Game Night

In the months of quarantining, while it languished unused and neglected, nature returned to its helm and the prairie dogs overtook the rec yard. They burrowed beneath the track, invaded the handball court, colonized the softball field. One can stand in the bleachers and see prairie dogs in all directions. The males ferreting in the scrub south of the bocce pits and scouting virgin lands north of the shuttered visitation room. The expectant mothers sitting like ripe gourds atop their mounds, watching the young tussle at second base. Years ago there had been but one colony, occupying the field behind the lieutenant's office. The guards had tried for months to get rid of them. They set up enclosed traps, like cat carriers, and baited them with bread, cabbages, dog food, and peanut butter. But the rodents weren't fooled.

Eventually the officers gave up and allowed the wildlife to do what it pleased. Besides, the prairie dogs never bothered anyone. To the inmates now allowed outside to circle the track three times per week, they show only ambivalence. Lewis pointed ahead of us to a pup nosing at the track's edge. "He's staring at us like we owe him money," he said. We passed a mere five feet from the dung-colored creature sitting defiantly on its haunches, horny tail twitching.

Lewis and I rounded the track, admiring the colony's theatrics, the squeaks and yipping salutes whose meanings we'll never know. To our right we passed the pavilion beneath which sat sun-weary men staring wordlessly into the heat, masks hanging from their chins like slings. A sign posted on one of the pavilion's splintered legs demands only ten inmates at a time congregate beneath its shade, in keeping with social distancing practices. I counted fifteen. Such well-meaning policies ignore the fact that come recreation's end, inmates will return to their dorms and to their respective pigeonholes where forty-six men will share a living space roughly the size of an average American home. There's no such thing as social distancing in prison.

"Are you nervous?" I asked.

"A little, " Lewis admitted. "I'm not so much anxious about going to the halfway house as I am about getting to the halfway house. I have to be there by five, and my mother's a slow driver."

"It seems rather anticlimactic, doesn't it? You're locked up for thirteen years and then one day you step across a threshold and suddenly you're a free man, more or less. They ought to have a brass band waiting in the parking lot to send you off."

Ahead of us a prairie dog tramped across the track and disappeared down a hole.

"I wonder," I said, "if the officers treat you any differently when you're getting out. Do the staff in R&D wish you luck? Do they even care?"

"I know they're allowed to shake your hand, if they want."

"I can't think of anyone's hand I'd like to shake. Maybe Wong's. He's decent."

To the east, beyond the rec yard's fence, Lewis and I spotted a chain gang of new arrivals filing out of the administration building. Six prisoners were being escorted by two officers, one at the front, the other at the rear. The officers wore masks, smocks, and gloves and looked like butchers leading cattle to the slaughter. The one in front wore a face shield. The group turned and filed north toward the former vocational trades building which after the pandemic struck was repurposed into a quarantined living space where new detainees stay for two weeks before being released into the general population.

"I remember when I was once the new guy," Lewis said

Around the rec yard men stopped amidst their jogging, push-ups, and pull-ups to stare at the newcomers, and when Lewis and I turned to resume our walk we saw that even the prairie dogs had stopped their hijinks to size up the new arrivals. Four pups stood on their hind legs, bellies exposed, noses to the wind, their heads moving with the sad procession.

Memories of my own first weeks in prison resurfaced when, just before the pandemic and subsequent quarantine, I received a new bunkmate, fresh from county jail and still, as they say, shitting street food. Lopez is soft-spoken with dark curly hair, acne-stippled cheeks, and at twenty-four he is the same age as me when I entered the system.

One of my first impressions of prison was that everyone seemed to know one another: this person knows that person from having grown up together selling dope; this man knows that man from having done time together in State for selling dope; this guy knows that guy from having snitched on the other for selling dope. Despite an incarcerated population numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it's a relatively small world, and upon entering the first thing everyone wants to know, outside of your charge is who you know.

"Say, you know Kilo from H Town, skinny nigga with dreads, gold teeth, stays over there by Dollar Tree?"

"Sure, I fuck with Kilo. Say, you know Eightball, big dude, bald head, used to drive a gold El Camino, lives over there by the Walgreen?"

"Oh, sure, I know Eightball. He fucks with my boy Scrotum."

"You know Scrotum…?"

In those first weeks I understood nothing of prison politics or the relevance of acquaintanceships and geography. When asked where I'm from I told people I was born in New York. I became known then as "Brooklyn," and an Italian man from Sheepshead Bay charitably donated to me a pair of used tread-bare Reeboks. Later when I clarified that I'd lived most of my life in Texas, I was rechristened "D Town," and the white southern boys who'd thought me a Yankee thawed slightly. Once however it became clear that I had no real connection to any of these places (for they were, to me, only places), and after I'd begun working in the Educational Department, the compound settled finally on calling me "Tudor." Few people in the past decade have ever known or cared to know my real name, which has suited me fine. Invisibility is in many ways preferable to status.

As with all new inductees, so it went with Lopez—the questions, the posturing and ass-sniffing. My new bunkie is less naive than I was; coming from the drug trade, he possesses the prerequisite street smarts that I had lacked. And yet I had to warn him recently when I saw he was getting a little too chummy with a man in the neighboring pod, a man with a known taste for young Hispanic boys. Often the man would come by our bunk, shirtless and flexing, to shower Lopez with soups and snack cakes.

"You know that man wants to fuck you, right?" I said to Lopez after his admirer had lent him his radio.

Lopez's head swiveled, owl-like, his eyes dark and wide. "Why!" He hooted.

I shrugged. "Just letting you know."

I myself as a once smooth-faced boy, ostensibly gay, had batted away many advances from men, offers of drugs, clothing, food. There is this joke in prison that should one find a candy bar on his pillow, he ought not eat it should the gifter come round seeking compensation. A few years ago this happened to a short-timer, a young Spaniard who'd been my neighbor. We'd made eyes a few times, so when one day a snickers appeared on his pillow, he turned first to me.

"I didn't put it there," I said laughing. "Why don't you ask your black lover."

"My black what?

"That guy that keeps pestering you." I explained the candy-on-the-pillow trick. "I didn't think guys actually did that sort of thing."

Panicked, the short-timer asked what he should do.

"Give it back to him," I said. "Tell him you're not into chocolate."

It's been years since I've had to fend off predators. Gradually I shed that soft, vulnerable skin that men in prison find enticing. I shaved my head and grew a beard. I took up weight lifting. Once known as the "Tutor," I became the "Fit Guy" or "Yoga Guy." And as the softness around my face dissolved, a deep crease developed between my brows along with a habit of staring through people rather than at them. Someone recently told me I look pissed even when asleep. And another man who'd spent years at various penitentiaries and who prided himself on being able to read people told me he couldn't read me, and this bothered him. I took these as compliments. A decade after I unpacked my first bedroll, now in my mid-thirties, I'm no longer the newcomer, the fish. The soles on those old Reeboks eventually separated, and I threw the pieces away.

I've seen many people come and go (and more than a few come back). The short-timer writes to tell me he's living in Dallas, doing something in real estate, and is keen to let on that his relationship is on the rocks and he looks forward to seeing me when I get out. Old man Cribb was fortunate to have escaped Christmas Eve, before the pandemic. He was a bundle of raw nerves from August to December. As a prank, someone in Laundry printed an obscene name tag and absconded with the old man's jacket while he napped. The next morning, after we'd exchanged handshakes, he trotted off to R&D so suffused with terror and excitement he failed to notice that his name, according to his jacket, had been changed to "GLORYHOLE." He never did write to us, but then nobody believed he would. Neither did Jeff or Austen. At twenty-six Austen, who had no family or relations, was booted off to Florida to live in a colony for sex offenders. Rodriguez sends the occasional note, along with obnoxious selfies posing in fast-food chains, his mouth stuffed with burger and tots. Unsurprisingly, and to our chagrin, the former muscle head gained a ludicrous amount of weight since leaving prison, breaching the 300-pound mark. Disappointingly, my closest friend Jack only wrote me once, and it was to rant about probation and about halfway house. My next closest friend Jay, who was transferred after having an affair with the prison's hygienist, was released from Beaumont last year and lives near his parents in Kentucky where he works in construction and writes music on the side. He told me in his last letter not to listen to Jack. He said probation's a breeze, few will know or care about my past, and the mandatory polygraphs mean shit.

Had my Case Manager not filed the paperwork three months late, and had I been granted a full year's halfway house, I might have gotten out this past July, on the sixteenth to be exact. As it stands, I've yet to receive a halfway house release date. My paperwork sits in an anonymous pile at the regional office, still waiting to be processed, and July and now August have passed.

The week of the sixteenth was a gloomy one. My presumed release date cam and went and I felt as though I'd been forgotten and might never get out. Depressed, I considered canceling our Friday game night to spend the evening in my rack reading something pulpy. But it was also the evening we'd planned to celebrate Lewis's leaving, and I couldn't miss that, especially since the festivities were to take place at my bunk.

Dinner was prepared by Tate and Elle, a transgender lesbian couple known collectively as "the twins" for their likeness and inseparability. They cooked Lewis's favorite meal, pizza, and while Elle formed the crusts from tortillas, Tate sauced and topped them: plain cheese for Elle who is vegetarian, pepperoni for Lewis who is maddeningly picky, and supreme for the rest of us with sausage, chicken, jalapeños, and pickles. Sam filled a small trash bag with water for the 180 to create an improvised hot water bottle which Tate then gently laid over top the pizzas to heat them.

Not only were we celebrating Lewis's departure but also Tate's, who would be leaving four days after Lewis to live with her parents in Tennessee. Home confidants an option for me since I technically have no home; my parents' house was denied by the probation office because it's too close to a park. Of the five of us who sat around my bunk eating pizza that night, two would be gone in a week's time. Certainly I will be next to leave, followed by Elle in a couple of years. She looked stricken to be losing her girlfriend of four years. Nibbling at her cheese pizza, a stand of graying hair falling across her cheek, she seemed as thin and brittle as a water cracker.

Beside Elle sat Sam eating stray pepperonis off the bunk with his fingers. Of the five of us Sam received the longest sentence—fifteen years—and will be the very last to go home.

Once we'd finished eating and the bunk had been wiped clean, we set up the Monopoly board. The twins handmade the game themselves. The board was fashioned from cardboard, construction paper, and clear masking tape. Tokens were cut from a plastic mirror, and two stubby bits of pencil served as dice, the hexagon faces numbered one through six. The twins had even fashioned a box with compartments to hold the board and pieces. I've often marveled at the creative talent locked away in the nation's prisons, unwitnessed and wasted.

In the first game my strategy was sound but my luck proved poor, and I was the first to go bankrupt when my TIE Fighter landed on Sam's massively developed Conto Bight (both sci-fi fans, the twins reworked the classic game with a Star Wars theme).

In the second round my luck went from bad to ominous when my first roll landed me an immediate tax penalty. Then came a string of unlikely catastrophes which seemed could only be explained by the touch of some dark divine intervention. Out of eight attempts to round the board I succeeded only twice. I managed to purchase only two properties, and I blew through most of my money on fees, rent, and bail. Lewis, taking pity on me, sold me two of his starship for a pittance, but nobody landed on them. I was struck from the game in a record twenty minutes. Ironically, I died in jail, unable to afford bail or roll doubles. Surely this and my real-life postponed release were signs of universal condemnation.

The next day I found Lewis at Sam's bunk watching him rifle through his locker. Presumably he was organizing, though it appeared he was only moving things from one pile to another. Sam's locker is that of the quintessential intellectual, someone whose mind is too busy contemplating the world to bother with such a minutia as organization. His locker is jammed with books on psychology, art, history, science, and politics, along with magazines, writing tablets, and a cache of art supplies. For years he and Lewis ran a successful greeting card business, creating and selling to inmates customized Mother's Day, Valentine's, and Christmas cards. It was surprisingly legitimate for a prison hustle. Using his business experience and education in finances, Sam taught Lewis how to write a business plan, track inventory, and keep meticulous financial records, should he decide to start a business of his own when he gets out. With Lewis's departure—the loss of his friend and business partner—Sam decided to sell off the remaining stock and close shop.

"I was thinking," I said to Sam, "that for our next game night we might play Scattergories."

Sam snorted as though I'd said something utterly ridiculous. "And who will we play with? Lewis leaves in two days and Tate the same week. We can't play with just two people; it isn't the same."

"Aren't you forgetting about Elle?"

Sam didn't reply immediately. He busied himself stacking notebooks whose spines were broken and whose white pages are frayed and fanning loose. They reminded me of dead birds. "And besides," he continued, "you'll be leaving any day now, too."

I looked at Lewis who said nothing but only smiled and shook his head as if to say, You know how he gets.

"So that's it then? You're going to spend the next six years organizing your locker, pulling away from people?"

Finally Sam looked up from his papers. "Do you know how exhausting it is to make new friends, only to see them leave?" The question was rhetorical; of course we know. "Austen, Cribb, Jeff, Rodriquez, and now you guys. I don't have the energy anymore."

Custom and decorum have it that when one finishes his bid he leave his possessions to the people he's left behind. After all, of what use are cheap commissary sweats and ramen soups in the free world? It's a tradition that has always made me uncomfortable, as if I were a vulture picking one the carcass of a once friend. So when Lewis asked me if I wanted his socks or underwear, I declined. "But I will take your toilet paper," I said. One can never have too much toilet paper.

But it turned out that come the morning of Lewis's release his stomach was so troubled that he wound up using all his toilet paper and had to borrow a partial roll from Sam. When his name was finally called over the PA, he packed his few remaining belongings in a green duffle bag, zipped it and stood tentatively before us looking anxious but happy.

"We ought to pin you down and slather Icy-Hot on your balls, like the peckerwoods do," I said, before hugging him.

He pulled back in much astonishment. "But you hate hugs!"

Later, after Lewis was gone, Same came to my bunk holding an envelope. He said he had a change of heart and that he'd like to keep our game nights going after all, though he added that once I leave and the quarantine has ended he'll probably request a transfer to be closer to his father. "I've exhausted all the intellect here," he said. "You're the last read person I know."

Before leaving he dropped the sealed envelope in my hand. A letter from Lewis, to be opened after he's gone. It hadn't been an hour since he'd hauled his duffle bag out of the building to R&D, yet it felt like receiving a letter from the dead. Absurdly, I was afraid of what it might contain—a possible rebuke or, more bizarre, a profession of love.

"You know, I don't think we would have ever been friends on the outside," the letter began. "Two introverts who travel in such different circles are unlikely to cross each other's paths. So if you're ever looking for something positive that has come from prison, consider our friendship.

"I really hope that soon after I leave they get you on your way. This limbo they have you in is not fair and, I imagine nerve wrenching."

He went on to write that having sampled many of my desserts in the Officers' Mess, he agrees with the Assistant Warden that I have talent for baking and shouldn't be afraid to capitalize on it, or at least consider turning it into a side hustle, "to make a little extra dough"—a pun.

He ended by saying that whenever he eats a subpar brownie or pecan sandy, he will think of me and wonder if I'm not out in the world baking something far better, and promptly throwing it in the garbage because I'm not completely satisfied with it.