At Rush City Correctional Facility you find your rush where you can. It’s nearly 2pm, so that means 2nd watch is in a hurry to finish their final security round, punch the clock, and peel out of the staff parking lot as quickly as they can. Eager, I can only imagine, to do the things civilians do after their work day is done. Meanwhile, 3rd watch has already parked their vehicles, locked them, double-checked them, and slogged in from the lot to the prison. In the span between their vehicle and the entrance to the facility, they have donned their canisters of pepper spray and their prison guard personas in order to get through another perfunctory 8 hours. Monotony is motion. Welcome to Rush City close-custody pen. Population: 1000 incarcerated men. More or less.
Meanwhile, back in the cell, I’m sitting at my desk, taking a break from painting. Not a still life, but a portrait from the shoulders up. “Just an old bald white guy,” was how my former cellie Scott used to describe himself. It might look like I’m watching paint dry, but I’m really gauging what I’ve put down so far, and planning my next moves. I pour a cup of coffee and dig out some cookies I smuggled from chow. They’re chocolate with those fake M&Ms baked in. I don’t like eating sweets alone. So I offer some cookies to my new cellie who is perched up on the top bunk watching his TV. He declines. He claims that sweets mess with his 18-carat gold teeth. More cookies for me then. Why do these cookies seem to taste better, here in the cell, than if I ate them in the chow hall? Is it because I have my hot coffee and relative peace and quiet? Or is it because I made it through customs with the illicit chocolate treats?
I take another bite of cookie as I look at the head and shoulders portrait in progress. The composition may be simple, but the subject is not. The man contains multitudes and it’s a tricky thing to recapture a life on canvas. It’s more than mere talent. Talent is like tap water. And it’s more than endless hours of honing the craft. But that is a big part of the process. Consistency beats the occasional flash of brilliance. Hard work beats talent, when talent won’t work. I’ve spent enough time around my friend Scott to learn these little mind morsels.
For hours each day, Scott and I would do artwork. He would work in pen and brush on paper. The pieces were done in a technique using tools at hand, by opening up a Bic pen and blowing out some of the ink into the bottom of the plastic sewing kit (w/o scissors). He would load one of his customized bristle brushes with ink and lose himself in another world. Creating beauty in grayscale, rendered with subtlety and nuance. He would sometimes ask me to stop painting and chime in, looking to the “more experienced” artist for affirmation and direction. I am 15 years younger than Scott and there are few things I am more experienced in. So I enjoyed the role reversal. He was an open vessel. He was deliberate and efficient. When he wanted to learn things, to understand things, anything—he would be all-in. He was a man of many talents and curiosities.
One time, Scott wrote a paper on bulldog ants. It wasn’t for a college class. He was just interested in bulldog ants. The paper was close to ten pages—typed. He read it to me over coffee and snacks. I believe I may have forgotten more than most have known about bulldog ants. But I do remember my friend Scott reading it with enthusiasm and panache. Pausing at all the appropriate moments, using the gruff voice of a prison thespian. The paper would’ve been an “A.” The audiobook would have been rated: MA/SLV (for strong language and violence).
Scott and I would get our workouts in every day. Gym, courtyard, or in the cell. We’d also run stairs for 30 minutes a few times a week. “The heart‘s a muscle too, Redd.” Before I met him, nearing 20 years now, I thought I knew what “in shape” meant. He had a level of fitness honed over decades. His workouts were grueling and effective. They burned copious calories and casual workout partners. “Most guys can’t hang, Redd.” He called these torture sessions “Bailey Workouts.” He had a lot of salt in his ass.
Scott was over 6 foot, with muscles like braided bridge cable under his tattooed hide. I remember being in the cell with him, kicked back on our bunks, staring at our 13-inch Secureview television, watching some nature program, where a giant constrictor put the squeeze on some poor, pitiable prey. Breathtaking, this beautiful horror. An apex predator. Nature does nothing in vain, or so it would seem.
Before Scott relinquished being “the best” at handball. Before his legs would occasionally betray him when he ran stairs. Before he had to strap his hands to the pull-up bar while I pretended not to notice. Before he shook out his hands like they were frozen or on fire. Before Scott signed up to see the Physical Therapist because it was “just some tendonitis, Redd.” Before he alarmed the P.T. enough to order more tests. Before Scott or I had ever heard the medico invoke the possibility of “global nerve damage.”
Scott and I would work on our art pieces until shift change—the guards on 2nd watch would clock-out, and 3rd watch would clock-in. During this time, we would take a break and have coffee and snacks. Many times it would be vanilla wafers or store-bought pastry. A Mega Honey Bun, or a Bearclaw. But sometimes, if occasion called for it, it would be Scott’s “Bailey Bars.” He’d make them in his exclusive “Bailey Bowl.” One he brought with him from out west. His special bowl was the size of one of those 450-page bestselling hardcover books. A rectangular Tupperware deal with a foggy bottom and crisp denimblue lid, which Scott had carved his name and inmate number into. The bowl was one of his prized possessions. Scott had done some hard time in harder places. His Tupperware may have been warped, but it still kept its seal.
Before Scott signed up for health services. Before they tested his blood and urine. Before they put a scope up his ass and looked inside his shit chute. Before they took a muscle biopsy—a small chunk of Bailey out of his calf and sent it off to the lab where the report came back suggesting a neurological problem. Before Scott sat in a special seat—“an electric chair, Redd”—where they zapped him with electrical current and studied his neurological responses and noticed his “times were slow, Redd.” Before all this diagnosis-before-prognosis horseshit.
The Bailey Bars were an alchemical mixture of peanut butter, honey, dry oatmeal, and crushed graham crackers. The bottom crust was kneaded, tamped, and perfectly massaged into a one-and-a-half inch foundation. The middle layer, a grout of burnished liquid bronze, hand-whipped caramel rendered to a just-right, gooey Goldilocks consistency. The top layer, a bowl of M&Ms (real ones) cradled, slowheated, and intermittently drizzled with a splish and then a splash of milk—stirred over low-heat, in order to make the chocolate agreeably shake hands with the caramel. This chocolatey final layer, the Coup Deville, once cooled, would settle into a firm-yet-soft, fudge-like frosting. Cool and cush as mocha-colored Cadillac seats.
Before he kept dropping his toothbrush in the toilet. Before it was the same for his mustache comb. Before Scott took an extra 10 minutes shaving his head in the shower only to have more battle damage on his dome than if he tussled with a tomcat. Before plastic forks, spoons, and knives were shattered frustrations. Before ink pens and brushes were sent screaming from the art table. Before turning pages broke book bindings. Before health services finally gave him a roll of Co-Ban to wrap all his utensils in.
Scott would invest a lot of time and care in making these Bailey Bars just-so. The process couldn’t be rushed, the contents mixed and mingled artfully—deftly hand-crafted, intuitively applying the right amount of heat and pressure and time to sculpt his bars. He would then sequester his creation under the bottom bunk, cloistered among our gray property bins. He would give it time. Time to meditate and achieve enlightenment—or at least time to cool to room temperature. Scott would occasionally stop his pen work, sneak a peek, pop the lid on the Bailey Bowl, test and probe the convivial contents with a connoisseur’s finger. The aroma of baked-goods, a vestige of “home” permeating our cell. He would then put the lid back on and say, “Almost ready, Redd.”
“You can’t rush Bailey Bars, Redd.” It takes as long as it takes, before we give. More agonizing minutes would pass. Scott would put down his Bic pen or brush, and pop the bowl lid again, test and probe and tease his bars with his contented finger. The blue bowl lid may go back on, the process may repeat—lid up, lid down—a few more pernicious rounds. Inevitably, the torture turns, the savory ballet ends with Scott speaking the words, “Bailey Bars are ready, Redd.”
Before Scott lost his grip. Before Scott had to wrap his every utensil in Co-Ban as if it were a burial shroud… He might have picked up any plastic fork and knife and expertly cut out a perfect two-inch square piece of Bailey bar and balanced it on the knife as he held it out to you. He might have waited for you to lift it from the knife, and you had better be quick and sure about it, lest it fall and hit the floor. There is no “five-second rule” with Bailey Bars. If you let it hit the floor, odds were you’d hit the flagstones as well.
I once saw Scott hit a man with his open hand square in the earhole. The guy dropped like a sack of spuds and was out for a spell. Scott picked him up and set him in his chair, revived him, and asked the guy if he had anything else smart to say. Now he knows what PTSD feels like. Scott didn’t suffer fools, but he didn’t hold grudges either. He was deliberate and efficient.
Grab the bar. Take a taste. Smile and say, “Mmmmmmmmm, Big Scott, best bar ever.”
You didn’t have to say thank you. His giving you a piece of his bar was his way of saying you’re cool with him, that you were in the car. The car could only hold maybe six people at a time, and sometimes that was more than he was comfortable with. If he deemed you unworthy— for whatever reason—he wouldn’t pull over and politely drop you off somewhere. Instead, he’d kick you out like he was running ’shine after dark, hightailing it, boot to the floorboards, lights out, with a trunk full of hooch, mason jars clattering together like ghost chimes.
Before they made Scott a revenant. Before the Department of Corrections banished him. Before Minnesota, Wyoming, and Iowa juggled Scott’s afflicted and expensive not-quite-fatal-fast-enough carcass. Before Scott was viewed as a plague of medical bills and extra staff scheduling in order to shuttle him from one cut-rate horse doctor to another. Before the bean-counters stepped in and collectively wished for a Corrections version of “terminal velocity”—where Scott would crash into the earth and spare them all the headache and high costs and just die already. Before they would dream of paroling him. Before they would ask him to debrief. Before he told them to “pound sand” and that “they can kill me but they can’t eat me, Redd.”
Stop gawping at the bar, or I’ll clither you in the gob! Quit holding it in your clumsy mitts, it’ll start to melt, you daft bastard. What’s it going to be? The bar or the pavement? Be quick or be dead. All this running through your head. While he might float there like a phantom, a phantom with a plastic knife pointed at your throat. Waiting for you to bite down on this spectral hunk of Bailey Bar. “Best bars ever, right, Redd?”
There are days that ask, and years that answer, Scott.
I remember when Scott gave voice to his oblivion. It was during shift change, and therefore coffee and snack time. I remember breaking open a bag of pink frosted animal cookies. We were lucky to get them. They were on special from the prison commissary—for a limited time only. I can’t recall if Scott bought the cookies, or I did. I do remember spilling them out, onto his blue bowl lid. The cookies were coated on top in bubblegum-pink frost. Camels and elephants. Monkeys and bears. Giraffes and hippos. But no sharks.
Scott relayed it to me like he was reading from a teleprompter. He told me he had ALS, and that he was a dead man walking. He delivered the grim news and I provided the weather. I sat there and sipped my insipid coffee and looked at Scott’s blurry bowl lid with a 3-ring circus’s worth of animals in miniature. I noticed some of the animal cookies were missing their legs and tails and trunks and heads. Like an ineluctable circus, you come from nothing and you leave from nothing.
Before I read up on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a brutal, unforgiving illness of the neurological system with no known cure that usually kills you within 5 years of contracting the disease. Before I learned that Lou Gehrig was a man before a disease, a New York Yankee who batted 4th in the order (“clean-up”) right behind Babe Ruth. And after Lou’s final game he gave his fans his “Luckiest man in the world…” farewell speech. Before I understood why Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who wrote A Brief History of Time, was stuck in a motorized wheelchair and why he sounded like a robot. Before I took comfort in knowing the mind is like a rubber band—it remembers where to return to after having been stretched. Before I read Jim Harrison’s novel Returning to Earth and understood why Scott stopped corresponding. Before I realized that sometimes you have to leave the world in order to understand it. Before I discovered there is sadness in sweets and that I will always miss my friend…
I sip the dregs and take a final bite of cookie as I look at the portrait of Scott that I’ve been trying to animate. There’s a blue shirt buttoned all the way up in order to cover his prison ink. His angular skull cones to a bit of a peak. Reminds me of the moment before the shark fin breaks the ocean surface. Supposedly he’s got shark eyes. An attribute pointed out to me by a former art teacher. He said that when he looked into his eyes—he saw nothing. No soul. Just inky blackness. With a couple million years of predatory evolution behind them. I’ve looked into his eyes and seen humanity. I see my friend. Scott also had an “operator’s” mustache. The type of mustache I’ve seen on those Special Forces snapshots, on Navy SEALs, on the military channel. Or maybe on a particular group of fellas doing hard time with the harshest of consequences.
“Right, Big Scott, best bars ever.”
My coffee cup is cold, and chow hall contraband is stowed, lonely, in my belly. Meager cookie crumbs brushed off the stainless table. The canvas is dry, unlike my memories. So I pick up the paint brush, because my body allows it, because I can and I must. There are no bars in Rush City. Not on the front of any cell. No bars, just a 2-inch thick steel door with a 5-inch by 3-foot security window with a multi-billion dollar view of an incarcerated future. Ensconced in that impassible door is a 14- by 7-inch cuff-port used to pass through meals—or when occasion calls, to cuff up an ignoramus in the throes of existential crisis. The cell door is gray, solid, and indifferent. I suppose it could be core-filled with broken lives and shattered dreams, mixed with the aggregate of time wasted and talent squandered. The door is secured with bank-vault precision on blast-furnace hinges. Within, I feel close to the specter of whole years lost. Life is short, shorter than we ever gave thought to. There are no 2-inch hunks of chocolate bar nestled within a blue-lidded bowl. Not anymore. There are no bars in Rush City.
T.M. “Redd” Warren is an artist and writer who has been incarcerated since 1994. His work has appeared in his notebooks, and this is his first publication. He has participated in writers workshops facilitated through the education department at Rush City in concert with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.