Eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine…
“Get this rat out of my damn cell!” My neighbor throws a deck of poker cards at a bulgy-eyed rodent the size of an orange. Bang! But his aim is shit and the sleek, furry Houdini escapes.
Mike and I burst into laughter hearing Alex scream.
Cuk Cuk Crnn… The crash gate to our unit rattles and slides open like a snake. I strain my ears in the silence. I can name every squeak, every man’s footstep.
“Who wants a shower?” yells Sanchez, a baby-faced officer with a high-pitched voice.
Mike shouts his answer from the far top corner of our two-story, ten-cell unit. He’s escorted to the shower in handcuffs that take more time to put on than walk there. The shower is a box of four tiled walls and a metal door with a window the size of a head. Its musty steam infects our pores.
Sweating, I flop back to my thin blanket on the bottom bunk and turn to Bill, my cell door. He looks like a victim stabbed by inmates gone crazy. Holes like those made from a .22 Smith and Wesson cover him like smallpox. I read him a draft of my new essay. I confide that I don’t like rats either.
Mike thumps on the shower door. He yells.
Hours pass until Sanchez shows up for a security check. Mike is furious. “You didn’t hear me banging?”
“No,” says Sanchez.
“If it was a fight, you’d run in here real quick, huh?”
“I could care less. Let’s go.”
I laugh at Mike still arguing with the cop. His cell door clangs, the lock turns, and I hear the slap of keys against Sanchez’s thigh as he leaves the unit.
I slump to the floor, back pressed against peeling-paint bricks that reek of contempt. I stare out the cell to a grey wall that towers over me like the pitbull I had as an infant. Mute and muscular. I see more shadows than actual people.
Ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two…
The fluorescent light flickers from its metal and plexiglass box sixteen hours a day like a test I can’t pass.
“What’s up?” I ask my neighbor. “Let’s play chess.” We call out moves for our paper pieces on lined cardboard squares. I start to forget my count.
The squeak of a strained cart and smell of dinner remind me. It’s watery potatoes, a burned hamburger the size of a hockey puck, broccoli stems, and a stale slice of cake on a three-sectioned mustard-colored tray filmed with bleach. Yum.
My thundering stomach makes me toss and turn at night. I hear my victims plead. Their voices tremor. My mind swarms. I feel like the trash trapped in the cracks of these walls.
I sit bolt upright, screaming. At the rats. At the confinement. At my remorse.
Ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety-five…