There is Always a Next Time

July 21, 2017

I am bent over at the waist, undoing the tight laces of the grubby-white New Balance trainers I wear to work out. The sweat gathered at the hair of my temples escapes in rivulets through the scrub of my unshaven face. The door to my cell is three quarters open. I am too exhausted to secure my padlock after an aggressive morning workout.

A shadow flutters in the sunlight where I am standing. My right foot shoots out behind me, into my cell, ripping the laces away from my fingers and planting my balance to shift away from the impending contact.

I feel the wind of the makeshift cudgel passing my face before it smashes into the concrete floor inside my cell. Thirteen inches of broken broom handle, half a dozen rusted D-Cell batteries, strips of state-issue sheets and brown packing tape, scatter into the space behind me, shattered by the force of the intended blow. Where did they find D-Cells?

The world slows.

I look up to see my assailant bathed in light. His own shadow obscures his face, but not his fear. I do not fight unless I need to. This man has made violence necessary. I am not angry for his assault. I am angry for what I now must do to protect myself. Not from this attack, from the next.

He is off balance from the miss. I grab the wrist of his open hand and twist back toward the bars. He cries out and falls into the door, sliding open until it bangs into the frame, breaking the relative silence of the unit. I grab the front of his shirt and pull him off the galley and into my cell.

My bed is a steel frame jutting from the wall. He hits his head before squirming loose, trying to scramble under and away from me. The squeak of sneakers on the painted floor sound like sports in a gym to anyone who’s never heard a fight in this prison. I’m on my knees, alternating punches and clutches, trying to drag the animal from under my bed so I can hurt it.

He’s wiry, with a long reach, holding me at bay. When he spins his legs to kick at me I catch him by the front of his jeans. Once his body slides it’s over with. There’s nothing but floor to hold on to. I get him out far enough to kneel him in place and stun him. I hit him hard, twice before he goes fuzzy and stops struggling. I pull him out and go to work.

For a moment I stop to think. I’ve worked hard to get myself to a good place. I’ve got some things going for me. People don’t see me the way they saw me after I came in. I think about the good job and the easy mornings. The man beneath me sputters and I remember he would not have stopped. And I might not be so lucky next time. Unless there is no next time.

I pick up the ancient batteries rolled against the wall, one for each hand. I measure out the rhythm in my head and start a slow count. I hear the heavy slap of my weighted hands keeping time, well before my eyes register what I’m doing. Left. Right. Left. Right. One. Two. Three. Four. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

My guys do not penetrate the fugue when they rush me to pull me off him. One of them drags the unconscious body back to his cell. Another collects the batteries and wood from the floor. Another stands me at my sink and washes my hands. My fingers hurt from clenching D-Cells. My shoulders cramp. I stare at a basin filled with cloudy pink water because the drain is bad. I wonder how long his blood will be in my sink.

They take my shirt and walk me down to the showers so they can mop up my floor without having four guys at my cell. About halfway down the stairs I snap out of it and ask them is he dead. Nobody talks. We just shuffle down the tier.

~AF

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