A Caged Wolf

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Wolf hated the way the place smelled. It was partly the kind of soap they used on the floor, it was partly the dust and asphalt, but it was mostly the smell of the people. They smelled sour, a little. There was a lot of fear in their scents, a lot of hostility, a lot of despair. Many of them had poor hygiene or unsanitary habits, and that didn't help the atmosphere either. And there weren't any women here. Perhaps it was just as well, because the scent of a woman would remind him of ... of her. Still, he missed women. He'd never realized it before they brought him here, but men by themselves smell different than men when women are around. Maybe women smelled like hope or freedom.


He looked up, hearing the rubber-soled footsteps of an approaching guard. His nostrils flared, ever so slightly. "Evening, Harold."


Harold came into view a few seconds later, and stopped outside his cell. "Evening, Wolf. You got some mail."


Wolf stood behind the yellow line as Harold placed the mail in the tray at the door of the cell. "Thanks, Harold. A little something from the outside always brightens my day." Wolf wanted to say something more, to get Harold to stay and talk. Harold had the smell of hope and freedom on him. He had a wife and one, no two kids. A teenaged boy and a little girl. He'd had toast, orange juice, and oatmeal for breakfast. He'd driven to work this morning with his arm out the car window, and the salt and grassy smell of the Mare Island marshes he'd driven past lingered, a bit, on the sleeve of his uniform. But Harold had other deliveries to make this evening and other prisoners to check up on. He couldn't stay. Anyway, Wolf couldn't say any of why he wanted Harold to stay without freaking him out. And it's not good to freak out the guards.


The mail was from his dad, back in Bald Mesa. Wolf's dad had never finished grade school, and the note was written in the block printing they'd taught kids way back when. He couldn't spell very well, either, but that didn't matter to Wolf. What mattered was that his dad was okay, and that he didn't hate Wolf for what everybody thought he'd done, and that he didn't believe his son was guilty.


And the paper mattered, too, because it carried him the scent of a home far away. He could smell the desert on it, the gypsum mine where his dad had worked for so many years, the yucca blossoms and dust from outside and and the mint and the blackberries that his dad cultivated in the tiny greenhouse next to his boyhood home. His dad had tucked a hanky into the note too. Wolf could smell the linen and the cotton and the lingering scent of the cloved orange in his dad's linen drawer. But they'd taken the hanky out of the envelope before they gave it to him. They'd call it contraband. Little stuff like that might get prisoners into a fight because one of them had it and one didn't, and it was just easier if none of the prisoners had anything.


Wolf guessed the rest of the prison must have different contraband rules from J wing. He'd seen some of the other prisoners out in the yard from the window at times, and a few of them had baseball caps or hankies. But in J wing, where they kept Wolf, nobody had much of anything.


He tucked the note carefully in the little box on the table next to the bed. The table was a sheet of plastic that stuck directly out of the wall. It had no legs, so it could not be moved or taken apart, and it wouldn't get in the way when they were cleaning the floor. Wolf wished they allowed him a lid for his little box, because the precious smells from home were going to dissipate without one. But a lid would mean he could hide stuff from a casual inspection, so he couldn't have a lid.


In the cell next to his, he could hear Jenner taking a dump, and then scrabbling noises as he worked at the toilet with some kind of improvised tool until it finally flushed. He smelled Jenner's shit, and Jenner's excitement, and Jenner's disappointment as the shit disappeared. Jenner was always trying to sabotage his toilet, or clog it. Evidently he hated how it flushed automatically and took his precious shit away. Whatever tool he was using, it had to be contraband.


Wolf looked at his own toilet, identical to Jenner's. It was stupid-looking. It stuck through the back of the cell like some bizarre piece of modern art. It was all smooth curves in stainless steel. There was a toilet in front, a little urinal on one side, and a lavatory sink on the other. The only part that could move was the faucet handle, and that was just a flat chunk of metal with a couple of bumps in it, behind a section that had an opening so you could push it this way or that. The toilet had no lid or ring, just a broad rim to sit on. There was some kind of sensor, behind unbreakable plastic behind a stainless-steel grill under the rim, that could tell when someone shat or pissed in the toilet, and forty-five seconds later, it would flush. Same thing if you pissed in the urinal. And whenever either side flushed, both sides flushed. They flushed every six hours anyway, just in case the sensors were broken. A little legend stamped on the front above the toilet gave a model number, and declared it to be "suicide resistant."


Nobody knew what Jenner had against toilets; nobody cared. Wolf was just glad that shitting on the floor had evidently never occurred to him. Wolf wouldn't say anything about Jenner's contraband. Pissing off other prisoners was no better a survival move than freaking out guards.


Tomorrow, Wolf had volunteered to be on the duty roster for the library. Even J wing prisoners were allowed to use pens and pencils in the library. He could write a letter back to his dad.


Wolf wasn't like the other prisoners in J wing, in one very important way. Wolf had hope. In fact, he had two hopes. This in itself was extraordinary. Wolf was serving one thousand two hundred fifty-three years for fifteen felony counts including murder, sodomy, rape, torture, object rape, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, and domestic violence. The judge had smiled with cold satisfaction as she'd told him that with good behavior he might get out in only six hundred. So maybe it was absurd for a man like Wolf to have hope, and nobody suspected it of him, but there it was.


The other prisoners in J wing had done crimes just as bad, and none of them expected to get out alive. There were no training programs here, no preparation to rejoin society. There were no worries about recidivism with J wing prisoners, because they expected never to release any.


It had been two years. His appeals had been turned down. But Wolf still had two hopes, because he knew two things they didn't know. The first thing that Wolf knew was that someday they might still catch the sonofabitch who had really raped, tortured, and killed his wife and the other two women. If that happened, and they figured it out, Wolf's convictions would be overturned. That gave him his hope for freedom. The second thing Wolf knew was exactly what the sonofabitch smelled like, and that if he were ever caught for something else and they didn't figure it out, he'd probably wind up in J wing too. And that gave Wolf his hope for revenge.


And with those two hopes, however small, Wolf did time one day at a time.

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