1 Fucking bitch. You mess with me and I kill you. You mine. At first I crunch up the paper, the note Jesse was careless enough to leave around after class. It sits beside me now, loosens its fist, unfolds by itself. I keep crumpling it up just to see it breathe, open up again. 2 Why do I keep coming back to this jail, shouting, pounding my fist on the desk, whistling, falling on the floor, clutching my heart? Look, if you’re not going to pay attention, okay. But at least be honest, get up from your seat, and right in my face give me the fuck-you finger. Finally a few students will look up, even the couple in the corner will stop fondling each other under the table. Is this the only reason I’m here, so Annette can brush against Bobby D., rub her leg against his? This afternoon, when the women couldn’t come to class, some of the men actually stuck around, spent the hour talking seriously — about jailhouse romance, trying to define it: how one needs a woman to look for across the cafeteria, beyond the fence at yard-out, somebody to smuggle notes to, poems copied off greeting cards, folded into small squares and slipped into cigarette packs. It’s not the women’s fault, Lorenzo said. But none of us talk straight when they’re here, none of us. We’ve got too many Cadillacs, T-birds, custom-made Mercedes driving around this room. We’re too busy spending the thousands we’ve got stashed somewhere, just for the right woman. 3 Lorenzo loves robbing clothing stores, gazing into their mirrors so he can see himself holding a gun on all those smartly dressed men, imagining himself stepping into the glass, the perfect getaway. This afternoon I tried to get him to say more about his wrestling scholarship, why he gave it up when his father died, along with his collection of math books, his beloved calculus. How come he won’t write about when he was a boy? But no, he’ll show me instead page after page from a book he wants me to help him finish, about out-of-the-body travel, each journey of his recorded, each waking cry witnessed by cellmates and guards, date and time, all the unexplained phenomena. 4 What am I to do with Michael? He’s in detention again. Today I had to unclench his hand from his pillow, those fingers too long, too powerful for the skinny body that’s an embarrassment to him, seventeen, the prison’s baby, a boy whose soft features won’t blunt for years probably, and then much to his relief. I rubbed his shoulders, lifted his face so he couldn’t pretend to be falling back asleep. What do you fucking care. I wanted to get hit. I wanted some evidence to show the Warden, a bruise the size of a hubcap. And when Michael pulled down his shorts, wasn’t he punishing me for my naivete, my advice. He’d rehearsed in his cell as I’d suggested, whispering the words as if this time he might stay calm and the guards would have to listen, admire his logic. Fuck off. I know you’re just trying to help, but fuck off, won’t you? He went on lacing and unlacing one of his torn sneakers. It’s not my fault. It really isn’t. They shouldn’t have done this to me. You shouldn’t have let them. Then he was pressing into the dark of my shoulder, pounding his fists against me, this righteous sobbing anger, this rage that sometimes he thinks is all he has, all he can count on. 5 As usual, Will was waiting for me after class and as usual he wouldn’t say anything till I coaxed him — it had to be my idea, not his, to talk. Part of the story he’d told the cops: Annie had been beaten up, then raped by her old boyfriend who’d claimed she had money of his. She’d begged Will not to come over, to give her a few days before they saw each other again. Will hadn’t told the cops he’d been drinking with friends, one who had a gun, and they’d gone over to the ex-boyfriend’s apartment building, knocked on the door, and when it’d been opened Will had pushed his fists right away into the man’s stomach. His friends had held the man when he’d crumpled over, and Will had to lift his head with one blow, before with the other he could relocate the man’s belly. But when the woman began to scream, when she called out the man’s name and Will realized this was the wrong person, the wrong apartment, still he didn’t leave, he didn’t stop shoving his fist into the man’s gut till his friends drew him away, and still he wouldn’t be persuaded from the parking lot, he had the gun out and this was how the cops had found him. What else could I do? Let the creep get away with what he’d done? I still had to find him, didn’t I? What would you do if your wife had been raped? Would you sit down and draw up a list of alternatives? 6 When the class was asked to list their talents Sly put down adjusting. There’s nowhere I can’t adjust. Yeah, Gaelinda had to laugh, Nowhere, honey, laughing her fuck you laugh. And when Dwayne confessed to how much he liked being runner for the Infirmary, maybe he’d study to be a nurse, his voice suddenly boyish, serious like a kid’s when he’s talking about baseball and playing in the majors someday, Gaelinda called over to him, Homeboy I know you too well, I know you from the streets. Today she wasn’t going to let him be anything but an inmate. I’m good at fucking men over, put that down on your list. Don’t matter where I am, I do my dance. When she was leaving, she balled up the assignment, she made many sharp edges to it, many flat surfaces buckling on each other. The paper almost barked. It was a small pack of dogs in my hand. You think I got room for this shit in my cell? Afterward, I stroked the wrinkles out. She’d signed her name in flowery spiralings and swirls and over the i there was a small heart and under the column Obstacles to Developing Your Talents in lovely looping capitals she’d written NONE. 7 Is this all we are to you — fuck-ups, dope fiends, pimps, a few murderers? funny stories to tell at a cocktail party? “Why just today I was chatting with my friend, the baby raper”? Just who are you going to show these poems to, these mind games? The Warden? the shrink? Was this what the rest of his life would be like? Stephen demanded to know. In a room just big enough for a table, a broken, upright piano, a stack of 1944 Unitarian hymnbooks, to sob to a lame group like this, to an even lamer volunteer, a teacher who’ll make a joke out of him later to impress colleagues, co-eds. 8 My college students are writing in favor of longer sentences, capital punishment. It’s not fair they say, turning from a film on child abuse. It’s justice they want. For the two prim girls at the shelter, the baby whose mother held it over a bridge railing, the tiny one who had to be freed from her mother’s tight grip. And justice too for the boy who came home to find his Dad on the back porch hanging by his neck? who tried with a kitchen knife to saw his father down, who threw it at the neighbors when they tried to lead him away? Justice for this young man in jail now for a string of burglaries? And justice for that old machinist, Mr. Mac, whose cough is a rusty blade driven so deep into his body he leans over as if stabbed? Two months ago he killed a child, the car leaped the curb as if someone had wrenched the wheel from his hands. He told me he’d been drunk. Can’t you imagine how he must have felt, this seventy-two-year-old man who’d never missed a day of work, facing one to five now, mandatory? No, my students answer, no, they’ve never done anything that wrong, nothing a criminal might do. A man ought to be made to pay for what he’s done, he ought to be made to pay. 9 It’s not fair. That’s what I hear in jail too, My class here wants justice also, by which they don’t mean they’re innocent of all charges against them but only that life’s been punishing them for something more than what they did with a knife or gun, what they started to walk out of a store with. 10 Michael tried to explain his mistake as he called it, how once he’d begun he had to keep stabbing. As he talked, the guards came closer as if they could tell from the little trembling of his hand, his head’s tilt, his voice rising to a harsh, thin whisper, that he was about to start something only they could stop. Why did I have to make things difficult for him — a counselor who didn’t even come in with Jesus, only paper, pencil. At least at home Mike could run away, climb his railroad bridge and sit for hours with hundreds of feet of air between him and his stepfather, planning what to say to keep the bastard’s hands off. What do I want from him? Why have I given him this old watch, Do you think I have to worry about time here? It matters if I’m late? Lifting its little coolness to his cheek, its scratched bubble face, he told me about his first watch, the one he’d taken from his stepfather’s bureau as the man slept — the first thing he’d ever stolen — and he’d climbed the railroad bridge and not till the top had he slipped it on. Maybe he’d never go home, maybe he’d stay high up there, sleeping with the winds and the ghosts of the trains. The watch’s face had glowed and he’d cupped his hands around it, squinted till there were tiny sparks radiating out. 11 Maybe Stephen’s right, when he told me the Warden let me come in here to teach my course, to tutor, to put out the inmate newspaper just so he could look liberal, his jail progressive. Don’t I dress carefully so the guards will know to let me out one iron gate, then another, then a third? Each time I leave, I wonder if I haven’t gone into this jail just so I can walk out of it, whistling into a cool October, so much sudden bright air, all these open spaces welcoming me, offering me no resistance. 12 Finally even Heavy agreed to read aloud, today, this quiet, 280-lb passer of bad checks, his bold graceful handwriting and the silk bandana he washes out each night his only flourishes allowed here. Tomorrow he was getting out. What if he fucked things up again? What could he find to talk about with his sons? He wanted to bring home each a toy just like a normal father returning from a business trip. His voice kept falling in mid-sentence and I had to keep encouraging him to speak up, and once I saw Bobby D.’s lips moving as if someone had to finish his homeboy’s words; we were all leaning forward, Sly, Dwayne, Lorenzo, Stephen, Will, old Mr. Mac, Baby Mike, Eddie, Annette, Boom-Boom, Mary Ellen, even Gaelinda, even the Ice Man, Jesse — as if with each person’s turn to read we were standing at a door slightly ajar, trying to follow the light all the way in as far back as possible, and then imagining everything else that was left in the shadows. 13 Out of sight of the prison I pull off the road, open my notebook and am writing my face so close to the words I might be arguing with them, whispering. Looking up from the page just now I almost expected to find myself back in jail but when I gazed into the rearview mirror I saw only my face, tinged yellow and gaunt, the forehead unpardonably stupid. How could the love I’d felt just a few minutes ago not still show? Listening so intently hadn’t I too been transformed? I’d thought surely I’d have been able to bear this grace past the first light, the next, carry it into any traffic.