As Isaac Thomas walked jauntily down the bright, wide sidewalk at midday, he felt the weight of the book against his thigh, his wrist, the palm of his hand. It was a fat book, a big book, as red as a fire engine. It filled his hand and gave added emphasis to his step, and now and then he let it swing with the rhythm of his downtown strut.
Today Isaac could do no wrong. It was Monday, the beginning of a new week, and — he couldn’t help it — he felt good about himself. In fact, he felt better than he had in a long time — ever since he’d pumped three .32s into his ex-brother-in-law’s midsection at the Fifth Avenue Bar & Grill, because of the unfair treatment he’d given Isaac’s sister, Lucinda, the night before. Isaac felt better now that the ordeal at the courthouse was over, the month-long stay at the county jail during the trial, the eggs at 5 A.M., cold, powdered concoctions whose green tint clashed with the grits, yellow like the smashed guts of insects. He would balance the dingy, dented, aluminum tray precariously on the stained polyester knees of his good pants, the pants he had worn the night of the Fifth Avenue incident and almost every night thereafter for a full year while awaiting the inevitable: a ten-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.
But the trial was past now. He had arrived in prison and had discovered it manageable. Today he felt especially good because the weekend had finally ended. Saturday and Sunday were two-meal days with nothing to do but watch TV, hustle the next smoke, and wait for Monday, when the camp got rolling again.
The night before, Isaac had showered a full thirty minutes and afterward had taken extra efforts grooming. He had methodically worked coconut oil into his arms, his legs, his stocky frame, leaving his dark skin a rich shade of mahogany, and he had picked his hair out until it resembled a dark halo. He had pressed his best prison trousers and white button-up shirt with the navy blue stripe beneath his mattress so that his 180 pounds would leave the creases sharp and neat when he awoke the next morning.
And then he had laid the book just so, at a careless angle, so that it was the first thing he would see on Monday morning, its red cover and large white letters that read The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Now, with the day half gone, he felt better than he had hoped. The A+ he had earned in his morning class flashed in his mind as big and as red as the book he now swung with such studied disregard.
As other prisoners passed him, he felt their eyes take in the confidence of his step, felt them read in his face an attitude that proclaimed: “The week is here. It is mine. And I can do no wrong!” Then he felt those eyes drop to the big red book he carried with such casual indifference. There goes Isaac Thomas, he imagined them thinking, the guy with the big red book.
Marching into the school building for his afternoon class, Isaac felt the cool air flow over him, and his anticipation increased. He sat down at his desk, placed his book carefully in the well beneath his seat, and pulled a pencil from his pocket. Its point, he noticed, was worn down from all the writing he had done earlier that day, the writing that had earned him his A+.
Rising from his seat, he walked to the pencil sharpener. The instructor, Mrs. Vargas, smiled and said hello. “I see you’re due to begin Book Two” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, taking his workbook from the shelf.
Isaac opened the workbook at his desk, flipped several pages over to his bookmark, and mouthed the words as he read:
Bob has a book. The book is red. Bob will read the book. The book will be read.
Every so often, his fingers would slip down past his thigh to the well of his desk, to the other book that lay beneath him, and his fingertips would trace the lettering, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and trail lightly over the smooth, hard surface.