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