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Luxury Jail

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I’m glad I had a top bunk. It was my island of half-safety. And yet I must
acknowledge the threat may not have existed at all, because the way some tell it, the
Catawanee County jail is the Park Hyatt of Tennessee jailhouses. Two days ago, it was a
hot June Friday, and men of various ages, ethnicities, and attitudes were in a holding cell,
waiting to be processed, or “booked,” in correctional parlance. I was among them. Some
of us paced about, some sat on the long bench; others leaned against the wall or stood in
place. It was a long wait. Aside from the general shock of having upended my life, here
was the striking thing about that long wait: the manner in which the vocal ones discussed
the merits and drawbacks of the respective jails where they’d done time over the years. I
wondered what kind of losers I’d managed to surround myself with—these people who
compared jail stints as though they were a series of jobs or home addresses, as though
jail-hopping was a viable way of life. If I’m ever in a position to weigh the pros and cons
of multiple jails, please just end me.

There had been ten or twelve of us in that holding cell. I was one of the standers,
trying to will myself invisible–anything not to draw attention. Inside me was a bundle of
nerves, despair, and curiosity unlike anything I’d ever felt, and I knew this had to be the
only time I was ever in this predicament. We waited upwards of three hours. Some were
silent and miserable like me. Others chatted like it was a cocktail party or a networking
event. A stocky man with buzzcut red hair bounced happily, making small talk with those
nearest him. He was clearly a veteran of the system, a fact which seemed not to bother
him, and oddly, he was already in a jumpsuit. The rest of us still had street clothes on.
A different man, who’d been fidgety but quiet, dropped to one knee and pulled a pouch
from his shoe and rose back up and announced, “I don’t go anywhere without my
cocaine!” Nobody reacted much, but I wasn’t the only one peeking as he snorted bump
after bump. One last binge, I guess. How had he gotten it past the officers? Of course, the
real body search was yet to come; his contraband wouldn’t travel much further.

The painted block cell had a concrete bench along each wall, stopping only for an
aluminum toilet-and-sink combo in one corner, an apparatus sparer even than a similar
setup I’d used on an Amtrak train. On the wall above was a metal plate where a mirror
would be, but it was so dull and scuffed, you’d be lucky to make out a vague outline of
your head. I didn’t see how anyone could use that toilet, out in the open like that and with
other people around. Nevertheless, one man did. Mercifully, he only had to pee. The
holding cell was next to a large room with a big, crescent-shaped desk, where officers
milled about, shuffling bags of inmates’ belongings and scribbling on paperwork, happily
chitchatting. Their camaraderie contrasted with the anxiety of the holding cell. I gathered
that the big desk was ground zero for the alleged “booking” of inmates. Everything I
knew about jail came from television.

There were other holding cells attached to the main room. Mean faces peered
from those cells to ours, further intimidating those of us already afraid. Real predator-
prey vibes. My hackles were raised perpetually, my fight-or-flight response ever ready to
engage. Yet, a few feet from me, the buzzcut redhead was as carefree as a fox in a
cranberry bog.

Now, about that fast-approaching body search, an event sure to rack up further charges
against the holding-cell cocaine smuggler: when it was my turn, I was led into a tiled
enclosure with a pair of showerheads. It would’ve felt private were it not for the deputy
accompanying me, who commanded me to disrobe. The deputy became less a full person
and more just a latex-gloved hand with index finger and middle finger aimed at my
anus—I know, because I had to bend over, and I could see him coming. That man’s hand
is all I remember of him. He told me to squat, then he searched, feeling for contraband.
The violation wasn’t a bit sexual, but it was a violation, nonetheless. That’s when I knew
I was rubbish. Never before and never since have I been so humiliated. My sense of
dignity evaporated. A dousing of delousing powder and a short shower followed, all
under the faceless deputy’s gaze, and I slipped into what would be my uniform for the
weekend. I was scum.

Beyond booking, after it was finally my turn to go inside, the jail proved quite
unfamiliar. I had ideas about what it might be like from shows I’d seen, but the parts they
show you versus real-life walking through one–as an inmate, no less–are inexpressibly
different. A sizable gap between spectator and participant does exist. Night had fully set
in. I could see it through the narrow slits that served as windows, much too narrow for a
person to fit through, understandably. The jail, or at least the part I was privy to,
consisted of a large common area with tables and a television mounted high on the wall,
and radiating from this common area were two floors of pods filled with bunk beds.
These pods held maybe ten sets of bunks each and were vaguely pentagonal—I never
counted the sides, but it felt geometric in nature. The common area was separated from
the main hallway by glass, which I imagine was tempered and shatterproof and
bulletproof and reinforced in whatever ways glass can be. The lights were off in the pods,
and many of the inmates must have already been sleeping. It was ghostly quiet as the
deputy led me through the darkness in search of an open bed, using only a flashlight and
the light bleeding in from the common area. It was like crashing a giant sleepover for
adults, and to wake the wrong one could be perilous. Unnatural, this feeling of tiptoeing
through a compound of strange, sleeping men.

I had only thought of Wallis sparingly. She was the woman I was sleeping with
and casually dating. The casual part was all on her end—it was clear she could take or
leave me, but I was hooked. A friend told me I was in lust, not love, but I was convinced
it was love. Wallis was uniquely pretty, effortlessly seductive, and had a chihuahua that
liked to shit on the floor. More than once, I stepped on a turd on my way to the bathroom
in the dark, yet the shit was so small and solid it hardly seemed like shit at all, more like
Silly Putty. Shit is shit, though, so I complained, but that accomplished nothing, because
the little imp was a demi-god with full run of the apartment—Wallis’s apartment, that is.
We’d sit on the balcony for hours, Wallis smoking weed and me drinking whiskey, both
of us smoking cigarettes. The chihuahua, Thor, had the advantage of being cute and of
being owned by the woman I was obsessed with, so I tolerated him. For all the time we
spent together, though, Wallis refused to acknowledge we had a relationship. I don’t
know what she thought we were doing. She simply wouldn’t talk about it, so I never
knew where I stood with her. A lonely man will tolerate much for the attention of a pretty
woman, and I knew that the moment I was out of jail, I’d go right back to her apartment.
Anyway, here I was, tiptoeing through this mostly-dark jail pod with a deputy who’d had
his fingers in my asshole moments before. I was a guest at a terrible weekend retreat
where no one could leave, the aesthetic was the wrong kind of minimal, and humility and
indignity were baked into the experience–all of which is the point, I know. The deputy
finally shone his flashlight on an empty bed—the aforementioned top bunk. He set a
blanket, a small toiletry kit (no metal, nothing sharp), and the book I’d brought with me
on the mattress. Slowly I climbed the frame at one end, trying not to shake it and wake
the guy on the bottom. I could tell there was a body there, but it never stirred. The deputy
gave some instructions that I didn’t really hear and then turned and waddled off, the beam
of his flashlight disappearing past a doorless doorway.

I lay down, doubtful that sleep would find me. No pillow, just a very thin blanket,
which proved surprisingly sufficient to keep me warm in the cold jail. Must’ve been the
material. I guessed it to be wool, but then I’m kind of dumb about such things. For all I
knew, it was some special prison blend designed for cheap mass production and sold in
bulk to correctional facilities and the military. Physically, I managed to get comfortable,
but mentally, I was a wreck. There was despair at my predicament, but it was more than
that. A broad agitation encompassed many feelings: regret at having gotten caught;
shame at what people must think, were they to ever find out; fear of the unknown, but
also, a curiosity about incarceration, about life on the inside. No, it wasn’t prison—there
weren’t violent felons lurking about with shivs, making booze in toilets and plotting
against rival gangs—but it was the closest to that type of thing I was likely to come, God-
willing, being mostly a law abider with no inclination to hurt or steal and a strong sense
of which authorities not to cross. Yet the curiosity gets shuffled aside, replaced by the
despair, and then the regret, the shame, the fear—all of this in constant rotation, as I lay
there on that top bunk, warm under the jail blanket.

Time creeped. There was little noise: distant snoring, a crackling of mattress. I
longed for sunrise, when I could better assess my surroundings. Any amount of
reassurance would’ve been welcome, like the way morning light can diminish a night’s
terror. No steady stream of sleep was to be, though. There may have been moments of
unconsciousness, but I can’t be sure. What is remembered is the intermittent re-
positioning of my body in futile attempts to attain a state of rest. Another thing: when
your only choice is to stay put, it’s hard not to feel useless. Even a forty-eight hour jail
stint holds a yearning for purpose. And here’s something I find surprising over and over
again: true leisure does not exist. Wallis said, “Enjoy your weekend of relaxation,” i.e.,
your weekend of jail, in which nothing is required of you but to be there—no work detail,
no cafeteria service, no laundry duty—nothing to do but lie about, the only exception
being the obligatory Alcoholics Anonymous origin story film and discussion class, in
which they pressure you to admit uncomfortable things (for the record, I stood my
ground). But the weekend could not be called restful, it was merely existence.

When it was time for the AA class, it was nice to be with a smaller group in a
quiet room, darkened for the film. We were all weekenders. It was less intimidating than
the buzzing and humming pod and cavernous common area. In the discussion that
followed, one of my fellow delinquents claimed he didn’t believe in alcoholism or
addiction of any sort; he said addiction was in the mind, and that if you didn’t think you
were an addict, then you weren’t. His name was Michael, and, apart from the AA class,
all he did that weekend was either sleep or pretend to sleep. I could see him lying there
whenever I walked to the toilets, prone on his bunk, face buried in the crook of his elbow.

After class, there was a long walk down some corridors to get back to the pod. It
was three other men and me, and one of them boasted about fucking his girlfriend one
last time before turning himself in, implying that those forty-eight hours in jail were depriving
him of some life-saving treatment: critical coitus. Midway down a long hall, the same guy jumped,
kicked a leg out and farted, pumping his arm like he was ejecting a shotgun shell. He assumed
we were amused. I can’t speak for the others, but I couldn’t stand him, with his tapered black
hair and sneering lips, his small and slightly athletic build suggestive of the kind of guy
who plays pick-up basketball with strangers at the Y. He disgusted me, and he quickly
became an emblem of everything I hated about the place—the pathetic men slouching round
and comparing jail stints, the lack of privacy, the general put-upon-ness of being detained.
His face became a symbol of the whole sad experience. I never knew his name, and I don’t
want to know it.

Back in the pod, inmates were tooling about, their movements purposeful. I felt
like the only one who didn’t know what to do with himself. Many of them had returned
from some type of work detail. A tiredness attended them, like that of laborers at day’s
end. Their pay must’ve been pennies. A skinny, long-haired man strolled through the
bunk room plumbing a cup of ramen with a plastic spoon, and I wondered where he’d
gotten water hot enough for the noodles. He clearly savored it, and I found myself a little
envious. It had to be secret jail knowledge—how to obtain water hot enough to hydrate a
cup of ramen. There must’ve been a microwave somewhere, which I wasn’t inside long
enough to discover, and I wasn’t about to go exploring. The man was close to my age, his
jaw stubbly and his longish hair a greasy blonde. On the outside, we might’ve sat at a bar
laughing, things made funnier by intoxication. We could’ve been drinking buddies.

At intervals, I tried to read. The book I brought was much too thick for a
weekend, even if I’d been able to concentrate. It was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the
Rose, and the prose was dense. I’d read it before and loved it and thereby could rely on it for
psychological comfort while stuck in jail, or at least that was my logic. Engaging and
humorous as the book is under normal conditions, however, the effort was futile. I’m not
sure what, if anything, would’ve made for effective reading this weekend, with it being
my first time in and everything so new and overwhelming. Crossword puzzles, maybe.
It’s not reading in the narrative sense, but it uses words and can distract the mind in a
non-committal way. Ill-fated reading aside, there is something to be said for the mere
presence of Umberto Eco in the Catawanee County Jail, its bulk solely mine in a place
where nothing else was. I could hold it and look at its cover and the simple maps inside,
and I could smell the pages.

In a perfect example of the way coincidences can be meaningless, the man in the
neighboring bunk had the same first name as me, lived in the same part of town, and was
in jail for the same reason. How about that? I would see him a few times over the years,
either in a sports bar or restaurant, and it always embarrassed me, like we’d shared a lap
dance with the same stripper in a moment of vulnerability, and each feared the other
would out us in the presence of people we knew. I could see he felt it, too, but we only
ever said hi. And the person I was with might say, “Who was that?” and I’d say, “Just
somebody I used to see at the Red Door.”

When mealtimes came, shouts of “grub” would echo off the concrete walls. From
the second-floor balcony, I could see a man in white wheeling in a cart, a line forming
already. The man with the cart handed out paper bags. Lunch on Saturday was a peanut
butter sandwich and a child-size carton of milk. I sat by myself in the common area,
eating the depressing meal at one of the round, stainless-steel tables, all of which were
anchored to the floor by steel posts, like they’d grown there. The stools around them were
smaller versions of the same. Steel flowers in a cement garden. Nothing was moveable.
At least people were leaving me alone. I stared at the television high on the wall, where
numbered cars were zooming round a track, their sponsors’ logos like stamps of
ownership. It struck me that my situation was similar to that of being on layover at an
airport. I could sit at the cold, hard table as long as I wanted, waiting for time to pass, just
as at an airport, I might sit on the same plastic seat for hours, waiting for my flight. This
made the situation more bearable.

They let you have a pencil and paper. Saturday night, I sat on my bunk and wrote
several pages of whatever came to mind. Wallis was the intended audience–something
for her to read when I got out. I wrote about how I wished I was hanging out with her,
and how seeing Thor wouldn’t be so bad, given the current situation. Sometimes we
played pool at the sports bar near her apartment. That’s where I longed to be. She had her
own cue stick, which she’d remove from its case and ceremoniously screw together
beside the coin-operated table. She probably didn’t miss me at all and certainly wasn’t
worried about me. I bet she was sitting on her third-floor balcony, up high with the pine
branches, holding that damn dog and laughing with her roommates, all of them stoned.
That she considered forty-eight hours in Catawanee County Jail a weekend retreat should
have told me something, but I was love-blind, or lust-blind. One or the other.

Dinner was nominally better: a slab of meatloaf and a baked potato with butter.
There was also a fruit cup with pink, squishy chunks, vaguely melon-like. If the cafeteria
continuum ranges from school food to hospital food, then this fell somewhere in the
middle, though I did avoid the mystery melon. The deep compartments of the plastic tray
made it easy to carry without spilling anything, so I took it to my bunk. A lot more men were
at the tables than there had been at lunch, and the noise in the common area
reflected that–thus, my decision to eat alone. My goal was to go unnoticed. I was
intimidated by the camaraderie these men must surely share, which would make lonely
little me a target. The guy I’d met earlier, who shared my name and neighborhood, was
eating on his bunk, too, but we didn’t talk to each other. It was best that way.

The toilets were in a large passage adjacent to the common area, at the opposite
end from the bunk pods. The stalls were all doorless. Anyone could walk by and see you
at your most vulnerable. This was one of the more hellish aspects, me having always
been exceedingly private about such things. If someone conceived a version of hell
specifically for me, it would include open toilets. Mother Nature spared me any
embarrassment, but imagine being there longer than I was. One can’t hold on indefinitely.
I never saw the showers, presumably beyond the toilets down that large passage. They
must have been a similar hell. That anyone could go about the usual hygienic routines in
a place like that was beyond me. Of course, we do what we have to do.

Sleep came more readily Saturday night. It helped knowing the majority of my
sentence was over. I realize it’s laughable to talk about being “on the inside” when it was
only a forty-eight hour stint. Many of those guys had been there for months, and several
were likely to land in a penitentiary at some point. They must have resented us
weekenders. I found it hard to dwell on that though, because I was getting out.

When I opened my eyes, it was day, and this was an enormous relief. Sunday had
come. For a while I lay there, curled under the blanket and able to truly relax for the first
time. A few inmates were up and going about their mornings, but there was no work
detail, and the pod was the calmest and quietest it had been all weekend. I decided to read
and managed more pages in an hour than I had the whole day before. Passages I had
underlined and circled from the earlier reading took on new dimensions. They became
sacred text:

“…full knowledge, the learning of the singular.”

“…signs and the signs of signs are used only when we are lacking things.”

“Images are the literature of the layman.”

Entire essays could be pulled from these fragments: critiques on religion and
social class, epistemology and linguistics, visual art. At the end of an anxious weekend
where I’d felt trapped in someone else’s world, I could feel myself returning–the old
interests, the old crutches of my daytime thinking life. Soon I would be leaving never to
return. Hard lessons had been learned. Jail had done its job.

When I was booked on Friday, I had been allowed to use the phone to arrange for
someone to pick me up on Sunday. It had been impossible to find anybody. They were
either out-of-town or simply didn’t answer. It’s not like I had many people I could rely on.
Wallis was too paranoid to come that close to a law enforcement facility, because her life
revolved around getting high on illegally obtained substances. The signs couldn’t have
been clearer that she was no good for me. Finally, I was able to leave a voicemail for a
friend-of-a-friend named Robert. There was no way for me to know if he’d get the
message or be able to help. All I could do was hope.

The morning hours dragged. I couldn’t stop looking at the big clock on the
common area wall, close to where the television was showing a church service. There
was no way of knowing when an officer would come for me, but I knew it must be
getting close.

It might have been my imagination, but I thought I could sense a general
resentment. Every Sunday, I bet, the men with lengthy sentences saw group after group
of weekenders get called to the heavy door, where a deputy waited to guide them to

I read a few pages, occasionally watching the inmates who were up and moving,
careful not to make eye contact. Bonds had formed between some of them, it was
obvious. The tendency is to look at a person in jail and guess what they are there for. The
next thing you know, you’ve created a backstory for the frumpy middle-aged man who
looked like he’d been there a long time, completely at ease. He was in his element,
conversing with his bunkmate. He was a man resigned to his fate, which is admirable in
the abstract. This reverie was interrupted by the approach of a deputy. I could see him
through the big glass wall. The door opened, and a name was called out. Not mine. It was
one of the other weekenders. This gave me hope, though, because it meant the process
had begun.

When I stepped into the hot glare of Sunday afternoon, no one was waiting for
me. No car idled outside the rolling gate, but they wheeled it open all the same. They
were finished with me. Rather than worry about having no ride, though, I took off
walking, as if it was the start of an adventure. When I turned the corner, my belongings in
a bag and thinking they could no longer see me, I wanted to run. It was an impulse like
Barry Keeler had years ago when he finally hit a shot in the church basketball league, and
his run back down the court was filled with his thrill, both heartening and pathetic. I may
have been a low-life, but now I was a free low-life. My body grimy from a couple of
showerless days, I bounded through the grass by the road that led into town. That strip of
grass was greener, and the sky arching over was bluer. The grandeur of ordinary trees had
swollen. Newly freed eyes, even after only forty-eight hours, are a revelation.

To my left, a long, low warehouse stretched the length of about three blocks. As I
reached the halfway point of the structure, I looked up and a car was turning off Highway
13, maybe a tenth of a mile ahead, and coming my direction. It slowed as it drew near,
and I thought they must be turning on one of the perpendicular streets, but they didn’t.
Instead, the little sedan slowed to a stop right beside me, and the driver was smiling up at
me through the passenger window. It was Robert, the friend-of-a-friend I’d left a
voicemail with on Friday.

“Hey, man! I was scared I missed ya!” he said.

“Dude, I’m just glad you’re here! I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

“Get in!” he said.

I settled into the passenger seat, my bag in my lap. Though I’d embraced the idea
of an adventure getting home, I was nevertheless relieved to see him, my brain still
humming with the high of recent release. An open can of beer was in the cup holder. He
noticed me looking.

“You want one?”

Alan D. Tucker is a native Tennesseean who relays his experience of the world through literary-fictive storytelling. He holds a Master of Arts in English and considers fiction the most authentic way of portraying the human experience. His work has appeared in Avalon Literary Review and Novus Literary Arts Journal.