Every time I visited the prison commissary, I would buy a block of chocolate birthday cake using gold dollar coins embossed with a portrait of Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman who died in a zephyrous log fort from “putrid fever,” the property of a fur trader, the red girl who could dig up wild licorice and talk to white men.
The piece of cake, it seemed, was cut from the earth: two square layers like finely sifted lava, divided and topped with thick silt buttercream, garlands of pastel roses and shells trimming its edges. It was the platonic form of cheap birthday cake, the very idea of cheap birthday cake, a perfect solution to the problem of universals, a proven property of the American nativity celebration. The cake itself a little dry, the piping irregular, slabs of icing sliding off like pieces of warm glacier. I craved it the way I craved uncomplicated feelings.
It tasted like chocolate had before I associated it with sex. The icing and cake uncommitted, seemingly unaware of each other—one powerfully sweet, one dull and bready—together only to neutralize and create a universally agreeable, albeit unstimulating, experience. A vanilla chocolate. A happy birthday. A painless indulgence free from the notes of coffee, chili pepper, and licorice in the chocolate I discovered as an adult, the kind that’s exquisite in its ability to satisfy and sting.
Every weekend, a prison employee would set up makeshift commissary tables in the visiting room so friends and family could sit with their incarcerated men and maintain the illusion that they were dining, not eating. I wasn’t there as a loved one. I was in the Protective Housing Unit (PHU) at Corcoran State Prison performing research interviews with some of its residents, most of whom had been placed in the PHU because of their infamy and their inability to protect themselves from the general prison population, most notably Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, who aged unceremoniously behind Plexiglass.
The prisoners, who were not allowed to touch money in public, would crane their necks as their visitors perused the commissary’s inventory holding Ziploc bags of gold coins. My piece of cake always sat in a plastic shell next to burritos, sandwiches, pie slices, candy bars, chips, tamales, popcorn, fruit cups, and jade avocados. I’d buy the person I was interviewing anything he wanted as well as a single piece of chocolate cake for myself. The vendor would accept my handfuls of coins, and I’d watch the Sacagaweas whisper and fall into the dark mouth of his fanny pack.
Before my visits, I would feed crisp twenty-dollar bills into the prison’s change machine for dollar coins. Because they were unmarkable, Sacagaweas were the preferred currency of the PHU, which forbade anything that could be folded and passed with a message. I wasn’t allowed a pen and paper, let alone an electronic recording device, and thus had to rely solely on my memory when conducting face-to-face interviews over a series of years. I would always wear a long-sleeved black shirt and long black slacks, my large breasts bound and flattened in a tight athletic bra, my long brown hair down and un-styled. I wore no adornments: no makeup, no metals, nothing that could distinguish me from one visit from another. I learned that, by making myself a mathematical constant, I could better remember previous visits and tie them into a continuum (I had read that a person can remember facts better if she recreates the situation in which she learned them). I told myself to always choose the cake because the taste memory would bring me back to the story. I would wash it down with an icy can of soda from the vending machine that had handwritten slips of paper taped inside its clear buttons.
Truly, though, I would eat the cake it because I was afraid to have anything else. I knew how irrational it was, how evil it must have looked, to turn down perfectly good food that the prisoners were desperate to get. I’d feel the shame radiate from families who couldn’t afford to buy their loved ones something special to eat. A prisoner I interviewed got sick from a large meal I had provided him, and I imagined him retching, alone, into a silver toilet with no lid. I knew that it wasn’t a microbe, but an unfamiliar richness, that did him in, but still I only ate the cake.
I would eat the cake for comfort. I would eat it slowly while I listened. When something didn’t add up, I would use the tips of my fork to casually tease the frosting into a fluff, take a bite, and feel the pastel roses and shells burn up in my stomach. By the time the frosting was gone, it would be time for the prisoner’s voice to hush to a whisper, for me to lean in and learn what other men were bragging about in the silence of cell blocks: that there were more women, younger ones, that the one whose body was found, cold and putrid, by the shore of a lake was the best a man could have.
I would flip the cake, which had lost its sweet cover, back and forth with my fork, searing both sides.