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FICTION: Chili and Cornbread Day by Cynthia Nugent

Just another day in a long series of many. One of the former inhabitants had left behind a wall calendar for the rest of us, a gift from her cowboy boyfriend in Oklahoma. The calendar had a glued binding–not a spiral wire–so the guards let us keep it. Each month had a picture of a brightly-colored, fully decked-out 18-wheeler rig in all its glory. We were not allowed to have tape or tacks, so the calendar laid on the wall-mounted platform near the payphone in the day room, covered in the scrawls of several weeks’ worth of outgoing collect calls.

I picked up the stubby pencil next to the rig calendar and crossed off another day, then counted the days until sweet, glorious freedom (relatively speaking). I already knew how many days–1 less than since the last time I counted–but there was some small satisfaction in seeing that number dwindle, even if it was Ever. So. Slowly.

So slowly, in fact, that for all too brief a moment, I think I discovered how to completely dissociate from time. But then the buzzer rang for head count and dinner, and time returned, and it hasn’t left since.

But the point is, I was done with the day. It was dark but not late, though as anyone who has tried to dull the effects of time with no outside resources knows, sleep makes the time pass. Sleep is the sweet escape.

So to bed I went. To my wooden bunk with the flattened beanbag mattress and the flattened beanbag pillow with the sour cotton sheet set and the scratchy grey blanket. Aaaaaaaahhh. Actually, I confess, I had the Cadillac of bunks. It was one of two in the joint without a top bunk attached–a single! And I had, over time, secured two mattresses. And two pillows. But that’s the perks of being the long timer in a short time joint. You get a feeling of ownership over that which is not yours. You get a sense of control in a world that has spun so far out of control that it stands still. The territorial beast becomes quite protective in such circumstances, as if having nothing to call your own is completely against the natural order of things.

So there I was, settling in for the night, when BRRRRRRRNNNT the fucking buzzer goes off, followed by the crackle of Sarge’s radio and the scuffle of boots and sobs, and the fluorescent lights above blare on, and everything just comes to life in the worst possible way.

“Incoming.”

The newb shuffles in with her straw-like hair and mascara streaks. She lugs herself onto the top bunk next to me and the COs leave her to deal with her trauma in the company of a room full of pissed-off bitches. Next thing I know, it’s free therapy night at the involuntary slumber party. Again. Siiiiigh.

I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. It never worked but it bought some time to adjust. The case talk, the injustice, the suicidal thoughts, the abusive alcoholic assholes that got away with everything, the nursing infant twins at home, the trauma, the fear, blah, blah, blah. After a while, you really do hear it all. Because there’s nothing else to do, it all comes out. And when you add another human to the box, the dynamic will certainly shift. In this case, it shifted in the general direction as so to ruffle my feathers, or, go against the grain of my scales, as the case may more likely be.

Something about this bitch just pinched me right away. And whether that’s a result of me and my particular inclinations, or her and her particular dispositions, well, that’s a highly debatable point. But the end result, in this situation, was a general incongruity.

I had my routines. They helped to pass the time. They helped to make hell a home. I had my preferences and had learned at some point, maybe it was after spending several weeks with no company in the joint, well, I liked things a certain way. With the place to myself, I picked the bunk I liked best. I doubled up on my mattresses and pillows while I could get away with it. I covered the TV with my blanket during the day and reprogrammed the remote to skip the channels I hated most. I had a chair I liked to sit in when I ate. Of all the chairs at the table, one was mine. And I had it in a certain spot that I liked. This was kind of a known thing.

I call our newest guest “the Princess.” She’s serving a handful of weekends on a DUI. She immediately saturates the stagnant air with her privilege, with her gossip magazines and nails did. With her outrage over the fact that the COs wouldn’t allow her to have cuticle cream in the cell for the next 48 hours. With her panic about her husband coming to pick her up in two days and seeing her for the first time with her eyebrows not perfectly plucked. She and I got prickly right away and it was obvious that shit was going to go down in one way or another.

Sure enough. It was chili and cornbread day. And this was something of a treat, for no other reason than it was a surprise. Every Sunday for nearly a year, dinner was the same cheeseburger. But today it was chili and cornbread instead, with a little bowl of chopped onions. I was kind of excited to try it. So I pulled my tray from the slot in the wall with impotent anticipation and turned around to sit down and enjoy it and wouldn’t you know —- Bitch done sat down in my chair. My chair. So, that wasn’t gonna work. And the rest is kind of a blur. I know one of us flung our plastic cup of milk against the wall. A tray of chili hit the table hard. Profanities were launched with an articulate and venomous vitriol. Flash of orange spork. The guards rushed in and wedged themselves between us, restraining us both before any more words, or food, or fists, could fly.

If I didn’t hate the guards so much, I might have taken a moment to enjoy the elusive moment of human contact.

Two of them removed me from the cell and took me for a walk. They locked me in a holding cell with my bowl full of bland, half-spilled, room-temperature chili, then left me alone for a while, to sit with my tray, and let my body process the toxic thrill of the territorial dispute. My appetite was gone.

Princess, she told the guards she feared for her life and safety. They never asked me a lot of questions, but they did put her in another cell until she got to check out in time to go to work Monday morning.

And so in the end, the Princess got her wish, which I’m sure she was used to. And I, the Old Timer, I got my wish as well, which was to be left in peace for a brief while. For the rest of her sentence, which was only a few weekends, they kept us separated, and out of each others’ sight, like the hissy, scratchy shelter cats we are, skulking in our cages, licking our wounds, ready to pounce, and finding some shit-ridden impossible zen in the long, hopeless, meaningless hours between feedings.


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I am a machine under constant assault by wayward nouns and verbs

Cynthia Nugent spends most of her energy surviving and dreams of more play and less work. She currently resides in Pennsylvania, USA, with her daughter. Writing, music, yoga, laughter, and intoxication help to make life more meaningful and enjoyable.

For more information about Cynthia’s writing, connect here: www.facebook.com/SinNugent


1 Comment on FICTION: Chili and Cornbread Day by Cynthia Nugent

  1. Erzulie Deschain // May 28, 2015 at 3:14 pm // Reply

    “Bitch done sat down in my chair”

    This is one of the finest sentences in the English language. Well done, Old Timer.

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