My Friend, The Chemist

Written by Ryan Haas


There was a new hire at the lumberyard.


He had walked over from the BTC compound on a brisk fall day to find work. Having worked at Marshall lumber some ages ago, Mitch was hired immediately. “Look up his public record, I don’t want to get murdered by this guy,” my coworker told me while driving to a job site. I did look up his record, and the list we discovered didn’t ease anything; it instead suggested a fair risk of aggravated assault.


When we got back to the yard, we heard the real story: Mitch had been sent to prison for the sudden immolation of a house he had made into a meth lab. Eventually, realizing Mitch’s truer docility, this became a common joke among the workplace, and the humorous threats of hackneyed toothbrush shanks were dismissed. Yet they still linger in the backs of minds and tongues.


He stands short, always in an Element t-shirt, adjusting a white trucker hat pinstriped in red and blue. The dirt from ages of toil on the asphalt picks up and blows against his face, forcing him to squint behind his glasses. When I met Mitch, I had decided that I would never trust him, not just from the unwelcoming mottlings on his face in light-pink chemical burns, but because I had lost a father — well, ultimately — to methamphetamine.


I just wanted to hate him freely, without reason.

In truth, I wanted to find reasons to hate him, or I just wanted to hate him freely, without reason. But persistent loathing would have been an overdrawn process, and ultimately the more difficult option. I had already reconciled with meth: that chemical compound that had taken away someone that I had only known a fraction of seven years. It seemed that I ought to be frustrated with Mitch, and that events had culminated so that I might be the one to inform him he was a plague and a deficit to society.


I was never capable of that kind of honest malice; I could only consider that maybe if I were somebody else, that was how I was supposed to feel.


Mitch had “fallen in with the wrong woman.” By some direction of her feminine wiles, the two fell fast into the epicenter of drug abuses. I was never told her name, what she did, or why she was worth nearly losing a modest sum of earthly possessions.


One day, Mitch glanced out of the passenger window while I drove and noticed the remodeled house that had once been his catastrophic chemistry set. Casually, he said, “There’s the house I blew up.” I didn’t ask any more from him, because ultimately, any detail holds no bearing on the greater facts: he had a house, then it blew up, but specifically while he was trying to craft an exceptionally caustic and addictive drug.


The Bismarck Transition Center. Photo courtesy of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The Bismarck Transition Center. Photo courtesy of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.


Upon a likely instantaneous hiring, every employee is invited to an array of personal cubbies. Each square cubby is roughly two feet in dimension and primed unevenly with cheap white paint. This system was the fairly new invention of a workless saturday morning, and a vast improvement over the last, which shared the belongings of workers with stocks of nails and foundation ties. Workers had thus finally found a sense of privacy, and the most temperamental employee, Steve, had rigged a hinge and a thick piece of plywood as a trapdoor for his cubby.


This had seemed excessive to the rest of us that shared that back office. It was clear that the most unsavory things to hide, that were also worth bringing to the workplace, were pin-ups from company calendars, magazine ads of women in torn midriff shirts holding chainsaws, or spools of stolen copper wiring.


Copper resale was an apparent get-rich-quick scheme of every cheap individual to visit the skeleton frame of a house, if they did so exactly while the electricians were out on lunch. Mitch’s cubby would have none of these things: no trinkets, no Stanley thermos, no mismatched pairs of gloves snatched from the front sales rack. Though he had clearly been unemployed and gathering no income during his stay in prison, he was not concerned with the avenue of quick copper cash; he still owned a bar in a small town with his brother, a house, and a storage shed full of guitars.


Yet, he was forbidden these things until probation loosened its grasp.


Waking each day at the BTC facility, but hardly living there, he could bring only a can of off-brand soda, and a bag of SunChips he would later admit to disliking and hand over to someone like myself. The soda cans would be neatly arranged and increment daily in number after Mitch had discovered the soda machine out front had Sprite — his favorite.


The extension of Mitch’s leash required a phone call to the BTC office, but it allowed no more than ten miles from itself as the epicenter. It should be noted that the Bismarck Transition Center is, by no accident, designed as a pseudo-castle. The faux cobblestone turrets embedded into white corrugated sheets of tin are perfectly uninviting, and with dual purpose: suggesting that entry is impossible beyond prohibited, and brightly highlighting all of the ex-convicts that stand along the perimeter just to breathe or smoke outside. Inconveniently for its own earnest tone, the building looks like the saddest and most ironically placed White Castle, with about the same devotion to food standards. These conditions had summarily taught Mitch to live, for the most part, without dignity.


Loudly telling Mitch he probably still belongs in prison is not something he still tolerates.

More recently, the compounded dissatisfaction Mitch has with his co-workers has finally erupted. Being disgruntled with the caustic humor, or the eyes that peer over him, or the absurd tickle fights (enemy combatant semi-affectionately known as Chuckles), is no longer something that he deserves as the cruel and unusual portion of punishment later enforced by society. At least, it no longer feels to him that the greatest risk is to his freedom rather than his dignity. As such, loudly telling Mitch he probably still belongs in prison is not something he still tolerates.


“Yeah, it’s bad there man. You see guys that over-exert themselves lifting weights and have to push in their guts that are falling out from a hemorrhoid.” He doesn’t say that anymore when people ask him about prison, instead he tells someone, “hey, fuck you.” Because he obviously doesn’t want to be there in prison anymore, mentally or socially.


Usually the retort remains that simple, and truthfully, there is nothing overtly base or primitive about that response. It’s accurate. Wishing prison on a person is a double-edged knife, while not as fatal as wishing cancer on somebody, the sentiment lashes deeper into the soul... implying that not only should the quality and duration of a person’s life be limited, but that any degree of compunction is irrelevant to their capacity to avoid or overcome renewed criminal activity.


It says a depressing array of indirectly cynical statements: “you do not deserve to live here, with us,” or “you’re the same as anyone else in prison,” and less implicitly, “our criminal justice system is only about nullifying/avenging threats to tax-paying citizens, and not for reforming criminal behaviors and human lives.”


You do not deserve to live here, with us...


These are unfortunate conclusions, because the man I know now, Mitch, operator of forklifts, misplacer of cigarettes, champion of entirely healthy under-his-breath complaints, is not someone I consider a threat to society or anhydrous ammonia vendors.


Though, he can tell you that if you need and entire tank of the stuff, you can essentially hitch one to your truck, leave, and come back for perfectly unquestioned refills in North Dakota, since anhydrous ammonia is a staple choice for fertilization, and Mitch looks like the sort of person who has to fertilize an entire field.


The danger is that it was never likely that Mitch seemed like the sort of person that manufactured methamphetamine, and concluding that he doesn’t look that way now is entirely the same risk. It’s not likely I will ever know if Mitch is truly reformed, or if he will return again to polluting lives with crystal meth, and that’s terribly uncomfortable for a skeptic. Chances are, though, he won’t.


Mitch, however, no longer makes me uncomfortable, worries me, or frustrates me. At work, Mitch is my friend.


And that’s vastly more important to the scope of my life and how it tangles with his.


Contact Ryan by email at or at his blog,