Alcatraz by Benjamin Schlotman

Submitting to: Tuxedo 

Genre: Historical fiction 

I toss the button into the air the way I used to flip a coin before football games in high school. When it clinks on the ground, I shut my eyes–unnecessary in the total darkness–and spin around in circles until I fall over from dizziness. 

As I search for the button on my hands and knees I remember the sound of the crowd cheering. Cheering for me. Me. The quarterback. The uniforms were ill-fitting and did not protect me against frequent injuries from giant opposing players slamming their broad shoulders into my chest. Despite this–despite my being bruised and battered almost nightly–we sometimes even won. I’d be carried on my teammates’ shoulders. Or if someone else had made some great play I’d gladly carry them instead. I would kiss my girlfriend who was a cheerleader in front of the bleachers and my asshole friends would wolf-whistle and the white lights that illuminated the field made her eyes glow. 

In the stifling darkness of my six-by-nine cell I swear I can see her bright blue eyes. Her freckles and the soft pink of her cheeks in the cold midwestern night. The fog of her breath. My hand lands on the button. It was resting in the corner amid a small nest of spiderwebs. The spider who spun them was once my roommate but slipped away by clinging onto the bottom of the plate I was returning after a meal. I was happy to help him get out, if a little envious. I’m looking for the stupid button again, hoping this time it takes me a little longer. To be frank, I’m a little desperate for entertainment. 

The door booms, a guard’s fist slamming into it. Mealtime. The small gate at the bottom of the steel door opens and a plate slides through. 

“Spaghetti again?” 

“Be happy we let you eat.”

“I’m just worried about you, pal. Psycho in cell 23 said he was gonna stab the nearest guard with a fork next time they served spaghetti.” 

“Well, that’s why I’m here giving you your food and not in the mess hall with him. Was it the guy with the fingernail collection?” 


“Thanks for the heads up, kid.” Leaves. 

He calls me kid but I’m pretty sure we’re the same age. I’m a kid to him because the personnel of The Rock are responsible for me being fed, clothed, and bathed. Fuckin’ embarrasing. 

I eat my spaghetti in the dark. There’s not enough sauce by half. The Italian in me wishes I could do something about that. We dine on the most mediocre spaghetti this side of the Mississippi has to offer nearly every other day. I’m grateful for how flavorless it is. If it tasted or smelled anything like my mother’s recipe, I’d be perpetually longing for freedom, but worse yet I’d be longing for childhood, which I will never get back. 

When I let my mind slip into the past it makes me wish I could sink into the floor of my cell and suffocate. It brings me back to so many places I know I can never go again. The kitchen of my family’s cramped third-story apartment in New York. I was a snot-nosed, dirty, rowdy kid. The only things that could rein me in were food and music. Some old crooner, pre-Sinatra, was on a gently crackling record in the next room over and my father was scooping pasta into a bowl for me. 

“Your mother says real Italians eat off plates, but I don’t want you making a goddamn mess, so today you’re a fraud of a guinea dago.” He clapped my shoulder. “A disgrace to wops everywhere. Hell, your own mother married an Irishman.”

“Does that make me a disgrace to micks, too?” I asked innocently. 

He glared at me before breaking out into a warm laugh. “I guess so.” 

Then I was 13 years old, at my cousin’s house for Easter. My mother was making the sauce in their kitchen, which was staggeringly large to the mind of a young, poor city-dweller. My cousin Freddy and I nabbed some alcohol from the pantry and snuck out, down the street to some girl’s house. The smell of the sauce never left my nose as we crept along the sidewalk, each with a bottle of wine under our church-appropriate button-down shirts. The warm orange summer sun was setting beneath the hills and its dying rays burned into my corneas before it disappeared. We drank the wine under a tree in the backyard of that girl’s house and when my cousin ran off to piss in a bush, she leaned over and kissed me. Not surprisingly, it tasted like wine. I didn’t mind the taste of wine. 

Another. My first real girlfriend. The first time I brought her home, I was afraid for her to see how cramped and messy my apartment was. She was from uptown. Brownstones and all that shit. But the moment she walked in the house, all she cared about was knowing what smelled so good. And if she could get the recipe? In retrospect, I think that pasta sauce may have gotten me laid. The pasta they serve us on the Rock will never get me laid, but it may get some poor guard killed. 

When I’m done with the food, I slide it back out the grate on the bottom of the door and lay on the floor. I’m too lazy, too worn out, too fucking tired to bother feeling around in the darkness for my bed. 

The cold of the stone floor leeches into my skin. I shiver. And I think about what I did to get here. I don’t want to but I do.

In a way, it makes things better. When I remember what I did, it’s easier to accept my circumstances. I no longer feel impotent rage toward the Rock and instead I just feel guilt. Guilt is better than wanting to tear my way out of the cell with my bare hands. 

But not by much. 

I haven’t thought about it in months. I’ve been too busy with fury and frustration. With the notion that there’s something unfair about me being locked up in here. When I finally let my mind circle back to what got my sorry ass sent to the Rock to begin with, it doesn’t seem so bad. 

I find it hard not to be biased. I ever-so-slightly alter the events of that night to exonerate myself. I will try to avoid doing so this time. I shut my eyes tightly–again, unnecessary–and recount that night’s events to myself in perfectly accurate, sequential order. 1. I put on a suit. It was light blue. 

2. I drove to my buddy Mikey’s house to pick him up. Mikey was a porn producer. This was back when I lived in LA. 

3. We drove to the wedding. Parking was a bitch. That put me in a bad mood. 4. I suppose this is the part where I should disclose that I was sleeping with the bride. 

5. The ceremony was beautiful. She winked at me while the poor groom was reading his vows and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. 

6. We drove across town to this towering mansion they had rented out for the reception. The bride’s sister hitched a ride with us and told me, “Y’know, she wishes it was you in that tux.” 

7. I clenched my fists on the steering wheel. My knuckles were whiter than paper. 8. Mikey patted my shoulder.

9. It didn’t help. 

10. The reception was a picture of debauchery. There were no kids and nobody over the age of 50 at this wedding. A bunch of near-middle-aged washouts taking one last chance to get unabashedly shitfaced. 

11. The sister who’d been in my car got a little too talkative. I saw her whisper something in the groom’s ear when they were dancing. 

12. He went up to the bride. He didn’t see me. 

13. He grabbed her arm and dragged her upstairs. 

14. I followed. 

15. I listened through the door of the room they went into. 

16. There was a sickening thud. 

17. I burst through. 

18. She looked at me. Nose gushing blood on her white gown. Scared? Maybe. I don’t know. I thought so at the time. 

19. I stepped toward him. He put his hands up, like, “hey, I don’t want to fight.” 

I should tell you that I was never all that strong. I got into fights as a kid, but if I wanted to win, I had to fight dirty. I didn’t think about it in the moment, but I knew I had to apply the same method to fight this fucker. 


20. I took hold of his hand and bent his finger back until there was a harsh snapping sound. 

21. I punched him in the groin and he sank to his knees.

22. I thought to myself, this isn’t how fights go in movies. 

23. He fucking bit my ankle. Like the ratty little terrier my mother used to have. 24. I shook him off and he lay pathetically on the ground as I stared down at him. 25. I lifted my foot and brought it down on his face. Then I did that again. Then a few more times. 

26. He pissed his pants. 

27. His legs kicked out a few times. 

28. He stopped moving. 

29. She looked at me and smiled. Walked over to me. Wiped the sweat off my forehead. 

30. “I was hoping you’d do that. But…if I don’t scream for help, I’ll go to prison too.” 

31. I swallowed. 

It felt like no time at all had passed–of course, it had been months–when I was on the barge to Alcatraz with 50 other poor souls. 

I sleepwalked through my time there, except for when someone pissed me off, like by beating up on some skinny, weak little new kid. That was when I got put in the hole. Each time my stay got longer. 

I crawled across the floor and lifted the grate through which I had slid my plate. I reached under, slid it back through and held the fork. I twirled it between my fingers a little. It still had a little sauce on it.I’ve gotten used to the darkness, I think to myself. It feels more comforting than being out there. I can be alone with my thoughts in the darkness. Who the fuck needs to see? I plunged the fork into one eye. Then the other. The blood flowed down my cheeks and I flipped the button into the air, hoping maybe this time I’d never find it.