Seasonal Doldrums

Fall has arrived. Mornings have cooled. In the prison parking lot the wind turbine, which had languished all the hot summer long, is spinning once again, slowly, idly, its white metallic petals dipping and fluttering in sympathy with the new season. In the gym tattered bulletins warning of heat exhaustion have been replaced with fliers advertising upcoming fall fitness classes. There's a class on nutrition and a class on reading and understanding food labels. Yoga is held in the mornings and calisthenics in the evenings: "Sign up today. Leave prison better than when you came in."

Seasonal provisions were issued this past week. The line to pick up jackets and winter blankets dribbled out the Laundry Department's doors and wound around the building. The jackets smelled musty after spending seven months in storage. Some had missing buttons or jammed zippers. Others had slits in their linings, secret pockets put there by last year's owners for smuggling onions out of the chow hall. We were told to take whatever we were given; exchanges and repairs could be made the following week. I recall in Mississippi years ago a Mexican man had tried to exchange his jacket there on the spot. He held out the diminutive garment for the officer's consideration, but the CO shook his head. "You can pick up a new one next week." The man, who clearly spoke no English, again extended the coat to the officer. "Next week!" the CO shouted, as though the man's problem wasn't a language barrier but deafness. "Can't you see you're holding up my line?" Those of us in line felt embarrassed for the Mexican, but mostly we were annoyed for having to wait. Dumb wetback. When the man had still not ceased holding out the ridiculous jacket, the CO tore it from his hand and flung it back into the bin. "Go on! Leave! Get the hell out of here!" The Mexican walked away with no coat at all. This year my jacket is stained at the cuffs and a bit long in the arms, but otherwise it's in fine condition.

They say despite longer days the fall and winter months go by quickest, our attentions sated by football and gambling and long bouts of hibernatory sleep. Jack predicts this coming winter will have in store considerable carnage, as he believes, contrary to popular opinion, it isn't summer's heat but winter's claustrophobia that ignites men's passions. Sleet storms and freak fog cause frequent lockdowns during the cooler months. Cooped up against the elements, inmates tend to get a little itchy around the collar. Disagreements arise; fights break out. Jack points to this past summer's relative calm as proof that we're due for upset.

Looking back it's true the outgoing summer was a quiet one. Perhaps the relentless heat knocked the fight out of us, as it did the wind turbine. We had only one upper-body check all season. Having spotted a black eye or bit of blood, the officers had every inmate line up and remove his shirt to check for cuts or bruises that might implicate others in a scuffle. Another minor incident involved a deaf man, whose inquisitive mole-like face pleads to be hit. The chow hall was packed that afternoon, and for want of a seat the deaf man, a sex offender, sat down at a table designated for affiliated whites. Affiliated whites do not take kindly to sex offenders, especially one who so flagrantly violates the established order: dope slingers do not sit with perverts; fraudsters do not mix with pedophiles; murderers do not associate with child molesters. One of the whites said something to this effect, though it's doubtful the deaf man heard him. When he refused to budge from his seat the white man set down his fork, reared back his hand, and slapped the mute open-handed across his soft, searching face. The tiny coiled wire of his implant trembled above his left ear. In another incident, whether because of a personal beef or simply because he is an eager target, a black inmate tossed the deaf man's food in the trash while he was away refilling his drink.

But it was a quiet summer. Few men were placed on suicide watch, and only one actually attempted to end his life. He tore a strip of fabric from his bed sheet and strung himself up in the showers. By the time the CO cut him down his face was purple. I was called to observe him when he returned from the outside hospital. He spent half my shift complaining doggedly that his breakfast didn't come with coffee. "Yesterday morning you gave me cereal and coffee. What happened to the cereal and coffee?" The nurse explained she had no control over what the kitchen sent him for his meals; he could either eat his breakfast or refuse it. "But that's not breakfast! That's a bologna sandwich!" he cried. "Unbelievable! No cereal or coffee!"

Two days after his dismissal, I saw the man in the chow hall at dinner. He set down his tray across from me. In training we're taught to be discreet and to never seek out former watch participants unless invited, and so the man and I ate our meatloaf in silence, neither of us acknowledging the other.

I expect I'll be called to duty more often in the coming months, as depression seems prevalent around the holidays. Bailey has twice been called to Psychology for having made worrisome remarks over the phone to his wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife; she has filed for divorce. She says she can't take it—the mortgage, the car payment, his absence, raising their youngest daughter alone. And yet at the same time she is leaving him, she says she cannot be without him. "She pulls me in different directions," Bailey said. "She loves me but wants to divorce me. She says we can still be friends." He admitted that in his frustration he might have said some things to raise the concerns of the administration, who regularly monitor phone calls, statements such as "I can't take this anymore" and "something has to give." I told Bailey not to worry. Should the psychologists ever take his fatalistic outbursts to heart, suicide watch isn't so bad. The holding cell is quiet, peaceful. He might enjoy it. And I could use the $6.60 compensation.

"I'd even consider splitting it with you," I said. "You could buy yourself a box of cupcakes from the commissary. You're looking too thin these days."

Bailey laughed. A few months ago he joined a boot camp fitness class for the overweight and medically unsound. He's reenrolled for the fall session, committing himself to another two months of high-intensity cardio and weight training, five days a week. Exercise might be just the ticket for beating these seasonal doldrums. But while Bailey has lost considerable weight and his diabetes is under control, rather than appearing fresh and svelte he looks old and shrunken, like a dark, shriveled balloon on New Year's morning. I asked him a second time if he was okay.

"I'll make it," he said. "What choice do we have?"