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The bread is moving. It’s a piece of crust I broke off of the slice of bread that was pushed through the narrow hatch in the cell door sometime earlier. A horde of tiny red ants has surrounded it. Some of the ants have levered themselves beneath the crust and are hefting it up onto their minuscule ant shoulders as they struggle to carry it back to where they live—a crack in the concrete floor a short distance away. But the bread, I know, will make it to the crack at some point. It always does.
Why do I interact with them in this way? I search my mind for the answer as I continue to watch the ants, looking down at them from where I sit cross-legged on the cell floor, wearing the pair of fetid orange coveralls I’ve worn for more than a month. Because the ants are living beings, in some way like me?
Another question rises in my mind, pushed forward by the question that preceded it. I am still alive, aren’t I? It’s hard for me to be certain of anything in this place. I haven’t spoken in months. What do I actually have to verify I’m alive? A heartbeat? It strikes me that someone who’s dead may still perceive his heart as beating. Breath? Dead people probably believe they’re still breathing, too.
I turn toward the steel door several feet away. That unyielding slab of metal—it keeps me sealed inside this concrete box. If I were no longer alive, would the door still do this to me? I hope not—I motherfucking hope not. The thought torments me. Hell, in my mind, is not the fiery netherworld of Christianity. How can I adopt an abstract when I abide something a thousand times more concrete?
Focus. I pull my thoughts back from the edge of the abyss. You have to keep your mind on a short leash in this place—that is, you must rein it in when you feel it slipping, or risk losing it altogether. Strange things happen to minds here. Weak minds break quickly—strong ones, later on.
I return my attention to the ants and realize that I know why I do this. The ants provide me with a sense that I am not alone—that I matter, that I am still alive.
It’s funny, these are prison ants—no, they’re tougher than that—they’re supermax ants. That is, they differ from ants anywhere else. They exist under the glaring artificial light that pervades this place, and have never known the natural light of day nor felt the warmth of the sun. Yet it doesn’t seem to affect them. They continue with their ant business, as if that is all there is to do. They’re able to survive despite the circumstance. Yes, this is why I take care of them.
I’m unable to suppress the smile that comes unbidden to my face. The ants have made it to the crack with their bounty. They’ll begin to pull it apart now, I know. Soon it will disappear inside.
My legs feel like they’re on fire—and so do my arms, chest, scalp, and groin. I stop pacing back and forth in the cell and scratch. I only see the bugs if I examine myself closely. If not for the itch, I might not even know they are there. It doesn’t matter, though, because I can’t do anything about the situation. It’s just the way it is in this place, so I try not to dwell on it. I scratch and move on.
When the steel gate leading into the cellblock clackss like the ratcheting of a state-issue 12-gauge, I rush to the cell door to peer through the narrow slat of unbreakable glass. It’s what I do anytime I hear the sound because it precedes everything that happens here.
A pair of guards mill about in front of the control center and in front of the room alongside the control center that’s used for hearings, which is all that’s visible to me from the cell—all that’s visible from any cell in this place.
They’re bringing someone in. I can’t see who it is, but my spirit is buoyed because I know they’ll put him in the cell next to mine. It’s the only open cell in the block. Maybe he’s someone I know—someone I can talk to.
When the prisoner comes into view shuffling around the corner of the control center in leg shackles and orange coveralls, he’s surrounded by guards. One of them grips his shoulder and elbow. Another holds the leash attached to the handcuffs that bind his wrists behind his back. A mesh hood is over his head.
As the guards steer him through the gate and into the block, I recognize the scars that cover his forearms. Even with the bag over his head, it’s not possible to mistake Stook for anyone else. The angry red slash marks are mementos of the innumerable times he’s tried to kill himself. And beneath the coveralls, I know there are burn scars—his legs an uninterrupted swathe of disfigurement from the times he didn’t have anything to cut himself with and lit himself on fire instead.
Stook is nuts. There may have been a time when he was sane, but it was a long time ago. He’s an example of how prison can destroy someone. He was sent here when he was a teenager for stealing his aunt’s car. By the time he was 24, he had already killed two prisoners.
Stook shuffles past the cell I am in and moves out of my line of sight. I hear the labored drone of an electric motor pulling a heavy steel door along its runners, then the reverberation of the door slamming home on the other side of the brick and concrete wall. When the guards leave, one of them is carrying the coveralls they ordered Stook to strip out of, and another has the bag that was over Stook’s head, as well as the leg irons, handcuffs, and leash. Stook is ranting. It’s a nonsensical tirade I can hear through the wall. There’s no way to talk to him when he’s like this, I already know. That is just as well, because I am not sure my voice would work if I were to try. Maybe later.
I dig my nails into my flesh and scratch again.
Arthur Longworth is a PEN America Writing for Justice fellow, winner of six National PEN Awards, and the author of Zek: An American Prison Story (Gabalfa Press, 2016) and The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #299180 (Pygmy Forest Press, 2008).
This article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in Social Research. It is part of the journal’s issue Loneliness.