That 90’s Incarceration

A whole lot of exposition about 1990s Ruck’s stint in Decatur, a fictional prison in Alabama. NSFW. Sexual situations, offensive slurs, racism.

  1. dante’s güero. nov. 1992

Dante Perez had a rat face.

He slanted a look at Ruck with his intelligent, beady eyes, sizing him up from his brand new sneakers up to his face. His mustache twitched and he went back to carving a figure from soap with a little plastic spoon.

“I’m s’posed to bunk here,” Ruck said. His pillow and sheets were tucked under his arm. The other hand hung limp at his side.

Dante didn’t look up.

The quiet hung between them. Dante whittled his soap. Ruck looked at the barren top bunk. After a few moments, he tossed the blanket and pillow onto it, and when he stepped back again, the other man was staring at him. They looked at each other, and Dante muttered something in Spanish. Cabeza rapada. Gilipollas.

Ruck climbed into his bunk and lay on his back, watching the concrete ceiling for a long while. He could hear his cellmate breathing steadily. A sharp whistle echoed through the corridor. A buzzer crowed in the distance, calling men in another part of the institution to lunch.

He turned onto his side and looked down at the balding top of Dante’s head. He wanted to know his name, and if they were going to have a problem, and if he really didn’t know any English. After a moment, and just before the other man looked over his shoulder, he put himself back down on the bunk and waited for five years to end.

The first of 1,825 lunch buzzers came first. A guard yanked their door open and ushered them out into a long queue of ambling men, all clad in bright orange, heads shorn down to anonymity, sneakers shuffling and squeaking on the concrete. The rails were painted blue, and each step down to the cafeteria had a bright yellow strip of tape at its edge. Just like grade school.

And like grade school, they stood in line holding out their trays while the kitchen staff — also inmates — ladled on their lunch.

Ruck sat at a table by himself and took stock. He had a lean slice of grey meat with the grill marks painted on, a heap of instant mashed potatoes ladled with a thin gravy,  cauliflower, and a cube of cornbread. He knew he’d still be hungry when he was done, and yet he couldn’t stop himself from grinning. He’d been expecting slop.

He was collecting the dry crumbles of cornbread onto a plastic fork when a shadow fell across the primary-yellow tray. His eyes lifted before his head, rising toward the gaunt face of the man standing over him. He had a mean look about him, and Ruck suspected he was going to tell him to move — but instead, the stranger set down his tray and took a seat across from him.

“Sorry ‘bout your cellmate,” the man said, nodding his head toward a crowd of men sitting together a few tables away. They were speaking Spanish amongst one another, paying no mind to the rest of the cafeteria.

“Why?”

“‘Cause they stuck you with a fuckin’ beaner, that’s why. What’s your name?”

“Ruck.”

“Huh?”

Ruck set down his fork and squinted at the man’s gaunt face, his back straightening. “It’s Ruck.”

“My name’s RJ. You speak Spanish, uh…”

“Ruck, with a R. Naw, I don’t speak Spanish.”

“How long you here for?”

“Five years.”

“A’ight. I got ten. Two an’ a half down. What’d you do?”

Ruck shook his head and stuck his fork into the mashed potatoes.

“Nothin’ with kids?”

“No.”

“You ain’t killed no dog? Davis hates a dog-killer.”

“Why do I give a fuck what Davis don’t like.” Another silence hung, and Ruck dropped his fork on the tray. “Who’s Davis?”

“You’re gonna wanna have some friends, here.”

Ruck didn’t want friends. He wanted to get along well enough with Dante that the man wouldn’t kill him while he slept, and he wasn’t impressed by the look of the redneck sitting across the table from him.

“Why?”

“Keep actin’ like that an’ you’ll see.”

RJ twisted around and met eyes with someone across the cafeteria. He waved him over and turned back to his tray to saw into that sad slab of meat with his fork.

Ruck followed suit.

The table filled up with a slew of other men — Davis, the dog-lover. He was large, bald, mid-thirties. Murder in the second degree. Coy, a car thief. Red-headed and hot tempered. A transplanted Yankee. Crawford, domestic assault, so heavily tattooed it was impossible to say what he was underneath. Swastika on his neck, a scar from a cleft lip long since repaired.

In some way, they all looked like him: mean, tattooed, sun-stained, caucasian. Probably all raised up in trailers. Ruck looked around and realized every table worked in the same way. RJ had come to collect him because they were his people. He didn’t like looking into this future-mirror of missing teeth and mugs pocked with methamphetamine damage — but this was the table where he belonged.

After lunch they gathered out in a sandy yard. Crawford was talking about a man toward whom he kept nodding, his silver-capped teeth baring each time. Ruck spoke with Davis through the break period, appreciating the man’s quiet and gruffness.

Coy pined for Jersey and kept butting into the conversation, but Ruck wasn’t interested in Jersey or in Coy, or in Crawford’s dislike of the black inmates, or RJ’s plan to obtain pornography from his nephew.

After the break period, the inmates had the option to make phone calls. Ruck, however, was not eligible on his first day, and returned to his cell. He turned on the television, and Dante returned after about 20 minutes of staticky cartoons.

“Do we gotta shit in front of each other?” Ruck asked without sitting up, and he heard the other man chuckle in reply.

  1. room with a coup. dec. 1992

One minute he was telling a stout inmate to ‘get the hella offa me’ when he crowded him in the breakfast line — the next, he felt like a rabbit tossed into a pack of starving dogs. In the chaos, he understood one of them had a problem with Travis, who ran in RJ’s circle. Ruck barely knew Travis, and he sure as hell didn’t want to get his ass beat for him, but they seemed to have enough dislike for him, too.

That he could tell, he got in one punch. He felt the curves and angles of a jawbone briefly fit into the jigsaw of his knuckles, the impact shuddering up into his shoulder. Then, instant retaliation. He had not been hit so hard in his life — it felt like his brain kept going and slammed into the opposite side of his skull. He was dazed, mouth hanging open in stupid shock, the side of his face needles like it’d fallen asleep.

Then his stomach — that came from somewhere else — and all the air was gone from his lungs and he couldn’t draw any more. His vision blurred, the world tilted. He fell on his ass without feeling it, and he knew straight away that was not enough. He was done, but they weren’t going to go away until they were pulled off him, and in the last look he got of their long silhouettes Stone Henged around him, he didn’t see anybody coming.

Somebody kicked him in the side of the head and he was on his side, hands grappling blindly for something to protect. His face? His throat? His balls? There were more feet coming than he had limbs to guard himself, and in the end his ring finger was cocked back at a sickening angle and the blood from his busted lip looked like a Jackson Pollock right there on the Decatur cafeteria floor.

He hadn’t even realized the stout one was sitting on him until the rest of them had been pulled away. A big guard linked his hands under the inmate’s armpits and hauled him off Ruck, who immediately picked himself up. His tongue explored the interior of his mouth and he nudged a wobbly premolar out of its socket before spitting it out onto the linoleum.

A few hours passed in the infirmary. He saw x-rays of his own skull, the fracture on his cheekbone. A nurse held a mirror in front of him and gingerly pointed out the damage, but it was all plain as day. He didn’t recognize this ugly, mean face. The hair shorn down to a shadow, the eyes glazed over in apathy, the asymmetry and fat lip.

He was back in his cell by sundown, his hand encased in what looked like a giant oven mitt. Dante ran some water from the faucet and stood on his own bunk so he could reach over Ruck’s and stick a wet sock to the side of his face.

“They didn’t give you no ice?”

He grunted a negative.

“Damn, sorry, Güero. You look like shit.”

Dante was transferring out soon, heading to California. He said he had grown up there, so he wasn’t worried. 

He’d been working nightly on a tattoo on Ruck’s side — a skull with a blunt pinched between its teeth, vines and wildflowers blossoming out of the jaw and eye sockets. Without consulting Ruck, Dante blacked out one of the teeth.

  1. the brothers standoff. aug. 1993

After Dante Perez transferred to California, RJ’s cellmate died out in the yard. Stabbed, it was rumored. The timing was good, and RJ requested to be transferred to Ruck’s cell.

This was swiftly regrettable for both parties.

RJ thought Ruck was the worst conversationalist he had ever met. He especially wanted to talk politics, and reiterated the same anti-Democrat sentiment day in and day out, flying into a rage every time Clinton’s face appeared on the television. Which was often, because he intentionally sought out channels that discussed political news.

Fortunately, Ruck was then eligible to start working in ‘the plant,’ and it kept him far from RJ and their circle during some of the leisure hours he’d had before.

The job lifted his spirits. Prison shifted from a barely tolerable, slogging existence to a militant routine his simple nature could appreciate.

He’d been speaking with Nattie every other day since his incarceration. Their mother had come home while he was still at trial, and the week his father was due to rejoin the family, Ruck called home after the lunch period.

It was Noah who picked up.

“Lemme talk to Dad,” Ruck said in response to his change of tone when he realized who was on the other line.

“He don’t wanna talk to you.”

“He’s home?”

“Yeah.” Then, muffled, “Ma, it’s Onz.”

Bess Rucker picked up and said, “Hey, baby. How are you? You feelin’ better?”

“I’m fine. You a’ight?”

Placatingly, “Yeah, baby. We’re fine.”

“I was hopin’ I could talk to Dad.” When he was met with silence, Ruck added, “It’s been a long time.”

“He ain’t feelin’ too good right now. I’ll have ‘im call you soon as he’s doin’ better, Onz.”

“He mad about me gettin’ locked up or somethin’?”

“Well he ain’t happy about it.”

“He was locked up before.”

“I know, honey. He’ll call you soon, alright?”

But Don did not call Ruck, and he could not shake a cold dread that roiled around in his stomach every time he wondered why that was. As the days ticked by — 289 — that dread turned into bitterness. He called home again.

This time, Donovan picked up.

“Dad,” Ruck said, and his spite smoldered in the silence he was met with. “How come you won’t talk to me?”

“I got nothin’ to say to you.”

“You could say ‘thank you, son,’ for takin’ care of your kids. For payin’ for the house while you was doped up in Mississippi. For keepin’ Noah in school. For makin’ sure they was in bed on time then up in the mornin’ while I couldn’t never get in touch with—”

“I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you,” the voice on the other line said, wavering. “I ain’t got no son called Onzell. I ain’t got no faggot son.”

“What’re you talkin’ about?” Ruck asked tightly, pressing the phone tighter to his ear. “The fuck is you talkin’ about.”

He heard his father breathing on the other line for a few moments longer, and he jumped out of his seat.

“What the fuck are you talkin’ about?” he yelled into the receiver, and the man who’d been standing behind him waiting for the call to end swooped in to yank the phone from his hand. He set the phone on its base and guided Ruck from the plexiglass cubicle, then sent him off to his cell.

He knew at once Noah had told their father everything — but he couldn’t wrap his head around why. They’d never gotten along, had never been close, but he still hadn’t expected that kind of cruelty from his own brother. In the end he decided Noah had always pined for Don’s love and approval, and must have thought the only way any could be afforded to him was to re-route it away from him.

The accusation crawled all over him. It must have been written on him, too, like a scarlet letter, because two weeks later he ran into Coy in the stairwell of the plant and the redhead told him, “You look tense, man.”

He was tense. Always had been, as much as he liked to try and play it cool, but lately he was feeling bereft in a way he never had before. He realized the loneliness was crushing, that all he wanted, what he desperately wanted was for someone to touch him. And Coy was reaching up and kneading his fingers into the back of Ruck’s neck, his face tilted up toward him. Something cogent shone in his dark eyes.

“What do you want?”

“You don’t have nothin’ I want.” But Coy was already laying his palm flat against the stiff orange jumpsuit, over Ruck’s ribs and down his stomach appeasingly. “I just wanna help you out.”

It felt like a trick, as though if he let this go any farther, RJ and Travis, Crawford and Davis would deny him whatever ‘protection’ a prison circle provided. (Not that it had done him any good, so far.)

“What’s that mean look for? You must be itchin’ for somebody to touch you. I know I do. We’re just messin’ around. We can help each other out.”

Ruck’s skin crawled, his stomach turned, his cock twitched. He was torn between losing what little respect he had for Coy and being impressed by the balls it took to make a pass. The man was all of five feet and eight inches. He was scrappy, too — he’d seen as much — but most everyone was bigger than he was. He didn’t stand a chance.

Maybe that was why he resorted to groping folks in the stairwell.

By then he had Ruck’s half-hard dick pinned under his hand in the jumpsuit, and he was going on about where the cameras in here pointed and how they didn’t have very long, cajoling him with, “C’mon, big guy.”

Ruck thought if Coy would shut the hell up, he could imagine he was someone else. That nurse, maybe, who’d gently touched his swollen face a few months back. He hadn’t thought she was much to look at then — not that he was one to talk — but now he remembered her like a vision of beauty. Thin eyebrows, ruddy cheeks. Dark freckles. Crooked teeth.

He ran his tongue across the gap in his own mouth and leaned his head back against the concrete wall.

“That’s it,” Coy said, but Ruck screwed his eyes shut and let the nurse scream his name over his man-voice. 

He imagined her reaching into the blankets and stroking him, leaning down so her scrub fell open and her tits hung over his chest. Taking her hair down and it smelling like shampoo, and her free hand lifting his to her mouth to suck his fingers — this was getting harder to imagine, because Coy had unzipped his own jumpsuit and shoved Ruck’s hand down the front of it — before she yanked down her shapeless pants and straddled him.

He tried to think about that older nurse riding on his cock while he was pumping Coy’s in his newly healed hand. It worked in some capacity in tandem with the months-long dry spell, because soon his breaths came ragged and his stomach tremored, and he spilled over Coy’s hand, panting.

He finished the other man off in the next minute, the task infinitely less pleasant now than it’d been before. The other inmate had tissue on hand — he’d been waiting here for a reason — and he held onto it after Ruck hastily cleaned up.

Coy said something to him, but it didn’t register. Whatever loneliness he’d felt a short while ago was deeper now, and he returned to his station in the plant unsure of who he was. Twenty years were yanked like a rug out from under his feet, and the name he had gone by was revoked.

  1. depraved new world. dec. 1993

RJ was moved to the annex, and Ruck briefly had the cell to himself. Even the quiet and the freedom to choose the television station, however, was not enough to stitch together the wound that had been tearing itself incrementally wider since his conversation with Donovan Rucker.

During leisure hours, Coy liked to visit. He’d let Ruck fuck him for nothing, or next to it. You got my back, right? and once for a Time Out bar he’d saved from the cafeteria. Sometimes they’d hang a sheet over the cell door and Coy would sit on the cold concrete between his thighs and suck him off. Ruck didn’t know if he hated him more for acting as if he liked it, or because he was so damn good at it. 

He knew he hated himself far more than he hated Coy.

The visits stopped when Roland Fairfax was assigned to the cell with him. The man was dark-headed, with eyes far too kind for prison. Ruck, who had moved his things down to the bottom bunk, asked him what he’d done.

Roland wouldn’t answer the question.

“Nothin’ with kids?” Ruck asked, the same as RJ had asked him when he was new. “You ain’t killed no dog, didja?”

Roland said it was neither of those, but he was aloof, and Ruck wasn’t interested in knowing him better, or in much of anything. He spent his free time in his bunk, and counted down the days without anything to look forward to.

For his good behavior, he was permitted to add a few touches to the cell. First and foremost he wanted his guitar — but also a pen and notebook.

Bess and Nattie brought both of these the next time they visited, and he drew crude tattoo ideas in the notebook and practiced his guitar out in the yard. It was harder now. The finger he had broken didn’t move as easily as it had, and he’d been a year without practice. It was unsatisfying, too, to play an electric guitar without an amp.

It soon collected dust in the corner — though Roland started to mess with it — and Ruck worked at penning letters.

One was for Lou. It was short, and he thanked him for his friendship and patience, and all the weed. He asked about Angie and her big tits. The letter ended with an offer for Lou and Angie to send him photos of the latter — bra optional — if they so desired.

Another was for Nicely. He was like a father — kind of — and had always done right by Ruck. He was mostly sorry for all the times he’d smoked in the cars instead of working, but instead made his apology about letting the old man down by getting locked up and leaving him without a gopher. (He figured that was an easily replaceable position, but sent the letter anyway.)

Finally, he penned a letter to Josef MacKenzie.

i’m sorry for how i acted. you were the only real freind i had and i always had a good time when i was with you. i should’ve said fuck whatever anybody else thinks, i should’ve stood by you. you’ll probally be glad to know my dad found out everything anyways so trying to act like you didn’t mean nothing to me didn’t do me any good. i still think about you and wish we’d got to go to all those places we said we was going to. i wish we was still freinds and sometimes i think i’m never gonna know anybody again how i knew you. i hope you’re doing good wherever you are & that you have good people. i miss you man, i wish things was diffrent.

He leaned over the notebook in his bunk and reread the sentimental slop over again. His heart twisted up in his chest, and he tore the shred of paper in half to save the lower section of the page and methodically fed it into his mouth.

Roland listened to the sound of chewing and paper crinkling for a long while from the top bunk, then asked, “You wanna take a walk?”

They took a few slow laps around the yard. Roland didn’t ask him anything, didn’t tell him anything. They talked about prison lunches instead, and the strange cartoons on television these days. MTV and working at the plant (which Roland was still trying to swing).

They didn’t talk about anything important, but it was an easy conversation, and Ruck felt a little lighter when they made it back to the cell for the night.

  1. alone with the friend. april 1994

Finding ways and times and places to meet up with Coy grew tiresome, and Ruck was less and less certain a little relief and human contact was worth the risk of being caught. They were chancing solitary if they were seen somewhere they weren’t supposed to be, and the possibility of losing their jobs at the plant if they were found messing around on the clock. Then there was the way he always felt crushingly empty when they were done — and he was out of nurse fantasies. Lately, Coy was less and less her and more often a person he could not quite admit to himself was Roland Fairfax.

In any case, his phone call with his father haunted him, and envisioning one man when he was fucking another was too much.

He told himself he’d hold off until he was let out — then he’d get married, have himself a family. He had no prospects now, and it wouldn’t be easy to find any good ones with this on his record — but at least he might not be a bastard. At least he could belong to his own name and to his father.

Coy took this in stride; Ruck was shit for company, anyway, and selfish, he let him know. He never got on his knees, and often acted like he wanted to tear Coy’s dick off more than stroke him off properly.

He did miss it, once it was off the table, but at least he didn’t hate himself. That was a start; the rest he could put up with.

Until he couldn’t.

He lay awake with his hand in his SI boxers more nights than he didn’t, gazing up at the bunk above him. It was grueling, the minimal movement, trying not to wake Roland while he was thinking of him just a few feet away, similarly undressed. He could come eventually, but there was always the same sense of shame that followed after like a comet tail, putting him to sleep in aching misery.

Then one night he was working his hand up and down his cock lazily, half-dozing, and the bunk creaked and shifted. He woke and was still, eyes cutting toward Roland’s calves as he hung his legs over the side of the bed.

He dropped down — Ruck assumed so he could take a piss — but then he turned toward him and laid his hand against the bunk before bending down to look at him and the tent in the sheets at his crotch.

Ruck picked himself up on his elbows and watched him. It was dark, and he could barely make out the details of his face — yet he knew he had the same cogent look in his kind eyes as Coy had in the stairwell. Something had changed — not overnight — but Roland had come to some kind of a breaking point, and now he was putting his knee into the mattress and picking up the covers so he could slip underneath.

Neither knew what to do, exactly, with the other, but Roland was less experienced. He touched Ruck’s chest and body like he was seeing him for the first time, and there was nothing ravenous or hungry or passionate about the way his hands wandered.

There was something already wrong with Ruck when he got here — he’d learned that in his time with Josef — but he recognized his cellmate’s trouble. He knew he just wanted some human contact, that he’d felt the bed moving and knew he could get it easy down here.

He dragged him close so their bare skin touched, and Roland’s arms wrapped around his neck. It was the first embrace either of them had experienced since their arrival, and Ruck realized then how long that had been.

It might have been enough for Roland; he might have fallen asleep that way against the warmth of Ruck’s skin and with their legs entangled. The same was not true for Ruck; he gave him a few fleeting moments before he’d yanked his boxers down to his thighs, then dragged Roland’s just off his hips.

Roland’s dick was half hard, half convinced it wanted anything to do with Ruck.

Ruck had a persuasive hand, however, and soon he had Roland bucking into his fist, then he had his hand wrapped around both their cocks and his cellmate’s face was buried into his neck while he begged him to keep going, and not to stop, now.

Sure enough and despite his uncertainty, it was Roland who came first. A moan started to choke out of him and Ruck silenced it with his own mouth. His now wet hand and Roland’s softening dick against his made quick work of him, and they lay breathing hard in the mussed sheets.

It became routine. It also turned out Coy was far superior at giving head, but even that couldn’t compare with having something a little closer to a friendship.

Things were more bearable after that, and Ruck didn’t care so much whether or not his name still belonged to him.

  1. abiding prejudice. oct. 1994

Roland enjoyed lifting weights out in the yard. Ruck was inspired to do the same in his free time, but he was working at the plant when his cellmate got into it with a former Bandido. Much as Ruck had early in his incarceration, Roland got his shit kicked in by said outlaw and several of his friends.

His stay at the infirmary stretched on for three days. He was concussed, his kneecap shattered, one of his ribs broken.

Ruck was surprised by his own lack of outrage. He was sorry it had happened, but the idea of getting back at them only fleetingly crossed his mind. RJ and his circle surely didn’t want to get into it with the older crowd, and it was suicide to try anything alone.

The opportunity came a few months later on its own. 

Frank was past his prime, tatted up, shiny-bald. His gut gave him an eggish silhouette in his drab work-clothes, and he looked almost hairless save the bristle on his chin and neck where he’d once worn his beard like a lion’s mane. He was still a big bastard, nearly Ruck’s height and considerably heavier. On his calf he sported a depiction of a man with a figure not unlike his own, who wore a large sombrero and held a gun in one hand, a sword in the other.

It started with a comment — something like, “Is Fairfax your bitch, or is it the other way around?” — and Ruck, who was not creative with comebacks but always had a threat ready to spit, was coming over the assembly on the plant floor.

They met grappling at each other, and Frank turned out to be an immovable force. Ruck could not root himself in place with the same stubbornness, but the guilt that had been festering over his own apathy made him mean.

He was also coming up on the prime of his youth. What he was not given in charm, intellect, or stability, he was compensated in the lean wire of his muscle and in the span of his shoulders. He was inherently thick-skulled, blessed with a jaw that was hard to break. A few short years stripping down, fucking, pissing in front of strangers had dehumanized him into a machine of stupid rage.

He could only survive, and he could not survive the way Coy survived, nor was it feasible for him to claw his way to the head of any clique. He had learned there was always someone bigger and meaner than he was, and all he could do was hold his ground and tread the water.

So he could not let Frank shit on him, and now that he’d come at him, he had to lay him out.

Frank’s neck and gut wobbled while they strained against each other, and after no small amount of bared teeth and tight threats, he shoved Ruck back. He was still recovering when the fist hooked into his temple, and his beady eyes were filled with spots of light and dark edges. He staggered a few steps, arms reaching zombie-like ahead, then drooped down onto his knees with his chin sitting on his collarbone.

Ruck kicked him down and the back of his head cracked against the concrete floor just before rescue came.

It was other inmates before the guards, some of whom were praising their quiet and gruff coworker for laying out the nuisance whereas others tried to convince him Frank was not worth losing his position over.

The resulting punishment was tolerable. Ruck’s guitar was confiscated from the cell — much to Roland’s dismay, as he thought he was getting rather good — and a few ‘good behavior’ perks he’d earned were removed. 

“You’re lucky,” Roland told him a few nights after that, wiping the inside of his thigh with one of their blankets. “You’re a lousy fighter. I’ve seen you.”

“How’m I lousy?”

“Bad form.”

Ruck laughed at that, as though he didn’t think form had anything at all to do with laying another man on his ass.

“You’re gonna get killed,” Roland said.

It was only days after that, in the prime of Ruck’s prison career, that his brother arrived alone to visit him. It had been over a year since they’d seen one another, and the first minutes of their reunion were spent in tense silence.

The discrepancies had never felt so solid as they did now.

Noah looked like a movie star — golden-headed, golden-skinned. There was something alike in the brothers’ dark green eyes, but mostly they were different. Noah had mischief and wit where Ruck carried meanness and distrust. And Noah’s features were strong, if angular, whereas the shadows of Ruck’s gaunt face were severe and the hollows of his cheeks were too prominent.

So Ruck looked at Noah, impressed with him, and Noah looked back, hardly recognizing his older brother.

“Dad’s gone off again,” he said after a long time.

It occured to Ruck, as he sat silently, that he did not care.

“Look, Onz. I’m here to tell you I’m sorry. I don’t know why I was so hateful. I was jealous of you, I guess. Lookin’ for a reason to hate you. For him to hate you.”

“That’s fine,” Ruck answered. He hadn’t thought much of Noah, lately. It was well and good to see he was looking healthy, but he didn’t carry any more anger over what had happened outside these walls.

“It ain’t fine,” Noah insisted, leaning forward on his elbows. “You were a shit dad, Onz, but you was doin’ the best you knew how.” When Ruck didn’t answer, he pressed, “And on top of everything, you were dealin’ with…” He was motioning fruitlessly with his hands.

“With what?” There was a threat in that question, and Noah could hear it.

“Y’know. With how you are. And I was awful about it, like it wasn’t hard enough.”

“You got no idea. You never knowed nothin’ about me. I ain’t no fuckin’ fag, first of all — and don’t you try to talk to me about how hard things was.”

They would have fought about this last year, but Noah sat looking stricken and sorry, and Ruck believed he truly was. He got up and left his brother sitting at the little round table in the room off the office, pausing at the door so the guards could escort him back to the annex where he and Roland had been temporarily relocated.

  1. wuthering dwights. april. 1995

A month after Noah’s visit, Ruck returned from his lunch period and Roland did not. He was not there after a few hours at the plant, nor did he come to the cell after dinner.

Ruck stood beside the metal toilet holding his notebook a few hours later, while two members of the staff cleared off Roland’s bunk.

“What happened to ‘im?” he asked. It might have been the tenth or hundredth time. There was still no answer, and the guard standing outside the cell told him not to worry about it.

That night he lay watching the bunk above him, and he felt as though something great and heavy sat on his chest and pressed his heart down into the cage of his ribs.

They had been so careful not to divulge anything about one another. It sank in coldly, heart-wrenchingly, that he wished he had known him. Now he had disappeared, and there was not a scrap of anything for Ruck to hold onto.

He was removed from the annex and assigned to a new cell within the main institution. It felt like his first day all over again, except this time he was not met with a Dante Perez, but with a Shevon Williamson. And unlike with Dante, Ruck understood Shevon and the things he said to him.

It took only a day for the situation to boil over. They shared Ruck’s new lunch period; Shevon saw him sitting in the midst of Crawford and Travis.

“Fuckin’ skinhead piece’a shit,” the man called him when they were back in the cell.

Shevon was heavily tattooed — all six feet of him — and the whites of his eyes were vast and wild looking. He muttered about choking Ruck while he slept and about how he was going to corner him and ‘they’ were going to take turns passing him around and fucking him.

Ruck didn’t lose any sleep over it that night, but requested a transfer the following morning. The man in the office apologized — said they liked to keep ‘the blacks and the whites’ together when they could, then moved him into Dwight Hauser’s cell.

Dwight was like Frank in that he’d belonged to a motorcycle gang. Not the Bandidos, though — he was from the Confederate Calvary. ‘Changed man, now,’ he said. He was locked up for shooting ‘a colored fella,’ but ‘not ‘cause he was black.’

This was all something of a red flag, but Ruck was glad to be out of reach of Shevon and supposed he didn’t have to get along with Dwight the way he had with Roland, or even Dante. At least this cellmate wasn’t threatening him with a gangbang, and — if he was still racist — they were both white.

They held a few shallow but pleasant conversations. Dwight had a grandaughter who was three. Her momma, his daughter, was just sixteen. He didn’t get to see her, much. His ex-wife — the bitch — had turned his whole family against him, he explained. Said he was crazy. Would ‘flip a switch.’

Ruck took all this with a grain of salt and continued to live alongside the older man under the impression he had nothing to worry about.

Then, late one evening, he noticed Dwight was tossing and turning in the bunk.

He was a hulking man — six feet and four inches — strong under a thin layer of fat all over his body. Ruck preferred sleeping closer to the ground, but he conceded the bottom bunk to Dwight because of the man’s bad knees and an unspoken fear of the bed breaking and his being crushed.

He asked if he was alright and received no answer, so he brushed his teeth to go to bed. Somewhere in the midst of this process, Dwight demanded to know why he was brushing so fucking loud.

“I’m jus’ brushin’ regular,” he muttered, and Dwight flipped a switch.

A split second after he’d wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, Dwight’s huge hands closed around his throat and he was slammed up against the bars of the cell door. His skull and elbow clanged against the metal, and the sound rang out through the corridor while bright lights danced behind his eyes.

It took little effort for Dwight to close off his windpipe, but in the man’s chaotic rage, he didn’t maintain a firm enough hold to strangle Ruck. He was more interested in beating him against the door until the noise brought guards to the younger man’s rescue. It required three to subdue Dwight Hauser, who was promptly stuck in solitary while Ruck declined a trip to the infirmary so he could go on to bed. He did, however, accept two ibuprofen for his sore throat.

Khalon King was Dwight’s replacement. Unlike Shevon, he did not particularly care that Ruck was white, nor that he sat with Crawford in the cafeteria. They got along in the cell, and ignored one another entirely while outside it.

As if in apology for the two cellmates preceding Khalon, Ruck’s guitar was returned, and it turned out his new cellmate was rather talented.

This tenuous camaraderie notwithstanding, Ruck found himself pining for what he’d had with Roland. There was little depth to their conversations, but Roland had come into his bed at night, touched him all over, let him fuck him. Sometimes they were lost in a tangle of each other’s bodies, exploring one another’s mouths and both dreaming of other places and of people who’d meant more to them than each other.

He had none of this with Khalon, so Ruck sought it outside the cell, and did his damndest to ignore the spreading talk of ‘the virus’ and the emptiness he felt after every time he came in another man’s hand or mouth.

  1. tweak house. jan. 1996

Khalon King was released from Decatur in April of 1995. A tweaker by the name of Mikey Fortner was assigned to Ruck’s cell in his place.

Mikey was older than Ruck, but still young. He’d been institutionalized most of his life, and was back after only a short stint ‘on the outside.’ He was chummy from the start, and almost immediately offered up his asshole for a promise of protection.

Ruck turned down the offer, as convenient as it would have been. He was fairly certain Mikey had HIV, even if he never admitted it himself, and found the man’s easiness and lack of self-respect abhorrent. His voice grated on him, too; there was a sort of nasal whine in it, he’d had the misfortune of hearing his stifled whimper while he was getting fucked a cell over one evening. He was not interested.

Besides, he was barely protecting himself. Where Dwight had been concerned, he hadn’t. He could now see, however, how it was possible to be so annoyed by another person’s mere presence one could resort to strangling.

He had other things to worry about, anyway: his own release from Decatur was coming up, and the idea of a world outside this routine and anonymity was daunting. Commercials seemed to show a different outside than he remembered. A building had just exploded out in Oklahoma, and the President was caught up in a sex scandal. Everyone was using personal computers and had cellular phones. If you had a question about anything, apparently you could look it up on a world-wide web.

Ruck couldn’t wrap his head around an intangible web of information, and he didn’t try.

It was all daunting enough, but he realized he could not remember how to conduct himself. Perhaps he’d never known how.

When he left off, he was a kid — he was planning camping trips and trips to Mobile with his best friend. His brother and sister had relied on him to get by. He’d worked at a scrapyard and had driven a car that was sold two years ago.

He was going back to nothing. No friends, no dependent siblings. No home, if his father had anything to say about it. He didn’t want to live at home, anyway; he was grown, now, and all he knew how to do was try and survive.

He was barely doing that.

At some point post-Dwight, he stopped brushing his teeth. Stood there in the showers with soap in his hand, not doing much of anything with it. He told Mikey he’d been locked up for killing his own father, which was contrary to the truth he’d told him when they first became cellmates. But Ruck halfway believed it. He could remember his childhood friend handing him a knife, and how it had felt when it punched through Donovan Rucker’s skin and sank between his ribs.

He was seeing Sean Scott in Decatur, too, running into him around corners and glimpsing him in his periphery. Sometimes he was in the cell with him and Mikey. Sometimes he looked an awful lot like Josef MacKenzie, but he was always, always handing him a knife.

You gotta take care of yourself.

Late one night in June, Mikey hung on to the bars of their cell door screaming for help. Ruck was calling him Onz and speaking to him in a strange accent, and Mikey was sure he was going to kill him. He’d already stabbed himself a few dozen times with a ballpoint pen, which was bent in half in his hand while he stood bleeding on the blankets he’d dragged onto the floor.

The guards pulled him kicking and thrashing out of the cell, and he spent a solid week heavily sedated.

He came out of it in high spirits and aware once again of who he was. He was no longer allowed to have a pen or pencil, but was sent back to his cell with a black Crayon.

  1. war apiece. jan. 1996

In July of 1995, Bess and Nattie visited Ruck and found the state of him concerning. He did not seem like himself, and whereas his personal hygiene had improved, he didn’t look like himself, either. But then, Nattie did not look the same, either; she had outgrown her awkward, gangly phase and had become a pretty girl. She was heading off to college on a scholarship, soon, and Ruck felt a swell of paternal pride.

Noah visited without them just a few days later. Two years had filled him out, and it was difficult for Ruck to see any resemblance between them at all.

Predictably, Noah was not going to college — he was working in the town of Pine Grove managing a music store. He made good money, he said — had a little apartment. He wanted Ruck to stay there with him and meet his girlfriend, Lydia. He wanted to take another crack at brotherhood. Do it right this time.

After Noah had left, Ruck exited the visitation area alongside a friend of the incarcerated Bandidos. He commented on Noah’s appearance — something about how all that pretty hair would be fun to hold onto — and Ruck punched two of his teeth down his throat.

Guards had to pull him off the man, who didn’t get a swing in.

His friends — also friends of Frank, of course — had the opportunity, later. They jumped Ruck out in the yard; one stockily built outlaw held onto him while the rest took turns socking him in the ribs and face. He did not put any effort into escaping, and in between his gasps for air he thought about lying on his back on a fire escape, seeing the stars through a haze of herby smoke.

Mikey was reassigned to a cellmate who was happy to take him up on his offers, and a strapping Blake Northstone was installed in his place. Blake had a slew of felonies under his belt for being as young as he was, and was openly disappointed in Ruck’s dull background. 

He had a good sense of humor; he could take any mundane story and make it interesting. He was a touchy-feely guy, too, always, bracing his hand against Ruck’s chest or shoulder when he got himself cracked up.

That was the basis for the pass Ruck made at him late one night. They were both up talking — Blake telling one of his stories, Ruck pretending to listen to it. He was just waiting for Blake to touch him — and sure enough he did. His arm fell across his chest as they reposed side by side on the bottom bunk, and Ruck grabbed his wrist.

There was a pregnant pause before he tried to roll over onto him, but Blake knew what this was and punched Ruck half-assedly.

He still jerked away and hit his head on the top bunk before backpedaling into the cell. Blake came after him, but he couldn’t get another hit in before Ruck had his hands trapped and was threateningly telling him to calm the hell down.

He did. Ruck apologized. They did not sit side by side in the same bunk again, nor did Blake tell any more funny stories to him after that. They merely got along, and Blake was relieved in the same way Ruck had been when Mikey left when his release date rolled around.

His brother picked him up in his moss green Ford Bronco. Ruck admired it before he set his guitar in the middle seat, then climbed in. He was wearing his brother’s ill-fitted clothes, the bottoms of his jeans rolled up to compensate for being too short. Too-tight work boots, a t-shirt with an embarrassing cut to the collar.

He wanted a cheeseburger, fries, a Coke. Noah was of course obliged to entertain this whim, so they went through a fast food drive thru and pulled off into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot to eat.

When he felt himself being watched, Ruck cut a glance at his brother, who was staring at him with his eyes all watery and a stupid look on his face.

“Quit,” Ruck said, and Noah looked ahead, sniffed wetly, and nodded.

  1. great frustrations. feb. 1996

“Welcome home,” Noah said as the apartment door swung open, but the first thing Ruck saw was her.

He stood with his duffle bag tucked under his arm, lips parting from his straw while his throat worked down a swallow of watered-down Coke. He coughed.

“Hi, Onzell,” she said, standing from Noah’s couch. Their couch. “It’s so good to finally meet you.”

Ruck opened his mouth to answer, then swung his head toward his brother.

“Surprise,” Noah said. “Onz, this is Lydia.”

“Hi,” Lydia repeated, her smile faltering before she reinforced it.

“Hi,” Ruck muttered back. “…Lydia.”

His brother shepherded him into the small apartment, and Ruck thought of all the creative ways he was going to murder him just as soon as Lydia wasn’t looking. When he agreed to stay here, he had done so under the pretense it would be the two of them. Under the pretense he wouldn’t be uprooting anyone’s lives with his presence.

“Noah’s told me all about you,” she said, pretending not to be put off by his behavior. “Jeez, he said you were kinda tall, but maybe… Maybe we oughta take the footboard offa that bed, Noah?”

“It’s fine,” Noah said, yanking the duffle bag out of Ruck’s grasp. The ice in his styrofoam cup rattled. “He ain’t all that tall.”

“I’m five foot ten,” Lydia announced.

Ruck raised his eyebrows and gave her a brief, tight smile.

“Oh,” she continued awkwardly, and touched his elbow when she pointed him toward the hallway. “Let’s go set all your things in your room, okay? It’s straight this way.”

“I ain’t gonna be in y’all’s hair long,” Ruck said, shooting a glare at Noah. “All I need’s a car, an’ —”

“Here, turn left,” Lydia interrupted, and crowded him into the small space. 

It was a sparsely furnished bedroom, replete with a full-size bed, a weathered chest of drawers, and a bedside table with a two-year-old guitar magazine sitting on it. Staged, Ruck realized uncomfortably.

“It’s not much,” Lydia said, plopping herself down on the corner of the bed. “We probably forgot stuff. Anything’s missing, you just let me know, okay?”

“I been sleepin’ in a concrete box these five years, ma’am. I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I’m not ma’am, yet,” Lydia chided him, then held her own fingers in her hand.

Ruck realized she was hiding a ring — an engagement ring — and wasn’t sure whether it was because she thought he’d try to steal it as soon as she went to bed, or if their engagement was supposed to be some big fucking surprise.

“Oh my God,” Noah said from the doorway, and Ruck stepped aside to turn toward him. “It’s fuckin’ crazy seein’ you in here, Onz.”

Ruck had never been more uncomfortable in his life.

“Well,” he said, then, lamely, “Y’all got the biggest TV I ever seen.”

“Feels like you’re at the drive-in, right?” Noah asked. “Forty-eight inch. It’s a, uh…”

“Rear projection,” Lydia chimed in, sitting up straighter. “We got it cheap and Noah fixed it.”

“Noah fixes TVs?” Ruck asked skeptically.

“I helped.”

“We bought it ‘cause you got a lotta movies to catch up on.”

  1. vanity scare. may. 1996

They didn’t watch many movies. When she wasn’t at work, Lydia spent most of her time planning the wedding. Any attempt to include Ruck was met with firm opposition on his part, until finally she stopped asking his opinion.

“You’ll be the best man, you know,” she said forlornly every now and again, and each time Ruck suggested Noah use one of his friends who knew him better. Each time, Noah waived off the suggestion.

The planning was apparently a source of great stress for Lydia. Her parents weren’t made of money, as her father told her at every opportunity, and they’d have to make sure everyone was still saving while they continued to put money toward the ceremony.

Ruck found this sort of talk insufferable, and could think of a thousand other things Lydia should worry herself with. She was, after all, marrying Noah Rucker — though he wasn’t the sour-faced kid he’d been five years ago. On the contrary, he was really fucking nice, and Ruck didn’t trust it in the beginning.

On top of that, he was constantly trying to corner him out of Lydia’s earshot so he could “open up” about something or other from their shared childhood. There was little Ruck wanted less than to relive those days, nor was he receptive to Noah’s trying to get him to express how surprised he was about the engagement.

The fiancée was something else, though.

She was smart, for starters, and sensible. She made few jokes, and when she did, they were dry and so often at Noah’s expense Ruck couldn’t help but to warm up to her. Despite his best efforts to find her and her wedding irritating, he had to concede (to himself) that he approved. She was a good woman, and she was beautiful.

And Noah was alright, too.

They might have lived a fairy tale life until he could afford a new car, except one evening months later, after he’d finished mowing lawns — a job Noah set up for him by asking his own clientele at the music store — Ruck found himself feeling talkative.

It wasn’t just the shit he’d been working for at the Devereux household. That made him feel excited, too, even if he wasn’t making money.

This was something else — this strange, animal longing that woke up in him when he was sawing a broken limb from the southern magnolia at the corner of the Wren property. They owned acres, and their home was ancient and charming with a wide wrap-around porch. And there was a girl — nineteen or twenty — who came visiting from university and brought him a glass of sweet tea.

He was, of course, more dehydrated after drinking that than he’d been before, but she was awful purdy and awful sweet, and she had a nice pair of tits on her even though they were smaller than he normally liked.

That was when Lydia entered the kitchen.

She stopped short and looked at Ruck, then at Noah, who likewise had a strange, shocked expression on his face.

“Shit, sorry,” Ruck said, surprised at how prudish they were after the few nights he’d had to listen to them banging their headboard against the other side of his bedroom wall.

“You—” She looked between the two brothers again, then settled her eyes on Ruck. “You like women?”

Discord followed.

Ruck felt sick about living with two people who believed he was gay. Noah was still convinced that he was. Lydia claimed she would have worn a bra at all times if she’d known, and blamed both of them for keeping her in the dark.

After a familiar match of raised voices with Noah, Ruck determined it was best if he hit the road in the morning, and Noah told him he was lucky he didn’t throw him out tonight. Lydia calmed them both down with beer and quick pizza delivery order, and by the end of the night Noah and Ruck were sitting side by side in the guest room on the edge of the bed.

“I guess you’d know best how you was,” Noah conceded.

“No shit.”

“I love you either way. You—”

“I know. Quit.”

Noah told him to wait and left the room. When he came back, he had a shoebox under his arm and a hangdog look on his face.

“You don’t really gotta leave tomorra,” he said.

“Yeah — I’m gonna. I need to.”

Noah wordlessly handed the box to him, and Ruck set it on his lap and took the lid off. 

It was full of yellowed letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and a familiar disposable camera. Ruck stirred the contents around under his hand, then picked up an envelope with the return address in German.

“That — Josef sent you a letter not long after you—” Noah fumbled around for words, turning his hands over one another in his lap in the meanwhile. “I forgot, honest. Ain’t thought of it ‘til today.”

“It’s opened.”

“Yeah, it was jus’…”

“It’s fine.” Ruck set the envelope back down in the box and set the lid down on it.

“I’m sorry for how I was. An’ that I didn’t give it to you after.”

“S’a’ight.”

  1. the summer of our discontent. jun. 1996

Ruck took the stairs slowly with his cigarette clenched between his teeth. At the bottom, he shifted his gig bag and backpack on his shoulder and stared into the wet morning fog. 

His life unfurled ahead of him; a flat, unbending, and featureless road.

There was no sidewalk, so he walked in the overgrown bluegrass. He headed west, toward the Styx River, because why the fuck not? It felt as if he had been borne into this world just then, disconnected from the brief and meaningless past before Decatur. He had nothing now but his baggage, which guided him like a migratory instinct toward one of the last places he had been besides home.

The fog simmered away in the heat and he sat on the curb at Crossroads eating a cold gas station breakfast pizza between sips of Grapico. The sun tanned the back of his neck and drops of sweat fell from his jaw onto the sandy asphalt.

At the intersection a man in a sweat-yellowed undershirt stopped him to ask for something. His voice was a copperhead hiss and Ruck eyed the calluses on his upturned palms.

“I cain’t understand you,” he said, and left the man mumbling where the four paths met.

In Hurricane he reached the edge of the earth and the air was heavy with salt and damp. He watched the Spanish moss on the cypress trees swing over the Tensaw River then on impulse thumbed his way into the back of a pickup that came shuddering down Bayou Road.

The driver was an old man with eyes as yellow as his few teeth, and his wife, aged indeterminably between forty and seventy, asked Ruck if he didn’t want out before they merged onto 65. He addressed her through the open back glass, and told her no, he’d better sit tight.

At sunset he tilted his head back to gaze up at the weathering steel arches of the Dolly Parton Bridge, then closed his eyes and breathed in the cloying wetland stench.

It was dark when they let him off at the edge of Creola, and he walked south to the La Quinta to book a room with his lawn-keeping money.

His clothes peeled audibly off his skin and he scrubbed them with a bar of handsoap in the bathroom sink after a long shower. He draped them over the rusted balcony railing and smoked a cigarette while he watched one treefrog fuck another one on the fake stucco wall. Voices carried down from the balcony above his, and Ruck left the sliding door open when he went in to drop his towel and fall into bed.

Close to nine in the morning he woke, removed a treefrog from the curtain, fetched his clothes from the balcony, and crushed Adderall on the little table next to the TV set. He got dressed and headed down to the lobby, where he fixed himself coffee and a waffle while his teeth chattered and the blood threatened to burst out of his veins.

Inspired, he walked down to the truck stop after breakfast with the previous day’s clothes souring in his backpack. He wandered the lot in the heatwaves and an old trucker leaned his head out his cab window and said, “You’re ‘bout the meanest lookin’ lizard I ever seen.”

Ruck hauled himself up on the passenger side step to goad the man into a fight, but the Yorkshire terrier in the seat jumped up and bit him the moment his fingers hooked over the edge of the window and the fire was doused from his blood. He dropped a few coins in the payphone outside and summoned a cab while sucking the joint of his finger.

Mobile was a short ride south of the truck stop, but the fare was twenty bucks he couldn’t afford to spend. Outside a musty music store at the fringe of the business district, he set up in the shadow of a live oak growing from the sidewalk and earned a couple bucks playing some Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. A kid from the University wanted Freebird and Ruck played and sang a while, but the young man rode off on his bike half the song in and the street cleared out.

Ruck picked up a late lunch from a mom and pop oyster bar, and sat reading the free classifieds he picked up from a stand outside. There wasn’t much of anything — except that the Greater Gulf State Fair was hiring. On closer inspection, they wanted interns from the college — but he couldn’t see the harm in paying a visit, anyway. Surely the damn fair didn’t intend to run a background check, and anyway, his attention had been good and grabbed by the logo of the cowboy astride a bronc printed in the ad.

  1. big stir. jul. 1996

“You wanna do what, now?” the stable manager asked, looking at Ruck over the rim of his bronze-frame glasses.

It was dark and cool in the stables, and the smell of horseshit was dense on the air. Outside, hundreds of voices melted into one great drone, but from here it was almost quiet.

“What do I gotta do?” Ruck asked. “I’ll do it. Anything.”

“How old is you, son? How much do you weigh? You don’t just start doin’ rodeo, shit. Then every-damn-body’d be out there gettin’ their necks broke. How long you been ridin’ horses for?”

“I ain’t ne’er rode no horse.”

The stable manager scoffed and turned his back on him, returning to the stall he’d come out of to talk to Ruck.

“Fuck outta here, boy.”

“Gimme a chance. Lemme ride one of ‘em there.” He pointed toward the back of the stable, where he could vaguely make out a few equine heads peering through the dark at them. “I’ll stay on, watch.”

“I said fuck outta here, ‘fore I call the cops.”

Ruck fucked off, but he didn’t go far. Instead, he roamed to “the barn,” where he learned there were less kids vying to muck stables than running the food stands or operating rides. His age was an asset, here, according to the spindly man who conducted his brief interview.

It was not glamorous work, scooping the shit of the deep south’s heaviest cows, feeding prize pigs and chickens, and sweating in the tepid July heat. But it suited Ruck, and he found no one much cared about the animal-smell perpetually clinging to him when the surroundings were so foul already.

It was an interesting life, too; he sought beach houses between renters to shower at night, and slept sometimes on the sand. Other nights he treated himself to cheap motel just outside Mobile, and sometimes he met women who let him fuck them, and often they stuck around until the morning and somehow that gave him a sense of meaning.

He played the guitar on the street, too — and while everything together still wasn’t quite enough to save for a car, he got a pass for the bus and an extended stay at the Sand Dollar.

This permitted him to unpack, and he laid out his medicine bottles and his few clothes, and the shoe box Noah gave him. There was an Eckerd Pharmacy within walking distance of the motel, and he took the camera with him when he went to pick up razors and shampoo.

The photos were developed a few days later. He picked them up, bought deodorant and canned beer, and retired to the Sand Dollar.

The AC rattled on, and he drew the blinds closed at the sliding patio door. The room was nearly pitch dark, then, with all its light emanating from the peep-hole in the door, a rectangle around the blinds, and the red EXIT sign.

He set a sweaty beer can on the small, round table at the corner of the room and swept aside his notebook, bills, and pay stubs, then sat down and opened the pictures.

There were just eight.

He looked for a long time at a blurry picture of a girl on the beach, then slowly lifted the picture and moved it to the back of the stack. The next photo showed two young men in the water with a puppy.

He hadn’t seen AJ since he got out of prison, but knew she’d gone with Nattie to university up in Virginia. He found himself wondering what she looked like these days, five years after this photo was taken. And he wondered how Josef looked, now, too.

He took a gulp of beer and flipped to the next photo, which was the three kids together.

“Angel,” he remembered out loud, holding the picture close to his face before sliding it to the back of the stack. The next photograph was an alligator — he couldn’t recall where or how it was taken, and spent little time wondering — and after that, another picture of him with Josef and their dog.

He didn’t recognize himself. The kid in the photo was fairer-headed, full of harmless mischief. He had his middle finger raised against his jaw, a sliver of his full set of teeth grinning lopsidedly.

He stared at this picture for a good long while, then stopped to drink his beer in silence for a spell before he looked at the last one.

Same thing — Josef and the dog with these big grins on their faces. And he was there, a little out of focus, a mean, perplexed look on his face.

Ruck set the stack of photos aside and took the envelope from the shoebox. He read the return address again, then again.  It didn’t make any sense to him, but the mere fact it existed made his heart twist up uncomfortably.

Luxuriating in the wait, he finished off his drink and pulled a medicine bottle across the table. The cylinder shape in his rough palm felt comforting — like an eject button on a kamikaze flight.

The letter said,

Ruck,

I’m here in Germany, obviously. Lt has friends here who were willing to take me in. They have a girl my age and a littler one who always wants me to take her for ice cream. I don’t speak German as well as I remember, so school is even harder than it was over there, but since no one knows about me here, it’s still a lot better.

It’s stupid to be homesick, I guess. I never wanted to be at home, but I really miss you. More than Lt. and the Shepherds. It’s weird how you can spend so much time with someone and never really be with them, but I felt like I was with you, you know? I guess what I mean is I was just really confused. You were a good friend and I never had anyone like that before, so with everything else, it just got all turned around in my head.

So what you said that night in the garage makes sense, and I agree. And things suck without you. I want to come back. I know you said we can’t hang out, but I don’t think that’s true. We can ignore each other in town and meet up someplace else. We never did go camping or to New Orleans. We don’t even have to do that, though. I hate being here and not knowing anyone when it feels like I was still getting to know you.

I’m sorry I made things weird. I hope you can forgive me for the mess it caused, and for leaving you to deal with it alone. But I wanna come back if you think it wouldn’t make things worse. It was really shitty of me to just disappear like that, and to get mad when you were only trying to do the right thing. And even if you don’t want me to come back, will you please write to me? You’re my only friend at this point, and I know I’m far away right now but things won’t always be this way. We can stay in touch, and one day we’ll be in a place where this shit doesn’t matter and we can do whatever we want. And I mean whatever. It doesn’t have to be the way I made it seem. I just want to be friends, because I know we didn’t have a lot of time, but I think we could still be good friends.

Josef

It was more or less what he’d expected, and yet reading it in his voice and his handwriting dredged up memories he thought he had forgotten a long time ago.

And he wished he had known. That he had gotten this fucking letter, because he had needed this so much — and Noah seemed like an abhorrent villain for letting him believe he was even more alone than he was back when he was young and scared and getting his ass beat at Decatur.

And worst of all,

“I woulda wrote back.”

But it was years too late to reply, and who knew who was living at the corner of the envelope these days.

He twisted the cap off his medicine bottle and palmed a pastel orange pill into his mouth, then put the pictures and letter away in the shoebox.

He took the orange bottle with him when he left, his hands shoved deep in his pockets and the end of his cigarette glowing in the muggy evening. The sky was deep indigo, and the flickering street lights lit a path for him toward the heart of Mobile.