This week’s post is an excised chapter of Where Excuses Go to Die, the forthcoming book for which this blog serves as a pre-publishing playground. Like many of the book’s chapters, Sandwich began life as a prison journal entry before being performed as a spoken word piece. Since it got pulled from the book, I thought you might enjoy it here.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF A SANDWICH
California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) – Norco, Level II
5th Street & Western Norco, CA 92860
The first bite tasted fine – for a prison sandwich. I’d already given the thing a cellblock once-over, scanning for obvious stuff like bugs, matches, dirt, and pieces of human. I’d also reexamined it as I made improvements: contraband mustard, nips of onion, a razor-cut tomato. In custody, firm, fresh tomatoes are more expensive than chocolate but they’re worth it. A good tomato can make or break a sandwich anywhere, anytime. While doing time, their value triples.
Less valuable is the meat. Your average prison sandwich contains one compressed meat flap, known in the civilized world as a “slice.” The problem with the flap isn’t the condition of the plant where it’s processed: inmates already assume that to be fourth-rate; after all, it’s a factory where pork discards and chopping dregs are blended into batter and pressure-pumped into molds. No, the problem is separating your recollection of what pristine slices of Oscar Meyer look like in comparison, mainly ’cause prison slices start out the same color grocery store bologna turns after it’s been in the sun: scab mahogany. Besides, Oscar Meyer products aren’t oval. They don’t have air bubbles, stretch marks, or the random knots of a pine plank. Their thickness is uniform. Oscar Meyer isn’t for everyone, but everyone knows it when they see it.
Be that as it may, on the way to my clerical work assignment that morning, the onion, the cheese, tomato, pickle and eight additional meat slices only cost me half a book of stamps, so I was feeling pretty fortunate. After I’d whittled the tomato to chef’s perfection with a disposable Gillette blade, my lunch had gone from lousy to outstanding. Considering the circumstances, that first bite was downright delicious. It was the second bite that made me jump out of my chair.
Since I usually read while I eat, I doubt I would’ve caught anything peculiar before my teeth sank in. Besides, a guy gets used to those hard little kernels that lodge themselves in the gums; they’re not unlike the peppercorns found in some commercial lunchmeats. Only they don’t look like peppercorns. No one knows exactly what they are, but they don’t make anyone sick. That we know of. In any case, after so many of these sandwiches, you get so you hardly even notice ‘em. Until now.
The instant I bit down I felt something wedge itself behind my lower front teeth. No biggie; my eyes didn’t even leave the newspaper when I pulled the sandwich away to pry it out. When the sandwich tugged back I almost choked. I looked down my nose to see a white string leading from the sandwich to my face. It was more than a foot long.
I slammed the sandwich down, my face still lassoed to it, then reached up and tried to free my teeth. No dice. I yanked. The damn thing was stubborn! When it finally did come loose, I saw how it had managed to wedge itself between two teeth that offered no gap: the “string” was pliable, like a rubber band. “What the hell?” I growled at the ripcord jutting eleven inches from the middle of my meal.
At first I thought it might be some far-out piece of cow innard, but how could it still be intact after the trimming, the grinding, and the liquefying? I know intestines are naturally strong, but what explained its paper whiteness? Besides, nothing organic would be so resilient. How had I missed it when assembling my sandwich? To make matters worse, the thing was actually starting to look familiar. What the hell was it, a joke by the kitchen clerk who’d sold me the meat?
I lifted the top piece of bread. All seemed normal. I removed the tomato and onion and set them aside. The second flap looked fine too. Ditto the mustard. I carefully separated and set aside the first two ovals, studying the tops of each. I inspected the tomato just as closely. Again, normal. As if dismantling a bomb, I excavated down to the last piece of meat. Still nothing. I eyeballed each crumble of bread and onion – even the butcher paper the sandwich had been wrapped in. But when I turned one of the flaps over and found more of the white string embedded in its underside, a wave of nausea hit me. The string was coiled, molded into the slice.
It takes a lot to get disgusted when you’re locked up with men obsessed with rodents or ailing dope fiends, cutters, influenza spitters, dirt-eaters, spastics, the cankered, and the walking wounded, but I was ready to scream. Instead I grabbed the string and pulled. The flap followed across my desk. I pulled again and it lifted and dangled, so I seized it and twisted the string free, still questioning its vague familiarity. As it came out of the meat, it left a swirled impression.
“Fuck ME!” I said, flinging the flap away. I ran my tongue along the back of my bottom teeth, then the top ones, then the bottom again. I felt like I’d been reading small print in a moving car. When it clicked I froze. Afraid to look, I pulled my belt forward and sucked in my belly. Jerking my underwear up to the light gave me my answer. “No way. No. NO!” I shouted to the empty room.
It was one of the eight rubber strings that made up the elastic waistband of prison-issue boxers.
Ha! It meant we’d been entirely wrong. Our sandwich “meats” weren’t made in some vaguely unsanitary off-site factory, they were made by creepy fellow inmates. The same people who made our goddamn underwear. And some disease-ridden lunatic’s frayed shorts had obviously gotten way too close to the mixing vats!
Someone had to pay, but who? What twisted hunchback deviant son-of-a-bitch would throw a filthy piece of his underwear into what was to become my lunch? And – holy shit! Only minutes before buying this meat I’d been having a conversation with a guy I knew hadn’t changed his underwear in months!
I looked to where I’d thrown the flap, shuddering at the greasy trail leading from the light switch to where it lay at the baseboard, slumped against the wall. For a second I debated. Then I shrugged, took aim at it with the rubber string, reassembled my sandwich, and chowed.