When Jinx Rutledge returned to the cell that evening, he sported new state-issue glasses, pencil-point gray with lenses as wide and tall as a child’s fists. The cons called them toucher glasses or Chesters because they fit some image of a pedophile ingrained in the collective psyche from old movies and TV shows. Jinx wasn’t a molester; he was broke. He didn’t have enough money on his books for a decent set of frames. The state of West Virginia had to supply him, and these monstrosities were what they offered. Coke-bottle lenses covered half his face and expanded his pupils to the size of nickels—obsidian coins wrapped in blue-gray cellophane. Add in the crescent of stubble up top where he shaved his scalp, and Jinx could’ve been a comic-book villain. His khaki shirt broke the illusion, hanging loosely over his stretched, bony abdomen.“Hoowee,” said Marcus, sitting upright on his bunk next to the shitter. “Jinx got hisself some Chesters. Good look for you, man.” Marcus had muscle rub on his index finger and was using it to erase another inmate’s number off a Parliament Funkadelic CD. That stuff left the cell smelling like mints and old people, but it could strip Sharpie ink off plastic in a couple seconds without damaging the audio tracks. Someone on the POD kept a marker squirreled away, and Marcus would borrow it later to write his number on the disc he bought for a roll-up and two bags of sour-cream-and-onion chips. “Feel up any boys while you were at the eye doctor’s?”
“Go on,” Jinx said. “Get it out of your system.” His voice sounded southern and effete. “I’ve had a pair of these before. I know what’s coming. If you’re down long, I hope you get a set just like ’em.”
“Don’t put that jinxy jinx on me, brother man. It’s a joke, okay?”
In a medium-security facility like Boone County Correctional, the cons got away with razzing one another, as long as it didn’t go too far.
Jinx planed his hands, pointed them at Marcus as if they were the stretching fingers of Lugosi’s Dracula, and wiggled them, saying, “Oooooo…,” like a sideshow huckster. “Too late, Marcus. I done put the whammy on you.”
Marcus laughed, but I bet inside he shivered a little.
Jinx had that worst-case-scenario luck, and while there was no evidence he could pass it on, you definitely didn’t want to stand next to him during a meteor shower. He told us stories: struck by lightning twice, wrecked every car he owned, fell partly down a manhole because a city worker left the cover askew. On the day of Jinx’s sentencing hearing for a string of daytime burglaries, his tiny arm slipped a deputy’s grasp, and he fell forward down a flight of stairs at the courthouse. With his ankles and wrists shackled, he couldn’t protect himself. He broke his arm, collarbone, and nose. If he had shown up at the hearing bloody and mangled, he might have earned sympathy from the Cabell County Circuit Judge. His misfortune got the jump on him, though, and waited to strike after His Honor sentenced Jinx to almost twenty years. The bad luck didn’t end there. I personally saw him fall off his bunk twice, which was something most cons used as a generic made-up excuse after a beatdown.
“What about you, Brock?” Jinx said. “You want some of this hoodoo?”
“I’m good,” I said, shaking my head. I had my own bad luck to deal with. My wife wanted a divorce, and I was busy scribbling a letter to her on my yellow legal pad, telling her how much I loved her, how sorry I was, and that I only sold all that heroin and fentanyl to keep her comfortable in the lifestyle she expected. It wouldn’t do any good. I doubted she even read my letters. Still, it was time better spent than watching Pawn Stars on the POD TV with a cluster of cons passing the hours until Monday Night Football.
Marcus wiped the muscle rub off his CD with a wad of toilet tissue, careful not to scratch either side of the disc with an overgrown nail. He held the golden plastic up and stared at it, admiring his work while checking for any trace of the past. It glittered in wavy rainbows. “Got it,” he said to no one.
“Where you gonna get a Sharpie?” Jinx said, stretching out on the center bunk. He propped his feet up, still wearing the state-issue blue sneakers that looked like they had stepped on a landmine or two.
“At the gettin’ place,” Marcus replied. He rose, headed for the cell door, and pushed the button so the guard would buzz him out.
When the door closed behind Marcus, Jinx said, “Funny guy,” under his breath.
I ignored him and kept writing: I did it for you, baby. I wanted you to be happy. I knew it sounded like bullshit, but what was I supposed to say? That I had a two-hundred-dollar-a-day habit and needed to pay for it somehow? Wouldn’t score any apology points with that.
Jinx interrupted me. “Where’s everybody else, Brock?” He meant our other cellmates: Curtis, Detroit, and Q.
“Don’t know.” I shrugged.
“They out at rec, or they still on the POD?”
I looked up from my letter, eyeballed him coldly, and started to say a few sharp words, then thought better of it and shook my head.
He was staring back, and those giant pupils of his gave me the willies. “Don’t get angry,” he said. “I ask because I need to tell you something, and I don’t want them to hear.”
“Need to tell me something?” I said.
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t think it’s you.”
“Don’t think what’s me?”
He glanced around the empty cell as if checking under the steel cuts and behind the bathroom half-wall for interlopers or eavesdroppers. “I think we got a snitch in here.”
Jinx was summoned to transportation around eleven o’clock, along with three other inmates. They were stripped out, given orange jumpsuits, shackled, and escorted to the prison van by two armed correctional officers. From there, the men were driven to the office of the optometrist contracted to provide services for Boone County Correctional Center. Unlike when travelling to the independent dentist, whose building stood somewhere in the crumbling heart of Rock Haul, surrounded by husks of brick and broken glass, this trip didn’t take long. Dr. Fisk’s office was three blocks away. His painted yellow cinderblocks were visible at an angle from the prison courtyard. The inmates could’ve walked there if that sort of thing were permitted.
It had been a month since Jinx submitted his medical request for new glasses, so the bruises and cuts on his face had healed, except for an inch of purple under his left eye, etched above sharp bone of his socket. He had gone to classes, work, chow, church services, and the counselor’s office, yet no one had asked what left him so battered and ugly. Nobody checked his knuckles for scuffs or questioned the blood that wouldn’t come out of one of his white undershirts. He thought he was in the clear.
At the eye doctor’s, one officer sat with three inmates in the waiting room, which smelled of Pine-Sol and cats. The other, C.O. Durgen, kept close to whichever prisoner vanished into the examination room. Jinx was the second man up, and Durgen followed him, leaning against a desk opposite the vinyl chair for patients. Durgen looked a bit like Mr. T from the eighties, but without the mohawk. His bald head gleamed under the room’s fluorescent lighting. “Let me ask you something,” he said during the pause before Dr. Fisk arrived. “What’s up with your old glasses?”
“I turned ’em in,” Jinx said, “like I’m supposed to. They’re off my books. Probably in the trash by now.”
“Knew that,” said the C.O. “I meant, what happened to them? They were smashed up pretty bad.”
“Wouldn’t say that.”
“Come on,” he said. “I hear things. We all hear things.”
Jinx shrugged, his wrists pulling at their shackles. “Fell off my bunk,” he said.
“That’s what I thought you’d say.”
“What? Check my history.”
“Does seem a common occurrence with you,” Durgen said, grinning.
“I didn’t get the nickname Jinx for nothing.”
“Sure, sure. You’ve fallen off your bunk a few times. Clumsy feet climbing down. Toss and turn in your sleep. Sure. Yeah. You certain that’s what happened this time?”
“Course I am,” Jinx said.
“You didn’t, maybe, get yourself in a tussle with another inmate?”
Jinx shook his head, trying to mask a flare-up of nerves.
“Say, for example, inmate Luther Berry?”
Jinx opened his mouth but said nothing.
“The others call him Linebacker, don’t they?”
“Don’t know,” Jinx said, shrugging. “Maybe he played football in school.”
“Nah, he’s too short to play ball. Built, though. Mean attitude, from what I hear.”
Another shrug. Another shake of the head.
“So, you didn’t go at it with him over … what was it … a football game on TV?”
“You kidding me?” Jinx said.
“Just asking,” the C.O. said, holding his hands out, palms up, in a calming gesture. “Heard maybe something about how you was changing the channel on him when he was watching a ballgame, and maybe he took offense at that, got upset, and maybe you got upset at his getting upset, and maybe the two of you went into a cell and, you know, did what you do.”
Jinx was unable to speak. Durgen knew the whole story except for one small piece. Jinx had changed the channel because the game was over. It ended in a tie. Linebacker raged because, as much as he watched football and loved the Cleveland Browns, he didn’t know that NFL games could end in ties. Jinx wanted to tell that to Durgen, rounding out the story and explaining how it was all a stupid misunderstanding. He felt like he needed to say the words, but held them back. “If that were true,” he said, “you know I couldn’t tell you.”
“Sure, sure. So, you fell out of your bunk. Any chance you’re gonna fall out of your bunk like that again?”
“Doubt it,” Jinx said.
“All I wanted to know,” said the C.O. “And here comes the doc to get you sorted out.”
“You’ve been locked up before,” I told Jinx. “You know how rumors spread in here. It’s why you don’t talk shit about anybody, not even folks on the outside who live in some bumfuck town in Nowhere, West Virginia. You don’t, even if you’re talking to a buddy, somebody you trust. Ears are everywhere, and…” I met his magnified gaze and forced a frigid grin. “…eyeballs. Plus, it’s always somebody’s cousin, somebody’s uncle. Next thing, you’re throwing fists with a guy you don’t know over words you don’t remember.”
“It’s not that,” Jinx said. “It’s the specifics. Man, he had the story like he was there.”
“You think one of us finked?” I tensed.
“Not you,” he said. “You’re cool. But Marcus? Curtis? Q? I don’t know those guys.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe one of the guards listened in over the speaker box and heard folks going on about the fight. You were the talk of the POD for a while.”
“Hey, I held my own.”
“You landed a couple, but he messed you up. You’re lucky he didn’t split your wig.”
Jinx wasn’t happy, I could tell. Not just about the rat. How you were perceived in here mattered. Best not to seem weak, even in medium security. Cons could take advantage of that. But Jinx didn’t need to worry. He had stood up for himself. Losing a fight still meant willingness to be a part of one. That was enough in a prison like this where most of the inmates wanted to make parole and go home. A write-up for fighting could scratch that hope, and a little snitching might get a guy a break after some other minor offense.
I put my letter to the side and gave up. I couldn’t write while those big goddamned eyes were trained on me. They felt heavy even when I wasn’t trying to carry their weight. It was as if they were twin scopes zeroing in on their target. To look into them, I thought I had fallen into a freezing void of bad faith. I could get lost there, suffocate, starve. But Jinx kept staring. It was as if he figured it out and already started plotting. I wondered if I should write him an apology letter, too, or if it would matter.
Next time I spoke to Durgen, I’d ask him to be more careful with what he revealed about talking to convicts like me. Everyone talked in prison. Ears and eyes were everywhere: hungry rats in a junkyard at night. Real rats don’t have many facial expressions. They don’t let on what’s happening in their tiny rat brains. Their eyes always look menacing and full of rage, every pair the same, which makes them not much different from all the human rats kept in a cage.