We sit with our elbows on the metal desk in his cell reciting parts of speech. The desks, painted what I call institution-gray, are inscribed with the histories of each cell’s past and current occupants: a water mark where someone set their Ramen to cook, gang graffiti left behind by Latin Kings, a hazy cloud where Rod grinds his Wellbutrin tablets into a fine powder before he snorts them.
Since beginning our study session, the sun has stealthily moved to the west side of the compound, and neither of us seem aware, or to care really, that the room has grown dark. South sits with his back to the window, a purple silhouette with eyes. He manipulates a floss pick with his mouth.
“What’s a verb?” I ask.
“A thing– No,’ he corrects himself. “A verb is an action.”
“Right. It tells what the subject’s doing. It can also tell what the subject is. The dog is small, for example.”
South writes this down on the legal pad that sits between us. The curved handle of the floss pick pokes out from between his lips like a fish hook. These blacks must have fantastically healthy gums.
“What is a noun?”
Without hesitation, he replies, “Person, place, or thing.” The answer, as poetic as lions, tigers, and bears, is never lost on students. But South surprises me and adds what most people miss: “They can also be ideas, too, like hope and fear.”
It turns me on, this insignificant intelligence, and as South continues with his notes, my chest and hands become heavy. I lay my pen–one of these cheap BICs they sell at commissary–on the battered desk and move to South’s lap where I take the floss pick from his mouth and kiss him. His tongue is big, like his lips. And then it’s over, and I go back to my seat, and we stare quietly at the legal pad.
South was raised by his grandparents on a farm in South Carolina where he and his five siblings helped pick peaches and look after chickens. His family called him Baby because he was the youngest child. Later, when he was sentenced to life at eighteen, the guys at the pen took to calling him South because he was the only one in his cell block from South Carolina.
I ignored him for over a year. When he attempted to make conversation, I gave him dead end replies; when he asked me to help him study for the GED, I told him I was busy. He never pushed very hard, though, not like some of the other guys with their sexual pretenses, asking if they can come up to the cell and check out my book collection or if I’s be down for a little weed or drink. Booty Bandits, they’re called. South’s attentions, however, always seemed well-meaning and genuine, almost pathetically so, with that perpetually lost look on his sad brown face, desperate for attention. I wondered what reasons a man with a life sentence has for waking up in the morning. What’s the point?
Last week, before today’s kiss, South pulled up a chair beside me in the library where I sat grading student essays.
“I wish I could do my time like you,” he said. “You seem all put together. Disciplined. You do your thing. You don’t drink, don’t smoke. You read, keep to yourself, go to church.”
I capped my red pen and set the essays aside. The topic was “Things that are important to me.” After reading forty papers worth of men pledging loyalty to the families they abandoned for drugs and a quick buck, my compassion had begun to wear thin. “I can’t be all that disciplined. I’m in prison, aren’t I?”
He considered this for a moment and tried again: “So how do you like your new celly?”
“Rod’s okay. He pops laxatives like candy and farts a log. And he’s a racist, but he’s okay.”
“He a racist?”
“He’s more of a closet racist. He’ll talk nice to your face, but when your back’s turned it’s always ‘Nigger this’ and ‘Nigger that.'”
South smiled. It feels good to be able to use the word nigger in front of a black person. Their world has always seemed impenetrable to me; I’ve convinced myself that their allowing me to say this word is a small proof of acceptance.
“Oh, my people say those things about white folk, too,” South said.
“What do they say about whites?”
“‘Cracker this’ and Cracker that'”
We laughed and I caught sight of South’s open mouth: small square teeth, surprisingly straight by prison standards, and rhubarb gums. A healthy mouth. Must be the floss picks.
Still buoyed from having said the word nigger, I ventured to ask the one question that’s been on my mind since coming to prison: “Tell me something. Why do black people kill each other?” Softening the question, I added, “I mean I’ve always thought of you guys as having this tight brotherhood and sharing a common cause.”
“Shit,” he said, pronouncing the word as blacks do, like sheet. “A nigga gonna kill a nigga for a dollar. That just how it is.”
We laughed again, and I thought of all the guys I stopped dating because they had bad teeth.
“You going to church this weekend?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “You?”
“Yeah. I be trying to get into the Word more.” He turned his hands over on the table and stared into his open palms. No more smiles. Religion has that effect.
“Is that what motivates you? I can’t imagine how hard it is, not having a release date.”
“It helps, I guess. That’s why I be working on this GED. My lawyer thinks they’ll give me clemency if I do good, show them I’m trying to change.”
I gave in. It was more out of pity than kindness that I agreed to tutor him. After our kiss, South said he’d never forget what a verb is. I guess I have a knack for teaching.