Sunday, September 14, 2008

Goodbye. Goodnight. Good morning. Goodbye.

She watched him, stuck between wanting to scream and cry; and wanting to just walk away. It had happened before, but she could feel the difference this time. For a moment, she was angry, pissed off that she was expected to hold things together when he wasn't sure of his own heart. She let it go with a sigh and sat--not next to him, but two chairs down.

He stared at the cigarette he had taken from her pack, pushing it around in a jar lid. "You okay?"

She started crying again, but nodded. "Yeah."

This was the "real" breakup, the one they had dodged half a dozen times before, through bad fights and jealousy. This was the one they wouldn't come back from. She took a cigarette and lit it. He pushed the jar lid across the table, halfway between them.

It was a meaningless gesture, but it made her cry harder. She looked up at him, feeling herself getting sick. "Why is it so hard to stay together?"

He was quiet. Then he whispered out, looking down at the table. "I don't know." He couldn't cry. He was always closed off. She never knew how to get next to him, to touch him closer than skin. She never knew how to hold the part of him that was fighting to breathe inside.

She wondered what went through his mind, what he felt when they kissed and made love. She could feel it all the way through her. It was like a million tiny drops of cold water came alive on her skin and moved through her like lightning. Then she would look in his eyes and everything would go calm and warm again.

She took a drag off the cigarette and looked across the table. His face was tired. His eyes were a million miles away. She wanted to kiss him. More tears streaked down her face. She stubbed out the cigarette, not half-finished with it.

He finished his and pushed it into the jar lid. "I'm going to go, okay?" His face filled with worry and something else, something she couldn't read, fighting against himself. "Are you going to be alright?"

"Can you stay tonight?" He frowned. She shook her head, trying to hold back more tears. "No, don't."

He looked at her, wanting to hold her, wanting to make it easier. "I don't think I should."

"Just for a little while?"

He looked at her, feeling sick and ashamed. He knew he should have gone somewhere else, slept in his car or something. "Okay."

They went to the bedroom and undressed by the glow of the desk lamp. They climbed in bed carefully, afraid to touch each other. He turned off the lamp and rolled back over on his side. She curled up with her back to him, still crying into her pillow.

He watched her in silence until she rolled back toward him. "Can you hold me?"

He put his arms around her and they lie still in the dark. She cried into his shirt, soaking it. He picked up some tissues from the desk and handed them to her. She laughed as she wiped her face. She dropped the tissues by the bed and nestled against him again. Her body was warm and it made him uncomfortable, but he kept his arms around her.

"I love you." He looked down at her. "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't say that."

He squeezed her harder. They lay awake until the sun came up, not saying another word for the rest of the night.

She got dressed for work and he walked her out to the parking lot. She wanted to call in sick, but knew she couldn't miss a day. They said "goodbye" and got in their cars. He drove across town, to the park where they used to take long walks. He parked near the rec center and leaned his seat back. The morning was hot and he needed a shower. He closed his eyes and fell into restless sleep, too disconnected to cry.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Buck's Shop

I entered the shop with one guard. Inmate "48592-A" reached his hand out, giving a big grin when I took it. He didn't get to shake hands very often. "I'm Buck Grant. Welcome to my shop." His hair was short, curly, and white; his eyes dark, but full of sparkle. "I guess it's the warden's, but you ask anyone around here, they'll tell you it's Buck's."

The warden informed me Buck had been disappointed the shop would be closed for the interview, but that he was easy to get along with. Having been here longer than most of the inmates, he'd earned the respect of those who understood the pecking order. I glanced down at my tape recorder. "This alright?"

Buck smiled. "Do your thing. If you think you gonna get something good, keep it rolling." He looked around, trying to decide where to begin. "I don't know what to show you. Most of this stuff we don't ever use. You ever see one of these?"

He gestured toward a large frame with a large crank handle and smooth metal cylinders. I shook my head.

"It's a metal roller. Flattens out pieces of flashing and sheet metal. I can't tell you when it's been used for anything like that. They're particular about anything we can cut down and sharpen." He paused, absently patting the roller with his left hand. "It's not that they think somebody's gonna sneak something out. We got metal detectors. It's mostly they don't want nothing to happen in here."

He took me around the room, showing me the grinders. He told a story about an inmate making a shiv from a five inch bolt and repeatedly punching it into another prisoner's skull. He shook his head, smiling and telling how "the one who done the punching wasn't wearing gloves." Buck said the bolt had been so hot coming off the grinder, it burned right through part of the hand. "I guess he was pretty mad, you know. Grabbed it and didn't even feel it burn." The injury and a shattered thumb from the impact of the punches resulted in a partial amputation. The other inmate survived with brain damage. Buck said it was the most serious thing that ever happened in the shop.

He showed me the welders and cutting torches. He laughed and told how one inmate would turn the oxygen tank on and stick the torch tip in his mouth to get high. He said he didn't know if it worked, but he'd heard about guys "doing this thing where they make themselves pass out and when they come back to, they get sort of a head rush and a high like that." Buck turned serious. "But I ain't never touched nothing. Sixty-one years and I've never used drugs, never had a drink." The grin came back as he gestured toward the young guard. "Not like Mr. Wilson here. He can barely stand up."

The young guard smiled a little.

Buck nodded, looking over his shop with pride. "I've spent a lot of years here. We used to make license plates." He laughed. "Most of what we do now doesn't have much practical use to nobody. The tasks performed are for job training and helping inmates develop skills for when they transition back into the workforce." It sounded like it was lifted from a Department of Corrections press release. Buck frowned. "The frustrating thing is these skills is not enough if you know anything about what's going on in the economy. Computers, office work, and service sector training are what's needed. We don't get much of that here."

I reexamined this white-haired economist in his blue coveralls. If I had not been told, I would never have guessed he was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He had not spoken with an attorney in over three decades. His life and world would never again extend further than the concrete walls surrounding him, but he still cared what happened to the other prisoners who would get a second chance on the outside.

We sat down on a work bench, since there were no chairs in the shop. He told me about starting out in the wood shop just to be doing something different and how he stopped going because the white boys considered it their own territory. He said the population was still pretty divided, but the metal shop was usually neutral. "Sometimes young guys walk in with attitude, but I tell them, 'You got beef, it'll keep. All you do is cool it.'"

The conversation turned back to his earliest days in prison. "I got transferred almost right off to Leavenworth, over in Kansas, about six hundred miles from home. I never saw no visitors. That place was bad then, you know what I mean? Everywhere is bad now, but that place was a special kind of bad. I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for my initiation there." He told about guards not breaking up fights when inmates were killing each other. He talked about prisoners spending six months in solitary for their own protection.

He pointed to his lower back and spaced his fingers out, about 10 inches. "I've got a scar runs all the way around my side. A white boy found a wood strip in the binding of one of those old books in the library. He went around me like a can opener 'cause he thought I bumped into him on purpose. Did it with book binding, man. You believe that?" Buck broke into a grin. "He thought I was supposed to tell him I was sorry." Buck laughed and made the bench shake.

The wound wasn't treated until after Buck had spent the night in solitary confinement. He'd passed out from blood loss, but said it never bothered him after he was stitched up.

I had planned on a certain line of questioning, but sometimes you follow where the interview leads. He sat there, smiling and waiting while I tried to get the words right in my mind. "Can we talk a little about how you ended up in prison?"

He breathed deep, taking in the last of the room's heavy air. He sighed and rubbed his hands against his knees. Most inmates won't talk about what they did, especially those serving a life sentence. He glanced away, still grinning. "They probably told you, already."

He was right, but I didn't answer. I waited, not really expecting he'd go on. He turned back towards me and I felt myself go sick. His eyes were wet around the edges.

"I was 23. Jordan's number." The smile disappeared. "I'd done a few break ins, mostly stealing from warehouses and selling what I got at the flea market. I had a 22 calibre pop gun for all that." He looked down at his hands. He put them together and then placed them on his knees. "I come home on September 19th. I had my own place and had been seeing this girl for about a month." A small line made its way down one cheek. He smiled, pressing the tear between his lips, burying the feeling that was trying to come up. "She was sixteen."

He had lived with the facts for a long time, trying to match the events to numbers that didn't mean as much as emotions he couldn't touch. He breathed in. His voice trembled for a moment as he started again. "I come into the bedroom and she started screaming as soon as she saw me. He got on the edge of the bed and started putting on his pants. I wish he would have just run. I didn't have the gun then. I crossed the room and took the gun from the bottom of the night stand. You do things real close with a 22. I shot him under the left ear. Pop. And he fell over. I didn't say anything to her. She stopped screaming and I shot her three times."

The girl had been shot at point blank range in the face. Buck was arrested a week later, sleeping in a pile of tires behind a gas station. The murder weapon was never recovered. At the trial, Buck denied ever owning a pistol.

He was shaking a little. He stared at the floor. "I wished I'd done it to myself." I waited in the silence. "You don't expect to learn about things in a place like this, but even a life like mine is precious. All life is precious. It's hard to understand that. You don't even know it for yourself. You have to trust in it because it's what God knows is true."

I turned off the tape recorder.

The tears dried on his cheeks. He glanced down at the recorder, frowning. "You ain't got nothing more to ask?"

"I thought we'd take a break."

He looked around the shop. "You don't change who people are with these kind of programs, but you open up a lot of opportunities they never had before."

I nodded.

Buck turned the smile back on. Had I not been in the room a minute before, I would have never known he had been crying. He pointed to the rolling machine. "There was this one guy who wrote a letter to the warden wanting to run pennies through that thing. You know, to flatten them out and sell them like souvenirs, the way people flatten pennies on train tracks." He laughed. "Now, tell me. Who would want to buy something like that? Peoples' minds get like that, though. This becomes the real world and you don't think about the other one you came from. All that other stuff becomes memories of things that never happened and dreams of what can't ever exist."