Games that Aren’t

On the first day of class we played a game. "It's not a game," said Mrs. Eller. "It's an activity." Games are for little kids. She handed us each a blank slip of paper and had us push our chairs into a circle. Imagine you are free, she said. Twenty-four dark faces stared at her. You've been granted the opportunity to cook dinner for your favorite celebrity. Who would you choose, and what would you cook?

We scribbled down our answers and dropped them into a hair net. Mrs. Eller shook it furiously with her small hands and reached inside: "Nicki Minaj—something Italian."

Joe ducked in his seat and grinned.

We continued around the circle pulling slips of paper from the hair net, matching each man to his fantasy celebrity dinner. Upshaw chose Bill Clinton. The men cried foul. You can't take a man on a date. Upshaw crossed his arms and reminded us that it was not a date, that he could cook dinner for whomever he wanted, and just what was wrong with Bill Clinton, anyway? "Bill a cool guy."

Lugo's fantasy was to prepare tongue tacos for Queen Elizabeth. Someone pointed out that the Queen of England probably doesn't eat tongue tacos. Lugo looked directly at Cole. "Well, if Jennifer Lopez eats ox tails and gravy, I'm sure the Queen wouldn't mind trying my tacos."

Painted on the wall just outside the Food Service Management classroom is a mural of Daffy Duck leaping from a cauldron of duck soup, a toque shooting from his feathered head like a popped cork. Inside, the classroom resembles a restaurant. Lectures are held in the dining room and cover everything from pest control to the proper internal cooking temperature of roast chicken. In the kitchen, inmates prepare scratch-made meals to hone their culinary and food-safety skills. Today we are cooking barbecued brisket pizza.

On a long prep table sit six bowls, each containing flour, salt, and baking soda. Mrs. Eller's top aide and right hand Stuart, who is white, takes one bowl for himself before passing two to Watson and Taylor, who are also white. He hands a fourth and fifth bowl to Joe and Cole, who are not white but whom he happens to like. The last remaining bowl sits at the end of the table unclaimed, near Santos, who eyes it tentatively. The other men have already begun kneading their dough. Santos slips on disposable gloves too big for his brown hands and is just about to reach in when Joe, not seeing, slides the bowl to me. My hands go in. The water and flour pass through my fingers in soft cool ribbons. When I look back up Santos is gone. He's sitting in the dining room, his gloved hands resting in his lap. I continue to knead.

One man's dough is too wet, another's too dry. Stuart oversees progress from the head of the table. When we finish, Joe and I retire to the dining room to wait while the dough rests.

"I'm going bald," he says grabbing a cinnamon pinwheel from the platter on our table, leftovers from yesterday. "I get these thin spots whenever I stress. It looks like I've got mange."

"Why are you stressed?" Santos asks.

"I'm supposed to hear something this month about the two-point reduction." Joe is one of thousands of federal inmates hoping that recent drug reform legislation might commute his sentence. "I tried calling my wife to see if she's heard from the lawyer, but I'm out of minutes."

Lugo pours the rest of his iced coffee into my cup against my protest. "How much time will they knock off?" he asks.

"Three years, maybe. If I can get three years plus credit for the time I served in the state, I'll be looking at a twenty-twenty release." Joe peeks at me from across the table. "And then me and my good buddy here—"

"Not a chance, Joe." I turn to Lugo. "He's trying to enlist me in a new scheme he's cooked up."

His scheme is this: he buys a house, fixes it up, hires hookers to cook, clean, and tend to the male clientele. "It's a hotel!" he says.

"It's a brothel," I say.

Joe pops the rest of the pinwheel in his mouth and leaves to check on the brisket. I ask Santos if he has much time left. For his celebrity dinner he told the class he would cook his father's shrimp with mango salsa for Odeya Rush. He tells me he has one year left.

"And then what?" I ask.

"I'll lay low for awhile, until I figure out my next move. If I do come back it'll be for something worth it."

"What could be worth your freedom?"

"Depends on the payload."

Back in the kitchen, Stuart is shredding the cooled brisket while Taylor simmers the strawberries and sugar to top the cheesecakes we baked yesterday. Cole is rolling out the pizza dough. He tamps down the soft mounds with his dark fingertips and rolls them out onto cookie sheets which Joe has dusted with cornmeal. After crimping the edges, Cole passes the pies to Watson who ladles on the barbecue sauce.

That sauce was the subject of much controversy. Mrs. Eller prepared it yesterday from a handful of ingredients—ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, Worcestershire, some spices—but nobody was happy with it. Stuart said it was missing something. Cole said it lacked kick. Mrs. Eller blamed cheap Worcestershire, which she said tasted like salt water. More ingredients were dumped into the pot. Mrs. Eller added a shot of apple cider vinegar. Taylor added diced onions. The sauce doubled in volume. Sprinkling in garlic powder from a yellow tin can, Stuart said, "By the time we're done we'll have a $95 sauce that still tastes like shit." Mrs. Eller swatted him with an oven mitt. For her dinner companion she chose actor Sam Elliott. She explained that her family didn't have much money when she was growing up and dinners often consisted of macaroni and whatever else was lying around, usually tomatoes and some beans. "Mac and Tom"—that's what she'd fix for Sam Elliott.

To everyone's surprise, the sauce tastes much better today. A night in the cooler has helped meld the flavors. Once sauced, the pizzas are studded with smoky brisket, topped with mozzarella and jack, and slid into the convection oven. I pluck a few floury measuring cups from the prep table and drop them in the sink for Baxter.

Nobody told Baxter to wash the dishes. But nobody invited him to join in the cooking, either. If you shake a jar of sand, the larger grains know to rise; the smaller grains know to fall. Baxter is a sex offender, and like fine silt he knows his place. He reaches into the steaming basin and pulls out a pastry cutter which he scours with the green side of a sponge more thoroughly than is necessary. Soap suds dribble down his arm. He drops the cutter into the scolding rinse water and extracts next a whisk. For his dinner companion he chose a super model, but he didn't put down a food, said he couldn't think of anything to cook. When Mrs. Eller pressed him to recall his favorite childhood meal he began to ramble, said that his family never served a particular dish on any particular night—say meatloaf on Fridays or pot roast on Sundays—and Mrs. Eller nodded kindly as though she understood, though she didn't, nobody did. He interrupted Watson's celebrity dinner a moment later to tell us that his mother used to make the best green beans with bacon, how he loved his mother's green beans with bacon. But green beans with bacon isn't a meal, it's a side dish, and, anyway, nobody gave a shit. Watson turned back to the group. He'd grill steak for Charles Brenneman. He didn't mind having dinner with another man.

"I see old Baxter's at the sink again."

"Yes," I say. "He's becoming intimately familiar with that sink. He could probably tell you the exact temperature of the water."

Bailey chuckles. He surrendered only six months ago and is still new to the system. He spends most of his time walking the track. Fast. He walks like he's late, like he's going somewhere. He once told me he walked thirty-two miles in one weekend. Of all the inmates in the class he's the only man who didn't choose to cook for a celebrity. Instead, he chose his wife. He's stubborn, still new to the system.

I ask after Bailey's two daughters and after his wife who recently underwent gall bladder surgery.

"She's all right. They're doing just fine." And then, still smiling, he adds, "She doesn't wear her ring anymore."

Strangely, this satisfies me.

"Here they come now," I say turning Bailey's attention toward the kitchen. The pizzas are being pulled from the oven and laid to cool on racks. The room smells of smoke and onions.

"So good make you wanna slap yo' momma," Watson says.

"So good make you wanna slap the warden," Stuart says.

"Pizza or not," Bailey mumbles," I'd still slap the warden."

While the pizzas cool, the cheesecakes are removed from the cooler and liberated from their spring-form pans, which Baxter promptly scoops up and carries back to the sink. The cakes are cut into eighths, the pizzas into quarters. The food is plated, and in the final moment Taylor ladles a shiny blob of crimson strawberries over each cake slice.

My pizza is so heavy with brisket that I have to raise the plate to my face and push the slice into my mouth. The cheese burns my tongue; the brisket it sweet and smoky and good. I could eat just the meat by itself, and I say so to the table. Joe nods. Lugo says the cheesecake tastes different, something he can't put his finger on. Santos is quiet.

"Sometimes," Joe says, "when I'm in the kitchen I forget I'm in prison." And though we all know this isn't true, that we could never forget where we are, where we each stand, we know what he means.

Baxter meanwhile has returned to his place at the sink. He drops a stack of custard- and crimson-smeared plates into a freshly-drawn water bath. Despite not having played a hand in preparing any of the food, he still wears a hair net. Ever hopeful. I collect my table's dishes and cups and forks and set them on the counter at Baxter's elbow. I pick up a towel.

"I'll dry."