Above: "It is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment, even for the worst offenders."
Bryan Washington, guest judge for our 2020 short story contest, is always on the lookout for stories displaying “a keen sense of place and a palpable intimacy.”
Dutch Simmons answers that call with “Solitary,” the first of four contest finalists we’ll publish throughout October. The place is a 9-by-6 cell in solitary confinement, “the prison within the prison,” and the intimacy comes via the first-person perspective of a man with nothing to do but pace and think during the day and sleep “on a metal slab, like a cadaver” at night, “guilt … my blanket.” —David Duhr, fiction editor
The fireflies dance magnificently in the shadow of the Big House. Electric disco lights reflect joyfully in the razor wire; pulsating music I can feel but not hear. It’s been eleven days. I can tell them apart. They’re unique; I’ve named them. Oddly, I can’t picture my son’s face. Like a jigsaw puzzle before me, I know where everything goes, but it remains unfinished.
9×6, 9×6, 9×6. I can pace this in my sleep. I am pacing it in my sleep. In The Great Escape, they let Steve McQueen have a ball and glove when he was in the cooler. Who would have thought the Nazis would be more sympathetic. Just give me my pen and notebook. Let me write while I’m here. Let me contribute something to my existence. If I can keep my words straight, my mind will follow.
Twice a day I’m treated to warm baloney sandwiches. When I was a kid, my mom packed my lunch box with a baloney and mayo sandwich on white bread. Wrapped it in tinfoil. Tinfoil inside a metal lunchbox that sat next to a heater in the classroom.
I gagged every time I ate that sandwich. I gag every time I eat this one. I’d kill for mayonnaise from my mom. I‘d kill for my mom to talk to me again. Even a letter telling me to drop dead. I wonder if she still cries at night because I’m here. She doesn’t even know I’m in the prison within the prison. Maybe I’m just a ghost to her, floating in the ether. Not her fault I’m here; I would never haunt her. That’s the beauty of Catholic guilt; it can haunt her all its own.
9×6, 9×6, 9×6. Everything is your fault. Everything is punishable. There’s solace in knowing that if I get desperate enough I can kill myself and still be saved if I praise Jesus at the last moment. That’s gaming the system, which is ironic given that’s why I’m here in the first place. I knew the system. I invented the system. Was damn good at it. Apparently, not good enough.
Why this room? Why should I be the beneficiary of this stagnant upgrade? Why am I talking to myself out loud? I participated in a physical altercation. I tried to separate two bulls from assaulting a fragile wisp of an inmate who couldn’t defend himself. Had he resisted, they would have killed him. If they’d succeeded, he would have killed himself. I stepped in. I broke the rules. Even in prison, there are rules and systems in place. This system I don’t understand at all. The guards laughed and called me a stupid faggot for defending the inmate. There is no justice in being morally just. Not here. Rules are simply measured by time on the calendar. Every day that goes by is a good day; every day that lies ahead is a bad day. I’ve gained thirty more bad days in the box.
9×6, 9×6, 9×6. How could I tell my son I stood by and watched? Pretended I didn’t see it, pillow pulled tightly over my ears to muffle the screams? I can still set an example from here. I can be a role model. I’ve been replaced by the Green Power Ranger, according to letters from home. I can live with that for now. There’s still time. The calendar tells me so.
I’m a good dad. I’m a great dad. I tell myself whatever I need to so I can sleep at night. On a metal slab, like a cadaver. A good dad wouldn’t be here. Catholic guilt rears its ugly head. It’s nice to have a friend to keep me company. The fireflies only dance; the guilt speaks to me. The fireflies sneak in and leave at will, through barred windows. Guilt is my shadow during the day; my blanket at night. I’m living in a confessional box. I can stay on my knees and pray as long as I want without having to worry about someone taking advantage of me.
There is nothing left to lose. I can lash out and rage all I want because the sun doesn’t rise and set fast enough. Blood on my face is a mask I can wear to disguise myself while I’m here. A disguise that began the moment I was strip-searched when I got here. Naked. I have nothing to hide, I might as well be naked every day. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Nothing is hidden.
9×6, 9×6, 9×6. The fireflies remind me of the fireworks from the Fourth of July. My son sat on my lap and shook with a delicious blend of excitement and fear. Terrified in the beginning; begging for it not to end. I can see his crooked smile. I can feel his body, warm and still as I carry him to bed. I can’t see him. He can see me, this much I know. He can feel my heart beating. It beats for him, not for me. It skips every time he smiles at the Green Power Ranger.
9×6, 9×6, 9×6. I am an anxious jungle cat in some low-rent zoo. Regal in their superiority even in their captivity. Biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to slip through some forgotten door. I don’t have to escape. Just give them the names of the guys I fought. Systems and rules. You don’t give up names in prison. You don’t have a name in prison. Retribution is not justice. Respecting the rules is what is expected of you. Never having to look over my shoulder for doing the right thing. I blew that chance once; won’t happen a second time. Besides, I can do this time standing on my head.
I‘m going to dance with the fireflies.
My son’s face is getting clearer in the gossamer grip of my hands.
It’s been eleven days.
Dutch Simmons on writing “Solitary”:
Throughout the quarantine, I have overheard numerous people complaining about “Understanding what it’s like to be in solitary confinement.” While I was checking out at Whole Foods, the woman behind me complained about it, and it triggered something in me. I explained to her that I had indeed spent a very brief time in REAL solitary, and I thank God every day that I had the ability to shop for Brussels sprouts while being in “quarantine/solitary” now. There are people in prison currently who have spent YEARS and DECADES in solitary who will never be able to function in society as we know it. It is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment, even for the worst offenders. As a society, we will only achieve true enlightenment once the most marginalized among us are treated equally and humanely.
Nellie Downer’s story checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”