“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.”
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.
To submit your entry, go to playboymagazine.submittable.com/submit (the “Site”). The Site is a third-party document-submission website that charges $5 per submission. The Site will waive the fee for Playboy subscribers.
The Rules: 1. Contest is open to all college students age 18 or older. Employees of Playboy and their families, its agents and affiliates are not eligible. 2. To enter, upload your typed, double-spaced manuscript of 5,000 words or fewer in .doc, .docx or .rtf format to the Site. In the cover letter, include your name, college affiliation, e-mail address, permanent home address and phone number. All entries must be previously unpublished original works of fiction and must be received by February 14, 2014. By entering the contest, you represent and warrant that your submission does not and will not infringe the copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other personal or proprietary rights of any person or entity, and you agree to indemnify Playboy and hold Playboy harmless from any claims arising from your breach or alleged breach of any representation, warranty or term contained in these rules. 3. Judges shall determine the winners. Decisions of the judges are final. Playboy reserves the right to withhold prizes if no submissions meet its usual standard of publication. 4. Winners will be notified by e-mail and may be obligated to sign and return an affidavit of eligibility, copyright assignment and publicity release within 30 days of notification. By acceptance of their prizes, winners consent to the use of their names, photographs and other likenesses for purposes of advertising, trade and promotion on behalf of Playboy without further compensation to the winners, unless prohibited by law. 5. Playboy reserves the right to edit the first-prize-winning story for publication. 6. Playboy reserves the right to publish winning entries in U.S. and foreign editions of Playboy and to reprint, republish or incorporate them in any electronic or print English-language or foreign-edition anthologies or compilations of Playboy material without further compensation to the winners. 7. Void where prohibited by law. 8. All manuscripts become the property of Playboy and will not be returned. 9. Taxes on prizes are the responsibility of the winners. For a list of the winners, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Playboy College Fiction Contest, 9346 Civic Center Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org anytime with technical questions or for assistance.