Edward Hagelstein

The New Guy’s Mess

The new guy diddy-bopped in holding his county-issued mesh bag of stuff. He was dressed like me: faded orange droopy pants and shirt, mismatched shower shoes, abused grayish socks. I was in the top bunk reading a paperback romance novel and paid him no mind.

When he finished wrapping sheets around his mattress he looked up at me for a while. “Why you reading that shit?”

I finished the paragraph and canted the book to the side to see him. “Try finding anything else.”

He looked at the cover some more and shook his head. I figured it was a good time to lay out the ground rules.

“New guy cleans the cell,” I said.

He looked at me like I was crazy. His name was Harklebush.

“It looks pretty clean now.”

“I’ve been doing it. I was the new guy.”

“You was the only guy.”

“Same thing. Now you’re the new guy.” I went back to Ashleigh, Bashfully.

After a day he told me why he was there and I told him why I was there. His was a convoluted story about renting a U-Haul truck to go see his girlfriend away at college because his car had a broken universal joint. He drove the U-Haul empty – so he says – and was rolling along I-75, smoking a joint, when two guys in a white sedan started tailing him, activated a yellow light on the roof of the sedan, and closed up on him.

Harklebush freaked out, thinking they were going to stop him and find the bag of weed in his pocket – so he says. He pulled over, bailed out, and ran into the woods.

Two hours and several miles later he walked up on a deputy running radar on a side road. Harklebush told him he was lost and running from the law but didn’t know who it was or why they wanted him. The deputy had him empty his pockets and out came the weed. Harklebush wasn’t the brightest bulb.

He had court scheduled for the next week. His arms were definitely scratched up like he’d been running through the woods, but I didn’t like his story. I figured it was more likely that he had something in that truck that he shouldn’t have. Like a lot more weed.

“Those yellow lights are what the highway safety people use. The ones that pick up trash on the side of the road,” I said. “Cops use blue.”

“I didn’t know that shit. A light’s a light.”

“Not all are created equal.”

“Why’d they come up fast on me then?”

“They probably couldn’t help it. A Yugo can overtake a U-Haul.”

“What’s a Hugo?”

“Why didn’t you just rent a regular car?”

“Ain’t too many Hertzes in my hood. U-Haul’s on the corner.”

My story was simpler. I punched an overbearing radicalized social worker in the throat that had been pestering me for weeks and finally tried to push past me to get into the trailer to fuck with my dying mother. Well she got her way, and here I was.

I got out a few days later, after the judge told me to stay away from social workers. The cell was getting pretty bad, so I was glad to go. Harklebush could mess up a cell quicker than anyone I’d ever seen. He was an indifferent cleaner and acted like he didn’t know how. He’d splash water around and leave it – like it was going finish the job by itself. It got to where I had to check for puddles before I hopped down from my bunk if I wanted to have a dry pair of socks.

My running mate Ralph came and got me. After we stopped at the hospice where my mother said she was glad to see me and then dropped back to sleep, Ralph said he had some new bar he wanted to show me out near the mall.

“MacFluffer’s. What kind of name is that?” I said when we pulled up in front of what used to be a pretty good Denny’s.

“The waitresses are hot,” Ralph said. His wife ran to three hundred pounds and favored tight clingy pastel pants, so I could see his point.

We ordered a pitcher, then another, and watched some college games. The waitresses were okay. Friendly enough, but biscuit-raised and a little too fleshy for me. Ralph had himself a good time, flirting with the enthusiasm of a middle-aged man with a clear conscience. I watched people drinking and eating, with their full heads of hair and chubby bodies as yet unravaged by cancer, and drank most of the second pitcher myself.

I’m a mean drunk, so when some innocent guy in a nice shiny golf shirt took too long to wash his hands in the men’s room and then looked at me in the mirror like I smelled bad I punched him in the throat too.

The guards gave me shit about setting a record for quickest recidivist and put me in the drunk tank overnight. I hoped the guy with the clean hands wasn’t a social worker.

After court the next afternoon I got sent back to general population with an aching soul. My mom wasn’t going to be around much longer, but I should have thought of that before grabbing a handful of golf shirt.

Harklebush was up in my bunk, smiling like he’d been waiting for me.

“Hey, new guy,” he said.

I looked at the crusty toilet, damp floor, and overflowing wastebasket. He had me there. I didn’t even bother to argue. I went to ask the guards for a sponge and mop.


Edward Hagelstein lives in Tampa, Florida. His short fiction has appeared in Phoebe, Drunken Boat, and The Whistling Fire.