LIBERTY, KENTUCKY. — Jerry, the grill cook at Sandy’s Pool Hall, knows a thing or two about serving up comfort too. The lunch counter and pool hall are located in a town whose main attraction is its prison – the Casey County Detention Center. There is only a tenth-grade kind of irony in building a prison in a town called Liberty; the building itself could double for a high school. The people who built it are market leaders. A courthouse, police station, bail bondsman, and bevy of youth services businesses make up the center of what functions as the town square. Sandy’s is off to the side. Most of the patrons are either headed to or recently released from the nearby facility; others put in appearances due to court dates or visits to those on the inside.
“You just get out?” A young teen next to me asked eagerly.
“You got a family member inside?” he continued.
“No, just passing through town,” I submitted as cavalierly as possible.
“Oh. Got family in the area?”
“Just passing through,” I said finally, my cover blown, an outsider.
Just a few seconds later he raised from his stool and joined his friends playing pool in the back room. Country music and hip-hop played on the jukebox. I stared down into my coffee with powdered creamer. Jerry, the grill cook, came over to refill my cup and share a passing comment. I watched the teens in the back play at pool and smoke cigarettes.
A nervous couple joined me at the counter. The man wore a white undershirt and all manner of tattoos up and down his arms. His girlfriend wore jeans shorts and a t-shirt that was a faded color somewhere between orange and yellow. He smoked anxiously. She clung to his free arm.
“What you got that comes out fast?” he asked.
“I can do almost anything on the menu fast, except the fish fry. I can’t do that fast,” Jerry replied.
“How ’bout the chili dog, can you do that quick?”
“I already got a batch of chili made up, so, yeah, I can get that out pretty quick if that’s what you want. The beef barbecue’s about the fastest thing I can get out, if you want something real quick.”
“I’ll stick with the chili dog,” the man stammered out in clouds of smoke. “You want that honey?” he asked the girlfriend’s nod. “Yeah, make that two of those,” he called over the counter, “and two cokes.”
A tattoo of a black spider web on his elbow flexed and distorted with each subsequent puff on his Marlboro. I recalled an article I had read in Newsweek during my teens citing the rise of white supremacist hate groups in prisons. The article noted that tattoos of spider webs were symbols that the bearer had killed a black person. I have been on the lookout for such a tattoo ever since.
Jerry approached the couple, austerely, carrying the two plates. “Court date?” he asked in a low voice.
The man looked down at his chili dog, extinguishing his cigarette in a black plastic ashtray. He stared back up at Jerry with the kind of desolation that is neither plaintive nor boastful. “Sentencing,” he said back.
Jerry returned him a low nod and resumed cleaning the grill on the other side of the kitchen.
The man might have smoked two more cigarettes in the time it took to finish his dog. It was what amounted to his last meal as a free man for an as yet to be determined interval.
Jerry returned to his station to collect the plates. The girlfriend had hardly touched her dog. “I ain’t much hungry,” she said.
The man asked Jerry about a mutual acquaintance. They chatted briefly. Jerry returned their plates to the sink. The man pulled his pack of smokes from his back pocket; after it he fished out a small wad of folded bills from which he removed two crumpled fives.
Jerry returned to the counter and set his eyes to the man in the manner of an uncle or mentor. He placed a rugged hand on the counter. “You stay strong in there brother.”
The man met his eyes with all the strength he could muster, tears probably hiding somewhere behind his mask. He looked down then back up nodding to himself, swallowing. He held Jerry’s eyes again, “I will.” He repeated to himself, “I will,” nodding.
He turned to his girlfriend and angled his head towards the door, “Come on, let’s go.” She huddled towards him and the two exited in unsure paces.
A few minutes later Jerry charged me $.49 for my coffee. I too slid from my stool and out the door like so many others, and out of his life, probably, for a very long time.