“Waiting on the Stress Boxes” was originally published November 2014 in Front & Centre, Issue 29.
Like a crab tank, that’s how it felt. Being locked up in the County Jail was just like being in the tank at the Crab Shack with the men waiting to be plucked and consumed by some judge or jury. There were 48 of them in that tiny space the jail called a pod, and like the crab tank, all 48 of them were in motion, crawling across each other. There were men working out, men playing cards, men watching TV, men in towels coming back from a shower, men beating on tabletops and chanting the lyrics to rap songs.
Nathan leaned back in one of the jail’s plastic chairs, the legs bending underneath him, threatening to give way despite his slim build. He patted his head, where his braids were held together with rubber bands, and took it all in. He’d done time in juvie before, once, but this was his first piece as an adult. Pretty much it was the same–same clothes, same food, same rules, even same people–except for the noise. The pod contained and amplified everything. Sounds ricocheted off the white concrete walls and the stainless steel doors, up 30 feet to the hard tile roof and back into his seat.
A card player slammed his palm on the tabletop. “Beat this, mother . . . ”
In another corner, one man pounded the beat while another chanted, “Slaves to the system, a piston shot of sweat, slaves to the mother, the brothers still a threat.”
On television, a talk show squared off husband against wife. ” . . . you gone and (long beep) that little tramp . . . “
In the corner, men did “burpees,” an exercise that combined push ups with squats, punctuated by a hard slap to the stomach. “Four!” yelled the group leader, drumming his flabby gut. “Four,” the others grunted, a half beat slow.
Back at the card table, the men shared their troubles. ” . . . check this out. My lawyer said he could get me eight years with half time. I told that man I’m not taking it. There’s dudes killed people got less time than that . . . “
The noise was worse than a ghetto bird. Nathan covered his ears to focus on one thing: the bank of phones opposite. All day he’d waited for a break in the action, but they were busier than a bookie’s office on Super Bowl Sunday. Not seconds after one man hung up, another got on. Of course, there was no line. Like everything else in jail, the phones followed rules of dominance. The big dog went first and so on through the pack. If there was time at the end, a pup like Nathan might have a chance. That time hadn’t come.
The bitch of it was, two phones sat unused, but he didn’t dare try them. Nathan touched his face, which felt puffy and tender, and fingered his ripped collar. These were reminders of the morning’s lesson, when he’d picked up an unused line. Before he could finish dialing, a thick arm clicked off the receiver.
“That phone ain’t for you.”
A white man–shorter but thicker in his naked chest– eyeballed him. The Aryan rubbed his shaved head, then curled his lip into a frown that mimicked his handlebar mustache.
“What are you, the phone police?” Nathan said.
“I’m here to explain it to you. See, this phone is ours. You use the one on the end.” He pointed to where an old junky leaned against the wall cradling the receiver like a dog does a ham bone.
“I’m already here,” Nathan said.
Three skinheads stood together and walked over, surrounding him.
“You’re not understanding,” said a deep voice behind him.
The first blow hit his ribs, so heavy the thud sounded as though it came from outside him. From there they came too fast to count, like hail on a windshield. Feet and fists battered him from every angle. Instinctively, Nathan curled to protect his chest and face. His arms stopped some blows, but even those stung. Punches to his back and neck knocked him off balance, and he ended up on the ground curled like a dead baby. Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped. Nathan held tight a moment to be sure, then peeked out. The pod had resumed its old rhythm, everyone ignoring him. A guard opened the door, hands on pudgy hips.
“What’s the matter?” he said, looking at Nathan.
The first skinhead said, “He slipped.”
Nathan let the explanation alone and limped to a chair, every move revealing a new hurt.
Since then he’d learned that every organization claimed a phone and protected it with the vigor of a dog in its backyard. The 415 had theirs, the Nortenos theirs, the Aryans theirs. That left one phone for the unaligned, which was most of the pod.
From where he sat, Nathan saw the wall clock, but it’d told the same time ever since he’d arrived. He figured there was about half an hour left of pod time. If he didn’t call now, he’d have to wait another day at least, and who knew what tomorrow would be like.
A pimp at the neutral phone was squeezing the receiver like it was a dumbbell, fist clenched, teeth gritted.
“You messing up, girl,” he said.
He leaned forward and hunched over the receiver like he could intimidate it.
“Girl, you messing up.”
Spit flew from his mouth, spraying the old gangster next to him. The man jumped back as though it was poison and glared with malevolence, but the caller was too p.o.’ed to notice.
“You messed up, girl!”
He slammed down the receiver three times, stalked to a corner, crashed into a chair, and stared at the phone with hatred. The card players watched and the men doing burpies paused, but they quickly returned to their business. In the pod the phones were called stress boxes. Now Nathan knew why.
The break was what he needed, though. Whether reminded of their helplessness, or waiting for the spit to dry, none of the other inmates took the opening. Nathan limped over, his baggy clothes and plastic flip flops trying to trip him with every step. He glanced behind, but no one was paying him any mind. Calmly, he dialed.
“After the tone, state your name,” a mechanized female voice said.
Cupping his hand over the receiver so no one could hear, Nathan spoke.
“Please hold while we see if your party will accept the charges.”
The phone rang five times before someone picked up.
“Will you accept a collect call from . . . ” Nathan heard his own voice speaking his name, “. . . who is calling from a California penal institution?”
After another pause, Nathan heard his grandmother.
“Baby, how are you?”
“Are they treating you well?”
“Yeah, it’s cool.”
“Are your meals okay?”
“What about the others, are they God-fearing men?”
Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the men slamming down cards, jogging in place, and shouting at the TV.
“They tell you yet why they arrested you?”
“No. Listen, they set my bail at ten G’s. You think you can get it?”
“Baby, you know I don’t have that much money. Lord, if I did . . . “
“What about my uncle?”
“He doesn’t make that much, not setting tile . . .”
“Your sister got cash.”
“Not when I tell her what it’s for. You know how she hates the law.”
“You ain’t have to tell her what it’s for.”
“You know she’s going to ask, baby.”
Nathan didn’t want to beg, but he had to get out quick. After checking behind him once more for ear hustlers, he cupped the receiver with both hands.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you how to get into my stash.”
Mrs. Goode was silent a moment, then stifled a sob.
“What?” he said.
“Because I won’t tolerate no sinning in my house. The way those police came up in here, you’d think we was raising the devil.”
“It’s not like that, grandma. All you got to do is take it down to the courthouse.”
“Well, I don’t know, Nathan. That’s a long ways on them busses, and you know how I hate that place ever since your granddaddy passed.”
“I know, but they ain’t nobody else.”
“I just don’t know, Nathan.”
A voice broke in over the loudspeaker, overpowering all other sounds. “Lock down!”
The phone went dead and beside him the other callers hand gestured toward the control tower. Nathan leaned his head against the phone box and dropped the receiver.
Hours later, Nathan lay staring at the concrete ceiling three feet from his face. Moonlight from a skinny window next to him shadowed its bumps and cracks. That stripe was the room’s only light and the only sign of the outs. All night he’d been replaying what led him to this.
The police broke down his back door and went straight to his supply, patting down on the brown paper package like it had “dope” written on it in Sharpie. Somebody had to of snitched. But who? It wasn’t his supplier, Squeak. No way he’d give up his best salesman. Plus, Squeak told everyone when they started “anything go wrong, you on your own.” Maybe it was one of his customers, some trembling freak who’d got pinched and couldn’t take the 30 days in county he had coming. Only Nathan never dealt out of his house, not wanting his grandmother to know what he did. He didn’t even used the phone at home, so she wouldn’t overhear on accident. Must be his new runner, Rondo. That man was as overtrusting as they came, carrying the package around like a football, not even hiding it in a grocery bag, ringing the front doorbell instead of coming round back like he’d been told. It had to be him.
Worse, in a year on the street Nathan hadn’t even saved bail money. Instead of stacking it up, he’d spent all his scrilla on video games and fast food, alcohol and clothes. Like that, he’d never get together enough for a real business, which had been his plan from the jump, to open a shop not even the police could take down, selling T-shirts, computers, watches, it didn’t matter. Guys from the neighborhood had done it. They’d roll up in a car, pop the trunk, and in a few minutes they’d be gripping a fat roll. Some were no older than him and definitely no smarter. How hard could it be? You bought stuff across the Bay and marked it up five bills. And you were dealing with real people, not junkies and hustlers. How close could he have been by now?
Below, Nathan’s cellie rolled over and belched, releasing refried beans and stale baloney up to his bunk. So far the crusty o.g.’s only words had been “turn out that light.” The ancient convict didn’t look like much: a dark-skinned brother with graying hair, a thin build, and sloping shoulders, which he rolled back to make himself look bigger. You couldn’t tell with these o.g.s, though, which were just old guys and which were original gangsters. And you damn sure didn’t want to get it wrong, not locked into a six by eight cell.
“Boy, what is you doing?” the o.g. said.
“That tapping! What you think this is, a club?”
Nathan turned onto his stomach to pin his arms beneath him.
“You nervous as a J cat. I knew I shouldn’t of let them put me in with no youngster.”
“Go to sleep.”
“I would if you’d give me a noise check. What is you doing up?”
Nathan stayed silent. Since arriving in jail he’d spoken to almost no one, and those he lied to. If he watched and listened long enough he’d figure things out solo.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he finally said.
“You stressing about your case? Cause you know it won’t do no good.”
“Naw, my business. You feel me?”
“You got some bad news from the outs?”
“Why you think that?”
“I’m already knowing. If it ain’t your case it got to be somebody back home. You ain’t tied into the politics, yet.”
The overhead vent blew cold; Nathan wrapped himself more tightly in his thin blanket.
“How you know if somebody snitched you off?” he asked.
“Everybody in here snitch if it serves they purpose,” the o.g. said. “Don’t you believe all that about a convict code. Every man in here sell out his brother if the offer is right.”
“No, I mean on the outs. How you find out if somebody turned on you?”
The old convict whistled long and slow like the air escaped him involuntarily.
“You find out quick enough. Soon as you go to court, they have to put your snitch on the stand.”
His next court date was a month away.
“What about my lawyer, you think he help?”
“The public pretenders? They just cops in suits.”
In a nearby cell, a toilet flushed, the vacuum sucking the air out of the whole cellblock.
“You got to find the snitch yourself iffn you want to get out of that dope case.”
“Why you think I’m in here for dope?”
“I’m already knowing. You can slice somebody up, stick them in your freezer, and sell them in cookies, nobody care. But you get caught with dope, you a public enemy.”
As Nathan drifted to sleep, the cell doors buzzed open. He glanced out the window but saw only darkness.
“What’s up?” he said.
“Feeding,” the o.g. said.
“We get breakfast before light?”
“It keeps the peace. Not even the most combative cats want to fight before sun up.”
Like the o.g. said, not even half the inmates showed. A few talked quietly, but most were silent outside the scrape of plastic utensils on metal trays. Nathan stared at his slop of mashed puddings, the shot glass of neon red juice, and the dry orange, but ate only a little. A belch brought back the sponge cake of scrambled eggs he’d tried, only this time mixed with stomach acid. Sickened, he looked out the two-story wall of Plexiglass on one side of the cell block. Those invisible walls divided the jail into identical pods–dozens of them, from what Nathan heard, though he could see only the one perpendicular.
He was cut off. No information got in. The newspapers had all the local articles cut out. The TVs were permanently tuned to talk shows. Even the phones were off limits, which was a real bust since his grandmother would definitely be up already. Usually she caught the first bus of the morning to open the preschool where she worked.
He was zoning toward the pod diagonal when a familiar figure came into focus: pudgy build, light skin, hair sectioned down the middle and tied into two afro puffs like Mickey Mouse ears. It had to be his runner, Rondo. Eating, he looked like a dog at its bowl, throwing down the food as fast as his fingers could grab it. If that plastic wall hadn’t of stood between them . . .
But if Rondo was the snitch, what was he doing there? People snitched to keep out of jail. He must of got picked up at the same time, which meant he had gotten snitched off, too.
Nathan stood, stretched his arms overhead, and sidled to the Plexiglass. He patted his braids, waiting for Rondo to notice, but the hush puppy was fixated on his food. Nathan pounded on the plastic, but it was three inches thick and absorbed all sound. Finally, when his dish was empty, Rondo looked up. Seeing Nathan, he smiled, sidled to the window, and shrugged as if to say “what can you do?”
With his finger, Nathan air wrote only a single word, backwards, so Rondo would not have to reverse the letters.
Even stripped down, Rondo still had to mouth the message. He wrote back:
You are g. You’re gangster?
Rondo’s face looked sad, like he was embarrassed at the compliment.
G? Nathan wrote back.
Rondo nodded slowly as though it was painful.
From overhead, a deputy’s voice interrupted.
“Lock down, gentleman. Lock down.”
For hours after, a rolling blackout left the jail at half power, the lights dimmed, the A/C cut off. Nathan sweated a damp spot on his bunk and mouthed song lyrics to make the time pass. Still, Rondo’s message gnawed at him. U.R.G. Was he trying to prep Nathan for a long stay?
By nighttime, when the deps finally opened the doors again for pod time, the phones were everyone’s addiction. Days would pass before they all finished.
Nathan began pacing the pod, but the repetition added to his tension, so he took the stairs to the second tier. At the top step he spun and jogged down, pausing only long enough to reverse course. Even in plastic flip flops, he hardly felt the concrete under his soles. It was like running stadiums back in football practice. His breathing came in quick huffs. Sweat ran from his lower back and armpits, collected in his hair, dripped down his face and into one eye. He ignored it. He was caught up in the rhythm of his breathing and the beating in his chest. Soon all he could hear or feel was the padding of his feet. Time passed. Finally, his breath gave out in a burst. He stood gasping until his heart had slowed enough that he could walk upright. Downstairs, he collapsed into a chair. It was the first relief he’d felt in days.
He tried not to look at the phones, fearing it would jinx his chances, but cheated once. Again two sat empty, but his was taken up by the same J. cat berating his girl. If she wasn’t hearing it the first time, what good was repeating it?
In the center of the room, Nathan’s cellie pushed back from the card table richer by four cartons of instant soup. He strutted a victory lap then headed toward Nathan.
“You figure it out?” the o.g. said.
“Get a message to the outs?”
“Waiting on the phone.”
Without another word, the o.g. crossed the pod and whispered in the ear of another card player. The man must of been in his 40s, short and stocky, with hair braided into thick dreds. He glanced at Nathan, flicked a half-inch nail on his ring finger, and nodded once.
Checking the room, Nathan saw no one was paying him any mind. He limped to the phone and dialed. It rang twice, gave only static, and finally a human voice.
“Nathan, is that you?”
“You know it, gramma.”
“How’ve you been? I’ve been praying for you.”
“Thanks. Listen, you think on what I asked?”
“You mean the money? I thought about nothing else since.”
“I can’t do it. I’m sorry, but the good Lord won’t let me.”
“What do you mean? All you got to do is take the bus . . .”
“That’s not what I mean.”
In the background, his grandmother’s mantle clock struck seven times.
“The other day, when your friend came by, I knew it was a bad sign.”
“Who, Rondo? He’s just a dude I met.”
“No, Nathan, I know. I’ve been knowing something wasn’t right for a long time, but I’ve been afraid to say something. So I prayed on it, and finally the Lord give me the answer. That day, He told me I had to set things right.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you have to atone for what you done.”
Suddenly, it made sense, what Rondo had signed to him: U.R.G. Your grandmother. Nathan’s grandmother had rolled over on both of them.
“It was you called the police?”
“I had to. There was no other way to get you out of that life. You out in the street so much, I don’t even see you. And I’m not letting that kind of sin into my house, not for you or no one. So you have to make your peace with it, too, and in time the Lord will forgive you. Once you get right, my home is open. But first you got to atone for what you done.”
Nathan hung up without a goodbye and stared out the Plexiglass to the guard’s booth, where a mirrored window reflected his image: his lean limbs, swimming in that yellow jumpsuit, his hair dented on one side, his face yellowed with bruises. For the first time, he understood.
This place was a crab tank, but so was the outs. This whole life was one big crab tank, where as soon as you tried to climb up the slick glass to escape, some other crab would claw you back down.
David Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane mystery series. During his first run at office, Duncan Cochrane’s daughter is murdered in his mansion along Chicago’s lakefront. He must use the bully pulpit of the campaign to seek her killer and avenge her death.