Jack’s been gone for almost two years now. He wrote me once, from the halfway house in Fort Worth, his letter a half sheet of loose leaf, thoughts all running together, no indentions: “Got a job. It is not a good one. Everything is tough. Started life with no one but my son, mom, and sister. I go to church on Sundays. Otherwise I work. Saving money for my new home and a car.” I wrote Jack back, filling him in on all that he’d missed here. I told him about the new warden and about the wind turbine out front, recently repaired and spinning again after years of mechanical rigor mortis. I told him about the inmates’ strike that past summer, and how we’d refused food for four days in a bid to reclaim the rec yard. By the end of my letter it became clear to me that none of these things would be of any significance to Jack anymore. He was in the free world now, and anything that happened behind these fences would seem to him small and frivolous. Jack never wrote again.
Two nights before his release we’d eaten tuna-cheddar wraps and played rummy at his bunk. After two hands he set the cards aside, squatted before his open locker, and began emptying its contents. He pulled out books and magazines, loose envelopes, stripped notebook carcasses, toilet paper, hair gel, a peanut butter jar filled with string, strips of fine sandpaper, bars of soap, gnarled paperclips, water bottles and coffee mugs, stained Tupperware with lids cracked and sewn with dental floss, a broken clothes hanger, plastic sporks and knives, a bent Ajax lid, pencil nubs wound thick with masking tape. Now it’s true Jack was a pack rat, but then many inmates are; without the modern convenience of drug and dollar stores, we come to scavenge, save, and reuse in an effort to create a comfortable existence. To this end, a bit of sandpaper becomes a pumice, cardboard a locker shelf, string a clothesline, paperclips hooks, and a perforated Ajax lid a cheese grater. Jack sat on the floor and stretched his legs out, his bare feet knocking over a stack of paperbacks—histories of Vietnam and World War II, fantasy trilogies, a New King James bible, and a copy of Mein Kampf.
Jack continued to empty his locker. Six years’ worth of possessions. His only possessions. Shoelaces, magnets, dead markers, an expired bottle of insect repellant, a dried-up glue stick Jack assured me could be reinvigorated with a bit of water, a chipped plastic mirror, a hoard of pills—multivitamins, allergy tablets, aspirin, and others Jack couldn’t for certain identify.
“I didn’t know you played racquetball,” I said picking up two blue rubber balls.
“I don’t,” Jack said. “I use those to massage my feet.”
“Oh.” I dropped the balls into the mesh laundry bag I’d brought with me, thinking I might take up handball.
On his bunk Jack dumped a macaroon canister filled with batteries. I threw a few to the ground to see if they still had juice, but I couldn’t make heads or tails; all batteries appear to me to bounce, and I’ve long suspected that this test is more myth than science, like dangling a washer over a fetus to determine its sex. To be safe, I tossed the batteries in the bag with the balls.
“Don’t forget to take down your pictures,” I said.
Affixed to the inside of his locker door were photos of Jack’s son and mother. The latter was exactly how one might imagine Jack’s mother, strong-framed even in her eighties, with large rough hands and a cool blue gaze. Reared and fed under the auspices of this hearty country woman, Jack’s son had grown into a strong, healthy teenager, a milk-and-cornbread boy with corn silk hair and a sweet smile. Carefully Jack peeled the photos off the locker and tucked them inside the photo album that laid atop a small pile of belongings Jack planned to take with him to the halfway house.
In his album was a picture of Jack and me taken outside the gym the summer before. We are standing side-by-side, hands crossed. Jack is grimacing into the sun, his lip curled, hair tied back in a ponytail, a sliver of swastika peeking from beneath the cuff of his T-shirt. People often remarked that Jack and I made for unlikely friends. They called him Crazy Jack. He was loud and crass. He told outrageous and violent stories involving drug dealers, bikers, and prostitutes. He was easy to pigeonhole. But just when you thought you had him pinned down, had written him off as ignorant white trash, he’d disarm you by recalling some obscure fact about honeybees, or by instructing you in the differences between Waterford and Swarovski, or by sharing a box of honey buns with his Jewish neighbor. Indeed, I myself had been disarmed by Jack’s intelligence, sensitivity, and especially his consciousness. Jack knew he had hurt people. And where a vast number of men will spend their entire bids repleading their cases to anyone who will listen—cursing the police, the attorneys, the judges, the narks—Jack acknowledged that the real victim was not himself but his teenage son, who’d had to grow up without his father.
It was our habit in the evenings after lifting weights to walk the paved hill that runs from the gym down to the chapel, and it was on these circuitous walks that Jack did most of his confiding. Flouncing his head in time to his swinging arms, Jack would report to me that his boy was driving now, was seeing a girl, was taking his first girlfriend to his first prom. Whenever he spoke of his son, Jack’s eyes would turn a crystalline blue.
He talked often about the future. He envisioned himself living in a rambling house on a small plot of land where he’d keep bees and a pet skunk. He said he’d look me up when I get out, and that the two of us would go out for beer and greasy fast-food tacos. He’d invite me to his home, introduce me to his son. He said he’d build a gym in his garage with a couple of benches, a pull-up bar, and a weight rack, so that we might continue working out together. On nights like those I’d stare up at the sky and let Jack do the talking. Few stars can pierce the sodium-halide smog that hangs over a prison. I felt as though I’d been walking that hill for the past eight years, and that, like Sisyphus, I might be climbing it forever. The wastefulness weighed on me heavy as any boulder. I knew I’d never see Jack again, and I was okay with that.
“Jack, what am I going to do with all these pens? Half of these don’t work.” I’d been testing them, scribbling circles on the scrap cardboard that had shortly ago served as locker shelving.
“Give them away,” he said. “Whatever you don’t take I’m going to throw away; I don’t like anybody else.” Though this wasn’t true. While Jack loved making himself out to be a pariah, plenty of people liked Jack, and Jack liked plenty of people. Already he’d given his radio to his bunkie and headphones to a neighbor, a newcomer with nothing but bus shoes and a bedroll.
I didn’t take much. Along with the racquetballs, I threw in my bag a few fitness magazines, colored pencils, a solar calculator, and a pair of sweat shorts with Jack’s name and inmate number marked across the waistband, the thighs worn thin as cheesecloth. To be honest, I abhorred the idea of taking anything of Jack’s, felt like a marauder rifling through a dead man’s estate sale. He kept throwing things in my lap—shirts, boxers, an excessive number of socks, all brand new and pilfered from Laundry where he’d worked the folding table. He was sweating, getting manic. Men say leaving prison is scarier than coming to prison.
Two days later, just before eight o’clock in the morning, I heard them call Jack’s name over the PA system telling him to report to R&D—Receiving and Discharge. I wasn’t there to see him off. But the inmates in Laundry, Jack’s coworkers, told me later that they saw him from the pick-up window. They saw him running across the prison’s parking lot toward a short, sturdy woman and blond-haired young man. The inmates screamed and hollered and whistled to him through the window’s steel grate, but Jack was so far away he heard nothing.