I’d gotten in a habit of going to Wal-mart at 4AM to play the demos of video game systems I couldn’t afford. They had a King Kong game set-up for a while that I thought was pretty slick, where you got be Kong and run around beating up on dinosaurs. I figured they’d be taking it down before long, so I was putting in my time, playing the same level over and over.
Then I’d go on over to the toy section and look at the action figures. It was funny to me how so many toys talked nowadays. Kids don’t use their imagination anymore, I figured. The last stop on my window shopping spree was the bargain bin movies. I dug around until I found that flick where Jack Black plays a Mexican wrestler. I looked at the front cover, the fat boy grinning ear to ear, shirtless with a cape and tights. I was about to toss it back before I realized it had something special in it. It came with a luchador mask.
I went out to my car and opened the DVD box, snatched out the mask and put it on. It had a simple blue and red color scheme, but it looked sharp, especially when paired up with my uniform.
I wore it up to checkpoint and the captain looked me over.
“Take it off, Durham.”
“Do what, now?”
“The mask. It’s too early in the goddamn morning for that shit. You’ll give the inmates nightmares.”
I put the mask in my pocket, was cleared though the search, then put it back on.
Walking to Unit 2, I noticed Wolf Man being escorted out to death watch, where inmates went to stay for the three days leading up to their execution. The idea of death watch was that the inmate on the chopping block had to be under constant surveillance to ensure he wouldn’t kill himself.
They had nearly the full Hannibal Lector get-up on Wolf Man. The leg shackles, cuffs and the waist chain. Looking at him, I never understood the nickname. He wasn’t particularly hairy, was missing most of his teeth and I’d never heard him howl.
I figured I should acknowledge him, but wasn’t sure what to say.
“Good morning, Wolf Man!” I blurted.
The guards escorting him scowled at me, but Wolf Man smiled.
“That you, Durham?”
I pulled up the mask and grinned.
“Pretty slick, kid,” he said.
I settled into the security office with Corporal Pope and JJ as we waited for the morning count to be called. I was drinking a carton of milk, showing off how the mask had a mouth slot just big enough to expose my lips.
JJ picked his teeth with a pencil, his gray uniform sloppy and wrinkled. “You seriously not gonna take that off?”
“Nope.” I finished of the carton, tossed it in the trashcan.
“You going to let him wear that, Pope?”
Pope barely managed to keep his eyes open, slumped behind his desk. “I don’t give a shit.”
“I hope to Christ the warden comes by and see you waltzing around in that.”
I shrugged and put my ball cap on.
“I saw Wolf Man got hauled off to death watch,” I said.
“Shit. Only one inmate has been put down in nearly fifty years around here,” JJ said.
“It’ll get repealed. Just a big show is all,” Pope said.
“Tell you what, he does get executed, and things will turn to shit around here. We won’t be able to wear kid gloves no more,” JJ said.
“Any chance I can get in on death watch?”
“Durham’s a morbid motherfucker,” JJ said.
“No, if you work our unit you can’t be on death watch or be there for the execution. We’re considered a liability since we know the inmates too well,” Pope said.
“It’ll get turned over anyhow, Durham. No need to let your dick get all hard,” JJ said.
During count, most of my pod’s inmates were still asleep. None of them noticed the mask except Wilcox, who was already up working on a painting.
He glanced over his shoulder at me and grinned.
“Wilcox, you going out today?”
He let out a half-chuckle.
“We’re not acknowledging the mask?”
“What mask? Now, I’ll be damned if you don’t answer me about the rec yard.”
“Shit, Durham. Yeah, I’m going out. Ask Country if he wants the big cage today. He might want to do laps.”
“All right then.” I leaned my masked face against the window of Wilcox’s door, breathed hard enough on it to steam it up some. “And please, I take this job seriously. Address me as Officer Durham from now on.”
“Shit.” Wilcox let go a guffaw and turned back to his painting.
I stepped over to Country’s door. “Country, you going out today?”
“No, boss. Sleeping in.” He was face down on his bunk.
“You sure? Wilcox was gonna offer you the big cage and everything.”
“Staying in, boss.”
“What about a shower?”
“Naw. Doing a bitch bath today, boss.” A bitch bath was when an inmate used his sink to freshen up rather than go out for a shower. He still didn’t look up. I was disappointed.
On the yard, I told Wilcox where I got the mask.
“The movie any good?” he asked.
“I haven’t seen it. Looked pretty stupid, really. Got it for the mask.”
“You’re like a big kid, Durham.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Andrew was dressed in a leather jacket, his jeans cuffed. He had what looked like ketchup slathered on the side of his neck, and his hair was greased back.
“That’s seriously your costume?”
I wore the luchador mask and a hooded sweatshirt.
“Yeah. Cost me five dollars.”
“It’s supposed to be a zombie prom theme.”
“Oh, hell. Nobody is going to pay attention to that. You’re basically the Fonz with a neck wound and your wife is a vampire, so who are you to bust my balls? Besides, maybe I’m a zombie under the luchador mask?”
“I’m a cool 50’s guy that’s recently infected. And at least Caren is undead. You’re literally just wearing a five dollar mask. “
“The mask came free with the DVD.”
“Did you at least bring something to drink?”
“I don’t know anything about wine. Brought fireworks, though.”
“Yeah. Not cheap ones. I bought a couple of show stoppers.”
Caren came out from the bedroom. She pretty well looked like she was going to the prom.
“What do you think?”
“Well, you look great. Don’t figure you’re a vampire, though.”
“Look closer at my eyes.”
She had red contacts in, but I couldn’t really tell what it was supposed to indicate.
“Wow, that’s something else,” I offered.
“She’s a Twilight vampire,” Andrew said.
“Twilight vampires don’t have fangs?”
“They do, but I didn’t want to wear those all night.”
“He brought fireworks instead of wine,” Andrew said.
Caren smirked. “I think that’s sweet. It’ll go over well, I bet.”
“What? If I pulled that, you’d have my balls on a platter.”
“That’s true,” she said.
We ended up stopping to pick up wine on the way there. Caren got out, entered the store. Andrew glanced back in the rearview.
“So here’s my advice. Take the mask off a little after you arrive so you don’t creep anyone out too bad.”
“Then I won’t have a costume.”
“Ryan, I know what you’re pulling. Take it off. Try to talk some to people, but avoid stories about the prison.”
“Dadgum, I won’t have anything to talk about then. Everyone at this thing are gonna be teachers like you two.”
“The way you talk, people usually think you actually went to prison rather than work at one.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Calm down. And when you do talk about prison, it’s always about guys eating their shit, or making dildos in woodshop.”
“Those aren’t good stories?”
“They’re great. I think they’re fantastic. But I’ve known you since we were twelve. If I met you now, for the first time, I’d think you were a sociopath.”
Caren slipped back in the vehicle, bottle of wine in hand.
“Caren, you ever heard the story about the inmate that whittled a wooden dildo?”
“I’m okay skipping that one.”
“I was telling him to leave the prison out of the party,” Andrew said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe you could keep that to a minimum tonight?”
“Alright, then. Don’t know what the hell I’m going talk about.”
“Ryan, you’re a sweet man. You have a lot to offer someone. I mean, you have a job. That’s half the battle nowadays.”
“That’s the truth,” Andrew said.
“Just relax and be yourself.”
“Alright then,” I said.
Caren and Andrew’s friends lived in an isolated rural area. They’d started a bonfire out in an open field that we saw some distance off. Stepping onto the property, you could tell damn near no one paid attention to the zombie prom theme. Even the host was dressed like the Joker. “I’m a zombie Joker,” he said. I didn’t see it. I offered Zombie Joker my paper bag full of fireworks. He glanced at it without comment, then set it next to a cooler full of beer.
I got nervous quick, ended up drinking too much nearly straight out of the gate. I took the mask off and shoved it in my back pocket. I ended up out by the bonfire, standing next to a lady dressed like the Bride of Frankenstein, which I figured fit the theme better than most.
“You a teacher?” I asked.
“Yeah. You came with Caren and Andrew?”
“Are you a teacher?”
“What do you do?”
“I work at a factory.”
“No, I done lied to you already. I work at a prison.”
“I’m a shitty liar.”
I went on and touched her hair, which was done up high like the Bride character.
“What you got inside of there?”
“Shoe box.” She stepped back a bit.
“That’s a good idea. Most every girl here is dressed as a pixie or some such shit. You fit the theme pretty well.”
She gave a tight grin.
“My sister is a pixie, actually,” she said. She gestured out across the way to a chubby girl wearing a pink princess dress, wings on her back. She noticed us looking at her and gave us a wave, magic wand in hand.
We took a drink in unison.
“I’m a sweet man.”
“Are you, now?”
“Yeah. I have a lot to offer someone.”
“You realize this is literally our first conversation.”
She took another drink.
“I have a job,” I said.
I ended up inside. A group was around a kitchen table, at the head of it sat a bald heavy set man I figured was around forty-five. He was off on some tangent that I walked into.
“You,” he said, pointing at me. “I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know you, either.”
“I’m Jeffrey. And you are?”
“Ryan Durham, are you a teacher?”
“Well, now I bet we have a living example. See, Ryan Durham, we were discussing how the parents of our students are all obsessed with their children going off to college, and being college ready.”
“But many of these children just aren’t bright enough to go to college, or simply will end up in jobs that don’t really require a college degree. I mean. We live in the goddamn backwoods.”
“Did you go to college?”
“What kind of degree did you obtain?”
“It was a bachelor’s.”
“I see. And what sort of career do you have?”
“I don’t figure I have a career in the classic sense.”
“What’s your job?”
“I’m a guard.”
“A security guard?”
“That’s an important job. That’s a job every working society needs.”
“Did you need a college degree to get that job?”
“Ryan Durham, did you even need a high school diploma to get that job?”
“Figure I’d have to look that up.”
“I bet you could just have a GED. Right?”
“So you wasted a lot of money, your own time, and your professors’ time only to end up with a job that requires no higher level of education.”
“See, Ryan Durham is a shining example. Not everyone needs to go to college, or even graduate high school. We get rid of students like him, and we’d free up our time for people that could actually learn something and go on to be doctors, lawyers and the like. There’s limited number of spots for careers like that. However, there will always be room for people that sweep the floors, take out the trash, drive forklifts or you know, become prison guards. And they certainly don’t need an education. Right, Ryan Durham?”
“Yeah,” I said.
After Andrew dropped me off at my car, I went to Nervous Charlie’s, a twenty-four hour fireworks stand and gas station that inexplicably served fried chicken and deli sandwiches. The only reason I’d ever noticed it was because of the six-foot tall Gorilla statue standing out front. Come for the gorilla, stay for the fried chicken, leave with explosives.
I ate fried chicken and biscuits and washed it down with sweet tea. I bought a variety of fireworks, but mostly Roman Candles and bottle rockets.
It was just before seven AM when I pulled up in my driveway. I walked over to the front yard and started setting off bottle rockets. They’d squeal going up, then pop like a gunshot in the air, the report echoing.