Carl walked down the POD to his cell. His flip-flops—inmates called them shower shoes—alternately popped against his heel and slurped when his feet pressed wet foam against the stone floor. He moved slowly to minimize the noises, which embarrassed him. Showering in general unnerved him, although he had no need for worry. These weren’t open showers like in the movies where masses of naked, tattooed men huddled together and one might come up behind him and slap him on the ass or worse. Each shower had its own stall and door that closed but never locked. The six stalls were located back and to the left of the guard’s desk. Nothing would happen to him in a medium-security facility like this, not even if he wanted it to. Carl didn’t feel threatened, but shy like in high school when he couldn’t force himself to strip down after gym class, instead throwing his jeans on over his damp shorts. He preferred to shower when he came back from evening chow while most inmates were out on the rec yard.
He wore his nighttime sweats and everyday white tee, his prisoner number stenciled on each. No socks yet. He’d put them on when he could switch to a dry pair of sneakers—the flimsy blue ones he had been given on arrival rather than the good white ones he wore when he left the POD.
“Cell seven,” he shouted, his hand already on the door.
C.O. Plovis looked up from her crossword puzzle, nodded her pale, bony head, and buzzed his cell door.
“S’up, Carl,” Rawley said from his bunk. A big man, broad-chested and muscular, he looked childlike lying on his side in the cut, his khakis still on, his thick ankles crossed. Two legal pads lay in front of him on the black poly-fiber blanket. He was writing letters to two women at the same time. He wrote a lot of letters to a lot of women. “Hey, what’s another word for pirate?”
“You mean like a privateer?”
“No, not like a real pirate,” Rawley said, “but, you know, the essence of a pirate.”
“Oh, a swashbuckler, maybe? A buccaneer?”
“Swashbuckler … I like that, but no.”
“I want something more playful.”
Carl stepped around Rawley’s bunk and moved behind the metal wall into the bathroom area. He combed his hair by looking at himself in the polished-steel panel above the sink. Like a funhouse mirror, it left his forehead bulging as if he were an alien with a large brain. “How about rogue?” he said.
“That’s a good one,” Rawley said. “I’m writing that down.”
Carl had gotten used to being Rawley’s thesaurus. The guy didn’t have a large vocabulary, but he knew how to slick-talk ladies on paper and came up with interesting words to ask about, not the usual like most cons asking, “What’s another word for pecker? What’s another word for twat?” Carl paused to think about it. “More playful,” Carl said, pausing in the middle of his precise left-side part. “On the rogue side, there’s rascal, huckster, trickster. Those are more like carnies than pirates, I guess.”
“Well, I’m not really a pirate. I’m of a biker, like, you know, a land pirate.”
Carl laughed and finished off his hair. He headed for his bunk on the other side of the cell. “What would be a good word for a playful land pirate on a Harley? How about rapscallion? That a two-dollar word.”
“Rapscallion,” Rawley said, repeating it twice. “Perfect. I’m keeping that one.”
Carl never expected to be the living search engine in a southern West Virginia prison. On the outside, he taught literature classes at the community college in Summersville, proudly shouting, “From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” in front of a room half-full of bored nineteen-year-olds who were used to more entertaining things on YouTube.
Rawley said, “Now how do I amp it up?”
“Got any good ones in that lightning-quick brain?”
Carl didn’t go through the litany of possibilities. He thought about Rawley and the dozen women—probably women, at least—he corresponded with once a week or more. He hadn’t met any of them. He connected with each by mailing his information to a prisoners’ pen-pal service, which was like a dating app except with envelopes and stamps. The women wrote to him first, breaking the ice with a few friendly greetings or an occasional lewd suggestion. He wrote back to all of them, often flirting, occasionally serious as he shared his intimate history of drug abuse and violence, sometimes asking for a few bucks to be sent to his trustee account so he could buy something “sweet like you” on commissary. Rawley was wily, and Carl said as much.
“Wily? Like the coyote?”
“Sort of, but that’s Wile E. Coyote … his name.”
“I don’t know. Is that the way I want to describe myself?”
“It’s you,” Carl said. “Trust me.” He slipped on his shoes and headed for the cell door.
His name was Jimmy Early—James, actually, though Carl wouldn’t hear him referred to by that until later when the cops came. He was twenty-four, much older than Carl’s other students that semester, with gritty stubble that seemed neither to disappear nor grow and a white scar encircling his left eye that made him appear as if he wore a monocle. He dressed in jeans and tees with American flags or logos of rock bands on them. He never took notes, but stared straight ahead in a way that told Carl he paid closer attention to the teacher’s words than did anyone else. The other thing that drew Carl to him was that he could quote passages from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” not as if he had memorized them for a class so much as like he had spent many hours alone with them and come to love them in a way both intimate and sad. It was the same way religious people could summon up a passage from the Bible that seemed to fit with any situation. “I am old and young,” he recited one day during a discussion about what poetry is, “of the foolish as much as the wise, regardless of others, ever regardful of others, maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man.”
His classmates looked at him as if he were mad.
Carl thought it was beautiful and told him so. Maybe he sounded dewy-eyed or romantic with his praise. Perhaps he sent signals without intending them. Either way, Carl believed that that was where his troubles began.
When the C.O. buzzed the cell door open, Carl walked out into the dayroom, hoping to find one of the two POD phones available. Every Thursday at this time, he called his father in Alabama, just to maintain connection and feel remembered. The conversations didn’t amount to much. His dad would ask him how he was doing, knowing only the lightest truths would be revealed. Then, he’d talk about the weather—sunny, sunnier, sunniest—or how everyone in the family was fine except some cousin who had died. There were always dead cousins, many of whom Carl didn’t know. “It’s sunny and eighty-five today,” Carl Sr. would say. “I hear it’s cold and stormy in West Virginia. Do you get outside much? Well, I’m glad I’m not there.” By there, he meant the state, although prison, too, was implied.
Last time Carl and Carl Sr. spoke, it was ninety-three and humid in Alabama. Xander Hughes had died, although Carl couldn’t recall that name from any of the family reunions. And, of course, Uncle Sherman passed along his regards. That, too, was a common statement Carl Sr. spoke each week, right before “I want you to know we’re all praying for you, son.” At that point, the phone call turned religious as many often did, with Carl Sr. attempting to share some of his devout Southern-Baptist beliefs and Carl thankful his fifteen minutes of phone time were almost spent.
It would be the same tonight. A few degrees difference in temperature, perhaps. Another name added to the register. Pleasant greetings from Uncle Sherman and the promise of prayers. Then there would be either a brief lecture on the blessings of Christianity or a robotic feminine voice announcing that the phone call would end in sixty seconds.
Carl loved his dad, and he was glad to hear the old man’s friendly voice, but he didn’t want to discuss beliefs or doubts or repentance or anything on a parallel track. So, when he saw that both phones were occupied, it relieved him a little that he could put the conversation off awhile.
At one end of the POD, Kansas City—a nickname—stood hunched over the steel phone with the receiver hidden from view by an arm as though he wanted no one nearby to hear what he had to say. On the other end, Doug Jones sat in a blue plastic chair, his legs splayed in front of him, talking loudly: “I’ll be home soon, honey. You just go on and wait for me. Don’t go getting ideas.” He laughed as if his words were more of a joke than a threat.
Carl would come back later. The inane chat with his dad would leave him both happier and frustrated. There were many things about Carl that Carl Sr. didn’t know.
Carl hadn’t planned on a fling with Jimmy Early. He maintained a respectable distance from his students, never flirted, brushed aside their occasional innuendoes. Whenever one came to the office he shared with another adjunct, Carl left the door open and spoke loudly so that no rumors might be started by nosy office managers. Outside of class, he kept to himself, hanging out in lonely straight bars, a laptop in front of him, working on the novel he doubted he’d finish. Except with his closest friends, most of whom had moved out of state long ago, he didn’t discuss his sexuality, which he described as bi despite his not having been with a woman since grad school. Like with religion and politics, talking about it left him jittery, especially in West Virginia where the views of so many people had yet to catch up with the rest of the world.
“Good evening, Professor Zeist,” Jimmy Early said, having spotted Carl in corner shadows at Liam’s Irish Pub. There were only three other people in the bar, all old white men drinking away their contempt for modern life.
Carl looked up, surprised to see his former student—Jimmy had left school mid-semester without a word to anyone. “Hello, Jimmy,” he said, in a tone that suggested the two were old friends. Usually seeing him seated, Carl hadn’t noticed how short and slender Jimmy was—small enough to fit through the cat flap in a door, he’d learn in time. Stubble still dotted his face, the circle left from some past abuse glowing wraithlike in the dim bar lighting. “Everyone wondered what happened to you.”
“Nah, Professor. I’m sure nobody noticed.”
Carl had long since stopped telling folks not to call him Professor, an act which sounded snobbish, condescending, and yet somehow defensive. He subtly tried to redirect others to the usual Mr. Zeist, but otherwise he left it alone. Tonight, he felt a different urge. “You can call me Carl, Jimmy. Care to sit down and tell me where you went?”
Jimmy slid onto the opposite wicker chair without having to pull it back from the table. “Got in some trouble,” he said. “Nothing major. It’s fine now.”
“All behind you?”
“Good. You thinking about coming back to school?”
“Nah. Those days are done.” He looked at his hands as if for the first time realizing that neither had a beer in it. “You know,” he said. “Poverty.”
Carl nodded. His adjunct’s salary kept him close to that state as well. “You want a drink? It’s on me. Tell Bruce to put it on my tab.”
Jimmy didn’t argue. He slipped out of the chair and went to the bar. When he came back, he held a mason jar filled with some yellow tap beer. “Thanks, Carl,” he said, reclaiming his spot. As if an aside, he added, “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, with a twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.” The way he spoke, there seemed to be a hidden suggestion in his tone.
Carl closed his laptop. “More Whitman,” he said. “You have the whole thing memorized?”
Jimmy appeared to blush, though it might have been a trick of the light. “No, just a few favorite lines.”
“Nice. I think I’d be worried if you had that whole monster of a poem floating around in your head.”
Jimmy replied, “You have no idea what kind of monsters are in my head.” Again, some sort of suggestion was implied.
“Cell seven,” Carl shouted. The door buzzed, and he went back into his cell.
The guard’s voice whined over the speaker box by the door, sounding like the duck on an insurance commercial. “Make up your mind. In or out.”
Rawley, still lying in his cut, shouted, “Do your job!”
“Heard that,” the C.O. quacked.
Carl said, “Come on, Rawley. Don’t get me in a beef with the guard. I need to go back out and call my dad afterwhile.”
“Sorry, man.” Then, louder and toward the box, he added, “Sorry, Ms. Plovis.”
Static faded from the box.
Carl scooted across the floor and lay back on his bunk. “It’s cool. I’m sure she knows it wasn’t me.”
“Yeah, you don’t mess with nobody.” Rawley nodded as if trying to laugh but choking. “Hey, man, how’s this sound?” He raised one of the letters. “I want to see the world with you, to travel around and start fires we can’t contain. I will be your wily rapscallion, and you can be my long-haired princess. I am certain we are meant for each other. Please write soon and tell me what you think. Tell me you love me if the spirit moves you. I promise I am not one to be scared away.” He paused, then said, “Well?”
“Smooth, man,” Carl said. He wanted to tell Rawley that those words were over the top and the princess image was so trite as to be painful, but he held back. Rawley knew what he was doing. He had written enough of these letters. Besides, there was a kind of poetry in the line about starting fires.
“You think she’ll like it?”
“Which one is this again?”
“Without a doubt,” Carl said. “Candy will love it.”
Rawley said, “You think she’ll send me money?”
“Maybe,” Carl said.
“Good deal. I need some cakes. Little Debbie’s been playing hard to get—that naughty little bitch.”
Carl tried hard not to laugh.
After their night together, Carl didn’t see Jimmy again for months. They had slept at Carl’s apartment, rubbing faces and stroking backs—the rough and the smooth. For the first time in a while, Carl felt like a normal human being with a life worth remembering beyond the blurry edges of his routines. The next morning, he awoke to Jimmy’s smell of peanuts, honeysuckle, and sweat on the pillow next to him, but no Jimmy. His former student hadn’t said goodbye or left his phone number in a note.
“What did you expect?” Carl said to the pillow, then closed his eyes and hoped to return to a place where he could expect a little more.
He had been in prison for more than a year and managed to keep his sexuality to himself, although it felt contrary to his emotions. Surrounded by men, he smelled their grit, the sour wetness of their tees, the strong petroleum scent of their hair gels. He heard them masturbating in the shower next to the one he was using. That action had a scent, too, which misted between stalls from the scalding water: damp roots and rotten logs like the woods after a storm. Though he tried not to let them, those smells turned him on in an animal way that he didn’t expect. Sometimes, hidden in his stall, he stroked himself to the sounds and smells, but silently.
He believed that prison wasn’t the place to be outed. He saw from his earliest days in the Regional Jail how men like him were treated. Inmates openly mocked them for their femininity while also plotting how to entice them into an empty cell for fifteen minutes. To be exposed meant a man either had to be with someone or open for business, a possession or a prostitute. There could be no opening that door. Carl would either be in or all the way out.
Only one man in the system knew the truth, but Jimmy Early wasn’t here. The state of West Virginia shelved him somewhere else, most likely at the max facility in Mt. Olive, where he had his own decisions to make. Carl spent many nights wondering what would happen if Jimmy mentioned his name. Information spread quickly, even between facilities. Inmates were transferred, rumors passed on like a disease.
Carl stared up at the yellow steel slat of the bunk above him. He thought of what Camus had written about Meursault searching for God in the blank face of a prison wall. Carl didn’t see God on the dull canvas above him. There were no phantoms in the paint, no supernatural forces that might bring peace. He saw meaninglessness as though projecting it from inside him through the emerald lenses of his eyes.
“Hey, Carl,” Rawley said, bringing him back to the now. “What’s another word for savior? Not like Jesus, but like the guy who runs into a burning building to rescue a dog?”
When Jimmy showed up at his door, sweating and out of breath, saying he was in trouble again and needed a place to stay, Carl didn’t ask questions but invited him in. He felt a sort of relief to be able to help Jimmy by doing this favor. Carl hadn’t dated anyone in the intervening months, his love life as stagnant as his novel and career. He thought that if he let Jimmy stay, both men might find some sort of happiness.
Jimmy remained in the apartment for three months, often wearing Carl’s clothes although they were too big, watching zombie shows on television, and getting high on some drug or other. Carl thought little about that, despite that Jimmy’s supply never seemed to run out. It didn’t occur to him that Jimmy might leave the apartment while Carl stood in front of a classroom lecturing on O. Henry or Kafka or Pound. He chose to ignore this possibility and how it meant others might have learned where Jimmy could be found. Carl came home, ordered takeout or fixed sandwiches—neither man could cook—poured drinks, then either watched TV or spent a few minutes in the bedroom with Jimmy before showering and aiming for sleep. It seemed like a full life. It seemed like good times.
Two months passed before the police came the first time. They rang the bell, announced themselves over the intercom, and Carl went down to greet them wearing maroon sweatpants and a white Nike tee. “We’re looking for James Early,” they said. “He’s wanted for questioning,” they said. “He’s a suspect in some burglaries in the surrounding counties,” they said. “We heard he might be staying here,” they said.
Carl said, “You mean Jimmy? He was my student, but I haven’t seen him in months.”
They accepted that answer. “Thank you,” they said. “Please give us a call,” they said. “Very important,” they said.
Carl assured them he would, surprised at how thrilling it felt to lie to the police. It gave him a delightful tingle like the one stirring right before sex, skipping along his spine and downward into other places. He rushed upstairs to where Jimmy slept naked in his bed, the gray-checkered comforter hovering heavily above him. He’d have to talk to Jimmy about what happened, Carl thought, but not today.
When the cops returned a month later, they weren’t so polite. They brought search and arrest warrants. They restrained Carl while they went upstairs to collect Jimmy. They had been watching the building. They saw him enter and exit. They knew. “You shouldn’t have lied to us,” they said. “You’re going down with him,” they said. “You have the right to remain silent,” they said. Carl couldn’t tell if they showed prejudice in their tone.
Of the thirteen homes Jimmy was accused of breaking into, two of them had been robbed in the month between visits by police. Watches, rings, and bracelets were found in Carl’s apartment. Drugs, too: prescription bottles with the original owners’ names on the labels.
The county prosecutor charged Carl with half a dozen felonies and a couple misdemeanors: accessory to whatever, receiving stolen whatever, obstruction of whatever, whatever-else, whatever. Carl accepted a plea deal for one felony count of conspiracy. It carried five years, cut down to two and a half with good time. He thought it a fitting charge. All his life he had felt like a conspirator to some crime he didn’t know was being committed. He believed himself guilty—but of what? He thought of Joseph K., traduced for the incomprehensible, and said to himself as if he were that lost protagonist, I’ve always understood you best of all.
After a reasonable amount of time had passed, Carl got up and pushed the button on the speaker box. The guard said nothing, buzzing the cell door open.
Carl walked into the dayroom and glanced at the two steel phones. Both were available. He headed for the nearest one to call his father and listen to the weather reporter, obituaries, and promises of blessings and prayers. He dialed his dad’s number and held the receiver to his ear. The line rang three times before the click and the sound of the robotic female voice announcing “This is a collect call from an inmate at the Boone County Correctional Center. To accept the charges….”
He really did want to hear his father’s voice, Carl thought. The warmth of it cheered him up, left him feeling loved and forgiven. It didn’t matter that he and his dad spoke different languages or that religious talk stung a little in the anger centers of Carl’s brain. Even so, he wished it weren’t always so luminous and warm when he called. Just once, he wanted to hear his father say, “It’s raining here. It’s been raining all week. I’m starting to doubt it will ever be sunny again.”