The receiving end of this phone smells like shit. Like the dried spit of every inmate that has used it. Thousands of mouths spitting sob stories and tears and gingivitis through wires and into the ears of the people who cared the most and who were the sickest of hearing. This is what I think as the phone rings, as I hear the buzz in my ear like a belch down a distant hallway. I think of how my phone smells like unbrushed mouth and how hers probably smells like peppermint. “Pick up a collect call from Hillsborough County correctional facility, Bethany, please. I got a sad story for you.”
Looking out across the aisles of bunks, I wonder who saw that. Who saw me call and get no answer? Foster is crying so loud into the phone that I think he’s taking most of the attention, but you never know. In jail someone is always watching. Not just C.O.’s either, it’s inmates looking for ammunition. Felons gossip more than schoolgirls. Folks are bored here, and word travels fast in institutions, especially in an open-dorm pod like this. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. I know Foster is crying to his mom right now; Listening to him, I know Foster’s mom has money and the reason he’s making a snotty mess right now is that she won’t bail him out. On the other hand, his screaming into the phone just let everyone know that she fills up his canteen every week. And as soon as Foster goes back to his bunk, one at a time people will stop by and say things like “Momma won’t bail you out, huh, Bieber?” In here, if you’re white and you have blonde hair your nickname is Bieber. If you have dark hair it’s Harry Potter. And everyone, myself included, is looking at him thinking two things: Foster is cracking, and he’s got a full canteen.
White-Fang got there first. White-Fang is called White-Fang because one of the poor kid’s canines sits so high above the rest of his teeth that it’s the most noticeable thing about his face. The only other glaring trait that White-Fang has is that he’s dumb. I overheard a conversation where he asked someone what they were in for, they said larceny, and he thought it meant they burned down a building.
I heard him later saying to his buddy, “Yo, don’t fuck with that dude. He’s crazy. He sets shit on fire.” But even White-Fang, the big dumb cracker, is smart enough to know an opportunity when he sees it. He sits down next to Foster and I see them talking. Hell, I even see them smiling. And then, White Fang opens one of the drawers under Foster’s bunk and takes out two Snickers bars, tosses one to Foster, and starts unwrapping the other one himself.
Everybody saw that go down. Foster didn’t say a word when another man ran his hands all through his personal drawer. And now it’s open season.
In the chow-line Foster is staring at the wall. His nose is still glistening and his lips and eyes are still wet and swollen from crying all day. His body is in here, but his mind is still outside. It is in his mom’s house. It’s with his ugly girlfriend, and his shitty, blunt-smoking buddies. It’s with his childhood regrets and vague thoughts of everything he could have done differently. His mind is in a fairytale, and it couldn’t care less what his body is doing. He barely even notices when he drops his cup of Jim Jones as it’s handed to him. Every single person in line is staring at him and watching the red juice shoot up out of the bouncing cup and drench his right leg.
At the table he’s barely eating his food. He’s just poking the meat patty with his spork and staring into his cup of cloying punch. All around him is chaos, trades and fast talk, people standing up yelling out offers and swiping bites from people’s plates when their heads are turned. It’s the loudest time of day in this place.
I see someone’s head pop up and yell, “Yo, Beiber. I know you like them veggies. I’ll give you my veggies for a soup.”
Foster doesn’t even look up, he just sort of groans and says, “No, thanks,” and goes back to staring in his cup. The guy picks up his tray and sits right next to Foster.
“You didn’ hear me? I said I know you like them vegetables.” Then he takes two bites of the watery green beans on his tray and scrapes the rest of them onto Foster’s.
“Now you owe me a soup, Beiber.”
Later I see him come up to Foster, who is laying on his bunk staring at the ceiling, they talk, and I see him walk away holding two packs of Ramen, the irrefutable currency of American jailhouses.
As I’m flipping through the Old Testament in bed, I see Foster lying in his bunk staring at the ceiling again. He’s wrapped up in his itchy Bob Barker blanket with part of it pulled over his head so he doesn’t have to look at anyone. Somehow the moisture hasn’t completely gone from his face. His eyes are still red-rimmed and swollen. I try not to notice. I try to read. The Bible is the only book that’s easy to get your hands on in here. They say there’s a library cart that will come around if you ask for it, but that’s a myth. As soon as you ask for a Bible though, lo and behold. I don’t mess with the New Testament though. I don’t like that stuff; I’m looking for the part where God and the devil make a bet over some guy’s soul. I read it the last time I was here. It almost seemed like a part out of a regular book.
Williams and McDougal come up and take the blanket off Foster’s face, “Foster, we’re making goulash. You want in?”
“Yeah, sure.” Foster says, “Thanks.”
They open up his drawer and take out a few packs of ramen, two generic slim jims, a cheese stick, a bag of Doritos, and a bag of Cheetos. They go back to their bunks and start smashing all of the food up and dumping it into a trash bag they have hidden under one of their mattresses. I know that Foster isn’t getting any of this goulash. Everyone knows that. For the life of me, I don’t know how Foster doesn’t get it by now. As I watch McDougal throw the Ramen on the ground over and over again, I look over and I see that Foster is scribbling on a piece of paper. He is laying on his bed on his stomach with knees bent and his feet sort of kicking behind his head like a little girl in a movie writing in her diary. I could cry. I want to go grab him and slap him, and tell him to get his food back, to never ever let any one near his shit ever again, and, most importantly, I want to tell him to pay fucking attention. But I don’t.
After they fill the garbage bag with mashed up chips, noodles, jerky, cheese, and hot water, they tie the bag off and put it under their mattress. Now Foster is looking in their direction, and he’s smiling. He goes over there to sit with them and wait. For as nasty as it sounds, jailhouse goulash is one of the tastiest hidden delicacies on the planet. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the portions in jail are bullshit, so you are unspeakably hungry by nine. Or maybe it’s because the food is so bland that injecting yourself with spoonfuls of MSG, cheese dust, and nitrites feels like a heroin shot after a week in detox. Either way, Foster is excited. And when Williams heaps all of the goulash into his and McDougal’s Styrofoam cups and leaves Foster sitting there with his empty cup in his hand and tears welling in his eyes like a twenty-year-old, hungry orphan, I feel a violin bow run across my heart.
I look back down at my book, and try to read about who begat who and I try to trace the lineages, but I can’t stop thinking about Foster’s quivering lips. His already weak chin disappearing into his neck becoming weaker by the second. If his parents could see this, I guarantee they would bail him out of this place. I keep looking for that chapter about the bet between God and the devil over that poor guy. I try to remember exactly what he says when he refuses to crack, “naked I came into the world and naked I’ll go out,” or something like that, but it’s been too long since I last read it. That was a strong son of a bitch though. He probably would have done all right in here. I shut the book and get out of bed.
The TV in the dayroom has color but for some reason it doesn’t really seem like it. The Celtics are playing the Pacers, and the crowd in front of the TV is getting rowdy. Everyone is gambling on everything. Who will win? Who’ll get injured? What kind of commercial will get played next? I’m spectating with a couple other people and Foster is there too, more watching the scene around the TV than the TV itself.
“Yo, Beiber. Who you think’s gonna win?” someone asks. He is one of about four young black kids in here that look like they can’t be a day over eighteen and never leave each other’s side.
“I don’t know. Maybe the Celtics.” Foster’s voice cracks when he says this, and he blushes and leaves the room.
I stick around to watch the Pacers win, and on our way back to our bunks before count I see the kid go over to Foster’s bunk and say, “You owe me three soups, son. The Celtics lost.”
A vein in Foster’s temple makes itself known, and he screams, “No. That’s bullshit! I didn’t bet on nothing. That’s not fair.” Once again, everyone sees this.
A C.O. yells, “Hey! Shut the fuck up over there,” and Foster and the young kid just stare at each other. The kid sucks his teeth to make a loud clicking sound, turns away, and goes to his bunk.
They keep it less than seventy degrees in here, but I still wake up sweating. I get out of my bunk and go to the bathroom to take a piss. It’s a long room divided in half with showers on one side, and toilets on the other. I see Foster lying face down on the tile getting kicked by the teeth-sucking kid and his three friends. The tiles under him are smeared with blood, and I can hear Foster crying. I can hear his wheezing and the snot going in and out of his nose. The four kids stop to look at me, but Foster keeps his head down. He’s crying those loud sobs with one fast inhale and a bunch of little pitiful exhales, and it churns my stomach, but I look at the four kids looking at me and I mind my own business. I walk to the urinal to take a piss.
“What the fuck you gonna do, Beiber? Tell a C.O.? Tell your fucking daddy?” I hear one of them say behind me, and I can’t help but think about my first time here. I step right over Foster and his shaking shoulders and the bridge of his nose that’s leaking hot blood off of his face and onto the cold shower tiles. I look down and I see his back rising and deflating, his hands slipping against the wet tile.
I start to feel claustrophobic, like there’s a tiny jail in my chest and a smaller version of me is bouncing off the walls in there. I want to run to the phone and call Bethany again to tell her I’m sorry, to tell her I fucked up and I know it, and to beg her to bail me out of here. I want to tell her about Foster, about how quick they broke him. How distracted he was. I feel the want like a tightness in my heart, but it’s late, and even if the phones were up, she wouldn’t be home. I don’t want my mind to leave this place either. That’s how they got Foster.
On my way back to my bunk I look at Foster’s bed, overturned, sheets everywhere. The drawer under it is pulled out and completely empty. His court papers are strewn all over the place, and looking out over the rows of squirming inmates in the dark I hear the crinkle of plastic and the crunching of full mouths. The only thing in his drawer is a piece of paper with a drawing on it, not a bad drawing either, it’s of a naked woman with a whole bunch of clichéd tattoos like roses and skulls. Foster must have drawn it that afternoon because the paper looked brand new. The woman in the drawing has out-of-proportion, oversized tits the way little boys draw them, but her eyes are strange and almost lifelike. Almost wet like Foster’s. I fold up the paper and put it in the breast pocket of my blues.
In bed, I can still hear Foster wheezing in the bathroom in between the crinkling and the chews. I can hear his loud inhales fast and all-at-once like desperate gulps and the little, wet whimpers that come out in groups and scatter across the room like mice. I can hear the tears sliding down his face like nails on a chalkboard.
David Sanchez is a senior at the University of South Florida. He was born and raised in Tampa, Florida. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Thread Literary Inquiry.