Picture a freeway in some metropolitan city. Traffic zooming at 90 mph in both directions. Revving engines, blaring horns, road rage. Sleek little sports cars maneuvering around SUVs and trucks, with even faster motorcycles weaving in and out of tight spaces. Chaos. Now picture a rusty little El Camino chugging along in the right lane, doing 55. That’s my friend Viejo on the soccer field.

Soccer is my sport. Always has been. And if you’re one of those people who considers soccer soft, I bet an afternoon on the rec yard would change your mind. Make you a believer. It can get pretty brutal. Twenty or so prisoners, many serving life, mostly from places like Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Colombia… Some wearing state-issued boots, some in hand-me-down tennis shoes, some barefoot, all highly skilled, on a field of scorched clay and patchy grass with sand spurs that collect on the rolling ball like hitchhiker assassins (ever had a sand spur lodged in your forehead? Ouch!). Fights erupt frequently, dirty play is a given, and the uneven terrain is murder on the ankles and knees. It was in one of these violent games that I first met Viejo.

January 2017. I was new to this camp and determined to establish my dominion on the field. I’m no ordinary guero. My nickname is “Salvaje.” Legendary defender, known throughout the state. I was eager to prove this. I might’ve been a little overzealous though. Just a smidge. Because this sneaky little Guatemalan grandfather-type was hanging out near the goal and when they passed him the ball, I drove, he juked… and scored. Easily.

“Haha,” he said as he ran off, “sucker!”

His teammates celebrated. To be honest, my teammates celebrated, too. Even some dudes on the track applauded. I was probably the only one glowering. The next time they passed him the ball, I was ready. I broke hard and intercepted it just before it reached his little size 7 shoe.

“Ah la Madre!” he cried as he fell down and gripped his knee in a classic World Cup flop. All play stopped. Time stopped. Trust me, you don’t want to be the big bald bearded outsider who injures Viejo. I imagined the rustle of knives being pulled from waistbands and hidden pockets while my death was discussed in several dialects of Spanish. Miraculously, he popped back up. Well… as much as one can pop at his age.

“It’s okay,” he said in his horrible English, still limping a bit just to sell the performance. Then, in the waning moments of his Oscar-caliber grimacing, he flashed me a quick mischievous smile.

Viejo means old man in Spanish. He was born on Christmas Day. I know this because last December he made it a point to tell everyone on the yard, “Today is my happy birthday!” Just a side note here: When I say that Viejo speaks horrible English, that’s not an exaggeration. The only words he has mastered are the same ones you got in trouble for when you were a third-grader. And he lets those fly with naval precision and almost flawless enunciation.

Yeah, Viejo is a character. But he wasn’t always Viejo. Before that he was just plain old “Guate,” a Guatemalan immigrant who made the long trek north seeking a better life. He found one, too. Or he built one. I’ve seen all his pictures. Three grown children and four grandchildren, all American citizens. He’s the only person in his family who does not have citizenship. And now he’s facing deportation back to a poverty stricken country that he hasn’t seen since the 1980s.

When I showed him my novels and told him that I’m an escritor, he pointed out that the name on the books is some gringo named Malcolm. I think he still thinks I’m full of shit. But he always comes to my bunk when he needs help with a request or some other form. I’m his designated writer. I wish I could file some motion so that he could be released to his family. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I can. I hope not.

Prison is the great equalizer. It forces people of all ages, races, and religions to be tolerant of one another. The system just throws thousands of us, millions of us, into these warehouses and says “There you go. Coexist!” Most still gravitate toward their own groups, but not always. Just as 30-year-old Josh is like a little brother, and 21-year-old Eli is like a son, 73-year-old Viejo is like a granddaddy. I’m already planning a trip to Guatemala in 2023.

(Next up: my neighbor. Menu.)