CO Serena could not bend iron with her eyes, but even before her shift, when she switched to “God’s Word” AM radio and the bent-knees of prostration, each flicker of her eyelashes seemed to make the bars ripple. She vacated the otherwise deserted break room, where the push broom hung, foil ashtrays smoked, to witness men folding and falling. She tuned out tales of how the imprisoned were hauled in. She did not confiscate their decks of cards, their smuggled bags of candy or savings in coin, their skin magazines of human distortions. She did not let them keep their rosaries for they were long enough to choke, and they could pray on their fingers just as well. She didn’t smoke or chew gum to pass the time, nor could she read.
Guards were not issued guns so there was nothing to oil. So she watched the moonlight press against the wire of the windows as she listened to hellfire on the radio. The men cursed and confided and confessed, as if they were stowed on an island of cinderblock, where the orange lights were never switched off.
CO Serena never spoke. The men gave up asking her how the Yankees did or if there were microphones in the walls. She reported to her superior any notes she was given including envelopes. She would accept nothing, not even a false compliment.
She knew the indentations of the floor, the sequence of numbers to press on her walkie-talkie, the radio on the windowsill, the call-in number for prayer, and the other for healing. She watched the inmates as if there were curtains in front of each doorless space. She turned up the preaching when the yelling got too loud. Salvation occurred every hour coincidentally with the bell that opened doors and slammed them shut.
She finished picking out tears of Styrofoam from her coffee. The soles of her boots were rubber, and she might have bounced as she walked, to pull open the door into the shifting core of the prison. She exchanged no greetings, smiled at nothing.
Crowder stuck his arm out, as if flagging a cab from his cell. “The clock stopped?”
She paused. She almost opened her mouth to ask if the power was out. Instead she stepped away from the hand. Like swimming underwater, space was deceptive here. The window was a blur of white so the men could not distinguish snow from sunlight, sky from cloud. She did not answer, kept walking, avoiding the hollows and pits of the floor, easy to do with her spring-soled shoes. Crowder yelled before she switched on the infernal radio: “Where are the books?”
She looked down both sides of the hall; she could see further than he could. No library cart, not left at either doorway. Just a stack of the same book, dumped and run. She murmured into her walkie-talkie. A blast of static answered; she shook her head. Crowder’s cellmate had rolled himself in layers of blankets like a rug to be hauled away.
Crowder left his shirt hanging open. He unfolded his legs to stand.
She kept her thumb over the ALARM button but did not press it.
“Why are they late?”
Corrections instructed to evaluate and de-escalate volatility. Crowder’s hands were empty. Still she stood in front of his mummified cellmate.
“They’re not coming.”
“If they don’t come today, then there’ll be nothing till Monday.”
She pointed down the hall as if he could see from her advantageous angle.
“They left the cart down the hall? Is it missing a wheel? Walk for me.”
“I’ll bring you a Bible.”
“They left Bibles?”
“For good.” She had seen paler men drained of blood, but not this fast or this white. His shirt hung from him like a skin shed, showing his veins darker blue.
CO Serena was almost interested why there was no rolling library that evening, nor would there be. There was no television here, no radio but hers. The men were talkers or listeners. They were supposed to reflect on their past and pray for their future. There were family visitors until they started saving their bus fare; student teachers until they received their diplomas; lawyers, ministers, and psychologists, who foretold their slim chances. Some inmates had been born without a conscience, some had lost it along the way, some accepted grace or denied it existed; they set up or took the fall, repented or pretended, faked illness or died of neglect; they had given up caring, and there was this one who wanted to read.
“Can’t hear you.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Do you intend to?”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“You don’t know much beyond what the Lord tells you, do you?”
CO Serena wove her way back to her chair, strange because there was nothing around her folding chair but the shadows of the stacks of books Crowder had read. She swayed as she walked as if not to topple the memory of them: titles unrecognizable, so drawn over with fantastical women in catsuits, all arched backs and lightning bolts; titles didactic and typefaced; deckle-edged legal books, as if he could sentence someone else in his place; and killer novels, printed sacrifices to the twin bloodthirsty gods Publicity and Infamy. Strange why she did not want to knock his imaginary towers of books over, now that he would never see them again.
“I don’t want a goddamn Bible.”
“I know,” she said before she realized she spoke. What imp inhabited her body? She flipped through the pages of the only book she knew and after a while of silent scansion, alighted on Isaiah 42:7 to read silently: “To open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
As if Crowder read over her shoulder, he hollered from Matthew: “’I was in prison and you came to me!’”
She glared at his slicked-back hair and slicker black eyes. “I get paid by the hour.”
“Christ, would you find me a book,” he moaned, eyes closed.
“Are you speaking to me, or our Lord and Savior?”
“Whoever will give me a goddamn book.”
It was not a long walk down the hall, but she was methodical, and did her job, looking into each cell, counting the men by head and what she could see of their bodies. There was no echo from her shoes, but the tunnel-like effect of the barred hall, and the perception of sound going nowhere and back again, gave the illusion of echoed thought. She reached the stairwell, and the stacked Bibles. They smelled of factory pulp, and even the ribbon (cut too short to hang oneself), was black. She took the top Bible off the stack, a cloth-blue that smelled of the glue used to bind it, and the weight of the book spread across the palms of both her hands. It would save Crowder from damnation, if he would read it.
She had known many prisoners like her who twisted up their letters till they looked like numbers, and vice versa, but never prisoners who could read like Crowder. She crept over in her institution footwear— uglier than a prisoner’s bare feet—and held out the only book she knew.
Crowder growled at her. He snatched the Bible and didn’t let it go. With his weight, he used it to shove her back, like a shield. She didn’t lose her balance—her rubber soles were industrial, but she felt the breadth and heft of the bars. She let loose the Bible and it slammed to the cement of his floor.
Crowder looked at it like an invading rat. He reeled back his foot and kicked it against the wall, where it exploded only in sound, the pages raining over each other. “Let it lie,” he ordered her. “Let it breathe on its own. Let it heal itself.”
CO Serena backed to her chair, her hand on her Mace. “The Bible doesn’t break.”
“I can break it.”
“You can’t kill the Commandments.”
He almost smiled at her. “I’ve killed a few.”
CO Serena blinked. The veins that connected him moved in their own network of shadow. Breathing in this space of seepage required the tolerance of an amphibian. She sat with her back straight against the cold of the metal chair. Her uniform stood away from her as if the rayon was as repelled by her body as she was. She watched Crowder pace. There was no place else to look, except for the rolled-up body of his cellmate, who’d been forgotten long ago by anyone who would’ve prayed for him. Crowder’s blood seemed to weep blue through his tattoos. His cot looked torn up; she had missed the search; she was glad of that. She would not have taken his books, however strange and naked.
As a correctional officer, she was imprisoned here too, in her own eight-hour shifts of emptiness. Hopelessness was ameliorated by alliances, and isolation was what everyone feared. She broke up fights and allegiances with the same dispassion she had for drinking black coffee and watching The Late Show before her shift. When she came home in the frost of the morning, she slept in her own cell-like bed, as much of an ascetic as in her lack of dreams.
“What do you read?” Crowder was twisting the blanket through his hands, as if he could wring words from it. “Besides the manifesto of your god.”
She didn’t like how he spat out manifesto, but then she didn’t know what that was. “I can’t read well,” she said, stunning herself. Surely some devil had drilled into her brain like an earwig.
“How old are you?”
He shook his head. “You don’t look it.” He left it to her to guess what he left unsaid.
“How old are you?”
“I served with Elvis.”
That explained some. Her own hair was roller-set days ago, and still felt tight on her head.
“You got family?”
She dragged her finger across a columned page. She had memorized most of the Bible. Ss and 5s and Os and As got mixed up the most frequently; she had to try a few combinations before she hit on saw versus sow, and she moved her lips when she read, shaping her expectations and stammering her hesitations of an unknown word rather than actually sounding it out. Crowder sat at the edge of his cot, watching her pretend to read.
“Ah, that’s your family. Apostles.”
Her three mothers, possibly four or five by now, would be flattered at this sarcastic compliment to her piety. Her mothers were lax at home schooling but excelled at breeding, cooking, devotionals, and serving her father, the king—maybe god—of the family.
There was a shading of the darkness between two and three o’clock in the morning. She pushed her chair underneath the recessed ceiling light caged in wire. It was not much brighter than a kerosene lamp. She let her finger stall her reading; she didn’t think Crowder liked her to ignore him. His shoulders ballooned from his undershirt, as hunched as he was at the edge of the cot. “You’ve seen my letters.”
CO Serena first thought he meant the alphabet. “I don’t read your letters.”
“You wouldn’t understand them.”
She eyed his bed and his wall and his toilet: She understood.
“I write to my brother. The good one.”
“Why does he write to you?”
“He wants to save me.” Crowder leaned against the rumple of wool as if he’d said something fine. His Bible was no longer splayed across the cement; instead, it was shut.
“Does your—he—look like you?” She inventoried Crowder’s T shirt and cracked teeth, the paste of wet toilet paper that blotted nicked blood. What had been his crimes? Her folding chair made an X out of shadow on the cement floor. Her crossed legs made the second X. Her crossed fingers made the third.
“Do you like movies?”
“Just what I see on TV.” When did her voice start to echo? She had been used to let the radio do all the talking.
“My brother has a real movie theater. He let me sleep there for a while, even after I crashed my car into my father’s house. My father and I aren’t allowed to associate. By law.” The row of cells extended from Crowder’s in either direction, like a center point on a line in a math book.
“Is your brother younger than you?”
“He’s younger than you.”
CO Serena looked out the bricked-up window.
The bars and wires that shaped the hall and the cells gave the illusion of living inside of a spring-loaded trap; the strange yet familiar sounds of humans surviving in such close proximity within the iron age they still inhabited. This alien world was where she felt the most real, the most ignored. Until this midnight shift, when she felt the least real, and the least ignored.
She snapped open her contraband mirror while he bitched. “Where were you when they busted in here, stole my first and last book, the shelves they broke, they stole my paper, they broke into my brain, they shook that out, smashed away what was left.” She was thinking about a body like his but the soul unlike. She had stared long enough to know his shelves had once been filled; a sight for a woman whose shelves at home were bare. Now: his cup, his carton of cigarettes, his chessboard, his box of letters; the script on the envelopes was a blur to her. “I’m sorry,” but she didn’t know if she spoke aloud.
Without dropping the carton of Winstons, Crowder whisked out the chessboard underneath. With a similar sleight of hand, he was able to hijack knights and queens, carved from what looked like dirty ivory. He slid the board through the bars so it slapped upon the cement right-side up. He liberated the chessmen next. CO Serena let them fall and roll.
“Do you know how to play?” A bodiless horse stared at her without eyes. “Set up the board.”
“I don’t know how to play.”
“I can teach you.”
“They let you keep your chess set.”
“Put the king there—the head with the biggest crown—that’s a queen. The king.”
“They didn’t burn them.”
“Don’t kick the pieces. It took me a long time to make these.”
She bent to examine one with a small cross carved above his crown. She picked it up. The cross had been carved to look like wood, with lines fine as thread.
“Put it third from the left square.”
“These aren’t plastic.”
“That’s why you’re a correctional officer and not the FBI.”
She flipped open her Bible to the page she had marked. Her hand smelled as if she’d just dunked it in sink water scummed with soap. She began to read aloud: “Isaiah 61:1 ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound—”
“I’m not bound. I’m no captive.”
CO Serena looked up from her Bible at the bars between them. The 5 AM bell shivered down the aisle, echo after echo, a sound so iron-like she could almost catch each ring in her fingers. These were no tolling church bells to allow reflection and admit sorrow; this prison bell commanded men to do its bidding.
“Please finish setting up the board for me.”
She closed the Bible. One at a time, CO Serena set the pieces on the board. One set had been sliced green; the opposing set had been carved waxy white. “Soap,” she breathed, readying the last pawn.
“I taught my brother how to play.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Push the board closer.”
Instead CO Serena stood, and scanned the length of the aisle; its dimness and narrowness teetered into one-point perspective. Her hair felt ratty, her eyes sketchy with sleeplessness. She was too far into her shift tonight when a prisoner could command her like a chess piece. Her badge reflected her stupidity. There was another bricked-up window at the end of the aisle; she staggered from it as if it were a star and let its lack of light guide her back to her post.
“Please push the board closer to me.”
She was given the green side, and she smelled an Irish Spring shower that had never been taken.
“The queen is the most powerful piece.” Crowder sat cross-legged, close enough CO Serena could almost spell his tattoos if they hadn’t been inked in Gaelic. She bent over the board from the height of her chair, she who would never sit across the floor from a prisoner.
“You read the Bible all night but you fall asleep at chess?” Crowder moved a pawn a square. “Good thing we’re not betting.”
“I don’t think I can play.”
Crowder moved her rook. “I don’t think you can either.”
She straightened her legs.
“It’s a game for people who can memorize.”
“Every game they’ve ever played.” She burst a laugh, the strangest sound heard under that orange light.
Crowder ignored her, moved a white knight. “I’m beating you already.”
“This is a game I can win?”
“Not if I’m playing you.”
“Then keep playing for me.”
“I just started.” She watched for a polite minute or two, then resumed what she thought was reading. On each page God rewarded, punished, judged, cursed, and condemned, as she kept score of the elevation and the damnation of His pawns, bishops, kings, and queens.
She had grown up in extended family indoctrination; her duplicate mothers all sought to extract some kind of promise from its holy pages. They had to have been promised something in return for their heralded fidelity and their multiple live births. She had sisters who’d run off and never seen again, brothers who’d married more than once, nieces and nephews she didn’t know. There was too much family and too little faith. She would live the faith.
“It’s just a book,” Crowder’s top-heavy soap fragments lurched against each other.
She had used to be better at ignoring. “God wrote it.”
“You have a lot of copies of that book.”
“One for everyone on this block.”
“You have your own already. Family Bible?”
She looked up at his laughter. To her horror, she saw Crowder ripping out the pages of his. He was strong enough to tear entire sections from the binding. His teeth clenched, his fists strained, as the holy words clung in clumps, gashed and severed, and flung to cement.
“Let’s have this book do some good for a change.” Crowder winked at her.
CO Serena stared from his eyes to the floor. He aimed the now emptied book cover back at her, to skid around the chessboard, flat and faithless. He should have been struck down, but she could not imagine blinding a man with Mace for destroying a book. Instead she picked up the cover; it hung into space, covering nothing but prison air. Crowder laughed as the book bound only her bare hand. He had stacked the freed pages and begun scribbling in their margins. What did he write, would his brother read it, would his brother read about her? Was he sketching the chess game he’d won, or drawing pictures of the feline demons he must have missed? He might have a memory like hers. She might have a memory like his.
When she got off that morning, she lingered over her Styrofoam coffee that she needed for the ride home back to her lone apartment. For a woman who’d grown up in one house for three families, it was almost a completely prison-less peace. She outwaited the eight o’clock shift change in the break room. The other COs were shouting over the success of their sudden book raid. They brayed over their treasure: The stolen books were stupid or sexy.
They were clustered deep around the cardboard boxes, shopping for themselves, so they didn’t notice as CO Serena snuck between them, seeking Crowder’s collection. After her coworkers shambled off, their own days in prison counting till retirement, she pulled out the thickest paperback she could find that did not have pictures of chessboards in it. She sounded out the cover, then gave up. She stuck it between the empty King James cover. She left the prison later than usual that morning, carrying Crowder’s Bible under her arm.
Alison Ruth’s poetry is published in The Helix and the Meta-Land anthology (Poet’s Press, 2016), and forthcoming in Ellipsis, Common Ground Review, and Harpur Palate. Her short stories, nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, are published in J Journal, CutBank, and Confrontation, among other journals. Her novels are Near-Mint Cinderella (Aqueous Books, 2014), nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and Starlight Black and the Misfortune Society (Prizm Books, 2015).