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.