Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Soap Line

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Soap Line

Article excerpt

The prison's property room had a back door which opened to a small, wooden sally port. It was bordered by the yard office and the commissary windows. The barbershop was back there, if you walked through that rear corridor of the yard office, but the commissary windows - one for each yard - sat along the traffic ramp which everyone had to use.

The barbershop was run by the blacks, since the whites wouldn't circulate that close to the staff. And because they ran it like a club privilege, some very elite strutting took place. They converged - the Muslims, the blacks - seldom mixing with the others on that passage ramp.

But the commissary windows were simply grated to a shack-like bungalow that had trailer siding tacked down, all of it painted a very artificial, shadow-sucking yellow. It looked like a margarine stick, with exhaust pipes stemming up. And the color-wash blond who operated this store seemed always to exalt herself, promenading behind the window grates like a manufactured goddess on a pull-string.

Fortunately, for the population, two inmate employees did the real work of getting the store items out: you had five hours, one day a week, to buy your shit through the window. On a revolving schedule that sent upwards of two hundred inmates at a crack into line. Of the other eight hundred that lived on these yards, a majority - always - swarmed around the line and waited with their friends.

But now it was an alternate Friday. Clifford stood below the steps of the passage ramp, waiting with the others in the soap line. He was in front of the property room, where another line waited to pick up their packages. His line ran up the steps, then horseshoed to the left, across from the two commissary windows. And there, in the sally port, at the back of the property room, a guard checked off your number and issued a lunch sack with a small grip of laundry soap. Like everyone else, Clifford had T-shirts, socks, and a few other things, to run through the washer in his dorm. All dirty, overdue.

But four lines, dead in the middle of a frozen afternoon. Clifford put his hands in his jacket pockets and leaned on one foot but felt he was communing - overall - with nothing greater than a steel post. He looked to the side of the commissary trailer, to the rows and rows of razor-ribbon wire. It was coiled there in a comer, behind a three-story, chain-link fence. They were simply building more walls with it. They were building in from the perimeter, to the center of the yard. Two inmates from electric shop sat with it, out behind that fence, on a fork-lift they used to cart the stuff around.

Christ.

It was shit. Nothing but shit. Of all the shit that Clifford had seen in his life, the Department of Corrections, unquestionably, was the ranking Anal Mother of them all.

Yet he relaxed, as the line took a step forward, and a resident walked by with his soap bag. It only meant moving a few inches, though everyone looked back - scouting - to see if there was a play to be made from behind. But instead of a joint being passed, the line simply responded to itself.

"Soap issuezzs getting damn small."

"Not surprising, since they're taking all of our clothes away."

A sweet commissary smell rippled the air where Clifford stood, and he imagined - momentarily - that his tongue was actually a sugar wafer.

"No, Mr. Darvette," came the voice of the color-wash, from the commissary window. "You're still on restriction."

Her voice had high, whirring overtones in it, as if she were speaking through an electric drill.

"But you know that was lifted last week," said Darvette. "I want some store, now!"

"Sor-ry," she said. "You'll have to take that up with Major Halt. Next!"

"If you was a man, they'd kill you at the bar," Darvette was yelling as he walked off.

But the deal was this: she and Major Halt worked as a team. He arbitrarily regulated who could go to the store, mainly, it seemed, to create tension on the yard. …

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