Mr. Winky

"I believe these are for you," I said tossing the photos on the cook's bunk.

Though the envelope had arrived addressed to me, I knew from its contents that it belonged to the cook. Inside are photos of women in various states of undress, kneeling, pouting, bending, spreading. But what struck me wasn't the nudity but the women's bellies, nearly all of which were bulbous and green-veined, the naval popping like turkey thermometers.

"You sent me pictures of pregnant women," I said. "You couldn't have ordered me swimsuit models or busty babes—something respectable? The mail room cop is going to think I'm a pervert."

A fair assessment considering my criminal charge. Still, I felt misrepresented.

"And look here, what is this?" I pulled from the pile a photo of a smiling young black woman lying on her back, knees folded into her chest, the light undersides of her feet exposed to the air. In yoga we call this pose "happy baby."

"Oh that," the cook said smiling wolfishly. "I might have ordered you some foot fetish pics as well."

Three months ago, in need of cash, the cook and Sonny decided to begin hustling porn. To be sure, the Bureau bans anything too explicit—nipples, genitals penetration, bodily fluids. Sonny contributed his personal collection of Asians and female body builders to the venture, and from that modest investment the duo grew their empire, buying, selling, and trading their way to financial success. Within their first month of business they netted a cool grand. "I should have started sell porn years ago," the cooked said counting a pile of stamps.

Recently the cook decided their inventory could use an infusion of fresh stock. He ordered for Sunny and himself a mass of photos from one of a number of services that sells races pics and mags to incarcerated men and women. The hitch was that the mail room allows inmates tp receive only twenty photos at a time, so the cook decided, as much for a prank as for logistical reasons to have the surplus material sent to me. Which is how I came to be in possession of twenty pregnant and foot-flirty women.

I pushed the prenatal porn aside and sat down on the end of the cook's bunk. He was in the middle of organizing inventory, separating photos into albums by price.

"What do you think of this one?" He held up a woman lying on a tacky teal bed covering, white panties wedged in her crotch.

I looked away. "She's got a cute face."

The cook took a second look. "She'd be cuter if she didn't have those stretch marks." He slipped the photo into an album with the other two-stampers. Ideal women with trim figures, full breasts, and pretty faces go for three to four stamps a piece. Less than ideal women go for two. And women deemed too fat or flat-chested or ugly sell for one stamp.

"What about this one?" The cook said holding up a redhead in fishnet stockings. "Look at the size of that nose. And check out that belly." He added the redhead to a stack at his feet. "The one-stampers don't warrant their own album but are loosely bound with a rubber band.

Lately I'd begun to wonder after four years of friendship whether the cook and I, as different as we are, could have ever become friends on the outside. Could Sam and I for that matter have become so close in the free world? Or had we only formed these alliances out of necessity, in the mutual interest of self-preservation, survival?

"So get this," said the cook. "Mays came to me yesterday wanting to offload his entire collection."

Like me, Mays was serving a twelve-year sentence for downloading child pornography. He was on of the cook's and Sonny's regulars, always hanging around the cook's bunk, poring over the same merchandise he'd seen the day before.

"I bought the pictures off him for two stamps apiece. Then an hour later he decided he wanted the pictures back, so I sold them to him for double what I paid." The cook leaned in dropped his voice.

"It's like these guys are addicts. I feel like I'm a drug dealer."

"Mays is an addict," I said frowning. "You are a drug dealer."

I wasn't shy in expressing my distaste for the cook's new hustle. The business of pandering to addicts and auctioning off women depressed me. Watching men flip through those greasy plastic sleeves was like holding up a mirror to my own gruesome addiction. The reflection made me uneasy. But what made my stomach lurch was knowing that if the cook were to reach into the back of his locker and, with a lascivious wink, produce an album of a different sort, one offering up a harder, more illicit drug, I wasn't sure I wouldn't pay three, six, ten stamps a hit. Because a decade in prison doesn't break a habit; a life sentence doesn't fix what's broken. My biggest fear is that I may get out of prison in a month but never be free.

I said as much to the cook when he asked if I wanted to get in on the hustle. He'd offered to order a stock of male pictures and have me sell exclusively to the compounds sizable gay and transgender market. I turned him down telling him I didn't trust myself to keep pictures. "It's too slippery a slope," I said. "You don't put an addict in charge of the supply."

He respected my decision to steer clear of pornography, though that didn't deter him from sending me nude pregnant women, or by introducing me to his customers as his fastidious boss, the brains of the porn outfit, Mr. Winky.

"Have you met Mr. Winky? Mr. Winky here runs a tight ship, isn't that right, Mr. Winky? Yes sir, business is going real well today, sir. Lots of sales. Gonna make Mr. Winky a rich man."

In response to this bit the customer would raise an eye, give me the once-over, trying to reconcile the figure before him with that of a porn mogul before deciding the cook was only kidding and return to perusing the merchandise.

I couldn't be too offended by all the ribbing—the Mr. Winky routine, the unsolicited pregnancy photos, or the night the cook covered the entire outside of my locker with nudie pics to create a sort of billboard advertisement. He was generous with his wealth, buying us tamales on weekends from his pisa neighbor and the occasional cheesecake. He was also contributing over $100 for our upcoming Christmas Eve meal. Every year we cover the cook' bunk with newspaper and lay out a nacho spread big enough to feed a dozen people. This year, however, with the stress of CAVID and the worsening of his father's cancer, the cook had considered canceling our holiday tradition. But since it would be our last Christmas spent in prison, I talked him into celebrating with a smaller meal for only a handful of people.

"Here's what you'll need to buy for the meal." He handed me a scrap of paper. "It's not much, just chili, beans, and squeeze cheese. Say, what do you think of this chick?"

The cook produced from the on-stamper collection a photo of a midget in a G-string and boots.

"Nice,: I said pocketing the shopping list. "The snake skin brings out the color of her eyes."

The next morning the cook and I went shopping. Scores of men ran past us to be among the first shoppers in line, jumping railings and handling the cacti hedge planted year's earlier to stop inmates from cutting across the lawn. The weather was blustery, the temperature only a few degrees above freezing, the wind biting. We stood for two hours in the courtyard waiting for our names to be called over the loudspeaker. It was as if Mother Nature knew it would be my last time shopping at the commissary and so conspired to make the experience ever more insufferable than usual.

Standing in the cold the cook and I got to talking about dreams. Not surprisingly mine had been increasingly turning to the free world. Nights before I dreamt I was driving down a quiet highway late at night, the city lights shimmering and complicit. Is there a greater symbol of freedom in the Western world than the car? The pleasure was short-lived, however, for it occurred to me with a start that I'd missed the ten o'clock count. I woke up feverish, fearing I'd returned to prison before realizing I hadn't yet left.

"Oh, I have that one all the time," said the cook stomping his feet for warmth.


"I spend the whole night tossing and turning scrambling to ge back to the prison in time for cunt. I also dream I can't find my cell phone. Or I'll find it, but when I try to enter a URL into the web browser the buttons don't work."

"I have that dream , too!" I cried. I didn't add that the URLs in my dreams are almost always that of porn sites.

The PA clicked on and my name was called. At the window an unsmiling officer rung up my groceries, flung them through a hole in the cage. I swept soap and razor blades, the same brands I'd been buying for the past decade, into my laundry bag. I'd been having many dreams of shopping too, for menial things like clothes, ice cream, face wash. The dreams aren't entirely pleasant. The isles stretch for miles, the shelves scale mountains, and I awake overwhelmed and anxious from all the choices. Should I buy the face wash that cleanses and restores or one that clarifies and moisturizes?

Outside the commissary I rifled through my bag, cursing. "They were out of beans and squeeze cheese."

The cook said not to worry. "I'll buy it off the store guy. I'll pay for it with porn money."

That evening I called home to ask my father for his driver's license and license plate numbers. I'd need this information for him to be able to pick me up. Ten years ago he dropped me off in Yazoo City. Now he insists on picking me up come February. There's a beauty to this symmetry.

On the kitchen line my mother told me she'd found my clothes in the attic, but there was a problem.

"Everything's disintegrated. The elastic I your underwear is shot, your sneakers have shriveled up, your shirts are unraveling." She said she'd been shopping online for a small replacement wardrobe but needs my sizes. "You know styles have changed. Men are wearing their jeans fitted and tapered now. Still, I was looking at your ld jeans and there's no way you're a thirty-thirty. That's much too small."

My mother and I have been having this argument since I was a small boy. She's always bought me clothes two sizes too big, swearing they'll shrink to nothing in the wash.

"And anyway," she continued, "your size has probably changed. Can't you have your measurements taken?"

"Sure, Ma. I'll just go to my haberdasher."

Only it turns out that Sam did have a tape measure, procured from Laundry, and he knew from once having been an executive who kept a tailor. Only once have I had my measurements taken, for my court appearance. I stood tall beside Sam's bunk while he ran the tape down my legs and around my chest, scribbling numbers. He did so sitting in a chair because his knee that night had been especially swollen. After waiting more than three years for medical attention he finally saw a doctor last week via video conference. The doctor told Sam he'd be put on a waiting list to get an MRI but said he'd probably be released long before he gets the surgery he needs. I said, "But Sonny, you have six years left in your bid." Sam said nothing. He wasn't angry or upset, only resigned.

I felt guilty to be going to my friend talking about clothes and asking him to take my measurements. And yet I was giddy because Sam's ministrations and my mother's fussing ver pant sizes made it all seem real. I'm really getting out. My life is really beginning.

Sam stretched out his bad leg, wincing, and consulted his notes. "Your mother was right. You're not a thirty. You're a thirty-two."

Come Christmas Eve the cook and I began preparing our meal at noon. The cook borrowed a stinger from the tamale guy and submerged it in a bucket of salted water behind his bunk. He hung a mesh laundry bag just above the simmering water to create a basket and covered the whole thing with a blanket to keep the steam in. While the beans, chili and meats warmed, the cook and I prepped the pico, he chopped the onion with metal can lid and I slicing jalapeños with a razor blade.

"Will you live in Dallas?" asked the con.

I'd considered moving out of state. There's something alluring about starting over in a new city where no one knows you. Only, my family is in Dallas.

"My parents are getting old," I said. "I'd like to stay nearby to take care of them."

"That's noble," said the cook.

"It made me cringe to think of my mother climbing up into that attic to get my shit down—my possessions, I mean." I figured I needed to start watching my language before rejoining the civilized world.

"I'm fortunate," said the cook, "that my brother's been around to take care of my own father, what with his illness." The cook's father has blood cancer and dementia. Even thought the cook was granted release to a halfway house in July, he's afraid with his father's deterioration he might not live that long. So the cook submitted a motion for early compassionate release, but the odds of him getting out of prison before July are slim. Every time he gets an unsolicited page from the lieutenant's office for a random piss test his face turns stony, fearing bad news from home.

"And do you have any jobs lined up?" Will you return to computers?"

I flicked the blade through the jalapeño. A seed smacked my cheek. "My brother's fiancé's family has a restaurant, and they've offered me a job bussing tables, something to get me started. I don't know if my PO is going to allow me to use a computer or even a smartphone. My judge said I'd never use a computer again." My cheek stung from the jalapeño seed. "I'm sure it'll all work itself out."

The cook slid the chopped onion in a Tupperware and fished a tomato from his locker. "I'm not so sure," he said.

I looked at him. "Why do you say that?"

"I know you. You're too passive. You're like Switzerland. You're going to let that PO walk all over you and do whatever absurd thing he asks of you, without question, just to avoid rocking the boat."

I scoffed. "What exactly are you saying? I should do whatever I want?"

"No." The cook added the tomato pulp to the onion and sloshed lemon juice over the top from a plastic yellow wedge. "I'm saying you should do whatever you need to do to be successful. If you need to use a computer. If you need to move to a new city, a new district with a new PO, make the move. You're a smart, talented guy. Don't let them harass you and stick you with some second-rate life. Hire yourself a lawyer. Be your own advocate. Stick up for yourself, like you did that day with Salinas."

Year's ago our boss accused me of stealing, of all things, fry sauce from the Officers' Mess. I lost my cool, I'd pled guilty to being a pervert, but I wasn't a thief. Counter to my usual meekness I got in Saline's face, and had I not backed off when I did I might have wound up in the hole; his finger was poised over his radio. Oddly, after the incident Salinas warmed to me, treated me like a son, wishing me a good morning, joking with me, praising my work.

The cook stirred the jalapeño into the pico and handed me the spoon. "What do you think?"

I think I felt chastised and a little hurt. And found out. I'd been psyching myself up, telling myself that this would be easy; anything would be easy compared to the past ten years.

Now I wondered if the hardest part wasn't still ahead of me.

I tasted the pico and handed back the spoon. "Needs more lemon."