There were only a few of us inside the holding tank, and after I gingerly stepped over someone sleeping in the dead center of the floor, I was grateful to find the last free corner. With a little luck, I thought, perhaps I could doze off, too. (The toilet paper Larry had given somehow felt like a security blanket.)
I had just drifted off when the moaning started. I tried to ignore it, but it went beyond some fitful soundtrack to a bad dream. A fellow I hadn’t even noticed before was on the floor of the tank, writhing in discomfort.
He started pleading to see a guard, claiming to have had a heart attack the week before, and in dire need of returning to the hospital. I surmised he was most probably suffering from heroin withdrawal, but that hardly made it less unpleasant. Dope sick is on par with food poisoning when it comes to feeling like you are about to die.
After what seemed like a solid hour, I started to press the “emergency” intercom. Finally, after twenty minutes or so, a deputy answered and asked what was wrong.
I resisted an overwhelming urge to mention how many times I’d rung the buzzer, and stuck to the point at hand.
“There’s a guy here who’s really sick. Seriously.”
There was a sigh, then silence. I felt the wary eyes of the other men in the cell on me, as if they were afraid my do-gooding would somehow get them all in trouble.
The intercom crackled back on.
“He’s seriously sick?”
No, I thought sarcastically, I’m just bored and felt like playing with the buzzer.
“Yes, I think he’s seriously sick.”
Unexpectedly, I got some support from the peanut gallery.
“Yeah, man, we don’t want him dying in here.”
A big burly black guy had piped up from the corner. Smart. Appeal to their fear of a wrongful death lawsuit.
It worked. A few minutes later, a deputy appeared. He leaned over the sick prisoner and gathered just enough information for the paperwork he would have to fill out later.
“So what’s going on?”
“Man, I was in the hospital last week… I had a heart attack… I need to go back…”
He clutched at his chest and gasped for air. If he was acting, he deserved an Oscar.
The C.O. gave a go-ahead on his walkie-talkie, and a minute or so later some medics appeared with a stretcher.
I made sure to thank the officer, who asked me if I knew the guy. I shook my head. That was enough small talk for both of us.
There in the cavernous, windowless basement of the County Jail, the daytime fluorescents turned on. It was the closest we ever got to sunrise in there.