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 stapled 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 at least 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.