“But who is to guard the guards themselves.”
–Juvenal

Sergeant McKay* was passing out the food trays, sliding the trays through the slot in our metal doors. Every convict on the confinement tier knew you just don’t ask Sergeant McKay to pass your food tray to someone else for you. Everyone knew that except Ray “Noodles.”

Because Sarge knew that whoever was getting the tray delivered to them was selling loose rolling tobacco, which we call ‘rip’ behind these gates. It was an invitation to a shakedown.

So, when Ray Noodles said, “Sarge, can you give this tray to cell twelve, sir,” I looked at him through my cell door’s small square window like he’d won the McArthur genius of the year award, shook my head, and prepared to get screwed.  Because I was in cell twelve.

Sarge was an oak tree shoved into a prison guard’s uniform. Prone to roid rages that swelled his carotid to the size of a young garden snake, McKay’s lower lip trembled as he turned to face my cell, his cheeks flushed pink, sure sign that he was on his way to a nasty little meltdown.

“Cuff up.” His voice was deep, rock, all testosterone, leaping from his throat like heavily muscled mestizo midgets leaping off the ropes in a Mexican wrestling ring.

“All I got is a pack of rip and lighter, Sarge.” I kicked three unopened packs of cigarettes from my door to beneath my bunk before Sarge could get to my cell and see them.

If Neanderthals smiled, Sergeant McKay is what they’d look like smiling.

“You know this shit’s bad for your health.” He slid his keys into my cell door’s feeding flap lock, opened it. “I’m only lookin’ out for ya. Care, custody, and control. You know the motto.”

I pulled an opened pack of rip and a sky blue lighter from my waist and gave them to him.

“Thank you inmate,” McKay said. “I do appreciate the business.”

McKay pocketed the rip and lighter, slammed my food flap closed, and swung back to Ray Noodles’ cell — waiting for Ray to slide his hands out the small passthrough so he could be cuffed.

“Now, for you. Turn around and cuff up.”

“I don’t have nothing’, Sarge.”

“Ain’t said ya did. Turn around and cuff up’s what I said. You refusin’ to comply with my order?”

“No, Sarge.”

“Then why are you not turned around and cuffed up, inmate?”

Ray turned and slid his hands out of the flap behind him.

“Thatta boy.” Sarge slapped the cuffs onto his wrists and called over the walkie talkie for the guard in the control booth recessed in the center of the two tiered building to roll [open] cell 103.

A metallic whine and click echoed in the slender hallway between cells. Ray’s cell door slid open. Sarge grabbed him by the bicep, escorted him down the hall into the sally port, and locked him in a holding cage that was basically a dog pen for people.

Ray waited in the holding cage while Sarge finished passing food trays and waited some more while Sarge picked up the empty trays after everyone had finished eating. Ray waited a little longer in that cage as Sarge slipped on a fresh pair of yellow latex gloves, stepped into his cell, and began searching it.

Ray didn’t have much to look through but Sergeant McKay tore through it just the same. Tossed what few letters he had into the middle of his floor, threw some paperwork under his rack, mussed up his library books. McKay got down onto his bad knees and looked under Ray’s bunk, lifted his mattress, toyed with his pillow.

I imagined Ray surviving through the shakedown clean. He’d already smoked the cigarette I’d sold him. He was too broke to have anything else.

Sarge lumbered out of Ray’s cell and slumped down the narrow hall to the dog cage. He spoke quietly to Ray and Ray began to shake his bald head violently.

No, no, no, Sarge–I can’t do that.”

“You’re a cho-mo [child molester], Ray.” McKay shrugged his broad shoulders, threw up his massive hands and walked back up the hall toward Ray’s cell. “Leave the kids alone, Ray.”

“No, Sarge. Don’t say that, man. I didn’t do it. I ain’t no fuckin’ cho-mo!”

McKay walked back into Ray’s cell. Watching from my cell I saw McKay reach into his pocket and pull out my blue lighter. He held it up to the cell’s fluorescent light and turned it this way, that, looking at the light summersaulting in the Bic’s kerosene.

“Where’d you get the lighter, Ray?” McKay yelled down to Ray.

“Lighter?” Ray yelled back.

McKay stepped into the hallway, stalked back toward the dog pen. “Yeah, the one you’ve been lighting all those cigarettes I found in your cell with.”

McKay shook the pack of rip and lighter at Ray in his fist. “This shit’ll kill ya, man–don’t you know that?”

“Those aren’t mine, man.”

“They fuck they ain’t. I found ’em under your mattress, buddy. That makes ’em yours.”

Ray was quiet for long time in that dog cage. He stared evil eyeballs at McKay through the cage’s chain linked fence, his rail thin body trembling like a thousand volts of electricity were shooting through his sphincter.

“Why you doin’ this, Sarge?” he finally said. “I ain’t done nothin’ to you.”

“You’re alive, inmate. And a cho-mo. Them’s all the reasons I need.”

Sarge cuffed him, took him out of the holding cage and, holding him by the bicep, escorted him back to his cell.

“You’re a fucking liar, Sarge. I ain’t never messed with no kids.”

It’s the last thing I ever heard Ray Noodles say.

A few hours later, McKay’s panic-squeezed voice dragged me out of my rack.

“Roll cell 103, damnit! NOW!” Sarge yelled out.

My feet slapped the floor. Ray Noodles’ door slid open with a high pitched metallic squeal. Ray’s limp body tumbled out of the door backwards, his head smacking against the cement floor.

There were a few moments of icy clarity after that sharp crack of Ray’s head striking the concrete, when time fragmented into individual still frames, colors suddenly sizzling with vibrance, the hot ionized scent and sound of prison breath, steel, and concrete ratcheting to their highest frequencies as McKay looked down at Ray, mouth opening in silent perplexity, an expression that was all, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be that funny looking blue color,” etched onto his face.

Then everything speed freaked into hyperdrive.

McKay fell onto his knees beside Ray. “Get a nurse down here now!” he screamed. “And EMT’s!”

He unwound the sheet from Ray’s neck, arched the man’s head back, pinched his nostrils closed and pressed his mouth over his to breathe for him. McKay pounded on Ray’s narrow chest, forced oxygen into the still lungs, “breathe goddamnit breathe” sputtering from his mouth as his own face turned scarlet, as sweat poured from him and spread in a dark stain across Ray’s t-shirted abdomen.

A nurse — a shrub of a black guy with a silver ventilator tucked under his arm — showed up after ten minutes or so and watched McKay for a few moments until McKay, his carotid throbbing in his muscular neck, shouted, “What in the fuck are you waiting for?”

“Uh. Yeah,” the nurse said, kneeling on the other side of Ray’s body. “Is he breathing in his own?”

“Does it fucking look like it?” McKay pinched Ray’s nose, fitted his mouth back over his and breathed some more of himself into those lungs.

“Well, this’ll help him breathe. Here, let me–” McKay moved aside and the nurse fitted the ventilator’s mask over Ray’s nose and mouth then began fiddling with the straps attached to the mask as Ray continued to not breathe.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me.” McKay snatched the mask from Ray’s face, mashed lips with him, and began breathing for him again.

EMT’s made the scene twenty minutes later. Three fit white guys in athletic sneakers and black scrubs quickly and efficiently unpacked their boxes and duffle bags, messed with the ventilator and worked, alternating between chest compressions and mouth to mouth, as McKay slumped against the wall panting, watching, his shirt stained black with sweat at the arm pits and along the rim of his collar.

They finally got a steady pulse half an hour into their work and soon wheeled Ray out while McKay sat with his arms wrapped around his shins, his mouth open, slack. Eventually, he worked his way onto one knee and then stood with his palms on his thighs.

“You guys see that?” McKay’s eyes gleamed hard like wet marbles. He straightened himself with a jerk, as if he’d suddenly become aware of the group of convicts inside their concrete boxes staring at him through their small square cell door windows. “I saved his life, is what I did,” he said. “I saved his life.”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved in this story.