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.”