When We Hit The Strait of Gibraltar, Somebody Tell Ben-Hur
By Jeff Baker
With a clack and a buzz, the machine fired to life.
“Oh, Geez, here we go again!” The voice blended in with the assorted grunts and groans in the long, narrow room. Patrick gripped the handles on the metal oars and grit his teeth as he pulled, leaning back on the bench, then leaning forward as he pushed.
“That’s one,” he thought.
The Restitutional Penitent Servitude Act had been passed five years earlier. It was responsible for Patrick and sixty-eight of his fellow convicts sitting in what was basically a glorified rowing machine. It looked like the metal frames for a weight set gone berserk. But the government felt this was more humane than having inmates working on a prison farm.
“At least the benches are padded,” Patrick grumbled, listening to the loudspeakers keeping time so they rowed in unison, even though they were underground beneath a penitentiary, not on the ocean. Patrick threw himself into the rhythm, letting his mind wander. Pull. Push. Pull. Push. Pull. Push. His muscles burned, his butt chaffed.
Three hours later, Patrick was drinking the water he’d been issued on their break when he heard the voice over the din of other inmate voices.
“Hey! Up front! New guy!”
Patrick turned in his seat.
“Yeah, you!” Patrick could barely see the speaker, behind a steel girder angling up from the floor. “How you holding up?”
“I’m okay,” Patrick said, with a caution born of time behind bars. “You?”
“I’m all right. I get a workout. Never thought I’d miss sitting around in my old cell. I’m Julio.”
“Patrick. How long you been here Julio?”
“Here about two years. Been in the system about six,” Julio said. “You?”
“Been down two years,” Patrick said. “Got rolled here about a month ago. Armed robbery. Not gonna see the parole board for another three years at least. How ‘bout you?”
Julio didn’t say anything for a moment. Then; “I killed a guy in a bar fight. I was stoned out of my mind. I barely remember it.”
“When you up for parole?” Patrick asked.
“I’m not.” Julio said. There was another moment that seemed quiet, even with the yelling, talking, grumbling and threatening going on around them.
There was the clack and buzz and Patrick felt the machine vibrate.
“Back to work!” Julio called out.
“You hang in there!” Patrick replied.
“You too!” Julio said.
Over the noise of the oars and the machine came an administrative voice:
“Attention. Due to an attempted escape, you are now on twenty-four hour duty. Four-hour sleep breaks in place. You will row the equivalent of the distance from Athens to the Strait of Gibraltar before regular hours are resumed.”
“Great,” Patrick grumbled. “Somebody tell Ben-Hur.”
Nonetheless, as he pulled back on the oars, Patrick felt lucky for the first time in a while.