After a hot day throwing trash I report to county lockup. Sun-whipped and salty, I’m ready for some hours of self-reflection but instead get groaning and muttering from the adjoining cell. It comes from a man with a pencil neck and eyes the color of fresh concrete.
“No reason,” he says.
“To live,” he says.
“Right,” I say. “What’s your name?”
“Merr,” says the new man. Huddled in the corner, he’s stripped of his shoes and outfitted in a baggy orange jumpsuit.
I try again. The man despairs incoherently.
“Merr,” he says.
“Enough,” I say.
The next day is Day 173 of my work release, and the jailor, a former high school classmate, cracks wise for the 173rd day in a row. I was once voted most likely to conquer Wall Street. Now I throw trash for a living and serve time for suburban malfeasance.
I laugh along at my expense. I ridicule myself with vigor. Then, during a break in the derision, I ask about the new man.
Doctor gone wild, the jailor explains. Nine months for writing bogus scripts. Wife bolted for Key West with her art instructor. Suicide watch.
I cluck my tongue and shake my head. I mention the jailor’s prowess on the gridiron, such as it was, and his chest puffs visibly. I use this momentum to inquire about the possibility of an extra pillow.
The jailor barks and slaps me on the back with enough force to damage a vertebra.
“In your fuckin’ dreams, garbage man.”
The man gets a plastic spoon with dinner. When the jailor has gone, he snaps it in half and puts a jagged piece in his wrist.
Repeatedly he jabs. Blood shimmies about, but not enough to matter.
Still, I scream for the jailor. This strikes me as good behavior.
The jailor lumbers in growling and cursing. He hammers the new man to the floor with a massive forearm and thumbs his radio.
“Man down,” he says.
The man comes back three days later, at dinner time. I’m contemplating a rubbery meatball and enjoying the silence.
“Help me,” he says, shivering.
I’m ready this time. I set the tray aside and remove the laces from my boots, toss them over. The man looks at me wide-eyed and then stands on the plastic chair and goes about tying the thick black laces together and attaching the single piece to the overhead sprinkler. He does this frantically, as if I might realize my mistake and summon the jailor.
The man fashions the loose end into a makeshift noose and wraps it around his slender neck. He steps off the chair. The cord goes taut, causing an opening of jaws and a silent gagging. He grabs at the laces as he twirls around, feet inches from the floor, but is unable to pull himself to safety. He attempts to stand on the chair but instead kicks it away in his agitated state.
His eyes meet mine, bulging. I stand pat, silent.
The man’s neck is compressed to the point that I could enclose it in one hand. His face is a vibrant shade of purple. He begins snapping back and forth, like a fish in a net, and after five or six of these spasms the laces break and he falls to the floor.
The man gasps and coughs. When he sits up, he looks at me briefly before settling his gray eyes on the bars. He stays that way for minutes, hours, just sitting and staring, moving only to rub his neck. What he doesn’t know is that I cut notches into the laces, dozens of razor-thin slits to weaken the fabric. I return to my meatball, now cold, and leave him to his self-reflection. This is more what I had in mind.