The Shape in the Rust
My hair is black, I’m six feet tall and I weigh about 165 pounds. This I know. The rest I’m not so sure about.
I spend most of my day looking at the bars in my cell, trying to see new shapes in the flaking rust—a corsair, a jolly chimp, the profile of my wife, who I’m unable to see for many days yet. They tell me Minnie’s not my wife, but I can tell them she’s got a clover-shaped birthmark at the back of her right thigh.
They might respond by saying that I could have seen her jogging in running shorts. I might say that she has another scar no one else knows about, but disclosing its location would feel like betraying her, so I will never mention where it is.
We’re called for lunch: some kind of casserole that tastes like iron and a cup of pink jelly. We’re all seated at the canteen tables in our orange jumpsuits. Bertrand is collecting some bits of tobacco from under his chair, hoping he has enough for a cigarette. He says he’s managed to make paper while doing the laundry. He bundles the new clothes’ tags into a ball and then soaks it in bleached water and, after half an hour, he has a sheet of good paper.
He drinks the bleached water too. It’s chlorinated, he says, which makes it safer than the brown water they fetch for us from the yard. Bertrand is smart and he too has been charged with identity theft—as have most of us here—but I don’t believe it. He wouldn’t have been caught. He’s too meticulous, too ingenious. I’m none of these things, but still, I didn’t steal Newlin Cooley. That has always been me.
After lunch, they tell us that someone will be delivering a presentation to us in the evening about honing who we are. We know these presentations by heart, just like we know whether we’re right-handed, what colour our skin is and what our loved ones enjoy doing on a Sunday afternoon. But they tell us we don’t, so we have to sit and relearn the basics. Sometimes, just to keep myself from getting bored, I look at the other inmates and try to imagine what lives they must have led before they were confined here.
The guard does a line check when we’re out of the canteen. He grazes his black baton against our upper thighs and lingers when he gets to me. He puts two very heavy fingers on my shoulder and asks me to get out of line and follow another officer to one of the visiting rooms.
The room’s furniture is all polished wood like a confessional. The guard sits me down on a short stool in front of plexiglass. On the shelf under the glass is a roll of toilet paper. There’s a window to my right. Heavenly rays are filtering through and they remind me of the barley field across from my house. Or is it a wheat field? The guard stands behind me as I wait for my visitor. I am not allowed to see my wife, so I wonder who it could be.
I make as if to stand to see what’s outside the window, but I feel the guard’s hand immediately and my bony ass hits the stool. I’ve gotten used to their hands now too. This guard is Conrad and he calls me Roman because of the crest-like hair on top of my head. I’ve always kept my hair like that, or so I believe.
The door at the far end of the room opens and the visitor enters holding a sheaf of papers. He’s a middle-aged man with thick glasses and a face marked like a pincushion. He sits across the plexiglass and looks down at the papers he brought.
‘Do you know what shoulder surfing is?’ he asks.
I shake my head.
‘You’ve never hovered over someone as they punched in their credit card details or filed an application?’
I shake my head.
The man’s teeth are browner than a ploughman’s fingers. He pushes up his glasses over his oily nose and leans back into his chair. He looks at me and smiles like a teacher at a precocious student—there’s pride in him, pride in the abilities he thinks I have, but I am ready to prove that I am who I say I am and that I’ve been mistakenly accused.
‘What do you do?’ he asks.
‘Used to be a coal miner for many years, but I was laid off,’ I say.
‘I have pictures of you working behind a bar.’
‘That was a part-time thing. It’s all I could find at the time.’
The man nods and changes tact. He leans forward and presses his elbows against the shelf. His hairline makes contact with the plexiglass. There is a glue-like sheen on both lapels of his suit jacket. There are soft black hairs on his cheekbones. This guy doesn’t look like an interrogator or prosecutor or whatever he claims to be. I look at the ceiling, push my fingers against the shelf and question the reality of this space. My life has changed from posting pictures of my wife’s baby bump online to patting my jumpsuit’s pockets for my phone and realising two things: I have no phone, and the jumpsuit has no pockets.
‘You were raised a Catholic but your online profile says you’re an atheist,’ the interrogator says.
I shrug. ‘People change.’
The interrogator sighs and takes off his glasses. He considers them for a moment as if looking at something unfamiliar. He slides the glasses through the tiny slot in the plexiglass.
‘Put them on,’ he says.
The lenses are smudged. Curly hairs are trapped in the hinges and the nose pads are age-spot brown. I pick the glasses up with two fingers, shake them so the arms unfold and put them on. I look at the man’s blurry figure in front of me and in the smear of colours, my memory takes over. I see a puddle of rain, traffic lights reflected in the water. I see the pothole at the corner of my street. I see Christmas lights on the tiny tree, a coil whisk on top because we don’t have a star.
I try to focus my vision on the man before me, but my eyes are condemned to look through the blurry lenses.
‘This is what you are to us,’ the interrogator says. ‘A blur. A smudge on society. Outside of your online existence, you are nothing.’
I take off the glasses and smack them down on the shelf. The frame creaks under the weight of my palm.
‘I want to see my wife.’
The interrogator’s hand moves slowly through the slot and he takes the glasses. He lifts them up, looks through them and then puts them on, smirking.
‘That’s a good one, it really is. Apart from that obscure baby bump, you’ve no pictures on your profile of the wife you claim to have, not to mention, you’d subscribed to an online dating service.’
I’m about to retort but he stands abruptly, hitting the shelf with his hip. The toilet roll on my side wobbles and then falls to the ground, unfurling. I bend down to pick it up, but I feel Conrad’s fingers on the nape of my neck. The next time I look through the plexiglass, the interrogator is not there, the sheaf of papers is not there, just a very indistinct reflection of myself. I look to the window one last time before I’m escorted back to my cell.
The presentation has been cancelled and instead we’re all called to the courtyard. Before we go out, we’re asked to strip down to our boxers. After I ball up the jumpsuit and place it in the corner of my cell, Conrad taps me impatiently with the baton and makes me follow a wide inmate’s back as we’re led outside.
The searchlights in each corner of the yard are at their brightest, forcing our heads down. We are a graveyard of phosphorescence. The concrete under my feet bounces back the light and it feels like purgatory, neither here nor there.
The warden tells us on the speaker to sit down on the floor in very tight lines.
‘Open your legs wide and sit. Your crotch must be squeezed against the next man’s back. Your head must lean on the next man’s neck. Tighter, tighter.’
I sit and my legs are so far apart that the muscles on my inner thighs feel tight enough to snap. I rest my forehead on the neck of the man in front of me. The bone at the base of his neck is bulging like a doorknob and it hurts my skull. His back is sweaty and I can feel my own sweat crawling in my hair. I can see the tiny blond spider hairs in the man's pores. He has two big, caky moles on his shoulders. I see microscopic blackheads no eye should see—I imagine they’re holding their breath, hoping I won’t reveal them. You can rest easy, I think, this is not about you.
The man behind me has a heavy head and his breath feels like a cigarette being stubbed out on my skin. I inhale deeply to momentarily lift his weight off my neck. I feel the man’s hands reach out to my thighs. They rest tentatively there, and I want to scream out and wriggle free, but I feel paralysed. His spindly fingers grip my upper legs. He squeezes once, twice, and then pulls his hands away.
‘You’ve got nice thighs,’ he whispers, a cheeky grin to his voice.
I can’t remember how long I’ve been locked up in here. I haven’t been counting, hoping someday soon they’ll admit they made a mistake and release me back to my life. I wonder about the others—how long have they been away from their wives, their lovers, their children? Do they remember them?
The speakers squeal loudly, and our heads collectively press into the next man’s neck.
‘This is what you are,’ the warden says. ‘You are one and the same, links in an epidemic of deception. Without the identities you have borrowed, you are nothing but skin.’
I look to my left. There are thousands of us filling the courtyard, all bent down in a line of barely identifiable flesh. I see a portrait tattoo on someone’s bicep. Someone else has reddish hair. Another man has a paunch like a temple slab.
I look to my right. We’re in the last row so it’s just a wall there. There are some weeds sprouting out of the concrete where the wall meets the ground. I see a small purple flower, alone and straight up like a criminal in a police chopper’s light.
Minnie is a florist. She sells flower frogs at her shop—apparatuses with holes for the flowers to stay upright in an arrangement. I had questioned their purpose and asked her how many people would actually buy them. She’d said that too few people knew about flower frogs to ask if she had any for sale. When they’re on display, people never ask about them. They think they’re simply part of the shop’s artsy-crafty decor.
I always remember what Minnie tells me. She has a honey-sweet way of explaining things in her hypnotising voice. Her hair is cool as water, her lips are coral pink. I reach out for the purple flower. I hear a gunshot from the other side of the courtyard and we stir like a disturbed spider.
The man’s arms return from behind me and he wraps them around me and holds me tight. His voice breaks and I know he’s crying.
‘I’m not an expert in semantic languages,’ he says, ‘but that’s what I wrote, that’s what I fucking wrote.’
I’m back in the visiting room. The interrogator on the other side of the plexiglass is breathing through his nose and the whistling sound he makes pecks at my eardrums. The stench of his body odour burns my nostrils. I’m about to stand and leave when he takes something from his file and slips it through the slot. It’s a picture of a young woman I know. She has hoop earrings, a nose stud and sharp collar bones.
‘Who’s this girl?’ he asks.
‘She’s a friend.’
‘What kind of friend?’
‘Where did you meet?’
‘I don’t remember.’
The interrogator sighs and rubs his face with his hands. He takes another photo from the file and slips it through the slot. It’s a picture of me.
‘Is that you in a hot tub?’ he asks. ‘I thought you were laid off.’
‘That’s my buddy Theo’s.’
‘I see, but you didn’t specify that online.’
I can feel his frustration through the glass and I’m sitting here like a convict, not making my case. My legs are jiggling and I’m thinking of ways I could slip out the window and run far, farther than my house, farther than all the places I remember.
I think of Minnie and the arguments we’ve had since I was laid off, the arguments about me wanting her to close down her shop, sell the place, move away. I want to grab this man by the throat and tell him I had to steal a rich kid’s titanium bike to pay off three months of mortgage. I used to drive to the gas station on the highway exit and take rolls of toilet paper from the restroom. I pawned my collector’s corsairs and I washed myself with water heated on the stove. I told that girl in the hoop earrings that she owes me money because her dope peddler told her to break into my car, and she scratched the already scratched side view mirror.
I take a deep breath and it sticks in my throat. ‘My wife,’ I manage to say. ‘Minnie. She has a scar. I’ll tell you where it is.’ I picture the two of us in the bedroom, the sheets stained with the cheapest red wine we could find, me kissing the scar on the inside of her right butt cheek and her saying she farted but it’s a joke, a stupid joke that we laugh at, even though the room actually does smell like shit because the drywall is moldier than a crack house sink.
I tell him about the scar, and he shakes his head as if in disappointment.
‘That’s not going to help us,’ he says, and he starts putting his papers in order.
‘What do you want from me?’
He holds up the picture of me in a hot tub. He pushes it against the plexiglass. ‘I want you to admit that this isn’t you.’
His bruise-black nails struggle with the edges of the photograph. I’m looking at myself in the picture: my awful, fat-boy smile as my arms hang from the edges of the hot tub, imported dragon fruit in a wicker hamper behind me. Theo took the picture back when he lived in Pickerington, back when I thought he really meant for me to be his business partner, just before he made a pass at Minnie and told her she shouldn’t settle.
The big prisoners in the yard are starting to cause trouble. They’re tired of the I’m-innocent spiels and the states of mind of the small fries. They tell us that we’re frauds, yes, that we’re rats in a labyrinth. They lay us down and put rubber disc weights on top of us until our heads turn blue and the veins in our temples bulge like chicken feet under our skin.
A fight starts because one of the newcomers bites his nails in a specific way and one of the behemoths doesn’t like it. He shoves the smaller guy’s finger into his mouth and tells him to bite it clean off.
I move backwards until I hit the door to the laundry room. I slip inside. It’s quiet in here, apart from the steamy whirring of the washer-dryers. Bertrand is pulling the tags off the new underwear that’s come in. He notices me and raises his eyebrows in greeting.
‘You seem OK with jail,’ I say.
Bertrand’s fingers look like creased tracing paper. He’s been working in laundry since he was locked up.
‘I’m not like you, I have no family to speak of,’ he says. ‘Say, you live a few miles south of Cleveland, don’t you?’ He drops a pair of fleece-white socks and looks at me. ‘Imagine, the Rockefellers and the Gunds came from a place a few miles away from where you and I sold off our bathroom tiles at garage sales.’
I smile for the first time in many days. I like the sound of Bertrand’s voice, always optimistic, always an upward inflection to his sentences. He has yellow eyes that don’t bear down at you. They glide, like soft patting a cat’s fur. It feels good to be seen carefully, gracefully.
He picks up the white socks and pulls the plastic fastener until it snaps. ‘I used to think that nobody cared that I was alive, until I missed a couple of credit card payments,’ he says. ‘They only care about your money, Newlin.’
He suddenly remembers something and lifts the washing basin from the aluminium counter. Underneath is a small stack of thick, white paper.
‘Here,’ he says, and he hands me a sheet. ‘Find a pen and write down everything, what you are, who you are. Keep it secret though, they don’t like paper unless it’s the green kind.’
I pop off the first two buttons of my jumpsuit and slip the sheet inside. We sit on the counter and Bertrand pulls out two cigarettes and a lighter from a worn-out sock. We light up and look up at the smoke our lungs exhale as it crowds the ceiling, scrambles, and then dissipates.
I wonder what Minnie is doing, what they told her since I was dragged out through our dead front yard and into a police car. She might be in the shop at this time of day, putting her nose in the folds of carnations and thinking of me. I hope she’s doing fine.
We hear footsteps approaching and we quickly drop our cigarettes onto the stone floor and tap dance all over them. We look to the door and we see Conrad. He looks at the haze of smoke and he knows what we’ve been doing, but he doesn’t say anything.
‘Follow me,’ he tells me, and I do.
I want to say that I’m tired of the questioning, but this is the only chance I have to make my case, even though I should have a lawyer present, even though I should be out on bail, even though I shouldn’t be here at all. I wait on the stool and think of what novel things I can say to the man in the glasses. As I’m twirling my fingers, I hear the door open. I look up and see a different man.
This one has blond, short-cropped hair. He’s young and has a very tight jaw. He smells nice, like body spray, better than the other one. There are no creases in his deep blue suit. It looks like a coat of armor.
‘Do you understand why you’re here?’ he says. The voice is deep, earthy, and I want to shake his hand and tell him I’ll answer everything as best I can.
‘No, I don’t know.’
This man hasn’t brought any papers and he doesn’t sit down. He just rubs his hands together—I see a gold ring on his finger—and looks down at me, neither smiling nor frowning.
‘I’m Jack’s replacement,’ he says.
‘The other officer you’ve been speaking with. The boys upstairs decided he wasn’t living up to his full potential.’
I nod. I want this man to sit down. The fact that he doesn’t makes me think that this interview will be short, that he doesn’t intend to listen to me.
‘Your wife,’ he says. ‘She’s beautiful. It’s not quite the scar you described but a stretch mark; her ass can’t have been that size as a teenager. The other mark on the back of her thigh is very tasteful too.’
I’m confused and look at this man with my heart beating in my throat, a swell of tears pressing at the back of my eyes.
‘You tried to be her match, we get it, you tried to be a man who drinks wine on the patio, smokes cigarillos in a hot tub, a man who has the luxury to not believe in a higher power, but we know you pray. We know you talk to God and ask for handouts.’
I don’t know what to say. My fingernails dig deep into my knees until I can feel the shape of my bones at my fingertips.
The man puts the heels of his palms on the shelf and clears his throat.
‘Your wife owns her own shop and she looks like a million dollars. She doesn’t belong to you. You must and will accept that. You can’t afford her, just like you wouldn’t have been able to afford that baby. It’s been ripped out now of course, all traces of you flung like driftwood into the bin.’
My arm shoots out toward him like a bullet, but my fist hits the glass. The glass shakes but doesn’t break and the man is still standing there, motionless, watching me squirm as Conrad takes hold of me from behind.
All I can think of is Minnie’s scar. I picture men like this pulling her apart and inspecting her. I picture the nights she and I spent thinking of how to survive the next day and I hate myself for not being adequate enough.
I think about the shop, all those plumes, those petals, and how horribly I told her to sell the place. I think of the laughs we shared when we just scraped by, when we still helped that NGO save Hocking Hills because we both grew up there, we both swam in Cedar Falls and we finally came to the agreement that, no, we’d never move, it would be OK.
The man pulls his ring off, then puts it on again.
‘She will be taken care of. As will you. Everything’s in its proper order.’
He turns around and leaves, never looking back. I see the sunlight when he opens the door and I can almost smell the minty fresh air.
Conrad holds me still. ‘I’m sorry, Roman. I’m sorry, buddy,’ he says.
I feel completely numb in my cell, like all my nerves were left in the visiting room. My soul is sputtering and I think that soon it will abandon my body. I can almost feel the phantom of Conrad’s beefy arms around me, and I wish they had stayed there. I turn around on the sheet-thin mattress and hear the paper rustle inside my jumpsuit.
I sit up and pull the sheet out. I look at the green sink in my cell, the toilet bowl in the corner. I look under my bed for something to write with. I think of calling Conrad as a last resort, but then I see a piece of rusted metal by the bars and I think it could work. I take it and press it against the paper. It leaves a mark the colour of an autumn leaf.
I first consider writing down all the baby boy and baby girl names I can think of, but my hand starts to shake, and I stop and take deep breaths through my nose.
I look at the blank sheet and write what Bertrand told me to: everything. I write my weight, my hair colour, my height; that’s all I have. I also write down “jolly chimp” because I have that too. It’s the shape in the rust on my bars.