by Christine Holmstrom
The smoke from the sergeant’s 25-cent cigar floated across the prison’s control room, a putrid cloud snaking around my head. It smelled worse than my cat’s dirty litter box.
Swatting at the column of toxic air, I coughed into a strip of stiff gray state toilet paper before pressing the “answer” button on the phone console. “Good afternoon, San Quentin State Prison. How may I direct your call?” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a fellow officer—whom I’ll call the Blimp—hunkered down in an upholstered Prison Industry Authority chair at the pass window, his flesh protruding from the sides of the dust-gray chair like a giant drooping pillow.
From my perch I could hear the Blimp bellowing at an inmate waiting for permission to enter the visiting area. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Speak straight.”
Stuttering, the inmate repeated himself, pushing his visiting pass through the slot as the Blimp vomited out more invective.
Geez, what a jerk. Too bad the Blimp was a senior officer and I was a mere “fish”—a new correctional officer. Why didn’t the sarge call him out? Sarge was our supervisor, the one person who could make the Blimp stop harassing the inmate. Still on probation, I couldn’t speak up, or at least I didn’t dare. I might get fired.
I felt a pull in my belly, like a knitting needle yanking at my insides. Damn. I had to take a dump. Calling out to the Blimp, I asked him to cover the phones for a minute. He lurched from his chair.
Speeding toward the broom-sized toilet compartment next to the operator’s station, I slammed the door while I unzipped my olive polyester uniform pants.
My butt was barely over the toilet seat when the pounding started. Thwap. Thwap. The door’s thin wood bulged with each blow; the hinges began pulling away from the frame.
“Hey, Holmstrom, watcha doin’ in there? Having a baby?” It was the Blimp. I imagined him snickering, proud to have discovered a new way to torment me.
Couldn’t I even take a shit in peace? No wonder my gut rumbled like an old cement mixer. I yanked up my pants and pushed open the door.
As for the cigar-sucking sergeant—would he ever say anything? I knew better. Whenever the Blimp starting talking shit, our supervisor suffered spells of deafness, suddenly intent on the stack of cigar ash-coated papers upon his desk, as tightly focused as if he were a scholar examining the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Blimp said disgusting things to any woman unfortunate enough to work within earshot. He was even suspected of planting a dead mouse in the desk drawer used by a black female cop. Yet he was never disciplined.
This prison guard job of mine was worse than waitressing. That had been bad enough—out-of-town salesmen dropping their hotel keys in my hand like I might go upstairs and suck dick at the end of my shift, dudes sneaking up behind me grabbing a handful of ass. Turning into an Amazon warrior, I’d chased more than one creep out of the cocktail lounge, hurling curses and beer glasses after them. The memory of verbally slamming one carrot-head jerk still gave me joy. “What, you can’t get a woman, so you gotta creep on me and put your sticky fingers on my butt?”
The man backed away, his face as ruddy as his stick-up hair.
“If you’re that damn desperate, go hire a hooker, ’cause no one else will have anything to do with you.” My words were projectile vomit—they stuck. I never saw that ass-grabber again.
Why didn’t I spew out that kind of flamethrower anger at the Blimp? Was it because I needed a career? Hitting thirty a year earlier, I’d decided it was time to give up waitressing. Now I had a goal—I imagined becoming a parole agent after working two years as a prison guard. Counting off the weeks as I grew closer to my dream job, I pictured myself roaring around town in a gas-sucking Crown Vic at taxpayer expense, snazzed out in new outfits from San Francisco’s garment district, checking on my caseload of parolees. That was what kept me showing up for work in this hellhole prison. Finally, I’d be able to put my UC education to some use, have some freedom, get some respect.
But for now, I was gonna have to put up with the Blimp’s bullshit. I didn’t realize the effect he was having on me until a couple months passed and I ended up at Kaiser with rectal bleeding. Was it from the Blimp’s periodic door pounding when I used the toilet at work, from trying to force a basic bodily function? The Kaiser doc inserted some flexible tubing with a little camera attached into my rectum, looking for the cause of the bleeding. “Polyps,” he said as he clipped out the growths. The Blimp, I thought.
Still, despite the Blimp and the relentless flashing phone console; the anxious mothers wondering if Johnny was all right and why doesn’t he call home or write; the serial-killer groupies wanting to talk to Charlie Manson of “Helter Skelter” infamy; or the honchos from headquarters wanting to know why it took so long for me to answer the phone—“Were you doing your nails?” No, I was taking the fifteen calls ahead of you on this outdated system that doesn’t even have a “please hold” announcement, and the occasional obscene call from some inmate who’d snuck into a staff office and random-dialed, looking to dirty-talk a woman—despite all that, I wanted to hang on to my evening phone operator job. Why? It was simple—I’d grown more confident, knew how to handle the gore groupies and distressed relatives. I practically had the 2- by 3-foot prison directory memorized. The Blimp’s shift ended six hours before mine. I could put up with the jerk for two hours, couldn’t I?
There were plenty worse assignments in the prison. Like exercise-yard gun. Mostly the Vietnam vets got those jobs—they were good at it; some even liked popping rounds, crowing about lighting up a few asses when fights broke out. Which was pretty much daily. Whenever I’d been assigned to a gun rail, my gut would clench up, reminding me of when I was a kid, spinning around on the Tilt-A-Whirl at a county fair, hoping not to vomit.
I didn’t want to be like that officer on the Max B exercise yard gun rail a few months back, firing down on the Chicano convict who was rat-a-tat-tatting a shit-coated shank into his homeboy. A blur of blood and metal, jackhammer-quick, the inmates locked in a baile de muerte—dance of death—the gun rail cop, searching for a clear shot at the assailant, fired just as the man ducked. The bullet smashed through the victim’s shoulder, tore through a lung, and the victim bled out on the concrete, dead before he could be dragged to the yard gate. The shooting review board deemed it a good shooting. They cleared the officer, but the cop never came back to work. “Too tore up about killing the wrong guy,” someone said. God forbid I’d have to shoot to stop a stabbing.
Approaching the end of my probationary period as a new officer, I was subject to job rotation to first watch—graveyard shift. But I wasn’t worried: the watch sergeant had assured me I’d keep my third watch—swing shift—phone operator job.
One Friday, there it was: my name on the job change sheet. First watch—a housing unit floor officer. I looked again, hoping I’d misread the blurred black typeface. Nope. Digging into my beige uniform shirt pocket, I extracted a wad of scratchy toilet paper, dabbed at my eyes. Prisons don’t stock Kleenex.
“I’ve been reassigned to first watch. Alpine Unit floor.” The words came out like the croaking of a swamp frog.
The sarge kept sucking on the stub of his second cigar of the evening, oblivious. But the Blimp heard. Heaving himself from his chair, he padded toward me, his black Sears house slippers slapping the floor. His feet were too fleshy for normal work boots; I never knew how he’d gotten permission to wear nonregulation footwear, but maybe his contraband footgear went as unnoticed as his harassment of female officers.
Pivoting with his rump facing me, the Blimp leaned forward. Patting his behind, he pantomimed being butt-fucked. Eyes bright, he’d turned his head to look at me. “Hey, Holmstrom. I know how you’re gonna count inmates…heh-heh-heh. Just pull down your pants and back up to every cell.”
My shoulders slumped. I felt violated. Like when I was ten and some neighborhood bullies dragged me between two houses, kicking and punching, weeds and pebbles tattooing my back, my legs scraped and bleeding. When I broke free, ran home, crumpled on the family room couch, all my mom offered was a wet washrag to keep the bloody ooze on my knees from staining the upholstery. Dad told me to go talk to the boys’ parents. Alone. He wasn’t coming with me. There’d be none of his Old Testament wrath to protect me from my enemies.
Rotating my chair, I eyeballed the sarge. Ten feet away, surely he’d heard it all, watched the Blimp’s rude mime act. Was he finally going to reprimand the Blimp? Defend me? Instead of words, the control sergeant exhaled a plume of rancid smoke from the crap-colored cigar he held between his pudgy pink fingers.
Did I really expect help? No white knight was coming to rescue me. Throwing my coffee mug at the Blimp wasn’t exactly an option—I’d be fired for sure. I needed to grow a pair of balls to rival a mating ram’s crown jewels; cut loose with the smart-ass mouth that got me in so much trouble as a teenager.
I imagined shoving the Blimp onto the main exercise yard, bare-ass naked, surrounded by all the inmates he’d harassed, the men he’d made wait at the pass window while he puked his self-loathing meanness over them. Yeah, motherfucker, why don’t you bend over now and pat your elephantine behind?
Turning back to the phone console, which was flashing like an overloaded Christmas-light display ready to flare out, I jabbed the answer button. For the moment, my revenge fantasies would have to do. Without a comeback to skewer the Blimp, it was either suck it up or quit. I sucked it up.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing