Dirty Business

"It smells like you're cooking a cat in here," I say. Steve grins. In the middle of his bald spot is a tattoo of a stick figure pushing a lawn mower; the surrounding horseshoe of hair is overgrown and unkempt. With his dark sunglasses, which he wears even when not outdoors, Steve looks like a mole who hasn't seen daylight in years.

I'm standing in his cell and staring at his locker which is closed and draped in white bed sheets. The air is noticeably warmer in here than in the unit. For the past week, the staff has had the AC blowing at near-Arctic temperatures because of all the hooch they found in the unit. Steve says that cold air slows the fermentation process—a clever solution (and punishment).

Just as I begin to wonder why Steve's brought me into his cell, he lifts the veil from his locker and opens its metal doors. The inside is empty except for a single burning candle, not a $34 Yankee votive that smells like lemon bars, but a homemade candle constructed from soda cans. Steve describes how it's done: Cut the bottoms off two cans and fill one bottom with baby oil. Using the other bottom as a lid, cap off the oil to create a vessel and pop a small hole in the top. Cut a thin strip of cloth from a towel or T-shirt to create a wick, and feed it through the hole, down into the oil.

I ask the obvious question: "Where did you get the lighter from?" It's been almost a year since I've seen an open flame. Steve tells me he doesn't need a lighter. He ferrets through the contents of his locker strewed across his bunk and pulls out a double-A battery. On one side, at the negative end, he carves away a small piece of plastic shielding with a razor blade. Next he takes a sliver of foil paper (the instant grits sold at commissary come in packets made from paper and aluminum) and makes a small crimp in the middle. Then aluminum side facing down, Steve presses on end of the paper to the exposed metal beneath the battery's shielding and the other end to its negative side. Within seconds, the crimp in the paper ignites in a sparkling flare. It's like discovering magic for the first time, a magic trick that makes me feel like an awed child.

"So you've made yourself a little space heater?" I ask.

"No, no. This is for business. I'm making soot to add to my ink so it doesn't fade.

"Steve is a tattoo artist.

"You're burning baby oil to make soot—?"

"No, no. Not baby oil. I'm burning hemorrhoid cream. That's the stuff we use—hemorrhoid cream."

"Hemorrhoid cream?" I ask.

"Hemorrhoid cream," he says grinning blindly.

"Is that safe?"

"I don't know. Probably. It's what I've used for years. Some other guys'll burn baby oil, but I like hemorrhoid cream. It burns blacker.

"I peer deeper inside the locker. The candle sits five inches from the top, and directly above the flame hangs an inch-long stalactite of black soot which Steve scrapes into a pill bottle. It's a dirty business. The bed sheets, which were once white and now a pale shade of gray, have done little to contain the smoke. The entire cell is covered in a thin film of cancer.

Steve spins around, fingers black, "Oh! So guess what I saw your cellie Bubba do today!" There is mischief in his glee. No news concerning Bubba is good news.

"Something tells me that whatever it is, I won't like it," I say. "But you're going to tell me anyway, aren't you?"

Steve claps his hands together and launches into his latest discovery:"So I'm standing out there on the tier this afternoon, and I see Bubba down there watching TV, right? And I swear to God, the kid takes his finger"—Steve hold up a finger to illustrate—"sticks it up his nose, and puts it right in his fucking mouth?"

I says, 'No Way!' I couldn't believe it! So I ask his previous cellie about it, and Tom Cat says he saw him do it one night while they was in their cell. Tom Cat says to Bubba, 'What the fuck did you just do? Did you just pick your nose and put it in your mouth?' and Bubba looks at Tom Cat and says—get this—'But I've always done that'?"

Steve is in a fit of laughter. The tar-filled air has him gasping. "That's your cellie!" he cries, eyes watering. "That's your cellie!"