My escort walked me down to the third level, a narrow hallway faced with cells with red painted bars, the same color as my new coveralls. They stretched off into the gloom of the dimmed lights… a corridor that sounded and smelled like a zoo now that everyone had just come in back from dinner. It was warm in here, and humid with the smell of an old men’s locker room. The ventilation fans did little to remove the scent of cheap bodyspray, sweat, and old toilets.
We were catcalled on the way past my new neighbors. Someone was pacing like a tiger in the darkest part of their cell, stalking from end to end. Another man was smoking, and didn’t even bother hiding it as the three of us marched past. Some men were hidden in the stark shadows cast by the single bulb light outside their cell. Another lunged at his bars with a bestial snarl, and then laughed as he reeled away. Everyone was two to a cell – sometimes three. There wasn’t enough space on Red Row. I could guess that the bunk I was to occupy was one of the ones I’d emptied after Red Dog had come at me in the bathroom.
“Hey! I told housekeeping that I didn’t want the turndown!” A man’s voice called out from the cell, deep, with an accent I pinned somewhere between Minnesota and Canada. “Did you bring me the little chocolate at least, ’cause-”
“Shut your fucking mouth!” My escort snarled back at him, racking my door across. “You! Get in there!”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I started forward, only to be arrested when the man inside spoke again. “Yeah! Get in there! You can do it! You’re the man now, dawg!”
The guard holding me shifted nervously on his feet as the other one stalked into the cell, hand on his belt. “Do you want my stick up your ass, fuckhole?”
“Oh no sir, anything but the stick!” My celly pitched his voice high and squeaky. “We hates the stick, don’ts we precious?”
“Why you fucking piece of-” From inside, the other man laughed, a sound that fell back further into the cell as the guard lay into him.
“Ooh yes, officer! Harder! Harder!” He called out, still laughing. “Gimme that Federal bureaucracy, man! All over my face!”
“Will you shut the fuck up!?” The nightstick bounced off something metallic.
“Come on baby, bruise me up! Yeah, that’s it! Woo! I’m going to the one dollar bin! The fruit bin! Like one of those bruised up bananas that’s seen WAY too much heroin!”
“Yeah, man! Go score us that infirmary canteen!” Someone down the row shouted up.
“It’s mine! All mine! Get your own fucking crossword puzzle!” Even under assault, my next door neighbor sounded like he was having the time of his life.
As he realized that the beating wasn’t going to get him anywhere, the guard stalked back out and slammed the door across, swearing like a Navy shoreman. The far less enthused officer nudged me forward, and I got my first look at my new roommate as he rolled himself back up to his ass, still wheezing with mirth.
He was huge: a good three hundred pounds of raw beef, none of it fat. He was seated with his feet wide apart, elbows resting on his knees, his back to the white porcelain sink. His shoulders were level with the rim. I’d known some big men in my time and rarely felt small around them. Short as I am, I was burly, built for weightlifting and shotput and showjumping. Tall, cut men like Zane didn’t faze me, but this man wasn’t just tall. My new cellmate was built like a pro-wrestler. He could have body-doubled for the Hulk.
He had a fading outdoorsman’s tan, but it was the geometric blue ink tattoos that lay across his bald scalp, bull neck, and heavy shoulders that distinguished him from just another skinhead bruiser in this place. They were not anything like the mishmash of gang symbols and trashy flash that passed for tattoos in prison. Care and planning had gone into them, and it was the tattoos that flipped the switch of intuition. I hesitated as deja-vu hit me like a baton to the gut, but I couldn’t recall a name, or a place where we’d met before. Just a shadow of a memory, a patterning… like the ghost of something we’d once done together, over and over again. In light of Kutkha’s frank discussion of my other lives, past and present, the recall was accompanied by a nagging sense of being in terrible danger.
“Stop gawking and get in, asshole.” The guard jabbed me in the back. With motions that were already becoming rote, I crossed the threshold and turned, the back of my neck crawling as I held out my wrists to be un-cuffed.
“Mmmm, now that’s what I’m talking about.” The big man chuckled behind me. “That is one hell of a mint. White virgin chocolate… Fair trade and shade grown.”
The guard glanced over my shoulder with something that might have been momentary concern, at least about the liability of locking someone of my size in with the likes of The Hulk… but it didn’t stop him from racking the door closed, locking it, and walking away to join his coworker.
I drew a deep breath and turned around. “Let me guess. You recognize me from somewhere.”
“I’m writing home to-” When I turned back around to face him, the seated man’s voice fell off, even before I began to speak. “That depends. How many pornos have you starred in?”
I flushed before he could find my composure, jaws clenched. “Exactly zero, thank you very much.”
“Listen to you. ‘I’ll have a buttered scone and a bit of tea, thank you very much,’” my cellmate raised his voice to a prim falsetto as he got to his feet. In the claustrophobic enclosure of the cell, I had never seen a bigger man in my life. He was smirking, and holding an invisible teacup and saucer in his hands, the pinky holding the ‘cup’ held out at a jaunty angle. There was absolutely nowhere in this space I could retreat to that this man could not reach.