Cleveland Russell was 58 years old, serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of one of the students in his high school chemistry class. His first two years were spent mostly in solitary, because the girl was young, pretty, and white, and Cleveland was none of these things, and that did not go down well with certain elements of the prison population.
Now his cell was part of a grouping of accommodation for non-violent offenders and aging criminals of various backgrounds, and he was taking a correspondence course in Deep Learning with Python, and alternately worked as cook and kitchen cleaner, depending on the whims of Garrett Sommerkinder, another murderer who had run the B South kitchen and passively terrorized his associates for almost three years.
Garrett Sommerkinder had taken a liking to Marcus, possibly because of his good looks and laid back demeanour, his obvious harmlessness, and his talent for acquiescing to authority without appearing to be weak or frightened. And attempted murder was not a crime to be sneered at, even among killers. So he had Marcus chop carrots and peel potatoes and cut celery into sticks and also put him in charge of the soup pot, a weighty responsibility that Marcus took very seriously.
That’s how Marcus and Cleveland found themselves working together, alone, cleaning up after Monday late meal. Cleveland was mopping the floors. Marcus was straining inedibles from the soup pot, things that couldn’t be properly blended smooth, like rinds and seeds.
Cleveland had a mop and a bucket. The bucket was full of clean, hot, soapy water. He was proud to clean the floors of the dining area and kitchen of B South. It’s how he looked at life now. There were good things in life, like hot, soapy water. There were bad things, like germs and grime. Cleveland was doing his part to do right, as best he could, and he didn’t care if it was in a small way.
“Take out the skins,” Cleveland advised Marcus. “But keep the leaves.” By “leaves” he meant herbs, if by chance the sad little garden in the clay soil by the generator ever produced a bit of thyme or parsley.
“So you got life,” Marcus said, as he picked out skins. It was a common early conversation. Never about the crime, just about the time.
“No parole,” said Cleveland, without pride, as some killers did.
“Didn’t do it though, right?”
“Well I did kill the child,” said Cleveland. He wasn’t a big man, but had a stocky, immovable frame. He moved the raggedy mop across the floor like a masseuse, with care, knowledge, and just the right amount of pressure.
“That’s too bad,” said Marcus. “I didn’t try to kill my wife.”
“No?” said Cleveland.
“No. I loved her. Still do.”
“So it’s a mistake.”
“Yes, a mistake that they thought I tried to kill her. I only wanted a bit of cash,” Marcus said. “I wouldn’t hurt her.”
“No,” said Cleveland. “But you did?”
Marcus said nothing. He ran his hands under the hot water tap, and dried them with a faded yellow striped cloth. “I didn’t think it would play out the way it did,” he said.
Cleveland was finished with the floor, and went to the sink too, and washed his hands, and dried them on the same cloth.
He said, “Nothing plays out the way you think it will.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” said Marcus.
Cleveland didn’t chuckle, or shake his head, or wonder at the denial that fuelled so many wrong-headed and futile attempts at self-understanding. He picked up the bucket and mop and moved towards the door leading to the main utility hallway.
“Marcus, is it?” he said. “Let me tell you, this place where you are at? It was your choice.”
Marcus shook his head. Obviously this Cleveland person didn’t understand. Marcus was not a criminal. Maybe he didn’t love in the conventional way. Maybe he made a few mistakes. He was a good man, really.
When Cleveland left the kitchen, a strange silence fell. Marcus could feel it. He made sure all the burners were off under the stove. He waited a few seconds for the floor to dry, then made his way to the door. He was tired.
He was a good man, really.