The Cage Keeper
It's midnight in December, an hour past lights out, and I'm walking the hall of the women's wing. I open the doors fast so the hinges don't squeak and I run the beam of my flashlight over the beds. I try not to shine it in anybody's face while they're sleeping but sometimes I have to if their hair is in the way or something. They don't like that. Emma, this black woman from the projects of east Denver, she's mean; once I shined the light in her eyes and she threw her clock radio at me, yelled something like, "Get that damn light outta my face." I had to put her on restriction and cancel four of her weekend furloughs for that. Emma has ten kids and I guess I'm supposed to feel sorry for her when she can't get back to Denver to see them after throwing a radio at me. Fact is, I'm not too popular around here anyway. Leon is, though.
Leon's black and he lifts weights down at a gym near the university here in Boulder. His father's a realtor like mine, so he didn't grow up poor. And he doesn't let any of the black inmates come across with their "Hey, brother" malarkey either. Usually, when they start a sentence like that with him, they're trying to butter him up for some favor or another and Leon knows it. But he just puts his finger to their chest lightly and says, "Don't be giving me no brother shit, Clay. Now go wash down the mess hall walls." But he is more popular than I am. Not that I'm very worried about it, because I'm not. Like my older brother, Mark, the House Director, said to us in a meeting once: "If the inmates like you too much, then you're not doing your job properly." Leon does his job; it's just that he looks at these people differently than I do. We talked about this over a couple beers at The Rhino once after our four p.m. to one a.m. shift. He said that it's probably because he's black that he roots for the underdog. Me. I don't look at it that way; I don't believe that all convicted adult felons are underdogs. Plus, I have always felt for the person who just had their car stolen, or was mugged or raped or even killed. Those are the ones I feel sorry for. And I guess even though Leon and I approach our jobs in pretty much the same way, which is rule enforcer first, someone to talk to second, the inmates must pick up on this philosophical difference somehow.
It's amazing how they can do that. Like the last time we came out of a staff meeting after having just decided to initiate a surprise room-to-room search for contraband. When we got upstairs most everybody was in their rooms organizing things, cleaning up, and I'm sure, tossing an item or two out the window into the alley. Leon says somebody had to have listened in on us, though if they're caught doing that they could lose their privileges for a month, but I don't think so. I'm beginning to think they can just pick up on these things; the way certain kinds of animals can smell a human a long way off in the distance, they feel us coming with our contraband-evidence bags, our Scotch tape, and red ball-point pens.
I finish checking the west end of the women's wing, close the door to Paulina's room, then mark a check beside her name on my clipboard. I walk down the hall and with the red plastic end of my flashlight, I knock once on Maggie Nickerson's door. I go in then shine the light down at the base of her bed. Her old face is sunk into the soft part of the pillow and her blue sleeping cap is pulled tightly over her scalp. There is gray in the auburn hair at her temples. When I first started working here, I thought she was a cleaning lady or something. I didn't know then that all the inmates did the cleaning themselves. Every time I saw her she had a mop or a broom or a dustcloth in her hand. Around the first or second week of November I asked her how a young single guy like me was going to cook a turkey by himself. She didn't say anything at the time, just kind of smiled like she hadn't understood the question. Two days before Thanksgiving she came down to the office and handed me a white index card with directions on one side on how to roast a turkey. On the other side she had written: "To Allen, a nice young man with nobody to cook for him yet. Your Friend, Maggie." A week later I read her file. Five years ago, on an August night in a trailer park near Longmont, she shot her drunk husband three times in the face with his own gun, a .38 snub-nosed revolver. They were sitting at the kitchen table at the time. One bullet is supposed to have entered his right eye and exited the back of his head hitting their nineteen-year-old daughter, Angela, in the knee. I've met her. She's very slender, almost frail-looking, with narrow hips and big breasts, and her face always looks like it's about to tell you bad news. But her hair is black and her eyes are dark and she is very pretty. I shine my light near the bedside table and see the papier-m?ch? Christmas tree that Angela and her little boy made for Maggie. It's painted dark green with little white Styrofoam crystals glued all over it. On top is a red star made out of construction paper. I look once more at Maggie's blue sleeping cap, mark her name off on my clipboard, then flick off my flashlight and pull the door shut.
On the second floor, I stop and look out the big window that faces the street. The night sky is so pretty out here. There are no city lights like in Denver where I live, and you can see the quarter moon so clearly hanging there bright above the sheer rise of Dead Goat Ridge. Below it, in the middle of one of the steepest-looking foothills, is a huge glowing five-pointed star nestled in the snow and pine trees. Leon tells me there's a fancy French restaurant up there and what you see that looks magical but isn't, is a huge wooden frame built about six feet off the ground in the shape of a star, a string of three-hundred-watt light bulbs nailed all around it. He says some Christmases a couple of the valets from the restaurant have to go up there in snowshoes and dig it out when the snow gets too deep. I look away from the star down to the snow- and ice-covered roofs of fraternity row, then down farther to the street corner in front of the center. There's a cruiser from the Boulder County Sheriff's Department parked just out of the circle of light the streetlamp gives off. A flame lights a cigarette on the driver's side. I think about what that state trooper said before he left tonight. Leon and I had just given him a copy of our escape report on Elroy and he was leaving in a hurry, but not before he turned to us and said, "Don't take this lightly now. We're talking about a convicted murderer here." Then he tipped his visor with two fingers like John Wayne and said, "Stay away from those windows" and left. None of the officers from the sheriff's department would have talked down to us like that; they know what a good program this is. I think it's us not wearing uniforms or carrying weapons that the troopers don't understand. Ten years ago these rooms were full of sorority girls, and we're still right in the middle of fraternity row. There are no bars on the windows. If one of our fifty-two inmates wants to leave, we're not going to stop him. Not many leave though. All of them are looking at parole. And if they do escape, they can expect another four to eight years' hard time tacked onto their original sentence. That's why I can't figure Elroy doing what he did tonight, though the signs were definitely there.
These past few nights he has been coming down to the staff office just to talk with Leon and me. Well, we got a big kick out of that one, Elroy wanting to talk to us. Lately, he has been submitting essays to the house paper about Big Brother and the Police State we're all living in and the so-called merits of anarchy. In one of them he referred to us correctional technicians as "ball-licking lackeys for Ronald Reagan's Ministry of Mendacity." Personally, I don't know what good we do ourselves letting them print that kind of talk; I mean it doesn't make our jobs any easier. And I don't know how Elroy was able to get into our work release center anyway; he served only eleven years for beating a man to death and all, a U.S. soldier to boot. But at night in the office he has been very polite, sipping his coffee and talking about the different effects snow has on people and smiling all along like we are colleagues unwinding at a tea party together or something. He is usually always clean shaven, but these past few days he has let a white stubble come out on his perpetually red face. That is what I should have noticed: his change in hygiene habits combined with his newfound friendliness towards us staff members. Changes like that should be taken note of. They can mean an inmate's getting ready to do something drastic like escape, or maybe even kill himself: Douglas Agnes McElroy's too mean to kill himself.
I leave the second floor and walk down the iron staircase above the mess hall, shining my beam over the landing to check again the night crew's cleaning job; it looks good, gleaming in the light. I climb the north stairs to the third floor. The center is working at full capacity now so we're putting three men to a room: two in a bunk, one in a single bed. Up here the air is dry and smells like hot metal. All fall, and now winter, the heater has been working overtime. One night a while ago one of us staff members turned it up too high, and that night the inmates opened their windows to let in the cold air, which got the automatic thermostat cranking the heat so hard the furnace almost blew. Now it heats the whole building too much, especially the third floor here, and any inmate caught with his window open gets put on immediate restriction. I walk down the hall that we keep dimly lit and go into the bathroom that we keep brightly lit. There are three white sinks under three mirrors. Two of them look pretty scummy. I didn't check on the third-floor work crew tonight; Leon did. I walk around the corner to where the stalls are, but have to stop; the smell is horrendous. The toilet roll spins then the paper tears. I knock on the door. "Who's in there?"
"Who the fuck's askin'?"
"Yeah, I'm doing a head check."
"Be right out."
I walk past the sinks around the opposite corner to where the showers are, pause to breathe some fresh air. The toilet flushes. Buck is the kind of inmate I can never quite get used to. I suppose it's because even though I know his crimes, I still can't keep from liking him. He's a biker, a leading officer in the southwestern chapter of Satan's Siblings. He's in on weapons violations and drug distribution charges and he weighs three hundred and thirty-two pounds. He has a gray-and-black beard that is longer than the ponytail that hangs down his back, and he has tattoos etched all over his huge body. He says he did most of the work himself while he was in prison, the parts he could reach anyway. He comes around the corner now, barefoot, hitching up his size forty-eight jeans, tucking in his super-large Harley-Davidson T-shirt. "What's the good word?"
"Not much. When'd you get in?"
"When you were upstairs groovin' on the gash." He bends over the sink and washes his hands and face, his stomach resting on the porcelain. "So old Elroy's jumped ship."
"Where'd you hear that?"
"Leon was on the phone with your big brother when I came in." He reaches for a paper towel and wipes his face and beard. "You already start escape procedure?"
"Al. Who the fuck am I gonna tell?"
"We started about an hour ago. The trooper just left."
"Come on, that's all I can say."
"Okay, kid." He crumples up the towel and drops it into the trash can, then lumbers past me into the hall down towards his room. I find his name on my clipboard and check it off. He's scummy as hell, but I do like him. I think it's because he's really on a straight road, at least while he's in here. He works a late shift down at a leather cutting shop in Denver, and he is one of the only inmates that Mark has given driving privileges. The rest take a bus for the twenty-mile ride to Denver, or else, if they're close enough, they walk to their jobs. That's where Elroy was supposed to be until ten-thirty tonight, at his second-shift job in a machine shop here in Boulder. Eleven o'clock is our late night curfew and that's not the one anybody should mess with. If an inmate works a night shift and has to work overtime, then he's supposed to call us right away to let us know. It's up to us to extend his curfew or not. If by eleven-thirty we haven't had contact with an inmate, then we start escape procedure. But really, we don't have too many of them; I've only handled one in the six months I've been here, and even that wasn't a genuine escape, but a death.
His name was Muddy River Johnson. Some of the others called him that because he used to get drunk all the time up in the canyons and fall into the Muddy River. He was a recovering alcoholic and a Vietnam combat veteran, which surprised me because he looked more like a World War II vet with his graying hair and the lines in his face and all. He was very gentle and soft-spoken for an inmate. Never had a bad word to say about anybody. One night on the way home from his dishwashing job at the Montview Hotel downtown, he had a heart attack and died. He was cutting through the park when he dropped. Nobody found him until seven the next morning. I called it in though. I thought he had escaped.
Excerpted from The Cage Keeper by Andre Dubus III. Copyright © 2001 by Andre Dubus III. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.