Weakness

As a nonbeliever, it’s more unsettling than I care to admit the many sermons I’ve sat through in which I’ve felt the preacher was speaking directly to me. It happened again last night at Bible study when Chaplain Barlow, reading from the book of Matthew, posed the question: is meekness the same as weakness? To demonstrate the difference, he motioned for an inmate near the front of the class to stand.

“Suppose Chuck here is a bully who’s just taken my lunch money.” Barlow extended an open palm to the man. More than illustrate a point, I believe Barlow’s demonstrations are intended to prove to us how comfortable he is around inmates. As if sensing a trick, Chuck hesitated before accepting the imaginary lunch money, and even then he was careful not to graze the chaplain’s starched cuff and gold cufflink; Brother in Christ though he may be, Barlow is still to many of us, first and foremost, a cop.

To walk away from a fight, Barlow continued, is to exercise meekness–power under restraint. “But suppose Chuck takes my lunch money every day, and every day I willingly hand him my two dollars.” The chaplain removed another imaginary bill from his pocket, then another. “Am I still being meek?”

Barlow paused while the class considered this; the silence seemed to me like a condemnation. I stared down at my Bible. Sometimes while sitting in church I flip to the back where the prescriptive verses are arranged by trial. For loneliness, Herbrews 13:5 says to “. . . be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor foresake thee.” In moments of fear, Psalm 31:24 reminds me to “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen [my] heart . . . .” When depressed, Psalm 42:11 encourages me to put my hope in the lord, “. . . for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”

If Barlow were able to relate to us, if he were the everyman he so often presents himself as, I should think he’d have more practical advice, a more relevant protagonist than his tired Goliath-figure, to offer us.

Say this lunch room bully is a Texas Aryan Brother, and he demands you pay him commissary to keep quiet about your charge. If you refuse to pay him, he and his posse run you off the yard. If you fight him, reckoning you win, the gang retaliates. If you report the threat to a staff member, you’re labeled a snitch, and snitches end up in ditches. And if you check in to the SHU, the truth comes out regardless. In any case you spend the remaining seven years of your sentence running from yard to yard, rumor and reputation chomping at your heels.

So, you pay the guy. He hands you a neatly penned list for fourty dollars worth of summer sausages, diet sodas, and oatmeal cream pies. Next week it’s a list for seventy dollars. You keep paying him week after week, hoping the son-of-a-bitch will be satisfies, or that one of you will be transferred, and the demands will end.

What advice would Barlow offer a person in such a situation? What then would the chaplain have to say about meekness and weakness? What scriptures would he quote? What parables would he refer me to? I looked up extortion in the back of my Bible, but it wasn’t there.

That evening I made out yet another commissary list: two apple danishes, two honey buns, three six-packs of diet soda–Mountain Dew, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper–eight summer sausages, two bags of salted peanuts, two packs of batteries, and a bag of refried beans with chorizo. A total of $29.95.

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Fooling Ourselves

I suspect prison, with its inherent isolation and controlled access, would be an ideal environment in which to study the spread of infectious diseases, such as the flu, which has hit Mississippi early this year. According to Rod, our resident epidemiologist, the bug was likely brought in from the outside world by, to use his parlage, a dick-eating cop. The dick eater then passed it to a Mexican in Foxtrot-Three who sold a book of stamps to a Puerto Rican in Echo-Two who played dominoes with a Muslim in Delta-Four who shared a burrito with a kitchen worker, who thus introduced the bug into the chow hall where it sat cultivating on a serving spoon at the salad bar. Within days, our population was decimated.

Everyone is sick. The coughing and sneezing and discharging of phlegm echo in every block, in every unit, in every cell. And at night the labored snoring of our neighbors thrums through the air shafts between the walls. Rod has been too sick to paint. Oscar and his celly have quarantined themselves in their room and taken to eating ibuprofens for breakfast. And Elijah and I have forgone all kissing so as to spare me his own particular strain, which we suspect may be strep.

In our sniffling, aching states, we’ve been forced to expend our time indoors. We play chess, cards, dominoes, and scrabble. Connect Four enjoyed a brief revival in popularity before we realized it was only tic-tac-toe. A few men in Foxtrot have devised their own Monopoly board game dubbed ‘Hood Monopoly, in which one can amass a conglomerate of crack houses on Martin Luther King Boulevard. For many participants, it’s a game of life imitating art. Or is that art imitating life? A life of easy money, of dodging police, of passing in and out of jail, a life of a few small gains but of mostly staggering losses, a life spent traveling in circles.

One Chance card informs the player that he’s contracted an STD and must pay $1,000 in medical expenses.

Our prayer circle has been hit especially hard by the bug. As Christians we believe that all illness and disease are manifestations of Satan, and only through the belief and authority of Jesus Christ can the demon be exorcised and our ailments cured. Therefore the common cold is not a physiological test but a spiritual one which requires firm faith and intense prayer. But this theology theory has not played out. Despite our combined prayers and rebukes, the cold persists, and every night another of our fellow brethren is felled.

It began with Brother Warren and a small headache. Then his celly Brother Marcus contracted a cough, followed by Brother Jacob who came to the circle one night wearing sweats, skull cap, and a towel around his neck. The only man who has so far escaped contamination has been Brother Phillip, who is somewhat of a microphobe and always carries with him a pair of gloves for operating the phones and computers.

None of the brothers will admit he is sick. To admit illness is to claim illness, and as Christians we are wary of speaking such things into existence. And so we come together in a circle night after night, stubbornly singing hymns in off-tune wheezes, trying our best to stifle our coughs and fool ourselves into remission. After one particularly bloody bout of hacking, I asked Brother Jacob if he was okay. He cinched his towel tight around his neck and smiled stoically. “By the grace of God, I’m doing just fine.”

The one man who seems to be struggling the most with this delusion is Warren, who said nothing initially of his illness but instead maintained an air of detachment throughout the evening worship. Concerned, I found him in his room after the service and asked if he was all right. He had just finished brushing his teeth and was standing beneath the sink’s overhead light, hazel eyes shining. In his late thirties, the whiskers below his mouth are just beginning to turn gray. I would have gladly risked catching his cold for a taste.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he said somewhat embarrassed. “Just a little headache.”

Warren went to bed early the next night, skipping the prayer circle entirely, a first for him. I suppose I should be pleased to see him sick. Earlier in the year when I was suffering from a cold, Brother Jacob laid his heavily tattooed hands upon my shoulders and rebuked my illness in the name of Jesus Christ. At breakfast the next morning, Warren asked if I was feeling better. With an edge of sourness I told him I was not. He laughed and said I lacked faith. Now that his own faith is being tested and he has thus far failed to be delivered from sickness, I should feel vindicated. Rare is it for me to pass up the opportunity to champion my cynicism and disbelief. Strangely though, I feel no such inclination. I don’t want to see Warren sick. I don’t want to take away his God. I’d buy him cough drops had the commissary not run out.

Years ago when Jamie and I were together, he confided in me the stresses typical of every college student. He lamented his decision to study French and History. He wondered how he’d be able to pay his student loans, if he’d be able to find a job. He worried that the path he’d chosen–whichever path he’d settled on for that week–was the wrong one. He needed validation more than anything, and wished it most to come from his father. But his father died when he was only a small boy.

Sensing the need to say something, I told Jamie that his father, wherever he was, would be proud of the man his son was becoming. He pulled away wiping his eyes. “How can you say that?” he asked. “You don’t believe in God.”

True. But for his sake, I was willing to believe.

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The Exchange

They finally hit our unit this afternoon. Full shakedown. Drug sniffing dogs. The works. We were evacuated from the building into an early winter squall and subjected to pat downs before being released to the rec yard where we competed for warmer space indoors. I was fortunate to secure an empty seat near the pool tables, just beside the wheezing stationary bikes.

We knew our time would come eventually. All of Echo and most of Foxtrot had already suffered their turns. So we prepared. We hunkered down. We emptied our mattresses of all contraband–tattoo guns, cell phones, weaponry, porn, dope–and stashed them away in those units already searched.

And then, one week before Thanksgiving, the front line advanced. Foxtrot-three was hit. Elijah’s cell was dismantled entirely, the contents of his locker piled in the floor, each item audited one at a time. Food containers were opened and inspected, ointments and lotions sniffed and scrutinized, institutional clothing counted. When the unit reopened, Elijah returned to his room to find himself short a bell pepper. He’d bought it off a kitchen worker for use in a Hanukkah meal he’d been planning to cook for us. Strangely, the COs left behind an onion. Was this an oversight or a small act of mercy in light of the holidays?

The meal, despite the missing pepper, was delicious. Elijah sautéed the onion in the microwave and layered it with tortillas, fried rice, beef sausage, cheese, mackerel, green olives and leftover Thanksgiving turkey that he’d shredded and marinated in soy sauce and lemon pepper. The tupperwear was still warm when he handed it to me that evening on the yard. In return I gave him a Gillette triple-blade razor and a cartridge of replacement blades.

“Happy Hanukkah,” I said. “I would have wrapped it somehow, but I know you’ve said you hate surprises.”

With some self-consciousness, he thanked me and slipped the gift into the pocket of his khaki jacket, a larger but otherwise identical version of my own.

Sitting in the rec center watching the men shoot pool, I ask Brother Travis beside me how the shakedown might impact him. He anticipates they’ll take his locker buddy, a collection of hanging pockets sewn from a pillowcase. I perform a mental survey of my own locker. Technically they could fault me for keeping my Tums in an aspirin bottle; commissary items, especially pharmaceuticals, are supposed to be stored in their original containers. There is also the matter of books. We are allotted only ten, barring religious and educational titles. Excluding my dictionary, thesaurus, study Bible, and a fiftieth edition of Struck and White’s The Elements of Style that I bought off a guy for a box of Pop Tarts, my locker contains thirty-six books, well over the limit. Fortunately our warden’s policy with regards to literature is lenient.

There is one item in my locker, however, that might be threatened. Once while walking the track field together, Elijah picked from between the gravel a single flower, small as a baby’s breath. I keep it beside the Tums. Its saffron stamens have dried to brown, its lavender petals to black.

I wonder if it will be there when I return, as plant clippings are strictly prohibited. Or will it be discarded along with the locker buddies, illicit clothes lines, scrap cardboard, and unmarked bottles? Or, in its smallness, will it be displaced by blundering gloved hands, to be trampled, lost, forgotten?

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If I Had A Heart

Rod didn’t know his son wasn’t speaking to him until the postcard came in the mail. On the front was a picture of a child’s hand print and on the back was written the title of a song by Fever Ray. Rod asked if I had heard of them. I hadn’t. So he grabbed his MP3 player and went downstairs to pull up a clip on the computer.

“I can’t understand any of this. What the hell is he saying?”

Rod passed me his earbuds. The vocals were unintelligible, but it seemed to be one of those annoying rock songs about angst and abandonment, the kind we’d listen to in high school to feel our adolescent suffering was validated. Rod must have sensed this too in the dissonant chords, not to mention the song’s title, “If I Had A Heart.” He took off for the phones in a panic, and when the call was answered, his son promptly blocked the number.

“What the fuck is that kid mad at me for now?”

This isn’t the first time Rod’s son has stopped talking to him, nor is it the first time being in bad graces with his children. Just last month his family was in an uproar over an idea he had had for his next painting. He found a nude portrait in an art magazine and wanted to paint a replica with his daughter’s face superimposed on the model’s body. He spent all three-hundred of his phone minutes that month convincing his family he had meant no offense and was not, as they accused, a pervert.

“They just don’t appreciate fine art,” he said at the time. But to his credit, Rod later admitted in a moment of startling clarity that maybe he had lost his ability to empathize with the outside world. Maybe being locked up for some fifteen years with vile criminal men had skewed his thinking, dulled his sensibilities, coarsened his language. In his incarcerated mind there seemed nothing at all wrong with plopping the head of his twenty-four-year-old daughter onto a nude torso.

In this most recent spat with his son, Rod sought help from the unit counselor, Mrs. Robinson, who very graciously Googled the song’s lyrics in the hopes of deciphering his son’t cryptic dedication.

This will never end
‘Cause I want more.
More, give me more,
Give me more.

If I had a heart I could love you.
If I had a voice I would sing.
After the night when I wake up,
I’ll see what tomorrow brings.

I hand the printout back to Rod who sets it on the bed beside him.

“I can’t figure out what I did wrong,” he says. “I tried calling my daughter–she’s not picking up. I tried calling Mom–she’s not picking up. Nobody is answering their goddamn phone, and I’m afraid that if I call Jerry at the house he’ll block me on there as well, and then how will I reach him in an emergency?”

I suggest to Rod that he write his son a letter.

“A lot of good that’d do. You know I sent him one–a month ago I think it was. I call and say to him, ‘Jerry, did you get that letter I sent you?’ ‘Uh, no, Dad. What letter? You sent a letter?’ I say to him, ‘Yes, I sent you a letter last week. Did you not get my letter?’ and he says, ‘Oh, yeah. I think it’s here on the coffee table somewhere.’ And all the while we’re on the phone I hear him clicking and clicking. Kid can’t get off the goddamn computer long enough to talk to his father. Playing a goddamn video game. I swear I wish the thing would just blow the fuck up.”

Rod begins to untie his shoes.

“Do you know how many letters I’ve gotten from my son since I’ve been locked up?” He flashes at me what I first perceive to be an okay sign. “Zero. Nothing. Not a one. Not on Christmas, not on my birthday, not even on Father’s Day. I haven’t gotten one letter from that kid in almost fifteen years.”

I can’t stand to see Rod cry. I’m never sure what the appropriate response is, or what limits prison sets on counselling a fellow inmate. Once, after his mother-in-law died of stomach cancer, I gave him a reluctant on-armed hug, to which he feebly accepted with an arm of his own. I was surprised to feel beneath his prickly exterior the body of a man, flesh and blood. Though now, after having lived with him for over a year and having been worn down by his callousness and abrasiveness, I find it difficult to extend anything beyond polite interest towards his ongoing dramas. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone when he purposely slams his art books on the floor while you’re trying to take a piss. And frankly, this latest dispute with his son is eating into time which could be spent calling my own family, who never fails to pick up.

“And Ashley. Do you know how many letters I’ve gotten from my daughter?” He sets his sneakers beneath the bunk, to the left of his shower shoes, always in that order. “Four. Four! In all the years I’ve been incarcerated.”

Rod saves these letters in his photo album alongside aging pictures of his daughter which he pulls out occasionally, holding them delicately by their edges. “Look at my beautiful daughter,” he says. “Isn’t she beautiful. She gets it from her father.” He removes a picture of his grandson, now seven, taken three Christmases ago. “Isn’t he handsome?” The boy’s hair is pushed up in a faux-hawk and he wears glasses and a doll-sized tuxedo. “He must get it from his granddaddy.”

“They don’t understand,” he continues now, “what it’s like to be here. Sure, it’s not so hard–a roof over our heads, three meals a day, no bills to speak of. But they don’t know what it’s like to be in here, and them out there. To have all this time on our hands, nothing but time. Time to think, time to worry, time to call and call and to never have anyone answer.”

It’s eight-forty-five. My family is expecting my calls. I keep a stick-it note throughout the week of things to share with them come the weekend: kiwi fruit for lunch this past Wednesday, a shakedown in Foxtrot, a dental appointment on Friday, no cavities. Silly things, really. But I live to share them and to have someone to share them with. And on the off-chance that nobody answers, I’ll put away my list until the next night, when I’ll try again. By then, most of the adhesive will have worn away, and I’ll need to wedge the note in the phone’s cradle to keep it from blowing away.

Rod sees the address book in my hands and waves for me to go and make my calls. But I stay a moment longer, if only so as not to seem like a completely cold and uncaring dick, and suggest to him, rather pathetically, that maybe he should let his son cool off for a while. Try calling the house on Thanksgiving.

“Fuck him,” Rod says. “Fuck him in his ass.”

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Elijah

I noticed him at the Christian table, a young black man with a linebacker’s body and the face of a cherub. He wore a Kippa atop his smooth head. He said “What’s up?” and I said “How are you?” and then we each went back to our lunches, me to my cheeseburger and he to his Kosher eggplant Parmesan.

Our paths crossed again in the library’s Career Resource Center, where I work helping inmates write their resumes and teaching them how to use the computers. He walked into the lab looking self-conscious and insisted he was a slow typist and needed to improve his keyboarding skills. Together we set up an account and a password combining his home state–North Carolina–his year of birth–1982–and an asterisk, a symbol I’ve come to rely on, particularly with Spanish speakers, as it enjoys a space on the numeric keypad all to itself and requires no arduous explanation of the shift key.

His name I learned was Elijah and he returned to the lab the following afternoon and every day thereafter. He said little aside from hello but would occasionally turn to ask a question, such as how to repeat a lesson or adjust the computer’s volume. My answers were concise but polite, and I was often left with the impression that I hadn’t completely satisfied him, as if he were grasping for more.

One day he retired early from typing and, reluctantly it seemed, took a seat at the desk across from me. His eyes were soulful, sad almost, and fringed with dense black lashes that gave the appearance of having been marked with eyeliner.

“How’s the typing coming?” I asked.

“It’s getting there,” he said massaging his hands, which were rough and scarred. “I’m still having trouble reaching for X and Z.”

“I noticed you don’t wear your Kippa anymore.”

“I got tired of people asking about it: ‘Hey, is that a menorah on your head?’ Now they ask how come I don’t wear my Jew hat.”

He pressed a button on his MP3 player and the headphones clasped around his neck began to croon. The song was “Redneck Crazy.”

“A black Jew from North Carolina who listens to country music. How did that happen?”

We talked for two hours that afternoon and met again the next day and talked for three more, until recall. On the following morning, we walked the track field together.

In that time I learned that Elijah’s biological mother was a drug addict and that he was taken away by the state shortly after his birth and adopted into a white, observant Jewish family living in DC. His father’s job as a medical supplies salesman later forced the family to relocate to North Carolina.

It was his older brother who introduced Elijah to smoking weed at the age of ten. A cousin from Virginia taught him how to sell it, and his inventory soon expanded to include pills and cocaine. When he was sixteen, Elijah was caught selling marijuana and spent thirteen months in a facility for juveniles. A few months after his release, he was charged and convicted of manufacturing ecstasy and illegally possessing a firearm. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison and shipped to a maximum security penitentiary.

He was eighteen years old.

It wasn’t until our third lap around the track that Elijah told me he was gay.

“I know,” I said.

He looked startled. “How did you know? Is it obvious?”

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t obvious at all. His mannerisms are decidedly masculine. The only thing peculiar about Elijah is that, having been raised in a white family, he doesn’t act very black, which is to say he doesn’t behave the way black men in prison expect black men to behave. He isn’t loud or boisterous, he isn’t aggressive, he speaks standard English, and he has an aversion to cursing. He also bunks with a white man, Josh, which makes him an outcast amongst the blacks (but not nearly as much as it makes Josh an outcast amongst the whites).

“No, no. You’re not obvious,” I said. “But I knew something was up when I saw you were typing forty-three words per minute and still insisted in coming to the lab every day. I assumed it wasn’t keyboarding you were interested in.”

He grinned guiltily and we walked the next quarter mile of the track in silence until finally I asked about “Redneck Crazy.”

“I dunno,” he said shrugging. “I just like country music.”

That night at the prayer circle, in a break from our normal routine, Brother Travis suggested that we each share something we’re thankful for. He began by thanking God for waking him up in the morning, for allowing him to breathe another breath of air. Brother Marcus thanked God for bringing us–his brothers and family–together each night to praise Him. Brother Warren thanked God for His forgiveness.

And me: when it was my turn I chose friendship. And the brothers said amen.

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Grits

The commissary line is always longest on Monday mornings. An empty locker makes an inmate anxious, and he will queue up at 7:30, skipping breakfast, to replenish the sodas and candies and chicharrones he scoffed over the weekend. The line this morning is especially long–it extends around the north-eastern perimeter of the compound, past safety, past the prison factory, and ends at the chapel door–because the commissary was closed last week for inventory and the freezers, which broke three months ago, have finally been replaced and stocked with ice cream.

It struck me odd when I came to prison and saw the inmates eating ice cream, a treat I associate with childhood and tinkling trucks. Walking to breakfast, I pass men sauntering back to their units carrying two, three, four pints of Blue Bell in their mesh laundry bags. One man with cornrows is licking an ice cream cone.

“We go all summer without ice cream,” he quips, “and they bring the shit back first day of fall.”

At breakfast there is the usual debate over the proper way to season grits. The Northerner’s at the Christian Table prefer sugar while those brought up south of the Mason Dixon Line favor salt. The one exception is Brother Marcus from Georgia who like his grits sweet. The Southerner’s call him a Yankee, and Brother Jarvis, who is from Buffalo defends Brother Marcus declaring salted grits an abomination.

Someone mentions Cream of Wheat.

“Isn’t that the same as Farina?”

“Farina is made from corn.”

“No, no. They’re both made from wheat. Farina is just a brand name.”

“Cream of Wheat is a brand, too. It’s the one in the red box with the old white guy on the front.”

“I thought that was Quaker Oats.”

The man beside me asks for my input, and I tell him my mother is Italian. We eat polenta.

At the far end of the table sits Paul, the new guy, folding a pat of margarine into his grits. His eyes are sunken, his face barbaric, all chin and jaw. He stoops over his food tray with the posture of a prawn. Were my opinions of him always so harsh? Admittedly, no. It was only after learning of his charge–child molestation–that I assigned his otherwise benign attributes my own sinister meanings: his deep-set eyes turned mischievous, his strong jawline vulgar, his slouch predatorial. Funny how a bit of information can influence the minds eye.

Curiously, the whites haven’t run him off the compound or attacked him as they did Old Man Landry. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because the girl was sixteen and he eighteen, therefore making consent somewhat more negotiable. That’s not to say that the whites have granted him complete amnesty. They’ve banished him from eating at their tables and living with their people, which is why he eats and lives amongst the Christians, who accept him, however begrudgingly, because of doctrine. And Paul, whether out of sincerity or a sense of obligation, behaves accordingly: he attends church, talks Bible with the brothers, and even blesses his food before each meal. Seeing him manage prison makes me wonder if I haven’t gone about things all wrong. Perhaps I should have been upfront about my own charge. I could have spared myself all the prayer circles and Bible studies and church services and pretenses and lies. Perhaps Paul and I could have become cellmates, friends even.

At the end of the table, Paul crumbles a muffin into his grits and tears a packet of sweetener over the top. They don’t give us real sugar. They pass out some institution-only brand not sold to the public. The distributor’s logo is and upturned fork whose tines mimic prison bars.

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Prayer Circle

The ten of us stand in a circle, hands joined. Brother Marcus, the shepherd of our nightly prayer circle, asks if anyone has a praise report he’d like to share with the group. Javier, a relative newcomer, thanks God for banishing his wife’s car troubles. Brother Travis thanks God for allowing him to see another day.

“I should have been dead,” he says, and in fact he did die once, after being shot by a rival drug dealer. The doctors revived him. Brother Travis has often tried to share with us his testimony–how he came from hustling dope to following Jesus Christ–but he becomes so overwhelmed with emotion that he’s never able to finish.

“That God could love me,” he continues, “an unworthy sinner . . .” He stops and stares absently into a corner of the old vacant TV room where we meet. The other brothers punctuate the silence with a murmur of hallelujahs and praise Jesuses, which seems to bring him back.

Next Brother Marcus solicits the group for prayer requests. In the three months that I’ve been attending the prayer circle, the men have asked God to intervene in a variety of matters: the healing of sick mothers, the mending of broken relationships, the protecting of sons and daughters. After California kicked out Proposition Eight and DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, it became a staple in our nightly requests to pray for our nation’s law makers to govern according to the laws of God and not by the laws of man.

One night Officer Hall asked us to pray for his marriage.

Tonight Brother Phillip asks that we pray for his cousin Ezera, whom his aunt says is possessed by a demon. Brother Warren, who stands to my right, asks us to pray for his grandmother Beatrice, who is in the hospital again; something to do with her heart; she may need an operation. Warren’s brown hand feels cool and dry in mine. I give it a squeeze, partly to offer condolence, and partly because I have a terrible crush on him.

Clerical checklist complete, Brother Marcus asks if any of the brothers feel led to conduct the prayer. (He’s careful not to ask who “wants” or “would like” to lead the prayer, because as Christians we know we must allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit and not by our own will.) With the exception of Javier, I’m the only man in the group who hasn’t prayed yet. Even with my eyes closed and head bowed I can feel Marcus’s stare boring into me, daring me to accept the baton. After a moment of stubborn silence, he himself begins to pray.

Brother Warren, I’ve noticed, has a tendency to shiver when we pray, the spasms rolling down his arm and into my hand. To my left stands Brother Jacob, a burly Cuban with sweaty palms, whose habit while praying is to rock back and forth and to lift his hands in a gesture of offering. I allow my left hand to be lifted with his but leave my right to hang and be gently tussled by Warren’s convulsions. I peek with one eye to see how many men Jacob has managed to coerce into raising their hands. To his left are Brother Phillip, Brother Travis, and Brother Darryl, all standing with their hands held aloft. But Javier, the newcomer who stands to the left of Brother Darryl, has rebelled; he allows his right hand to be lifted by Darryl’s but keeps his left hand down. The effect of our combined sabotage is that only half of the circle’s hands are raised while the other half stands blindly unaware of their exclusion.

The symmetrical imbalance makes me smile.

Brother Marcus’s prayers are effusive, bordering on ostentatious. He throws everything into the pot–every scripture, every proverb, every adage–like a slapdash cook who’s discovered bottled herbs. He’s speaking now about Calvary and about “propitiation” and about Jesus Christ being the “lamp at our feet and the light on our path.” But I can’t catch everything over the catechetic din of hallelujahs and praise Jesuses from the other brothers.

And why don’t they ever call me their brother? Brother Marcus, Brother Warren, Brother Phillip, Brother Travis–they all address each other as Brother except me. Am I being subtly jilted? Are they on to me? Do they know that my Christian persona is a fraud intended to secure asylum within their community? I sometimes wonder if Warren’s shivering and Jacob’s rocking aren’t actual manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and if they can sense my disbelief as a break in their circle, a sucking void from which their light leaks.

I shut my eyes tighter and imagine that God is in the red and green floaters that swim behind my eyelids. But is doesn’t work. I feel nothing.

“Amen,” I say, one beat behind the others.

Back in my room I pull out my legal pad and Study Bible, a gift from one of the Christians whose cellmate left it behind when he went home. If I’m going to play the part of a Christian, I may as well throw myself into the role. I decide I will lead tomorrow night’s prayer, and it’ll be the best damn prayer they’ve ever heard, one to set aside any doubts they might have of my faith. They’ll be calling me their brother before long.

The only problem is that I’ve never actually prayed before. I open my donated Bible and on the first page is a dedication–”to Ronald E. Grahm, from friends and family.” On the next few pages are spaces for recording births, baptisms, and marriages, all of which are blank except the last page, Deaths. On this, scrawled in blue ink, is a single entry: “Edward Joe Grahm, 1-22-05.”

A father? A son? A brother?

I turn to the sixth chapter of Matthew, to the Lord’s Prayer. A footnote instructs that when we pray we should “praise God, pray for His work in the world, pray for our daily needs, and pray for help in our daily struggles.” With this template in mind, I begin to write.

I spend the next morning memorizing my prayer. At lunch I run into Brother Jacob.

“I have a feeling the Holy Spirit might lead me tonight.”

“Hallelujah!” he says and pats my shoulder.

I walk away imagining for a moment that I can smell the sulfuric fumes of impending hell.

That night at the prayer circle, Brother Warren opens the service by reading from the book of Isaiah. His lips are brown-pink, the color of rare roast beef, and perfectly formed. I don’t hear a word he’s saying. Instead, I’m imagining a scenario in which the room is engaged in a discussion on eye color. One brother makes the hasty observation that each of us in the group has brown eyes, at which point I say, No, that isn’t true, and the room goes quiet. Warren looks at me. And then, speaking through the others, I state that Warren’s eyes are not brown but in fact hazel. Later Warren pulls me into his room and tells me that nobody has ever noticed his eyes are hazel and not brown. And then we’re lying in his bunk making love atop a pile of cool, camp laundry.

Brother Marcus is asking for praise reports and prayer requests. The group goes silent. We’ve joined hands without my realizing it.

“Does anyone feel led tonight?”

Brother Jacob winks at me from across the circle.

“I’ll do it,” I say, a little too loudly. “I mean, yes. I feel led.”

I close my eyes and pray:

Dear Lord:

Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to fellowship this evening. We ask that you draw us closer into a right relationship with you, so that we may better serve you, and each other.

Father God, we thank you for your mercy and refuge. We thank you for the love and joy you place in our hearts every day.

Father God, we ask that you create in us clean hearts and cleanse us in your blood from all unrighteousness. We ask that you help us be more obedient servants of your Word and to be the men of God you have called on us to be.

Father God, we ask that you watch over us. We ask that you bless our friends, families, and loved ones. Bless this compound, Father God, and fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we may reach out and minister your Word to those here in need.

We ask these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

The circle begins to clap, which isn’t extraordinary in itself; we always applaud after the prayer. But what surprises me is when Brother Marcus slaps me on the back and congratulates me.

“Good prayer!” he cries. “Good prayer!”

My face warms as he shakes my hand and propels me into the arms of the other men. I’ve done it! I’ve fooled them! I except the hand of each member and leave the room feeling confident that I’ve bought myself more time. My place within the community is secure, and I am secure.

Walking to my room, I begin brainstorming future prayers. It would be best to keep several on hand; one never knows when the Holy Spirit might come calling again. My next performance will be better: I’ll quote scripture. I’ll mention Calvary. It’ll be poetic and humbling.

“Good night, Brother.”

I turn just as I’m reaching my door and his knuckles dap lightly against mine as he passes. I catch the impression of a smile and of eyes that are hazel and not brown.

“Good night,” I whisper.

Please forgive me.

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