Mar/Apr 1999 Nonfiction

Squares, Monet, and a Dollar Bill

by Mark Brown

"Squares run four dollars apiece in here," Dollar Bill said, holding out a cigarette toward me as he sat on the edge of my bunk. "But I think I can spare one for you, Weekender."

Officer Cowley had taken my cigarettes when he processed me in a couple of hours before. As he escorted me to the cellblock, he had laughingly informed me that all Gibson County buildings were smoke-free environments. Like most guys, I slept off as much of the front end of my sentence as I could: two whole hours. Now, as I rubbed my bleary eyes, this immense black man sat on the edge of my bunk like a bear in those roadside animal shows that always caught my attention back in the Seventies. He had just introduced himself as Dollar Bill. Apparently, I would be known as Weekender, due to the fact I was only serving forty-eight hours for DUI, First Offense in the Gibson County workhouse. Usually, I don't smoke Mavericks. They taste like straw, but this was no time to be finicky.

"Why didn't they put you over with the dirty white boys?" Dollar Bill asked, nodding toward somewhere on the other side of the block wall behind us.

I accepted his cigarette. "Guess they knew I'd have better company here."

"Cowley knows what's up." He packed his cigarette against his disposable lighter. "Ever been locked up before?"


He held out the lit lighter, and I glanced through the wall of iron bars that separated us from the hall outside. "Don't worry," he said. "As long as you ain't smoking no dope, the jailers don't give a damn."

After lighting my smoke, I took my first long look around the cellblock. It was somewhere around nine o'clock. Not that we knew it, but outside a tornado was brewing in the January Sunday morning, a tornado that would kill nine people down I-40 in Jackson. Like a family of gypsy contortionists or Indian gurus, most of the other inmates sat on their bunks, stretching the sleep from their bones. One stepped off a few paces along the back wall. The lights in the cellblock weren't on, so we had to make do with the lights from the hall. Pretty dim. I made the eighth inmate in the block, full capacity, and the only white one.

"Where you from?" Dollar Bill asked.


He frowned like an irritated sea lion.

"It's in Middle Tennessee," I said. "I had to drive three hours to get here."

"What you doing down here drinking up our West Tennessee liquor?"

"Making a fool of myself."

"We all done that."

"Weekender," someone called from the other side of the cellblock. "Don't listen to that old fool. Don't nobody care what he has to say."

"Shut up, Billy Jack," Dollar Bill returned. "Only fool in here is you."

"Tell him why everybody calls you Dollar Bill."

Dollar Bill smacked me on the shoulder and said, confidentially, "Billy Jack thinks somebody's going to make a Kung Fu movie about him some day. Keeps getting thrown in here for fighting."

"If you had a dollar bill, old man, maybe you wouldn't write those bad checks," Billy Jack said.

"See, that's what's wrong with black men today," Dollar Bill said. "Always got to be starting something. Somebody says something about your woman, you got to hit him in the jaw. Somebody look at you wrong, you got to cut him." Dollar Bill shook his head. "Hell, you in here, and they out there laughing at you."

"I can kick your old ass," Billy Jack said. "Ain't nobody going to laugh in my face."

Dollar Bill blew a stream of smoke toward the blackened ceiling. Even in the darkness, I could make out the gray streaks running back from his temples like chalk smears across a blackboard. "What do you do?" he asked.

"I'm a graduate student." He frowned again, but I didn't bother to explain. "And you?"

He held his hands before him, palms up. "This, for about the next hundred days. I already been in almost three weeks."

"Are you married?"

"For fifteen years," he said. "Got a twelve-year-old daughter. She's pretty disappointed." He shook his head again. "All over a hundred and twenty dollars. Four checks."

His words made me think of numbers. Statistics. In Sociology, I'd read all the ones for 1996: almost three and a half million arrests in the U.S were of blacks, over 200,000 blacks were locked up in county jails, more than 200,000 blacks did a stay in a substance abuse treatment facility, less than 600,000 black men were enrolled in college. Statistics, statistics, and more statistics.

"You brought some books." Dollar Bill reached toward the stack of books beside my feet. "Not much to do in here other than read. I got some Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz, if you're interested."

My stack was made up of Flannery O'Connor's Collected Stories, Eudora Welty's Thirteen Stories, a non-fiction work entitled Inventing Southern Literature. All reading for a graduate seminar. I also had a paperback collection of Monet prints.

Dollar Bill went for the Monet. He jabbed his cigarette into the corner of his mouth, then thumbed through the book. I smoked and looked over Dollar Bill's shoulder at Monet's take on water lilies, picturesque white bridges over quiet streams, the burning House of Commons, Gothic cathedrals, and French folks.

"The people are kind of cloudy," Dollar Bill said. "Out of focus. Colorful, though."

"It's a style called Impressionism," I said. "The painter doesn't try to make the people look exactly as they really do. He gives you what he thinks they look like, his impression of them."

Dollar Bill pursed his lips. "I suppose you get people like they really look on TV. No need to do it in painting."

"That's about the way I look at it."

"I'd rather see what a man thinks about the world hisself, anyway. Hell, I can take a picture if I want."

"Weekender," Billy Jack called again. "You eat pussy? White boys love to eat that pussy."

"Shut the hell up," Dollar Bill said. "We're trying to talk."

"I'm just making conversation," Billy Jack said. "Do you, Weekender?"

"I've been known to," I said.

Dollar Bill shut the Monet and left it lying on his lap. "Don't pay that bastard no mind," he said. "Some people don't learn." He ran his big hand across the book. "I like art. Life is a piece of art."

"How's that?" I asked.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle," he said. "You can kind of see that it's all going to make a picture, but you ain't got all the pieces."

"Where do you get them?"

"By living. Everybody you meet and everything you go through is another piece in the puzzle." He smiled, uneven rows of white teeth below the dull thickness of his mustache. "The older you get, the more pieces you got."

"Do we ever get all the pieces?"

"If we're lucky," he said. "Hell, I don't know. That's for somebody else to decide." He nodded toward the ceiling.

"What if you don't like your pieces?" I said. "What if your pieces don't make sense?"

"You ain't the artist." He held up the book. "Did this guy ask what you wanted before he made these? Did he ask if they made sense?"

The lights came on in the cellblock. The other inmates began to stir more vigorously. One turned on the television, muttering something about watching Pokemon kick much ass, probably on all the cartoon enemies of God, country, and everything right with the world. I didn't really agree with Dollar Bill. Tidy answers rarely tie up all the loose ends of a complex problem. Do we ever find a philosophy of life we completely agree with, though? Down the hall, a heavy door clanged open.

"Breakfast time," Dollar Bill said.

"You know," I said. "I've been locked up with some extremely intelligent people."

He stubbed out his cigarette on the wall and tossed the butt under my bunk. "We ain't too damn smart," he said. "We're in jail."


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