The angry, wet sound of his violent regurgitation still reverberates through the finite space of my mind the same way it bounced around the confined space of our cell.
His hair was short and so blond it looked like nothing more than peach fuzz above an oval face. His softened features made him look closer to age twelve or thirteen rather than the nineteen going on twenty that he was. Not a single hair would grow on his chubby baby face. Gordie was in no way impressive or formidable.
At the time, he’d only been down about four months and was still more or less fresh off the bus, so I did what I could to show him the ropes. He’d already had some rotten cellies who had bullied him, and his lengthy sentence meant he would spend nearly as much time behind prison walls as he had spent outside the womb. I felt sorry for him and protective of him, which only made my dilemma that much more troubling.
The incident happened one morning after breakfast. Our trays usually arrived around 4:00 a.m. every morning through the chuck hole—breakfast in bed. Gordie had only been in the cell a couple of weeks. During that time, he had mostly just slept and quietly watched some television. We had yet to build the rapport and camaraderie we would eventually enjoy.
My days began with the chuck hole slamming open for breakfast, acting as my alarm clock. Then I was up for the day, trying to scribble my legacy on yellow legal pads. Gordie’s routine to that point had been to finally rouse for the day sometime around noon (though he’d be back down for an afternoon nap around three). For breakfast, Gordie had been in the habit of barely raising his head off the mat to ask me what was on the tray, and then saying I could have it before rolling back to face the wall and slip back into slumber. On the morning in question, I instantly knew something was off because Gordie declared, “I don’t want it,” before the trays had even been delivered. Then he lay there on his back staring at the ceiling, wide awake.
I ate dutifully, unceremoniously—an automatic act, a reflex. Trays enter full and exit empty: mission accomplished. Food was fuel and nothing more. But on this day, Gordie kept poking his head over the edge of his bunk to peer down and spy on me. It was unnatural, unnerving, and disturbing. I didn’t think I would have to tell him not to do it any more, that it’s not cool–because I figured that not doing it was only common sense. However, if prison has taught me anything, it’s that “common sense” to some is absolutely foreign to others. I opened my mouth, prepared to ask him if something was wrong and instruct him not to hang his head over my food tray and watch me eat. But Gordie spoke before I could.
“Are you done eating?”
This caught me off guard. There was a curt anxiousness to his tone, and it took a moment of pause for my brain to kick out words.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m done.” As if to prove my point, I shoveled the last bit of slimy scrambled eggs into my mouth, snapped the lids back on the Lunchables, and placed them back on the chuck hole for retrieval by the breakfast porter. Even as I was doing that, Gordie was cautiously stepping his way down to the bar at the end of the bed that served as a ladder. He was clearly taking great pains to move gingerly but as swiftly as possible. I was confused, but only for a moment. After he grabbed his bedsheet and pulled it down after him, I thought I knew what was happening and couldn’t help but smirk in the early morning darkness.
Just because a person is locked behind a steel door with another man, the basic biological need to eliminate waste doesn’t disappear. As the popular children’s book so succinctly put it: everybody poops. The proper protocol is to stretch one’s bedsheet across the cell to act as a privacy curtain. Technically this is illegal, as it obstructs the officer’s view of the entire cell, but only the biggest of Robocop C/Os actually write a ticket for it. Most of them understand that we’re just trying to cover our shame—a human instinct born moments after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the serpent, thereby damning us all.
When I saw Gordie drag his bedsheet down and begin to affix it to the foot rail at the end of the bed, I grinned at the thought of him squirming in his bunk and squeezing his cheeks as he held the urge to defecate in order to let me eat breakfast in peace. It was both a funny and a touching notion—that he would endure discomfort just so I wouldn’t have to eat a crappy breakfast. But I was wrong. Gordie did not have to go number two.
Ordinarily, once the sheet is in place, only an inmate’s feet are visible—sometimes not even that. Instead, Gordie’s legs shot out below the sheet towards where I sat on my bottom bunk as he dropped down to his knees in front of the steel toilet, like a devout worshiper before his altar. But the sounds I heard next were not prayers of any kind that I was familiar with. Instead there was a sudden, unexpected, assault on my ears that seemed like the cries of a small but determined animal in a brutal struggle with something slick and slippery—an unearthly entity. Hoarse retches were followed by the inevitable wet splashes as whatever he’d eaten that hadn’t agreed with him made its encore appearance in the toilet bowl.
I steeled my stomach against any notions it might have harbored of showing sympathy or symmetry in regurgitation. I reached for the knob that controlled the window to let in some air, but I was too late to prevent the sour stench from making my eyes water and my throat tighten involuntarily in its own reflexive retch. The rank aroma permeated every available cubic inch of air. The open window let in a freezing winter blast, but provided no relief. Unfazed, Gordie continued spilling the contents of his guts into the toilet, making sad, lonely noises in between expulsions like some pathetic, wounded creature.
Once I overcame my initial shock and revulsion, I searched back in my history for some mental construct or protocol as to how to act in a situation like this. The last vomiting person I’d been in close proximity to was my wife. I had held her hair back to keep it from getting befouled by the puke, rubbed her back in slow, soothing circles, and cooed quiet, loving phrases meant to calm and comfort her pained groans and mumbled moans. Now, though I felt sympathy for his plight and even protective of young Gordie as some type of surrogate little brother, I was fairly certain that a similar reaction on my part might be perceived as odd. Instead, I did what I thought was the next best thing.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Possibly the dumbest and most idiotic, pointless query in the history of questions. Gordie’s only response was more throat-tearing, gagging grunts followed by heavy splashes and whimpers of recovery before the next round of regurgitation. I quieted myself and let him be sick in peace.
I thought again about my wife and how I had babied and cared for her when she was sick. I thought of my mother, the person from whom I had learned all my caregiving techniques. She had soothed all my childhood illnesses and cleaned up all my boyhood vomit. Gordie was not my wife, and I was not his mother, but no one who is legitimately ill should have to clean up his own mess. The idea did not thrill me one bit, but once he seemed to be done, I did what I perceived was the right thing to do in the strange curve ball of a circumstance that life had pitched me.
“Are you alright, Gordie?” (Again with the stupid questions.) “You need any help? Anything I can do?” While I was fully prepared to assist, I was also secretly, desperately hoping I would not have to face any puke up close and personal that day. After a long pause, during which only a few sniffles from Gordie could be heard, he finally answered.
“No. I got it.”
Blessed relief flooded me, but my better nature reacted before I could squelch it. “Are you sure?” I asked. No! I was off the hook! Why would I volunteer again? But I was fretting over nothing. Whether it was out of pride or shame or some other notion, Gordie refused my assistance.
The pungent citrus smell of the laundry detergent available on commissary filled the cell. It supplanted the puke smell as Gordie dutifully took a soapy rag to clean the steel of the toilet and sink, then the concrete wall and floor that had likely suffered collateral damage during his violent vomiting. I remained silent throughout, as did Gordie, who then wordlessly crawled into bed and lay motionless for a dozen hours.
My sympathy for my cellie was deep and genuine, but that did him no good. In fact, it seemed he couldn’t catch a break, not even from me, and I could only conceive one notion to sum up the whole screwy situation. Poor Gordie.
This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.