Midnight Till Eight

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.