Matthew Feeney was awarded Second Place in Fiction in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Feeney is currently incarcerated at the Willow River/Moose Lake Correctional Facility in Minnesota.
Every year, hundreds of inmates from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.
The guard gives his worn-out spiel as he unlocks the man’s silver handcuffs through the pass-thru slot in the wall. “. . . and do you see that button on the inner doorframe? That is for medical emergencies only. Do you understand?”
The man nods silently, understanding the innuendo in the guard’s tone that made it crystal clear that any pressing of the button absent a genuine medical emergency would probably result in the creation of a real medical emergency.
“Good. Now sit back and relax. Lunch’s in two hours.” The guard finishes removing the cuffs and the man straightens up, rubbing his wrists. The solid plate-steel pass-thru door slams with an abrupt bang that makes the man jump. He looks around the room hesitantly, hopefully, but there’s nothing to remain too hopeful about. You’ve seen one Seg cell, you’ve seen them all. Not like you can request a room with an ocean view or the deluxe queen-size prison cot with an ultra-plush pillow top mattress. But at least they all have room service, and while customer service may sometimes be lacking, at least you never had to tip ‘em.
The man smiled to himself as he lowered his lanky frame onto the edge of his cot. “So this is my new home for the next 33 days? Not bad . . . not bad at all.” His thoughts focused on his surroundings as he continued to assess his new accommodations with the experienced eye of a professional long-timer. Standard stainless steel one-piece toilet/sink combo sitting beneath a tired, framed piece of silver, scratched all to hell with gems of graffitied wisdom such as “Trust in God,” “OX WAS HERE,” and “amor de Rey.” Those were just the ones big enough for him to read from the bed—he could see hundreds more scratchings on the thing posing as a mirror that was attached to the standard industrial cinder blocks painted the color of milk gone bad.
Betcha that woulda made a top-selling paint color name—“sour milk.” The man chuckles to himself as he eyes the door. Handleless and painted a flat steel gray with a tall slim window of tempered glass. On the right side of the doorjamb sat the emergency button. Silver. About the size of a nickel. It was volcano shaped, rising up half an inch from the doorjamb, with a recessed center protecting a flat silver button. The walls of the volcano rimmed the button as if protecting it from inadvertent touching. You’d have to really put your finger in there to ring it. Wonder where it goes? Is there an intercom in here? His eyes follow the walls upward where he sees a ventilation grill and next to that a round silver doo-dah on the wall. What the hell was that? About five inches in diameter with a small raised section in the middle—it looked like the end cap to a closet clothes rack. Could be a speaker. Or a fancy smoke detector. Maybe even a spy camera? Nah, definitely not a camera, too shiny and slim.
The man eyed the wall—ironically, not three inches from the silver button he could not touch was a light switch operating the only thing he had any control over for the next 33 days: his cell’s light.
The man turned his head to the left to scan the wall opposite the door. His window was screened, barred, gated, and covered with a metal grill filled with holes like a spaghetti colander. From his seated position he could see the uppermost portions of nearby institutional brick buildings, all neatly garlanded with bright silver razor wire which sparkled in the midmorning sun. He suspected the view wouldn’t be much better even if he were standing, so he remained seated.
He took a deep breath in and held it for a second before slowly and deliberately exhaling. A sigh of loneliness or regret or perhaps acceptance came from deep within him—but by looking at his stoic face it was impossible to tell which one. It was resignation on its way to acceptance.
“. . . the only thing he had any control over for the next 33 days: his cell’s light.”
The man patted the mattress to either side of him and spoke out loud, “Alright, at least now I’ll have some peace and quiet.” Two hours before lunch? Maybe I should take a short nap to start out this bit. Thirty-three days was a cakewalk for a pro like him. He swung his long legs up onto the bunk, laid his head back on his pillow, and allowed his eyelids to gently close.
He awoke from his deep slumber slowly, eyes remaining closed. His first awareness was of the steady drone coming from the vent followed by the fact that he was chilly. He snapped his eyes open and stretched like a cat that had been sleeping in the sun. But this had been a lot longer than a nap—there was an ache deep in his joints from not moving and he noted the deep shadows on the floor of his cell indicating that he had been out for a long time. “Dammit,” he muttered to himself as he pushed himself up, still flexing his sore arms and legs. He glanced at the closed pass-thru. “I slept right through lunch. Dammit!” A low rumble from deep within his taut abdomen confirmed the fact that he was hungry. “Well, it’ll make dinner go down easier,” he thought to himself. He stood and shuffled over to “his” light switch and flipped it on. The light quickly chased away the long afternoon shadows. He glanced briefly at the nearby button, but even on his worst day he knew missing a meal definitely was not a medical emergency. Given some of the prison crap he’d consumed over the years, he was probably healthier for missing a meal or two. He stumbled and then shuffled a few circles around the room, still trying to walk off the fogginess of his recent slumber. At the window he paused to look out—it was clearly now midafternoon, maybe even late afternoon. “Now THAT’S the way to do time—with your eyes shut.” He continued his rounds, stopping a moment at his door to peer out the narrow window. Nothing but an empty hallway as far as he could see to either side, with that same sour milk directly in front of him.
He moved on to christen his toilet, pulling down the front of his state issues before a steady stream of relief poured out of his business end. The stainless-steel bowl got its seat lightly sprinkled with splash back. He gave a few tugs as the stream wound down. His waistband snapped back in place as he pushed the silver flush button. A tornado vortex was formed as the powerful turbo charged water rushed into the bowl, leaving even more sprinkles to dry on the seat lid.
He casually turned away without washing his hands—he had always thought germs were for babies and he openly scorned the big muscle-bound inmates who had to use the bottom of their shirt to open a damn door. He wasn’t afraid of no germs. He was tough. He was serving a life sentence on the installment plan—5 years here, 10 years there. In all his years in the pen, old Mickey was the only one who had ever scared the man. He passed it off as respect for Mickey, but it was true fear. Course Mickey bought it a few years back, because no matter how tough or old school you are, no one’s a match for a dozen hot-headed punks with shanks. Old Mickey did take down five of them, not counting the one still in a coma. “Betcha Mickey wasn’t ‘fraida no germs either,” the man thought as he continued in his circular walk. Bed. Step, step, door. Step, toilet. Step, step, window. Step, step, bed. He let the movement calm him, reassuring him everything was still in its place since his last go round.
A mile or two later he paused at the big window and noticed the sun was now a warm red ball, just setting below the roofline of the distant buildings. “Holy shit, time flies in here!” he thought to himself as he soothed his rumbling stomach with thoughts of the soon-to-be delivered dinner feast. “Hot and delivered to your door in less than 30 minutes or it’s FREE”—hell, all his meals here were free, if you don’t count the years of his life flushed down the drain. I coulda been a contender. Nah, not really, that was just a line he remembered from some old movie. Even at his finest, he was never a contender for much of anything, unless they added a category for “laziest” or “angriest” man in the world.
As he continued walking his round, he fondly recalled the memory of the blonde bitch that cut him off in traffic during one of his brief stints on the outs. He had swerved to the next lane and raced up alongside of her silver Toyota. She was oblivious to her transgression, at least until his Starbucks Coffee exploded all over her damn windshield! He had sped off gleefully, laughing at her surprise. His only regret was that he’d wasted a nearly full cup of coffee, but he’d just stop at the Starbucks across from his work. He’d briefly wondered if he could get a free refill, but then realized either way it was well worth it.
It was now pitch black outside. He turned and looked longingly at the empty and closed pass-thru. Dinner was late. Very late. Hell, dinner’s usually at 5pm, sunset is closer to 8pm and it don’t get this dark ‘til 9pm or so. What the hell, did they forget about him in here?
He turned around and looked out into the empty hallway. No clocks, of course. Inside it was always the eternal sunshine of the fluorescent tube. Looking over his shoulder he confirmed it was black as hell outside. He banged on the door with the palm of his hand and called out “Hello? Anyone out there?” No response. Maybe the cells to the side of him were empty? He called out again. “Can anybody hear me? YO! What time is it?” But nobody heard him, or if they did, they didn’t respond. Something was wrong, cause in prison someone almost always responds, even if it’s just a “shut the fuck up!”
“No clocks, of course. Inside it was always the eternal sunshine of the fluorescent tube.”
The man glanced down at the call button. But it was an “emergency” call button, and while this was annoying (and more than a little confusing), it sure as hell wasn’t an emergency. He gave one last pound on the door before sliding over to his bunk, sitting down heavily as his mind began to spin.
What if they forgot about him? He had read a legal case where deputies locked a guy in a cell in a rarely used wing and forgot about him for five or six days. Helluva lawsuit, the guy won millions of course. Millions might be worth it. How long could I go? He had a toilet and a source of fresh water, which was more important than food, though his stomach angrily disagreed. He recalled his meager breakfast eaten at least 14 hours ago and wished he had finished his turkey-gravy dishwater slop. He glanced down cautiously at his belly. He had eaten his share of Honey Buns and Ramen during his bits, but his metabolism kept him lean and mean. “No extra fat on this bone,” he said as he patted his belly. He now realized with a sinking heart what he used to consider a great gift was now his downfall. All those 400-pound fat fucks were going to survive without food a helluva lot longer than him. How ironic.
Maybe there had been a big fight or riot, and the guards were just busy all day. His eyes were pulled to the emergency call button. Should he push it? What if there has been a flu outbreak? A “pandemic of epic proportions” like in The Last Ship television series on Thursday nights. Holy shit, what if it was the zombie apocalypse and all the other inmates and guards were walking dead just shuffling around and eating each other’s brains? He might be the sole survivor only because he was isolated out here in Seg. The brief moment of relief at being the lone survivor was cut short by the realization that if he was the only one left, there would be no one to let him out in 33 days. Or feed him. In most zombie movies he’d seen, zombies couldn’t open doors, much less operate the myriad of electronic controls and safety switches required to open the dozen or so doors between him and fresh air. But then in I Am Legend, the alpha zombie was smart as hell and was able to use tools to smash through a bulletproof window. Would brainiac zombies be better or worse in his situation here?
Sweat began dripping from his downturned nose and a strangled gasp of terror accompanied his outgoing breaths. He was doomed. Don’t panic. He looked toward the door and saw the silver call button, just sitting there, a patiently waiting beacon of hope, completely oblivious to the man’s meltdown. The man knew not to press the button, that was the one and only rule he had been given. But then the quiet rational voice spoke up from deep within him. “You’re having a full-blown anxiety attack and can’t breathe—that’s a bona fuckin’ fide medical emergency if there ever was one!” His rational side continued, “Besides, if they are all rotting zombie corpses, they won’t give a shit if you press a damn button.”
The man gulped another deep breath of air and nodded his head as if in agreement with himself. He had to know what happened—where everyone was. Even if it was bad, not knowing was even worse. With a large breath he leaned forward toward the button and paused. How does it work? Is it like a doorbell? Do I press it once or three times or hold it down like a walk button on a light post? His shaking index finger remained frozen a few inches from the silver button for several moments. “What if no one answers?” was the thought that finally pressed him over the edge and motivated his finger to push deep into the recess around the silver button. He felt more than heard the button make some sort of electrical connection. Nothing. No response. After what seemed like forever, he moved his extended finger and pushed again, more forcibly this time, and held down for several seconds. He lost any semblance of sanity as he began to scream, “HEY!?! HELLO! DAMMIT, WHERE IS EVERYBODY?!?!?”
He froze as he heard an amplified voice from somewhere above say “Yes?”
A real human being. They were alive! I’m going to make it! With relief he started babbling about sleeping through lunch and dinner and zombies and old Mickey before he was cut short by the amplified voice.
“Relax Jones. We haven’t forgotten you.” The man sighed and his shoulders slumped in a flood of relief as he sunk back on his bunk and looked down, suddenly surprised at the bright sunlight striking the floor between his feet. The ethereal voice continued, “You’ve been in your cell about an hour—lunch is still an hour away. And remember: the Emergency call button is for medical emergencies only!”
The man nodded a silent and unseen acknowledgement and deliberately took in a deep breath and held it for several moments before fizzing it out slowly between his tightened lips. He had an uneasy feeling this was gonna be an extra-long bit.