“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?”
“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.”
“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?”