Celso had never seen snow before. Up here it was everywhere. Beyond the fences and coils of concertina wire, there was no horizon. The sky and earth were just an endless white void.
The cold seemed to make everybody angry. The COs were always yelling at him in a language he didn’t understand—and when they realized this, they’d just say everything louder and VEY-REE SLOW-LY, as if that made it easier for him.
Comprende? They always knew that word. Even the nurses who stuck him with needles and drained his blood and told him to piss in this cup and clip his nails and strip naked and stand over here, turn your head, cough, and sign this form, okay? Just put your name here, comprende?
His attorney spoke Spanish, but that didn’t help Celso understand any of the legal jargon. The deal he signed might as well have been in braille. In any language, he didn’t know how to read.
It was spring when he came to the States; summer when they arrested him. The jail didn’t have any windows, so when the van came to take him to prison, he didn’t know what the brown slush was on the floor. He thought it was vomit.
“It’s a blizzard,” the driver said, pulling out of the jail. “Total whiteout.”
Celso knew that word—blizzard. Marichuy taught it to him.
“It means snowstorm,” she said. “They have them all the time in North America.”
La Ventisca. That’s what he started calling Marichuy’s mother after that, because whenever she showed up, Marichuy got cold. Sometimes she’d catch him in Marichuy’s bedroom and would have to chase him down the dirt road with a stick. But he could always outrun her. He couldn’t say the same for Marichuy’s brothers. The first time, they just roughed him up outside the church. The second, they chased him through the jungle, all the way back to the farm, and knocked some of his teeth out in the bean field.
“I warned you,” his father said. “Didn’t I warn you? Those schoolgirls are only trouble. If you want to get your dick wet, go see Cande and her whores at the cantina. Those boys will kill you if they catch you again.”
At the time, he thought the old man was just being dramatic. But when Marichuy could no longer hide her pregnant belly, and Celso came home to find the severed heads of his guard dogs laid out on his doorstep like some sort of ritual sacrifice, his father put him on the first train to Nogales.
The cellblock stood four tiers high. Celso and the other new arrivals waited in line as a young CO read off their numbers and directed them to their cells. When Celso’s turn came, the officer told him to wait.
Celso sighed—more awkward translating, more confusion.
Down the block, a chubby CO was tearing down a barricade of yellow tape so an inmate porter could mop the area. The CO headed toward them, wadding up the tape into a ball.
“Fadeaway!” he shouted, as he jumped back and shot at an open trash can next to Celso. The ball came undone in midair and spilled into a tangled web of tape all over the mouth of the can. “Damn,” he said.
The CO led him to an empty cell, next to where the porter was mopping, and locked him inside.
As he left, he said something that made the porter laugh. It was a high-pitched, girlish laugh. On a second look, Celso realized the porter was a woman. (An ugly woman, with greasy hair, pitted skin, and tiny breasts.) Celso looked at the floor she was mopping—a huge puddle of dried blood.
The woman caught him staring. “Hi,” she said, waving her hand.
She asked him something else, but he didn’t understand her. He just nodded and smiled, nervous, hoping it was the right response.
Confused, she raised her overly tweezed eyebrows at him.
“Don’t talk to that maricon,” an unknown voice said in fluent Spanish.
Another inmate with a mop and bucket walked over to the cell door, this one male, Hispanic. His neck tattoo said AZTECA in big, bold letters. “Mexican?” he asked.
Celso smiled. “Yes.”
“What’s up, brother?” the man said, extending his arm through the bars to shake Celso’s hand. “I’m Flores. Listen, man, you got to watch who you talk to around here. People see you hanging with these mariquitas and they start to wonder.”
Celso was puzzled. He looked back at the female porter. She seemed suddenly muscular. Her chin seemed stubbly. It was all so obvious now.
Flores could read his face.
“Aw, fuck no, vato!” he said, laughing. “What? You thought you were going to get some chocha in here, didn’t you? Ha!”
Embarrassed, Celso tried to change the subject. “What happened there?”
Flores glanced over at the blood. “Somebody jumped, I guess. So how long have you been in Michigan?”
“Not long,” he said, staring at the streaks the mop left behind. “Where are we, exactly?”
“This here is Jackson.” He held up his right hand and pointed to the base of his palm. “Right here.” People from here were always doing that hand-as-state-map thing.
“So how much time you got?” Flores asked.
Celso shrugged. “They said I can go home when I’m twenty-two.”
“How old are you now?”
Flores lowered his voice. “So what did you do?”
“Oh,” Celso said, “I didn’t do anything, really. I was just there.”
“So what happened then?”
“A couple of people got killed.”
Flores peered at him suspiciously. “Man . . . what?”
Down the block, the CO yelled at Flores to get back to work. He stepped away from the bars.
“Listen, vato,” he said, grabbing his mop bucket. “When they break the doors for yard, come find me. And bring your paperwork with you.”
“Okay,” Celso replied, unsure of what he was agreeing to, but too afraid to refuse his only source of conversation in months. “Hey, wait!” he said, before the other man left.
“How do you know the guy wasn’t pushed?”
Flores shook his head. “Not likely. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you can get killed in this bitch. But this is quarantine, man. This is where it starts. When that door closes, and you start thinking about all the time you got left to do . . . For some guys, it’s just easier, you know?”
The sun in the desert was so much hotter than back home. Its blinding rays pierced right through the chaparral, making it a constant struggle to stay in the shade, to sleep.
Celso was exhausted. His mouth was parched and dry. But the thought of waking his cousin Eleonel for another drink of water was too embarrassing. He had already made an ass of himself the night before.
They had set out from Nogales at dusk in groups of twenty-five. They walked all night, stopping for fifteen-minute breaks every four hours. By the second break, Celso had drunk all of his water. (Meanwhile, his cousin, having made the trip before, had barely broken a sweat.) When they finally stopped before sunrise to make camp, Celso almost collapsed.
“Here,” Eleonel said, handing him an extra bottle from his backpack. “But go easy on this one.”
Celso didn’t dare mention how hungry he was either. But he didn’t have to: as if on cue, the coyote pulled out a bulb of garlic, broke it, and passed the cloves among the migrants. Everyone took a clove.
A strange meal, but Celso was too famished to complain. He frantically peeled off the skin and started chewing. He’d never eaten one whole before, and this was probably why: it had an acrid taste that burned all the way to the top of his skull and made his eyes water. It didn’t so much sate his appetite as it castigated him for having one at all.
Eleonel hadn’t eaten his yet. Instead, he stood up and pulled off his shirt. He took the clove in his palm, mashed it into a paste, and proceeded to rub it all over his body.
Celso swallowed. All around him, everyone was rubbing themselves with garlic.
“Did you drop yours?” Eleonel asked.
Celso pretended not to hear him.
His cousin started laughing. “Well,” he said, as he lied down under a tree to sleep, “at least the snakes won’t try to kiss you.”
It seemed everyone was sleeping soundly but Celso, even the nosy little kid from Jalisco. Miraculous, really, because the kid didn’t seem like he’d ever slow down the night before. When everyone else was taking their water breaks, the boy was kicking dirt at tarantulas and throwing rocks at lizards. He ran circles around everybody.
Eleonel thought it was hilarious. Celso couldn’t have thought it more annoying. The kid kept pestering him with stupid questions: Where are you from? Where are you headed? Have you had pizza and french fries before? I have. And hamburgers. Do you know who Harry Potter is? My mom says they have roller coasters in every city in the States. Do you know what a roller coaster is?
Still, it was the kid who spotted the drone. At night, the buzz of countless rattlesnakes drowned out most every other sound. Everybody was focused on the horizon, trying to spot the patrol trucks before they could spot them. But the kid kept pointing to the sky, saying he heard something. When the coyote figured it out, he yelled for everyone to take a sharp left and start running. They managed to evade the drone by running parallel to it. Later, they watched the desert light up a few miles east as one of the other groups was found and captured.
The kid hadn’t moved all day. He was still dead asleep.
When the sun finally set, the coyote stood up and announced that it was time.
“Everyone get your stuff,” he said. “One more night until Phoenix.”
When Eleonel got up to take a piss, Celso stole a deep swig of his water. The garlic had been fermenting on his gums.
Suddenly, a woman started screaming. Everyone stopped.
“No, God!” she cried. “Please, someone help! My boy! It’s my son!”
The woman sat on the ground cradling the kid in her arms, desperately shaking him.
“Let me see,” the coyote said, checking the boy’s limbs for marks. He found two huge red bumps on his neck. “He must’ve been sleeping on a snake pit.” He lifted the kid’s eyelids, revealing only white.
The mother just kept shaking her son. But it was no use; his body was already stiff.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the coyote told her. “I’m sorry, but he’s gone.”
Celso was flabbergasted. Why couldn’t the damn kid have been more careful? The woman should’ve been keeping a better eye on her little bastard.
The coyote tried to pull her away from the boy’s body, but she wouldn’t let him. She just screamed louder.
“We can’t stay,” he said. “And you can’t take him with you. It’s too far.” He paused for a solemn moment, then turned back to the crowd. “Let’s go.”
A few followed him. Still, others lingered, including Celso.
“Come on,” Eleonel urged, pulling his cousin’s arm. “We have to go. We can’t help her.”
The woman kept weeping.
“Maybe La Migra will find her,” Eleonel said. “You want to stay and find out?”
Celso could only hope that was true because, one by one, they all left her there. Together, they kept walking until the woman’s cries became just an echo in the wind.
Celso slipped and fell on the ice.
Flores doubled over laughing. “Easy, brother, you don’t want to end up in Duane Waters.”
Celso stood up and dusted the rock salt off his jacket. “Where?”
Flores nodded toward the big building that peeked out from behind the perimeter wall. “The prison hospital,” he said. “Didn’t you see the graveyard when they drove you in through the gates?”
“That’s where you’ll end up if you let those doctors work on you. That’s where they bury all the lifers—all the guys who outlived anybody who’d care to come pick up their bodies. Them, and mojados like us.” He pointed to the water tower, which stood higher than everything else. “That’s why everybody’s so fucked up around here. We’re all drinking the dried-up corpses of forgotten criminals.” He took a long sip from his plastic coffee mug.
They came to a stop at the weight pit, where a dozen or so inmates were curling rusted iron dumbbells and lifting warped steel bars. Flores dusted the snow off a preacher bench and sat down.
“Let me see it,” he said, handing Celso his coffee mug in exchange for the paperwork.
The mug brought warmth to his hands again. He hadn’t thought to wear gloves. Or a hat. It was a new sensation for him, being numb. It hurt like hell.
“Why do you want to read my casework?”
Flores looked at him. “To make sure I wasn’t walking the track with some fucking baby-raping child molester.”
Nearby, someone cried out in pain. An inmate dressed only in thermal underwear was deadlifting several hundred pounds off the ground. Two other inmates cheered him on as he lifted the bar higher, grunting, yelling. Nobody but Celso seemed to find this peculiar. Flores hadn’t taken his eyes off the packet of paper.
“What does RGC mean?” Celso asked him.
“Reception and Guidance Center.”
“You mean this isn’t prison?”
“No. Well, yeah—this is prison. But you won’t stay here. This is quarantine. They keep you here until a bed opens up at another joint. That, and to run psych tests and shit.”
He must’ve been referring to the long afternoon Celso spent answering True or False to a bizarre tape recording of a few hundred seemingly random statements—from the telling (If people make me angry, I can be dangerous), to the ambiguous (I can usually talk my way out of trouble), to the downright obscure (I enjoy repairing doorknobs). When he was done, the proctor had handed him a blank piece of paper and told him to draw a picture of a man on one side and a woman on the other. The inmate beside him didn’t seem to take the assignment seriously: he drew obscene stick figures, with a giant dick and balls on one and huge tits above a hairy triangle on the other. Celso drew a confused young man on one side; on the reverse, he drew Marichuy.
“Where’s this place at?” Flores asked, indicating where the paperwork noted his previous employment.
Celso pointed to the left of his open palm. “Near Grand Rapids.”
“What did you do there?”
“I killed turkeys,” he said. “But I got fired.”
Flores didn’t bother to ask why. He just kept reading.
The report summarized Celso’s life up to his crime. It told of his long ride from Arizona to Michigan. It mentioned his termination from the poultry-processing plant (his employer stated he fired Celso upon learning of his illegal-resident status). It told how he found a new job selling drugs for convicted armed robber Octavio “Spooky” Ramirez; how he started on a trial supply of marijuana, until he was promoted to cocaine, and finally heroin; how, one day, Ramirez and an unnamed man picked him up to accompany them on a prospective bulk drug purchase, set up by the unnamed man; how, unbeknownst to him or Ramirez, this man was an undercover DEA officer; how, upon seeing convicted drug possessor Alfred Burke—accompanied by his girlfriend, convicted check forger Lacey Hopkins—Ramirez stopped the vehicle (against the undercover agent’s adamant protests) to follow Burke to his residence, because, he said, “That junkie owes me money”; how the party forced entry into Burke’s residence, and Celso restrained Hopkins while Ramirez repeatedly struck Burke with his fists; how Ramirez, visibly agitated, produced a Glock 9mm pistol and placed it inside Burke’s mouth; how there remains a dispute as to whether the trigger was pulled deliberately or accidentally, but upon witnessing the shot, the undercover agent drew his own weapon and demanded, in a clear and loud voice, that Ramirez put down his gun; how, according to the agent’s testimony, Ramirez turned to fire on him, but was promptly shot twice in the upper torso by the agent; how Celso was then placed under arrest for home invasion, conspiracy to purchase and distribute a controlled substance, and later, felony murder for the deaths of Ramirez and Burke; and how his court-appointed attorney later pled down the substance and home invasion charges.
In the weight pit, a group of inmates had gathered. They weren’t working out and they weren’t talking. They were just waiting.
“That still doesn’t make sense,” Flores said, flipping through the packet.
The group was staring at a lone inmate doing bench presses, completely oblivious to anyone else.
“Oh, here it is,” Flores said, stopping at the final page. “You must’ve just misunderstood.”
One of the inmates grabbed a small dumbbell. He tested the weight in his hand. Not satisfied, he switched it for a heavier one.
“It doesn’t say you get out when you’re twenty-two, vato,” Flores said.
The inmate with the dumbbell walked toward the man on the bench, the rest followed. They circled around the man.
“Look,” Flores said, referring to the paper. “It says, Twenty-two-year sentence minimum.”
The entire weight pit went silent when they heard the crunch.
Back home, death was an event. It was a small town; when somebody died, if you weren’t grieving them, you were comforting someone who was.
Up here, death was routine. Maybe, because there was so much of it, people were numb to it. Even at Celso’s sentencing, he had to wait in line. He had spent the week leading up to it rehearsing his speech, but when the moment finally came, and he stood in the crowded courtroom, it just felt like he was wasting everybody’s time. The way the judge got irritated and slumped back in her chair when the attorney mentioned he would need to translate; the way the stenographer paused from typing to take a sip of water; the way the other convicts scoffed at Celso (who was struggling to remember the right words) and kept looking at the clock like they had somewhere else to be; the way the prosecutor yawned and picked the lint off his tie—it all seemed so banal.
This is what the turkeys at work must’ve felt like. They were unloaded off trucks and hung by their legs on a conveyor belt. His boss showed him where an electric spinning blade slit their throats. The turkeys coasted by in an endless waterfall of blood.
“No matter what,” his boss had said, “the line’s gotta keep moving. You have to pay attention. Every once in a while, one of the birds is too short for his neck to reach the cutter.” He had drawn out a long knife with a narrow blade and handed it to Celso. “For when that happens.”
At first, it had been easy. The knife was so sharp, the gullets so thin—if not for all the warbling and death throes, Celso would hardly have felt complicit in the deed. And there were maybe only one or two turkeys the machine didn’t catch for every dozen it did. But then, out of nowhere, there came a bevy of dwarf turkeys—each one of them flapped and squawked and put up a fight. It turned into a melee of blood and feathers, absolute carnage. Celso could do nothing but try and keep up, furiously slashing away. (They were so small, for a moment he thought maybe they’d switched to chickens.)
When he’d paused to catch his breath, he noticed one of the birds looking at him. Its black, beady eyes were impossible to read. Did it even understand what was happening? He could see them all, staring at him, accusing him. He’d lost track of time.
Then an alarm had gone off. The line came to a halt.
Celso panicked. How long had he zoned out?
Down the line, past a huge, long metal vat filled with water and a wall of steam, he could hear his boss yelling.
When he’d arrived at the commotion, everyone was watching. His boss was ripping bird after bird off the line and throwing them into a pile on the floor. Soaked from the water, their feathers came right off.
His coworkers were circled around the pile, their smocks still pristine and free of blood. Eleonel was standing among them. “What’d you do?” he asked his cousin.
Celso kept staring at the pile.
When his boss saw he was there, he picked up two of the birds to show Celso the difference: one’s skin was clear and white; the other was dark pink. The pile was mostly pink ones.
“Not bueno!” his boss had shouted at him. “This is not bueno.”
And for the most part, Celso had agreed with him.
When a letter came, Flores offered to read it to him. “It’s from Mexico,” he said. “Some girl named Marichuy.”
Celso smiled. But then he thought about it again and stopped smiling. “What does it say?”
“It says, Dear Celso, I can’t believe what has happened to you. I’ve tried speaking to your father, but he has been very sick since you left. Your cousin wrote him about everything.” Flores paused to read ahead. He turned sullen.
“Keep reading,” Celso told him.
Flores hesitated. “I’m not sure if I should tell you, but I lost the baby. My mother said I should just—”
The intercom cut him off. It was five minutes to count.
Flores handed the letter back. “I’ll finish it afterward.”
But he never got the chance. Before count was over, they announced a bunch of ride-outs. Flores was one of them.
As hard as he tried, Celso couldn’t make sense of the letter. The words were just an indecipherable mess of squiggles.
At some point his door opened and the CO told him to pack his things. “Cell transfer.”
Outside his cell, the transsexual porter stood by and waved hello again. But the cell wasn’t for him; he was pushing a decrepit old man in a wheelchair. As the porter wheeled the guy through the door, the chair got caught on one of the bars. The tranny rammed against the back of it, his breasts bouncing up and down, until, at last, he forced it through.
“To where I go?” Celso asked the CO.
The man pointed. “Top tier.”
Celso never knew he was afraid of heights. But as he stood on the narrow catwalk, four flights up from his previous cell, his legs trembled.
Just as the CO was about to open the door for Celso, he stopped. Something was happening on the base floor. The CO turned and ran back down the stairs, shouting something into his radio.
Celso worked up the courage to peek over the railing. Far below, an inmate was trying to shield himself and run as another inmate stabbed at him with a sharpened toothbrush. They all seemed so small from up high.
Slowly, Celso crept all the way to the ledge. It would be so quick, he thought, nobody could stop him. Two seconds versus two decades. A quick, merciful slice or a long, boiling dip.
He thought awhile about it. He thought about it for days and weeks and months and years.
It wasn’t until they were on the bus that the driver told everyone where they were going. He said something about the market.
The inmates all scoffed or rolled their eyes at what he said, disappointed.
Celso turned to the man next to him. “Is far, the market?”
The man was confused. “Huh? No. Not market—Marquette. That’s up north.”
Celso held up his manacled hand as far as the chain on his waist would permit and offered his palm as a map to chart on.
With one of his fingers, the man drew a line from the base of Celso’s palm far beyond his fingertips. “Way up there,” he said. “Over the bridge, ’bout a twelve-hour drive, maybe twice that in this weather.”
Celso understood. He’d taken a long drive before. At least this time it wouldn’t be hidden in a trunk with three other Mexicans.
Then a thought occurred to him. “Is more, the snow up there?”
The other inmate looked at him like he had just asked for his hand in marriage.
He chuckled. “No, buddy. No, there’s no snow up there.”
from Prison Noir (Akashic Books: 2014).