Gemelo is looking through the pane of unbreakable glass in the cell door when a steel gate three floors below clacks open and a guard steps into the cellblock. Gemelo isn’t sure how long he’s been standing there because he can’t remember getting out of his bunk, but at some point his eyes attuned themselves to the dark. He can make out the chips in the paint on the tier rail outside the cell and the message scratched so deep the dull gray steel shows through, revealing a message that “RED WAS HERE.” He watches the guard begin his search, the beam of his Mag-Lite roving over the block’s garbage cans.
The guard’s movements are familiar. Routine. Everything about the situation is familiar — standing at the door of his cell in the middle of the night and the night shift guard carrying out a rote search of the block — a routine they have repeated more times, more years, than he would want to make the effort to remember. He sees no sense in trying.
As he watches the guard stoop to inspect the underside of a steel table rooted in the block’s concrete floor, a drowning feeling washes over Gemelo. This feeling is familiar too. He's conscious that it is this feeling that brought him to the cell door, the barely contained breathless feeling of suffocation that brings him here every night. Lifting a hand from his side, he knocks on the door.
The guard doesn’t react. He continues looking beneath the tables as though he didn’t hear the knocking. Gemelo knocks again, harder this time, more cognizant of the , insubstantiality of his knuckles against the heavy steel door. As the guard moves to the notice board that is riveted to the wall of the block, Gemelo begins to strike the door with the heel of his fist. Then both fists. The guard runs a gloved hand around the edges of the notice board, checking for anything that might be cached behind it.
A flush of frustration spreads over Gemelo. Bending down, he grasps the bottom of the cell door and wrenches at it, trying to shift or joggle it even slightly. But it’s like trying to lift a truck, and he’s unable to budge it.
The drowning feeling licks at him again. Stronger now. Taking a step back, Gemelo kicks the door. Once. Then more times. He uses the flat of his bare feet, the culmination point of all the weight and impetus of his body. And of desperation as well.
The kicking begins to hurt his feet— a stinging, bruised, numb kind of hurt, which causes anger to rise inside him, accompanied with the sensation of being pulled away from the door. It’s as if a cord were around his waist and he were being drawn backward. Directing his mind away from the anger, he doesn’t feed it. He knows it is the stirring of emotion impelling the force that is pulling him. Starving the anger brings with it an ebbing of the force.
Returning to the slat of glass in the cell door, Gemelo watches the guard finish his search and depart. The heavy steel gate at the front of the cellblock slams closed, reverberating through the monolith of concrete and steel; it feels like his existence has always been inside its belly, like the concrete and steel has been inside every molecule of his being. Yet, he isn’t jarred by either the sound or the reverberation; he is as unconscious of their passage through him as his own pulse. It’s the silence that follows that he hears, magnified by the constriction of the cell. The echoing scream of nothingness that accompanies the absensce of hope. Drowning. Desperation.
He looks down at his hands— palms held up, fingers spread —and tries to make out the lines on them. He does this when he needs to center himself, to cognize his context when it isn’t wholly on the surface of his consciousness, to remember. And, suddenly, he remembers how he got to the door.
He turns and looks at the bunk, at the figure on it covered with a state-issue blanket. Moving closer, he studies the face, examining its features with the same intensity that he did the lines in his hands. He has never gotten used to seeing himself like this: it differs from looking in a mirror. When he tires of looking at himself, he lies down on the bunk and settles back into his flesh with a controlled feeling of falling.
"Arthur Longworth has been in prison for 31 years and is serving a Life Without Parole sentence. He is a three-time national PEN award winner whose essays have been published by The Marshall Project, VICE News, and Yes! magazine. He is also the author of ZEK (Gabalfa Press Publishing, 2016), a work of creative non-fiction that lays bare the experience of mass incarceration from the inside. He can be reached at ArtLongworth@gmail.com."