Sometimes I laughed at myself. I had to. There were things I did, decisions I made, that were so crappy they were art. It’s not like it was ever a surprise when I ended up where I did – on top of a slab of cement, shitting where I sleep, behind steel bars and their mocking gaps. Thing is, I was usually alone.
There was an old man slouched in the corner, twisting a pencil between his arthritic fingers. The guards didn’t acknowledge him when they shoved me inside. He didn’t really give a shit about them either. His pale, bleached eyes followed me, and stayed on me as I sat down on my bunk, lay back, and started counting the white tiles covering the ceiling above me. A manmade infinity – 60, 61, 62…
“You’re in denial,” he said.
I lost count.
Denial: stage number one of grief. I could tell the old man was smart. Smart people kept sharp objects in their cell and held them tight to their chest at night. I looked at him twirling his pencil between each hand, but didn’t answer. Of course I was in denial. I was grieving. Not that I’d lost anyone a part from myself, and my future, and my autonomy, my home, my friends…
He spat a wheezy chuckle into the silence. “You’re wise, not looking at those bars,” he said, nodding towards them.
I scoffed, and the jump in my chest made my bones dig a little further into the cement, each one pressing like a fossil into the hard surface. I was in a twisted 80s sitcom – Me and My Mind Reader Cell Mate. He had all the unfortunate quirks of a forced TV character.
“I looked – just once. Now they’re all I see. Painted ‘emselves on the backs of my eyelids.”
He spoke like he didn’t have time for consonants. His voice sounded familiar, but not comforting. Like when you hear your own voice played back on tape. His sentences hung in the air a second longer than they should have. The ends of his words were pointed and sharp; like fingers trailing down a protruding spine, drawing goose bumps across the bones.
He started dragging the pencil along the cement, sketching invisible circles over and over.
“You wanna do the day for me?” he asked. He broke the circle and held the pencil out for me, pinched between finger and thumb. I leaned to take it, my arm covering the width of the cell in one stretch.
It was blunt, eraser less, and cracked to reveal the led inside. The old man cleared his throat. When I looked to him he pointed at the wall behind me.
There were crooked lines covering the wall in blocks of five, stretching to the ceiling and sinking to the bunk pressed firmly against the wall. It was there that the lines got significantly smaller to accommodate the days.
Was self-centredness a stage of grief, or was I just an arse? I asked myself how I could have missed the led struck against the wall over and over, becoming more cramped and weary as each line lived out its life.
I twisted the pencil in my palm, preparing to push the blunt led onto the clean paint, but I couldn’t find any clean paint. It was an ocean of led coloured grime.
“It’s just…low…on the right hand side. You’re gonna have to strike it through,” the old man said. His tone had sunk a step lower. He was acutely aware a stranger was staring at his timeline, and he was ashamed.
I sat up and found the tiny set of four in the crevice between the bed and the wall. I finished it off with one wonky stroke.
When I turned back to the old man he was looking at me with shining eyes, his wrinkled hand covering his lips so I couldn’t tell if they were trembling. I looked back down at the pencil. He took a deep breath, but it wobbled on the way out.
“So boy, what are you in for?”
I rolled the pencil to the corner. He let it bounce off his uniform sneaker and into the middle of the room. I faced him. There were no more tears in his eyes, just a curiosity that made them shine in the same way.
What was I in for?
“Something incredibly stupid,” I admitted.
“But was it fun?” he egged on, quick to reply and eager for a response.
“God yes,” I replied. He grinned at me and tapped the side of his nose, a knowing glance glazing over his aged eyes. He smiled to himself.
“You know, I was your age when I came in,” he said, looking down.
I looked down too. I still had a cut running over the rise and fall of my knuckles. It was jagged, a dark red colour, but I could see the puffy pink scar under the surface. I watched it as I waited for the old man to speak again. I hoped the lack of sun would blend the pink into my skin, and when it did, I hoped I would forget there had been a cut there at all.
I law back down on my bunk and turned my head to the wall of tally marks. I counted them, and lost count. Folding my hands over my chest, I prayed to whatever god would take me; please don’t make those day mine.
“I was an idiot,” the old man finished.
I was still trying to count when I fell asleep.
When I woke up the old man was gone, and so were the tally marks.
The pencil sat on the floor beside my bed. In my early morning haze I picked it up. It was still cracked and eraser less, but it was sharp. I stood up on my cement slab, stretched my hand towards the ceiling, and made my first tally mark on the blank wall. I made sure it was small.
That night, and every other night since, I dreamt of the bars that kept me inside.