orange. The calls go up for trades: cake for meatballs, meatballs for cake and this week’s brewmaster asking who doesn’t want their fruit. As I move toward the table with Tucker and the boys, they shuffle and stretch their elbows, leaving me hovering with nowhere to sit. I ask, “What’s this about?” and no one looks up.

Finally Tucker says, “Just till things cool down, Enus. No one wants any trouble. We wish you luck, man. We really do.” A couple of the boys nod in agreement, and I can read from their downcast eyes that staying undead is what I’m being wished luck for. “Hopefully you can get it sorted.”

I hold my ground a minute just to share the discomfort, then park my ass at an empty table and start prodding my food, mulling over my divorced self when a tray lands across from me with triple cake and double meatballs. I look to see who’s behind it, and it’s this splotchy-looking bald guy I’ve not seen before. His face looks to have melted and resolidified with the features all wonky, and there’s no telling what color his skin’s supposed to be. If my appetite wasn’t already gone, this face would have taken it.

He asks, “What’s up?” with an unaffected voice, and it’s strange hearing a baritone come out normal through a face that’s anything but.

I look around, thinking he’s here to distract me from a shank, but there’s nothing doing. I tell my tray, “Not a whole hell of a lot,” then start forcing food in so my departure won’t seem motivated by fear.

“That’s all you can hope for in here.” He checks both directions and says, “I got you something,” then hands me a pack of Swedish Fish under the table even though they’re not contraband. “Consider it a welcome to C-pod present.” Each inmate can put only $100 in his account each month. Most folks put the money toward gut-fillers: ramen at $1.15 or oatmeal at 60 cents. Candy is $3.50, and you can’t help but do a double take when you see someone eating a Butterfinger. It’s a statement. It means he’s either cleaning up in cards or getting favors from higher up.

My bunk mate said a duck is an officer helping someone on the inside. They’ll pick a loner guard and make him feel like one of the boys. Easing him in with minor requests—extra paper or whatever—then returning the favor by staging high-profile fights and breaking them up so the officer doesn’t have to. They’ll go back and forth like that, upping the stakes each time until the officer crosses some line he can’t uncross. From then on blackmail keeps the duck in line. He can’t even quit his post because abetting inmates is a felony and an officer knows what’s waiting for him when it’s his turn wearing orange. I’d spent the last couple of days trying to figure who might be a duck. There’s this one fat virginy-looking bastard I thought might hand over a loaded gun for a hug.

This guy goes, “Your boy’s got a game today, don’t he? You must be pumped.” Then, “It’s Randy. Remember? From solitary.”

“Sorta figured. How’d you know it was me?”

“It’s my job to know stuff. You hear about the white boy in A-pod?”

“No.”

“Tried to kill himself by jumping off the top level.” Yesterday we saw officers rushing all frantic, but the rumor mill satisfied itself with tying it to the baby-shaker.

“Over the rail? Jesus. It’s like 10 feet even if he jumped from the top of it. What’d he do, swan dive?”

“Nah, man. Went feet first. Broke his ankle. Some of them see medical like a vacation. They get nurse visits and better food. Not to mention OxyContins—I can get you some if you want.” He’s scarfing, working his fork in fast circles.

I wave Randy off, “None for me, thanks.”

“So, you fixin’ to watch the game or what?”

I check my back again, spinning both ways in my chair. “Hell yeah. Texas. Three o’clock. Jasper’s dedicating his first touchdown to me.”

“Nice.”

“You bet,” I say. “My flesh and blood.” It’s hard looking at that pineapple face of his, but I do what I can. “Between my thick skin and his mother’s stupidity, he was destined for the gridiron.” Some of the other tables are eyeing us, or me, or him. They’re not hiding their stares. Randy doesn’t look to be who I want backing me up when shit starts going down. I ask, “You got any kids?”

“Just one. A boy.”

“With his mother?”

“Yeah. He won’t remember me. His mom and me are through anyway. That ship’s sailed.” It’s rough hearing my story coming out of Randy’s mouth, and though I don’t mention it, this makes Randy more human for me. Some folks use people on the outside as their motivation to keep fighting the fight, so more than he’s lost any woman, he’s lost false hope about not losing her later. But I stop short of telling him what all we have in common. “Probably better off growing up with pictures of me anyway,” Randy says, and with my mind swimming, it takes a second to call back the thread of our conversation. “Before pictures, know what I’m saying?” I nod. “It’s not like I’m getting out of here.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’ll get life. Life for sure.”

“Who’d you assault? The pope?”

He chuckles. “I was in the hole for assaulting a guard. I’m in C-pod for meth. Got busted when my lab caught fire. Came straight here from the hospital. That was four years ago.”

“Shouldn’t you be in State?”

“One day I’ll get there. Superior Court pending grand jury with no bail. County’s purgatory, but I’m in deep enough shit. There’s no rush.”

“Shit.”

He pops a meatball in whole, washes it down with some juice and then shovels some more before talking through the mouthful. “The fire took down some trailers with it. Innocent people got it worse than me, if you can believe it.” His face is hard to gauge, but I sense the story is a chore more because he’s sick of telling it than owing to the emotional burden.

I’m staring back at my tray. I say, “I can believe,” not saying, “Who better than me to understand what all can change when you’re not ready for it?”

“I don’t belong outside anyway. In here I know the routine. Hell, I make the routine. I’m the guy who gets stuff. Whatever they can sneak over those walls, I’ve already got.” He stabs another meatball and holds it up like he’d had it smuggled in special. There’s no good reason for him to be chumming up—men who make the routine aren’t usually short on friends. He asks, “You live with the choices you make, right?”

“Hopefully. I don’t know what other choice you’ve got.”

“True that. But there’s always options. Just sometimes we don’t like any of them.” He smiles at his own insight and says, “See you soon,” before pushing his empty tray across to me and walking out. There’s a strict policy against leaving a dirty table, and while I know the officers’ repercussions are worse than the public’s opinion, I also know the whole room’s watching as I stack our trays and clear Randy’s mess.

It’s nearing three o’clock and the Hogs take the field at five after, but there are only a handful of folks in the rec room. I’d expected damn near everyone—Arkansas-Texas is an unspoken, out-of-conference rivalry. Shit’s all wrong, which likely means I’m in for a big day. I swing by Tucker’s cell, and he’s reading in bed. He goes, “Oh yeah, I forgot,” then turns the page and says, “Be down in a sec.”

The remote control is on the wall near the officers’ station, and I peek through to confirm they’re business-as-usual before flipping channels till I find the team in red warming up. We’re four total in the room when the game kicks off, and the more I check for traffic, the less easy I feel about there being none.

The Hogs start slow with two three-and-outs. On their third drive Jasper gets stuffed twice on the line of scrimmage. Still, he’s their star. The cameras are on him more often than not, and the announcers can’t say his name enough. They break down all the different ways he does right, talking about his future as if it’s their future too and making out like they’re lucky to have a job that lets them bring my boy to the world.

Tucker comes down, then one of his buddies, and I start easing into the game over calls of “Woo Pig.” At a time-out they cut in highlights I’ve never seen from Jasper’s high school days. One of them has Jasper throw the jab we practiced in the form of a stiff-arm. It’s a real beaut. His legs are pumping full speed when he moves the ball to his outside and stutter steps, getting his feet right to explode through the defender. Most everyone would only see Jasper and the linebacker flattened midfield, but even with grainy footage and shaky mid-bleacher camera work, I see a year of two-a-day weekends spent at the heavy bag.

When someone finally asks, “How’re we doing?” I know it’s Randy without looking. The disembodied voice has become his signature. He’s by the officers’ station, peeling the wrapper off a yellow Starburst. Tucker’s buddy makes a silent exit, taking the stairs three at a time. Tucker’s a step behind him, and neither’s looking back.

My voice cracks when I ask, “Where’re y’all going?”

“Going to finish my book,” I’m told. “Maybe come back for the second half.” The other guys follow their lead as Randy pulls a chair next to mine.

“That’s my boy,” I say, pointing at the screen, and when I glance over he’s giving me another look I can’t read because of how his face is. He holds his gaze for uncomfortably long, then offers the Starbursts with a red on top. I take it, keeping my eyes on the game, asking myself ugly questions. Questions that come packaged with their answers anytime you’re forced to ask them, like how much does Randy know about the head-rag gang? What’s he want in exchange for protection? At what point does the trade become worthwhile, and what all will Tucker’s crew think about my new boyfriend?

When this Texas thug pushes Jasper out of bounds and horse-collars him three steps off the green, I use it as a chance to shake loose some of the energy. I spring to my feet, wholly riled, which must be how Jasper feels because he pops up and slaps the defender’s helmet crooked. They’re on the Texas sideline, and suddenly everyone wants a piece. I’m in the stance, bobbing and weaving as yellow flags fly everywhere and Jasper ducks through the crowd, returning to the huddle to let the refs sort it out. It’s a hell of a thing.

I look over to Randy, who’s giving the best smile he can muster. “I was hoping you could arrange to talk to him,” he says, leaning in.

“I talk to him. What? You want an autograph?”

“No. I was hoping your son would talk to a buddy of mine. On the outside.”

“I don’t know, Randy. How am I going to put that together? I can’t control who he talks to. Couldn’t control him when he lived with me, and that was before he was a star.”

“My friend will find him. That’s not the problem. Just that last time they spoke, Jasper wasn’t real receptive. I need you to make sure your son hears my friend out. Tell your son you need for him to listen better. That your quality of life depends on it.” Randy moves to the officers’ window and nods through so I see no one’s on its other side.

I give my attention to the screen, suddenly conscious of my breathing. Jasper’s on the bench, shrugging off everyone with something to tell him—the way he does. A slow-motion replay shows him fumble the ball, then the linemen falling over themselves before they cut back to Texas with first-and-10 in real time. Texas throws a screen for three yards, and when the camera flips to Jasper steaming mad, I see him as my pride and joy in ways I’ve only lied about before. Suddenly I’d rather punch my way into the hole than sit on display with the son who won’t visit, so I turn around to stand up for the two of us.

Only the head-rag gang’s filling in behind Randy. Five in total, plus Randy—impossible odds even if the officers were around to break it up. One of them’s a monster, and their skinniest has a rag taut between his fists, stretching it like a rope. Randy says, “You’ll talk to your son for me, won’t you?”

It’s a real pickle, but as bad as it looks, it’ll be worse when Jasper doesn’t deliver and money’s lost. A piece of me says I should get on with it, but that piece is pretty damn easy to ignore. “I’ll talk to him,” I say. I’m smiling now. Can’t even help it. I’ve never been more scared. My skin’s cool like there’s a fan on me, and I can feel my body hair. I tell him, “But if you’re looking for a sure thing, your best bet’s betting on him.”

“You don’t get it. I make the odds around here.” There’s a big long stare-down, then Randy says something in Spanish and the crowd files off, except their big man, who lingers so I know his punches are the ones I need worry about. Randy’s turned to the door when I call out, “There’s something you ought to know about Jasper.” He’s intrigued. Or surprised—one of them.

I motion him over. “What’s that?” he asks, and I motion less subtly, adding a head wave so he knows we’re keeping secrets. His big gun lingers a few steps behind as Randy puts an ear out to me. He says again, “What is it?” and he’s still mouthing the words when I land a shot I wish Tucker could have seen—the perfect combination of bounding back to create space while leaning in to get my weight behind the throw. Randy’s head beams off the window, and he crumples like a dropped comforter.

Shit gets real in a hurry from there. I run for the stairs, grabbing a chair on my way through, taking steps three at a time, whooping Speedy Gonzales. Nerves everywhere. C-pod runs out to fill their doorways, and I’m at the top of the steps jousting with the chair until one of them pulls it from me and sends it to the lower level.

They’re single file coming up, and the first guy leads with his chin, walking into a haymaker. A siren goes off, accompanied by its light show, and the cell doors slam everyone in their cell, leaving one on four with the score two–nothing. Fear’s been replaced with instincts—that zone of heightened awareness when the lights are too bright and the crowd’s screaming in and the ring looks huge and your mouth guard seems molded for different teeth, but all your attention’s on the guy looking to put you on the canvas. In this case, that’s their big gun, who is up the steps and smiling broad.

Big gun’s life’s been building toward this moment. His first swings are wild. Ferocious but reckless. He’s looking to end me with one shot, only he winds up before each throw—a rookie tell—which makes for easy ducks and parries. The problem being, my stepping away makes the hall that much shorter, bringing me closer to the wall, which means closer to having my back up against it.

We’re dancing that dance when whistles blow from all over and the guards charge the steps. Pepper spray is employed liberally and there’s loads of cursing now, mostly over the spray—even from Spanish, pain is an easy translation. The guards are occupied on the far end, so it’s just the two of us in the ring, plus the skinny kid challenging out of his weight class. I get the calm that comes with the 10-second hammer, when all I need is to stick, move, slip, roll and let the bell save me. Then I see the skinny kid’s holding a blade, or at least something filed to work like one. He’s off to the side, waiting on the wall so he can move in and fix the fight. The guards won’t get to him before he gets to me, and I’m as surprised as anyone when I’ve got both hands on the railing with my legs swinging up and over. The top floor flashes in a blur, and after a jarring landing I’m on the rec room’s table—unfazed—staring up with the same bewilderment that’s staring down at me.

Big gun doesn’t like this a bit. He’s navigating the rail when the officers seize him from behind. The man is all fury. He drops one of them with a cross and is throwing elbows when another puts the spray canister in his face and uses it to drive him clear back against a cell door.

The guards are so busy tidying the upper deck that I’m off their radar. Seconds ago I was looking to join Noise with OxyContins and the med-lab menu, now I’m by the main door, searching Randy for Starbursts. I pop a pink, then an orange, then look up at the melee from across the room. At the railing’s a line of zip-tied Latinos staring out through snotty eyes. Behind them are a dozen doors with four dozen faces cramming the windows. Then there are the guards, the strobing red lights of lockdown and the Hogs on a drive in front of that, where only I can see. It’s quite the panorama—Guernica in C-pod.

The score’s where it had been, with Arkansas up by three. I pop a yellow, a red, another pink and square up with the television, front row center. There’s more whistle-blowing when the guards spot me. One of them holds his ground on the second floor, pointing a baton with all seriousness, as if casting a spell. I skip through the Starbursts and peel the last pink as guards rush the stairs, but my mouth’s already fuller than I can chew. I hold my wrists out to keep it easy, but they’re not interested in going the easy route. Instead they make a show of flipping me, jerking my arm back and leveraging my face into the ground, drooling orange-pink as Jasper breaks a run up the middle—20 yards for a walk-in score.

Stu Dearnley is a third-year MFA student at the University of Arkansas.

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