A Durable Fire

Winner of the Writer’s Foundry Prize in Short Fiction

by Jane Snyder

When I got out of bed, Lisa had another proposal video to show me.

            A good looking older couple in a gondola. I admired how the guy got down on one knee without checking for water at the bottom of the boat first. “Like Sir Walter Raleigh. Doesn’t give a damn about his ice cream suit.”

            “Who was he again?”

            I told Lisa the story about Raleigh spreading his velvet cloak over a puddle so Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t get her shoes wet was probably apocryphal. 

            “Why would anyone make up something like that?”

            “Because it’s more romantic than what he actually did in the Queen’s service,” I said. I told her how, in Ireland, during the Siege of Smerwick, Raleigh and his men beheaded 600 Spanish mercenaries. 

            The mercenaries had been promised quarter, mercy, if they’d surrender.

            “Did they have special clothes for eating ice cream in medieval times?”

            Christ on an anachronistic bicycle.

            I was about to explain, realized she was messing with me. 

            “Funny bunny.” I pulled her into my lap. “The man in the gondola must have a guilty conscience, making a big gesture like that.”

            In the video the woman was laughing and crying. 

            “Happy,” Lisa said.

            “She has a sweet face.” I should have left it at that. “That’s one big honking diamond. I’ll bet he’s been with her mother.”

            Lisa stood, said she had work to do.

            Lisa was a teacher, had summers off, was supposed to be finishing her thesis for her master’s. She’d done the research, needed to crank it out instead of overthinking every goddamn thing. I went back to our room, sat on the edge of our bed, turned my laptop on. There was no room for a desk. 

            We were living in what used to be housing for married enlisted men, squat little houses put up quick in 1942, when there was an Army post in town. No bathtub, just a shower. Buckled linoleum in the kitchen. When we married we’d buy a house, we said. I paid the rent. When Lisa moved in I told her to put her half towards her student loans, figured if we broke up at least she’d have something to show for her time.           

            I read an article on how to propose.

Go down on your left knee. Extend the ring in the jeweler’s box with your right hand

When escorting the shackled offender place your left hand on his left shoulder. With your right hand continue to maintain a secure grip on the chain behind his back.

            I already had a ring, my grandmother’s pink sapphire. My father had let my brother and me each pick one of her rings after she died. “For the girl you marry.” 

            Garth went first because he’s older.

            My mother laughed when he grabbed the biggest diamond. “You’re an opportunist, Garthie.”

            I didn’t care because I liked the pink one best, still do.  

            When Garth tried to flick his ring across the table at me, Dad laughed, too, and took them from us. “These are going back to the bank til you’re ready. Not,” he’d said, “for a long time.”          

            I showered and went into the kitchen to iron my shirt. I was going into work early to interview for a permanent sergeant position. I pulled the ironing board down from the wall. Lisa was looking at white dresses again. “You’d look good in that.”


            “Any of those. You’re already beautiful.”  

            She went back to her thesis. I looked at her screen. 

If students are fully engaged, the teacher has less classroom management problems

            I finished my shirt, offered to iron her panties. “I’ll render them hot and slick.”

            “You’ve said that before, Jeff.”

            She started typing again before I could apologize, didn’t look up when I left, didn’t say anything about my suit, the one I wore to be best man for Garth’s wedding. 

I’d been acting sergeant in Delta Unit for three months while Angie Castillo was on maternity leave, but Angie was back. The plan was for me to return to my old spot in Segregation next week. Until then I was filling in as needed.

            Sergeant Hansen, my boss in Seg, warned me they’d look bored during the interview, wouldn’t nod or smile.

            I sat at one end of a long table and they sat at the other. Captain Womack could have been asleep. Lieutenant Reese asked the questions. What would you do if, what would you do then. I listened carefully. 

Stop offender movement.

Secure the scene.

Collect offender IDs. 

            Every time I answered a question Reese would ask if I was done. 

            “Are you sure, Officer Carr?”

            “I’m sure, sir.”

            Seventy minutes of that. Then the last question: “What makes you the best-qualified candidate for the job?”

            “I have no way of knowing, sir. Many of my fellow officers are well-qualified.”

            “This is your chance to brag a little,” Reese said. “Tell us what we don’t know.”

            “My evaluations have consistently recognized my good judgment, quick response to emergencies, work ethic, leadership skills, attendance record, and rapport with offenders.”

            Lieutenant Reese said I’d be informed of their decision “in due time.”

            I’d have liked to go home, kick myself for not playing the game, let Lisa build me up a little, but I changed into my uniform and went into the muster room.

            Report hadn’t started. Everybody was having fun, teasing Lonnie Beal.

            Lonnie worked days but he was holding over, doing a double, planning to use the overtime to buy his daughter Meggie a bowling alley.

            “Not for her. For her dolls.”

            We wanted to know more. 

            “What kind of scores them girls get?”

            “Is the pinsetter automatic or do they have to do it themselves?”  

            “Completely motorized,” Lonnie told us. “The lane lights up whenever a doll bowls a strike. And it comes with two pearlized balls.” He turned red when we laughed. 

            Day shifts Lieutenant Reese began roll call five minutes early, glared at anyone who came in after he’d started. Lieutenant Schmidt strolled in at 2:31 and we settled down some. Sergeant Hansen gave report, standing up straight at the podium. Schmidt usually had him do that, wanted to make the old guy feel important. 

            “Thanks, Ross,” Lieutenant Schmidt said when he finished. “You’ve got us off to a good start.” He thanked Lonnie then, for holding over, and me, “because you’re both on dry cell watch.”

            Well, fuck. On dry cell watch you sat on the tier with another officer, a table for paperwork and playing cards between you, looked at the offender through the bars of his cell, talked with him if he was so inclined, listened for grunts. 

In a dry cell the water source is shut off. The toilet bowl is flushed, then covered and taped to prevent the offender from disposing of objects. 

Officers record time of offender urination and defecation. Note consistency, color, and approximate quantity of feces. 

Dry cell suit is to be worn by offender with locking zippers and attached booties so contraband will not be lost if offender excretes down the pant leg. 

            He reminded us to use appropriate protective equipment. “Maintain the use of a barrier when examining fecal matter.” 

            We laughed. “Thank you, sir. No need to tell us twice.”

            The dry cells were at the end of A tier in Segregation. The offenders, Muse in 101 and Clark in 102, seemed to be asleep.

            Neither of them, the day shift officers told us, had produced a bowel movement. “Hope they’ll go for you.”

            Clark had been observed at the weight pile two days before with a balloon, contents unknown. He’d swallowed it when an officer approached.

            Muse was old-school goofy, went through the trash, put his face down into it. He’d swallowed a glove, one of the purple latex ones we wore for searches. The plan was to grab it when it came out before he put it back in his mouth.

            He had gotten up for lunch, so we let him sleep. Clark had not. We banged on his bars, asked him if he needed his suit unlocked. He lifted his head to say he’d been with both our wives, he’d never known such grateful women, before flopping back facedown onto his plastic mattress. 

Lonnie’s family was coming up with a supper to eat with him at the picnic table next to the staff parking lot. Muse woke just before he left. Sergeant Hansen took his place, told Lonnie to take an extra twenty minutes. “Kiss those babies for me.”

First level supervisors and sergeants are not to authorize additional break time.

            Muse sat up on his mattress and stretched, gave us a sleepy smile. Hansen told him he’d bring him a Where’s Waldo book as soon as he pooped. Three days Muse had been holding it, was probably good for another two; offenders didn’t get much in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables. “We’ll turn your water back on, get you out of that nasty suit,” Hansen said. “You’ll like that, Bruce.”

Use of first names between officers and offenders encourages familiarity and leads to discipline problems.

When offender on dry cell watch expresses an intent to defecate: two officers enter cell, tape a layer of plastic wrap under toilet seat, remove offender’s suit, stand within arms-length.

            Muse squeezed out a big one. Dense, dark, a bit of purple latex stuck out the end. The smell didn’t bother you as much if you breathed through your mouth but I’d never get used to standing close to a naked man. 

            “Well, now, that’s fine.” Hansen did the next part himself. Teased the glove out with the wooden stick from the kit, then stirred the shit to see if Muse had swallowed anything else. I turned on the water in Muse’s cell, gave him his hygiene supplies and one of the orange jumpsuits they wear in Seg. Hansen flushed the poop, put the contents of the kit in a hot trash bag, told Muse to wash his hands, took the bag and the dry cell suit with him, and went to get Muse his book.

            Clark was still on his stomach. Shoulder muscles tight, hands and arms underneath him, legs stretched out, feet hanging over the mattress. I walked to the bars of his cell, called his name. He didn’t respond.

            “If you think there’s a problem we’d best check it out.” Hansen came in with Lonnie and Sue Lindell. Another sergeant would have let Clark jack off in peace.

            The sound of his door being racked open would have woken anybody. Clark held still.

            We dropped down, rolled him over onto the floor on his back. 

            Clark started screaming, a berserker thing he would do, high-pitched, nonsense syllables. Blood was smeared on the mattress from his wrists and hands.

            Sue and Lonnie shackled his ankles. Hansen and I grabbed his flailing arms, cuffed him, stuffed gauze under the cuffs to keep the metal from rubbing against the scratches. A piece of thick brown glass fell to the floor when Sue unclenched his left hand.

            Hansen asked him, gravely, if he’d intended to kill himself. 

            Clark spat at him, landed a gob on his left cheek.

            I gave Hansen an antibacterial towelette from my service pouch. He wiped his face with it. 

            “No call for that, Mr. Clark.” 

            Lonnie and I put a spit sock over Clark’s head. We took the mattress from his cell so he couldn’t use it as a barricade and left him there.

            Sue’s wrists trembled. Hansen sent her with Lonnie to the clinic to get checked out and called to arrange Clark’s transport to the mental health floor.

            Clark quit screaming, asked for water.

            I could have told him to wait till he got to Mental Health but he hadn’t had anything to drink on our shift. No fluid intake recorded on day shift either. 

            I asked the tier officer to get permission from Hansen to go into Clark’s cell. Hansen came back himself with a plastic straw and a plastic carafe of tap water. 

            We went in. I walked behind Clark and pulled off the spit sock. I put the straw into his mouth and held it for him. 

            I felt his gulps against my chest. 

            After, Hansen left. I pulled the table back in front of Clark’s cell, started writing my notes. Clark said he thought I’d been a sergeant, the last time he’d seen me. 

            “I was.”

            “But you’re not a sergeant now?” He’d come up to the bars.            


            He was smiling as if he knew something. 

            “They going to put me in the rubber room?”

            Of course they would.

            “They’ll treat your cuts and evaluate you, then decide.”

            He snorted.

            “We want you to be safe.”

             “Tell me, Former Correctional Sergeant, why shouldn’t I kill myself?”

            I knew what he’d done to come to prison, couldn’t answer.  

            “If I died tonight there’s nobody on this earth would care, except for the paperwork.”

            “There are guys in your approximate situation, doing life, who’ve found something to care about.” 

            Some of them volunteered in the wood shop making toys for kids in foster care, sanding doll beds smooth so children they’d never see wouldn’t get splinters.

            I didn’t believe that would satisfy Clark.

            “You’re as smart as any of them,” I told him. “Smarter. If anyone can figure it out, it’s you.”

To be effective, praise should be specific.

            All I could think of was how good he was at finding your weak spot and using it against you. 

            “You never miss a beat.”

            “I don’t,” he said. “And I’ll tell you something else. I can be funny. People used to say I could do standup.” 

            I stopped in front of Muse’s cell on my way off the tier, let him show me all the Waldos he’d found, told him it was remarkable how he could find the real one in all those lookalikes.

“Take your time,” Hansen said when I asked for my break. “You’ve done a fine night’s work already.”

             I got my phone and lunch from my locker, went to my truck for privacy. A phone call was as bad as a text, but I couldn’t wait.

            “I’m sorry, sorry, so sorry,” Lisa said when she picked up.

            “What for?”

            “This morning. I was afraid you’d be too upset to concentrate.” 

            “This morning was my fault and the interview doesn’t matter. You’re what matters.” I listened to her breathe. “Say some more. I like hearing your voice.”

            “Well. I was so drove up I just attacked my thesis. The draft’s done. Want to proofread it tomorrow?”

            My day off. A morning in bed with her, a drive to the lake, maybe, wherever she wanted to go, a nice dinner somewhere, that’s what I’d had in mind.


            “If you find something wrong just fix it but don’t say anything.”


            “Unless it doesn’t make sense, then tell me. I won’t get mad. I want it to be good.”

            “It will be. It’s going to be so good.” 

            I wished I’d cleaned the truck. It was too dirty to kneel.

            “Please give me leave to love you, Lisa, because I do love you, sweetheart, I love you so much, and I’ll endeavor, I’ll try, oh, Lisa, I never want to give you any reason to question my love and if I ever fall short tell me, and please marry me. Please.”

            She started crying.

            “It was beautiful, Jeff,” she said. “More beautiful than I even imagined.”

            I was ashamed I’d waited so long.

            “Yes,” she said. “Yes.”

            We’re going to be happy, Lisa said, and I told myself we had as good a chance as anybody. Your parents’ church is fine. Sure, I like carnations. 

            I wondered what the boys and girls at Lisa’s school would think of her new ring. It flashed pink when you held it up to the light. 

            “I’ve got something for you. If you’re still up when I come home I’ll give it to you.”

            “I’ll be up.”

            “If you don’t like it, we’ll go to the store and get something you do like.” 

            “I’ll like it.” 

            When I returned to Seg Hansen took me into his office. I’d gotten the sergeant spot. 

            “Steve Womack said it was the best interview he’s ever seen.” He smiled. “Pick up that jaw, Jeff. You’re the only one who’s surprised.” 

            I thanked him, told him I’d be lucky to be half the sergeant he was. It was what you said. 

Jane Snyder’s stories have appeared in Frigg, Atlas & Alice, Blue Lake, Black Fork Review and X-Ray Lit. She lives in Spokane.

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