RIOT ON CELL BLOCK P

by Geoff Schmidt

 

On the upper bunk awash in its moonlight, Sherm whispers to his cockroaches. He sits cross-legged; they line his legs. Franklin tosses in his sleep below. He’s been in and out lately. Never out for long. Each time back he’s a little crazier. He’s only been back for a day this time. He’s already talking about pipe bombs and poison. Sherm doesn’t want to wake him up.

The cockroaches tell him about their night, the food they’ve found, the eggs they’ve laid, the lovely cracks they’ve scuttled through, the really interesting interior wall of Warden Brown’s office with its slightly crumbling drywall.

Tell me more about that, whispers Sherm. Does Warden Brown ever hear you?

Oh no, the cockroaches chuckle. We’re very sneaky.

What is Warden Brown doing while you explore the inside of his wall?

Well, we can’t see him, but he mostly makes phone calls, anyway.

What does he say?

Who’s coming, who’s going. We knew Franklin was coming back days before he did, they say proudly.

Is anyone leaving soon?

The roaches shift uncomfortably. No, Shermie. You’re not leaving.

What about Vi?

No, Shermie. She’s not leaving either.

Sherm runs his hands through his bristly hair, looks around the moonlit cell. The walls are old stone, cool and rough, the mortar flaking onto his sheets. The bars of the window are crinkled with rust. Franklin snarls in his sleep.


On Cell Block P they meditate for hours in the gym. They do origami. They play Dungeons and Dragons. They do Gilbert and Sullivan productions: The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado. All those things from your childhood, from your school, from your youth. But this mat here is thin and green, textured at the edges in a way you don’t remember from your past. This paper is smooth, fine-grained. So many colors. These dice click when they hit the table. This stage creaks. So many senses they didn’t know they had, there in the past. But it still doesn’t make Here worth being Here.


Out in the yard, Sherm walks around and around with Franklin and Pigpen. Up in the tower, Van Pelt trains a sniper rifle upon them. Not the middle brother, the good boy, the one who spoke at the Christmas play so so long ago. It’s the older sister with the narrowed eyes and her stubby finger on the trigger. Watching, watching. Always angry. As if she had anything to be angry about. As if she didn’t start and end every day on The Strip.

I can’t take it anymore, says Franklin. I can’t stand to be back.

Franklin, says Pigpen.

It’s okay, Sherm says. It’s okay.

Franklin looks at him. I know you think you got it worse. Lifer, yeah. But it sucks just as hard shuttling in and out. It’s like, out should mean something. It should be sweet. But I know I’m just coming back. Better to stay inside and never know out than to keep losing outside.

Franklin, Sherm says. If you keep talking, I’m going to have to fuck you up. So please shut up.

Pigpen says nothing, just scuffs along between them. Scuff scuff scuff, the dust adoring his prison-issue grays. They walk around and around the yard. They feel Van Pelt’s eye upon them. The sun shaking the sweat out of them, the clatter of freeweights, the pallid grass growing in the center of the yard.

Okay, Franklin says. Okay. Out is better.

Sherm nods. Pigpen nods.

So maybe we should find our own way out, Franklin says. For all of us. Out for good.


It’s not himself that Sherm most wants out. It’s Vi. Vi who is beautiful and who has been here almost as long as him and who has been so good. Good behavior. That should count for something, shouldn’t it? Because otherwise, what was their crime? What was so bad that there was no possibility of parole? They still had things they could contribute to The Strip. They still had things they could say.

There is one lifer who has been here longer than he has, and her name is Charlotte Braun. She has a cell in the oldest wing of the prison but she usually spends her time in the cafeteria, drinking tea. Her hair is frizzy like that other girl who came after. When she wants it to be, her voice can be loud, like the oldest Van Pelt’s. But mostly these days she plays chess and sips tea.

Sherm sits down across from her. Sets up the board, starts the timer.

Hello, Sherman, she says. He moves a pawn, she moves a pawn.

What did you do to get here? Sherm asks at last. What was your crime?

He moves a knight, she moves a knight.

Do you know how long I was out on The Strip? she asks.

Sherm moves a pawn, she moves a pawn. Sherm moves a bishop, she moves a bishop.

About ten times, she says. The way I heard it, there were no more ideas about me, she says. So I was sent here.

Sherm nods, castles. Charlotte Braun castles.

Did you ever think of breaking out? he says at last. He moves a pawn. She moves a knight.

The problem with that, she says, is all the white space between here and there. At least here is here. And there is there. But in between is nowhere. How do you find your way through nowhere?

Sherm moves a pawn. Charlotte moves a bishop.

Good luck, Sherman, she says. It’s checkmate in six moves.


Patty and Vi are working in the laundry room when Sherm wanders in. Folding sheets together, end to end, side to side, clean white sheets growing smaller and smaller as they dance closer and closer.

Hi Shermie, says Patty.

Hi Shermie, says Vi.

Mud pies and jump rope. But Vi must know Sherm has never liked Patty. Not the way he likes Vi. And what does Vi like? Her hair is inky, her mouth a thin line. The cell she’s shared with Patty all these years. They must know everything about each other by now. Back and forth Vi and Patty move, folding the sheets, corner to corner, end to end.

Do you want to talk to Vi-o-let a-lone? Patty says. Little mouth pursed. Butterscotched ribbon in her hair.

Yes he does. He wants to talk to her on a sidewalk, in a field, on the rug in the living room in front of the television. He wants to talk to her like the child he was. He wants her to talk to him in kind.

No, Sherm says. This is something everyone should know about. Franklin has a plan.

Patty and Vi let a sheet slide to the floor. They all three stare down at the wrinkles, the way the light and shadow play upon it. The folds and textures. Above them water suddenly races through a pipe, a headlong tumble they can hear.

Well, says Vi, let’s hear all about it.


In his office awash in its florescence, Warden Brown listens to his cockroaches. He sits in his padded swivel chair. The roaches are lined up respectfully on the top edge of his blotter.

Something everyone should know about, the roaches say. Franklin has a plan.

That sounds like Franklin, Warden Brown says.

Prison break, the roaches say. Riot on Cell Block P.

Oh dear, says Warden Brown. He leans back in his comfortable chair, the leather of it creaky, the wood grain startling. Inside is always a shock, a dizziment of the senses. Out there everything is simple. Straight lines, punchlines. Fixed behaviors. The blanket, the kite, the football, the baseball, the tree, the doghouse. Inside is complicated. Too much to pay attention to. Coming to work is like taking a deep breath and diving underwater and trying to stay on the bottom. Afraid to open your eyes.

To tell the truth, he’d have traded places with Shermie if he could have. Shermie was supposed to be the star. Brown was just an odd-looking boy with a big round head. Comic relief. He was cruel, really, when they all first started out. A tease, a player of tricks. Not meant to be in charge. Not meant to be in the spotlight. But then he got popular. And mellow. And now he’s a different creature altogether. He sighs.

But there’s nothing out there for them, he says. And they’ll never get back to The Strip. The boss won’t let them.

The boss does what he does. You’re in or you’re out. He’s interested in you or he’s not. He can use you, or he’s bored with you. But not Brown. He can’t stop using Brown. He never gets bored with Brown.

Oh yes we agree, say the cockroaches.

The fluorescents buzz and stutter. The cockroaches tell him everything, as is their nature. Warden Brown listens. As is his nature.


Sherm’s been on Cell Block P for decades. Time goes all drooly. When he was still a child on The Strip each moment seemed frozen, staggering into the next. And then here. Not believing it was for forever, that he would someday soon go back to his safe childhood. Content at first in prison to zone out, to be locked away. To get used to dimensions, sounds, tastes. No more squiggly lines serving as mere suggestions of the rich world of smell—strawberries, sweat, rain, pine. He was drunk off his senses for months.

And he would get occasional visits from Sally, and letters from admirers. I remember you when. Remember that time? That was great, where have you been, what have you been doing all these years?

And Sherm so long believed that he would someday return.

When did it start, that slow realization that he could never get back? Sally stopped coming. The letters slowed. Where have you gone, where have you been? I miss you I miss you. I miss you. Where did you go? I miss you so so much.


Pigpen is lifting weights. Sherm spots him.

I’m not, Pigpen says, teeth clenched, coming with you.

What? says Sherm.

What’s out there, says Pigpen, for me?

Don’t you think you deserve it? Why should they be out there every day and you stuck in here for weeks and months and years? Why should they get everything?

Out there, Pigpen says, I don’t even have a real name. He puts the barbell in its cradle, lies huffing, looking up at Sherm. Just Pigpen. In here I have a real name. In here, I have parents who visit me every week. I have a sister. Did you know that? I don’t have one out there. Out there I don’t have parents. I don’t have teachers, just a trombone with a mute.

But people miss you.

Out there, I’m just a joke. The same joke every time and then they bring me back here. I like it better in here.

Sherm can’t imagine. He longs for straight lines. For no horizons. For smoothness.

But he nods. Okay, he says. Can you at least do us a favor?

Pigpen sits up, listens. His dirty face streaky with sweat. He smiles.

I’ve always wanted to do that, he says when he hears the plan.


In his upper bunk, Sherm dreams. Sparse grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Look up: the sidewalk hiccupping every three squares. Four fixed borders. Edges you can’t peek around. Try not to look at the blank line of the horizon. Maybe there’s a scrubby tree with a kite dangling from a high branch. A sandbox, some front steps, a dog house. The doctor is IN. Pumpkin patch, brick wall, ball field. Mostly in dreams it’s place he sees, line, boundary, dimension. Sometimes he dreams of the kids he knew, all of them thinking they would always be kids in that austere world. Clinging to the spare strokes of the universe because it was all they knew. When he dreams faces, he wakes up crying.


The girl with hair so bright it lights her bunk just sits there cross-legged looking out at him.

I’ll get out when He calls me to Him, she says. There’s no other way, Sherman.

Sherm clutches the bars. Nobody has ever seen you, he says. Nobody even knows your name.

She closes her eyes and smiles. I know what I am, she says. I know all of my names, she says.

Her hair crackles until his face glows red red red red red.


So many others in and out, in and out. Short-timers. Sherm and the others hate them. Those girls, so improbably popular. Everyone hates their strangeness, that they came so late to the Strip, that they never seem to appreciate what they have.

Let’s put on a play while we wait to go back, says the one with the sandals.

Excellent idea, sir! Excellent idea.

They’ll be out again in a week. One place is the same as the other to them. They don’t even wave as they’re ushered out. They’ve already forgotten everything.


Vi, he whispers in the dark, their fingers entwined. Please, Vi.

Her shoulders shake. She turns her dark eyes away from him in the dark. Their fingers slip apart. Her hair smells like berries, and sweat.

If we leave, she says. We’ll lose our hearts. We won’t be able to love each other There. Not like this.

He knows it’s true. He strokes his fingertips across the skin of her shoulders, feels the bump of a mole, the smoothness of her arms, the light lacing of hair. He wouldn’t feel that on the Strip. They would never even be allowed to touch. Would not even think of it. But he can’t stop his impossible wanting.

Don’t go, she says. It’s not a prison if it lets us be together.

Come with, he says. But saying it makes him think there is no place in this world where he will be able to have everything. No place in this world that could be called happy. And after that there is nothing left to say.


Warden Brown comes to visit. He presses his round head against the bars, looks in at Sherm and Franklin.

I know what you’re planning, he says. But don’t.

Shut up, blockhead, Franklin says.

Warden Brown winces. I don’t blame you for wanting back, he says. I understand that. But you can’t force your way in. And there’s nothing between here and there. You understand? White space. Nothing. You will cease to exist.

Sherm listens, his heart aroil.

We already ceased existing, blockhead, says Franklin. That’s what being in jail is.

No, says Warden Brown. That’s not what jail is. You’re here because we remember. You are remembered.

Sherm shakes his head. It’s not fair, he says. It’s not enough.

I know it’s not fair, says Warden Brown. But it’s enough.

The guard with the blanket comes over. The good boy. The wise boy.

And lo, he says to Warden Brown, it’s time to go back. He doesn’t really look at Sherm. To Franklin he waves. See you on the outside, Franklin, he says.

Franklin stands up, slaps the bars as they take a surprised step back. In and out! In and out! I’m so tired! I’m so tired!

They shake their owly heads, turn and leave, flattening out, simpler and simpler as they move further and further away towards the vanishing point.


Everyone fears the dog. There are rumors. He prowls outside the walls. He assumes terrible forms. He talks to you in your head. He travels with birds. They roam the void and sky together. He sleeps on his house. Wherever he travels, he’s home.

Everyone fears the dog, and it’s the dog that undoes their escape.


The cockroaches show Sherm the crumbling paths, the dark spaces, the narrow tunnels, the low places that lead to the Yard. And in the night, Franklin and Sherm and Patty think they have a good chance of scaling the wall. Pigpen is there near the crumbling corner, and he stomps in the mud and the dust, he raises a cloud, he laughs as it rises, fills the yard, obscures Van Pelt’s vision. They hear her cursing up in the tower, real curses, not those scribbly ampersands and percentage signs. They start scaling the crumbling wall, feel the rough brick scratch their hands until they bleed. Random shots ring out. A bullet pings mortar, sprays them with dust that Pigpen lifts up high, laughing as he stands below them. Sherm imagines him waving goodbye at the eye of a self-generated cyclone. Sherm’s fingertips bleed. But not for much longer.

And then there is the sound of a plane roaring in at them. The propellers pushing the dust cloud away. The awful flood of moonlight and spotlight upon them, clinging to the wall. And the dog, humming, flies the plane, and squeezes the machine gun triggers. Sherm turns his head, sees the face of the dog as he makes the first pass. Dead inky eyes in a shaggy white head. Maybe this creature could live in the space between here and there. Maybe it has transcended the need for context. But maybe not even him. The plane thunders past, banks, turns in the sky. Van Pelt takes aim. The plane drops like an osprey towards them, plunging through space. And Franklin and Pigpen and Pattie drop, and Sherm’s bloody fingers give way, and gravity wraps them all up and pulls them roughly to the mud of the yard.


And even if you got past the jail walls, Sherman, tunneled under them or scaled them, leapt the barbed wire, blew out the ancient stone, what would be out there for you? Your childhood is a frozen thing, hung in a void, static in panels and tiers. How can you navigate the white space between here and there? How can you not get lost in the margins, drift down the gutters, slip right off the page? Even if you found the right frame, could you catch it by the edge? Chin your way up, throw a leg into the panel, crawl back inside? Could you guarantee proportions, could you slip into the right perspectives? It’s better to be Here than nowhere, Sherman. Turn out the light, and I’ll turn the key. Together in the dark we’ll listen to the lock click.


January 5, 2011 | Posted in: Fiction | Comments Closed

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