Photograph by Mike Dote
IF YOU COULD
by Miles Klee
Me sitting here is nothing but luck. You might’ve heard I get a stipend too. That’s off the books you understand. Need it for my wife’s anxiety meds or else she can’t relax and doubts everything comes out of my mouth.
Issue #7 soundtrack: Sophia Bastian "Breaking"
What do I mean luck. We got an inmate named Clay Ferris. Mean stringy gearhead did a meaningless arson killed a family of four. Can’t afford a kid myself, or—but I mean but he burnt a pair right up. Don’t suspect his lawyer bothered much with defending. The case was more should he be lethal injected or go sit in the corner awhile.
This is when I’m a volunteer guard, and newlywed. Wife and I didn’t have a job or dime so we got an urban renewal grant to turn a vacant lot into a vegetable garden. Couple bad months later we were bartering potatoes for condoms and toothpaste. There wasn’t much day-to-day to address and we got to snarling from love and boredom. Came a brawl that was really about potato dinner eight nights running. I go walking on the old highway in rain that didn’t need an umbrella (not that I owned one) and see a billboard says unpaid corrections staff needed at Steelmax Systems Inc. Nearest location a mile ahead. Chance for promotion to paid part-time.
Wasn’t like the storm parted and the heavenly choir. Fastforward some weeks and no paychecks yet. Most of the volunteer guards are like me, squatters with no skills and a blurry dream about how to get comfortable. Our chief J. Eagleburger swears I’m the doppelganger of some student from when he taught at Rutgers. Anyone stomps an inmate for fun J. Eagleburger shitcans them straightaway. Justice has no margin for error is how he preaches it.
But yeah one day J. Eagleburger rounds up the morning staff and tells us Clay Ferris is en route. He dodged the poison armful and is gonna spend the rest of his miserable being inside. Steelmax is taking him along with the regular fat federal bonus attached to any Community Hazard that the public prison says it can’t handle. Cons like to crown a whipping boy, and the murder of children seeds a raw ache in them and the guards and Community Hazards who came before and want to be on the other side of a siege.
So Clay unrepentant kid-killer Ferris has problems. Stomped by a different crew every day. Crews stomp each other over whose turn it is to stomp him. His nose gets Picasso’d and the cuts around his lips stop healing. His knocked-out teeth become currency. Three guards get shitcanned for going after his knees. Each as they bust out of J. Eagleburger’s office says well at least they left the evil fuck limping.
I told my wife back then. She said not to. I did anyway. We had nothing to entertain ourselves, and what if I ran out of things to tell her? When she got especially sick of hearing about it she’d say so what. And I’d go you know don’t even. And she’d go if you could get away with it would you crack a rib just because? I’d tell her nobody got away with it and she’d go ah-ha but if you could.
A month on J. Eagleburger says it’s time to work Ferris and would I mind doing his intake. I bring the form down to E Block and find him napping facedown on the floor. Never did tell who took the cot or how. I rap the bars with my clipboard and ask Umbrella Assembly or Scrap Plastic. What does that mean, he says into the floor. I tell him it means which work do you want, neither division is hurting for bodies so your call. He says whichever he picks I’ll put him in the opposite. Umbrella Assembly is better, I say. He doesn’t answer so I check the box. Figure let him make a useful thing.
New Jersey saw a decent summer then. Murder was down. Rumor floated that Steelmax and Fortress Containment had a merger planned. Clay Ferris fitted together aluminum umbrella shafts. Crews had gotten their fill of his pain it seemed. Wife and I collected quarters to see this big flashy movie—even the colors had muscles. She got a wicked tan and smelled like the sun. When I loaded her with worship she called me an idiot and began to undress.
Who cares. Point is I’m ready to move up in the world and I get J. Eagleburger to throw me mess duty. Gig that floats your name to Warden Platt as a prospect for paid employment. J. is only sorry he couldn’t call me up to the big leagues sooner, he says. He collects my hand in his beef-mitts and I wonder what’s so special about me. First day on we walk down through the kitchen and come to the head of the food line. Inmates grab their cup of beans and suck it down fast. After everyone is seated, rolling empty cups between their palms, Clay Ferris stands up again.
What is it, J. Eagleburger says. My cup got knocked over, says Ferris. I didn’t get nothing. Who knocked it over, I say, and J. Eagleburger gives me a look. Just fill it says Ferris all steam and ice. Other cons’ ears perk. J. Eagleburger is keen to nix the debate. How you expect Steelmax to turn a profit on this place doling out seconds? he says, and some comedian goes motherfucker he wants firsts. The room breaks up laughing. J. Eagleburger snorts too. Clay Ferris sits and blows on the make-believe hot beans in his cup. Even then my asshole doesn’t unclench.
Next morning I’m called to the executive suite. Manager who escorts me through the riot doors has hair so white-blond you can see his brain underneath. He puts me in a bare office with a view of the airport and I watch a few sharply angled takeoffs before Warden Platt comes in.
Warden Platt says he just spoke to Eagleburger. He puts a sweaty can of cola on the desk. I wait and then take it and calmly pop it and sip twice. Platt goes to open the window and finds it stuck. He mutters and decides to perch tilted forward on the sill. What’s J.’s problem with Ferris, he asks. No problem, Warden Platt, I say. The cola’s already rotted my breath. Don’t call me warden, he says, you know I’m not one really. What’s this about he wouldn’t give him his beans? He’s a godless bastard shit. He’s going to hell. All this agitation over a cup of beans? What do you think, he says. I guess it’s a small cup, I say, and take another sip of cola.
Not-Warden Platt tells me that Clay Ferris set his cellmate on fire. Smuggled acetone from Umbrella Assembly and waited till close to dawn when the joint snores together like a huge drunk bear. Confessed in an official statement that blamed his lunacy on extreme hunger due to the bean cup episode. Eagleburger was ordered to contradict the account and wouldn’t, meaning Steelmax could lose Ferris and the cash he came wrapped in to an Equal Incarceration Authority probe-and-transfer. And when Platt finally comes to the crookedness it’s that maybe I gave Ferris the beans and Eagleburger forgot and he’ll sit here while I fill out my official report?
Can’t think cents when it’s dollars at stake. Big picture is the only one you want. Tell myself now with this badge like I told myself then. Details drag you down. For a year I pawed through the reasons J. Eagleburger would drop his job in my lap and disappear. Then I realized he wanted out. I didn’t used to sweat in my sleep. Clay Ferris smiles up at my window from the exercise yard and J. Eagleburger left this coffee mug ring on the desk. My wife talks babytalk to the new tomato plants. All the luck on the planet won’t save you from your sight. You can get lost in those little pictures, sure, but they’re only sad in the light you cast by looking.
Miles Klee lives and sometimes writes in Hell's Kitchen, NYC. His work has been featured in Contrary, Birkensnake, Polluto, elimae, Ruthless Peoples and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He has blogged for The Awl and The Huffington Post, and is the author behind Hate The Future. He in the process of selling his first novel. His complete writing portfolio can be found at milesklee.tumblr.com.
Mike Dote is a published freelance photographer who grew up in downtown Manhattan, and now lives in Staten Island. Visit his online portfolio at mikedote.com.
Sophia Bastian describes herself as a bluesy singer with a young attitude, a vintage soul, and reggae infatuation. She was a Jazz Vocal major at City College, NY, and is currently unsigned. Visit her online at Sonicbids and Facebook.