“Who am I? I am wretchedness.
My lords, I have a word to say to you.”
Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs
I woke up and found that my cell mate had hanged himself from the post of our bunk bed. Suspended there, motionless, knees bent, he stopped time: when the flow of things resumed, he’d hit ground, dust himself, wipe his brow, and head off to breakfast. But after I stared at him for a while, he seemed very permanent. His stiff back in its white T-shirt stopped looking so heavy, stopped weighing on the bedsheet noose. He became a picture of something hanging there.
I called the guards, who untied him and carried him off somewhere—out of prison, I couldn’t help thinking. To a funeral home, I guess, some place that made me envision the green and shiny outside world. I heard one of the guards saying Welch hadn’t left a note. It occurred to me how obvious that was—I would’ve been shocked if he had.
Welch had been in here for running a chop shop, taking in stolen cars, selling the parts. That’s about all I ever got out of him. He was one of the most irritating people I’d ever met, because nothing he said made sense. He mumbled and didn’t really like consonants, so the middles of his words were puffs of air. You could understand fragments, but never enough for meaning. He’d say something like, “used to get these waairpuffers bout like this.” Or, “them guys, west side, crairpuffded and that.” One sentence never related to another, and he’d turn away mid-stride and mutter something. The worst was when he’d laugh at the end of it.
I had no idea what Welch wanted in life, who he knew on the outside, or what he’d have to get depressed about. He never smiled or showed the kind of desires whose fulfillment could deliver a brief happiness. He just lived, and just died.
Alive, I had other fucking problems. I was being bullied into something by this mulatto, Renecke. He had given me a tip a few weeks before: if someone’s giving you shit–for any reason–find out all you can about his criminal expertise. If you spring on him some detail about, say, burglary, something not many guys know, you’ll seem knowledgeable in a spooky way, and he’ll respect and fear that enough to back off. In exchange for that, Renecke apparently thought I owed him a theft.
I had one of the cushiest jobs in prison, one they trusted only to assholes with the best behavior. The state manufactured all these little knickknacks and sold them at gift shops: replicas of the Mackinac Bridge, which linked the two peninsulas, things like that. They didn’t publicize it, but these were glued, snapped, or screwed together by us criminals. We sat at long tables, cranking them out. If you were doing something with screws that day, you’d get one of those skinny silver flatheads, and it had a band around it with a number. You’d write your initials on a sheet next to the number and then you’d have to hand in the flathead at the end of your shift, and the guard would cross off your initials. I guess no one had ever stabbed anyone with a flathead right there at the table, but you didn’t want to get caught with one outside. What Renecke wanted me to do was wait until the end of the shift when the guards had picked up the screwdrivers and slip one off the countertop when their heads were turned.
We’re all afraid of Renecke because he’s in good with a few of the guards. He has a hot girlfriend on the outside, and she’ll take naked pictures of herself—really graphic ones—doing things specially requested by the guards. Renecke hands these out like candy, as many as the rules let her send at a time. Guards love that kind of stuff, things they wouldn’t dare try themselves. It got him out of stabbing this douchebag named Hardy—one of the guards Renecke was friends with was the only witness. He denied being there, and when Hardy complained, he ended up in solitary on a bogus assault charge. Renecke apparently wasn’t in good with any C.O. who could get him a flathead, but you didn’t want to mess with someone like him.
I don’t even know he’s a mulatto. He’s of no race, somehow, and that adds to his aura. He has skin the color of a cardboard box and short, kinky hair almost the same color. He kind of talks black, but not Ebonics. Some of the cons are sure he’s white and some sure he’s black. He just says that millions of years ago, he was a saber-toothed tiger, and that none of his lives between then and now have made a single impression.
The day Welch killed himself, I went to work and whined to my friends Elliot and Puller about my dilemma. Some people were talking about Welch, and some weren’t. P, E, and I had discussed it at breakfast.
“There’s no reason for me to take that kind of risk for Renecke,” I said. A radio played smooth jazz as a backdrop to the suicide discussions.
“Nail on the head,” Puller told me, canting his shoulders thoughtfully. He was sitting next to me, and I could smell the Stetson cologne his nine-year-old niece had brought on a visit. I could never decide if he was wearing it from respect for her or if he was the kind of guy who couldn’t see what was wrong with wearing cologne in the pen.
So he was on my right, and across from me was Elliot, with his unfortunate hair color, orange, like our jump suits, except a lot paler. And his thin beard, a bit browner. He was always grimacing into the bridges and paper weights we were snapping together, like they were giving him trouble. I think he was grimacing from the perplexing thoughts he almost always had, and was trying to make it look like it was the work.
“Maybe you can find someone who owes you a favor,” Elliot said. “Make him get shanks for Renecke.”
Actually, Renecke had told me he wasn’t planning any violence with the flathead, but that he’d “acquired” something from another inmate that he wanted to modify before trading—I guess so it wouldn’t be identifiable as the thing he’d stolen. I figured he’d probably use it for that and to shank the guy who was standing nearest him when his next tantrum struck. I didn’t tell P and E any of this, though, because it would just drag out the conversation.
“Nah,” Puller finally said. “you can’t bring another guy in on Renecke’s plans. That would get you in more trouble. You basically have to tell him he’s going to have to give you a lot more than half-assed advice in return.”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want,” I said.
We kept working. I was screwing together models of the bridge, and P and E were assembling snow-filled globes with the village of Frankenmuth inside.
I looked at Puller. “I want to not owe him anything. I’ll probably have to do this, and then hope he never asks me again.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Puller said, “listen. You can’t go around hoping. Tell him flat out you’re not going to do it. You think he’s going to stab you? How long do you think he can keep getting away with this? Do you think the guard who helped him when he shanked Hardy was happy about putting himself out there like that? Fuck that. I guarantee you, that whole group of guards has told him to knock shit like that off. They might be friends with him, but they’re watching him now, and if they need to fuck him to cover their own asses, they won’t hesitate. And he knows this. He’s already used his free stabbing, my friend.”
Things were different with Welch gone. It was the first time in prison I started feeling lonely. On the outside, I didn’t have a girlfriend or anything, didn’t have any real friends, just the people I dealt to. Prison was a big improvement for my social life. But when I started sleeping in the cell by myself, no breathing beneath me, I started having these loneliness attacks I’d had on the outside. I’d forgotten about them, and when they returned, they were exactly the same. What they were like was: my chest would tighten, the skin on my face would pull taut, my stomach would slump and feel empty. And my head would turn to liquid, like the whole thing was crying. I felt like some scourge was assaulting me, a virus that attacked single people but was harmless against two people intertwined. The longer it had been since you’d had someone in your arms, the more vulnerable you were. I would die from it.
Once, when I was parked somewhere in my cab late at night, having gotten some fast food, having opened the package and gotten all the condiments in place, as soon as all was still and I began eating, an attack came on. It filled the cab. I dabble in story-writing, but that night I wrote a poem.
Loneliness is biting into a cheeseburger
Loneliness is chewing the meat
Loneliness is swallowing
I supposed all the guys in here were having their own attacks, missing their wives and girlfriends and kids and all that, some of them sleeping alone for the first time in decades. But realizing that didn’t help—it of course made me feel worse for never having had anyone to miss, and made me feel shame for having had the attacks on the outside. Goddamn Welch. His smell was gone. That was what it was, what made the cell most empty. Welch had this walnutty smell, and I was having a fuck of a time going on without it.
After the night of the cheeseburger poem, I did something that shocked me. I put out an ad on craigslist:
I will pay two hundred dollars for you to hold me for twenty minutes.
This is not a joke or a scam, I am completely sincere. I am
not looking for, and will not try to talk you into anything else.
This is not about sex. I have gone without hugs or
holding for too long. All I ask is that you put your arms around
me and let me put mine around you and stay that way for
twenty minutes. It is not illegal to be paid for a hug.
As you’d imagine, the ad got me a lot of abuse. I got a bunch of insults, speculations as to the depths of my loserhood, speculations about my morbid obesity, and cocksure claims that this was indeed a hoax.
But, finally, someone responded seriously, saying she understood what I was going through and that she felt for me and could use the money. I sent her a picture, hoping it would help, at least to make me seem actual. I weigh more than three hundred pounds, and my face bears acne scars, but it is a kind face nonetheless, and I knew she was somehow imagining worse. I didn’t hear from her for a few days, and I started to fear I couldn’t even buy a moment of companionship when she e-mailed me and said she’d do it. We set it up for a few days from then, a Sunday.
What happened on that Sunday was me opening my door, a very typical-looking woman in her early fifties walking in, looking around, she and I on my sofa, embarrassed glances toward each other, brave small talk, kind reassurance, loud silence, until finally, maybe five minutes in, she jumped up, shouted “I’m sorry!” slapped my bundle of cash into my chest, and walked out.
And that was the most recent time I considered doing what Welch ended up doing. I can’t explain why I didn’t—it’s stupid, really. I just didn’t feel like it. It didn’t seem unnecessary, it just didn’t seem like the best thing to do somehow—I couldn’t picture it, even as I held a bottle of sleeping pills.
A few days later we were all sitting around at work, and I was trying to decide whether or not I was going to keep my eyes peeled for an opportunity to get a flathead. This guy, Jurgens, was fidgeting and moaning the whole time because of his tattoo. Someone had held him down and put this tattoo of a Diamond, like on a playing card, on his chest. This is supposed to signify a snitch, though I’m not sure why. Anyway, the guys did a quick and shitty job, and Jurgens got raspberries all over his chest.
Finally, he lost it and stood up and started shouting all this crazy shit, not really looking at anyone.
“You were always going to Toledo!” he screamed. The dudes around were kind of smirking, kind of scared. “Going to see that Sally! That was her name, right, Sally!”
Some big Hispanic guy muttered something that made Jurgens bulge his eyes and then lunge at him across the table. Plastic started flying, the guards came over, everyone started yelling, and when I looked between two cons, something glimmered at me from the shipping room: a flathead, sitting out on the table. I walked over, palmed the flathead, and brought it back to the table. As the guards were hauling Jurgens away, I put the screwdriver under my pantleg and taped it to my ankle.
That night, I had an attack. I fell into a shallow sleep around midnight, and had a dream in which a groundhog was in my cell, sweeping the floor with his belly, humming, in a beautiful soprano, some old Broadway tune. He would look over at me every so often and wink, and keep gliding around the cell, giving off the scent of pumpkin pie.
Waking up to no groundhog was harsh. My stomach deflated, I began to shiver, I started feeling violated by the air around me, started kicking to ward it off. I could taste the cheeseburger of my poem. I didn’t just want someone in bed with me, I tried to picture her. I saw faces, hair, bodies, but I knew they’d never share a bed with me—they just vanished. And if I tried calling one back, she’d get crowded by a new one, who would make an embarrassed face and disintegrate.
I got up and paced for a while, shaking. I gripped the bars, paced, lay back down, got up and paced again, and finally slumped to the floor. I sat there for a long time with this throbbing in my forehead, not thinking anything; just throbbing. Finally, when I knew it was getting close to dawn, I found the screwdriver and taped it to my ankle, thinking about precise points at which you’d have to hit someone, feeling not very real.
On the way to breakfast, wiping the sleep from their eyes, a bunch of the cons in front of me in the herd were talking about the guys who tattooed Jurgens. They said they’d made the ink from guitar string. Renecke came up behind me and squeezed me hard on the shoulder. The screwdriver was warm against my skin.
“It’s us against them,” he hissed. “I need that thing I need, and if you drag ass on it, it makes me think you’re not with me.” This us versus them shit was more bullshit I didn’t understand. It was the first I’d heard of it from Renecke, too.
We marched to the end of the corridor and into the lobby outside the mess hall, where the bodies could fan out a bit.
“Look, Renecke, you seem pretty well connected—“ he hit me with a look to shut me up, but we were in a bubble inside the loud voices, and I wasn’t talking that loudly anyway, so I went on. “It’s not as easy as you’d think—“
“This is just what I was telling my girl,” he said. They were serving defrosted hash browns as always, and that day, cinnamon buns. “She gets mad whenever I—but is it really my fault? I mean, can you honestly say that you’re not pushing me—“
“You want me to push you?” I said. “You mulatto fuckhole, you wanna see—“
He grabbed me and pushed me forward, colliding me with a couple other guys, until we ended up out of everyone’s way, backed up against the soda machine. He looked at me incredulously, but then it became angrier, his upper lip shaking.
I wanted and didn’t want to go for the flathead. I felt light, not all the way in myself, but I didn’t want the consequences of what I might do. And I swore I heard someone say, plain as day, “it’s all right.” It was the way an uncle would say it when you were five and had spilled on your bike, like he’d say when he’d put his big hand on your shoulder. Renecke’s lips were quivering, his pupils shrinking, and I felt this nice hand, the gentlest hand I’d ever felt, on my shoulder.
“Welch says to give you this,” I said, lifting my arms and putting them around Renecke. The next few seconds, I’m probably not remembering in order. I remember Renecke saying “I don’t want any of this dead-guy shit,” and one of the guards saying Welch’s name. I remember laughter, confused syllables from the cons. I remember saying, “just a few more seconds.” I remember Renecke smelling of wood, like a picnic table, his back more hollow between the shoulders than you’d think; I remember all these arms around my back and shoulders, layers and layers of them.
I don’t know how Welch could’ve acquired the spirit to lead these legions, but they were gentle and they breathed life while Renecke’s hands hung limp at his sides. Those of us still alive, who haven’t done it yet, that’s what keeps us going. There are so many things out there, rising, falling, swirling around us, sometimes holding us. Where do they come from? Where does just one of them come from?
Jeff Maehre lives in the city where he was born, after a thirty-five year period of sojourning. His work has appeared in STORY, the Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe. He holds an MFA from The University of California, Irvine.