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Fiction #184
(published July 1, 2004)
Bail Bonds
by Geoffrey Baumgartner

Today was the most fun I've had in jail so far. Maybe exciting or eventful would seem like a better choice of words, but I'm sticking with fun. Days in the county lock up have a way of stretching out before you like one of those long desert roads you see in the movies. Moments can drip by slowly like a leaky faucet, and those are the times when you wonder how you'll ever get through this. That's where the smallest of distractions can help. Today was filled with distractions.

It started out the same. Breakfast at six. Three bites of rubbery egg product, one slice of white bread, a scoop of plain grits. To drink, there was a tiny carton of milk and you could have a Styrofoam cup of watered down chickaree instead of coffee. I hated to get up that early, and no one had to, but if you missed a meal you could guarantee you would spend the next 24 hours with your stomach growling even more than usual. It's always cold in here, they say it's to keep people from fighting, but mornings are the worst. The cold always makes me want the chickaree, but the chickaree always makes me want a cigarette.

They don't let you smoke in county jail. It's not like prison where a guy can eat well, smoke as much as he likes, and read whatever he wants. Not that I have been there, but I've heard. If you are going to serve less than 365 days you come here, anything more than that is prison time. Not smoking was tough for the first week I guess; now it only bothered me after my morning chickaree. It's strange how easy it is to quit something if you're given no chance of having it.

After breakfast, I left the day room and lay back down in my cell. The only book you were allowed to have was the tiny Bible they provided. At first that bugged me almost as much as the cigarettes, but eventually you realize getting upset about things only makes them worse. I climbed up to my top bunk and read some of Luke. Soon I got bored, as I usually do, and skipped to Revelations. It was the only one that could hold my interest for long. Genesis was good if you wanted to sleep in the afternoon.

My cell mate, a little Italian guy named Joey, was gone and I thought it would be a good time to go to the bathroom. That was something that would take longer to get used to than not smoking. The cells were very tiny, consisting of just the bunk, a tiny metal sink, a piece of wood that folded down from the wall to write on, and a toilet. My cell mate was constantly shitting at night when we weren't supposed to leave our cells, allowing me no escape. On the rare occasion that I went, I waited till he was gone. But still, everyone walking by your cell or in the day room could see you. It was the equivalent of sitting on a bowl in the middle of a roomful of strangers. Like I said, that would take longer to get used to. I remembered I should probably have a shower today as well. Another task I didn't look forward to.

I left my cell and looked around for the newspaper, hoping to get the crossword before someone else did. That little thing could make all the difference in the length of your day. Some guy already had begun to do it, but offered me the local section, which I took out of boredom. I saw a picture of a young guy who was accused of beating another guy to death, and I realized he was sitting at one of the metal tables near the TV where all the black guys played spades at night. He was sitting by himself, off to the side, and staring at the ground. I looked back at the picture and then at him. It was the same guy alright. I was caught off guard by the fact that there was actually a murderer in the same room with me. I wondered why he would be allowed in here. I realized since I never really talked to anyone much, it was possible that there were several murderers among me. I guess he had to sit in county jail before he saw a judge and got sentenced to prison. For the first time, I felt a real sense of danger at being locked up in here. It had simply never occurred to me that anyone was in here for a crime more severe than mine. Anyhow, I quit looking at him before he noticed, and I walked away.

Most of the guys in here manage to talk all day long, either to each other or with some of the more friendly guards that come in and out of our pod. Other guys spend all day on or in line for the telephone, making collect calls to girlfriends or buddies or lawyers. A couple of the guys who spent too long on the phones have swollen eyes to show for it. Much of the talking in here seems like loud bragging mostly. I found that you were less likely to get into any trouble if you kept quiet, but as I was heading toward the showers to see if one was open, a black guy named Rich was determined to tell me a story. He told me how he would get weed into the jail by having his friend bring it through in his ass during a visit. He said all you needed was a glass cigar tube and a dick-rubber.

"A what?" I asked him.

"A dick-rubber" he said again.

"Oh, okay." I said, realizing what he meant. The way he said it I thought he meant something that rubs ones dick. He told me that bringing something through in your ass was called suit-casing. I already knew that, though, and I told him I'd catch him later.

The showers were all occupied now so I waited nearby. This pretty looking white kid named Brian waved me into his cell to tell me how his commissary had been stolen during breakfast.

"I had some snack cakes, and a couple candy bars, and a red-hot sausage, and somebody stole them right from under my bunk!" he said.

I agreed that it was a shame. Then a big black guy came out of one of the showers and stood wet and naked in the entrance to Brain's cell. He looked up and down at Brian and matter-of-factly told him:

"I'ma fuck ya, boy. 'Cause I feel I can." Then he walked away. Brian didn't say a word, and I decided against a shower.

During lunch a fight broke out. I had finished my meager tray and was heading to the yellow Igloo cooler for a second cup of water since you are allowed two. In line, I saw a guy reach his hand into the top of the cooler to scoop out some ice when the guard wasn't looking. Two guys started beating him relentlessly until all three were dragged away to solitary. I didn't feel bad for the guy. It was common sense not to do something like that. Same as reaching over someone's tray. You could expect a beating. It was just one of the rules. I saw the kid Brian sitting at the end of one of the benches in front of his tray. A big guy with a hand down the back of his pants, rooting in his ass-crack, came up to him, took the hand out of his pants and jammed three stinking fingers into Brian's bologna sandwich.

"You gonna eat that?" he said, and Brian gave him the sandwich with a sigh. It made me mad because it was a dirty trick played on easy prey.

I wanted a nap, so I headed back to my cell for some Genesis, or maybe some Galatians for a change. Joey, my cell mate, was sitting on the bottom bunk looking into his hands.

"Did you see that fight?" I asked.

"I traded my lunch for this" he said, showing me what he was staring at. It was a small piece of rock which he told me this fat trustee named Dave had suit-cased in.

"You traded your lunch for that?" I asked him.

"I traded four trays for this." he said.

"You won't eat for over a day!" I said. It didn't really surprise me. Three weeks ago he traded two trays for a couple sips of alcohol that some of the guys make by saving their bread and fruit and letting it rot in a cup.

"How are you gonna smoke it?" I asked him.

"I dunno" he answered, "You don't think I could find a light somehow?"

"I dunno" I said. "I doubt it."

"You think I should eat it?" he asked me. "Will I get high if I eat it, or just sick?"

What did I know? He was the crack guy.

"I don't care what you do with it, as long as it's gone before they search cells" I said. We would both be in trouble if a guard found it.

"Maybe I'll eat it if I can't find a light" he said.

I decided not to participate in the conversation any more. Joey had told me that he worked at a machine shop on the outside making rivets, eyelets, and grommets. I didn't really know what that meant, but he said he spent his rent and food money on crack every time. I assumed that was what he was in here for, but had never asked. I opened the bible and read 'till I slept.

I awoke about two hours later to a low rumbling sound which was emanating from the entire jail, not just our pod, and Joey slamming his open hand into the bottom of my bunk from below.

"Wake up, man." he said. "Check these bitches out."

"What?" I grumbled.

"Outside. Look."

The long, thin, slat shaped window to our cell was a strip of glass set into the concrete that was about four feet high starting from the bottom bunk and running about a foot and a half above my top bunk. It was only about five inches wide, so in order to see through it and focus properly you had to choose an eye and mash that half of your face into the slat. I chose the right side. We are on the fifth floor of the building, so I scanned the parking lot and the street below. At first all I saw were well dressed men in suits, probably lawyers coming from or going to court, and the bail bonds place across the street. By now the low rumble had become an all out clamor, like a thunderstorm in the jailhouse. Inmates were screaming and hooting and banging on their bunks. Then I saw the source of the disturbance.

Two girls, one white and one black, were in the parking lot of the jail facing the building. The white girl had her shirt up over her bare breasts; the black girl was bent over, pulling her skirt up over her ass revealing her lack of panties. Then she turned around and showed her front. Both girls were beaming with smiles. They switched and the white girl pulled down her shorts while the black girl showed her breasts. Suddenly, they blew kisses and jumped into a car which sped off.

"Givin' the boys a treat" said Joey. "What beautiful, wonderful little whores."

"Probably fulfilling some boyfriends visitation wish." I said, mostly to myself.

The jailhouse didn't settle down again for a full ten minutes after the girls left and even then it only settled into a dull roar. Everyone was excited and restless now, talking in exaggerated speech about what the tits looked like, and what the ass looked like, and who had better on the outside, and so on. Some of the guards were all smiles and seemed to have enjoyed the performance almost as much as the prisoners, but others looked wary or distressed at the level of tension it had brought about. Like I said before, it was shaping up to be an interesting and eventful day.

It struck me as odd that I had also seen a naked woman when I was first arrested and being held at the police station. I was in the holding tank, waiting to be transported here. She was in the cell across from me, stone drunk and in wet clothes which she stripped off completely, not caring that I was watching. The officers at the station tried to get her to wear a robe, but she wouldn't have it. She was actually very beautiful, and I got to gaze upon her nude body lying on the floor of the cell, her breasts gently rising and falling with each breath. I watched her for six hours 'till my transport came. I thought how strange it was that I had seen three naked girls since my arrest. Exactly two more than I had seen the whole previous year as a free man. Everyone would have fresh fodder for their fantasies tonight.

Dinner was without incident, everyone just kept talking about the girls. Brian looked more timid than ever. The food was barely edible, and I gave my cup of shredded carrots and raisins to dick-rubber Rich. After the trays were collected, the guards passed out the playing cards, and a group of black guys started playing spades at the tables in front of the TV. I found myself watching a rerun of Prince of Bellaire. A new white guy noticed that the guys in front of the set were busy with their game and not watching the show. He got up and changed the channel to Seinfeld. I cringed as I stood up and backed away. I had made a similar mistake when I first got here. Two of the spade players looked up in disbelief and commanded the new guy to turn it back. They new guy told them to fuck themselves and he was beaten to the ground before the guards even saw who did it. The guy just stumbled back to his cell beaten and bloodied.

There was no arguing with the fact that the black guys ran the day room for the most part. Everyone talked with each other, but no one seemed as much at ease as most of the black guys did. The white guys and the handful of Spanish guys didn't really hang together as much, and were often scattered and looked confused. Sometimes a black guy would first come in to our pod and he was welcomed with loud vigor, like everyone knew him and he was coming back from vacation. The other black guys would ask, "Whatchoo do out there?" They didn't want to know what crime he had committed to get sent back, but rather what mundane things he had done with his free time. Whether or not he ate at his mother's house, and what he had, or whether or not he fucked his girlfriend. I felt that it might be very easy to become institutionalized after just a few visits. There was no guessing about what to do next here. Life was mapped out for you in the simplest of terms. Stay here. Eat your meals. Behave. Go to bed. For a moment, I felt almost glad to be here because my life was such a mess out there. Then I thought that my head must be screwing with me, and that I'd call my mother before the c.o.'s sent us off to our cells until tomorrow.

Night time after lights out is always the worst time for me. I sat in my bunk and replayed today's events for awhile. Then one final thing happened that made me laugh for the first time since I got here. A group of about six guys were huddled together near the outside of my cell, waiting for the guard to make his pass by our pod. I could hear some mumblings about a cigarette. Then one of them snuck off toward the television. When I first got here, the set was broken and the wall behind the mounted shelf where it sat was blackened and seared. Now I knew why. The guy reached behind the TV and began messing with the power cord. After a minute, there was a brief but radiant flash. Sparks bounced off the wall and showered to the floor. Then the guy began tip-toe-running back toward the group with a fistful of flaming toilet paper raised above his head, like some deranged Olympic torch bearer. They lit their cigarette and each got in two good drags before there was nothing left. I guess that was the end of TV for a while. Still, it was funny and I wished Joey had seen it. Necessity was truly the mother of invention. It would have given him some hope about finding a light for his hard earned little rock. But he had been sleeping for an hour now. He always slept easily. He woke up once to shit, and then fell back asleep after I told him I wanted that thing gone soon.

It depresses me some to think that so many little memorable things happened today. No doubt all my tomorrows will be like all my yesterdays here. Dull. Endless. A long desert road. A leaky faucet, dripping time. The way jail was intended to be. The first few nights here, I lay awake re-playing my entire life in my head, it seemed. Good memories, bad memories, childhood memories. Every relationship, every friend, every woman. Every triumph, every embarrassment. All the mistakes that led me here, and all the small victories that might have led me elsewhere. Then in the middle of it I would, out of habit, think to myself that I'd like to go to the book store tomorrow, or to the movies this weekend, or play that cd I just got. Those were bad moments.

I no longer lay down at night to let my mind wreak havoc on me. I sit up in my top bunk and press my eye to the narrow window of my cell, and I watch the sign across the street at the bail bonds place. In the evening the sign flashes neon purple. BAIL BONDS. . . BAIL BONDS. . . BAIL BONDS, over and over. And every night I am struck once again at how brilliant, how luminous that sign is, out there in the darkness, after a day of grey walls and grey faces. It reminds me that I have taken for granted every single thing in life. Even neon purple. I watch 'till I'm hypnotized. I watch 'till I can sleep. BAIL BONDS. . . BAIL BONDS. . . BAIL BONDS. . .

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