By Joshua Ryan
Processing! That’s what happens to a piece of meat. That’s what happens to a load of sewage. It was incredible. This morning I was a rising young executive. I had a job. I had an apartment. I had a lover. I had clothes! Now I had nothing but my skin. I was a “boy.” I was a naked convict standing in front of a hillbilly guard who had to teach me everything I was supposed to do, because I was a mindless asshole, a moron like every other convict. And he was right. When I had a life, I couldn’t wait to get away from it. I wanted to be with a convict. I wished I was like a convict. And the convict turned out to be smarter than I was. Now they were turning me into the convict’s replacement. I was a boy and the guy standing in front of my was my boss. I would have a boss like him for the rest of my life. Because they were processing me into a convict.
“This is Nolan. Open.” The officer snapped his phone back on his belt.
At the far end of the room, a steel door opened.
“Through the door, boy — double time!”
I scurried toward the door, my dick bouncing against my naked legs. As I passed the other convict, he gave another swab to the floor. I was nothing to him.
Beyond the door was a wide hallway, high and old-fashioned like everything else I’d seen so far, with three of those double-barred windows rising up on the right side, big and deep and blank. “First door on the left!” shouted the voice behind me. There was a barred door, and it was open. I hustled through it. On the inside was a room with white tile walls. There was a stool in the center. Next to the stool, there was a steel table on one side and a plastic bucket on the other. Outside of those things, there was nothing in the room, except a convict standing beside the stool. CLANG! I turned and saw Officer Nolan through the bars of the door.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “Take good care of him, boy.”
“Boss! Yes Boss!” the convict replied.
What can I say? The convict looked like all the rest of them. Brown cap, brown shirt, brown trousers, CONVICT over one pec, convict number over the other pec, both labels on the cap, both labels on the trousers. . . .
“Hi!” he said. “I’m Andy. Or as the officers call me, Convict 351873. I’ll be your barber tonight.” He grinned when he said it. Barber! Oh God . . . !
“Hey!” he said. “I know how you feel. I mean, look at this!” He took off his cap. He was bald, all right. He was a young guy, a thin young guy, and he had a tall bald dome like a creature from outer space. It made his head look like it was about three feet high. “We all gotta do it.” He shrugged. His shirt was too big for him, and it made him look even thinner than he was. “But I’m the barber. I do this all day. Sit on the stool, man.”
I sat on the stool, the stool where they made guys bald. It was a metal stool. It had those little round holes in the seat that you always see in cheap metal stools. It was cold. The cold hit my balls, and I shrank back, and some of my pubes got caught in a hole. Fuck! I lurched up. Andy looked alarmed, and I squatted back down on the stool. I was ashamed again. This guy had clothes on, and I was totally nude. But I was afraid to put my hands over my dick. They might have a camera in here too.
“Yeah, I know. They oughta replace these stools. Give us a real barber’s chair! Fat chance — they don’t even give us capes. We just do it in the raw, man. So where you from?” He was standing behind me, moving things around on the little steel table. Must be his razors. Razors! Oh God! He was gonna shave my head! I couldn’t bear to look.
“I . . . they . . . they just brought me here from downtown.” It was hard to talk.
“Yeah, I thought so. When the officer rousted me out and told me I had to shave in another one, I knew it must be the shuttle bus from downtown. Down there, they don’t like to keep guys overnight unless they have to. Too expensive, I guess! So, one minute you’re a free man, the next minute, you’re sittin on this stool. That’s life, ain’t it!”
He paused, but I had no comment.
“Your bus came pretty late, though, even for them.”
I had nothing to say. My eyes were shut.
He was quiet for awhile. Then he said, “I’m almost ready, man.” He sounded apologetic about the delay.
God! Any second, it was gonna happen.
“What’s your name, man?”
“Jason.” I choked it out.
“Well, Jason, I’ll tell you,” he said, coming around front so he could look while he talked. I opened my eyes. His uniform was too big for him, but he had his shirt buttoned all the way to his neck, like he had a position that he had to live up to. “Before I got my ass caught in this joint, you’ll never guess what my job was. I was a hair stylist! It’s true. So, as you can well imagine, when they gave me my first baldy, sittin right here where you’re sittin, man, I was SO freaked out . . . I mean, I’d spent the last couple years in a REALLY good salon . . . ” He waved his wrist, like the salon was still just a couple of feet away.
Who does he remind me of? I thought. He had something in his hand that he was wiping — wiping and tapping and wiping again.
“ . . . and for the first few months I was really, really DEPRESSED. I was so bummed! Then I realized, by letting it all get to me, I was just giving away my power. You know what I mean, dude. Everybody has a power within them. And it’s up to you. You can keep it, or you can give it away . . . . SO!” There was another little wave of the wrist. “So I stopped doing that. Stopped giving it away. Simply stopped. And my advice to you is — keep asking yourself, what are YOU doing, right NOW, to be the person that YOU really, really WANT to be?”
Then I knew. It was Joey. My lover Joey. That was the guy he reminded me of. I had actually had a lover like that. “So that was then,” he continued. “And this is now. Been there, done that! You know?”
He was fiddling around at the table again. I heard a loud clunk. Then he came in front of me.
“What was your name again?”
“Right. Sorry dude. Anyway . . .” What was that he was holding? The razor!
“You know, Jason, when my two buddies and me do the tiers . . . What tier did they put you on, man? Oh, sorry. You wouldn’t know that yet. It’s all so hush hush, the way they operate this joint. Of course, the best tiers are the upper ones, and the best ranges are A and D. The outside ranges. Those are the ones that give you a window. With the others, they just face each other, so all you get is a view of six hundred other cons in their cages. Although that can be interesting, if you know what I mean.” He gave me a sly look, like the look that Peter gave me on the first day I showed up at Freer and Sons, the look that said that somehow he knew I was gay. “Of course,” he went on, “when I say they give you a window, I don’t mean you get a window right in your cage. I mean you can SEE the windows, across from the cell. They’re maybe 15, 20 feet away, on the other side of the walkway and so forth. But you can see out, all right, if there’s a window that’s sort of across from you. I’ve got a window. I’m in D Block, by the way. In case you ever want to find me! Anyway, Travis and Jimmy and me do all the guys, once a week. And do you know how long it takes us to do a whole tier? Do you?”
“No, I don’t.” The razor was as big as a fighter plane! And he was aiming it at my head.
“Well, it takes an hour. Three barbers, a hundred cons, just a little over an hour.” He was gesturing with the razor. It was whirling in the air, waiting to dive. “When you do the math, that’s about one con per minute. Pretty good, eh? But what I really like is having a little time to actually GET INTO a cut. Know what I mean? Like now. I mean, Officer Nolan’s out with a stogie. He won’t be back for at least fifteen minutes. So let’s just take it slow and easy . . . By the way, you got really nice hair, Jason. It’s a little mussy right now, but I can tell. It’s nice. I like those bronze tips. You been spikin it, dude?”
“Y- yes . . .”
“That’s good. I like that spiky look. Sorta young, you know, and masculine. Oh well. Too bad.”
There was a click, then a noise like a lawnmower. The razor was alive — it was coming at me!
“I like to start at the widow’s peak,” he said, making a swoop, “and just open it up from there.”
I didn’t know what he meant by a widow’s peak. Then I found out. The blade hit the little V in the middle of my forehead, and buzzed it off. It was gone! I must have jerked, because right away I felt a hand on my neck, pushing me back in place. Then there was a growl, like a buzzsaw tearing into a bunch of brush, and the blade started to travel. It moved like one of those machines you see in the fields, the kind that mow everything down. It began at my forehead and before I knew what was happening, it was up to my crown. Then it marched down the back of my head, balding everything in its path. Now I had a stripe on my skull like the stripe on a skunk.
Andy rubbed his hand on my stripe. I couldn’t believe it — there was a stranger rubbing my scalp, and what he rubbed was nothing but stubble.
“Hmmm,” he said. “Lemme get you a little closer. Good thing I got two of these things, eh? First time you’re cut, seems like there’s always a lotta stuff left.” He picked up the other razor, clicked it on, and ran it slowly over the stripe that was already bald. My head was vibrating like a chunk of steel. “That’s right. That does it. You’re almost a baldy now.” Suddenly the thing was racing up and down the sides of my skull. Two days before, Joey and I and the stylist were all conferring about what would be exactly the right look for me. Now a convict barber was shearing me like an animal. My hair was rolling off in long thick matts. It was hitting my shoulders and bouncing onto my crotch. I looked at my shrunken little dick, littered with the remnants of my hairstyle — dark brown, auburn tipped, stiffened just right with American Crew. I had never seen anything that looked so sad. Then my head started vibrating again. He was making sure there wasn’t a hair left anyplace on it.
The razor whirred to a stop. “Not bad, man! No, really. I think it looks good on you. Turns out, you’ve got a real convict head. Who woulda thunk it, eh? But listen man, I bet you wanta see for yourself. I always like to show the new guys how they look. I dunno, I guess it’s just the stylist in me.” He put down the razor and picked up something else off the table. Fuck! It was a mirror. “Check it out, dude!”
I’d seen my face in the mirror every day of my life, but the thing I saw in that little cracked mirror he held in his hand was no longer a face that I recognized. It had the same thin cheekbones and the same long nose; it had the same brown eyes and the same dark eyebrows; it had the same worried expression that I saw every morning when Jason Rossetti had been tying his tie. But it wasn’t a face I had ever really seen. The bottom half looked a little bit like me, or like a picture of me. It was taut and pale, but sometimes I’d looked like that. Often, in fact. But from the forehead up . . . . it was the head of an alien, the head of some being from another world. It was a mountain of white scalp, with a few flecks of dead hair stuck with sweat to the outside, like the last feathers on a chicken that’s just been plucked. Anybody would say that this was a convict. A convict like Jake. It looked more like Jake than it looked like me. Yet somehow, it WAS me. It had to be me. There wasn’t anybody else that it could have been. Maybe, I thought, it was that inner child that Joey and his friends kept talking about. The child had been inside, and now he’d got out. Or maybe it was the other half of me, the half that was hidden from everybody, the convict half. But you can’t be half of a convict. You’re either on one side of the bars or the other. It’s all or nothing. So I was looking at the face of a convict, and it was my face, the face I would have to use from now on.
“Hey dude. I’m sorry you’re crying.”
He was right. The face in the mirror had tears running down its cheeks, through the bits of sweat and the hunks of hair. The face was quivering. It looked like it was about to become hysterical.
“A lotta cons cry when they get their first baldy. But hey! Just remember, if you don’t like the haircuts, at least they’re free!”
“Huh?” I said, trying not to blubber. “What?” My chest was heaving, and I had to keep wiping my eyes.
“You get a free cut every week, man! Also free food, free housing, free health care, free uniforms. You’re taken care of for the rest of your life. Almost every con in this joint is a lifer, you know. And if they weren’t when they came, that’s the way they end up.”
I couldn’t talk.
“Sure. Look, it’s not bad. I mean . . . Look. You got anything on the outside, dude?”
I tried to sweep the hair off my dick. Some of it went on the floor, but the rest of it stuck in my crotch. I was bawling and wiping my eyes. I was bawling, and I was disgracing myself in front of . . . the fuckin convict barber, for Christ’s sake.
“No. . . nothing. . . .”
“No girlfriend or . . .”
“No.” Joey was gone, and so was Jake.
“Then you got nothin to lose, man. And hey! It turns out, you got a lot to look forward to.”
“Well,” he said, “you’re probably like most of the cons in here, so . . . Listen, you didn’t have any trade, did you? I mean, you didn’t do anything useful, like bein a plumber or a computer programmer or a barber or anything like that?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing useful. I was a . . . ” But he didn’t care.
“Then they’ll put you on the chain gang, dude. And man! that will really buff you out. Before you know it, you’ll look like a fuckin model.”
“I- I don’t think so.”
“Well, sort of like a model. Wait and see. But look, you gotta stop bawlin like that. You don’t wanta get the paddle when the officer comes back, do you?”
“No,” I said. “You’re right. I’ll try.” It was stopping anyway. I hadn’t cried so much in years. But I was a real faggot. That was completely obvious now.
“You better stand up,” he said. “You’re not supposed to sit there, once I’m through with you. Here, I’ll brush you off. Lean over the bucket.”
“Lean over that garbage bucket, and I’ll brush you off.”
It was ridiculous. When he said he’d brush me off, I immediately thought of those soft little brooms that they use when you’re sitting in the stylist’s chair, getting ready to slide out and pay for your hot new haircut. After everything that had happened, I still couldn’t understand that I was a convict, that I’d never see anything stylish or soft again. But then I noticed: yes, there was some kind of a bucket next to me. And the thing was huge. It must have been about four feet high. I stood up and leaned over it. The bucket was full of hair — black hair, brown hair, little clots of curly hair, long, long tresses of thick, straight, golden hair–all of it the hair of convicts, the convicts that had been in that room before me, getting their hair cut off.
“Lower your head, dude. Put it right in the bucket.” I put my head inside. I closed my eyes, but my nose was already full of all the smells that were there in the bucket, the smell of dead hair and the smell of all the shit that convicts put on their hair before they get loaded on the bus and sent to prison. It’s strange, what guys do to make themselves look good, I thought. Then my throat tightened, and I almost puked.
THONK! The brush hit my head. It was the kind of brush you use to get the dog hairs off the seat of your car. It had hard, stiff bristles and a heavy wood handle. The barber scoured my head with the brush till there couldn’t have been a single bit of hair clinging to my skull. My head was now totally naked. He stopped, and I took my head out of the bucket.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Where’s my tip?”
My hand automatically reached down to my butt, hunting for my wallet. Then I remembered that my butt was bare.
“Just a joke, man. When I say that, almost everybody goes for his wallet!”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“OK,” he said, “now I want you to just walk over to that wall and go nose and toes.”
“Nose and toes, dude. That’s what you do when you’re waiting for an officer. If there’s a wall, you go for the wall. Then you put your nose on the wall and your toes on the wall, and you stand up straight, with your hands behind your back. Do it. Do it now, dude.”
I went to the wall. It wasn’t hard to touch it with my toes. Touching it with my nose was hard. Very hard. If somebody at Freer had told me, ten hours ago, that I had to stand with my nose touching the wall, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, even for a minute, even if my job depended on it. It would have been my nose (human, warm) versus the wall (inhuman, cold), and the human would have won. Now it was the other way around. The wall won. I didn’t hesitate a second. I went to the wall, and I stood there, nose and toes. I stood by the wall like a piece of furniture.
I heard Andy working behind me. First he cleaned his razors. Then he swept the floor. I could hear his broom scraping the stray remains of my hair into a dustpan and knocking the contents into the bucket, on top of all the other convict shit. Then I heard the door slide open and Officer Nolan say, “73. Go to the mess hall and chow this fish.” “Boss! Yes Boss! Right away Boss!” Andy shouted, and I heard him leaving the room.
“All right, convict,” Officer Nolan said. “I see that 73 already taught you nose and toes.”
“Boss! Yes Boss!” I could feel him peering at me sideways, while I stood naked against the wall, with my noes and toes pressed into the tiles.
“Now stand down and follow me.”
“Boss! Yes Boss!”
I followed him out to the corridor and into the next room on the left. It was another room with white tile walls, only this one had an iron drain in the center. It looked like a shower room, but I couldn’t see the heads. What I did see was a row of cuffs along three sides of the room. Cuffs hanging from chains. Chains attached to the wall. “Right wall!” Officer Nolan said.
“Boss! Yes Boss!”
“Reach up and put your hands in one of them pairs of cuffs, boy!”
I inserted my hands in the first pair I saw. I had to stand on my toes to do it. In two seconds Officer Nolan had locked me in. I was hanging from the wall like a side of beef.
I heard some footsteps back and forth. Then there was silence. I wondered if I should look. Then I did. There was a convict standing behind me. He was wearing goggles over his eyes, and he was pointing a rubber hose at me. The thing looked like a firehose! “OK, clean him up!” Officer Nolan ordered. “Boss! Yes Boss! Cleanin him up, Boss!” the convict replied. Then he yelled “Keep your eyes shut!”, and the water hit.
I guess it was water. It was cold enough, that’s for sure. I’d never felt anything like it. It blasted me, one section at a time — head, neck, shoulders, back, legs, feet . . . I realized why they had me trussed to the wall. If they hadn’t, I would have been rolling on the floor like a basketball — and scrambling to get away from that hose. The water smelled horrible. I knew it must have some kind of disinfectant inside, if it smelled like that. It was like they’d put every piss-stained jockstrap in the world in there, and shot the stuff at me. I was twisting and turning, trying not to take it all on the tender spots, but it didn’t do any good. He pulled the hose around to my left side, then my right, and I felt a thousand dirty knives go into my tits and thighs; then a little lower, and my balls and cock almost peeled off and went flying. Half the time, I was just struggling to stay on my feet. Then I felt the thing go up my ass. He must have been holding that nozzle about six inches away. The liquid went into my hole like a thick length of pipe. I felt my guts give way . . . and I knew that the water wasn’t the only stinking thing in the room. My shit was all over the floor. There wasn’t any way to stop it. I was like an animal in a pen. They could make me do anything they wanted.
Of course, there wouldn’t be anything left to clean up. Anything that came out of my ass would go down the drain in a second. Even after I shit the first time, the guy kept it going, until I thought my guts were gonna come out my asshole or the water was gonna come out my eyeballs. Until that moment, I had never been fucked.
Finally he backed away; the smell died down; there was a minute or two of plain water washing the other stuff off my body; the hose went limp. I hung there, drying. I heard the water glugging down the drain. I heard the convict winding up the hose. I heard his boots walking out of the room and the door banging behind them. Then I heard the door open and two other pairs of boots walk in.
“He says he’s coming,” Officer Gonzalez said. “He’ll be here at 9.”
“Nine!” Officer Nolan said. “That’s two hours from now!”
“That’s what he said.”
“All right. I’ll take it from here, Jaime.”
“OK. Happy new year, man.”
“Yeah, happy new year to you. Give my best to your wife, dude.”
“Thanks, man. See you tomorrow.” One of the pairs of boots walked out.
“OK boy,” Officer Nolan said, unlocking my cuffs. “I’m gonna park you in the hallway.”
We went back to the corridor. There was a line of bars attached to the inside wall. Officer Nolan pulled on one of the bars, and whole set of them opened out on a hinge. There were three sections, hinged together. He hauled the bars around till they made the three sides of a box. “Inside,” he said, holding the third side open. I went inside the box, and he locked the final bar to the wall. It was the first time I’d been locked in a cage.
When you see pictures of guys getting put behind bars, you never realize how panicked those guys probably are. At least I never did. All you see is their backs and their asses headed into the cage. Now I was inside, and I knew what it was like. My heart raced, my face flushed, my hands went cold, my body shook like I was inside a freezer. I thought I was gonna pass out. Or go crazy! But it wouldn’t have mattered if I did. I would still be standing in that cage.
Officer Nolan walked away, jingling his keys. I stood in the cage, gripping the bars. The con that was swabbing the Reception Hall came down the corridor, toting his mop and pail. He looked at me like you look at a chair that you don’t want to sit on. He didn’t stop. From time to time, an officer walked by, or a pair of officers. They didn’t even turn my way. I was just one more naked animal in a cage. I guess that people who work in the zoo stop looking at the animals, whenever they don’t have to look.
After a while, the panic ebbed away, and I was just standing in the cage, holding onto the bars, feeling the sweat drying on my chest. I looked up and down the corridor. There was something about it — it was like something, but I couldn’t remember what. I couldn’t think of what it was. Then I knew. It was that long hallway, back in my grade school. The tile floor, the high ceiling, the windows lined up along one wall, too far off the ground to let anybody see out of them, the heavy-doored classrooms lined up on the other side: third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade . . . You never knew what was behind the next door, until you’d gotten a year older . . . The last doors were the scary ones. That was where the big kids were. . . . I remembered the day I’d missed the bus and I was late for school and I had to walk down that hallway alone, knowing I’d have to go through one of those doors on the left side, and something bad would happen inside that room, because I was late, and it must be my fault if I was late . . . . Now I was really late, and it was really my fault, and I was crying, just like I was back then. I’d never grown up at all.
Suddenly a hand came through the bars. It was Andy, shoving a metal can at me. Whatever the thing had inside it, it really stank. “Here’s your chow can, dude. When you’re through, leave it on the floor. The orderly will pick it up.”
I’d always wondered what conchow looked like. Now I knew. It looked like a stew with lots of chunks. Some of the chunks looked brown, like meat, and some of them looked green and coarse, like spinach, and some of them looked red and smooth, like tomatoes, and a lot of them didn’t look like anything that I’d ever seen before.
“I don’t want any,” I said.
“Doesn’t make any difference what you want, dude. You gotta eat it. Eat it all, or get the paddle. See you around, man.” And he went away.
There was a spoon sticking up in the can, and I spooned a little bit of the chow into my mouth. The smell was the major problem. That was really something. But outside of the smell, and the feel of the stuff in your mouth, it wasn’t too hard to swallow it.
I ate my first can of conchow, and I put the can down on the floor. After a few minutes, the convict that was mopping the floor walked past again and scooped the can up. He put it in a garbage bag he was carrying. Then he left, and the corridor was empty. I looked at the windows. There was one right across from me. It was a sheet of black, with a shimmer of white at the top, where the lights from the ceiling bounced back, and a layer of white at the bottom, where the snow was piling up deeper and deeper around the bars. I watched the window for a long time. Then a door opened at the end of the corridor and Officer Nolan came in. He was in a hurry. He seemed to be upset.
“All right, boy,” he said, struggling with the lock on my cage. “Time to get this show on the road.” I remembered what the Captain had said about turning me over to “the rookies.” After a few curses, the lock came open. “Next door on the left,” he said.