Mail Call

People only write when they have good news, so it seems. A friend has received a promotion at work. A college boyfriend, now living overseas, is marrying a Frenchman and has found an investor for a new business venture. And Lyle, who after an experimental cross-dressing phase changed his name to Lily and began transitioning to female, has decided to go back to school to study accounting. Also she is moving in with a computer engineer graduate from Rice University. And they’ve adopted a puppy. His name is Zac–the puppy’s, not the boyfriend’s.

Every letter brings news of a milestone: career advancement, home ownership, marriage, relocation, procreation. They send me postcards from California and letters from France. They send me photos of weddings, baby showers, and cruise ship vacations. The ones who still write. I put the envelopes to my nose and imagine I can smell the San Francisco Bay, the French country side. But all I smell are the leaky magazine cologne samples of other people’s mail. California smells like Calvin Klein, Bordeaux like Dior.

It should have been me. It should have been me.

My new cellmate Tom receives a letter from his old lady once a week. She too is in prison, housed at a women’s facility in another state. Last Wednesday she sent Tom a pencil drawing of Lady and the Tramp: “Tom & Diana, True Love is Hard to Find.” The resemblance between Tom and the stray is touching. Both are older than their years, tread-worn, and graying at the scruff. The lines on the back of Tom’s neck are deep and geological. Though only in his late forties, some men in the unit call him Pops and Grandpa. But Tom take no offense. He’s a gentle rogue, adorably mangy. When he’s not reading his paperback westerns or writing his wife pages and pages–what do they discuss?–he sleeps, the old soul. “Must be from all the meth he’s smoked,” I told Cisco, this at ten on a weekday morning and Tom still not having left his bed. “He’s still catching up on sleep from 1984.”

Tom keeps the amorous canines tacked to his half of the bulletin board, next to the Cell Sanitation Standard and photographs of his two teenage stepdaughters. The youngest poses in a cheerleading uniform, school colors red and white, the Bronchos, blonde hair in shiny wet curls. She saves half her lunch money and sends it to Tom at the end of every month.

“They’ve always treated me like a real father,” he told me one night after lockdown. “God, I miss those girls. They’d feel bad, me having to drive them to school. They didn’t realize how much I loved doing it, how much I looked forward to taking them each morning. That was our time together. Just me and the girls.”

We gather for mail call every weekday before supper. Simmons, 078. Robinson, 177. Prince, 043. The black CO looks to the nearest brown-skinned inmate to help him with the names of the illegals, of which there are many. Villegas, 379. Cantaerro, 042. Turubiates, 284. We push to the front to collect our mail. Bertram receives two letters and a book; yesterday he got three letters and a postcard.

We pretend not to notice.

Mail is lightest on Mondays and Fridays, days when the mailroom staff are slow getting in and quick to leave, for every item that comes in must be opened, read, sniffed, scrutinized, and staples shut before it can be delivered. Mail is heaviest on Christmas and Father’s Day, and on Valentine’s the cards spill from the mail sack in uniform crimson envelopes. Some get one or two. Many get nothing.

We pretend not to notice.

Today I received a letter from a friend I haven’t heard from in over three years. He tells me he’s opened a private medical practice. It should have been me. I don’t know if I’ll write him back. Bo once told me he stopped writing people a few years into his bid. “They have their lives, and I have mine. It’s hard to keep them separate. It’s easier that way.” Bo doesn’t go to mail call.

Another letter comes to me in a familiar typewritten envelope. My father prints them in bulk, so frequent are his letters, so permanent is my address. As official spokesperson of the family, he reports on the familiar household business: the fertility of the garden, the cats’ latest antics, and Mom’s newest interior decorating project. This month she’s sewing drapes for the dining room, though Dad writes he had to rehang them in the bedroom after it was decided the fabric didn’t go with the dining room wall color after all. It’s a long-standing family joke that the burden of Mom’s design indecision’s fall on my father, who must paint every wall twice if he paints it once, as was the case with the dining room. “You know your mother,” he writes. “She can’t visualize anything.”

It’s impossible to read my father’s letters without hearing his voice, which in the years since I’ve been locked up sound increasingly like a cassette deck losing juice. He turned seventy this past May and has been working since he was eleven, his first job delivering papers, and cooking since he was fourteen, flipping burgers for Browning Heights Drug and Hardware. It was there under the instruction of the store’s Jewish proprietor that he learned the proper way to slice a tomato–thin enough to read through to yesterday’s sports scores. The flesh dissolved as soon as it hit the warm beef, leaving only a ring of skin and seeds. Sixty-one years of work, most spent in overheated kitchens chopping and sweating onions, the astringent smell of garlic collecting on his burned and calloused fingers like something you could almost see, something yellow, and certainly smell. As a young boy I often pulled away from that smell whenever my father reached out to touch my shoulder or ruffle my hair.

Sixty-one years. God, he’s tired. So tired. How he’d love to find himself a little storefront, open up a little hot dog stand or burger joint, wouldn’t need to make much money, just enough to get by on, keep it simple, cheeseburgers and fries, onion rings maybe, nothing fancy . . . “But you know how your mother is.”

My father is dying. Work is killing him. My mother is killing him. I am killing him.

“I just pray,” he writes, “that I’ll still be here to see you get out, so I can help you get back on your feet.”

I put my father’s letter to my nose and smell nothing.

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One Team, One Mission

They’ve built another prison, a high security penitentiary, next door to our own. From outside the chow hall we can see the blank 360-degree stare of the guard tower peeking above the yard’s reinforced walls and fencing. The addition of a penitentiary to our medium and nearby minimum and low security facilities makes us officially a “complex;” inmates can be shipped across the security spectrum and remain local while officers can be shared within the complex and allocated wherever manpower is needed, saving the government money on inmate transfers and staff retention.

In wake of the pen’s opening, the complex produced a series of T-shirts intended to boost staff morale. I saw a nurse wearing one of the new shirts at main line. It was Kelly green and imprinted with an imposing guard tower, like something out of Alcatraz, that looks nothing like what we see from the chow hall which more closely resembles the control tower of a small municipal airport. The shirt read, We Tower Above the Rest. Another officer wore a baby blue design that read, One Team, One Mission. I asked Cisco what their mission was exactly.

“To keep us oppressed,” he said.

This last shirt featured the state of Mississippi silhouetted against concertina wire. I imagined that wire stretching across the state, literally, across country and city, over freeway and farm road, dividing neighborhoods and playgrounds, schools and homes. But the irony in such imagery was apparently lost on those who conceived the atrocious idea.

Last month some suits from another prison came through to tour our Education Department. In anticipation of their visit, the library received an extensive makeover: shelves were padded with books, furniture was rearranged, walls were painted a fresh coat of institutional gray, and the floors were waxed and buffed to a gelatinous gleam. The highlight of the tour was to be the job kiosk, an expensive, hulking machine with touch display that allows inmates to find employment ahead of their release. Once while browsing the openings I found my old position, listed by my former employer. I recalled the morning my boss came to my desk and touched me lightly on the shoulder. Soon thereafter I was escorted from the building carrying a box of my belongings–a wireless mouse, a coffee mug with the company logo engraved on the side, a bag of half-eaten goldfish crackers–which they were nice enough to have packed for me while I signed my resignation.

Now, as an inmate working inside a prison library, it was my job to demonstrate the job hunting kiosk to our visitors. But the kiosk, which I heard cost ten-thousand dollars, was broken; the printer wasn’t grabbing paper and inmates hadn’t been able to print job leads for the past three months. Not a problem, said the administrator over Education, a young Eddie Murphy look-alike. We’ll open the machine, feed a slip of paper into the printer by hand, and close her back up. “But we’ll only have one shot at printing,” he said, “so make sure the inmates don’t use the kiosk until after the demonstration.” He taped an Out of Order sign to the machine’s display and instructed me not to remove it until the visitors arrived.

While performing my dog and pony show for the suits–Eddie Murphy stood by wringing his hands, either because he was afraid the kiosk might blow up or because he thought I might try to fuck over his demonstration–I was reminded of a hokey little company I worked for in college that sold websites to small businesses. We’d laugh whenever our customers purchased search engine optimization; none of us knew what it was. We were like the used car salesmen of the tech world.

Prison itself is a hokey business: a bumbling enterprise funded by taxpayers, manned by apathetic saps whose job it is to sell you a vague service–justice, rehabilitation, public welfare–that no one understands or can afford, but are told they can’t live without.

Recently I was granted access into the belly of the enterprise, the administration building, to help with a project. An Assistant Warden was retiring and as a parting gift the staff had framed an enlarged snapshot of the AW dancing awkwardly at a past Christmas party. Eddie Murphy wanted me to sign the surrounding matte with various improvised hands, as if signed by the staff, but a staff with better penmanship.

In a conference room at the end of a long hall, past offices and a kitchenette, I toiled away for almost an hour, experimenting with different lettering and embellishments–Roman and script, uppercase and title case, exclamation marks and underscores–before applying a steady hand to the matte. Crazily I thought they might throw me in the hole if I messed up. But the senior secretary was pleased with my work, and she wrapped the framed gift in scrap paper she’d brought in from home. I picked out the ribbon and helped her tie it with the aid of my finger.

It was this disconnect, I realized later, between prison and the business of prison that had allowed for the creation of those tacky T-shirts. Back there amongst the offices and conference rooms and the kitchenette with communal coffee pot and three kinds of sweetener, buffeted against the desperation and rattling of inmate life, the shirts had seemed like a good idea.

It’s strange to think of my confinement as someone else’s job, one that includes the trappings of any other business–interoffice gifts, Christmas parties, dog and pony shows, concern for employee morale. I stare out the coinslot window of my cell and watch the cars pull in and out of the parking lot, the officers putting in their eight hours, clocking out for lunch, changing shifts. Timesheets. Paid vacations. Retirement. One Team, One Mission.

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We were in the chow hall eating lunch, chili dogs with packets of brown ketchup, when we looked up to see the Paisas abandoning their tables mid-meal, as though all at once they had received a covert transmission ordering them to mobilize.

“Something’s up,” said the man beside me.

An inmate once compared the tension preceding a prison brawl to static, an invisible stirring in the air. That afternoon we felt its pull; we saw its effects in the sidelong stares, vigilant postures, and aimless milling. The blacks congregated in front of the units, speaking in monosyllables. The Paisas meanwhile lingered along the sidewalks, quietly attuned to a frequency all their own, awaiting another transmission.

First timer Francisco picked up on the static, too. He noticed the blacks looking skittish at dinner. “Maybe we’ll see another show with our meal,” I said, referring to Cisco’s first week on the yard when he and I witnessed a man get slammed over the head with a tray of food. Spectators were pelted with lettuce and soured ketchup packets. French fries bounced off the warden’s fine trench coat and landed at his feet. Dinner and a show.

On the evening of the Paisas’ walkout, as we were preparing for Bible study, the PA system clicked on and ordered us back to our units. We gathered our Bibles and started to leave but stopped just short of the chapel door, for outside beneath a leaden sky, upwards of 600 men had assembled into two opposing armies, neither budging, PA system be damned. The blacks and Mexicans stared at each other across a distance of some twenty yards, as if divided by a steep cleft. No one spoke; no one moved. Static. The quiet seemed a blight against nature, for how could such a great force exist without an equally great thunder? Respectfully abiding, even the wind held its breath. And on the outskirts, looking grossly inadequate, stood the warden in his trench coat and a handful of officers. One CO held a rifle.

I’ve never witnessed a riot, though I’ve heard gruesome accounts from those who have. Steve told me of one man whose head was skewered through the eye socket with a splintered broom handle. Rod said that whenever things kicked off in the State they’d string magazines around their torso to deflect knives. So that evening when the two armies converged–a single trill sounded from the Mexican side like a battle cry–I was convinced I would see death, murder, for the first time in my life. This will change me, I thought. But the armies stopped within spitting distance of each other. The men stood down, the shot callers stepped forward, and, incredibly, the two sides began to negotiate.

Back inside the chapel we speculated on the outcome of the arbitrations and regaled one another with terrifically violent stories of past riots. Some of us, black and brown, joined hands and prayed for peace on the compound. Watching the negotiations from the window, I recalled the Paisas’ earlier exodus from the chow hall and was struck for the second time that day by the organization of that seemingly unruly mass of men, their diplomacy and self-governance, how quickly and efficiently they were able to communicate, assemble, and act as one homogeneous body. And compare that to the officers with their protocols and hierarchy and sophisticated radios, the authority of an entire government behind them, standing at the sidelines overwhelmed and underpowered with only a rifle and handful of rubber bullets.

We’d be locked down for the next seven days, pending the investigation. We’d be confined to our cells, then later handcuffed and escorted into back offices and made to give statements and answer questions: “Do you have any reason to feel unsafe at this facility?” Having self-surrendered, it would be my first time placed in handcuffs.

At the end of the investigation, after operations have resumed, a memo would be sent to the director of the Bureau of Prisons summing up the disturbance, the near riot, and the staff’s quick and efficient response: Issues were identified, protocols observed, roles assigned, procedures executed, culprits detained, and order restored, all within the span of a week, with no injury to staff or inmate.

Absent from that report would be any mention of the men’s self-mediated negotiation and subsequent disbanding, for not more than ten minutes after the two sides converged did they arrive at a peaceable resolution and quietly–and wholly of their own volition–dissolve back into their units. Ironically, those who led the negotiations would be charged with inciting a riot and thrown into the hole.

Nevertheless, despite whatever assurances such a report might claim, what everyone knows, and what I’m only now beginning to realize, is that it isn’t the wardens and lieutenants and officers but the inmates themselves who run the prisons.

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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, Hebrews 13:5 says to “. . . be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake 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 forty 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 sonofabitch will be satisfied, 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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