April 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Detained

By Olivia Kate Cerrone
Published: 2017-01-02

A short alarm overhead signaled the end of their fifteen-minute reprieve.

"Brunch is over, ladies. Get your asses up. You don't pay taxes here," McLaughlin said.

"All I'm saying is that something needs to be done," Anel said. His eyes went wide again, a violent unhinged look returning that made Jean nervous. Such desperation was contagious, though Jean steeled himself against the restless uncertainty packed into each moment. He gathered together his plate and fork, and rose to leave.


Jean fit the mop head into the wringer, squeezing hard and lifting it out from the bucket to push along the gray shower tiles. He worked his arms in a steady circular motion, ignoring the stray dreadlocks that fell loose from his ponytail and across his brow, grateful to be outside that cell. The job eased the long hours between the case worker's visits and the absence of a lawyer or his deportation officer. Steam hung in the air from the morning. The showerheads ran so hot then that one could not stand beneath the water without getting burnt, so instead the men edged around it to wash. Jean traced long, wet streaks across the length of the enclosed square room. He forced away another thought of Elyse, his three-year-old daughter, with her easy grin and braided pigtails, woven through with small pink beads. He thrust the mop hard along the floor as his sight became wet.

For years he'd applied for citizenship, never receiving anything but a renewed work visa. His arrest for "disturbing the peace" served as a permanent mark against him. He couldn't forgive himself for getting involved in that bar fight, even after the decade he'd spent remaking his life, raising Elyse and working different construction jobs. Sweat greased his hold on the mop, though he refused to slow his pace.

Devi entered the room, shouldering more cleaning supplies. They were often put on the same custodial jobs together. Five-headed serpents covered the length of his muscular arms and neck. The bold, jade-inked scales contrasted hard against the orange sleeves of his prison jumpsuit. He poured a container of pink liquid soap into a smaller bucket of water and dipped a scrub brush inside, swirling the mixture around. Then he crouched beneath one of the showerheads and scoured the long tendrils of brown rust stains along the wall. His tall, broad-shouldered frame appeared boyish and awkward in his squat.

"Anel wants to strike," Jean said.

"He's always running his mouth," Devi said. A vein pulsed from the top of his clean-shaven head as he worked. The word "Nāga" stood etched in an elegant filigree across the back of his scalp, symbolic of the Cambodian gang he once ran with on the streets of Lowell. Years after an earlier prison release, he'd folded down any connections to his thug life. His recent arrest by ICE happened like Jean's — unexpected one night on account of a crime paid for years ago.

"The Nāga bring the rain. They guard the most holy places. What's holier than the body?" he'd once said.

Jean sunk the mop head into its bucket. "You know what they done to Imad?"

Devi nodded, the black letters winking, caught in the creases of his neck. "McLaughlin had it out for him. Remember when he went into Imad's cell and ripped up all his work? You know they're not supposed to be touching nobody's shit —"

"I was there," Jean said, recalling the tear and crinkle of paper between the guard's furious hands. He still kept one of Imad's pen-sketched portraits. Faces of men, most deported and forgotten, stared out from squares of toilet paper or scripture handouts distributed by the weekly prayer group. Imad sold them as a means of affording a phone call to his mother or kids. A minute alone cost five dollars. McLaughlin had searched through the cell that day, destroying every piece of art he could find.

"Dude should've kept his mouth shut," Devi said.

Jean nodded. Everyone knew that after Imad filed a grievance to the sheriff against McLaughlin.

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