Ross Wilcox The Lights Are Always On Inside

I’d been in a week. I was the newest inmate, and at nineteen, also the youngest. I was in the dayroom waiting for a phone call from my parents that I was promised would come on my first night. There were only six other inmates in the Clay County Jail – seven counting Rob. They welcomed me by including me in the cribbage and rummy games, the Monopoly and Yahtzee playing. Everything was pretty good, except for the fact that my mom and dad wouldn’t talk to me and I faced ten years in prison.

I obsessed on the ten years. They were holding me indefinitely until my sentencing – anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months. I was just a harmless, nonviolent drug user, I reasoned, who’d been caught with some pot and pills. I was even enrolled in college, the hallmark of someone who intends to do something with his life. You don’t send a guy like that to prison. Except that, with this last arrest, I’d violated my probation. Probation was my second chance, so this would technically be my third, were it to be offered.

As I said, I was in the dayroom, seated at the scratched-up metal table with the foldup legs, playing Doug rummy with Chip, Manny, Jerry, and the game’s namesake, Doug. Doug, who first showed us this version of rummy, was a fat, bald, mustached man who was serving ten months for orchestrating a fraudulent Donate-to-Victims-of-Katrina scam. It was basically the same as normal rummy, only with a bunch more wild cards.

We were all reasonably clean, had showered at least once in the last three days – Clay County required you to – yet the dayroom still reeked of the stale, sour fumes of a men’s locker room. The place looked like the year 1976 had chewed it up, puked it out, and left it to rot for the last thirty years. The carpet was half snotty green, half grubby blood orange. Brown lines of unknown origins snaked the yellowed walls like muddy rivers. A huge bookshelf full of Louis L’Amour paperbacks and Maxim magazines lined one side. A dust-covered treadmill stood erect in one corner, but it had neither a cord nor a plug-in. A stack of games rested nearby, among them Risk, Sorry!, and Yahtzee. The real centerpiece of the dayroom, though, was the old bunny-eared television. It was in the corner opposite the treadmill, and around it were a few padded chairs and one squeaky recliner. Chip, the lanky Lakota Sioux who, whenever we played Risk, proudly chose the red figurines, was a fixture in that recliner and he alone controlled the TV.

We only got channels 3, 4, 9, 11, 14, and 44. On a given night, Chip would put on some combination of shows – The Shield, That 70’s Show, M*A*S*H – but always COPS. He loved to critique the criminals for taking wrong turns in high-speed chases, for hiding their drugs in overly obvious places within their vehicles, for failing to outrun or overpower a police officer when chased on foot. “That guy’s so stupid he deserves to get caught,” Chip would say once they’d snapped the cuffs on the man’s wrists. He claimed to be the only guy to ever break out of the Pennington County Jail out in Rapid City.

Manny, who shaved his head and was the second-youngest after me, explained one night in our cellblock, “He broke out and led them on a high-speed chase. He made it down to Hot Springs before they got him.” And then he said, with wonder in his eyes, “He’s the only guy to ever break out of the Pennington County Jail.”

“That’s like a world record,” I joked. “What happened after that?”

“He got sentenced to nine years in the pen. He was serving a sixty-day sentence.”

“Jesus Christ,” I yelled. “Sixty days?”

Manny shrugged. “You know you can make meth by filling a fish tank with charcoals and pouring formaldehyde on it. You cover it with a plastic sheet or glass or something and then after a while, it evaporates and crystals form on the top and then you just scrape it off and you’ve got meth.” Meth was why Manny was serving six months.

Jerry was in his mid-thirties with thinning hair and a thick brown beard, and on that night, he slapped his last set of three cards down on the table to go out and said, “Bam!” We all muttered “fuck” or “damn it” and counted up how many points we got dinged with.

I reached seventy when suddenly Chip said, “What the fuck is he doing here?”

I looked up and there was Rob, the guy who had molested his seven-year-old niece. At least that’s what he was charged with and currently awaited trial for. He was in his fifties, a bit chubby, and had shitty teeth. He looked at us longingly, his brown eyes moist and hopeful.

Chip jumped up, knocking his chair over behind him. “Get the fuck out of here before I beat the fucking shit out of you.”

I sat frozen in my chair, never having known anyone who molested a child and never having witnessed anyone beat the fucking shit out of anyone. Rob looked at Doug, whom he shared a cell with. Doug nodded defeatedly, and Rob pedaled back to the door and knocked. In a few seconds, one of the jailers opened it and Rob told him he wanted to go back to his cell. Chip remained standing, poised to attack, and before the door shut he said, “Go fucking hang yourself, Rob.”

Once Rob was gone, Chip sat back down. Jerry dealt another hand. Chip said, “That motherfucker is going to get stabbed in the joint.” Chip was always fondly calling it the joint, because, he said, that’s what people who’d been there called it.

I half-believed there would be some way I could just tell them, “Hey, my mom’s a librarian at the school in Roosevelt. My dad works for the Department of Agriculture. Can I go now?” And they’d say “Sure, right this way” and there would be the sun and the trees and my mom and dad and maybe even cable television.

I half-believed that if I full-on-believed this, that it might actually happen - sort of like believing your belief can shrink a tumor.


The place was all concrete. Concrete floors, concrete walls, concrete ceilings. And it was this brownish-green concrete, like the color of expired guacamole. And everything was all steel. Steel bars, steel bunks, steel sinks, steel toilets. And it was all rusty, the grey paint peeling off in flakes. Sometimes when I was bored, I picked at it like a scab.

The base of each bunk was two soldered-together road signs, some diamond-shaped, some octagonal. Our mattresses were these tattered green canvass bags stuffed with something vaguely cushiony. The pillows were the same, only thinner, with less cushion. They gave us a spread to go over the mattress, a sheet, and a thin wool blanket. You had to have your bed made before you could go to the dayroom.

We’d all have our beds made well before 3 PM, the time they’d let us go to the dayroom. It seemed like we always had a long hour or so to kill. Someone had pulled out a Maxim and Greg, the only one who wouldn’t say what he was in for, was raving about a woman in an advertisement who had on a certain pair of blue jeans. Greg was in his fifties, the oldest among us. Soft-spoken, he wore glasses, was in good shape, and seemed like an all-around nice guy. Like he’d be a good father or something. For these reasons, he creeped me out.

“Right there,” Greg said, his finger over the girl in the ad. She stood in a golden field with arms outstretched, her ass facing us. “That’s what I like. A girl in blue jeans. Woohoo!”

“Really?” I said. “You see girls in blue jeans all the time everywhere. What’s so sexy about that?”

Greg shrugged, his eyes on the magazine page. “It just does something for me.”

“It’s what he likes, man,” Jerry said and slapped me on the shoulder. Jerry got caught transporting a bunch of guns he didn’t have licenses for.

“I like a variety – black, white, red, yellow,” Chip said, sweeping his hand from one side to the other across the spectrum of women.

“Yeah, we know you like a variety,” said Manny, referring to Chip’s practice of stashing and closely guarding the majority of the Clay County Jail’s Maxims under his bed. From the ground, it almost reached the bottom of his bunk mattress.

“I’ve been trying to get that one with Christina Aguilera on the cover,” Manny said, “the one where she’s in the pool with the floaty thing and her big ass is sticking out of the water. But Chip won’t give it up.”

“I told you, Christina’s my favorite,” said Chip, smiling. “You can have it when I get out.”

“We’re never going to let you out,” laughed Tiffani, the only female jailer. She was making her rounds, and she’d snuck up on us, her red hair tied in a bun. She always seemed to be half-flirting with Chip, making little jokey comments like that. She smiled at everyone and no one and disappeared.

“Come on, let me borrow the Christina mag for one night,” Manny pleaded. Though we never discussed it among each other, nighttime was when we all jacked off. Of course, we were quiet and respectable about it, stroking at only a fraction of our full range of motion.

Being the newcomer, I had the one Maxim no one else wanted, which had Lindsey Lohan on the cover. I didn’t feel as though I’d ascended the social hierarchy enough to ask someone for one of theirs that they’d, you know, stopped looking at. But in the one I did have, I’d discovered Kristin Cavallari. I didn’t know who she was before, had never seen Laguna Beach. She was all I had, and there was a kind of fidelity we’d developed, myself and those pictures.

We were all silent for a bit until Jerry hit me on the shoulder. “Yuck, stanky ass!” he giggled, and waved the air in front of his nose. I’d farted silently, hoping it wouldn’t stink. But Jerry sniffed me out, and he and the others cleared out of my cell.

Except for Manny. He remained, holding onto his orange from breakfast. “You know if you leave an orange set for like three months or something it’ll ferment or whatever and get all these psychedelic properties and you can eat it and trip balls.”



Many tossed the orange to himself and caught it. Then he left. There was no fact-checking in the Clay County Jail. You could say whatever you wanted and no one could prove you wrong.


There were hardly ever any female inmates in the Clay County Jail. But on this particular week, there happened to be two, and when that was the case, the jail’s policy was to rotate the dayroom schedule each week between the male and female inmates. Normally, we’d get the dayroom from 3 PM to 11 PM, when all the good shows were on. But now we were stuck using the dayroom during actual daytime hours, from 8 AM to 3 PM, so that the women could have primetime hours.

“It’s bullshit because there’s only two of them and there’s seven of us. six not counting Rob,” Chip said, though it went without saying that he didn’t count Rob. Rob, who resided back in the second cellblock with Doug, hadn’t set foot in the dayroom since Chip intimidated him. “We should get the dayroom at night. We’re the majority. It’s undemocratic.”

“Part of democracy is protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority,” I said.

“I don’t even give a fuck about the dayroom now,” Manny said. “I’d rather sleep than watch Oprah.”

And that week we slept like cats. Fifteen, sixteen hours a day. It’s a weird way to experience time, being conscious only to eat or use the bathroom, read a chapter of a book and fall back asleep. We already had no sense of time because we never saw the sun or moon, just the constant buzzing of fluorescent lights. But it was an effective way to pass time, which is ultimately what we were doing anyway.

Despite the schedule switch, each morning, right after breakfast, Chip defiantly went to the dayroom to watch TV. For the first few days, no one went with him. On the third day, Doug joined him, but came back after an hour or so and went back to sleep. The fourth and fifth days, Manny broke down and watched a few hours of TV with Chip. But on the sixth day, Chip was back to going it alone. That is, until I joined him.

I hadn’t slept the previous night. My court date was coming up, and all I could think about was going to prison. It had all started innocently enough with a DUI here, a marijuana possession there. But I couldn’t find anything to do in South Dakota except go to college and try new drugs. And I couldn’t stop once I started, not even when I started failing classes, not even when I got arrested, not even when my mom begged me, three times, to go to treatment. I figured I’d quit when I turned twenty-five or thirty or got a girl pregnant, whichever came first.

Possession of a controlled substance is a Class C felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison, and as I said, initially they were nice to me. They put me on probation for a year. They said if I completed probation without any hiccups, the felony would be wiped clean from my record. But I hiccupped. I got another DUI and marijuana possession. It’s scary how unimportant drugs made everything else, but it wasn’t as scary as the thought of prison. As a peaceful, skinny white guy, to me prison meant I would get my ass kicked and raped. I desired strongly to prevent this from happening. I needed sage prison advice, and Chip was the only one among us who had been.

“Hey, hey,” Chip greeted me when I joined him in the dayroom. He was watching The Price is Right.

I took a seat next to him and launched right into it, “Chip, what’s prison like?”

“Shit,” he said, leaning back in his recliner, considering. “It ain’t that bad. As long as you got someone putting money on your commissary. It ain’t bad.”

“What’s commissary?”

“It’s like the general store. It’s where you get food and snacks and deodorant and soap and stuff.”

“Speaking of soap, do they make you shower together?”

Chip smirked, sensing my fear. “Yeah.”

“Fuck,” I said. “I thought maybe they had individual showers by now.”

“No, they still have the big communal ones. There’s just rows of shower heads along the walls.”

“Just tell me straight up. Is there really like, any rape that goes on?”

Chip shifted his gaze to the television. This was an old episode, and Bob Barker, with his white ball of hair, was pointing at a red lawn mower.

“You know something funny?” Chip said. “All the soap, all the deodorant, all the toiletries in the joint are provided by Bob Barker.”

“Really?” I said. Now Bob put his microphone up to the mouth of a contestant.

“Yeah. All the toiletries come in clear containers that just say Bob Barker Soap or Bob Barker Shampoo in black lettering. You know what’s even funnier? You can buy these shoes in commissary that look just like Converse All-Stars but they say Bob Baker All-Stars.”

I chuckled because I imagined Kurt Cobain, instead of sporting his signature Converse All-Stars, jamming in Bob Barker All-Stars. But now a contestant was spinning the big wheel with the numbers on it and the uncertainty of which number it landed on reminded me of my own uncertain fate.

“But for real,” I said, “is there any of that stuff that goes on?”

“What are you worried about getting raped?”

“Yeah,” I said, not meaning to raise my voice. “I’m actually really worried about it.”

Chip shook his head. “Don’t be worried about it. You’re bigger than most of the guys who’re in there.”

“Really?” I said, examining my shoulders and chest. “I’m skinny, though.”

Chip shrugged.

“What about gangs? I’m white, so does that mean I’m a target?”

He looked me over. “They’ll probably leave you alone.”

I nodded confidently. “So if I just keep to myself, I’ll be fine, don’t you think? I’ll just read and that’s it. I won’t fuck with anyone.”

Chip shrugged.

“I’ve never been in a fight,” I said.

“Listen, when you go the joint, they put you in the hole first.”

“The hole?”

“The holding cell. It’s this big ass cell with all the new inmates. They put you in there while they figure out which cellblock to put you in. Now, they give you some clothes, a pair of sandals, some toiletries, shit like that. But they also give you a pair of long socks and a can of tuna.”

“A can of tuna?”

Chip nodded. His eyes were widening. “They always give you one. Now, what you do is put the can of tuna in one of those big socks and tie the end of it. Then if anyone fucks with you, you just fucking whack them with that tuna sock.”

I tried to imagine myself in the holding cell, which to me, looked like a haunted psych ward in a horror movie. I’m lying down on my bed, just minding my own business, when all of a sudden someone gets in my face. They’re talking shit to me about, I don’t know, my haircut or something, and I reach for my tuna sock and smack them. Problem solved.

“That’s what my cousin did,” Chip explained. “He used the tuna sock. He’s smaller than you.”

A woman jumped up and down and hugged Bob Barker because she just won A Brand New Car! They zoomed in on Bob’s face and you could see all the makeup caked on, so much that his skin tone was orange.

I said, “Chip, is it true you were only serving a sixty-day sentence when you broke out of the Pennington County Jail?”

Chip nodded.

“And then you got nine years in the pen?”

Chip smiled.

“What the fuck?” I said. “Why would you do that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Going to the joint, it’s like a rite of passage in my family.”

I wanted to tell him how fucked up that was. That in my family, going to college was a rite of passage. That, in fact, right in this very town was the flagship institution of higher education in the state of South Dakota. I, myself, had gone there for a semester and a half before winding up in here. Perhaps he ought to give it a shot. But then I thought, maybe these are the types of things white guys get beat up for saying. So instead I said, “Is it true they allow conjugal visits in the –

But Chip cut me off. “Shut up,” he said, nodding at the TV. “Judge Judy’s coming on.”


A few days later, unannounced, my parents came to visit in the morning. I hadn’t seen them or spoken to them since getting locked up over a month ago. Tiffani woke me up and - with my shaggy hair matted and jutting in various directions, my body clothed in the baggy orange V-neck t-shirt and orange pants – led me down the dank concrete corridor to one of the visitor rooms.

Inside the seven-by-seven foot space, there was a beat-up wooden chair, a plastic counter, and yes, a black phone resting idly in its hook on the wall, its segmented steel cord coiling out like the body of a snake. The thick glass had those intersecting lines forming little x’s and diamond-shaped squares all throughout it.

On the other side of the glass sat my dad, doing his best to muster a smile. His thin hair looked a bit whiter and uncombed, his typically well-groomed beard a bit scraggly. Behind his glasses, his eyes were tired, and bags hung beneath them, weighing them down, as if were a strain to keep them open. I could tell he hadn’t been sleeping.

My mom sat next to him. Her brown eyes moist, her lower lip quivering and enveloping her upper lip, she could barely hold it together. I thought she would lose it at any moment. She, too, looked a bit greyer as she had, for the first time I could remember, allowed her roots to grow in a quarter of an inch.

In addition to my parents, my Uncle Brad and his daughter Maria were there. They both gazed at me in what I could tell was an attempt to repress any signs of fetishized awe. There were only two phones on the visitor side, so I talked to my mom and dad first.

“Hey, Ross,” my dad said in a toothy grin. He called me Rossy on two occasions: when he hadn’t seen me in a while, and to ease tension in the room. This time, it was both.

“Hey, dad. Hey, mom,” I said, my voice low and froggy, the first words I had spoken that day.

My mom made a sound, but didn’t actually speak. Instead, she covered her mouth, set the phone down, and cried. I looked at Brad and Maria, angry and embarrassed that they’d come, that they were permitted a front row seat to me breaking my mom’s heart.

And I knew that’s why I hadn’t heard from my parents. Because it caused my mom too much pain. I hated that truth, but there it is. She could love me beyond reason, and she did, but when I crossed the threshold – the threshold being my transformation into the demon drug phantom who appeared only on holidays or to ask for money – she had to let go, for that was the point at which, for her, loving me became a black hole she got lost in.

“How you doing in there?” my dad asked. “How’s the food?”

My mom covered her face and shook her head. I could hear her sobs through the glass.

“The food’s fine. They get it from Cherry Street Grille, you know that restaurant when you first pull into town? We’ve already had green bean casserole twice this week, though.”

There was a pause. My dad didn’t know what to say. I didn’t, either, so I said, “They let us go in the dayroom for eight hours each day. There’s a TV and a big shelf of books and some board games. Last night these guys buzzed each other’s heads. It’s funny, but we’re always watching COPS.”

My dad stared blankly at me for a moment, then chuckled.

I said, “We don’t shower together, in case you were wondering. They have two individual showers in different locations that we take turns using.”

He only wanted to protect my mom. He only ever wanted that, yet here they were. Somehow, he’d convinced my mom to come.

“That’s good to know,” my dad said.

My Uncle Brad picked up the phone from in front of my mom and said, “We’ll miss you in Chile.”

My mom, my Uncle Brad, my cousins Maria and Camille, and my grandma Luisa were all going to my grandma’s homeland for two weeks. I was supposed to go, up until I got incarcerated.

I shook my head. “I wish I could go,” I said, “but my furlough didn’t go through.”

Brad nodded. Normally we laughed at the easy sarcasm in our exchanges. He handed the phone to Maria and she said, “I hope you’re okay.” She smiled at me. Growing up, in junior high and into high school, I felt like she always looked up to me. I was popular. I was good at sports. I got good grades with minimal effort. She used to ask me what were then the important questions about life, like what bands to listen to, what movies to watch, what books to read. But she had quit, a few years ago, asking me for recommendations or advice.

Nevertheless, I said, to assert my worth as a cousin, “If you need something to read on the plane, you should check out Mary Gaitskill. Anything by her is good. Bad Behavior in particular, though.”

The conversation didn’t last much longer. I told them how I’d learned to play cribbage. I told them how I’d read a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, the only two books that weren’t Louis L’Amour.

The last thing my dad said to me was, “It doesn’t feel good going to bed at night knowing your son’s in jail.” The one and only thing my mom said was, “Please read God’s word.”

After they left, Tiffani escorted me back to the cellblock. She handed me two cans of Grizzly wintergreen long-cut chewing tobacco – courtesy of my dad – and a fancy new copy of the King James Bible with gold-trimmed thumbnail indexes.

I sat on my bunk and opened the Bible and found inside a little stitched-together green cross, accompanied by a note. The note said Ross, Take this with you in court. I love you, Mom. I stared at the cross for several moments before snatching it up and squeezing it. I closed my eyes and felt my mom near me. We were at home on the rose-patterned couch in our living room. We moved through the years of my youth and she sat on the couch and I was in sixth grade and she listened to me tell her that I liked Amanda and later, in high school, when Jessica dumped me, she held me on that couch and she listened to me play a new song I’d made up on the guitar and she told me it was beautiful and she listened to a new poem I’d written and smiled and said she loved it.

I opened my eyes and my cheeks were damp. I stuffed the Bible under my bed. I laid back on my bed and clutched the green cross against my chest. I wished it was enough to deaden the fear.

I closed my eyes again and hoped that, when I opened them, it would be different, that I’d see the sun or the moon or some form of outside light, that I wouldn’t be alone. But I kept them closed and realized that all of us were alone. Chip, whose family was back on the decaying, lawless reservation in Pine Ridge. Manny, whose meth-running buddies were still back in Belle Fourche, northwest of Rapid City. Greg, whose wife and son were at his home up in Parker. Jerry, whose homeland was Minnesota. And Doug and Rob, those of the second cellblock, I suppose they had each other. Chip called them butt buddies. Surely, though, there was someone on the outside who missed them.

Suddenly my head filled with everyone I knew and I wondered what they were doing at that exact moment – my friends Jim and Randy, my ex-girlfriend Jessica, my brothers Brett and Gabe, my cousins Maria and Camille and Allison and Lisa, my former teachers Mrs. Hawley and Mrs. Limoges, the girl named Samantha I’d slept with one night at USD and who hated my guts afterward, Jimmy Page and Thome Yorke and Isaac Brock and all my favorite musicians, my Grandma Mary and my Grandma Luisa, everyone.

I sat up and threw the green cross against the wall and hissed fuck. I hated this place because I wanted to be anywhere else but this place. I realized this place was pointless because it wasn’t out there and by extension I was pointless because I was in here and out there continued on.

And then I realized that’s the fucking point of this place.


The Clay County Jail is actually just the basement of the Clay County Courthouse. On my big day, I put on my orange suit and Tiffani handcuffed me and rode with me up the rickety elevator to the third floor, where the courtroom was.

To me, the courtroom looked stately. High-ceilinged, lots of intricately-carved wooden columns, painted images of gesticulating Greeks in robes on the walls. The gallery was composed of several rows of pew-style wooden benches, and I spotted my dad among those seated. The bailiff let me sit by him, a courtesy, I was told, the court didn’t normally extend to inmates.

My dad smiled and said, “Hey Rossy.”

“Where’s mom?”

He shook his head, lowered his eyes to his lap. “She can’t handle it.”

Friday is felony day at the Clay County Courthouse, where, in addition to all the other cases on the docket, they hear the pleas of those facing prison time. Unfortunately for me, they proceeded in alphabetical order, which left me, of surname Wilbur, the very last one on the list. My dad and I sat and watched as they paraded each criminal up to face the Honorable Judge Art Rush, a handsome grey-haired man with a matching mustache.

There was a tattooed Mexican man who plead guilty to possessing five pounds of marijuana and got sentenced to twelve years in prison, a nondescript middle-aged woman who plead guilty to insufficient funds and was ordered to pay two-thousand dollars restitution, a beefy young country boy who plead guilty to reckless driving and was fined just short of four hundred dollars. They had a group of five people all facing DUI charges come up as a group and enter their pleas in near-simultaneous succession. At one point, the court realized it had made a mistake and that there was an inmate downstairs in the holding cell who was supposed to be in court. Judge Rush spoke into an intercom and ordered Tiffani to bring the individual up, which caused, in my perception, a seemingly inordinate delay.

Finally, after three excruciating hours, it was my turn.

I still don’t know what exactly happened that day, or to be more precise, why it happened. I can’t call it justice, and I don’t like the word mercy either. I walked up the aisle, past the little wooden gate, and stood in front of the bench next to my portly court-appointed public defender. I was given a chance to speak, and I gave the same speech I had twice before, “I know I made a mistake, but I’m serious about staying clean this time. I’m going to Narcotics Anonymous, and I’m going to get a sponsor. I want to earn my degree and become a productive member of society.”

Judge Rush banged his gavel and said, “I sentence you to three years in the state penitentiary, to be fully clothed, fed, and cared for, for the duration of your sentence - to be suspended. In addition, I order you to attend and successfully complete a minimum thirty-day impatient drug treatment program.”

And that was it. My ears rung with the words I sentence you to three years in the state penitentiary and I turned to my lawyer and he was smiling and he whispered excitedly, “Yes! That’s what we wanted.”

I said, “But he sentenced me to prison.”

“But the sentence is suspended. That means you’re on probation for three years. But you don’t have to go to prison. Only if you violate again.”

“Seriously?” I still didn’t believe him.

The court adjourned and Judge Rush disappeared to his chambers. The stenographer and state’s attorney packed up their stuff and jetted. The bailiff said, “Okay, show’s over folks.” My attorney led me past the bar, where my dad stood anxiously waiting.

“Is he going to prison?” my dad asked.

“No,” I said. “I got a suspended sentence. I’m on probation again.”

My dad shook hands with the public defender, thanked him profusely. I told myself over and over, I’m not going to prison. I’m not going to prison. It barely felt real. The relief came on in intermittent but steadily more intense waves, like the effect of a powerful drug slowly taking hold.

Was it because I’m white? Was it my speech? There was no good reason that Tiffani escorted me back down to the cellblock to await transport to a treatment center rather than the state penitentiary.

When I got back to my cell, I unclutched the little green cross and stared at it. It was bent now from how tightly I’d gripped it. I thought, Mom, did you do this?


I had to wait another week to be transported to Keystone Treatment Center up in Canton, just south of Sioux Falls, bringing my stay to an even two months. In that time, a skinny middle-aged man joined our cellblock. He committed arson. But not throw-some-gasoline-and-light-a-match arson. Elaborate arson. While his ex-wife was out of town, he burned her house down by setting little candles all around the house’s base – one hundred and nine in all – and lit them, one by one. Then he stood by the sidewalk and watched the candles slowly burn until they melted into the gasoline he’d splashed all around the foundation.

When he told us that, I thought, You are fucking crazy, but what I said to him was, “Damn, dude.” Chip just shook his head and chuckled, as if it all made perfect sense. Manny told the guy a way to make meth with battery acid and ammonia and some other shit from under your sink but I tuned him out. By this time, Jerry and Greg had been released.

One of my last nights in jail was the night before Rob, the child molester, would face his verdict and, if convicted, face sentencing. It was pretty late, past midnight, and I was playing cribbage with Chip. The table in our cellblock was right against the wall separating our cellblock from Doug and Rob’s cellblock.

“Hey, you guys,” said Doug. “Does anyone have any chew?” Because our cellblocks were adjacent, we could slide stuff back and forth along the ground – games, cards, but most often chew. People were always running out, but I always had an ample supply thanks to my dad.

“Rob could really use some chew,” Doug explained. “He’s got his sentencing tomorrow morning and he’s real nervous.”

Ever since my suspended sentence I’d been giving stuff away – stamps, envelopes, a few dollars here and there, and plenty of chew. I grabbed my can of Grizzly wintergreen and stood from the table. But Chip stared me down.

“Tell Rob to fuck off and die,” Chip said. He kept his eyes locked on me. I gripped my chew can. Chip had the same look in his eyes that he did that night back when Rob tried to enter the dayroom. I legitimately thought that if I slid this chew down to Rob, Chip would come at me. I thought: I could really use a tuna sock about now.

But I crouched down and held the chew on the ground just beyond the bars. I said, “Doug, I got some chew for you. Here it comes.” I gave it a little push. It only had to travel five feet or so. It glided scratchily for a few seconds and came to rest.

“Thanks,” Doug said, sounding more excited than grateful. “Thanks, Ross.”

“No problem,” I said, meeting eyes with Chip. The intensity in his face was murderous. “Have the rest of that can.”

“There’s over half a can here,” Doug said.

“Keep it.”

And then I heard Rob’s voice for the first time. It must have been the first time Chip heard it, too, because the bad-ass, angry tightness on his face loosened into a perky curiosity. A high-pitched, gravely-from-disuse, peepy-sounding voice said, “Thanks, Ross.” I stared Chip down for a few more seconds. I said, “You’re welcome.” And then I walked back to my cell.

The next morning, Rob got convicted and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. We caught a glimpse of him as he was transported from the elevator to the jail’s entrance, where’d he’d immediately be transported to the hole (you know what that is) up in Sioux Falls. His wrists and legs were shackled, and two sheriff deputies gripped either of his arms. We probably saw him take five steps, and after that, we only heard the clanking of his shackles, and then the steely slamming of a door.

I don’t know who found out Rob got the thirty-five year sentence; one of the jailors must’ve leaked it to us. Rob was fifty-six years old, had diabetes, and took medication for high blood pressure. Chip stated the obvious, “That motherfucker’ll die in the joint.”

Two days later, they released me to my dad. I climbed in the car and asked, “Where’s mom?”

My dad shook his head.

He gave me a ride up Interstate 29 to Keystone Treatment Center, where I’d get help for my drug problem. The sun was beautiful; the trees were beautiful; the grass, the roads, all of it. It wasn’t bittersweet to leave Chip, Manny, Kristin Cavallari, or any of them behind. It was just sweet.

Except that I sat in the passenger seat, and that seat belonged to my mom. All I had was this little green thread-cross, which I clutched tightly in my pocket. But she came up that first Sunday for Family Day.

She cried again, and I held her, but she was there. I glanced over her shoulder at my dad, and he nodded, hopefully.

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