“What are you in for?” The man above me said. The bed creaked as he rolled over to the edge and peered his bald, pale-white head down at me. His skin was unkempt. His five o’clock shadow glowed in the low light. It made my skin itch.
“A domestic disturbance. It was nothing really.” I cleared my throat. The inmate stared at me and didn’t respond. “I was having a fight with my wife, and she called the police. It was nothing. Nothing.” I dismissed his question, and we made eye contact. His face was pudgy, and in the low light of the cell, his jaundiced eyes glowed.
“The police though, they always take the woman’s side,” he grunted.
“They wouldn’t even listen to me when I was speaking with them. Just put me in handcuffs and threw me in the back of a car.”
“Yeah, that sucks man. They always seem to do that. Can’t get a break when it comes to women. Fuckin’ Pigs.” He pulled himself back up and sank into the center of the bed. The sag of the overhead mattress brought his back close to my face.
“I tried to talk to the policeman, but he just wouldn’t listen to me. I struck her, but I didn’t intend to. It was an accident. She was yelling, I was yelling…you know, the way couples do.”
I centered my gaze back to the mattress overhead. The sound of his labored breathing increased. I tried to count the thin pinstripe lines running the length of the mattress but lost count after the fifth or sixth line. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to this man, but maybe this was the only way to be safe in this place. Hopefully he wasn’t a rapist. Eyes closed, I sank into the bed.
“Well, I’m in here for Armed Robbery.” His voice emerged from the breathing. “I was just trying to get some money so I could buy a gift for my kid when his mother dropped him off, but the Chink behind the counter pulled out a bat and began swinging. I took the bat from him and swung back. He wasn’t expecting that. He ducked at first and reached under the counter and pulled out a pistol. With my second swing, I hit that asshole good—maybe too good. I knocked that fucker out, and grabbed the pistol so he couldn’t roll over and shoot me while I was hitting the register. When the cops showed up, they thought I went in with the gun, and charged me with armed robbery. Of course the Chink didn’t dispute it. He’s letting me go down with his own pistol.”
“Wasn’t there security camera footage?”
“Of course, but because I hit the register after I took the pistol from him, that greasy DA charged me with armed robbery. Fuckin’ lawyers.”
“How long are you going to be in here for?” I was curious. Not really enough to care, but I thought it deserved a follow-up. I certainly didn’t expect to be in a place like this with these kinds of people. After all, I’m not a criminal. Not like this guy. He knew he was robbing someone.
“I don’t know. I’m still waiting to hear from my guy. Seems like getting a freebie lawyer slows everything down.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t know how long I was going to be here. I just wanted the opportunity to speak to someone. Anyone. Especially my wife. If we could just talk about it, we could work things out. I know she wouldn’t really press charges on me. We’re soul mates. We could work through this if I just had the chance to speak to her.
I got out of the bed and went to the bars in the doorway.
I heard no noise. No movement.
“That ain’t gonna get you nowhere man. Those hacks don’t come for no one unless you’re gettin’ killed or dyin’ or somethin’.”
I called out again, and still no one came. My hands curled around the bar and griped tightly. The lockup was dark, and with the limited view I had of the other cells down the hallway, I couldn’t tell if anyone was there or not. My calls didn’t rouse any interest. The dim light of the orange, sodium fixture hanging above reflected off the front of each unit, yet somehow couldn’t penetrate the threshold of each cell, except ours.
“If you’re gonna use the toilet, flush it before you wipe your ass, man. We don’t need a backup in here. It’ll never get cleaned until they come in to do an inspection, and I don’t feel like floodin’ the place out tonight.”
I had no plans to actually use the toilet. I pledged that, in fact, I would never use that toilet. Ever.
He kept talking and I tried to tune out his words. Unsuccessfully.
“The food in here isn’t too bad, but I’ll kill someone if I get another serving of green peas with my dinner. I can’t complain though. It’s better than having to think about where the next meal is coming from.”
I must’ve been the first roommate he’d had in a while. It was tiresome listening to this guy. I don’t need the how-to manual from a would-be professional criminal. I don’t need to know where to put my things in the cell. I didn’t care how to make the bed as comfortable as I could. He can be satisfied with his six-by-twelve slice of pie, but I refuse to be.
“Hello!?” I called out one last time. Anything to get me away from this guy.
“Why don’t you get into your bed and try to get some sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep. I want to get out of here.
“Well, do whatever you damn want, but don’t wake me up. And if you keep yellin’ for the hacks and they don’t come, I’m gonna put you to sleep.” He cracked his knuckles. “There ain’t no naps durin’ the day, man.”
I stood at those bars for a while. I don’t know how long really, because I had no real sense of time. Just darkness in here, orange light out there, and a burning need for release and to get things straightened out. I certainly didn’t want to stay here with this guy anymore. I hadn’t noticed he had fallen asleep until his snoring began. His breathing was erratic, with long pauses of silence followed by a loud, deep gasp and some kind of gurgling that reverberated in his throat. It startled me.
He was large and his clothes didn’t fit him right, exposing his hairy midriff. The stretch marks on his abdomen glowed in the low light. He had a blanket, but it was balled up on his legs, allowing only his feet to stick out. They were crusty, and I found it hard to not stare at his gnarly, brown toenails, which seemed to barely stay attached to his appendages.
I wanted someone to talk to. Someone official.
My back hurt, and standing at the bars morphed into leaning. Fatigue was setting in. As I closed my eyes in exhaustion, the sound of bars slamming rang through the entire detention block, followed by the sound of banging doors, and then the jingling of keys. I perked up and stuck my face up to the bars so I could peer down the hallway. The cool feeling of the metal was unexpectedly refreshing. Two guards approached, carrying a set of chains.
“Guard! Guard! Please come here!” I shouted, like I was begging for a fireman’s rescue.
The two men kept walking until they were directly in front of me and stopped, turning and looking me straight in the eye.
“Guard, I need to speak to someone. This is all a misunderstanding. I don’t deserve to be in this place.”
“Put your hands through the opening below.” He was stern with his words. I slid my hands through and he handcuffed my wrists together.
“Put your feet through the opening at the bottom of the doorway.” I did so, and the other guard clasped leg restraints onto my ankles. The first guard then attached the long chain to my wrist-cuffs and dropped it down to the other guard, who was waiting to attach them to the leg restraints. The chain reached perfectly, and the second guard clasped the chain to a small lock in the center of the leg restraints.
“I’m so glad you’re getting me out of here. I need to talk to someone. This has to be a misunderstanding. I’m not guilty of any kind of domestic disturbance.” My voice was as strong as ever. My confidence was unwavering.
“You’ve got that right,” the second guard said. The first guard signaled down the hallway and the door slid open. He then grabbed my arm and violently yanked me out of the cell. “Women killers go to a different area. Scumbag.”
The door slammed behind me. I was confused. They pushed me down the hallway, and I was full of so much anxiety I couldn’t speak. The last thing I heard before leaving the block was my former cellmate’s voice shouting, “Woman killer! Woman killer! You fuckin’ liar!”
Michael is a storyteller from Queens, New York. Michael teaches at Hofstra University and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. He completed his MFA from Hofstra University in 2015 and was a 2014-2015 Hofstra University Creative Writing Fellow. His work can be found in The Vignette Review and AMP Literary Journal.