Chapter 18: We Replaced Their Everyday Coffee with This Toxic Sludge


We ended up somewhere in the middle of a cell block that was larger than I could properly perceive in the darkness. The cop unlocked a barred door and held it open for me. I walked through. The door slammed shut behind me. "Pick a bunk, kid," said the cop before lumbering away.

A couple of forms stirred in the darkness. There was no light in the cell itself, but dim illumination filtered in from the corridor. My eyes adjusted pretty quickly. The cell was big, maybe twenty feet by thirty. Jutting out from one wall were five two-level bunk beds—well, bunk cots, really—each decked out with a thin mattress and blanket. Maybe half the bunks were occupied.

Against the opposite wall were what looked like two metal picnic tables, complete with attached benches. There was a toilet in the corner, without a screen. The two side walls were made of bars.

I took the lower berth of the second bunk in line. The berth above was empty, but there were slumbering inmates to either side of me. One of them I thought I recognized from the holding cell earlier in the evening, but it was hard to tell in the dimness.

I didn't want the top berth because I was afraid of falling out. I didn't want to sleep with another person either above or below me, first because I wanted to be as far away from the other inmates as possible, and second because I didn't want to wake anyone up by clambering around on his bunk. Frightened nearly out of my wits, I rolled up my suit coat to use as a pillow, slipped off my shoes and put them next to the bunk, laid down firmly on my back, and resolutely tried not go to sleep.

This was a city jail, not a prison, but after that strip search I wasn't taking any chances. I was terrified—unreasonably, no doubt, but terrified nonetheless—of being raped.

I don't know how long I lay there with my eyes open. I only know that it was a long, long time, maybe a couple of hours. Eventually I did fall asleep, but not before convincing myself that my mission was at an end. When this ordeal was over, I was certain I'd be put on a plane back home to Utah. When a missionary commits a crime, that's it. It's over. Finito. Kaput.



At some point, I dropped off into blackness.

It seemed as though only a minute or two had passed before bright lights snapped on and a coarse voice shouted, "All right, ladies! Let's get those asses out of bed!"

Later that day, thinking back on things, I calculated that the wake-up call must have come at six-thirty (which, coincidentally enough, was the same time the White Bible decreed that missionaries must arise). At the time, though, all I knew was that someone was trying to get me to wake up long before I was ready to. Give me just ten more minutes, Dad . . .

"I said move!"

Reluctantly I struggled up from the bunk. Inmates were stirring all around me. A guard had opened the door to the cell and brought in a broom, a mop, a bucket of soapy water, and a few other cleaning implements. "Someone sweep, someone mop the floor, someone get the tables, and someone scrub the toilet," the guard said.

I didn't want to help with the cleaning—particularly because I was wearing my suit—so I hung back just long enough so that all the jobs were taken by other inmates. I know that was uncharitable of me, and I feel somewhat ashamed of it now, but on no account was I going to let the taint of jail sink into me any deeper than it had to.

After the cleaning was finished, there was nothing to do but hang out. A couple of new recruits had joined us sometime overnight, and the seven or eight of us either lounged on our bunks or sat at the tables smoking. (That is, other fellows sat at the tables smoking. I lounged around on my bunk. No caving in to peer pressure for me, nosiree.) A few of the fellows talked or joked around with each other, but for the most part we were a silent crew.

Eventually, the demands of my bladder drove me to the unscreened toilet. I had put this off as long as I could, still uneasy with the notion of doing my business while people watched. Somewhat to my surprise, no one seemed to care that I was peeing in front of them. When I was done, I went back to my berth and lounged some more.

The absence of my watch was driving me out of my skull. I was ready to climb the walls by the time a guard out in the hall announced breakfast.

The corridor outside filled up with inmates as the cells were unlocked one by one. When our turn came, we filed out the door and joined the queue outside. At the far end of the corridor was a long wheeled cart heaped with pots and hot-plates and a big coffee urn. When I reached the head of the line, a uniformed server handed me a plate. Meager portions of reconstituted eggs and crusty bacon congealed alongside a pair of round, flat items that were intended, I can only suppose, as a taunting parody of real blueberry pancakes. As I picked up my steel utensils, the next server tried to hand me a styrofoam cup filled with a thick, vaguely coffeelike substance. I waved the cup away, saying, "No, thanks."

The server thrust the cup at me again. "Take the coffee," he said in a low, menacing hiss—one that seemed all the more threatening for its lack of volume. This was supposedly one of the good guys, but I wouldn't have wanted to meet him in a dark alley—or even in a nice sunny one, come to think of it.

"I don't drink coffee," I said firmly. Mormons, of course, are forbidden to drink coffee by dint of a set of commandments known collectively as the Word of Wisdom. I had never tasted the stuff in my life. (Incidentally, I had my first cup of coffee in the summer of 1995, during a trip to San Francisco. Didn't really care for it at the time, but the taste has since grown on me in a big way.)

Well, it was one of those moments where all conversation seems to cease and the entire universe narrows down to just the icy-cold connection between two adversarial sets of eyes. If it had been a movie, this would have been The Start of Something Big—a prison riot at worst, or a simple knife-fight if the other prisoners were still too sleepy to get riled up. At the very least, I'd need to watch my back for the duration of the next two reels. I don't know what the problem was—whether the guy was under orders to see that every inmate got a cuppa, or whether I offended him by snubbing his special brew, or whether he just didn't like me and wanted to make trouble. Whatever it was, he wasn't going to flinch until I did. It was personal now.

So I simply moved on—just headed back down the row to my cell, waiting for the guy to tackle me or to throw the scalding coffee on me or to carve out my kidneys with a plastic spoon. But nothing happened. Nothing at all.

I'm glad life isn't like a movie.

Later I realized that I should probably have just accepted the cup and then passed it on to one my cellmates—possibly making a friend in the process—but I hope I can be forgiven for not thinking through all the possibilities while that swine tried to force his rotten coffee on me.

Heck, the stuff didn't even smell good. Normally I adore the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, but something that smelled like the stuff in that cup I wouldn't have fed to a goat.

Back at the cell, I found an open space at one of the tables, as far away from the others as possible. I ate my breakfast silently, washing down the pancakes with water from the drinking fountain next to the toilet. I nearly choked on those "pancakes"—if a word with such homey, savory, and belly-warming connotations can be used to describe those little round offenses against nature. I kid you not—the pancakes resembled nothing so much as circles cut from cardboard and dotted with a purple marker. Even the accompanying margarine and syrup did little more than moisten the surface of the pancakes into a sort of fibrous pulp. Blechh!

I ate every bite.

And at least I didn't have the coffee to deal with. As they drank it, my cellmates cracked jokes about toxic waste and industrial sewage and even more hideous substances—but even with laughter as a substitute for the sugar that helps the medicine goes down, not one of them could finish an entire cup without pulling a face worthy of Jim Varney at his most moronic.

Come to think of it, maybe it's a good thing I didn't take a cup and try to foist it off on someone else. There are worse fates than friendlessness, you know.

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

About This Story

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

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