Your white shirt and blue-striped trousers show up well against the beige dormitory walls, against the sand, clay, rocks, and weeds, against the field of sparse grass that leads down to the prison greenhouses. You’re a clerk in the prison school, and the message you’re delivering is from Maslowe, the education supervisor. You’re to inform his horticulture instructor that Maslowe hopes “the good professor will be able to make the CPR training at 1:00 p.m.”
The last couple of days there have been many messages. There was the message from your brother informing you by phone that your dad died in his sleep Sunday, the day before yesterday. And there was a second message from the same brother informing you that the Dekalb County Sheriff’s Department had refused to pick you up from your Macon prison and drive you the ninety miles north to the funeral, even though your brother agreed to pay the deputy’s salary and expense for the trip. You receive this news stoically. You were ready to don the handcuffs, leg chains, and orange, ill-fitting jumpsuit required of all prisoners in transit. But you didn’t really want to go to your dad’s funeral. That’s what you’d told the man a few weeks before his bone cancer finally killed him. You’d said that you’d much rather visit him at the hospice. You often wonder whether you did right talking so frankly with your dad, talking words of death instead of euphemisms like “passing” or “gone,” or lies like “I’ve got plenty of time left to see you.”
You give the professor Maslowe’s message, then detour through the farthermost greenhouse and tramp its tropical length to check on two banana trees. With anticipation, you note several bunches of light-green bananas, protected beneath a jungle of leaves that are tough and thick, as if they’d been poured from hot plastic, a slick dark green like something that once might have been cooled by the wind and the sea. And you want to reach out and feel the fruit and smell it and make it ripen yellow, like the thick-stemmed bunch strapped up with insulated wire that waits in the horticulture toolroom up at the main building.
You feel a sad irony that your dad — not a Southern Baptist, he always said, but a Baptist in the South — lived his last weeks at a Catholic hospice. You’d seen his attitudes undergo change over the years, from sixties prosegregation to seventies prointegration to eighties all-encompassing compassion. But your dad’s religion was another matter. Heaven was at stake. You’d always figured that Catholicism’s elevation of the Virgin Mary to divinity was not something a Baptist in the South could easily accept. Still, you wonder if maybe he learned in the end that love and compassion are God’s only commandments, that there is a religion beyond religions, a God beyond Gods.
At 9:00 a.m. you’re back at the main campus. You imagine your family eating their morning meal, maybe talking, or maybe just sitting, remembering. It’s too early for them to be dressing for the funeral. You return to your little office at the school. You’ve created the office out of a supply closet — nothing official, you just sort of took it over. With movements mechanized and detached, you take care of this evening’s college roster, then return to your dorm for the 11:00 a.m. security count, for lunch, for a little Wall Staring 101 before afternoon work call is announced.
It’s now 1:00 p.m. You stand with other prisoners in a line, feeling the heat of June’s last days radiate off the beige brick walls and the white cement walk. Your family, you imagine, occupies the first two pews beneath the pulpit at church. Your brother and his family, never particularly proud of you; your sister and her husband, ditto; your son, a nineteen-year-old man, huge as a linebacker, who lives on his own and who may harbor a little justifiable anger at you for having abandoned him all these years; and beside him, your mother, who has always loved you, but who now, because of her bad memory, must sometimes be reminded that you exist.
Standing in that line, never having seen the church, the casket, the grave site, you are nevertheless there, tracking the events, sensing them, even though various pals cruise up to banter, causing you to miss scenes as you are forced by custom to banter back with a stupid, all-is-well grin on your face, a dumb mask.
Then, concentrating, you return to your graveside vigil, not wanting to miss the eulogy that you know is being delivered at this very moment, while behind you there’s a laughing line of men talking parole, freedom, release, awaiting their chance to purchase smokes, coffee, stamps. And you feel all alone and diminished as you discover a desire for sympathy hiding inside you like a felon, hoping to break free, threatening to undo your mission, to reach your core, your center of control.
As bodies shuffle, you discover yourself closer to the store window. When your turn finally comes, you guiltily think “self-gratification,” and you are silent, hating yourself, wondering why you’re here, until you remember the bananas hanging in the toolroom among shovels, rakes, hoes. You see the foil packet of hot chocolate, the contents fine as dust. “A pack of cocoa,” you say, “and a pint of Neapolitan.”
And in your office now, its walls as close as a coffin’s, you inventory your purchases and dwell on that one ingredient that’s as absent from your recipe as you are from your family. You hear Maslowe, your boss, call you from his desk in the office next door. You say hey and claim a fat-cushioned chair to one side of the large desk where he sits watching you. You tell him you guess they’re leaving the church about now. You say this to reveal your emotional point in time to the man.
“Kinda makes you numb,” Maslowe offers. He’s a few years older than you, early forties. He tells you that numb is how he felt when his father died.
You admit that today’s a dream, that every moment moves slow as glue. You imagine headlights like rows of tombstones, dirty in the distance.
You tell him that the last time you talked to your dad, after it was evident the cancer had won, you’d told him you’d rather see him alive than dead. You rattle this revelation like chains, unable to free yourself of it, your last words, the day you used “die” instead of “pass.” You wonder if you did the right thing, you say. You hate fake, you say. You imagine tires sighing in the sand by a curb, a hearse climbing onto grass. A canvas, forest green, vies with upturned earth, red as sunset.
Maslowe only looks at you. His analytical stare vexes you. You explain that you hate empty platitudes. They’re cosmetic. Maslowe cultivates his hypnosis a few beats longer, then nods. You’re not sure he agrees with you completely. A silence digs a hole between you.
You fill the hole with words that are quick and cool like clods of dirt and clay. You say you’d rather celebrate than mourn. You’d rather grieve that way, honoring your dad that way. You imagine the casket’s brass bar lying cool in your palm, as you think how a man who once sang gospel tenor on the radio with the famous Lefevers must ride headfirst to the earth.
Maslowe’s eyes narrow, grow points like the tips of tweezers, gleaming, reaching to hold you up to the fluorescent lighting.
“Don’t you think that’s right?” you ask.
He studies you a moment longer, holds you higher to the light.
You call him “Boss,” and you mention the pint of Neapolitan, the cocoa to sprinkle on top of it. Point blank, you mention bananas.
You see in his braced posture that he thinks you’re trying to manipulate him. You go on, though, telling him about the bananas hanging in the horticulture toolroom. You remind him that the staff is at CPR training, the students in their dorms. You remind him that he has the keys, that he is the boss, that he can do whatever he damn well wants.
And he does. Like criminals, you crane your guilty necks into empty classrooms, look through the windows of locked doors — Adult Basic Education, Remedial Reading, Plumbing, Construction — until you reach Horticulture and the toolroom cage, where, after he tries every key on the ring, the last one clicks open the lock.
And — Stop! Stop! — the chain-link fence swings free, the moment enclosing you as completely as the humid heat of Atlanta encloses your dad’s casket. It is disappearing below the green, flower-draped cloths. And you stop. Stop! You stop and witness your dad’s cancer-wrung frame going back to the earth. And your loss, which begins with a cry, ends with a laugh, as you and Maslowe, childlike, grab the best and the yellowest bananas on the bunch.
And you feel the classroom’s quiet enclose you and add its weight to the moment, more perfect for its power, you think, than any you’ll ever know. And you utter a light curse as you work the fruit free from its tough stalk, as stubborn as a life, or a memory, that won’t let go. The sound of the dry, fibrous husk of the fruit stem ripping away is gritty and rough, like the sound of the first earth tossed across a vault’s sealed lid. There is no echo. The sound just volleys briefly, like the short tuck of a drum, and escapes.