I work alone on the Restricted Unit in the Barker County Correctional Facility in New Hampshire. It’s a semicircular room, the curved wall lined with nine cells. Most of the day, the inmates press their faces to scuffed windows, silent. There are no bars. The architects went with rosewood steel doors. Rosewood: the color of merlot.
On Tuesday and Saturday mornings I supervise inmates while they shave in their cells. We don’t leave them alone with razors. I try to talk with them, like we’re just in a locker room, hanging out while one of us shaves. Some don’t talk. I imagine that, cutting their whiskers before a scratched plastic mirror, they think of the other mirrors they’ve shaved in front of, the rooms those mirrors were in, and maybe that keeps them silent.
Tuesday. Inmate Bigsby is shaving. He’s talkative. Not crazy crazy, but it’s always tough to tell.
“This scar, right here,” says Bigsby as a stroke down his cheek reveals a cambered wound, “was when I broke from the sheriffs.” The single blade on Bigsby’s flimsy disposable couldn’t shave a teenage girl’s happy trail, but the inmates make do and pull at their skin.
There is a common perception—you see it in movies—that inmates don’t want to talk about their crimes. But they do. They depend on their past, their scars, to prove they were something else. In what standing, that doesn’t matter.
“I’m not familiar with the sheriff story.” I press my fingertips together. My feet are in a boxer’s stance. Even though Bigsby has never been violent in Barker House, that could change. Shaving cream drips into his mouth, and he spits into the metal sink. Behind him are a single metal bed, a tiny window above it, and a yellow glow-light dimmed by heavy Plexiglas.
“It was on all the news,” Bigsby says with a smile. His rough voice sounds practiced. He’s been on RU for two months. His arms are tattooed in Old School ink, the black turned green and smeared. He’s lived in halfway houses, shelters, jails, prisons. He says he’s even squatted in people’s basements for weeks at a time, the homeowners never the wiser.
One cell over, Inmate Sanchez punches the wall. The meat of his fat hand smacks with each blow. He groans, slows, stops, begins again. Bigsby looks over his shoulder as if to see through the wall, as if his concern could stop the dimwitted Hispanic man from harming himself. He shakes his head.
“His extension was denied,” Bigsby explains. “Trial starts Monday.”
I lean outside of the cell’s threshold with my eyes still on Bigsby and tell Sanchez to cut the shit. He doesn’t. To pass the time, I ask Bigsby to tell me his story.
“It was back when I was facing weapons charges. I was a ‘three strikes’ guy with none left to give.” He runs the blade over the curve of his ear. “Leaving court, they got two old–timer sheriffs on me. Guys could barely put the leg shackles on. I kicked one over and ran, more like skipped. And when I saw the Nashua, I jumped in.”
“I floated for a while. It was quiet, and I tried not to move much,” he says. “I thought I got away. Then I heard the dogs barking. Those fuckers can swim.”
The punching continues.
“You want to go in the Chair again, Sanchez?” He’s been in it once after he tried to drown himself in his toilet. He keeps punching.
Bigsby stops shaving. “You can’t leave me with half a face of hair,” he says to me. “Sanchez, chill, amigo.”
I wave my hand at Bigsby out of view of Sanchez: I’m not serious. Bigsby continues his shave. I am serious, though. If Sanchez breaks his hand, it’ll be my ass in a cast. The punches come slower but harder. Bigsby’s mirror wiggles. He stops shaving and taps the head of the razor on the sink, half his face still slathered in shaving cream.
“Imagine he knocked his girl around like that.”
I put my hand out. “Give me the razor,” I say. “I got to deal with this asshole.”
Bigsby pauses. “I’m not done, C.O. I look like a sideshow freak.” He looks afraid, because he knows the outcome here. Half-shaven until Saturday. A hard punch hits the wall and Bigsby flinches. I motion again, and he hands me the razor. I pull his cell door shut and lock it; he shouts through the clear window how fucked up it is to leave him like that. Bigsby thinks we’re boys because I let him talk, and sometimes I talk back. But now I’m just another asshole cop, he says. He kicks his door, and Sanchez decides to take a break from punching his wall to punch his door, which makes more noise. If they were bars, I wonder if the two men would take to striking them, if they would strike any partition.
I radio my sergeant. Over the open airwaves, I’m sure he and every other screw with a two-way can hear, in between the bangings of fists on metal doors, pleas for me to go fuck myself.
I drive through a light dusting of snow with the radio off, focused on the rhythmic screech of the windshield wipers. The roads are guarded by curved snowbanks, their whiteness soiled by blown exhausts and salt and sand. Even though my DUI charges were dropped because the Statey misplaced my Breathalyzer sample, my captain still required me to attend counseling. I was reluctant. I’d gotten the drinking under control on my own.
I meet Jerry on Wednesday afternoons in Nashua. It turned out to be sort of interesting, therapy. I like to pre-game what I’m going to say to Jerry, to keep him on task. He’s a rambler. He gets paid by the hour. His practice shares a duplex with a children’s dentist. Sometimes kids and their parents pass me on the stairs, the kids’ eyes puffy, holding bags with toothbrush heads sticking out the tops, rewards for sitting still in the chair. When I knock on Jerry’s door, I can hear the sounds of the waiting room on the floor above: toys being pounded against the carpet, and the woodwinds of cartoons.
This is my third Wednesday. Last week, for homework, Jerry asked me to watch some bullshit Sandra Bullock movie about rehab. I didn’t. He won’t follow up.
Jerry starts off on his favorite subject: the injustices perpetuated in my place of employment. The House is for-profit, so we spend as little money as possible on the food, and we share a doctor with two other counties. He talks about that, instead of my drinking or my arrest.
I don’t bite. He sighs and hoists his sneaker up onto his thigh. He’s big and fat, and his black shirt is half-tucked into jeans. His clerical collar is cockeyed. As a certified counselor, he says, he’s offended by the abuse and neglect of prisoners as a business model.
“I used to be a counselor,” I say.
This works. “Drugs?” He wiggles in his chair, interest piqued.
“Kids. At the old mental hospital in Raymond,” I say, and Jerry lets his leg fall back to the floor. “I left two years ago.”
“People say terrible things about that place,” he says, like I don’t know. “June. You remember, my daughter.” He turns the picture frame on his desk toward me. “She’s going to BU for psychology. She wants to help kids, too.”
“I mainly wrestled with them on dirty rugs,” I say, “during restraints. I’d do eight to ten restraints a shift, sometimes more. To help them.”
“June is tender,” he says and turns the picture back out of my sight. “I see her being more on the clinical side.”
“We hated the clinicians. The kids did, too.”
Jerry nods. “When she was ten, she helped a boy home after a bicycle wreck. The kid hit a tree, got all cut up,” he tells me. “I picture her doing things along those lines.”
“These kids don’t have bike accidents. They hurt themselves on purpose.”
Jerry takes a butterscotch from a jar on his desk and unwraps it, puts it in his mouth.
“And if we hurt them or got rough,” I say, “that meant we cared.”
Jerry puts a finger under his nose and slurps at the hard candy. Behind his cluttered desk, which is covered in newspaper and Styrofoam coffee cups, a clock on the wall ticks through the silence. The room is just a tad bigger than an inmate’s cell. All I can smell is butterscotch and coffee.
He probably expected this to be another sixty minutes of story time, two Irish guys talking about drinking, fighting, love. He told me on our first week he quit drinking twenty-two years ago. He said cops back then didn’t give DUIs. They’d throw your keys in the snow and give you a ride home. He’d wished they’d given him one, saved him decades.
“You got rough with the kids?” he finally asks.
Our time is almost up. I want to tell Jerry about José, but there isn’t time. I wouldn’t be able to explain him: a twelve-year-old son of a prostitute, a boy who liked starting fires, hurting dogs, playing with Legos. He wore a fanny pack he found in the trash and hid marbles, bouncy balls, broken Nintendo DS games in it. He cursed like a john. He was wiry and strong, which turned out to be a problem.
The night he died, José chose to wait until lights–out to ask to do his laundry. He’d get stuck on a task and, until it was completed, would struggle for days before he could move on. Christine didn’t want to press the issue and walked José to the laundry room down the hall. Only a minute later, Christine yelled for staff, and I left my post outside the boys’ bedrooms and ran to find José grappling with Christine. Christine was petite but strong, bragged about her CrossFit PRs.
I secured one of José’s free wrists and twisted it clockwise until he was rendered facedown on the floor. Christine got hold of his other wrist. As we were trained, the two of us proned José out. He feigned defeat—he always did—then attempted to free himself. Christine and I shifted into the next stage of the restraint and sat against José’s armpits, pressed our backs against one another’s. We pulled his arms taut against our abdomens. It was methodical, practiced, by the book. But José wouldn’t concede. And then Christine told me he wasn’t struggling on her end and asked me if he was struggling on mine.
I turn to the photo of June. “She’s pretty,” I say. “The kids liked the pretty clinicians.”
I watch TV. Infomercials are the only things worth watching. Power washers. Root shovels. An indoor-garden kit. No one wants to hear it. There’s Jerry, but he’s too responsive. I don’t call my parents. My friends are gone. If Christine and I had anything, it was dissolved that night in October at ten minutes to eleven. My father took José’s death well. He brags about my new pension. I can’t tell him about the heaviness that crawls up my chest when I sleep. It’ll disturb his current positive opinion of me. My mother took José’s death well. She went to all the services, cut out his obituary from the newspaper. She looks at me like I worked at an abortion clinic.
On the back of a magazine on my coffee table, the ad on the page for a spray deodorant has a good deal of white space. I’ve filled it with the names of products and the phone numbers you call to order them. Showtime Rotisserie. Snuggie. Acne something? I don’t have acne and must’ve been buzzed when I watched that infomercial.
A man cuts through a soda can with a knife. He also promises a fifty-year warranty. Fighting the urge to make a purchase, I down another Luksusowa and orange soda water and get out of the apartment.
I pull into the gravel parking lot, the tires crunching frozen snow. I stand outside my car and stare into the cold night sky, try to get my head right. The Blue Moon is the size of a diner. Surrounded by dense wetlands, without neon or a flashy exterior, it can pass for one.
I don’t make eye contact with the bald bouncer. He looks like an ex-inmate, and I don’t want to get into that kind of conversation. He checks my ID and doesn’t ask any questions. I skip getting a drink and head toward the solo dance area behind a maroon curtain. For twenty dollars, you get a private dance in a stall, its door similar to a bathroom stall’s. There are lines of stalls with other men and slightly attractive women inside of them. I find Michelle. She told me once her brother is autistic. She doesn’t mind my stories. Even though she encourages me, I don’t touch her.
“You don’t seem like the type of woman that enjoys wearing bras,” I say. Michelle has decent–sized breasts, and they look real, having a slight swing to them as she moves. Her brown skin is clear of blemishes. Her breath smells like Fireball.
“No,” she says. “Too uncomfortable. I like being free.”
“You might enjoy the Ahh Bra,” I say. “No hooks or wires.”
“Never heard of it.” She sits on my lap. “I don’t excite you?”
“You do,” I say. “I wrote down the number, in case you’re interested.”
She stands and puts her hands on my cheeks. “I bet you have a great smile.”
“Don’t tease me.”
“I want to see it,” she says. “Good! I made Tommy smile.”
Bigsby had an active night. He was able to get a few other inmates to rock the unit. They rolled up spitballs, slid them out through the four-inch space under their doors. The dayroom floor was covered with them when I arrived for my shift. The officer I relieved, Josephs, was sitting in the middle of them, reading a fat paperback with his flashlight. He likes to call the unit “a well-oiled machine.”
“He’s hot about his face,” says Josephs, of Bigsby. “I called him two-face once and he ruined my shift.” He indicates the spitballs.
Josephs leave the unit. I don’t make any unexpected moves at first—just gather up the spitballs in my palm, brush them off my gloved hands into the trash. No one says anything; I hear the occasional giggle. When it’s time for showers, I begin with Sanchez, as usual, and wait until he is comfortable under his cone of steam and hot water, face downturned. Then I unlock the rec yard and kick it open. It’s January. The icy breeze cuts through my uniform.
There’s cursing and shouting. But Sanchez showers nonetheless. When he’s done, I hand him a towel, and he brings it to his face, but then it falls, his kinked fingers incapable of gripping it. The towel sits in a puddle on the concrete shower floor, with the cold wind blowing over it. Sanchez’s curly hair drips water over his eyes, and his pubic hair is thick and hides almost all of his penis.
“That’s the only one you get today,” I tell Sanchez.
He shakes off like a dog, and droplets hit my face. I flinch. I can hear Bigsby laughing behind his cell door.
Sanchez picks up the sopping towel and rubs it on himself. His pink, peeling knuckles show fresh blood. It’s eight o’clock. Outside the walls, the clanging doors, high above the snores and farts and stink of unflushed toilets and body odor, the sky unloads fluffy snow on the roads.
I tell Sanchez to cut the shit and go back into his cell. His hour of tier time isn’t up yet, but the way his large body mopes around, his numb eyes following me, makes me want to cut his time short. Most inmates would complain about losing tier time, but Sanchez never does. I’ve asked myself if Sanchez is playing a game, like some inmates do when they plan to plead insanity. But the state of his hands tells me he’s not playing.
He walks naked into his cell, and I key his door locked. He stands at the door, and I know how piercing the frigid water on his skin is. But he doesn’t let me know he feels it.
Bigsby comes out next. He struts past me to the showers, his face divided, one side smooth, the other furry with grey hair. He stares at the open rec yard door. He grunts and goes behind the beige half-wall, me on the other side. I slam my boot on the stool of a dayroom table, my tan uniform tight, head freshly shaven, and I imagine he sees me as a person with power. He finishes undressing. His skin is white and seems to tighten from the cold.
“That’s a real prick move to open the door like that,” he says. “That’s some old-school bullshit. I figured you better than that.”
The door behind me leads to a small bricked-in recreation yard with a basketball hoop with no net. We don’t have a basketball to offer the inmates. There’s nothing to do out there but walk around in circles. The walls are high and topped with chicken wire. Some snow has fought through and coated the ground.
“I wouldn’t have put up with this shit before,” Bigsby says and turns the shower on. He gets under the water and lets it run over his face. His fills his mouth with water and spits it high into the air. Steam runs out from over the half-wall and rises toward the ceiling lights, giving them the look of streetlights in fog.
When José first came into the hospital, he had nothing. “Indigent” is what we’d call an inmate like that. José had nothing because it’d burned in a fire. His mother left him alone. He couldn’t find his dog. José lit a candle and slid it under the bed for light. The dog came out from under the bed, and I imagine they played, rolled around like kids do with their pets, the dog licking José’s earlobe. The bed burnt first. Then, three units in the jam-packed downtown apartment building. The only living thing not to make it off the top floor was the dog.
I went through my closet and drawers and filled a trash bag. Old baseball jerseys, Patriots garb, T-shirts I’d cut the sleeves off of. The only rule of the ward when donating was it had to be anonymous. Only organic relationships. The kids came from places where possessions meant everything, especially because of who they came from. I remember watching José drive toy cars across the carpet, making beeps and vrooms. He was wearing the green Parks and Recreation T-shirt I wore when I worked for the department in high school. I wanted to tell him about that job, how I taught kids to swim. To jump rope, flirt with girls. I knew he wouldn’t have listened to anything I had to say, unless I started by telling him he was wearing my shirt.
The muster room is full of officers chatting about new restaurants and superhero movies, hangovers, who was at the bar last and didn’t make it to work. Six ten-foot tables face the front of the room. Four sergeants are lined up behind the lectern at the helm. The brick walls are bright yellow and littered with inspirational posters. At 211 degrees, water is hot. At 212, it boils. With boiling comes steam. And steam can power a locomotive.
Lieutenant Hobson reads off the roster, plugs me into RU, then goes over the notes from the previous two shifts. He says Bigsby spent the night throwing fecal matter out of his cell. He refused to stop when directed. Bigsby claimed he wasn’t being treated right, that the jail was screwing with him. Hobson cautions us against walking by Bigsby’s cell. When he’s done reading off the notes, he dismisses the room but tells me to stay back. The muster room begins to clear. Hobson has a blond crew cut, a filled-out chest and shoulders, and reflective insignias in two long rows pinned over his heart. He stays quiet and inattentive until we are the only two left.
“Bigsby,” he says as he looks at me. “I personally supervised his shave this morning. He claims you left the rec door open during his shower. Cut off his shave halfway through. Don’t give him a platform.”
I nod. Hobson obviously forgets Sanchez’s incident during shaves.
“Stop fucking with the rec door,” says Lieutenant Hobson. He squeezes my shoulder as he passes me out of the muster room. “Oh,” he says. He turns around, his hand on the doorframe. “Bigsby told me to tell you he’s waiting for you.”
Sweaty Officer Josephs is wearing purple nitrile gloves, and he’s tying a red hazardous waste bag, which surely contains Bigsby’s shit, by the inner door to the unit. But there’s no smell of shit, no trace of it. Josephs watches me in the full-dome mirror mounted in the center of the unit. I watch him as he watches me while I write my opening log. It’s clear from his silence that he blames me for his bad night. He tosses the bag near the trash barrel and walks behind me, grabs his log and slides it to me. I sign him off. Once he’s gone, I look for Bigsby in the grate of his door, but his face doesn’t come.
I’m anxious to make my rounds. Whatever I do, I don’t want to cede power to Bigsby. The eight bodies on my unit are asleep.
I key open Sanchez’s cell for tier time at 0725 hours; kick the bottom side of his metal bed with my boot, and he startles awake. He’s nude. His room smells like wet dog hair. He sits up and walks out of the cell and straight into the showers. He turns a shower on, and I key open the rec yard door and let the wintry air pour in.
Bigsby, awake, immediately comes to his window and starts punching and kicking the cell door. Freshly shaven, his face again symmetrical. We look at each other from ten feet away. Bigsby’s banging awakens other inmates. Silently, their faces surface behind their windows.
Sanchez turns off the shower and shivers. I bring him his towel from the half-wall. Bigsby is still kicking. The other inmates watch and allow Bigsby to have the floor. I hand the towel to Sanchez and he drops it, his fingers crippled, unable to grasp even air. In the full-dome mirror, I see Bigsby’s arm creep out from under his door and throw a handful of shit into the dayroom. I don’t turn or look back. He’s yelling, “Shut the door! Shut the door!” like a protestor. I’ve never heard him sound so alive.
Sanchez stands over his towel, shaking uncontrollably, wild, making faces that remind me of a fish in a net. He starts to cry. I pick up the towel and begin with his shoulder. I dry down his arm, and he holds his arm out as if we’ve done this before. He cries as I dry his chest, his legs. He lets me dry his injured fingers, and then his entire body.
David Moloney worked in the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections, New Hampshire, from 2007 to 2011. He received a BA in English and creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he now teaches. He lives north of Boston with his family.