When I was a boy, my father used to lock me in the closet. I spent hours in the dark. For a long time, until I grew older and added more days, hours, and minutes to my life, it felt like I had spent more time in that closet than I had in the real world. Maybe I shouldn’t say real because that closet was my reality. For the life of me, I can’t remember why he locked me in there so many times. Now, as a man in my fifties, I make up reasons that seem suitable. I spoke out of turn. I broke something. I neglected my chores. None of that sounds like me as a child. I was as obedient as a soldier. Maybe, really, my father just didn’t like me. He had a temper and he liked to drink. He preferred to be alone so he’d hide me. I used to sit there and see shapes and try to figure out who is who, what is what. I’d have to feel around just to feel, just to remember what it’s like to be a human. It was useless though, because it’s impossible to tell who is who and what is what in the blackness.
Inmate 45892-70 was not good at following orders. I wouldn’t say he was a bad inmate. He was good in that he never stabbed anyone with a pencil or rubbed his waste on his cell walls. But he was bad in that he seemed to have a personal vendetta with each and every CO. One day I asked Inmate 45892-70 why he didn’t just do as he was told. This was out of character for me. At Rikers (and everywhere else I have been and will go) I kept to myself and didn’t ask anything of anyone, but he got me riled up that day. He refused to go back into his cell after dinner. Inmate 45892-70 was a very slight man but it took me and another CO to get him back in his cell. That’s saying something because I am over six feet tall and weigh about two hundred pounds.
Once we got him in the cell, once I could catch my breath, I asked him, “Why can’t you just do what you’re told?”
And he said to me, “And why do you? Always do what you’re goddamn told to do?”
What I enjoyed most about being a CO was the enforcement of routine. I like a good routine. Doing the same thing day after day, it can save you from yourself.
In Vietnam, you had to follow orders. You simply could not be like Inmate 45892-70. One time, I did not follow orders in Vietnam. It was, of course, not intentional. I was so nervous in Vietnam, all the time. Though I kept my mouth shut, inside I felt like a dog on the fourth of July. I was in constant terror, constantly shaking. I would hear these earthquake sounds in the distance and wonder what they were, how close they were getting. When would the world open up and allow me to fall in? The sounds were so loud, even when the jungle was silent, so it was hard for me to hear the lieutenant most of the time. One of those times, my mishearing forced me to go the wrong way. I got separated from my platoon. I got lost in the jungle for hours.
Inmate 45892-70 did not serve in Vietnam. I could tell, almost right away. He was no soldier but I did not peg him for a coward either. If anything, he was a loser. He got himself locked up for second degree assault. He beat a man badly, pistol whipped him, and the only reason he walked away was because he thought the man was dead. Inmate 45892-70 was the kind of man who left a job unfinished not because he was lazy, but because he was cocky. I imagined that his whole life was followed by a trail of unfinished work. What’s worse, I felt that he expected other people to finish it for him or to at least congratulate him on a job half-assed done. His job was maintenance. He would fix a clogged sink so the water would go down a little faster, but not completely. He’d fix a toilet so it would flush half the time.
And he’d always say, “What more do you want? You should be thanking me that I fixed it at all. You can’t turn shit into gold.”
I would look at him and say, “You’re right. You can’t.”
One night I dreamt that I had set Inmate 45892-70 free. We were in a place that was nowhere in particular. It looked like a field of some sort with tall grass that moved like a river. I took off his handcuffs and he looked at me like a confused pup, his face thin, his body a hanger for his oversized orange jumpsuit.
“Go,” I said.
He didn’t move.
“You’re free now! Go on, get!”
He smiled like a child and then turned around and ran, ran, ran. He ran faster than I ever thought possible, until I shot him in the back of the head.
The day that Inmate 45892-70 pissed on me, I used my favorite catchphrase on him, “Piss all you want, I get to go home at the end of the day, buddy.” I would say that when inmates would squirt their feces out of toothpaste bottles at me. I would say it when inmates would give me lip. I would say it when they would start fights, misbehave, or when they weren’t doing anything at all. I said it all the time to the point where I even believed it myself.
One day Inmate 45892-70 told me about his son. A little boy, the same age as my own son. He said that he didn’t know much about his boy, that he got put away just a little while after he was born. The “bitch” of a mother would not allow the boy to visit him in prison. “‘Prison is no place for a boy,’ that’s what she says to me, you believe that?” I do believe that, I wanted to respond, thinking of the closet. Instead I said nothing. That was one rule I gave myself about Inmate 45892-70, do not engage with him because he will not stop.
Julian has always been a difficult boy. Even when he was a baby, he was not a happy one. Kelly was, she laughed more than she cried. She smiled, a lot. And I loved her, still love her, but when she was a baby I had a hard time. I had a hard time believing she was mine, part of me, that I made her. I loved her for being nothing like me. But when Julian was born, I felt something even more scary than a disconnection. When I first held Julian and he was wailing his head off, it was like I was holding my soul itself.
It wasn’t quite like looking into a mirror of the past. I didn’t believe that Julian was my reincarnate. Instead, I felt like he was the blood and flesh of all the pain inside me. He was a restless baby, he cried all the time. Nothing ever made him happy. Sometimes, as foolish as this is, I wondered if he just acted fussy to make me miserable. Or to make me realize I was miserable.
I stayed out at the bar to avoid him sometimes. That would backfire because Colleen would tear into me. She was right though, Julian was a two-man job, minimum. For example, he would starve himself, to the point where he became dehydrated. So dehydrated that his soft spot sunk in a bit. One night, I got up to hold him because he was crying so much. Colleen became immune to his wails. As I held him to my chest, I ran my finger over the soft spot. It was almost as small as my finger. In that moment, a strange impulse came over me to push my finger into the soft spot. End it all. Instead, I put him back in his crib so fast it felt like I had thrown him. He was silent after that. I left the house and didn’t return until the next day after work. Colleen and Kelly didn’t even notice, being that some days I worked a five a.m. shift at the prison.
While I was at work that day, I took my lunch break in an empty cell. I didn’t eat, I just rubbed my thumb against my index finger, recalling the texture of my son’s scalp. I felt nothing in life until that boy was born. I felt nothing until that moment, when my finger ran over his half-finished head. That feeling I did not feel again until Inmate 45892-70 got arrested and landed himself a cell in my ward. Inmate 45892-70 made me sick to my stomach, and I wasn’t sure why.
The closet had hands. Sometimes, when I think real hard, there is something else in that closet with me. It smells like my father, whiskey and sweat, and breathes heavy like him too, but when I feel, it doesn’t feel human. When it feels me, I wonder if it thinks the same thing.
Inmate 45892-70 had eyes that cut through me. They were the color of ice. Not clear ice that you put in a drink, but ice that comes from glaciers. They say that glacier ice really isn’t blue, it just looks that way to the human eye. I had wondered if the same went for Inmate 45892-70’s eyes. Maybe they were clear and vacant but I saw them as blue. When I got lost in the jungle, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw a wolf. He was so close to me, so unafraid. His eyes were the color of a glacier.
I am not a man who makes deals but I am also not a man of low tolerance. In Vietnam, I cut a bullet out of me with my own knife. Somehow, Inmate 45892-70 was more painful than that. When Inmate 45892-70 would not make his bed, would not wake up on time, and refused to brush his teeth so the rot of his mouth would cause me to gag, something inside me vibrated so loudly. It was louder than the earthquakes in Vietnam.
So I told Inmate 45892-70, “You behave, and I will make life easier for you.”
Inmate 45892-70 agreed. I snuck in cigarettes for Inmate 45892-70. I did his maintenance jobs.
I allowed him extra leisure time. In exchange, Inmate 45892-70 did not act like a child and I slept a little easier at night.
Inmate 67730-45 cut his hand with a shank and came after me, not with the shank but with his bloody hand. This was hours after finding out he was HIV positive. His plan was to put his wounded hand over my mouth until I was forced to suck his diseased blood. It didn’t work. Inmate 67730-45 was transferred to the psych ward and then to the AIDs ward, and Inmate 45892-70 was left without a cellmate.
“Lonely in there?” I asked Inmated 45892-70.
“Na, I enjoy the silence. But there is an empty bunk if you ever get the urge to join me.”
He was sitting on the top bunk, one leg dangling over.“I’ll pass,” I replied, swallowing hard at my idea of hell.
“I sure hope you didn’t share no needles with your buddy Jenkins or else I’m gonna have to send you to the infirmary,” my body tightened with excitement, “I know you were getting your dope from him.”
“I don’t use no fucking needles. I snort. Got the nose for it,” he said, pointing at his sizable nose.
“Is that a confession?”
“I don’t know, is it? You tell me,” he smiled cockily, almost as if he was trying to court me, and then he continued, “Plus, Jenkins didn’t get HIV from needles. He was a fag.”
“I’ve never seen him with any of the other inmates.”
“Yeah well, you can’t see everything. You ain’t God.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
He laughed a howling kind of laugh and then jumped down from his bunk.
“What if God was one of us,” he sang so loudly that his voice echoed a bit.
“Na, God would have to exist to be one of us,” he continued, “and he sure as shit don’t exist in Rikers. And if he did, he would’ve been shanked by now, ain’t that right officer?”
I shrugged as he propped his elbows on the cell bars and shook his head.
“To be honest, I never saw Jenkins with another man either. He never talked about it or anything like that. Shit, maybe he never fucked a man his whole life, maybe he did get sick from a needle. But I could tell he was a fag. I could just tell something was wrong with him,” he got up in my face, and I could smell his sweat through the bars, “He was heavy as shit with something he wasn’t strong enough to carry.”
There was a long pause of silence. He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head.
“Know what I mean?”
Prison has taught me many things. More things than religion has ever taught me. It taught me how to stay present because it didn’t matter who I was before a CO and it didn’t matter who I would be after my time as a CO. In prison, the only you that matters is the you now, the you that’s in the prison. The inmates do not care who you are, were, and will be outside those walls. It’s a microcosm where time does not matter. Once you accept this, being a CO is like transcendence. You have beaten time. You have let go of any notions of yourself. You are no better than how the inmates treat you. You are one and at peace.
Inmate 45892-70 started a rumor that Jenkins was a homosexual. This was nothing new; Inmate 45892-70 would often gossip about other prisoners. He would play childish games, tell one inmate one thing, and claim another inmate said another. He did this for his entertainment and did not stop even when we had our deal.
I reminded him, I said, “We have a deal. Now, honor it.”
“It’s not like I’m causing ya any trouble,” he said as he paced his cell.
“You’re gonna cause yourself some trouble. You want to get yourself killed?”
“By a bunch of rednecks? I don’t fucking think so.”
“Ray,” I said, pausing at the sound of his name in my mouth, it tasted like relief, “The Aryans are not to be messed with unless you want to get killed. Or worse.”
He stopped pacing and replied, “You know something, now that I think about it, I don’t even know your name. But you know my name.”
He stuck his greasy head between the bars and smiled.
I nodded, “Rizzo. Raymond Rizzo.”
“Yeah but my friends call me Ray-bies.”
“Is that a joke?”
“You find it funny?”
“The joke is that you have no friends.”
He cackled, “Who’s the comedian now?”
“I don’t know. But I know who the clown is.”
I started to walk away when he called out, “You know, I’m an orphan. I came into this world with nothing but a name.”
“Tell you what, I guess your name, I keep doing what I do, and you keep making things comfortable for me. If I don’t, then I’ll behave and you stop doing shit for me.”
“Deal,” I said, “But you only get one try.”
“Well then, I got nothing but time to mull it over.”
Why does everyone go around wondering: who am I? Shouldn’t they be asking: what am I? I will tell you what you are right now. You are a hole. Specifically, you are a keyhole like the many keyholes to cells in Rikers. You are always looking for something to fill the void without realizing that you, yourself, are the void. And keys come and go, some fit, some even twist, but only one will open.
After being a CO for a while, you start to be able to guess the prisoner’s crime. Inmate 83497-15: rape. Inmate 93245-09: robbery. Inmate 53478-82: drug use, dealing. And then, after a long while, you are able to apply this to your loved ones. My wife, Colleen: blackmail. My daughter, Kelly: aiding and abetting because she would never commit a crime but can’t say no to others. My son, Julian: aggravated assault. Possibly murder. Him, I’m still not sure of. Him, I’m not yet sure what he’s capable of. Him, the boy with a bit of the devil in him.
It was my lucky day when Ray-bies spit in my face. I don’t know why he did. I probably don’t remember because the reason was trivial, as were all of Inmate 45892-70’s deeds. The glob landed on my lips and seeped in between. I could taste Inmate 45892-70. Not just his hot breath but all of him. Where he had been and where he was going. Like I got a chance to roll his DNA around on my palette. Like if I had really taken the time, I could have figured out where each of his trillions of cells came from, what they were used for, when they were going to die. With this new information in my mouth, I pitied him. I actually didn’t want to put him in the hole but I was instructed to do so. So I did so.
And when I did, my God, did I feel something. I tossed his limp body no different than the way you’d throw out the trash. I saw him in that box, and he was all skin and bones. Nothing but skin and bones. He looked like a dog from an ad about animal abuse. A dog begging for charity. But that wasn’t what got me. It was the four walls. Seeing him surrounded by all four walls, why everything made sense. You put something in a cage when you want to break it. Not to contain it.
The real punishment of prison is the lack of privacy. You are the things you do in private. If you never have privacy to do those things, well then you are always putting on a show. You are never truly yourself. There is no greater punishment than being stripped of yourself.
The closet wasn’t private at all. Sometimes, when I think real hard, there wasn’t a place to be alone in that closet. There was no place to hide. I was exposed.
As I escorted Inmate 45892-70 from solitary back to his cell, he asked me, “You don’t like me much, do you?”
“No,” I replied as blunt as I could.
“You don’t follow the rules.”
“No one follows the rules in this fucking place.”
“Yes, but you don’t follow even the smallest of rules. You have no reasoning behind your actions.”
“So it’s reason that gets to ya, huh? How ‘bout you big guy? You always follow the rules?”
“I try my best to, yes.”
“Uh huh, I see. And how’s that working out for you?”
“Just fine,” I said, my throat tightening with rage.
“Yeah, I guess that’s why you’ll be in prison even longer than I will be.”
I scoffed at his nerve, “But I’m the one with the pension.”
“Good one officer,” he replied through a booming laugh, “You’re right, a pension is much better than freedom.”
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. Why, I can’t even remember the last time I confessed,” I said to the prison chaplain.
There was no confessional booth so we sat in his office, back to back.
“You seem nervous,” he replied, “There’s no need to be.”
“I’m afraid that there is. You see, it’s my son. I’m not even sure if this is a sin or what. I just have no one else to talk to about this.”
“What is it?”
“He’s just a little boy, only ten years old but he misbehaves. A lot. More than other kids. The doctor says he has behavioral problems but I think it’s worse than that…I think he may be possessed by the devil.”
As soon as I confessed it, I regretted it. The chaplain’s long silence only reassured my regret.
“What makes you draw this conclusion?”
“Father, I don’t know. I mean, I have no real evidence to back this up but I feel it. I feel it in my gut. I’ve always felt it.”
“What’s your confession, exactly?”
“I don’t know, but I’m afraid for his soul. The devil aside, he’s really a good boy.”
“Sometimes, we think we are afraid of something else but really, we are afraid of ourselves. You understand?”
“Let me ask you this then: if this is a problem of your son’s, then why are you the one in confession?”
Before I could answer, an alarm went off. One of the inmates had killed himself.
In prison, everything is a cavity. Every cell, every anal sphincter, penis hole, ear hole, nostril, mouth, shower drain, toilet bowl. Prison is not about what’s there, it’s about what’s missing. I’ve spent more than half of my life looking into a cavity with a flashlight, trying to figure out what’s not there. It’s given me permanent tunnel vision, so much so that when it happened to Inmate 45892-70, all I could see was that he deserved it and nothing else. All I could see was that I wanted it to happen and nothing else. When it happened, he called out to me. He did not call my name of course because he hadn’t guessed it. He called out to me because he saw me standing, right there. Watching and not preventing. Watching and refusing to help, get help, or ring the alarm. I studied him as his body dipped below the men like a buoy at sea, not quite drowning but not quite floating either. I saw the red go down the shower drain. And I saw all of him, everything I had tasted in his spit. Stem cells. Bone cells. Blood cells. Muscle cells. Fat cells. Skin cells. Nerve cells. Endothelial cells. Sex cells. Pancreatic cells. Cancer cells. Prison cells.
If I were to be any kind of criminal it would be a thief. A thief with his hands cut off so he couldn’t even grasp the bars of his cell.
One night I dreamt that Inmate 45892-70 set me free. It was the morning I woke up in Vietnam, the time where I got separated from my platoon. I woke up to those same eyes except that time it was in the form of Inmate 45892-70. He wore a uniform just like me and he had a gun too.
“Go,” he told me, “Run into the jungle.”
I stood up on my tired legs.
“No,” I replied, my eyes on his gun.
“What do you mean no? You’re free! Go on, get! Go!”
I paused and then said, “Only if you promise that you’ll shoot.”
“You’d rather be dead than free?”
“No, no,” I replied, shaking my head, “Don’t you see? There’s no difference between the two.”
Inmate 45892-70 spent weeks in the infirmary. When he returned to his cell, he lay in his bunk because he could not physically sit in it anymore, couldn’t sit and dangle his leg over like an arrogant fool. I asked him if he had guessed my name. “Yes,” he said through bruised lips,
“You’re the devil. This place is hell.”