About Cellmate Relationships
Epistles to the State Pen: A Novel (Working Title)
Chapter One: The Single-Cell Organism
The singular note of prison bars locking into place rang out as Dr. Deke Connolly hopped to the creaky top bunk. He tried to ignore the oppressive flavor of his cellmate’s body odor, but it was no use. He tried to block out the fact that his head was all of two feet from a stained, leaky roof. Maybe he’d try meditation. Maybe pushing the cold hard facts away was all wrong; perhaps acceptance and leaning in would provide a salve against the perpetual presence of cheap metal toilets and dirty men and ubiquitously noisome smells.
“They’re just sitting there. Can’t I just read one?”
“It’s all nonsense. You need to give it up, Claude. Obsession doesn’t work out well, whatever the intentions.”
“See that. That right there. Running away from who you are, you’re still giving out great advice.”
“You realize you’re not taking the advice. As we speak.”
As the exchange went on and went nowhere, a procession of guards walked by their cell. Though generally brutal, each man in uniform touched a bar gently with two fingers and moved on with faces so reverential, Michelangelo might’ve used them for ceilings. Claude sat watching with a skinny leg crossed tightly over his knee, writing down the names of each guard that performed the “ritual.” Deke could hear the pencil scribbling furiously and he snuck a look down; immediately he was spilling over with regret—it was like he won a lottery and the prize: Least Sexy Secretary In The World.
Dr. Deke sometimes wished a good old-fashioned psychopathic murderer was his bunkmate. A time-honored throat-slashing and the silence of death at times seemed preferable to the very vocal genuflections of Claude Windle. The kid was relentless in all the wrong ways; probably why Connolly hated and secretly liked him. It was like looking in the mirror, only the image had stringy black hair and a long beak that reminded you of gravity every time you glimpsed it. The thing literally overlapped his top lip. Connolly didn’t even know that was a thing.
“Are they almost done?” Deke asked. He was laying down facing the back of the cell, doing his best to ignore the lemmings as they passed.
“Unless there’s been new acolytes, should be five more.”
Holy balls, Connolly thought. Acolytes. He’s coming up with more of that crappy, adopted nomenclature.
Five more taps and five more scribbles and it was finally over.
A sliver of silence and then, “It looks like we’re done for the evening. That’s really surprising. Our membership hasn’t stayed static since your first day inside.”
Connolly rubbed his eyes, annoyed by the tedious strain coming up through Claude’s windpipe as he conveyed his trepidations with superconductor speed. “Perhaps we’ve finally hit our carrying capacity. Maybe it’s finally burned itself out.”
Windle sprang up like there was fire at his feet. Too short to see over the lip of Deke’s bunk, he hopped up to the bottom bed and dug his sweaty fingers into the top “mattress.” Connolly moved only slightly; the whole exercise smacked of a startled junior camper or scared little brother. Then again, that’s essentially what Claude was—only here, at Klampton State Prison, there was no calling home or running down the hall to the arms of loving parents. Dr. Deke realized he represented home. He represented those loving arms.
In that moment, Dr. Deke came very close to vomiting.
“It’s just one night,” Claude said, “and more and more of the inmates are converting each day.”
“Fine,” Connolly grunted, turning toward the filth of the concrete wall. He could feel his cellmate’s hot breath on the back of his neck. “You want to get down? I get that we’re incarcerated, but I’d like the entirety of the six inches of personal space they allow.”
“Please let me read one. Just one.”
Deke turned around with abrupt frustration, scaring Claude and causing him to fall awkwardly against the opposite wall. A few seconds passed before Windle starting moving, using his skeletal arms and weak ankles to get himself sorted. Connolly heard a whimper that seemed to issue forth from every molecule of the little man’s body. It was quite extraordinary, Deke thought, and singularly pathetic.
“Shut your shit up, assholes.” Ah. Mason Drexel, from the next cell over. One of the uninitiated. The putrid sound of hatred was music to Dr. Deke’s ears but did little to attenuate Windle’s state of hurt and discomposure.
Connolly rotated his flexible frame and landed softly on the concrete floor of the cell, moving to help Claude up. “You okay, kid? Nothing bleeding or broken?”
“I’m okay,” Windle whispered, grateful for his cellmate’s help and terrified of Drexel the storied armed robber on the other side of the wall.
“Here you go.” Deke held out a dusty red envelope, unopened and dated six months back. Claude’s countenance transformed to calm in a microsecond; it was like he was just handed the keys to the kingdom. More than that; he had a look of forward determination, as if he’d been handed the baton with a three lap lead in the relay.
Dr. Deke Connolly was only trying to soothe a yowling creature. It seemed like a good idea until he heard, “Can I read it out loud?” Claude was standing straight and wearing springtime on his face.
“Go ahead,” Connolly said, patting his little secretary/cellmate on top of the head with condescension that he knew would be misunderstood as a blessing.
Windle was like a forensic scientist as he opened up the letter. To him it was a museum piece. A cornerstone in the pyramid of history. Waves of gratitude filled his soul as he tried his best to steady his pink, bony little fingers. The idea that the fates had thrown him into the same cell as one of the most famous people on the planet; one of the truly great men—of course it was too much, but that wouldn’t stop him from reading the letter.
Claude Windle was not violent or crazy; just a chronically scared, misguided young man, doing five to ten for computer and mail fraud. His parents ignored him through childhood and abandoned him in adolescence; he did what he had to do to survive.
But that was all over. Deliverance from the cruel world had come. He gently placed a homemade pair of reading glasses atop his beak and crossed his legs high and tight, coughing a few times to clear his throat. A few reverential breaths. The buildup was ceremonial in its length and superfluousness. Windle felt the cosmos opening up and all the stars and supernovas casting their shine on him like a great intergalactic spotlight. Never mind that he was reading a random letter from a place that most rodents would’ve found inhospitable. Never mind the fact that shit on my face was written on the wall, mere inches away.
Before he could even start reading, Dr. Deke was back in the top bunk, sound asleep.