The following is the eponymous story from Chris Dennis' collection Here Is What You Do. A young man jailed on a drug charge forms a relationship with his cellmate that is by turns tender and brutal. Chris Dennis holds an MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His work has appeared in Granta, West Branch, and New Stories from the Midwest.
You wet your hair in the sink, then comb it back, slick as a new trash bag. You look nice. Okay, so your name is Ricky. You are twenty-three years old. People say you’re sweet. You say to them, “No, I’m not.” But you are. You know you are. You can’t help it. It’s like there’s a piece of candy hidden deep inside you and everyone is trying to find the easiest way to get it out.
Your cellmate, Donald Budke, he’s like Rasputin, or Genghis Khan, maybe even Napoleon Bonaparte. No one tells Donald he’s sweet. His motives are serious, and he’s got acne scars that make him look like a criminal. He is a criminal. He’s ten years older than you, is on his fourth year of a fifteen-year sentence for manslaughter. You’re just a high school history teacher from southern Indiana, or at least you used to be.
On the day you were arrested, the US Customs agent said, “What the hell are you doing, Ricky?” like he knew you or something, like he was really disappointed. “Who’s the vehicle registered to, Ricky?” You told him it was your grandmother’s.
You gave him your driver’s license, your car keys. He asked you to sit in the back of his patrol car while he searched your trunk. You watched through the windshield, waiting for him to find the five cottage-cheese containers full of oxycodone you’d hidden beneath the spare tire. The sky was pink, like a drop of blood in a glass of water. You thought, Mexico is like an art film. You thought about the ten or so pills in the pocket of your pants, wished there was some way of keeping them so you could eat them later, in the event you were placed under arrest. You didn’t want to eat any of them right then. You were already as high as a butterfly. You fished the handful out of your jeans pocket and put two in your mouth anyway, waited for the spit to come, swallowed. The rest you chewed into a paste and spat onto the floorboard of the patrol car while the Customs agent rifled through your roadside emergency kit.
The man came back and said, “You need to step out of the car, Ricky.”
Before the Customs agent put you back in the car, he said, “Anything else hidden on your person becomes a felony inside the jail. Is there anything else, Ricky?” You stared at his ears, which were so big and red. They suited him, you thought.
“No, sir,” you said. “Where else would I put it?”
“Never mind,” he said, looking away.
You could hardly hold your eyes open.
Hours later inside the Customs office, another man—not much older than you, his eyes pale as pool water—told you to relax your hand while he rolled your fingers across an ink pad, pressing the fingertips onto a little index card with your name on it. The fingerprinting station was fascinating, and you told him so. You talked to him about Henry Faulds, a squat man, you said, who wore funny hats, credited with being the first person to use fingerprints for identification. “He used a greasy print left on a bottle of alcohol,” you said.
“Well, all right then,” the man said.
He put you in a small room by yourself, a concrete cell with pale green walls and no windows. You lay down on a metal bench that was bolted to the floor. You drifted in and out of the thing the pills made you feel. You thought about Horatio Nelson and the final moments in the battle of Cape St. Vincent—the fleets falling out of formation on the water, gun smoke rising toward the sails, Nelson reaching out to take the surrendering sword of San José. You slept, turning constantly on the hard bench, shaking the whole time from nervousness and the thought of never going home and the thought of not having any more pills to take. The lights went off, and then later came back on again. A man opened the door to say you could use the phone. You followed him into the racket of the booking office and called your nanny.
“Good afternoon,” Nanny said when she answered the phone. You tried to explain about the pills but she kept saying, “Ricky, how did this happen? Should I come get you?” When you said you were in Texas she started to cry. That wasn’t the worst part.
“Who’s done this to you? Should I call the police?” she asked. There was a loud crash on the other end of the phone, something breaking.
“What was that, Nanny?”
“I dropped a plate of food. Where’s the car, Ricky?”
“I’m being arrested, Nanny. I have the car. I’ll bring it back.”
And you meant it, without even realizing you wouldn’t be able to. She said she’d call the secretary at Woodrow Wilson High School to tell them you wouldn’t be at work on Monday. She told you not to worry about the dogs, she’d find someone else to walk them. This made you feel deserted, and damned. Nanny didn’t get it. “Can the neighbors do it?” you asked. Nanny said she had to go, to clean up the food.
“Nanny! Nanny!” you said after she hung up.
The officer next to you reached for his Taser. You dropped to the floor and hid your face. “Jesus,” he said, before helping you up.
After two weeks in the Webb County Jail, Judge Henry Travers of the eleventh circuit court sentenced you to one year at Lewis Unit in Woodville, Texas. “You’ll only serve four months,” your public defender said afterward.
You spent eight days in a holding cell with a car thief named Teddy from Houston, then walked down a long, loud hall full of men yelling and watching as the guard took you to your room. Donald was sitting on the edge of the bunk, reading. The guard handed you your toiletries. The door made a shocking click- clicking noise when it closed. Donald moved his hair out of his eyes, held out his hand for you to shake.
“You like Tom Clancy?” Donald asked, showing you the cover of his book.
Most of the cells here are two-man rooms with bunk beds, like the one you’re in. There are three dormitories with around seventy men in each and people get moved all of the time but you’ve been in the two-man cell with Donald since your intake. Everywhere you turn there are black men. They huddle in the dorms, or else move through the block like schools of shimmering fish spotted by the rare scrawl of a white face. When the white men smile, their slim mouths are filled with rotten teeth. At first there is a lot of crying and vomiting and shaking, coming off the beautiful pain pills you’d grown, over the past year and a half, to love enormously. This is prison. Donald says he can’t find you pills in here and that anyone who can is looking for a hookup. Sometimes the old dudes will offer something boring at the canteen, Effexor or Ambien. These do not help.
You look at yourself a lot in the mirror. You’re lanky—bony and gaunt. Your hair is too blond, the cut pathetically neat. Everyone in here seems taller than you. Even the shortest felon seems like a giant.
Donald tells you that some of the other inmates have offered him money for the chance to get at you.
“What do you mean?” you ask.
“What do you call a blond with half a brain?” he asks.
Two months in and already you are ashamed of so many things, things you had no idea a person could be ashamed of. One, for being educated, because most of the men here never made it through high school. You feel embarrassed around them, like Louis XVI must have felt after his arrest, surrounded by the working class in the Temple prison—not condescending but humiliated.
Your cell has a toilet with a sink attached. The sink is attached to the top of the toilet where you think the tank should be. At first this made you uncomfortable about washing your hands. You’re used to it now. You have to straddle the toilet facing the tank or stand to the side of it when you brush your teeth, or wash, or get a drink. You push a button above the faucet and the water comes.
The recreation room reminds you of the teachers’ lounge at Woodrow Wilson High. One of the dudes in there, he can hardly read the newspaper. When you first saw him, sitting with the paper open, sounding out the words to himself, you thought you’d help him. He was skipping the words he couldn’t figure out. You went over and pulled up a chair. “Can I have a look?” you said. This was before you knew how things worked.
He said, “Get your own fucking paper.”
“It’s nay-borhood,” you told him, “not neeg-borhood.”
“I got it,” he said, sliding his chair away. “Now get the fuck off me you faggoty fuck.”
“Sorry,” you said.
Your lip was trembling. You couldn’t think of anything good to say. You got up and went to the other side of the room. You sat in one of the yellow vinyl lounge chairs next to the window, pretending to read People magazine. You sit there a lot now. You try not to make eye contact with anyone you suspect might be illiterate.
You told Donald the story and he laughed. You pretended to laugh too, but also you were crying a little. You didn’t let Donald know.
Donald has long, black hair. Many tattoos. His teeth aren’t perfect, but you’ve seen worse. There is something dim and monumental in his eyes—the irises gray as tombstones. He grew up in Iowa. You can hear it when he talks. He calls cola “pop,” and other things like that. This is not the only reason you like Donald but it has a lot to do with it. He says he’s in for man- slaughter, but he won’t say anything else. You ask him what happened but instead he talks about his hair. “There were a few guys in here that used to fuck with me,” he says, “because I wouldn’t cut my hair and because sometimes I put it up in a ponytail. They used to say to me, ‘What’s under the ponytail, Donald, a horse’s ass?’ All I have to do now is give them the look.”
He stands up really fast, like something bad has just happened. You’re not sure what’s going on. He gets right up in front of you like he’s considering the quickest way to crack open your face. “That’s what I do,” he says. “That’s the look I give them.” He starts laughing. “Works, don’t it?”
You nod. Your pulse knocks inside your ears. “It does. For real.”
He says now he tells them to shut the fuck up and they shut the fuck up. You’re sure you’re not capable of this.
“Try it,” he says.
“I don’t think so. I’ll just be cool. I’ll stay out of their way or else give them my dessert at dinner.”
Donald points his finger at you. “Shut the fuck up!” he yells.
He makes a fist, brings it up to your mouth and presses the knuckles against your lips. “Stop fucking talking right now!”
“Why? What did I do wrong?” you say into his knuckles.
“No, Ricky. Damn it. That’s what you’re supposed to say to them. I’m not telling you to shut the fuck up. Shit, dude, you’ve got to stop being such a giant pussy.” Donald shakes his head, like he can’t believe people like you exist. “I’m trying to help you,” he says. “You’re going to be in here a really long time. You’ve got to at least try.”
You’ve been here two months now. “Yeah,” you say, “two more months.”
“You’ll be lucky if they ever let you out,” Donald says. He picks up his book. Without Remorse, it’s called, and it must be serious because Donald will sometimes talk aloud while he’s reading, usually to cuss out the bad guys who he says are always corrupt cops. He lies down on the bed holding the book open in front of his face. “It’s gonna suck without you here, man.”
You’ve been with him almost every hour of every day since you got here and you’re still not sure what to do when he says these things.
He lays the book down on his chest. He says, “Some dudes make friends in here and then get all depressed if they leave. You’re lucky I’m not like that. I’d never try to kill myself or anything.” He picks up the book again. “I’m reading now, don’t talk to me.” He stares at it, turns a page. “Bitch,” he says, and then, “Just kidding.”
Another thing you feel ashamed for is Donald. You can’t remember ever thinking of a man in this way. You had a girlfriend for a while in college, Janice Pickett. You looked at her and you liked what you saw. She was short, breasts like half-filled water balloons, strawberry-blond hair. On the old couch in your dorm room, spring of sophomore year, she took your virginity. She took off your clothes and sat on your lap. There was a sudden wetness on you, like maybe she’d just spilled warm soup on your penis. You made an awkward groan and came inside her. She got up and ran to the bathroom. After that you went on dates together to the movies and to sports bars. You bought flavored condoms and laid a blanket down on the dorm-room floor, thought about important moments of the American Civil War and tried not to come as soon as she climbed on top of you. You liked her, thought about asking if she wanted to move in together. Right before graduation she showed up saying, “Let’s keep in touch, Ricky. Sound good?” But it sounded awful, like she was making fun of you or something. That was two years ago. You haven’t had a woman since. The female teachers at Woodrow Wilson made you nervous when they started acting sexy, cornering you in front of the faculty microwave. You just never thought about guys. One time in college a drunk guy at a house party showed his penis to everyone in the room. It made your face hot, caused a tingling feeling in your stomach, but you didn’t want to touch it or anything. Why would you? You only thought it looked weird. It was big.
When you find out that Nanny reported the car stolen, her car, which you drove from Indiana to Mexico to buy the pills, you aren’t angry exactly, just frustrated. Frustrated is a better word for it. Nanny forgets things. She can’t help it.
She can’t come to visit but you call her on Thursdays. At first she only asked about the car, kept telling you that someone had stolen it. “Can you believe someone would do that to me?” she said. Two months in and she’s finally stopped with that. Instead she tells you she hopes you’re doing well, that she’s proud of you, and proud of your new job in Pittsburgh, where she says you’re teaching history again. She says you should go and straighten up the desks before class every day, pick up all the little bits of paper trash off the floor so that the Lord can come into a nice clean classroom before each session, inspiring the children to learn and truly love their lessons. “Will you do that for me, Ricky? Will you try it and see if it makes a difference?”
“Yes,” you say, “I’ll do that, for sure, what a good idea.” Then you walk back down the hall, through all the loud and mechanical doors toward your cell, where Donald is playing rummy against himself or watching The Maury Povich Show.
“How was it?” he says.
“Oh, it was whack,” you tell him.
At nine o’clock the lights and the television are shut off.
Sometimes it takes a while for the cell block to quiet down. The other inmates are always laughing or yelling. Eventually one of the guards calls for everyone to knock it off. Donald has the bot- tom bunk, and he usually waits fifteen or so minutes before he asks if you’re asleep. You say, “No, I’m still awake,” and then Donald asks if you want to come down there.
“Whatever,” you say.
You’d been in here maybe a month when Donald first said it, and now after a few weeks of it, you just climb down from your bunk and try not to look nervous. You wait for him to make a spot for you next to the wall. You lie stiff as a book against the cold concrete and wait. You both lie there for a minute without touching until he asks if you want to suck. That’s when the tingling in your stomach starts. If you want to suck you put your hand on his penis, which is already so hard that it sticks up out of his underwear, flat against his stomach under the tight elastic of his briefs. You play with it for a minute before putting your face under the covers. Sometimes he asks if you’d rather fuck, in which case you roll over and face the wall. It’s nothing, really. Just a heavy weight. A heat in your joints. A current traveling. This is what cellmates do.
About the pills. You had an abscessed tooth, right—a cavity and then a pain like a wide throb across your face that woke you up one morning before work. Your dentist—the same one Nanny had been taking you to since you were little—scolded you for letting it get that bad, prescribed ten days’ worth of antibiotics and twenty Vicodin, told you to come back in a week and a half. The first pain pill made you dizzy and tired. You slept straight through the night. The second one made you vomit. The third one lit a glorious fire in your head that eventually spread to your chest and arms and groin until it had invaded your whole body. Everything was right in the world. Nanny was a thin, white angel mixing vanilla pudding at the kitchen table. The children at school were blurs of pink and green with flesh tones in between. Instead of reading aloud from the textbook every day you wrote lectures for the first time. History books became the things they used to be on sunnier days alone in your old dorm room. The surge of those sagas opened up to you like ancient mausoleums.
“The Life of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen.”
The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire.
A History of the American Privateers, and Letters-of-Marque During Our War with England in the Years 1812, ’13 and ’14.
You could put your hand over your eyes and see battlefields, crowded infirmaries, the torchlit corridors of Nubian pyramids. After that you were making appointments at the doctor’s office all the time, complaining of back pain, neck pain, chronic headaches, a burning sensation in your kneecaps. You’d take Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan, Tylox. It was like learning a secret language. Some of the pills were more exciting than others. You saw three different doctors, had prescriptions filled at every drugstore in town, until finally Shirley Lynn Dobbs at Dobbs’ Drugstore started asking questions, making calls.
It was maybe a week later that you saw the article about pharmaceuticals and drug laws in Newsweek—they mentioned Mexico, speedy clinics in the backs of grocery stores and novelty shops, prescriptions for anything a patient was willing to pay for in cash. You thought of nineteenth-century China, of the thriving opium trade and those covert smoking divans. It sounded like the most perfect retreat.
It was the Thanksgiving holiday. You told Nanny you were going to Indianapolis to hear a seminar on the Miami Indians of the Midwest. You emptied your savings, cashed in a couple of bonds. You had enough pills to last three days. You got in Nanny’s car and drove. And drove. And drove. The sun and the moon came and went.
The day before Thanksgiving, in Nuevo Laredo, you rented a room at the Red Roof Inn. You got lost two days in a row, ate too many cheap enchiladas, asked the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong language until you finally decided that the back-door pharmacies were made up, were more like small invisible cities of El Dorado than the luxurious opium dens of China.
On the last night, at the Chaser Lounge, you let Kenny Voglar from Carson City, Nevada, buy you too many strawberry margaritas. Kenny wore a lime-green tank top and a diamond ring. He claimed he was once the president of the Rod Stewart fan club. He had a soft spot for GHB and Xanax. He said he knew a man who had exactly what you were looking for. You could see your reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The Christmas lights strung around the alcohol bottles made little flashes of color across your face like so many blue and red stars blinking off and on.
The man who had exactly what you were looking for was actually a seventeen-year-old Mexican kid in short-shorts with a Madonna tattoo. Kenny talked. The Mexican kid turned up “Like a Prayer” on the stereo and danced. Kenny watched. You stood by the door, pretending to read the ingredients on a pack- age of gum. After the song was over the kid went into the bathroom, made some noise, brought out five cottage-cheese containers full of pills. He handed you one of the pills. You took it, and sat on the floor watching the Hispanic boy and Kenny Voglar snort something off the bedside table. They danced around to the music while you waited for the pill to do its stuff. After twenty minutes or so you decided you maybe liked Madonna. “Vogue” seemed like an interesting song. The Hispanic kid did a special dance for it. He seemed very talented. You gave him all of your money. He gave you all of his cottage-cheese containers.
If you don’t answer Donald when he asks if you’re asleep, he says, “I see how it is. What? You mad at me? You got a problem, Ricky?” But you’re never mad at him. You’re just worried. You lie in your bed and fake the loud, steady breaths of deep sleep. You feel the bed start to shake, Donald furiously taking care of himself on the bunk beneath. He’s only touched your penis once, wrapped his hand around it and squeezed for a second. After he finishes in your mouth or on your back he quickly pulls up his pants and rolls over and you climb up to your bunk.
Once, after he was finished fucking, you started to get up and he said, “Don’t move.” He put his arms around you, pressed his face into your back, touched you neatly on the spine with his nose. You might have stayed like that all night except Donald woke you up later, smacking you in the head, saying, “Go back to your own bed, faggot.” An inmate a couple of cells down was yelling, “It’s my stomach. I think it’s the pancreas! I need a doctor!”
“Shut the hell up,” someone else yelled.
“No shit,” Donald called back, “because you don’t even know what a pancreas is!”
You met with your drug counselor for the first time and he told you your official release date. May 14. It is now the fifth of April. He said he was proud of you, which was odd since you’d only met with him once. Still, it was nice to hear. You asked when you would have to appear before the parole board. He said, “This is a kind of parole hearing right now. You’ve done everything right. Good job, Ricky.”
You come back into the cell and tell Donald that things went great with the counselor. Donald is sitting on the floor, shuffling the cards. “Where’s Rainbow Six?”
“My new Clancy book, idiot. Where the fuck is it?”
“I haven’t seen it.”
Donald holds up the deck of cards with one hand, presses them between his thumb and index finger so that the cards go flying. There’s something in his mouth. He looks up at you while the cards fly. He spits hard across the room, hitting you, perfectly, on the mouth. He says, “Don’t think you’re better than anyone else in here! You fucking drug addict. If you get out you’ll be back on drugs in no time. Then you’ll be dead.”
You stand with his spit running down your chin. You want to say something but the spit clings. You don’t wipe it away. Just stare at the wall with your mouth closed tight. You think about the Korean War. Think about President Harry S. Truman or picture old Douglas MacArthur standing on the grassy banks of the Nakdong River, polishing his sunglasses with a handkerchief.
Wait for Donald to look away and then use your shirtsleeve to wipe away the spit. You go and put your mouth under the spigot. You wonder how much tobacco it must have taken General MacArthur to fill his gigantic pipe. Think about your counselor. Think: Good job, Ricky. Good job.
Nanny is your mother, or she might as well be. There has never been anyone else, at least not that you can remember. You remember a day years ago, before the pills, right after you moved home from college. You were in the living room with Nanny. The dogs, Ashley and Lyle, were asleep under the coffee table, their noses at Nanny’s feet. She sat her Dr Pepper down on the china saucer she used for a coaster. You loved the sound it made after each drink, when she returned the can to the saucer, the warbled ping of aluminum to china. “You know, honey, to me Dr Pepper tastes like vanilla extract. And you know what else? I think you have always been this way. You have always been like you are now, even as a little boy. A criminal mind, some people call it, but I think you could be a minister. Your great-grandfather was insane. He used to choke rabbits to death in the shed. He enjoyed it. You remind me of him.” You were flattered, even though it was clearly one of her less coherent days and you weren’t entirely sure what she meant. She kept calling you Larry, who was maybe an old friend of hers. She’d go through a short list of names—her grandfather, distant cousins—before she called you by the right one. It made you proud to know you reminded her of a dangerous person. You only wished you were the sort of person who could choke a bunny. You wonder if Nanny somehow knew this was coming.
Excerpted from Here Is What You Do. Used with permission of Soho Press. Copyright © 2019 by Chris Dennis.