B. Natalia Sanders
He’s at it again. I can hear him muttering before I even get to my post.
“When I think of fear, two truths come to the fore. First, that most fear is the fear of unknown. The second, ‘better the devil you know’. But what if that wasn’t true. What if our worst fear was the one right in front of us. What if we’d been in danger this whole time, and never knew it until now.”
Gramps is a regular Socrates. One of those loose marbles with a knack for existential monologues. Got a face like an emaciated Santa Clause too. All deep ridges and groves. By his looks, you’d never know he’s serving time in a maximum security prison. I know it though.
“Don’t worry Gramps, I’ll keep you safe. Nothing to fear at all because you, are absolutely going nowhere, for a very long time.” I tap my baton on the bars of his cell. “See? Nice and safe.”
My shift partner clears her throat. She doesn’t appreciate my humor on account of her being such a girl scout. She’s a new recruit old enough to be my daughter. Uses words like professional etiquette in her everyday speech. Rolling her eyes right now actually. “Too early for this Mitch.”
“Better get that notebook out newbie.” I say. “This place gets real old, real quick without some amusement.”
The old man makes a muffled, sleepy sound, like waking up to thought. “Though humor…as they say, comes at expense.”
I motion to his cell. “See? You can’t make this stuff up.”
She massages the bridge of her nose, as though entertaining a child. As though this is all truly painful for her. “I’m gonna get some coffee”, she says turning to leave.
I tell her don’t forget the cream.
Me and Gramps have been together in this hell hole for five beautiful years. I was assigned to him as part of an administrative compromise. Turns out, my humor didn’t go so well with the younger crowd at the other facility. I may have lost my temper also. Antagonistic, is the word HR used. I got transferred to Gramps. The rationale being that I would work better with older, more subdued inmates. They can call it whatever they want. I’m just biding time until retirement. It can’t come soon enough. The only thing keeping me from dying of boredom in this place is Gramps and his monologues. There’s a refreshing, zen-like hilarity to them. Like seeing a serial arsonist become an environmental activist. Or resident, penitentiary philosopher.
My partner returns carrying two cups.
“You shouldn’t have, Darlin.” I grin.
“Don’t look too much into it.” She says flatly. “ You’re quieter when you sip.”
I chuckle at that but drink appreciatively. She’s not so bad. Hella smart. Idealistic like how I used to be. Still believes in all that kum-ba-yah about treating inmates with dignity. Can’t be bothered with the stuff myself, but it’s nice to have a difference of view. She probably should be in an office somewhere, making policy. Making this place more about rehabilitation than locking up old farts who don’t have long to live anyway.
I’m about to tell her that but I’m distracted by a sensation in the back of my throat. A cough that’s just getting started. I take another sip of my coffee. It helps a bit but then I’m sputtering and coughing until the coffee is spilling over my hands and onto the floor. The room tilts and I fall there too, heaving. I don’t notice it right away. How shallow the air is. How heavy and slow my eyes feel until I force them to look over at my partner. My pretty, girl scout of a partner. Standing there with the cruelest look I’ve ever seen. Not drinking her coffee. Not looking anything like my partner.
The old man is there too, looking from behind the bars. That’s when I notice it. They have the same color eyes. Same shape. Same cold expression. They stare until the light in the room dims. Until I can’t feel the expression frozen on my face.
Someone far away opens a cell door.
“Jokes on you, Mitch.”