The sentence hit him in the gut, like a brickbat from the streets of his old neighborhood. Still, under the circumstances, he knew that three years in the joint was about the best that he could have hoped for. With gain time, Prison Bob knew that he could be back out on the streets in fewer than twenty-four months.
Good behavior wouldn’t be a problem for inmate Robert Chambers. While he had sworn that he would never return to prison, he was determined to turn this experience into an opportunity for growth. That might mean learning another language, developing a new skill—who knew what the near future held? In truth, Robert was a little bit excited about the possibilities.
But prison life is tough for any man, and Prison Bob was no exception. As a bright, energetic, and engaging individual, however, he quickly made friends with the other inmates and became a member of a few of the more popular cliques. Friday nights were card nights with the boys from Block D. Saturday mornings, Robert and his pals would sit around eating breakfast together and talking about current events that they would read about in the paper. Sunday was “pigs in the blanket” day at the prison cafeteria, and any time was a good time for charades. Yeah, this wasn’t where Prison Bob wanted to be, but he knew that he was going to be just fine.
Nights are quiet in prison. After his cellmate, Pablo, would go to sleep, Robert could often be found reading Popular Mechanics or Scientific American with a penlight. Prison Bob was bent on improving himself, and no one was going to give him a job on the outside just because he was good at charades and ate pancake-wrapped sausages. Little did Robert know that his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and discovery would be the beginning of some serious troubles down the road.
One night, Robert spilled a glass of ginger ale in the cell. For this very reason, the prison officials frowned upon drinks in the cell, but the bulls usually let it pass if you offered them a sip. Because it was dark, Robert mistakenly grabbed a couple of shirts off of the credenza and used them to sop up the spill. When he used his penlight to survey the damage, he realized that he had soaked the very two shirts that he and Pablo were to wear to the morning prayer service in a few hours. “Boy, Pablo is really going to be sore,” thought Prison Bob. Robert briefly considered trying to get to the laundry room, but it was strictly off limits at this hour, and he didn’t want to risk a demerit for being out of his cell. He neatly spread the shirts on the counter of the cell’s kitchenette counter top hoping that they would dry by the morning.
Robert tried to sleep, but his concern over Pablo’s shirt began to consume him. He thrashed about in his cot for at least an hour before an idea hit him. Prison Bob got up and walked over to where he had placed his cellmate’s shirt. He collected the garment and pinned it over an air vent with a pair of tacks. There was only enough room for one shirt, so he hoped for the best for Pablo’s and went to sleep. When his watch alarm woke him three hours later, Robert’s shirt was still damp, but Pablo’s was bone dry!
Robert wore his damp shirt to the little temple, but he couldn’t have been prouder about having risen to the occasion and resolving the crisis. That morning, the other prisoners noticed that Prison Bob had a little spring in his step. A few of them even asked him why he was in such fine spirits, but Robert kept mum.
One of the things that pleased Robert the most was that he realized that what he had done was an experiment of sorts. His shirt was the control; Pablo’s the experiment. The test proved the expected outcome.
In the months to come, Prison Bob would not end his experimentation with damp shirts. Almost every event became an opportunity for a new trial of some sort. Other inmates started coming to Robert with the types of questions that prisoners are wont to ask.
“If I’m trying to lose weight, would it be better to skip cookies or soda?”
“Does turning a light on and off burn out the bulb faster than leaving it on continuously?”
“I’ve heard that a skull cap will keep me just as warm as a winter coat on a cold day. Is that true?”
Prison Bob would warn the other prisoners that he would not answer their questions until he had performed a proper experiment, even if the outcome seemed obvious. “Don’t turn your hypothesis into a law,” Robert would say with a chuckle, even though he was quite serious. Some experiments took only an hour or so, but many would take days or even weeks. So that everyone would benefit from his scientific processes, Robert began publishing his findings in the prison newspaper. It was rumored that the warden was a fan of Prison Bob’s experiments, and he awarded Robert his own column called Robert’s Corner. He also moved Robert’s job to the kitchen, where he would have access to heat sources, scales, glass containers, and other things that he could use for his experimentation.
On Robert’s birthday, all of the other prisoners gave him practical, if somewhat predictable, presents. Pablo gave him a graduated measuring cylinder. The Mexican guy, whose name Robert could never quite remember, bought him a rack of test tubes from the commissary. Johnny Hands gave Prison Bob a pair of Petri dishes in a beautifully wrapped box.
That night, when Robert went to bed, he glanced around at all of the beautiful lab equipment—some of it already in use. He realized in that moment, that however he had gotten here, he was finally happy. Robert fell asleep to the hum of the laboratory grade laser’s motor.
About this time, another inmate by the name of Maxwell Stark came to the block. He had been picked up down in Yorba Linda for a string of armed robberies. Stark had fought pretty hard when he was taken down and had even opened up on the cops with a .38 special. Because no one was hit, his attorney had gotten the attempted homicide charge dropped. Still, Angry Max was regarded as the new “bad boy” in Block D and was considered by one and all to be a real tough customer. Max was not very popular with the other inmates, and despite the fact that Robert and his friends all tried to include him in leatherworking, painting, and other activities, they were always hoping that he would opt out. Whether it was because of Prison Bob’s confidence and popularity, or due to a genuine hatred of discovery, Angry Max became very resentful of Block D’s resident scientist. For a few weeks, Max would try to instigate trouble by asking the other prisoners what they really thought about Robert’s experiments. Several of the weaker souls were intimidated and would say that they thought that Prison Bob’s experiments were “stupid,” or even “gay.” Consequently, Max became very smug.
The first Thursday of every month was “Make Your Own Sundae” night in Block D, and no one ever missed it. Unfortunately, there was very little hot caramel topping left by the time that Prison Bob got to the front of the line. Robert loved caramel, but he didn’t want to be “that guy” who took the last little bit. So, he asked everyone in the line behind him if they wanted caramel. A few of the inmates shrugged, and another said, “It’s all you, Bob.” Max, who was also behind Robert, said nothing because he was texting on his cell phone. When he reached the front of the line, he shouted so everyone in the cafeteria could hear: “Who the f— ate all of the caramel?”
While Robert did not really care for Max, he felt terrible that another inmate was denied his favorite topping. “Well, Angry Max,” he said, “I asked everyone in line whether or not they minded. No one said that he did.”
“You ate it, science boy?” Max fired back. “Let me tell you something: you suck. Everyone is tired of your stupid f—ing experiments.”
“Max, let’s just tone the language down a bit—” Robert began.
“NO!” Max shouted, “Let me finish. Did anyone read this week’s Robert’s Corner? ‘The Toaster Question: Does More Heat Necessarily Mean Darker Toast?’ Are you kidding me? It’s not science. It’s just the same s— that everyone already knows.”
Prison Bob was crestfallen. He certainly knew that not every one of his experiments produced earth-shattering results, but he had toasted 600 pieces of white, wheat, and rye bread—not pumpernickel—and he had been proud of the article. What hurt even more was that none of the other inmates had interceded on Robert’s behalf. If Pablo had still been present, he surely would have said something on Prison Bob’s behalf, but he had been called away to settle a dispute between two of the nurses in the infirmary over hairspray or nylons or something. Maybe he wasn’t as popular as he had thought. With those few hurtful words, inmate 473984, otherwise known as Prison Bob, was filled with self-doubt.
Robert left the cafeteria that night without finishing his sundae. The next morning, he got dressed to go to his job in the kitchen, but as he was walking down the corridor, he began wondering how he would be received. What if the other prisoners began criticizing his— what was it that he was supposed to be making this morning? Raspberry-cheese tarts. Raspberry-cheese tarts were in no way Robert’s most confident dish. Prison Bob decided to go back to his cell and call in sick.
When Robert missed the editor’s deadline for an article about potatoes soaking in brackish water, everyone became concerned, but no one more than his faithful cellmate, Pablo. Of all of the prisoners in Block D, no one had a better vantage point to observe Prison Bob losing his joie de vivre, and he became very worried. Whenever Pablo would try to talk to his chum, Robert would merely shrug and say everything was “fine,” just like a girl does.
In the two weeks after what had become known as “The Caramel Incident,” Robert had not conducted a single new experiment. He had even allowed a few of the experiments that he had previously started go by the wayside. Pablo decided that he had had enough. He called together the group of prisoners that considered themselves Prison Bob’s closest prison friends.
Punching his fist in his hand, Pablo told the group that it was high time that they do something about Angry Max. Also, Pablo had an idea that would put the spring back in old Prison B’s step.
Getting rid of Max was remarkably easy. Pablo made an appointment with warden and explained what a jerk old Max had been to everyone. This was also the first that the warden had heard of Maxwell Stark’s nickname. The warden didn’t care for prisoners who gave everyone an attitude. By the time the meeting was over, Warden Bill agreed that a transfer was long overdue. He signed the papers right in front of Pablo.
Restoring Prison Bob’s confidence would be a bit more challenging for Pablo and his chums. To do it, Pablo was going to require every scrap of yarn, not just in Cell Block D, but in the entire prison. While some of the inmates donated their spare yarn, others traded it for cigarettes and other commissary items. Once word got around that yarn was at a premium, prisoners began making a killing on the trades. This worked out for the shrewder inmates who got out before the bubble burst, but when Pablo said that he had acquired enough yarn, the market plummeted, and all of the remaining speculators took a bath on their holdings.
Using his dear deceased aunt’s knitting needles, Pablo began knitting a vividly colored scarf while Robert was working at the cafeteria. Before Robert returned, Pablo would hide the materials in the back of his mini-fridge where Robert never looked without permission. It took Pablo a week in total to knit the scarf. He had a regular job in the woodshop, but once the warden heard about the plan to restore Prison Bob’s confidence, he gave Pablo leave to pursue the scarf venture. Cranky old Joe, who managed the woodshop, grumbled a bit. “I don’t know why you don’t just make him a nice plaque or box to hold all of his doodads,” Joe snapped. But in the end he saw the wisdom of the plan, just like everyone else. “Oh, maybe I’ll make him a little rack to display his scarf for when he’s not wearing it.” Old Joe had a gruff exterior, but everyone knew that he had a heart of gold.
One day, Pablo almost blew the surprise. Prison Bob had returned to the cell after a long night in the kitchen where a grease fire had broken out and everyone got their asses chewed by the bulls for being careless. He asked Pablo if he could have an orange Shasta. Normally, Robert passed on Shasta, but he had a rough day. Pablo told him it was fine, but then remembered that he had stowed the scarf in a bag on the same shelf as the Shasta. “NO!” Pablo shouted a little too fervently. “I’m completely out. This is the last one. Drink mine. It’s just a little warm.” Robert told him not to worry about it and went to sleep without taking a bath.
When Pablo had finished knitting the scarf, he put it on and looked at himself in the floor length mirror that stood in Block D’s vestibule. The quality of needlework was only surpassed by the scarf’s colorful resplendence. “Not bad,” thought Pablo. He wondered for a moment if he could keep the scarf and make Prison Bob another. He quickly admonished himself for being so selfish. The reality was that there was no way that Pablo could afford another run on yarn, and besides, he asked himself, “Isn’t the greatest gift one could receive the gift of giving?” With that, Pablo the Knife removed the scarf and folded it neatly in halves and then in fourths.
It wasn’t hard to find wrapping paper and ribbon around the cellblock, as someone was always getting a gift from their folks at home and saving the paper for sentimental reasons. Pablo chose a royal blue wrapping with a subdued Fleur-de-lis pattern. One of the serial murderers thought that he should have used a more garish wrapping paper selection, but Pablo told him that he thought it best not to “gild the lily.” Pablo compromised by including the lovable maniac in the ribbon selection. After all, this was to be a collaborative effort.
When the big day came, Pablo made Prison Bob’s favorite lamb stew in the crock pot and straightened up the cell. He left the wrapped present lying on Robert’s cot with a simple card. When Robert returned from work, he asked, “What’s this?” Pablo just shrugged sheepishly and told him to open it.
Robert’s initial reaction was a little disappointing to Pablo, but he had anticipated it.
“Why don’t you wear it out to the Concert on the Green tonight?” Pablo suggested.
“I’m kind of tired. I was thinking about just calling it a night—after I have a little lamb stew, of course.”
“You eat your stew and then you get changed, mister. I’ve heard the strings are fantastic. And you know the winter performance is always the best of the year.”
“Fine,” Robert said with a shrug of surrender.
“Oh and, PB?” Pablo said.
“It’s cold on the quad. Wear your scarf.”
Robert did as he was instructed, and after a shower, shave, and change of clothes, he was ready for the show. He wasn’t so sure about the scarf, but Pablo had worked so hard on the gift, and he didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Suddenly, Robert realized why it had been so hard to get any yarn over the past week or so—not that he had cared much. It occurred to Robert that the scarf must have cost Pablo a fortune.
Robert donned the scarf with pride and wrapped it around his neck, throwing one of the ends over his shoulder in the prison “devil-may-care” fashion. No matter how he was feeling, he would wear Pablo’s scarf and he would march out onto that quad and listen to music under the stars in the cool November air.
What Prison Bob didn’t know, is that the gift was only part of Pablo’s plan. All of the other prisoners had been carefully instructed to compliment Robert’s scarf, but not to make it too obvious that it had all been arranged. With Angry Max gone, everyone was anxious for things to return to normal.
When Robert walked out of his cell and into the spacious, gray corridor of Block D, a younger prisoner who everyone thought was pretty cool greeted him. “Whoa, nice scarf, my man,” he said casually as he continued to polish the mahogany chair rail.
Robert thanked the prisoner and continued over to the guard station to tell them that he was going out for a while, as prison rules dictated. Both of the guards made monetary offers for the scarf, but Prison Bob was not selling. Naturally, this was all part of Pablo’s plan, but the guards actually did want the scarf.
By the time Robert reached the quad, he had received four compliments on the scarf and three nods of approval. He was starting to feel like his old self again. He even rather enjoyed the orchestra’s ambitious rendition of Beethoven Symphony No. 2, Op. 36, D Major. He was so moved by the magic of the night that he realized that he had to say something to the gathering of prisoners. During the intermission, he walked up to Warden Bill’s box seats and asked if he could say a few words. The good-natured prison boss agreed to the request.
“Anything for you, Prison Bob. Nice scarf, by the way.”
When Robert took the stage, a hushed silence fell over the crowd. One of the stagehands brought him a microphone. There was a bit of squelch at first, so Robert waited for the adjustment and then began:
“I would say ‘hello ladies and gentlemen,’ but since there are no ladies in the crowd, I’d just like to say ‘hello.’” Robert paused to allow the raucous laughter to die down. “I didn’t want to come to prison. I felt like it was going to be too oppressive. Most of you might not know this, but I had actually thought about heading down to Mexico to avoid serving my sentence. And while I have nothing against the Mexican people, I don’t think I would have met the friends that I have here. I’ve let my feelings and my crushed ego get in the way of what matters most to me: my scientific experiments. But more importantly, I let my friends down. I hope you can all forgive me for that.” Robert paused and stepped a little closer to the stage. “I’d like to announce the return of Robert’s Corner—“ Robert’s voice was drowned out by thunderous applause, so he waited for the din to subside. “And I would like to announce a new column that will focus on the economics of prison.” This time, instead of a cacophony of cheers, there was a curious murmur rolling through the masses. “No one should have to pay the prices that we saw in the past few weeks for yarn! Everyone should have a scarf as nice as this. If we had economic direction, this prison could be a much nicer place in which to live! My name is Prison Bob—otherwise known as prisoner four-seven-three-nine-eight-four—and I would like to announce that I’m extending my stay indefinitely!”
With that every prisoner rose to his feet and the bulls fired their guns up in the air in tribute and celebration. Pablo nodded to a man behind the stage who subsequently touched a torch to a fuse. Fireworks began rising up and exploding in the star-studded sky. The orchestra began playing the theme song to Star Wars—always a prison favorite.
Without proving it through experimentation, Prison Bob had learned that the most valuable commodity in the world was good old-fashioned friendship.