The Texas prison system is an odd creature. For the first month or so each inmate is subjected to what’s referred to as the diagnostic process. The diagnostics are deemed necessary for the purpose of determining an individual’s aptitude for rehabilitation coupled with his criminal history. The nature of offenses, number of times he’s been incarcerated and sentence of record are also taken into consideration. In order to ascertain such invaluable information, the inmate is required to undergo a battery of tests, sociological and psychological evaluations and a physical. All of this data is then neatly organized into a brown file folder with each person’s name and number affixed to it and then passed on to the Classification Committee. This is where I believe the creature becomes odd.
The purpose of the Classification Committee is quite simply, to classify. On the surface that might sound like an easy thing to do. A violent offender with a fifty year sentence should be assigned to a maximum security unit whereas a first time offender with no previous breakages of the law and a two year sentence would probably be better suited for a minimum security facility.
If a person reveals at some point during the diagnostic process that he has experience say, as a cook, you would think he’d be assigned a job in the kitchen. The idea is to place similar offenders together, put them to work at jobs in which they have at least some experience if at all possible and let them do their time. Evidently, as simple as that sounds, it must be a very complicated thing to actually do.
I was the perfect example of how difficult a job the classification committee members must surely have. I was a first time offender on a maximum security unit. I had a two year sentence and my cellie, Big Mac, had thirteen years done on an aggravated life sentence for
committing a rather heinous murder. Because of my academic scores I was not eligible to take classes while I was incarcerated. And despite the fact that I am a computer graphics artist with some experience as a cook, I was assigned a job in the laundry where my sole duty was to roll two socks into one ball, so much for diagnostics and classification.
It was while I was performing the tedious task of matching long socks to long socks and short socks to short socks that from behind me a husky and throaty voice said, “That’s not how you do it Z.”
I turned to look back toward the commercial sized dryers and saw Peaches and Cream headed my way.
“Yeah, you don’t have to match them,” Cream informed me, “just roll them up and put them in the barrel. Nobody really cares anyway and the sooner you get done the sooner the boss will let you leave.”
I intentionally picked up a long sock and a short sock and rolled them together.
“Like this?” I asked.
Cream giggled in his artificial falsetto way and replied, “Yeah, that’s it. You catch on fast.”
For some reason I thought there was an underlying implication in the compliment but I may have been wrong. In either case, I let it pass.
“We’ll make you a deal,” Peaches then said as he grabbed up two socks.
“And what’s that?” I asked, throwing a ball into the barrel.
“We’ll help you do all these socks if you help us do the pants.”
I considered the proposition. I had been working alone up to then with no one to talk to. As unusual as Peaches and Cream were, at least they could keep me company and knowing them, the talk would surely be interesting.
So after I agreed to the arrangement, they each went and found a stool to sit on while I dumped all the socks on top of a large folding table, making them more accessible to the three of us.
Sitting side by side, rolling up long socks with short socks, Cream said, “We saw you on the yard the other night.”
“What, were you spying on me?” I asked Cream in a playful tone.
He was the obvious extrovert of the two.
“Oh no Z, we would never do that!” he replied theatrically, “We were just walking around the track and saw you sitting by the fence.”
“Who were you talking to?” Peaches then asked.
“You don’t know Giddy either?” I said as I stopped rolling for a moment.
Both Peaches and Cream shook their heads in unison.
“He told me he’s been here for a long time,” I said, “but Big Mac doesn’t know him either.”
“Know who?” Cream asked.
“Giddy,” I replied, “you know, the old man who was sitting by the fence with me.”
Cream looked at Peaches and Peaches looked at me with squinted eyes.
Finally, after a moment of awkward silence, he said, “There wasn’t anyone out there but you Z.”
“Yeah, we thought you were just playing with us every time we walked by,” Cream added, “You know, like you were playing crazy by talking to yourself like some of those psych patients do.”
“What the hell are you doin’!” a loud, angry voice boomed from behind us.
“Oh no Peaches, it’s Lil’ Thug,” Cream whispered urgently.
“What you doin’ with my homeboy’s girl!” he said, crossing the laundry room with his eyes glaring at me.
“Rolling socks?” I replied nervously, hoping it was the right answer.
Whoever nick-named Lil’ Thug missed terribly. While he wasn’t as large as Big Mac, he was far from little and his angry countenance made him a literal giant in my eyes.
“No you wasn’t!” he roared, “You was talkin’ to his girl! Don’t nobody talk to this girl for free!”
I looked at Cream who quickly averted his shamed eyes and turned away.
“Don’t be lookin’ at her!” Lil’ Thug shouted as he caught the exchange.
“I wasn’t… I just…” The statement was cut short by Lil’ Thug’s calloused hand as it came across my face.
“You lucky I don’t make you one of my girls,” he said hatefully while I rubbed the sting out of my cheek, “Now what you gonna pay me with?”
“Lil’ Thug, please, I’ll make it up to you,” Cream pleaded.
“Shut up! You don’t talk unless I tell you to!”
By this time the work in the laundry room had stopped and a crowd had gathered. Lil’ Thug glared at me, fuming with anger.
“I d-don’t have any money,” I stammered.
“I know that stupid, but you best to give me somethin’.”
I looked around at all the faces and the many eyes that were staring at me, waiting to see what I was going to do.
“Gimme that watch,” Lil’ Thug said after a moment.
I glanced down at my Timex indiglo and saw the time, “It’s time to remember I love you!” rang through my memory as I recalled the card in Kimberly’s voice.
“Zachary, we need you at home,” my mother’s voice followed, “Please don’t do anything to make them keep you there longer. Do whatever you have to do and come home.”
“It’s either the watch or you can work it off,” Lil’ Thug suggested.
Grudgingly I turned my wrist over and unbuckled the band. I would remember my wife loved me even though I no longer had the watch, I told myself.
It was just a watch, I tried to convince myself.
But as I handed my watch over to Lil’ Thug it was as if I were giving him a vital piece of my being, a part of me that would be so very difficult to retrieve and that would change who I was forever. Still, I placed it in his hand and when at last I let go, the crowd of convicts returned to work, mumbling as they left.
After our agreement to team up on the socks and pants had been forcibly annulled, I hurried to finish my work so I could leave. Needless to say, I finished the last of my socks alone.
No one in the laundry room would speak to me or look in my direction. No one but Cream, who I caught glancing sympathetically at me a couple of times when Lil’ Thug’s back was turned.
The laundry boss must have known, or at least sensed that something had happened because when I told him I was done with the socks and would like to leave he didn’t bother to check. He just wordlessly pulled the big brass key from his belt and opened the door to let me out.
I went directly to my cell.
Big Mac, whom I had learned worked in the maintenance department (but actually had experience as a dry cleaner), was gone. As a matter of fact, most of the convicts on the cellblock were gone and those who were present were sleeping away the hot afternoon.
I had the place to myself.
With no other inmates to monitor, the boss opened my door relatively quickly. I went in and tried to do what the others on the block were doing, except that I wasn’t able to fall asleep and find the freedom that only slumber could bring to an incarcerated soul.
I laid there on my bunk with my arm over my eyes, but with my eyes wide open.
I sat up and turned on the fan.
Laid down again under the warm gentle breeze.
Closed my eyes.
Checked my watch for the time and was reminded that it was no longer my watch. No more looking at my arm and hearing Kimberly say, “It’s time to remember I love you!”
I couldn’t help but wonder if Lil’ Thug heard her voice when he looked at my watch and that thought disturbed me.
After deciding sleep was a desire that would not soon be fulfilled I stood and went over to the sink for some water. It felt good as I splashed it on my face. It tasted sweet on my lips and soothed my throat when I swallowed.
“What time is it?” a voice asked from somewhere in my mind.
I waited, but the reply I had grown so fond of hearing didn’t come. I stood waist deep in the dark void of silence that was once filled by Kimberly’s sweet voice… “It’s time to remember I love you!”
After I wiped the water from my face I stood upright.
My eye caught the movement in the stainless steel mirror that was bolted to the wall over the sink and I froze. The reflection was not as clear as it would have been in a glass mirror, but it was clear enough to miss what had always been there before.
I searched the hazy image of myself, tried to look deep into its eyes but the man in the mirror kept looking away.
I recalled how Cream had looked away from me in the laundry room…the fear and shame in his eyes.
My reflection’s eyes were more an image of Cream’s than of mine. I returned to my bunk and sat down.
Above me I heard a page turn and was startled. I was the only one there. Big Mac was gone. Yet as I stood again to check his empty rack his deep voice rang in my mind as clear as if he were lying there with a Michael Palmer novel in his huge, meaty hand,
“It don’t matter if you the last one standin’, you just gotta be willin’ to stand.”
Then my mother cried, “Do whatever you have to do and come home Zachary!”
“You gotta choose your battles wisely,” Giddy chimed in, “Whether you walk away from and choose to fight another ain’t important. What’s important is if you can look that man in the eyes.”