Nod Ghosh is a graduate of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Christchurch. Nod’s writing appears in: JAAM, Landfall, Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Sleep is A Beautiful Colour (U.K. 2017 NFFD), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), various online and print journals. Full details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/
A true story about corrupt prison officers inspired ‘Muscle’, which emulates techniques used by Carl Nixon in his award-winning story ‘My Beautiful Balloon’.
The screams. It’ll be the screams that finish me off.
They’ll wake me every night. A guy with blackened teeth will crash his head onto the wall separating us. His head, a prison within a prison. Dull thuds and mewling groans. I’ll imagine his skull cracking. I’ll cry for him.
The stink from the toilet in the ten by four room will make me want to puke, but nothing will come. I’ll feel my intestines unraveling.
I’ll cry for myself.
My roomie will be a druggie who snores like a chainsaw. With dope shoved up his arse, oblivious to the possibility of getting caught. He’ll threaten to knock my teeth out if I look at him the wrong way. He’ll slide his finger up his crack when he thinks I’m not looking. The screw with the skull tattoo will be in on the whole thing.
That corrections officer will be the bane of my life. He’ll hate me, because when he looks in my eyes, he’ll see what scares him most.
Mom was horrified when she discovered meat was just an animal’s muscle.
No. That can’t be right Brydon.
Hell, what in God’s world had she thought meat was?
Not the muscles, she’d said. It’s their flesh. It’s all right to eat flesh. But not muscle.
Then I told her about sausage casings. Well, you should have seen her face. That was fall, many years ago, just before Thanksgiving. We were picking out a bird. I said something about its thigh muscles. Mom wore that look of disgust on her face; just like the one she’s giving me now. That look tells me my own mother is ashamed of me.
Mom sits next to Paw at the back of the courtroom. The skin around her eyes has the sheen of under-cooked pastry. She clenches her mock-leather handbag. Her fingers bring to mind a bunch of grapes that’s sat in the sun and started to turn. I can’t look at her too long.
The expert witness drones on about the harm I could’ve done. He shows a picture of a man with skin bubbling like fried bacon. The man is not one of my clients. It’s harm I could have caused, but never did.
What about all the people I helped with my products? Morris, my attorney, has made very little of that. I’m pleading guilty. Morris says I should apologise for what I’ve done. It’ll help. The witness is a dour man, with a voice like soggy pancakes.
Judge Slattery wipes a smear from his eyeglasses onto a fold of his crow-black gown. Someone’s stomach growls. It’s probably mine.
My parents huddle on a row of plastic seats next to my wife. My boys Patrick and Shane had wanted to come, but I said to Sheila, on no account should you bring the kids to court. I don’t want them to see me like this. Next to Sheila is my friend Norm. Some of my clients have turned up too. The courtroom is jammed. Hell, Norm’s even been up on the stand and spoken for me.
Brydon is not a menace to society. He’s a good person who made an honest mistake.
Paw looks like he’s going to fall into a hole in the floor, like he’s dying from shame.
He’s used my goods when he needed a boost, though he was never that keen on the needles.
I scratch under my collar. Morris gives me a warning look.
Body language, he’d told me earlier. The jury’s likely more concerned about that, than what you did or didn’t do. I’m dizzy; not sure if I’m actually swaying, or whether it’s the courtroom. A puff of wind could blow me over. But there are no windows open in here and the air is thick with accusation.
They say your life flashes in front of you before you die. Well my life as a free man is ending here and now. Cloudy memories cross my mind, as the witness’s words drift across the floor.
That Thanksgiving Ella-Mae Danbert kissed me on the lips. Ella-Mae and I had gone for a smoke on Paw and Mom’s porch. Our breath frosted the air. Sheila was indoors. She never saw Ella-Mae and me, thank heaven. The smell of Mom’s pumpkin pie oozed through a crack in the door, almost visible in its sweetness. Old Phyllis Danbert sipped sherry like it was Kool-Aid. She tipped back and forth on grandma’s old rocker in the living room.
I wasn’t long out of the marines. It was the week before I started working at the Canaan Correctional.
There are some things I never understood. Like why Ella-Mae had the hots for me. I’m not handsome, and I was goddamn scrawny at the time. And God knows why Canaan would take on a skin-and-bone man like myself. It’s a close security slammer. I didn’t get it, but I was glad they employed me. Turns out the work suited me, and I was good at it. Hell, I even made officer of the year one time. But by then, I’d found a way of dealing with my deficiencies. After I bulked up a little, I became one of those screws the inmates never messed with.
I look around the courtroom. The prosecutor’s voice hoots rhythmically. Her droll words fill the spaces my friends and kin occupy. I think about the years I’ll get put away for. Cousin Burt sits in two of those plastic chairs. Burt’s the size of two regular guys.
Burt was a skinny kid, though not as small as I was. Burt’s been involved in this mess from the start. When Connors and I started with Sustanon, Burt offered to try it. We never took a cent off him. He was our guinea pig. I trusted Connors. I knew the stuff he’d made would be good.
Burt ballooned. His abs rippled like a corrugated tin roof, and his legs were like spaghetti squash sprouting from his groin. He spent hours in the gym, working those muscles, but hard work alone wouldn’t have done that to him. It had to be the Sus.
Now Burt chews his gum dolefully, with a look of deep concentration. I can almost hear him doing calculations in his head.
How long’s Brydon gonna get banged away for?
How’m I gonna get me my gym candy?
Burt and I must’ve been thirteen or fourteen. The hairs were starting to sprout on our faces, but we were still in short pants. We’d hang around the East Fork, mucking about near the river. I was thin as a chopstick. Mom was always on at me.
Finish your meat. You’ve got to eat a square meal Brydon. It’s the only way you’ll grow big and strong. I’d stare at the grey blobs of meat and dull waxy potatoes, swirl my fork through the gravy, wishing it would go away. I wished I could magically fill out and stop being picked on for my rawboned physique. I wished I could do it without eating Mom’s tasteless meat.
I thought I saw Wendy Drake that day by the river. Burt whistled through a blade of glass. Wendy had been on my
mind for months. Something in my chest lurched when she walked towards us, high heels skitting on the gravel. When she got nearer though, turns out it was some other chick that looked like Wendy. She had the same curly blonde hair and slim frame, but it was someone else.
The bank rose sharply on our side of the river. Burt’s legs were dangling over the edge, but his feet were a good way from the water. I stared at three girls making daisy chains on the opposite bank. Their titties were all peaky under their shirts, winched up by training bras. I felt a tension in the centre of my body, somewhere between the legs. I’d been getting that way around girls a lot round about that time. Any girls. Not just Wendy. It pleased me and bothered me and pleased me all at the same time.
Then something took my mind off the girls.
The hairs on my neck pricked up at the ground glass shouts of boys downstream. These guys were big; they were huge. I knew them from school, and I knew they were trouble. Burt’s fists tightened into balls, but he said nothing.
Mark ‘Dukey’ Ellington’s deep voice hit me; a full brown sound, a man’s voice. Something inside my chest clenched into a knot. Dukey and his gang strode towards us, and I stopped looking at the girls. Burt stared straight ahead at the girls, like Dukey didn’t exist.
I don’t got no girlfriend, but I’d sure like me a piece of her ass. Mock confidence oozed from my cousin’s fish-like mouth, his masculinity betrayed by a telltale squeak at the end of the sentence. I wasn’t sure which girl he was talking about. Maybe all three of them. It didn’t matter, because we were never going to get any girls, two scrawny dawgs like Burt and me. And what mattered right then was getting away from Dukey and his goons alive.
My cousin put a fat twig in his mouth, and sucked long and hard on it, like it was a cigarette, his cheeks pulled in, his back straight with invented courage. Dukey and his cronies got nearer.
You kiddin’? I said, splitting a shaft of grass down its entire length, one-handed, with practiced ease. Girls are stupid. Dukey was about ten paces away by then. Though Burt was a year older, and a whole head taller, I was the smarter of the two of us. I was the leader. If I said girls were stupid, then maybe it wouldn’t matter that girls never looked at us. Maybe Burt would just shut his mouth and help us get out of the trouble we were in.
Dukey and his mates stopped on the path behind us. Black Charlie kicked up some gravel. Little fragments of stone pelted my back. I wanted to stand up and walk away, but didn’t know how. The bankside grass cut into my bare thighs like steel wire. Burt’s wheezy breathing broke the silence like a question. I looked round at the boys, willing them to get it over with.
Dukey had a baseball bat with him; he worried it in his hands.
Gonna score me a home run. The bat swung like a pendulum, his log-like legs locked in position beside me. He knocked my cap off. It floated into the water; a red-peaked mushroom. I clenched my teeth, and prepared for a bashing. Black Charlie and Sambo roared at Dukey’s wit.
Fuckin’ ace man. Charlie’s laughter cut into the air, like he was trying to decide whether to kick me, or take out a knife and fillet the meat off my bones. I turned my head back, to see what the girls were doing. They had upped and left, as if the rasp of Dukey’s voice was a threat to them on the other side of the river. Sambo walked around and faced me. If I’d pushed hard, I could’ve dropped his pasty carcass into the river, and the murky hoojmie that lurked at the bottom would swallow him up. I didn’t do a thing though. Just avoided the direct stare of his pink albino eyes. He stepped across to inspect Burt.
Judge Slattery’s words cut through my thoughts. His luminous eyes flittering between the sentence sheets in front of him … and me.
Twenty-one counts −
I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to hear this.
Dukey’s blow took my breath away, and then the knife-cold water. Green light washed over me. Burt’s twisting form thrashed on the side. The muddy ooze churned beneath us, as we righted ourselves and fought for breath. Burt shouted you bastards, lost his balance again and screamed, high-pitched and horrible. I willed him to be quiet. But Dukey and the others had lost interest. They were already walking away, their laughter an ominous cloak floating behind them. Burt fought his way upright and staggered to the bank, as the last of their insults floated back to us.
Fuckin’ faggots. Queer boys. Ah hah hah hah!
And then they were gone.
Later that summer, I asked Wendy Drake out on a date. She told me she already had a boyfriend. I knew it wasn’t true. Said I didn’t care, was just looking for someone to take to the dance. I bit away the bile of humiliation. Didn’t ask another girl out for years after that.
Not long afterwards, we started drinking Budweisers and hard liquor if we could get it. Smoking a bit of weed too. Guys weren’t asking girls out on dates no more. They scored with one chick, and then moved onto the next. Masculine boys with triangular chests would dance with a girl, and then lead her away to some dark corner.
Guys like Burt and I would try it on with the homely girls, but get laughed away.
The prosecutor is referring to me like I’m a filthy pervert who hangs around school playgrounds, pushing drugs. I want to tell him how it really was, but Morris has warned me to keep quiet. Sometimes I’m not so sure my attorney knows right from wrong. Connors and I made a shitload of money from selling bodybuilding drugs, but we filled a need.
It’s not just gym-freaks like Burt that wanted our goods. We had a tight operation, Connors and me. There’re a lot of guys who need to bulk up a little. It’s easier to cope in a job like I had, when you’ve a little meat on your bones. The cons don’t treat you like some sick little cowboy. It’s not exactly respect, but it’s the nearest thing you’ll get in a prison.
I looked after my customers. Take Harry Manly. Manly in name, but with the physique of a teenage girl. Rang me the other day, not long before the arrest.
How’s tricks Brydon?
Yeah good, and you? Do we need to meet?
We never mentioned the goods on the phone.
Yeah man. Thursday? Usual place? There was a smile in his voice. He had a girl. Told me he was getting married. I was pleased for the guy. Harry wouldn’t have even dared to breathe near a woman before we started supplying him.
Then there was the time Connors told me to meet him in the Two-Thirty Club, not long after we’d started our operation. This dude met us. About my height, but slight with narrow shoulders, moustache and leather, skin black as rubber. There was something about his voice. I couldn’t quite place it. He wanted T. And then I realised what it was. A tranny. A dude that used to be a chick. I used to think they were fucked in the head. But they were good customers, paid upfront. We got them clean works, so they didn’t end up with festering sores, or hep, like some of the junkies that hung around the Somerville cemetery.
And I had so many customers at Canaan Correctional. Someone was bound to squeal eventually.
Brydon Marcel Bentley … sentenced to four years …
Judge Slattery’s words hit me like a brick to the skull. I’ve admitted what I did was wrong, apologised, and hoped I might get off with a caution. Hoped it, but been warned not to expect it. The shock of the sentence racks through my body. Something’s turned to liquid inside me.
Connors will be sentenced next. But here comes the rest of mine …
… to pay $22,000 in fines …
I look over to Sheila. Her eyes are downcast. Mom holds a handkerchief up to her face and dabs like she’s trying to take out a stain. I don’t see Paw for a minute, but then I spot him. He’s with Burt, their faces long and drawn. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to hear this.
Mom’s hands will shake when she arrives on visiting day. She’ll twirl them chipolata fingers and bring out her handkerchief. She’ll make some lame excuse as to why Paw can’t make it. I’ll hide my bruises. A screw in the slammer. Way too easy for the hoods and prison wolves to get me if they send me to Canaan Correctional. At least I’ll be spared that indignity. So I’ll be far, far away from home. I’ll look at Mom, and wonder if she’s ashamed of me.
What’s the food like in here Brydon? You’re wastin’ away.
Yes Mom, it’s fine Mom. You know why I’m wastin’ away.
Do they feed you meat? Or just fill you up with potatoes?
It’s fine Mom. I’m gonna get to work in the kitchen.
Oh. That’ll be good. Your father said to −
It’ll be freezing cold, and I’ll have a donkey jacket on over my peels. I’ll have exercised for an hour in the yard in the morning.
Meat, good red meat is what a man needs. If you’re in the kitchens, you can make sure they get you boys some meat. You need red meat.
Yes Mom. I know.
I’ll do a hundred press-ups a day. Straight up. Trying to stop my muscles from wasting too quickly.
I’ll try to keep my body bulked up, but it won’t work.
And it’ll be the screams that wake me every night.