Concrete and Carpet
I could see the sun every morning when it rose through the great window that went the entire length of the prison hall. But the window was a foggy one, that made the images from the other side blurry like a letter that was written in ink that has had a cup of coffee spilled over it.
Sometimes I could see black spots in the window, but I couldn’t tell if they were planes or birds. A romantic would say they were birds, a realist would say that they were planes, but a prisoner would say that they are flies because only a prisoner has time for neither romanticism or realism.
I would meet with the prison psychologist once every three weeks. He would always speak English with me.
English had become the language that was spoken by all of the “educated” and all those who didn’t speak English were considered to be “uneducated” and “unworthy” of having an important job, like being a psychologist or judge or doctor. Every language that wasn’t English was grouped into one language called “not language.” Some people in the prison spoke English, but there were some that only spoke a not language. Those who only spoke a not language were unable to understand the judges, the prison psychologist, and the guards. So, they were always having to go blind into everything since translators weren’t granted to anyone. Most of the guards also spoke a not language, but they thought it was beneath them to speak to the prisoners in anything but English.
He asked me, “Are you ashamed of what you did?”
I could never remember why it was that I had become a prisoner.
“Am I supposed to feel that way?”
The psychologist would only ever frown and write down notes before sending me out to think more about how I should’ve answered.
I didn’t remember anymore what was suppose to be outside of the prison, so it didn’t bother me so much that I wasn’t allowed to leave. I didn’t even remember how long I had been there. All I knew was that I was young when I first entered the prison and that after a while I was no longer that way.
I never had any visitors, except for a woman who would come only every three months. She would sit behind the glass really quietly, just watching me, and she’d wait until there were only three more minutes allowed to our visit, then she would tell me about a grocery store and leave. The last visit she had told me, “Í dag er afmæli kjörbúðarinnar.”
When she left I turned to the man next to me and told him what she had just told me, and he said that he knew. I didn’t understand how he understood.
The prison was a very strange place. It was a living thing in which we were all organs, detrimental to its survival.
The psychologist called me in again a few weeks later. He asked me the same question. And I gave him the same answer. But this time was different. He did not frown this time. He was, it seemed, sympathetic.
“Try to deconstruct myself; to think,” he said.
I didn’t understand.
I stared at the ceiling that night from my bed. I never thought about the prison before. It just was. It was just a being that existed. No one really knew where it came from, except that it just showed up one day and they started to shovel people in, and people usually didn’t leave.
I never wondered anymore what was outside, but also I no longer knew what was inside of myself either.
And so, I climbed out of bed and knelt before the cinder block wall. The mountain of cement keeping me from the world; keeping the world from me. I felt the cold blocks, their grit against my palm, and ran my finger along the grout between blocks. When I pulled my hand away from the block, the block had stuck to my hand and came away from the wall.
Through the hole in the wall, I could see nothing. There was nothing on the other side, so I put the block back.
I went to sleep with peace that night, knowing that there was no longer an outside, just an inside- and that’s where all life was.
The next day I was watching the window. A panel fell from the window and shattered on the ground. The other prisoners began to fight over the shards of glass and stab each other with the pieces. Guards came and began to beat the prisoners and to taze them. Then it became not a fight between the prisoners anymore, but a fight between the guards and prisoners. It wasn’t a fair fight. The guards began to use their guns.
I pressed myself deeper into my cell and looked through the small box the foggy window panel use to hide. I could see the sun.
That afternoon, a sheet of cardboard was taped over the small box, and I could no longer see the sun. But I had seen it, and to know that it existed was enough.
In the dining hall, the men sat in rows, clothed in their grey uniforms which made them look paler than what they already were. There was a silence as they ate their breakfast. The carpet made everything quite; muffled every sound till it suffocated. The guards from yesterday’s fight stood by the door, blocking the only exit to the cafeteria. If there was a fire they’d be the only ones to survive. Surely they would lock the door behind them.
Their faces were bruised and bandaged. Those were the only souvenirs they had collected from their trip down to our world, our level, yesterday. The prisoners who had fought against them were not in the dining hall. They had left the prison. They were granted the only type of freedom that the prison knows.
The prison psychologist asked me, “Why is it that you can’t remember things?”
“I can’t remember,” I told him.
I felt that my answer was not a good one, but I felt that his question wasn’t a good one either.
It used to frustrate me to not remember. Sometimes I would cry because I felt as though I had lost something that was important; that I had lost something that was the last thing tying me to the outside. But all I could remember was the prison. I would spend days in my cell trying to remember all of the things I had forgotten. It made me wonder if there were even things that I had forgotten. But it was not so frustrating anymore to think this way. If I couldn’t remember then there was nothing to remember.
I sat in my cell and would be very still. I was trying to hear the book cart being pushed down the hall past each cell. The book cart never stopped; it only pushed past each cell, never offering any of the prisoners any books. It never seemed to be pushed by the librarian behind the cart, instead, it seemed to be pulled forward by an invisible string from the end of the hall. It was a performance, and it was silent. The wheels were oiled once a week, which often times stained the carpet no matter how upset the janitor would get. I would hang my head between the bars when the janitor came. I liked to watch him cry as he massaged dawn soap into the carpet with one hand and rubbed bleach into it with the other. We didn’t speak. I’d like to know why he loves the carpet so much. I’d like to appreciate it in the way that he does, but it only ever makes my skin red and splotchy from when I have sat on it for too long, and in the early morning it makes me sneeze.
Later that week, the woman came to visit me again. She was wearing a green blouse that matched the green paint that is chipping off of the cinder blocks in the visitor room. She watched me through the glass. I was a fish in a bowl for her. She looked at her watch, then told me, “Kjörbúðin fékk nýja mottu í dag.”
She stood up and left. I turned to the man sitting next to me to tell him what she had said, but he, too, already knew.
I wondered where she went when she would leave. Where do all of the visitors go when they leave? I use to think that the prison had a closet, or a waiting room, in which they could keep all of the visitors until it was time for them to visit again.
I wondered if the other prisoners who received visitors didn’t know their visitors either; if these visitors were people created or hired by the prison. They existed solely to remind us that we were prisoners, because if we no longer thought there was an outside then we became just a community in a box. They needed us to think there was an outside; to know that there was something that was being kept from us. Then we would be unhappy.
But I stopped thinking these things. These thoughts weren’t possible because of the Kjörbúðin.
We showered three times a week. When we showered the room would grow steamy, and the air would be so thick that all you were able to see was the shower knobs on the wall in front of you. The water was sulphuric. The whole room would smell of rotten eggs. All I could ever think about while showering was my grandfather. It was good that he was never in prison. Taking a shower here would have killed him. He was allergic to sulfur. But it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the harshness of the water against my skin and the way it would make my hair squeak when I’d run my thumbnail against it.
In movies, they always show people being raped in the prison showers or knifed with some crude object fashioned into a weapon. Our showers were different, however. Showers were a time when everyone avoided each other. It was a place of true space, and safety to be alone. Usually, when people weren’t in the shower they were always getting into each other’s faces, pushing each other around, doing anything to make themselves big. But in the shower everyone was small. No one wanted to be accused of being gay. We were all twelve again; showering before going into the pool.
I knew that we had all once been something before we became prisoners. We had all spent years learning a skill to one day do something. But no one could remember what they had once been. It no longer mattered. And, so they forgot their skills. There was nothing for them to hope to someday do.
They grunted and walked big, held down corners of the prison as their territory, and picked out the weaker animals that had not adapted as well to the environment.
That’s what happened to my cellmate. I use to share my cell with a wiry boy who had hair the color of the tip of a matchstick. He was too thin to walk big and his voice not yet deep enough to grunt like the others, and he had no knowledge of the different territories.
He was only here for a week before the prison set him free.
The prison had a pool then. I don’t know where it has gone now. Perhaps it is beneath the gym floor; filled with cement after so many prisoners had been drowned in that pool.
When the pool was there, I spent a lot of my time floating and looking out of the foggy window that was just above the pool there. This window was different from the window in the hall. This window had purple drapes, with small tassels that hung from the bottom. I once broke off one of the tassels when I was alone and put it in my mouth to see if it tasted as dusty as what the drapes looked to be. It did not taste dusty, but instead tasted sweet almost, and so I swallowed the tassel.
The foggy window grew dark and grey and I could hear rumbling. It was a rumble that shook the prison. I hid in the showers and left the lights off. The darkness around me shook, but the rumbling could not see me, and therefore could not touch me.
A guard from the evening shift once forgot his chair at the top of the stair where he had sat all night. When I found this chair I sat in it. The metal was cold and bit my bones, but still, I wanted to stay in the chair. I felt a sense of power sitting in that chair and enjoyed staring people down as they came up the stairs or walked down the hall. These people looked at me in a different way, as though I was now one of the prisoners to watch out for. I spent each day sitting in the chair. I no longer watched the sun in the window or tried to hear the book cart being pushed past the cells. I sat in the chair. But then one day someone noticed their mistake, and the chair was picked up. So, I went back to watching the sun in the window and trying to hear the book cart being pushed past the cells.
The next time I went to the prison psychologist he had a better question. I never really understood our meetings that much. It was as though his only purpose was to guide me in the direction of how I was supposed to spend my time thinking while here. But his questions were always so dull that I could only bear to think of them for as long as fifteen or so minutes before starting to think of something else. We stared at each other for a while before he asked me a question.
People who aren’t prisoners finding starring very uncomfortable and will do anything to avoid it. However, for a prisoner, it is a way of understanding to stare at something. It is the only way we are able to see things. We have to stare at each other, the walls, the windows, our lovers- we aren’t allowed to touch things; just see things.
He asked me, “Do you feel that you ever miss anything from the outside?”
“Am I supposed to miss something from the outside?”
“It is healthy to.”
So, I shrugged. I didn’t feel unhealthy so his question did not seem important to me.
He wrote down a few notes. I think he should’ve been a writer instead. He was always writing things down and always asking so many questions.
We sat a little longer in silence. I believe he was waiting for me to say something. He doesn’t know that prisoners don’t speak so much out loud. They have no one really to speak to, so it is only noise that would be beaten into silence by the carpet if you were to speak aloud. Either way, it didn’t seem to matter if I spoke or not since usually when I did speak it was never what he was wanting to hear.
He told me that he didn’t think we needed to meet anymore.
The first few years I spent in prison time went slowly. It was as though there were days in every hour and hours in every minute. But the more time you spend in prison the faster time goes by.
The next time I was asked to go anywhere by the guards I was escorted to a small closet. At first, I thought that maybe I had been right, and this was the closet that they kept the visitors in. But it was not. The walls were a different color than the rest of the prison. The prison was either a deep green or an off-white color- only I didn’t know if it was off-white from not being cleaned all these years or if because they painted it a white that would hide the grime so they wouldn’t have to clean over all of these years.
This room was grey. Like our uniforms.
There was no window for a visitor. Nor was there a table for a meeting or interrogation.
There was, instead, a camera attached to a stick. And, there was a monitor perched above the camera. Like a bird.
There was an X taped on the carpet with red electrical tape. The guards closed the door behind me. And I heard a click.
The monitor came on and I saw a man in a black robe sitting behind a large wooden desk. His face was large and lumpy like a ball of clay. He wore small round wire glasses that seemed to be pinched to his face by his sagging bushy eyebrows. His mouth was so wide it looked like it would droop off the sides of his face. Then he spoke.
“Do you know what sits here before me?”
I didn’t understand why they were showing me this odd film.
When he spoke, his voice was small and tired from yelling at people for so long.
I watched this film.
“It’s the psychologist report. And do you know what it says?”
It did not appear as though the man was speaking, except for just wobbling his jaw and the sounds he made just so happened to make sense.
“It said that you have made no effort to reconcile your actions, you have no remorse for the crimes you’ve committed, and that your time spent here will no longer be of any benefit to yourself or the state-”
The man’s jaw kept wobbling and more and more sounds continued to fall from his lips in a sloppy order. His face grew red as he spoke, but he did not sound angry.
“It has been decided by myself and the council and a jury of the people that you shall be moved to death row and sentenced to death by lethal injection. You shall be visited by a priest sometime during your final days for the sake of your mortal soul.”
The man stopped wobbling and the red ran from his face until it was a pale color once again. Then the monitor went black. And there was a click and the door opened.
“Why did you show me the film,” I asked the guards.
But they did not answer. Even then it was a waste for me to ask since rarely did they answer seriously anyway. But for them to not even answer was out of character. They liked to take any opportunity they could to tease or harass the prisoners. Maybe they didn’t understand why either.
The woman only came to visit me once more. It was a strange visit. She sat there behind the glass, watching me as usual, but quietly crying. Her makeup didn’t run or smudge. Her tears were only allowed to fall in the same path one after another. She looked at me with something in her eyes that I didn’t understand, and no matter how hard I stared I still was unable to understand. It looked like something was falling inside of her.
She looked at her watch and sighed, then told me, “Kjörbúðin er lokuð.”
Then she stood briskly and left.
“Hvað?” I asked.
But the man on my right hushed me. The man on my left gave me an irritated look, “Hún sagði, ‘Kjörbúðin er lokuð’.”
I still didn’t understand.
The guards grabbed me by the arms and pushed me out the door of the visitor’s room.
There was an odd air in the prison. Like the steam from the shower room was slowly starting to fill the whole prison and all I could see before me was the bars of my prison cell and the carpet beneath me. Something was wrong. Something was broken. The prison was starting to deteriorate. The fog was just the septic air bubbling up from the organs just before they give out and let the body die.
Out of the fog, I could hear someone weeping. At first, I thought it was the prisoner in the cell next to mine. But then I heard the sound of the carpet being massaged and rubbed. It was the janitor cleaning the carpet again.
I stuck my head between the bars and squinted my eyes to try to see him more clearly through the fog. There he was kneeling on the carpet scrubbing and crying. He wore a big blue canvas jumpsuit that he had sewn pads onto the knees so he wouldn’t get bruises from kneeling.
“Hvað ert þú að gera?”
He sniffled and looked up to see who had spoken to him. He wiped his eyes on the back of his exposed wrists.
“Ég er að þrífa,” he muttered and went back to scrubbing.
He stopped scrubbing.
“Bara, það er ekki hreint hérna.”
I watched him as he continued to grind his knuckles into the carpet, grinding the soap into the fibers and then rubbing bleach into it.
The next day the fog had cleared. But I still sat in my cell in case it rose up again. That way I wouldn’t get lost in the prison.
I was sitting very still. I was listening. My back was against the cinder block wall and my feet were buried in the carpet.
There was a squeaking sound that continued to loop as it went past each cell. The book cart rolled past my cell. I stared at the wheels; each was squeaking incessantly.
This was the first time I’d ever heard the book cart. And now I wished I’d never listened to it; its squeaking was like a scream bouncing off each cinder block to attack me from every angle.
The guards told me I had a visitor, but I was surprised when I saw that it was not the woman. Instead, it was a priest. And we did not meet in the visitor’s room, but in a different room with a wooden table in the center. There was no glass separating us. A guard stood by the door.
He greeted me by calling me his son. I didn’t understand. He was not my father. My father had never been a religious man, even though he called food his religion.
He asked me to have a seat with him. I didn’t feel like sitting since I’d been sitting all day, but I sat anyway because I was unsure of how long we would be talking.
“I know this must be tough, my son, but I am certain that God will have mercy on your soul if you repent and sign your assets over to the church.”
I watched the priest. His collar was so tight it looked as though it might choke him at any moment if it were to become angered.
I just watched him as he continued to speak. I found it more interesting to watch people speak than to listen to what they are saying because I found it to be such an ugly act. The way people move their lips and the gurgling and choking sounds that bubble up from people's throats and then roll around in their mouths before being spit out like distasteful food.
“Jesus loves you very much. It would make him cry to have to cast you into the fiery pits of Hell,” he said and pushed a legal document across the table towards me. I skimmed the page and saw that it was a pre-written will saying that I left my assets to the church and that I hoped by doing this God would have mercy on my soul.
The priest pushed a blue pen into my hand and taped the line that I was supposed to sign. It occurred to me that he thought I didn’t speak English. Perhaps he thought this because I hadn’t bothered to speak to him during our meeting.
He smiled and nodded and pointed again to the line on the paper encouragingly.
It would’ve made most people angry to know that others thought that they could take advantage of them so easily; that others thought that they could manipulate them like children.
I signed my name on the line. I didn’t care what this man thought of me; I didn’t even know who he was. Nor did I care that all of my assets would go to the church; for all I knew, I had none.
I did not sign my name out of desperation for forgiveness. I signed my name because I felt that it wasn’t important.
“Thank you, my son. May God smile upon you.”
He grabbed my hand and shook it more vigorously than the rumbling. Then he left and I didn’t see him again.
After my visit with the priest, I was not taken back to my cell. I was taken to a different cell. It looked the same, but I knew it was different because it was in a different hall. I knew this hall was different too because I could not see the big window. There wasn’t a window. There was only an off-white cinder block wall. I thought that maybe one of the blocks would fall, just as one of the window panels had, and I would be able to see something on the other side. I didn’t know if it would be the sun this time. But, it was also difficult to imagine what I’d see if a cinder block fell since I couldn’t see anything. All I could imagine I would see would be the black nothingness again since that was all that I had ever seen behind a cinder block.
This hall was quieter than the other hall, and I often times wondered if maybe I was the only one staying in this hall. I liked the idea of having the hall to myself. It was like having the chair to myself. I felt like I was in a position of power to have such a big space. Like a king in a palace. But surely, they’d realize their mistake in a few days and take it away. Just like they had done with the chair.
After a few days went by they still had not realized their mistake, and left me alone in the empty hall. But things had changed. The door to my cell was no longer open, and I was no longer let out of my cell. My meals were pushed through a slot in the door by a hand that belonged to no one. I thought it was considerate of them to bring me my meals, and thanked them each time they pushed a new meal through the door. I truly had become a king. I was even the type of king with servants.
Even though I was a king, they would not allow me to go to the pool anymore. I liked to think that it was because the pool was being renovated so that it’d be more fit for a king, but I knew that wasn’t why. Yet I didn’t know why, either.
I now showered alone as well. But that was no different I suppose since usually, I couldn’t even see the other people taking a shower in the room with me. However, since I was the only one showering it did not get as steamy as what it usually did in the room. I had liked the steam very much. It had been like a veil, and now that the veil was gone I was alone and exposed in my own humanness.
In my new cell, there was a smell that sometimes floated in. It smelled of burning tar and sour shag carpet. It must’ve been the rest of the organs in the prison breaking down completely and the body beginning to rot. Since I hadn’t even seen the rest of the prison in such a long time I wondered if it was even still there, or if something had happened to that part of the prison.
I was lying in bed and watching the ceiling. I wondered if there was anything above me. A cinder block fell from the corner of the ceiling and broke in two on the floor. I sat up and looked at the hole in the ceiling and the broken block on the floor. I could hear the hasty footsteps of guards running down the hall to my cell. I could hear them fumbling with the keys outside my door. When they opened the door they saw the block on the floor and yanked me from the cell. I was moved immediately to the cell right next to that one. The door was slammed. It was the same as the other cell. Except this cell had all of the cinder blocks in its ceiling.
The next day I was taken from my cell once more and escorted by two guards down my hall. We walked through one hall, down another, and up the other. These were halls I didn’t recognize. And was a part of the prison I had never been to before.
We stopped before a door at the end of a hall that I did not know and waited. I expected there to be another cell identical to the one I had just come from. However, when they opened the door I saw a hall of a chain linked fence with barbed wire curling around the top. There was a sky instead of a ceiling. The sky was grey, as though it had inhaled all of the smoke burning from the body of the prison over the past days. There were trees on the other side of the fence. Their leaves were orange, making them look like their tops were on fire.
I could not see the sun that I had seen on the day that the window panel had fallen. It must’ve been behind the clouds.
We walked through the door and into the fence hallway. It was cold outside. It must be fall.
The grass was yellow.
When we reached the end of the fence hall there was another door. And that door brought us back inside.
This room was different. It was a room split in two. There was the room I was standing in and a room that I could not see behind a tinted window. That room surely held people. I do not know how many people. But I am sure that the other room was not empty.
In my room, there was a table draped in a cloth. This table had two doctors standing next to it. Their faces were covered. I could not see who they were, but I wouldn’t have known them anyway.
The two guards laid me down on the table and strapped belts around my wrists, ankles, waist, chest, and forehead. The belts were attached to the table. I could not move.
One of the doctors asked me if I had prepared any words. I didn’t know. I knew they were about to grant me my freedom. I wasn’t certain if this was what I wanted. Where would I go once free? Was I supposed to do something?
“Er þetta ekki heimilið mitt?”
But the doctor didn’t understand. He had grown up with parents who were both teachers for a university up north. So, he only spoke English.
He turned to the window and said, “He has nothing. We shall proceed.”
The two doctors placed two machines that hovered just above my right and my left arm. They flipped a switch on both of the machines. Then they both left the room.
I could hear the machines ticking as they prepared themselves. Then there was a long tick, as though it had gotten stuck. Needles launched themselves into either of my arms and released a fluid that burned my veins.
I felt heavy. As though lead had just been injected into my veins. The fluid began to make the room grow foggy like the showers. And I was safe.