“Night Shift” by Myra Sherman


Deputy Fred Lopez is halfway through a mandatory two week graveyard rotation. He’s on the mental health module. It’s midnight. He is ignoring the thick three ring black binder turned facedown on the desk and is staring at his computer screen. For the hell of it, he Googles “graveyard shift.”

He learns that until the early 20th century, graveyard was called the lobster shift. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he says aloud.

Lobstermen get up early to catch their prey, he reads. Men who work nights are as stupid as lobsters. Nocturnal work brings you to a slow boil. Fred laughs as he imagines a gigantic boiling pot of red-faced deputies.

Graveyard shift came from night workers in nearly deserted factories. The eerie hours after midnight, the skeletal crews, the graveyard atmosphere.

Fred looks around the jail module and suddenly sees a tomb. He stares at exposed pipes and concrete posts, like they’ve magically appeared. The low ceilings and drab walls are claustrophobic. The sleeping inmates moan and snore. The ominous ticking of the clock creates an alternate reality, where everything is the same yet different.

Leaning back in the desk chair behind the deputy’s station, Fred stretches his arms above his head and cracks his knuckles. With only three hours of sleep, he’s over caffeinated and irritable. Noises fracture and explode in his head. He hears his heart beating. The lub-Dub, lub-Dub scares him. Night shift scares him. The clock ticks, his heart beats, the minutes seem endless.

“Nights are for washouts,” he mutters. “Not me.”

Fred’s superiors call him an up-and-comer. He’s smart and ambitious. At twenty-six, he’s ready for a promotion. The binder on his desk is the Detention Policies Manual. The Sergeant’s exam is in two weeks and he wants to be prepared.

He’s trying to study the section on inmate grievances. He reads a few paragraphs, but can’t concentrate. He closes his eyes. I’m so fucking exhausted, he thinks. Between the job and Soledad, I’m all used up.

Soledad is his girlfriend. She’s pregnant. She wants to get married. Fred’s not ready for marriage, but feels responsible. He doesn’t want to hurt her.

Fred is sleeping in his chair when the intercom buzzes.

“Got two Norteno overflows,” the escort deputy announces.

“Here?” Fred asks.

“Ad-seg’s full.”

Fred signs for the new arrivals and takes their head cards. He removes their shackles and motions them to the dayroom.

The inmates sprawl on the couch. They ask to have the TV turned on. They talk in loud exuberant outbursts. They’re young. They have shaved heads and pachuco cross tattoos. They’re parole violators, on their way back to prison. Because they have the same gang affiliation, they can be housed together. Because it’s the only empty room, Fred puts them in observation.

“Hey hermano, solamente una cama,” one of them complains.

“I don’t speak Spanish,” Fred says.

But he has the module worker bring an extra mattress for the floor.

“Thanks,” the other inmate says.

It’s 2:00 a.m. Fred wonders when his dinner relief is coming. His eyes feel gritty and his neck is stiff. He needs coffee and food.

When he looks up from his book, the inmates in observation are standing on the bed facing Fred, pressing flattened features against the windowed wall. The security glass distorts their orange jumpsuits. Like bugs under a microscope, Fred thinks. Filled with middle-class guilt, he feels sorry for them. But when they make gang signs, Fred’s pity turns to repulsion. He shakes his head. When they pretend to be choking, he goes off on them.

“Stupid cholo fucks,” he shouts. His head throbs. His mouth tastes sour. His heart races, lub-Dub, lub-Dub.

“Deputy, hermano…”

“Don’t call me brother, ass-hole. You don’t even belong to the human race. You gang-bangers give Latinos a bad name. Now make yourselves scarce.”

 With a show of bravado, one yells out, “Pocho.”  

“Sell-out,” the other adds.

But they jump off the bed and settle down. One of them laughs. Then they’re quiet.

Fred is disgusted with himself. He grinds his teeth. He hits his hand against the desk once, then again. He wants to feel pain. He can’t believe he lost control. Fucking nighttime is making me crazy, he thinks.

He has several hours left on his graveyard shift. 


When Fred was sixteen, his father took him on a Christmas fishing trip to Baja. They stayed beachside. Fred had his first gourmet food at the hotel restaurant. Fred ate shrimp ceviche, snapper with mango sauce and chocolate flan with Kahlua.  He decided right then to become a chef.

The following summer, Fred got a job at an Antioch steak house. He wanted to learn kitchen basics to get a head start on culinary school.

In the early morning hours when Fred was off his shift, headed for his car in the deserted parking lot, still dressed in kitchen clothes.

“Hey beaner, you got loco weed?”

There were three of them. Talking fast, laughing, fidgeting and acting weird. Fred wasn’t too young to know they were tweaking on meth.

“Just leaving work,” he said, holding up his hands.

“Little brown boy dishwasher. Fucking wetback…”

Two held him by the arms while the third pummeled him. When he was on the ground, they kicked him until he crapped his pants.

“Fucking shit-ass spic,” they laughed.

It was the worst night of Fred’s life. He wanted to die. He wanted to kill them.

Humiliated by the truth, he told his parents he had a fight with the restaurant’s dishwasher.        

“The guy went nuts. Attacked me for no reason,” he said. “But at least I held my own.”

He told his parents he was quitting his job.

“I don’t want to be a chef anymore,” he said. “Being a service worker sucks. And I hate the night hours.” Dark violent hours, when crazy things happen.

“Good boy,” his father approved.

“You need a college education,” his mother urged.

Although Fred never forgot the beating, for years he barely remembered wanting to be a chef. He didn’t want to remember.

Then he accidentally discovered the Iron Chef Show on Food Network TV. It became his hidden obsession.

I could be a chef now, Fred thinks, as his graveyard shift creeps slowly forward. He imagines himself wearing culinary white. Chef Fred Lopez, the innovative Latin master, challenges Iron Chef Mario Batali. The secret ingredient is crab. Batali prepares spaghetti arrabiata with soft-shell crab. Lopez makes Dungeness crab bisque. Chef Lopez is unbeatable. He’s inspired. He beats the hell out of Batali. Next it’s Iron Chef Bobby Flay. The secret ingredient is champagne. Flay goes for oysters in champagne sauce. Lopez offers champagne truffles. He beats the hell out of Flay. Chef Fred Lopez wins it all, what a star.

Although he’d like to believe otherwise, Fred knows it’s a nighttime cartoon fantasy. But he’s smiling as he returns to his Detention Manual and grievance procedures. I’ll make dinner for Soledad, he thinks. Dungeness crab, champagne, we’ll celebrate.


Fred met Soledad at the Vallejo Summer Jazz Festival. Although he preferred R&B and Latin rap, he went with his cousin whose girlfriend was a featured vocalist. Soledad was there because she lived in Vallejo. She wore a strawberry pink camisole and khaki camouflage shorts that hot August day. Fred thought she was cute and he liked her Spanish name. She had white Asian skin, almond-shaped eyes, bleached platinum hair and wore passion flower perfume.

Soledad’s father was Filipino, her mother third generation Japanese. The family owned a dry cleaning chain. They had three stores in Vallejo and one in Benicia. At twenty, Soledad was the spoiled youngest child and the only one still at home. She was about to start her last semester of nursing school. Her parents made oblique comments about ethnicity, but grudgingly accepted Fred.

Fred lived in Muirwood, near the jail. He had a one bedroom apartment in a large complex with a gym and swimming pool. It was an hour’s drive from Vallejo.

Because of the distance, Soledad started spending nights, then weekends at Fred’s. She lied to her parents and said she was with a girlfriend.

After two months of dating, Fred brought Soledad home to Bay Point. He was close to his parents and wanted their opinion. His father, a recently retired contractor, seemed enamored. His mother, a second grade teacher, was suspicious. Fred’s father barbequed flank steak and his mother made a romaine lettuce salad. They ate outside on the redwood table. The orange and black Halloween decorations his mother was taking to her classroom covered the dining room table. After dinner Fred’s mother took him aside.

“That girl is serious,” she said.

“She likes me,” Fred said.

“She wants to get married.”

“No. She’s just starting her career.”

“I’m telling you,” his mother warned.

Fred wasn’t ready to get married. He was studying for his Master’s in Criminal Justice. He’d applied for advanced training with the FBI.

“How could you get pregnant,” he yelled, a month later.

“How do you think,” Soledad yelled back.


Finally on dinner break, Fred heads for the recently renovated Servery. Bill Beck, the civilian Food Services Director, chose the décor. Beck is retired from the Navy. He has a tough demeanor, good organizational skills and is the sheriff’s cousin. He has no culinary experience and could care less about food.

The Servery has become what Beck calls ship-shape. New vinyl-covered turquoise chairs match the fiberglass tables. Each table holds heavy-duty glass salt and pepper shakers, a metal holder filled with tan paper napkins and a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

The Deputy Sheriffs’ Association thought redecorating the dining area was a waste of money. They pushed for new weight equipment instead. They weren’t related to the Sheriff.

As Fred approaches, he smells fresh paint, bacon grease and coffee. The inmate cook stands behind a smudged, stainless steel counter. His blue paper shower cap is pushed back on his head. His exposed receding hairline is speckled with liver spots. There are russet stains on his crumpled white apron. Fred orders a jack cheese omelet without potatoes.

“Got those refried beans, if you want,” the inmate says. He’s a wrinkled white guy with pale gray, rheumy eyes.

An old alky, Fred guesses. Not worth bothering with, not worth staring down.

He bites his upper lip. “Slice me some tomatoes,” he says.

Except for Lt. Davis, the Shift Commander, the Servery is empty. “Lopez,” Davis calls out. “Join me.”

Fred realizes this is an opportunity to make points. “Been studying for the Sergeant’s exam,” he says.

“So how’s that cute little gal of yours?” Davis asks.

“Fine, Sir.”

“Getting ready to settle down?”

Fred chokes. He coughs and wipes his eyes. “We’re getting married,” he says.

“Good man,” Davis says.                       


Fred went to UC Berkeley right out of high school. He lived south of campus, on Dwight Way. He majored in social work. He wanted to counsel barrio kids. Getting attacked made him identify. He wanted to help.

His professors praised his idealism. His parents were dubious, but didn’t discourage him.

He was just starting senior year when his career choice changed. His summer as a student worker at La Clinica de La Raza had opened his eyes.

“Working with Mexican gang bangers is rough. They don’t want help,” Fred told his family.

He didn’t say his clients called him a coconut sellout. He was too embarrassed.

Fred wanted respect. He wanted to be in control. With his family’s support, he chose a career in law enforcement.

He tested at four Sheriff’s Departments and was offered four jobs. He chose Franklin County because it offered the most training and was small enough for quick advancement. Fred sailed through the Academy with high honors. His superiors thought highly of him. “Lopez is a good man,” they said.


Fred feels better after eating. His headache is gone. His mood is improved. He returns to find a new female inmate on the module. She’s in front of the deputy’s station, with her hands cuffed behind her.

“Why the paper gown,” Fred asks the relief deputy.

“Fresh from Intake.”


“Mental health cleared her.”

Although she’s standing between them, both deputies ignore her. They talk around her.

Fred directs her to the dayroom couch when the relief deputy leaves. He logs in and does a head count. He’s at his computer finishing his entries when the new inmate calls to him.

“Deputy, these handcuffs,” she says. “They hurt.”

The first thing Fred notices is her hair. Shiny dark curls with glints of purple-red fall to her shoulders. Sexy Arabian Nights hair, he thinks. He imagines a cartoon Scheherazade.

“Please help me,” she says, raising her head.

She’s beautiful, Fred thinks. “I’m coming,” he says.

“I was in that horrible rubber room, for hours,” she whispers.

“I’m going to take the cuffs off.”

As she turns around, her gown pulls open. Fred tries not to stare, but can’t look away. She’s taller than Soledad and has more curves. Her skin is caramel. She has a lotus flower tattoo on her lower back. She smells of alcohol and vanilla musk.

Fred imagines lowering his head to her back and inhaling her. He feels guilty. He despises himself.

As he touches her hands, she trembles. Fred can’t help his arousal. He’s mortified by his sudden erection. Fucking night hours turn everything crazy. His headache returns. His heart races.

“Stay here while I do your paperwork,” he says.

Her name is Lucinda Morgan. It’s her first time in jail. She was picked up for DUI and meth possession. He doesn’t know why he’s so intrigued. She’s just another addict, he tells himself.

The only woman’s room vacant is off to the side, between the module shower and utility room. Fred wonders about putting her in such an isolated spot, with no visibility. But mental health cleared her; if anything happens it’s on them, he thinks. But I don’t want anything to happen. I want her alive. I want her safe. I want her.
By 4:00 a.m., Fred finishes his counts and paperwork. He tries to study but can’t concentrate. He knows Soledad is sleeping, but feels desperate to talk with her. He wants to say he’s sorry and let her know he’s not mad, he needs to make contact. He’s afraid of his fantasies.
Fred pictures Soledad asleep in her bedroom. They had sex there one Sunday, when her parents weren’t home. Fred felt like he was going back in time with the pink and white bedroom, the single bed, her high school music posters on the wall—Leehom Wang, Justin Timberlake, Usher.
Soledad has a girl’s body, slim and delicate, petite.  Fred has trouble imagining her pregnant. He wonders if she’ll be able to nurse, her breasts are so small. He visualizes a baby’s pink mouth sucking her protruding brown nipple and feels sick.
     She can’t be a mother, he thinks. I can’t be a father.
Fred’s guts twist, his mouth is dry and sour. He feels like crying. He decides to call Soledad and convinces himself her cell phone will be off.
I’ll leave a message, he thinks.
Soledad answers on the first ring.
“What are you doing up?” Fred asks.
“I can’t sleep.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“That’s okay.”
“I told my Lieutenant, about us getting married.”
“For serious?”
“I love you baby,” Fred says.
“Me too,” Soledad says.
At 5:00 a.m., Lucinda flips on her call light. The module is dark and quiet. Fred has three hours left on his shift. He stares at the green light flickering above her door, like an emerald beacon. He wonders what she wants, and feels excited but also apprehensive and ashamed.
The room has a tainted, sour, jail smell. Lucinda is sitting on the bed, huddled in a washed-out pink thermal blanket. The wall-mounted reading lamp is on. Lucinda’s hair is molten coal under the orangey glow. Fred stands in the open doorway, transfixed.
     “I’m cold,” Lucinda says.
“Can I help you?” Fred asks.
“I’m so ashamed, getting arrested. My mother’s fed up. I can’t do anything right.”
“You won’t be here long.”
“It’s so lonely here.”
Fred steps inside the room.
“I’m so afraid. This place,” she says.
Fred feels hypnotized. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t want to know. He stands before her. He reaches out and strokes her cheek. Her teeth gleam when she smiles.
“Be with me,” Lucinda pleads. “I need…”
Fred forgets that she’s an inmate, he forgets about Soledad. Lucinda shivers when he bends down to kiss her. She’s naked under the blanket.
“Keep me safe,” she says.
“I will,” he says.
In an erotic adrenaline trance, punctuated with touches of terror and whispers of guilt, they make love.
“Oh, God,” she sighs.
He covers her mouth with his hand so no one will hear. “The module…” he whispers. She licks his hand.
“I won’t tell anyone,” she says.
“I know,” Fred says.
“And don’t worry, I’m not infected.”
“What does your lotus tattoo stand for?” Fred asks.
“It’s the symbol for life’s endless possibilities,” Lucinda answers.


Fred washes his hands in the staff john.  His reflection in the metal mirror is ghostly gray and insubstantial. His heart is racing again. He checks his pulse worriedly. He thinks 110 is too high, but can’t remember for sure. I’ve got to make a doctor’s appointment, he thinks, can’t screw around with a baby coming.

Back at his desk, looking out over the module, Fred can’t believe he had sex with Lucinda, an inmate. As his shift winds down, he tries to rationalize and understand. He knows there’s no excuse, but he’s not sorry.

If Lucinda tells, his career will be over. He knows he should be worried, but he’s not.  He’s not even sure he wants his career. What if he quit the department? He pictures himself as a chef, in an immaculate white kitchen, surrounded by adoring students. He again imagines himself as the new Iron Chef. It’s not that farfetched, he thinks. Like Lucinda said about her tattoo, anything is possible.

He pictures himself with Lucinda. In Baja, at the same hotel he visited with his father. The windows are open to the sea-breeze. The bed linens are pale green. Lucinda is lying on her back, reaching up to him. He bends down to lean over her.

“Lockdown for 7:00 a.m. count,” a disembodied voice booms from the intercom. The voice is sexless and ageless, a metallic sounding specter of the night.

Fred is startled. He shakes his head and rubs his eyes. He sees a graveyard kaleidoscope of emerald green and purple red. He smells vanilla musk. I’m going fucking insane, he thinks.

Fred stretches. He takes deep abdominal breathes. He listens to his heart, lub-Dub, lub-Dub. I’m lucky to come out with no damage, he realizes.

He wakes up Wilson, the inmate module worker. “Almost breakfast,” Fred says.

Wilson is an old-timer with years of jail time. “Everything OK?” he asks. “You gotta be careful on nights.”

Fred wonders what Wilson knows. “You referring to anything special?” he asks.

“Same-old, same-old,” Wilson answers.

As he turns up the module lights, everything looks normal. The inmates are quiet. Wilson moves from room to room distributing food trays.

Fred returns to the deputy station to get a last hour of studying in. He doesn’t want to think about Lucinda.

“Anything going on?” the dayshift relief asks. He has a sunburned red face from skiing.

Lucinda’s naked image floods Fred’s mind. He sighs with unspoken, unacknowledged regret. Fred imagines himself jumping from hot water, scalded but alive. “Survived another night shift,” he says.

Myra Sherman is a psychotherapist who once worked in a county jail. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Write Side Up, The Blotter Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Workers Write-Tales From the Couch.

Notes from April Galarza, Associate Editor
It’s crazy how the decisions of a single night can affect the rest of your life. “Night Shift” explores this idea to the extreme. I was immediately drawn in by the dismal atmosphere of the prison at night and the internal conflict driving the actions of the character.

Comments on this story by Stephen McQuiggan, author of “20 Gestures”
I am a lobsterman who works the nightshift and Myra’s story spoke to me, in a tense, caffeine-ridden voice I know so well. I really liked this tale, especially the staccato sentences that echoed the lub dub of Fred’s heart. It is filled with colour and smell, yet Fred’s other senses seem dulled by the wearisome grind of the nightshift, and his past which merely echoes it. All those good intentions.

I love the way the dialogue says everything and nothing, the way the story tells a life in a seemingly mundane snapshot. I once tried a story like this but came up short; Myra handles it with a deft skill that suggests she has found her vocation. It is a bleak, grey, guilt soaked tale; erotic and sexless, hopeful and despairing, in short, a mirror of life.

I don’t think this story is about one decision, but rather a culmination of bad ones. Soledad seems to be a case of “be careful what you wish for,” but then I’m a bloke and I may be making excuses for the hell of it. I’ve never read Myra’s work before, but I’ll be looking out for it now. I wish I had time to expand on how much I liked this story but a lobsterman has a shift to do. Myra, you sliced my tomatoes….

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