A Box For Broken Toys – Dante Modaffari

Last night Jonny fell out. I think he died, and that we all laughed, but I’m not sure. We sit in here and watch pre-season football and music videos with white, dazzling teeth and we are addicted to food that never drops out of a vending machine.

They told me I have to get a job but I don’t want one. We want money, to be sure, but not jobs. You have to tell people who you are. Valence is sitting across from me in the dayroom, and he is dying. He would rather go back to prison. He asks me if I have found a job yet. I tell him no.

“I had an interview,” he tells me, “to be a dishwasher. Then suddenly I realized—why an interview? Why is there a process, a process of elimination, to decide who the best candidate is, for, what is quite literally—and I mean this—the lowest position on earth?”

I tell him I don’t know, and can we please watch the Fall Out Boy video, because there might be girls in the background. He tells me no.

“And why is there pre-season football?” he goes on. “Why go through the motions?”

Just then someone comes in. It is Waldo, the person who sells cigarettes for one dollar. We all hate him. He has an incident report in his hand, and tells us that Major wants Ronald, Gary, and Bleibtreu all to come to the office.

“And you too”—he points to me—“he wants a U.A. from you.”

Someone tells Waldo that he killed Jonny with bad Spice and Waldo walks out. Someone tackles someone on TV and I wonder how many quarters I have.

Spice doesn’t show up in your system. Neither does Suboxone. People with addictions are craftier than people with jobs.

Before I am summoned over the intercom again, I go to the payphone. I am allowed outside with the right kind of passes, but I am too scared to go outside. I call the middle man.

“I may go back. Listen, I can’t sell any. It’s too hard to get a phone.”

“But everyone has smart phones,” he says. “I know so.”

“Yes, but what they don’t show on TV is that no one wants to let you use them. They’re addicted to them, and, on top of that, they think you’re sick for not having one.”

Major comes out of his office and tells me no three-ways. He was in the military, to make our country safe again, and to ensure his life in the law enforcement community.

“Major, I’m talking to my mom and your U.A.s are cheap.”

“Excuse me?”

“We can beat your U.A.’s. Send a memo.”

I hang up the phone and think about Jonny dying. I laugh a little. The first three days you are not allowed to look for work. In two days most have overdosed on Spice or ran off; the rest are addicted to meth and MTV. The ones with tolerances are sent out to pretend to look for work and come back with cigarettes looped around their pelvic bone. What happened to Jonny was funny, not because I am malicious, but because I am dying.

I run down the hall and Major yells after me about missing count, and about finding a job. It’s hard to ask for something you don’t want. It’s hard to ask for something you’re not addicted to.

The first allowed phone call:

“Do you hire felons?”

“We don’t even serve felons.”

The second:

“Do you hire felons?”

“Depends. What kind?”

“The violent kind.”

On my third and final phone call, I gave up telling the truth and confessed that I was convicted of armed robbery, then said: “Just kidding! I ran an illegal hedge fund.” The interviewer asked me how it worked. I told him I put on a suit.

I am in between worlds. I am attached to nothing, yet know everything. I sell drugs back to the people in prison. I flatten tar and put it under stamps. I take strips of Suboxone and put it in the flaps of yellow legal envelopes. I sell it to skinheads. I sell it to myself. We are lost and we are thrashing. If you want something, you have to take it. You have to be someone, and smile, and show broken teeth.

I never used the phone again, except to update shipments. We realize everything we know is from TV. We realize it wasn’t that bad. This is bad. All the violence happened to the right people. Here, it can happen to anyone. The Penitentiaries know what they are: you know what you are. You walk a tight ship. In the mediums, anything can happen because there is no real threat of imminent death. At a low, no one does anything because they’re too scared to go to the medium. And so on and so forth. When you reach ground level, you just revert to animalism, to street logic and tactics. You revert back to the wild.

I duck into my room and the news says six people have died from Spice. Everyone laughs. They also say the weather will be nice, if you have a job and your teeth are white. It doesn’t say for the rest of us.

I buy a cigarette for a dollar and share it with six people. They all live. Valence is still in the dayroom, complaining that “the score reflects nothing,” and Jonny is saying how he wonders why he wasn’t sent back.

“Because it isn’t illegal,” Waldo ventures. He lights up a stick of Spice, stares at the abnormally long cherry, and frowns.

“You’re still alive?” someone says. “Holy shit—we thought you died.”

Jonny nods. “I have to find a job.”

A bunk is empty, so we expect a new guy. Someone asks me why I have no suboxone left and I tell them it’s because I sold it all to white-trash Nazis in prison, the kind not on TV. I move things I don’t care about to the bottom bunk. Written on the underside in black marker: Today is the worst day of all. We only want people to take care of us.

I became friends with the skins was because I knew about music. I never knew what a skinbird was, or a SHARP or the ramblings of Edward Norton on American History X. I knew one thing: punk. They were astounded that I knew of Skrewdriver and black metal with NS ideologies. I was too scared to tell them what it means love something. It means you take the good with the bad, or some such platitude.

On my release I was given the order: to find suboxone, to find slow and go, and to find all this cheaply, mail it in perfume ads inside shitty magazines and check Western Union. Now I’m here, and I have no money, there are no phones, I hate pretty people and I’m addicted to food out of a vending machine.

I couldn’t refuse because I know will return. People feel sorry for those who are poor; they admire those who are rich. They fear people in prison, and are indifferent to those that are not. We are lost and we are not quite broken. We are confessions from a broken-toy box. We are a platitude.

“I had an interview for some landscaping place,” Forrest says across from me, staring at his underside. “But by the time my pass got approved it was too late.”

“Is being gay cool?” someone asks.

“I think so,” Ralph affirms.

“What about being black?”

“Not yet.”

To get out of here you have to fill out a pass. It takes weeks. It’s supposed to take days, but it is also broken. The quarter is counterfeit, the machine is rigged, the claw is broken. You never worry about the toy. You go through the motions.

The new guy comes in and smiles. He has hope. Someday he will be cool, someday he will fit in. But not today. Today he is in between. We tell him to sit down while Waldo rolls, I wait, and no team wins.

About the Author: Dante Modaffari was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and has lived there for more than thirty years. He is vastly influenced by the works of Henry Miller, Céline, and Charles Bukowski.

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