Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker


With patience Wool waded through the paperwork, the body search, the questioning, the handing out of uniform, wash cloth and soap. The only thing that had really bounced around his skull was whether there were razors. His new haircut needed maintenance, and he knew that the back of his neck was prone to develop an odd fuzz, where the hairs would take turns advancing by inches, random black threads sprouting thick and dark, like out of a mole. Yesterday the sideburns were trimmed even with the corners of his eyes, bringing them up from the edges of his ears, less trendy, less retro, less obvious. Right now the bright orange jumpsuit he could do nothing about, and the plastic made-in-China sandals (over his socks) were his only footwear option, but the hair he could take care of. In most areas it was short, no need for a brush, or chemicals, just a shower in the morning and a good head-shaking as it dried. Block managers searched each cell that night. Wool woke to a bright light in his eyes, as they pulled him from his bunk and pressed his back to the wall. “We were told you have marijuana. Where is it?” They were kidding, and although they smiled, it was difficult to laugh or grin. “Take that down.” They pointed to the pages of a paperback pasted over a vent above the concrete cot. Those pages kept Wool from freezing at night when the whole cell block was flooded with cold air. The blue-suited guards moved to the next cell, with more late-night repartee, and Wool reordered the room. Books and magazines that were his pillow were re-stacked, and the mattress was turned back around so that the heavy end made up the difference in the slanted concrete sleeping platform, and then Wool went back to sleep, and half-awoke at 6 a.m. to the buzz and click of the echoing door release. He woke again later to the sound of pounding on his cell door. “If you want breakfast, get it.” Two other inmates looked in the reinforced window. He stumbled up and found cold eggs and warm milk and toast. He missed a chance to shower, and didn’t want to do it now because the shower was simply a drain and a nozzle in a corner of the common area with hip-high walls. Nobody showered with non-showering inmates watching. If you didn’t shower immediately after lights up, then forget it. Wool could shit in peace, though, and read in his cell, or look through the translucent window at indistinct glares from cars in the parking lot. It only took a day for him to learn the system. He could have the razor, and towels, if he asked a day in advance. The cell doors locked if you pulled them shut. If you wanted it open, you had to holler from within your cell or, if you were locked out, you pressed the intercom and asked. The phone could call anywhere, but only collect anywhere, and you had to wait on the stairs that led to the upper five cells if you wanted it. You couldn’t sit down and talk on the phone, because the cord wasn’t long enough, unless you were tall and it could reach your ear when you sat on the stairs. The television had a set channel-tuning routine, agreed to by some earlier consensus, and it never changed. Wool did not think that he had ever been so bored, where the very words in a book became gold, and felt that he should re-read certain sentences that he may have glided over too lightly. He read everything. Magazines from twenty years ago, all pictures of women ripped out. Old tracts on sin, books on redemption, trash novels. Nothing of value, nothing to change a man’s life, plenty to pass the time. Until now, Wool had not seen the inside of jail as a prisoner. He moved to the city from a small house in small town where the factories and farms were failing. His father ran a nine-man police department there and sometimes on weekends Wool would sweep the adjoining floor of the fire station or clean the two jail cells or flip through the nudie mags behind the beer cooler next to the pump truck. That was a real jail: the black bars were welded and bolted like a span of bridge, the cell sitting away from the cinder block walls in the middle of the room, the big padlock bragging about the impossibility of escape. This prison was no prison at all. It was all concrete and reinforced glass, it was a warehouse locked on accident, trapping people inside. There were no marks on the wall indicating days left, “For a good time call…” was not written on the wall next to the phone, and there was a business-like efficiency about meals and recreation. At no point during the arrest, or anything leading up to it did it occur to him to exercise his right to a phone call, or to think of who might be a good lawyer, or to even call a friend. There was nobody. His buddies in another block were the only people, and had they not been able to convince him to return, he would not be locked room reading about last year’s best-dressed from a coverless magazine. Two weeks ago Wool, Herman and Jerky stole a gun and a full change purse from Jerky’s cousin Janet who watched them leave her mobile home and called the police. This plundering ordinarily would not be a big deal, except Janet was alone, and scared, and the boys were drunk, and they had caught her wearing nothing in the trailer, and chased her into the yard behind the storm cellar where she cursed and ranted. The boys took off, and hid out in the state park. At Black River, where the quarry had filled with water a dozen years before and the water, brackish, thick, served to keep strangers away, they read the police briefs in the “Crime Watch” section of the Daily Journal for three days and laughed at the physical descriptions. Herm, it said, was a tall black man of about forty with dreads, but Herm’s fade and 17 years were nothing close. Janet did not know him. Herm ripped grass clumps from the earth and decorated his head and danced around, drunken. There was no real description of Jerky, who’d been in the truck the whole time, and Janet didn’t want to really want to finger him. It bothered him that he barely earned a mention. Sixteen and fat, he needed recognition. The newspaper nailed Wool’s look exactly: faded jeans, a Cards cap, boondockers, a wide belt and the gait of an athlete, although the Free Press said “quick-footed thief.” As they fled the house Wool leaped in the cab window after Jerky’s cousin Janet hollered and came screaming from behind the storm cellar waving a rake. Chicago-bound after the newspaper report, Jerky called Janet from a Kwik Go, cursed her, and lied and said she was responsible for Herm and Wool drowning in the river. “They jumped, and they took the gun and I’m never coming back,” he told her, and she cried and asked him where he was calling from. Jerky hung up. The newspapers reported on the drownings, and the river was dragged, and then the lakes, and then creeks and ponds in the county. The search and rescue team dragged the river again. As Highway 55 flew past the three fell into silence, Jerky’s head lolled over the back of the Ford’s bench seat, where his raggedy hair danced in the full sun. The coin purse had barely enough for fries all around and the greasy bag made the cab of the truck stink like warm turkey. Wool drove carefully and stared straight ahead, patience his rule. Patient with the trouble and the sick feeling, knowing that with patience the feeling could fade to a lump in his gut where it could be ignored, and that in a few years the event could be forgotten, and by then he’d be another person. Herm and Jerky didn’t want to go to Chicago. They wanted to return because they knew nowhere else and they didn’t want to give up what small things they’d worked for, karate fighting trophies and basketball for Herm, Jerky a novel filled with lustful princes and evil beings from outer space. He said it would be a movie one day. Wool spun the wheel into the B-B-Que Barn lot, and let the truck recover the distance as they headed back to the way they had come. At three a.m the Dodge parked, hidden from the street next to the trailer, empty as it had been before. Jerky’s aunt and uncle were scouting for homes in Memphis, and his cousin Janet was now staying with a friend down the block, and the place belonged to the boys for now. For two days the trailer became home, and they watched all the movies taped from cable, and burnt and ate the steaks from the freezer. They hadn’t let them thaw first. After midnight of the second day, early in the morning before the wave of morning sounds rolled in from the east for the start of another morning, an light unlike the sun glowed outside. “Boys, come out of there slowly,” yelled a tin voice with a steel badge. Herman stood up stiff and frantic. Jerky drew his jeans on and stuck out his jaw, scared, and clenched it, like it was wired shut. Wool, awake, lay there on the flowered couch. Herm screamed. “What the fuck are we gonna do? Fuck, fuck. Fuck! Ohmigod they’ve got guns!” It went on, and Wool knew what they were going to do. What other way could it turn out? Would they have stayed there forever? Who would not see the truck? If they hadn’t known they would be found out, they would not have returned. Herm crashed out through the front door and tripped over the stairs, then looked up, now even with spotlights, paired eyes and gunmetal. He crawled forward, his foot caught in the wooden steps, and from the side two cops snagged him by the forearm, made him reach for his shoulder blades and cuffed him. He sat in a car, head down, tears running. Jerky came out with his hands in front of him, palms out, as much to block the lights as to reassure the assembled law that he had no weapon, and he walked to the nearest cop and looked him in the eyes. His fat bare belly glared white, and as the cops spun him, he fell, and was rescued by the arm, and they took him in. Wool still lay on the sofa, fingering the butt of the gun where the cross-hatched rubber grip was glued. The wood was dead, the metal unfunctional, the rounds live. “Come out, now! or we’re coming in!” Wool rolled off the couch onto his knees, held the barrel aloft and swung it around, sweeping pictures from tables, mementos off shelves, knick knacks from the top of the television. He surged from a squat to his feet and pounded in the paneling in the narrow hallway, and crushed the thermostat and felt ceiling tiles fall as he thrashed about in anger. A window went, and he turned around and around in the living room, smacking the television, the couch, the wall, and he fell over as three cops charged down the paneled hallway. They took the gun. He wished he had used the gun, that he’d’ve charged the pigs firing, that maybe he’d have had a better chance and he wouldn’t’ve been so humiliated, that maybe there would have been glory in risking it all in the fight. It was too late now. In the County Correctional Facility, with its rules of etiquette for guards and inmates alike, there was humiliation. Humiliation of the slightest, insidious kind, lacking in real volume, but running rich in quantity. Cheap worn orange jumpers. No television remotes. Bland reading. The chained shuffling of newcomers. Showers in the small open stall. No toilet seat. The boredom. Twice a week the kids and first-timers in C Pod of A Block took recreation in a wooden gym in the center of the prison complex, where fierce games of basketball took place, and where if you didn’t play, you got out of the way. Wool stretched, leg high on the wall, even with his head and bounced to touch his nose to his knee. With no identity, no look, no style, with even the colored bands of his tube socks scissored off, Wool remained a single name to the other inmates, and a cell number to the voices on the intercom. He made no friends, but he worked hard a developing a mystique. A deck of cards with three jokers and no jack of spades became a constant companion, and he spun the cards around his fingers and back palmed the only blue joker in the deck. The card movements represented other cleverness he might know. The karate stretches learned from Herm, practiced now during recreation, became representative of cunning and speed that he might have as a martial artist, and when asked about his skill in either cards or karate, he just grimaced and in a small side-to-side, shook his head, lying in his silence. They took the grimace for modesty, or reluctance to talk of something that was so obvious, and each person walked away from Wool certain he had abilities, although undefined. He learned the overnight search had been a hunt for a shank, some piece of metal or plastic used as a weapon. Wool had no idea where someone might get such a scrap, but he was sure the veterans would know. He had watched as Carmine, locked in solitary in the end cell of the bottom row, spit words out under his cell door and convinced Mike to slip him a cigarette. The small reinforced window in the cell was papered on the outside and Carmine was bored, too. From a transitional inmate, who had been given permission to wheel the meal cart around, Mike traded three milks and several rolls of toilet paper for a pack of Marby reds. The television was just within reach on the wall, and the power cord went into an inaccessible opening on the wall, the cord available. Part of the rubber insulator had been worn away, exposing both twisted cables of copper. Mike touched them together, sparking them, lighting the cigarette to flame, and with a few puffs, passed it a couple of times, jogged to Carmine’s cell and slipped it under the door. Two minutes later a fight broke out in the meal line. The T.I., serving Mike, flailed with an instrument and spooned out Mike’s eye, a fair trade for soured milk. As the commotion settled Wool leaned on the wall under the television. “You got a stick?” they asked him, thinking he meant to spark the cord, thinking he had a cigarette, but he shook his head in a terse left-to-right motion, and with a book in his mouth and a grimace he held the two bared patches of copper together. The flyleaf caught, and burned orange on the edge. He took it back to his cell and pulled the door shut behind him, the stack of books on the concrete platform, and sat on the floor. He watched the book burn, the smoke drift indecisively, and threw it on the pile of books where he lay his head at night.

author avatar
Grant Barrett