by Doug Ramspeck

The years are a hive. Or a swarm.

They gather in the prisoner’s chest or with the hairs that protrude like tiny dark weeds on the surface of his arms. Or maybe they are his breaths or the sounds of him rolling over in his cot or reaching out to touch the cinder blocks of his cell with a palm. But mostly they are that little thrum of light and words and memories inside his head, fragmented and ghostly, the years gathering like the seabirds he used to see in his childhood when they lived far outside the city, stitching the sky to the waves and the waves to the sky. Or gathering like the eggs of stars at night. Like some numerology of wildflowers.

And they are there in the voice of his cellmate, who simply won’t stop talking. Always, always he goes on. Some little diary of experiences and memories and opinions. What he likes and dislikes about what they were served for lunch that day. What he hopes they will serve for dinner. The name of his first dog. The freckles on the first girl he loved, when he was twelve. A long list of items he has stolen. A man he once stabbed with a box-cutter. His mother’s maiden name. His favorite beer. A time he had a lump growing from his neck and surgeon removed it. The first time he saw snow. How he once cut off his sister’s hair with scissors while she was sleeping. A suit he inherited after his father was killed. A time he fell from a roof and broke his arm. How he once went an entire year without brushing his teeth. His favorite film. The first bike he wrecked. A job he worked for ten days carrying crates of fruit off ships. His weakness for women with small breasts. A weird taste on his tongue. A ringing in his ears. His first arrest. How his father set the apartment on fire once, while smoking. His own favorite brand of cigarettes. A time he hid in a large trash receptacle to keep a certain husband from shooting him. How everyone had always told him he had a beautiful singing voice. His allergy to leaf mold. A time he dreamed that God was playing a trombone. A missing back tooth.

“Please,” the prisoner often says. “I’m trying to sleep.” Or: “For God’s sake, shut up for once.” Or: “I swear I will strangle you. Close your mouth or I’m coming over there.” Or: “Is there something wrong with you? Can’t you turn it off for a second?”

And his cellmate says: “Did I tell you I don’t know how to swim?” Or: “I almost choked on a nut once. I nearly died.”

“Nearly doesn’t do it,” the prisoner says.

“There were people all around me, but they just stood there, watching. I couldn’t get in a breath. I thought I was done for.”

“What can I give you to choke on now?”

“Do you know what kind of nut it was?”

“I don’t care.”

“A cashew. Do you like those? They used to be my favorite.”

“Please let me choke on something. Anything.”

So the prisoner closes his eyes on his cot and lets his own memories come sweeping in. Maybe thinking about his uncle, who kept bees on his roof. Or he imagines himself crying uncontrollably, even though he knows he hasn’t cried in years. Or he lets the voice of his cellmate become a kind of susurration.

One evening he wakes from a nap to find his cellmate standing over him. And the man says with what is clearly an embarrassing gust of emotion, “You’re my best friend in the world. My only friend. The only real friend I’ve ever had.”

“I was sleeping,” the prisoner says.

“I just want you to know.”

So what can the prisoner do? What choice does he have? He tries, despite his better judgment, to be a little nicer. To let his cellmate sit with him at meals. Stand near him during their daily spells outside. To listen. Listen. The prisoner even asks a question or two.

He says, “Did you ever tell your parents that it wasn’t your sister who did it?”

And the years gather. He thinks of leaves falling into a river and being carried off.

He thinks of snow collecting and drifting in a field. He thinks of rain water rising in a basement. He thinks of the sentences and words from his cellmate dropping like acorns onto the roof of their lives, or ants moving in and out of their little mounds of sand.

And the worst part is that he grows increasingly fond of his cellmate. It’s discouraging. It saps at the spirit. This man is his friend. The prisoner almost looks forward to the monologues. The little reruns of them. Oh, here is the story about the time his girlfriend got pregnant by another man. Oh, here is the one about how his mother had inverted nipples and couldn’t breastfeed. Oh, here is the one about his love/hate feelings for licorice.

There are times the prisoner fears he will die of it all. Will shrivel into nothing. Will be an empty husk on his cot, his cellmate’s voice a eulogy. Or will dream himself out of this world into some other. Will ride the raft of it. Some sense of being exiled on an endless sea. Waves lifting you gently. Setting you back down. No land anywhere in sight. Just this. This. The salt of the waves. The sounds of the spray. The calling of the seabirds. And the cot and the bars and the cinder blocks and the memories and the glimpses of distant clouds from the prison yard and the ritual of day-then-night-then-day and the sense that a life is a kind of mist or a fog or a veil or a dream and a cellmate’s voice cutting through it.

Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. His most recent book, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press His short story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, is published by BkMk Press.