«EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Marisa Fein CONSULTING EDITOR Robert Johnson COVER DESIGN Carla Mavaddat TEXT DESIGN Sonia Tabriz BleakHouse Publishing 2016 Ward ...»
“You read books and talk big words, writing should be easy for you.” “O’Leary, I talk shit and have no ideas worth writing about.” O’Leary finished his meal and placed his spoon in the middle of his tray like he was in a fancy restaurant.
“You looking forward to freedom?” he asked.
“I can’t wait to see Tiffany. I swear it’s like I’m being reborn.” I held my arms up to the ceiling and hollered, “Hallelujah!” *** Jackson was cracking his knuckles and the clock on the classroom wall was ticking behind its own set of bars. Ms.
Bishop glanced at the blank lined paper beneath my poised pen.
We were learning about dialogue and had twenty minutes to write a scene using speech. The only talk I thought to write about was on a hot afternoon in August, about seven years ago, when I was driving Tiffany to the 7-Eleven in my dad’s old truck. Tiffany was wearing a black t-shirt, camouflage mini-skirt and high-top sneakers, and had a 32 head full of curls that rippled like flames whenever she turned her head.
“You got the list?” I asked.
“All up in here, Anthony boy.” She tapped her freckled forehead.
“Impressive.” I laughed.
She laughed, too, all white teeth and pink gums, like she was posing for a photograph.
I parked the truck outside the store.
“Leave the engine running,” she said.
A few minutes later we were back in the truck and speeding along the highway. Tiffany had the window open, which made her curls wilder than the wind blowing through them.
“Anthony boy, that’s the last time we’re doing that,” she said, taking a packet of Skittles from the pocket of her skirt and adding it to the collection of stolen Coke cans and candy bars. Her blue eyes absorbed the sunlight making them sparkle like rough crystals.
“You always say that.” I sighed with mock exasperation because there was nothing Tiffany could do to annoy me.
That’s what I thought at the time.
“Stealing is like taking drugs. You start small-time, then end up getting lost in the big stuff.” She opened a can of Coke.
33 I parked the truck beside a playground that had bunches of flowers tied to the gate. Tiffany stared at the empty swings.
“We gotta grow up sometime, Anthony boy.” Writing time was up and I’d got another piece of paper filled with stars. Ramos was swinging on his chair, leaning his head back so he was looking at me upside down.
“What you gonna write for the assignment?” he asked me.
Ms. Bishop had mentioned a writing assignment in last week’s class, which was due a week before I was to be released. I hadn’t given it much thought and that’s what I told Ramos. His front chair legs hit the wooden floor and he turned to look at me straight on. The serpent tattoo on this shaved head moved with the tensing of his jaw.
“I’m gonna write about prison, ya know? Write about the hard stuff.” Ramos’s eyes bugged out and I could see the crazy in them. “I’m getting published.” He grinned and stuck his tongue out like a panting dog.
Ms. Bishop returned our previous work. I saw the lines of stars I’d drawn. Squeezed into the margin, Ms. Bishop
“When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with such applause in the lecture room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.” – Walt Whitman 34 Heat slithered up my spine and twisted itself around each rib. I stood with the paper in my hand and walked towards the door.
“You can’t leave the facility without supervision,” the officer in the corner said.
“I need the bathroom.” There’s the remnant of an old crack in the door, plastered and painted thick. The tense heat was now in my throat and I was scared it would pour out of my eyes.
“Sit down,” the officer said. This time he stood and walked towards me, his breath in my face. One breathe, two breaths, three breaths. I turned and sat down.
*** I was sitting in the prison lobby in the same clothes I was wearing when they brought me in 5 years ago: jeans, sneakers, a Pink Floyd t-shirt that still smelled of sweat and marijuana.
The day before, as I packed, O’Leary lectured me about second chances and Ms. Bishop said she’d give me an extension on my writing assignment, which I hadn’t even started. She said I could mail it to her, if I wanted.
I almost smiled when my dad walked through the automatic doors. His slide sandals flip flapped against the bottom of his feet and an unlit cigarette hung from his lips.
When he saw me he said, “Come on then, Anthony boy.” 35 We were sat in the old truck. My dad was driving. A few strands of his hair glinted gray in the sunlight.
“What you gonna do now?” he asked.
“I’m gonna grab a burger and fries,” I said and my dad chuckled loud and deep. “And then I’m gonna see Tiffany.” He stopped the truck on the side of the road and cut the ignition.
“You remember your mother?” “Yes,” I replied. When I was eight years old, my mom killed herself driving drunk. Took an old man and his dog up to heaven with her. I don’t recall much during that time.
“You remember how some days she was your mother and other days she was mad as hell?” my dad continued, looking up at the sky through the front window of the truck. The heat from the hood made the air melt. “You’d be as mad as your mother if you go anywhere near Tiffany; you’ll be back in the slammer, as fast as that.” He clicked his fingers.
I woke the next morning at 8.00am and thought about O’Leary and the others eating breakfast from gray prison trays. My bowl was white and round and chipped on the edges. I leaned against the kitchen counter and ate cereal with day old milk. Everything was the same: the same couch, the same ice bucket filled to tipping with beer bottles.
36 I drove to the 7-Eleven and bought a Coke and a packet of Skittles. I sat in the truck outside Tiffany’s house, which hadn’t changed: manicured lawn, a porch with two wooden pots with spiky plants, which brushed against people’s clothes whenever they walked by.
I ate the red Skittles and left the other colors. As I cracked open a Coke, Tiffany’s screen door opened and a young boy, about four years old, ran onto the porch. He was wearing denim overalls tucked into galoshes. His hair was a sandy color and his cheeks were flushed pink. He clutched a toy dog and was sucking his thumb. I then saw Tiffany. She hadn’t changed since the last time I saw her, in a courtroom, six years ago. Beautiful.
I’ll never forget what she said to the judge that day and the relief on her face when I was sentenced: no more Anthony boy following her around town; no more Anthony boy calling her late at night; no more Anthony boy waiting outside her house, waiting and waiting. No more Anthony boy posting threatening notes, and no more Anthony boy holding her down, holding a knife with his top lip sweating. She’ll never forget that, she said.
When Tiffany saw me in the truck, she took the child by the arm and pulled him back into the house with her.
The screen door clattered shut and the jalousies quivered.
I ate the rest of the Skittles and drove home.
I watched daytime chat shows until my dad returned from cleaning pools. We ate takeaway pizza with the glare of the TV on our faces. He fell asleep on the couch, feet on the coffee table, head back, and mouth open. The air conditioner attached to the window hummed even though I’d turned it off hours before.
37 I stood out on the porch because the air was warm even though the stars were out and I was reminded of the summer evening when I was twelve and the poem I put between the couch cushions. I smoked a cigarette and drank a bottle of beer and made it last until the sky began to lighten.
My dad was no longer on the couch, so I searched between the cushions. I found a couple of dimes, a pen, the stolen watch stuck on four o’clock and a piece of folded paper. I unfolded it, careful, as it was weak at the creases. I read the words of the Walt Whitman poem, the same poem Ms. Bishop wrote on my work. I couldn’t make out Mr.Carter’s faded comment, but the gold star shone just as bright.
There were piles of gas and electricity bills and discarded empty envelopes on the kitchen table. I took one of the envelopes and wrote my name on it to see if the pen still worked. It did. The wooden chair creaked as I sat and I thought of Ramos writing about his time in prison, about his life and the hard stuff. I thought of O’Leary writing about what he’d do if he were given a second chance. I knew then what I wanted to write, so I placed the pen nib to the envelope, and this is what I wrote.
A condemned man’s last meal Window to his soul Here’s the apple juice A reminder of all the mornings The mornings without juice Without a parent who cared An empty table An empty stomach An empty heart Here’s the hamburger American through-and-through A slice of freedom In a world of confinement Irony you can taste Here’s the ice cream A sweet relief From the heat of a youth Spent in the embrace Of violence New mother for an unloved child Here’s the bread “My body given for you” A sacrifice on the altar Of an unforgiving society Here’s the body Not fried but raw Raw pain 39 Raw indifference Meat grinded by the system Prepared for years And put to death Right around the time Meals are served On family’s tables All over the country 40
“You Americans, you are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn't come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” - Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky
He’s been moved from a maximum to a medium security prison. Jevon’s stellar record as an inmate for the past twenty-two years earns him this status (or is it that the maximum-security prison is overcrowded and the powers that be need to move bodies? No one knows). The men housed in the medium-security prisons have more out-ofcell time, more access to resources such as the library, the gym, and the dayroom (where they can use the phone to call loved ones) than those housed in maximum security.
One opportunity offered at the new facility is a college math class, which he signed up for right away. He’s a reading and writing guy so math would be a challenge, a potential skill he could hone for his betterment and rehabilitation.
After taking a test and receiving a qualifying score for entry into the class, he is assigned a teacher. On day one, this teacher sets the tone. She lectures the inmate students, “this is a college class. You can’t be late or skip.
You will be expected to do the work assigned.” These are fair and appropriate expectations for college students, he thinks. He is anxious to begin. After a few days of pretests, text books get handed out and they review. He feels ready to move on, enough review already. He is patient 41 because that is what prison requires, so he generalizes the art of waiting to the classroom.
For the next few weeks, the teacher goes over the first two chapters in the text while in class. Finally, the teacher hands out the first homework assignment. He takes his college math, returns to his cell ready to work. When he pulls out the paper, he notices something across the top of the assignment. In bright red Sharpie the teacher writes, “PLEASE NO CHEATING!” A familiar queasiness, the taste of copper in his mouth. He expects this dismissive remark from prison guards, but from a teacher? Tomorrow he will say something to her but he has to perfectly plan his approach. Make sure he is prepared so his words cannot be twisted into something later used against him. These mental gymnastics are required in dealing with people who treat him less than human, expect the worst, feel that power is meant to belittle.
He enters the class the next day and as opportunity affords, asks the teacher, calmly, “excuse me, are you going to write this on all of our assignments?” He inches toward the condescension at hand.
“Yes, I am. Is there a problem?” the teacher answers flatly. “This is offensive. Why write this on every assignment?” He is both curious and stern.
“I don’t want you guys helping each other with the work,” she mumbles as she looks away, acting busy stacking papers.
He cocks his head in confusion. “Well, instead of ‘PLEASE NO CHEATING!’ why don’t you write ‘NO HELPING EACH OTHER!’ or somethin’ like that?” 42 The teacher tightens her jaw and responds, defensively, “that would be too much to write out.” Even she knows her answer makes no sense, sounds lame. He throws her an analogy, attempts to get her to empathize without becoming combative, “how would you feel if every day when you come to work, your boss warns you, ‘DON’T STEAL ANYTHING!’?” At this, the teacher has no response. She’s been challenged by her student, the inmate in College Math 107, and she has nothing to say to save her. She looks away, mumbles, “don’t take it personally. This is just how I do things.” She pivots at the lectern and goes on to scribble math problems on the whiteboard.
He has already blocked her out. He hears nothing for the rest of the class except his own siren thoughts. While she speaks fractions, he brainstorms a withdrawal letter that he will later articulately pound out for the educational director.
“PLEASE NO CHEATING!”— one more red flag of failure. Another “innocent” remark bold with subtext screaming unworthiness, disrespect. A psychological kick in the head masked as “just how things are done.” One class, three college credits, thirty eight years of not being treated “personally.” Do the math.