It took while to acclimate to the chow hall. It was cavernous, reverberant, and like all else in prison, strictly controlled. The guards called us from our cellblocks in groups of twenty-five. That kept traffic in the hallway to a minimum and rendered us more manageable. We shuffled in tidy, single-file rows. No talking. Hands empty and at our sides.
Hot links were a main staple for meals. Easy to prepare and inexpensive for the State. Scraps of swine were crammed into industrial-sized meat grinders and spurted through high-pressured nozzles into rubbery casings. Then boiled. They were served at least four times a week with either navy or pinto beans, rice or potatoes, gritty spinach or mushy carrots. The odor they exuded was exactly what you’d expect from globs of discarded pig parts, comparable to a mid-August compost heap. Because they were served so often, everything in the chow hall was coated with the greasy fetor of hog muck – the aluminum water urns, the cinderblock walls, the concrete floor, the plexiglass windows, the brass handles of the steel doors. Even when meatloaf or spaghetti was on the menu, the stench of boiled pig remnants provided the backdrop for the aroma of all other meals.
On this particular day, the chow hall was two-thirds full, which meant several hundred guys were eating or standing in line. I was perched on a round, backless aluminum seat. Three other guys occupied the table with me. We hadn’t so much as glanced at each other, mindful of giving the wrong impression. Eye contact can be misconstrued as flirtation or getting into somebody’s business, neither of which are good if you aim to be left alone.
As for eating, I was finally able to finish a meal. During my first month on the unit my gut was a cauldron. After only a few bites I’d drop my fork, clench my teeth, try not to upchuck. Guys promised I’d get used to the tension. Said everybody who was new went through it. I hoped they were right, but held out little hope. It didn’t make sense that a human being could grow accustomed to a world as bizarre as the Beto Unit.
There was a guard behind each of the serving lines, another at the double doors, and two more on either side of the chow hall. When we got our food, we sat at the next available seat. That was the rule. Then we hurried. We averaged five minutes before an officer waltzed by and rapped his knuckles on our table, signaling for us to go. No questions. It didn’t matter if we were finished or not. We’d pick up our trays and drop them through the scullery slot on our way out. All of which made eating laborious. It’s hard to scarf down slimy hog when your stomach’s a kettle of acid. You want to chew each bite till it’s mush, then ease it down your throat like you’re swallowing a sword. Seven minutes tops, then it’s time to go.
We ate with plastic utensils. No knives. They were considered too dangerous. I punctured the taut skein of the hot link with my fork until grease spittled out, then pried off a chunk with the dull edge of my spoon.
“Get off the head runnin’ and get to eatin’,” a scrawny guard hollered. Acne plastered his face and the bill of his blue ball cap was creased down the center like a circus program folded in half and stuffed in a back pocket. “You ain’t here to chit chat,” he yelled. Other guards chimed in and knocked on tables. Inmates stood, shoveled food into their mouths, lumbered toward the scullery.
Because they were served so often, everything in the chow hall was coated with the greasy fetor of hog muck – the aluminum water urns, the cinderblock walls, the concrete floor, the plexiglass windows, the brass handles of the steel doors.
I pondered how sick I was of hot links already. Four a week for the next eleven years meant 2,390 more before facing the parole board. My body went as limp as a broken bicycle chain. I propped my elbow on the table, plunked my cheek onto my palm, chomped on blubber and gristle.
An inmate wearing a black hairnet pushed a water cart to refill the urns. His white pants were tucked haphazardly into black rubber boots, and a drab yellow apron hung from his nape to his knees. He leaned straight-armed with locked elbows into the metal handle of the heavy cart, then pressed full-weight to leverage it forward. His rubber boots slipped on the greasy floor.
Black-ink tattoos stamped his neck and slithered across his forearms. He stopped, straightened up, stood with his hands on his hips. Caught his breath. Inhaled deeply. Huffed slowly. Then leaned once more into the handle, his face cranberry-red as he steered the cart down the narrow aisle between where I was and the wall.
I jolted mid-chew. It sounded like Ty Cobb cranking a homer. A pack of Hispanics darted from their tables to where the hair-netted kitchen worker lay sprawled on the floor. Another Hispanic hunched over him, pummeling his face with hard rights. He had dropped him like a 200-pound bag of wet sand.
“Fight,” the guards yelled.
The bulky doors at the front of the chow hall slammed shut. Guards sounded off like alarms, hollering to their cohorts for help. Steel gates crashed up and down the hallway like columns of two-ton dominoes plummeting onto granite.
Within seconds twenty-or-so Hispanics clobbered each other at the spot where the hair-netted inmate lay. Two guys jumped the one who had delivered the initial blow. He shrugged them off, straddled the worker again, and bashed his face. The young man’s senseless head bobbed backward with every thud. Three inmates kicked a guy crouched at the wall. Two pinned another against the urns by punching him from every angle while he ineptly fought back. Somebody got clotheslined. Several circled him and stomped his head. I sat slack-jawed, mouth full of rubbery pork. The chow hall resounded with guards bellowing and steel doors slamming and flesh splitting between knuckles and skulls. The brawlers paid no mind. They kept doggedly at their task, like wolves tearing at eviscerated prey.
The double doors flung open. A dozen officers swarmed the melee, ordering them to stop. In groups of three they clutched the bruisers, flipped them over their hips, and slammed them onto the floor. Other officers hooked their arms around the combatants’ necks and yanked them down. A lone guard swept around and cuffed the subdued. Then they heaved the inmates by their arms and whisked them out. Every time two guards exited the chow hall, more dashed in. It played out like choreographed mayhem, the officers in fluid, synchronous motion.
Finally, a single inmate remained from the fray. The hairnet guy lay in a heap on the concrete. Two guards rolled him onto his stomach, then lifted him under his arms. His legs dragged across the greasy floor, head lobbing with each hurried step, jaw swaying like an empty swing blown by the wind. That first blast out of nowhere had shattered it.
The skinny guard with the acne whistled through his pinched forefinger and thumb, then shrieked “Finish up and get out of here.”
Those of us at our tables picked up where we had left off, like nothing happened at all.
I peeked around, curious if anyone else was purposely steadying their hands so as not to draw unwanted attention. Was I the only one afraid of having his jaw torpedoed? Who else was concerned about garottes or mop wringers or rusty shanks?
The brawlers paid no mind. They kept doggedly at their task, like wolves tearing at eviscerated prey.
Then the shame bore in. Here I was, a twenty-two-year-old new to a maximum security prison who had inarguably earned my bunk, had exhibited little concern for others while roving the streets, and had zero qualms throwing the first punch if soused at a nightclub. But when dumped in a concrete cage with a throng of other hardheads, all of a sudden it’s Oh, shit, not me! I felt exposed, like a bully in front of a mirror, nothing left to confront but my own lies and fears and repugnant past. Am I allowed to be scared? I wondered. Or is fear for oneself a luxury afforded only to those not in prison? Do the unsympathetic deserve any mercy? Either way, my heart thumped in my chest like a bowling ball tumbling in a drier.
The three guys at my table scraped their spoons across their trays. There was still food on mine, but I wasn’t hungry. I was just going through the motions so I wouldn’t come across as a coward. A guard knocked on our table as he walked by. His gray uniform top was stretched tight around his bloated belly. Three hard raps with fat fingers and, “You’re done.”
I was glad we had to leave, but knew better than to show it. Instead, I affected an air of apathy. Tried to give the impression I was unimpressed. Put on like it was another drab day in the slammer.
Back in my cell I slouched on my steel bunk and re-read letters from home. I wanted to feel connected to something beyond the cinderblock walls, to know there was more to me than prison, that there was tenderness somewhere in the world. The familiar loops and curves of black ink on blue-lined paper were consoling. I ran the tip of my finger across the cursive strokes. Doing so gave me a sense that everything would be okay, no matter what.
Am I allowed to be scared? I wondered. Or is fear for oneself a luxury afforded only to those not in prison? Do the unsympathetic deserve any mercy?
I had gotten into the habit of placing my brogans in the exact same spot under the head of my bunk. I would fold my uniform neatly, roll it up long-ways and lay it across the tops of my boots. My soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and toothbrush all had their specific places on my shelf as well. Whenever I used one, it went back in its prescribed location, not offset by a smidgen.
My pen and pencil and notebook paper had their specific spots too. Always the #2 pencil directly against the side of the slim stack of paper. Always the ballpoint pen flush against the pencil, top ends of both pointed toward the back of the shelf. Always the coffee cup upturned on a clean white rag, plastic spoon face down beside it. If I noticed anything amiss, it felt as if the whole world wobbled on its axis and the fabric of gravity unraveled. I immediately put things back where they belonged. There was certainty in this arrangement, or at least an assuring sense of it.
The guards racked the wing at 10:30 like they did every weeknight. They called us out for breakfast at 4:00, same as every morning. They herded us off the cellblock twenty-five at a time for each of our meals. We shuffled down the long hallway in tidy rows while officers barked at us to shut up, even though we weren’t talking. Randomly one would motion for an inmate to be frisked. Those of us not nabbed remained in formation, single-file, hands empty and at our sides. So were the rules. That’s how the System maintained a semblance of order. But one thing was for sure: Chaos would eventually erupt.
In some unexpected way, at some unpredicted time, there would be another Whack. The illusory patchwork of order was going to rupture. Either in the System or out, calamity was going to clamp down on my teensy slice of life and, like a rambunctious Rottweiler, shake it between its slobbery teeth (It eventually does to us all, does it not?). My inner constellation of certainties was going to scramble, and after several slow, deliberate breaths I would unfold once more a worn sheet of paper and trace with the fleshy pad of my finger the familiar hoops and curls of the words that held my world together:
I love you…
Author's Note: I entered the Texas prison system at the age of twenty-one and served fifteen consecutive years. The first unit I was assigned to, Beto 1, had a well-deserved reputation for aggression and violence. The essay “Chow Hall” is a glimpse into daily life on that unit, and how I dealt with my new precarious reality while scrabbling for some sense of certainty and hope that I could hold onto.
John Langenfeld has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sam Houston State University and a master’s degree in literature from University of Houston at Clear Lake. He has been published in Entropy, The Threepenny Review, and was a finalist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize 2017. You can find him at johnlangenfeld.com.