A Secret Punk and a Prison Crew: An Excerpt from Cactus

I.

I sat in the passenger seat of the Chevy work truck, glad for its air conditioning. The sun beat down, and I tried not to space out too hard. I was supposed to be alert at all times. Officer Effinger was at the wheel, chewing tobacco and spitting the stinking brown liquid into a Big Gulp cup. The light shined off his big ugly shaved head. Three hundred sunny days a year, and the ugly gleam of skull and pink flesh was all I got out of that beautiful weather. He drove slowly, less than five miles per hour. The hazard lights flashed and highway traffic zoomed by.

I stared out the window at the prisoners: men in yellow reflective vests and hardhats. They picked up garbage and put it into bright orange plastic bags that they carried. They didn’t use the old-fashioned kind of sticks that had a nail on the point, like you see in movies, but the kind with a plastic trigger on the handle that controlled the little grabbing mechanism on the end. The prisoners had been carefully selected for the program — no sex offenders, nobody with a history of violence or a high escape risk — but nails pointing out from the ends of long sticks still seemed too dangerous to give to criminals. For every human, free or imprisoned, me even, the temptation to stab somebody in the neck with something sharp was already very high.

One of the prisoners waved for us to stop. Effinger put on the brakes.

I rolled the window down. The heat came in like a cartoon boxing glove on a spring.

The prisoner who stopped us was Little Guy. Little Guy was in his mid-twenties, Salvadoran, busted a few years ago for possession of meth with intent to distribute. Though he seemed to be mostly reformed, he still had the look of the drug about him, eyes like ice cubes that were beginning to melt and veins that stood out of his neck like bridge cables. He was about five-two and as wiry as an electric guitar sting.

He leaned in the window.

“Hands off the vehicle, inmate,” said Effinger. “Fucking asshole.”

“What do you have?” I asked.

Little Guy said nothing — he had learned to survive by hardly ever opening his mouth — but he handed me somebody’s driver’s license that he had found on the ground.

“Great,” I said, and I took the card.

“Get back to work,” said Effinger.

I raised the window. Effinger spat into the cup. Little Guy went back to picking up trash.

The inmates found all sorts of things by the side of the highway: Hub caps, beer cans, paper bags from Taco Bell, broken cell phones, empty cigarette boxes, newspapers, worn out shoes, milk cartons, magazines, and size double-D bras. Once, one of them found a French horn with the bell smashed flat, like it had been run over by a truck. They stuffed these things into the orange bags, which they then stacked in piles by the side of the road for the D.O.T. guys to come pick up later. Anything of value — credit cards, ID cards, or jewelry, typically — they turned over to us, and we stowed it in a plastic bin between the front seats.

If Effinger liked the look of something, he took it home. The most memorable of these things was a necklace that one of the prisoners had handed over. Diamonds set in white gold. When nobody was looking, Effinger slipped the piece into his lunch box.

He said, “Tonight I’m going to take a picture of my wife wearing nothing but this necklace, and then I’m going to put it on the internet.”

He meant the picture, not the necklace.

I thought that sooner or later that necklace would probably end up on the side of a road somewhere again.

Unlike the inmates, Effinger and I weren’t subjected to a full pat down at the end of every day. While they were unable to sneak any scavenged contraband back inside the prison, Effinger could basically do whatever he wanted. He knew how to play the game, and everyone was afraid of him. Rage hung about his countenance in a sweaty aura, and I never doubted that the day would come when he snapped completely. I hoped not to be present for the occasion.

He chose the radio stations. We sat in the truck, listening to one talk radio show after another, Effinger muttering and nodding in pissed-off agreement with the hosts’ commentaries on immigrants, gays, and everyone else. I said nothing. Every few minutes he moved the truck forward a few feet. I looked out the window, watching.

There were eight prisoners, enough of them that they could probably overpower us or escape if they wanted to, but we knew that they wouldn’t. If they had made it all the way to the Roadside Program then they were almost ready to be released anyway. They knew that doing anything stupid wouldn’t be worth it. Really, my partner and I were just there to collect the valuable things they found, but we carried guns just in case.

The prisoners shuffled over the dirt and gravel and through the yellow grass and scraggly sagebrush. They knew well that Effinger was too engaged in his hobby of getting mad at the radio to get mad at them. Some of them talked to each other. Some of them kept to themselves. It was hot, horrible work, but they were relaxed. They filled the bags and stacked them in piles. They were happy enough to do it. Anything was better than sitting on their racks or walking in circles around the concrete yard.

When their workday was done, Officer Beaker-Smith drove the Transportation Van out to pick them up. I’ve always thought Beaker-Smith was a good dude. Effinger and I got out of the truck and watched the prisoners line up for Checkout.

II.

Beaker-Smith stood by the open sliding door. He was a big, sasquatch-like man, hairy and with big hands that had these huge sausage-looking fingers sticking off the ends of them.

“Hey, Stephens,” he said.

“Hey, Beaks,” I said.

Effinger scowled and muttered something.

“T-G-I-F-F,” Beaks said quietly to me. “Thank God it’s fucking Friday. I’m going to couch it hard, I tell you what.”

“Yeah, man.”

He said the same thing every Friday, but he seemed genuine.

The prisoners didn’t pick up trash on Saturday or Sunday, so we got weekends off.

My job during Checkout was to go down the line and match names and faces to what the paper on my clipboard said. Effinger followed, feeling the prisoner’s bodies and clothes for whatever might be hidden there. We worked our way from the front of the line to the back so that, once they had been searched, the prisoners could climb into the Transportation Van and wait.

I reached the last name on my list: Marco Ruiz. He was a muscley Mexican dude, a friend of Little Guy. He looked weathered and hardened. Hardcore. He had a tattoo of the Black Flag logo on his face right beneath the left eye, in the spot where other prisoners had teardrop tattoos. I’d been wanting to say something to him about it, ask him which of the band’s singers he liked better, but I didn’t want to give myself away as a secret punk, somebody who had the life and political experience to really know better than to work as a corrections officer. And anyway, it wasn’t like he’d suddenly open up to me. We were on opposite teams. From his perspective, we were natural enemies.

A commotion broke out behind me, distracting me from my thoughts.

Effinger was screaming at Little Guy.

“Did you push me, you worthless sack of shit?”

In a quiet, calm voice Little Guy said, “It was an accident. I tripped — “

“Bullshit. What did you trip over? Huh?” Effinger pointed to the bare patch of dirt on which we all stood. “You trip over your own flapping pussy?”

Lane Casey, who was standing behind little guy in line, sniggered at this. If anyone else had laughed Effinger would have jumped down their throat too, but Casey seemed to get preferential treatment. This was probably because he was also a big white guy with a shaved head. There were no obvious tattoos to prove it, but I was sure he was a Nazi. He hardly ever picked up much trash, and he was always starting shit, especially with the Latinos and blacks. I figured he was probably the one who had tripped Little Guy. I didn’t think Casey was a good fit for the Roadside Program, but, as with everything, Effinger had more of a say over that process than I did, so, like Little Guy, I just kept my mouth shut.

Effinger’s wrath was focused.

“If you ever dare to fucking touch me again, I swear that I will put you face down in this dirt and fuck you to death in front of God and all of Fremont County. Got it?”

Little Guy nodded.

Effinger said, “What are the rest of you fucking homos looking at? Get in the Transportation Van.”

Beaks looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

Effinger and I got back in the truck. He started the engine, and we followed the Transportation Van back to the prison.

Cactus is available through Trident Press.

Nathaniel Kennon Perkins

Written by

Publisher, bookseller, and writer. Author of CACTUS. Preorder my new book, THE WAY CITIES FEEL TO US NOW https://thewaycitiesfeeltousnow.maudlinhouse.net

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