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Man is the word. You can't stop hearing it when you're inside. "You crazy, man?" "You fuckin' with me, man?" "Fuck you, man." "Shi', man." "Sheet, man." "Shit, man." It doesn't mean a thing. It's just an itch that no one can stop scratching, a sore tooth no one can stop probing.
Fifteen years is a long time for scratching and probing, longer when there's nothing to do but mop floors and sew mailbags, all for fifty-five cents an hour. You've got to find ways of making time go faster. Nails--during his third year they started calling him Nails, but his real name was Eddie Nye--Nails took up weight lifting. That made time go faster, but not fast enough. What he needed was a way to make time disappear. That's what led him to reading. Nails probably hadn't read a book in his life, except for high-school assignments, and, much earlier, Muskets and Doubloons, but in the room they called the library, with its blue-white strip lighting, steel chairs and tables bolted to the floor, yawning corrections officers, he ploughed through everything on the shelves. He started with Max Brand. After a while he learned that the better the book, the closer time shrank to the vanishing point. Seven years later he was reading Tolstoy, still searching for the story so perfect it would kill time dead. Old books were better. Nothing written in the twentieth century worked at all.
Poems were best, especially long ones with rhymes and a beat. One day Eddie came upon "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." He returned to it over and over, not unlike a child who can't stop looking at a bloody crucifixion on the wall at Grandma's house.
Eddie read the papers too. Funny thing about the papers. Although he read every word, including the weather in places he'd never heard of and subjects he had no interest in, like the stock market, recipes, dance reviews, he somehow didn't get it. Everything just floated by--megabytes, Japanese cars, yuppies, the end of the Cold War, all that. Eddie knew things were happening, but they were far away and meaningless. Like looking through binoculars from the wrong end. Of course, you could say it was Eddie who was far away. He had to be, to get away from time.
Not that he didn't want out. That happens to some of the longtimers, but didn't happen to Eddie. It wasn't that he had plans: he couldn't form any. But he wanted out, all right, so bad that with two or three months to go he started getting wired. Couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't sit still. In consequence, his memory of events in those months wasn't too clear. It lacked, for example, some of the details, the nuances, of El Rojo's first contact.
At the time, Eddie had a cell on the first tier of the north wing of F-Block. Cell F-31 measured four paces from the bars to the seatless steel toilet, a pace and a half from the steel bunks to the steel side wall. Eddie had the top bunk, Prof slept on the bottom. Prof wasn't in for long. Forgery. Three and a half to eight, but probably much less with parole. Eddie had had lots of cellmates--Gerald, who had split his wife's skull with his son's Little League bat; Moonie, who'd shot some bystanders in a drive-by; Grodowicz, who'd botched a kidnapping by detouring to sodomize the hostages; Rafael DeJesus, a smuggler and occasional killer of illegal aliens who'd taught Eddie Spanish; a kid whose name Eddie no longer remembered, who hadn't been able to stop stealing cars and had finally run over twins in a twin stroller at the end of a high-speed chase; Jonathan C. McBright, a professional bank robber and by far the easiest to live with; another guy who'd killed his wife, but unlike Gerald denied it and cried in the night; and others, who'd done more of the same.
They came, they put up their decorations, they served their time or got paroled, got transferred, got killed, or killed themselves. Eddie kept his distance from his cellmates, from everybody. That was the secret of being a successful con. When they were gone, Eddie took down their decorations, tossed them in the corridor at mopping-up time, nodded hello to the next arrival. He never put up decorations of his own.
Prof was almost as austere. He'd taped just two pictures to the wall above his bunk. One was a studio portrait of his wife, Tiffany, and their two kids, all wearing matching reindeer sweaters and smiling like the kind of family used for selling something wholesome. The other, much bigger, was a photo of a powerfully built woman with a two-pronged dildo inserted into her body and an impatient expression on her face, as though she was already late to her next appointment. The juxtaposition of the pictures didn't seem to bother Prof; maybe he didn't even notice. Eddie noticed, but it didn't bother him. In fifteen years he'd seen everything, everything that could be taped to a wall.
Something clicked in the steel walls of F-Block. Eddie heard Prof sit up on the bottom bunk. "Hey, big guy, whaddya know?" he said. The barred door slid open. "We're free." Prof had a sense of humor. Not as good as Rafael DeJesus's though. DeJesus had been really funny. He'd even performed at Catch A Rising Star once, after jumping bail.
Prof went into the corridor. Eddie heard it fill quickly with restless, noisy men. They'd been in lockdown for five days, all because Willie Boggs had lost another appeal. That had led to a demonstration of Willie's supporters outside, a demonstration covered by local news and therefore seen inside. The footage had fed delusions of hope on death row, causing a commotion that spread to Max and then to F-Block. Lockdown reminded everyone what the situation really was and that all Willie's pastors, ACLU lawyers, and anti-death penalty crusaders--including the head of Amnesty International, the justice ministers of two Scandinavian countries, and Mother Teresa--couldn't put Humpty together again. The only appeal left was to the governor's clemency, of which in his ten years of office he had shown none.
Eddie climbed down off the bunk. He took his Remington cordless from his lockless locker and shaved his face by touch. Mirrors had been confiscated years ago, following a shard slashing on the third tier. Fat drops of blood had plopped down onto the floor outside F-31, as though from a roof after the passing of a red storm. Eddie ran his fingers over the top of his head, felt stubble. He shaved that too, feeling the razor buzz against his naked skull. Not unpleasant.
He went out, into the line of men moving toward the checkpoint that led to the mess hall. He smelled their smells, saw the details on their unsunned skins, the details he always saw, couldn't not see, although they no longer made an impression: the scars, the bruises, the dried semen stains, the open sores, the tattoos. Eddie had a tattoo on the inside of his left biceps, self-administered with a sharpened pocket comb and a bottle of red food coloring during his only stay in the hole, at the end of year two. In block letters about half an inch high it said "Yeah?" It was a joke he no longer got.
Eddie passed through the scanner but turned into the east wing before he got to the mess hall, and walked to the library. "Not eatin', Nails?" said the C.O. outside the door, patting him down. Eddie went inside, making no reply. "Got to keep your strength up," the guard called after him. "For when you're in the real world."
Eddie sat in his favorite chair, the only one in the library not bolted to the floor. Left over from an earlier era, it was a sagging armchair, spavined and sprung, too heavy to be used as a weapon. He was almost finished with the morning paper, in the middle of a book review on the last page that was panning a novel because it contained "elements of melodrama," when Willie Boggs shuffled in, a C.O. on either side, loosely grasping his mahogany-colored arms above the elbow. Willie had a proud face and erect bearing; he only shuffled because of the shackles around his ankles. He saw Eddie and nodded. Eddie nodded back. Willie looked the way he always did, except that the skin bordering his lips might have been a little chalky. He took a few books off the law shelf and sat at a table. The C.O.s unlocked his handcuffs and sat beside him, eyes glazing almost at once. Willie opened a book, found the page he wanted, took out a note pad, started writing. He was the best writ-writer in the system. That's why he was still alive.
Eddie folded up the paper and took down the collected Coleridge. Coleridge opened to "The Ancient Mariner" by itself; in fact to page 248, where the central problem was. Eddie stared at the stanza:
"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--
Why look'st thou so?"--With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.
No explanation, unless you count the small-print text in the left-hand margin--"The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen"--and Eddie didn't consider it much of an explanation, didn't even know if the small print was part of the poem or added later by someone else. No explanation. In one verse everything's cool with the bird, in the next the guy plugs it. Why? Eddie had been through it a thousand times, without getting any closer to the answer. That didn't mean much. Eddie knew there must be plenty he didn't understand about "The Ancient Mariner." For example, it had only recently struck him that there might be a reason the mariner stopped only one of the three wedding guests, instead of telling the story to all of them. Maybe the wedding guest wasn't saying, "Wherefore stopp'st thou me?" but, "Wherefore stopp'st thou me?" So Eddie wasn't sure he even understood the first verse.
Just shot the albatross. Why? Because he was jealous it could fly? Because he wanted to suffer? Because he was afraid of sailing fast? Or just because it was possible to do? None of those answers felt right. It occurred to him that the shooting was melodramatic. Maybe the whole goddamn thing was melodramatic. The reviewer would have panned Coleridge too, if he'd been alive at the time.
Eddie looked up. Willie Boggs and his guards were gone. Another man sat at the long table, alone. He was reading Business Week. This, Eddie realized, was his first close look at the state's most famous inmate. El Rojo, they called him. His face had been on the cover of Time magazine the week they'd caught him. The face reminded Eddie of a picture he'd seen in one of the books, a picture of a Spanish king, Charles the Something. He had red hair, translucent skin, a long nose, a long chin, long delicate fingers with long manicured nails. The only difference was that, as one of the founders of the Medell'n cartel, he had probably been richer than all the kings of Spain put together. Maybe he still was. El Rojo shook his head at something he read and turned the page.
Eddie closed his eyes. True, he hadn't been sleeping lately, but he'd been sleeping for almost fifteen solid years before that. He couldn't be tired. But he kept his eyes shut anyway. Everyone said he had to make plans. He tried to picture himself in the future, outside. All he saw was the red lining of his eyelids. "Her lips were red, her looks were free, her locks were yellow as gold." The specter Life-in-Death. Was it important that she was a woman? Woman, in fact, with a capital W. Why?
"Arsewipe. Hey. I'm talkin' to you. Arsewipe."
Eddie opened his eyes. Standing over him was an inmate Eddie had never seen before. He was big. Prof called Eddie "big guy," but Eddie wasn't really big. When he'd come in, at nineteen, he'd been six one and weighed about one seventy. In fifteen years he'd added twenty pounds, mostly muscle, but he wasn't big, not compared to the man calling him arsewipe. This man must have weighed three hundred pounds; not svelte, but not fat either. He had a slack, heavy face, long greasy hair, a long greasy beard, a few teeth, and a half-healed hole in his upper lip where a ring must have fit--jewelry was forbidden. It was like waking to a nightmare. Eddie closed his eyes. It wasn't the first time.
"Hey. Arsewipe." Eddie felt a kick on the sole of his right foot. A hard kick. He opened his eyes.
"I'm talkin' to you. You're in my chair."
"Guess again," Eddie said, conscious as he spoke of El Rojo's gaze.
"Huh?" the big man said. He thought for a moment, mouth open. Eddie noticed that the big man was wearing a ring after all--a gold one stuck in the fleshy tip of his tongue. He gave Eddie another kick.
"You're new," Eddie said.
The big man's forehead creased. "I'm new here. I'm not new to the scene, you fuckin' fuckhead. I did four fuckin' years in fuckin' Q, man. And I always had a favorite fuckin' chair in the fuckin' library at fuckin' Q. See? So get up. Unless you want me to tear your fuckin' head off." And he kicked again, this time with a windup. Eddie winced; he couldn't help himself.
"You're not giving me much choice," he said.
Eddie rose. The big man, a head taller, took him by the shoulder and gave him a push to help him on his way. Eddie let himself be pushed, but at the same time he pivoted and stuck his hand into the middle of that slack face, stuck it right into the fleshy wet maw, sliding his index finger through that stupid tongue ring. The big man's hands went up then, but he was much too slow. Eddie had curled his finger around the tongue ring; now he yanked.
First there was a ripping sound and the ring came free in Eddie's hand. Then the big man spouted blood. The pain hadn't quite hit him when Eddie caught one of his massive wrists in both hands, spun behind the broad back and jerked the wrist up as high as it would go. Something snapped in the big lump of shoulder; muffled by all the muscle, it sounded no louder than a breaking wishbone on Thanksgiving. The big man bellowed and fell forward on the table, not far from El Rojo. Did El Rojo move away at all, or simply sit there? That was the kind of detail Eddie couldn't remember later.