Bull City looks like Fidel Castro: green fatigues, engineer’s cap, and mule-tail, anarchist beard. He’s from Missoula, Montana, but he took his fall — a life sentence — right up the road in Wilkes County, North Carolina. He carries a Bible, a dictionary, a prison-issue loose-leaf, and two sharpened pencils. He wants to be a writer.
If asked, Bull City would say he’s simply making his time and being a man. He has a job at the prison’s furniture factory, learning a trade in case he ever gets out. That and his writing and the Lord keep him busy — though not in that order. The Lord comes first, he is quick to stipulate. My bet is that he’s in for murder. A crime of passion. Murderers are typically the most honorable, affable, and predictable inmates. The circumstances that land them in prison are often unique to them, and tend never to be duplicated.
Of course, Bull City could have done anything: set fire to a town, or poisoned a reservoir. He’s got booze and drugs and guns in his eyes, scars and tattoos on his body. The fact remains that, ultimately, you can’t glean a thing about a man just by looking at him — especially in prison. And discussing a prisoner’s crimes is strictly taboo. I suppose, for my purposes as his writing teacher, what he did doesn’t matter. One thing’s for certain: he has brushed up against the beast and come away with that cauterized, longtime-felon stare. The sorrow of his past has made him vulnerable enough to turn to God and to grow into a strong and serious prisoner. No one, guard nor inmate, would willingly mess with him.
The first sentence of Bull City’s story is “With routine grace, the sun rises.” His inmate protagonist hits the yard immediately after waking. It’s early. The moon is still hanging over the wire. Right away, he sees that something’s wrong. The whole feel of the joint is about two notches grimmer, guys full of anger and loathing, a few in tears. He finds out that Forty-four is missing. Sweet, righteous Forty-four, everyone’s favorite. Always minds his own business, but always there when you need him. An aces guy all around.
As I listen, the story sounds plausible. In here, they all do. But if I look away for a moment and assess my surroundings — tattoos and bloodshot eyes, the astringent smell of fear and confinement, a guard peeping in every so often, the razory shoulders of wire outside the window — I might figure it’s the worst kind of made-up tale, a con, a come-on, and that I am in danger. The men I am sitting with could kill me. Still, I have to sit back like it’s nothing, like there’s not a thing in the world that can shock me.
The other guys are all faithfully listening to Bull City as he reads. I can see now that what he is recounting really happened. His writing has little of the trumped-up rhetoric, the wordiness and melodrama that one so often sees in a prison writing class. His voice is deep and sure — exactly what you’d expect from a native of Montana. He looks up occasionally to catch the eyes of his audience, and they nod. They obviously know this story. Forty-four was their partner, too.
Both in its flat, declarative style and its gripping plot and pacing, the story is far better than the usual beginning inmate writing, which tends toward the sensational. I want to know who this Forty-four is and what happened to him. But what really sets this story apart is its lack of swagger and defiance. There’s a tenderness to it that’s usually lacking in prison writing. Not that tenderness isn’t regularly approached in my classes: there’s the ubiquitous lament for the faithful girlfriend left behind in the streets, the plea for a woman’s soft touch, or the yearning for a nurturing wife and a brood of hearty peewees. But it tends, even on the first go-round, to be predictable, frequently sentimentalized, naive, and totally unrealized. I don’t mean to be prescriptive, but this is my experience. What matters in the end is that they do it. Period. From where they’re sitting, just showing up for a writing class is a big thing.
The guys set out to look for Forty-four. They comb every inch of the cellblock and the yard. Nothing. Not a trace. But they don’t want to ask the guards about him because they don’t want to get the Man involved. Still, just to disappear like this? They have a bad feeling.
The south-tower guard, who is coming off his shift, sees them congregated and asks what’s up. Nothing, they tell him. Not a goddamn thing. He leads them back to the quarry fence. And there’s Forty-four, twelve feet up in the air, dangling in bloody coils of concertina.
OK, so it’s not a true story after all. Sure, in this context, the guards are the bad guys — we all agree on that — but they couldn’t get away with something like this in real life: leaving an inmate hooked in the wire all night long to bleed to death. Still, it doesn’t have to be true. This is, after all, creative writing. Not bad, I think. Not terribly surprising, but at least Bull City doesn’t turn away from his grief and his love for Forty-four. That’s a breakthrough of sorts, the kind of honesty to which a writer must aspire. I look around the room again and am surprised to find the other guys are still right there with him. They are down with this story in a way I can’t explain, their eyes locked on Bull City as he moves on to the real denouement.
The night before, at lock-down, under a full moon, an owl swooped down into the yard and snatched Forty-four. But with the weight of Forty-four in his talons, the owl didn’t have the lift to clear the fence, and Forty-four got snagged in the concertina.
Wow, I think, what an image.
Then Bull City reveals what the other guys have known all along: that Forty-four is a rabbit.
A rabbit! So it is a true story.
The guard witnessed the whole thing, watched the snared rabbit writhe in the razors until he grew still. (Really, what could he have done?) The owl circled for a minute or two, and then flew off. The guard tells the guys that he doesn’t think Forty-four suffered much, that he had liked the little guy himself. Then he opens the maintenance shack so they can get out a ladder and bring him down.
Which is where the story should end. But Bull City doesn’t end it until long after he should have, after he has told the audience what he wants them to feel, even though he has so masterfully and cinematically drilled into them that image of loss and heartbreak and violence: Forty-four trussed in the silver wire and the bloody moonlight, up there on the fence like a rabbit messiah.
But that’s a beginner’s error and easily fixed. I hold my tongue. In prison, there are some stories you don’t criticize because to do so would be a breach of etiquette. A sign of disrespect. Like you didn’t get it. Your credibility as a teacher, paradoxically enough, would be irreparably compromised. You must never forget that the real permission to enter a prison and teach writing comes not from the prison administration, but from the prisoners themselves. When an inmate is standing there with it all hanging out, you don’t tell him there is a better way to do it. What’s more, in telling this story, and telling it well, Bull City has become, for the time being, a chain-gang shaman. He has created among his brethren a sacred space. It isn’t the writing, the language, that has moved them, but the story itself, the shared sense of loss and longing that is their secret and their terrible power.
We discuss the story — not as craft and such, but as communal property. They all knew Forty-four and, by all accounts, loved him. More important, he loved them. He didn’t care that they were outlaws, the despised dregs of society. Several of the men contribute anecdotal remembrances about feeding him, petting him, his absolute trust and loyalty. The kind of tender remarks the public would not ascribe to prison inmates, those geniuses of failure. Men who have consistently made messes of their lives. Who have been cruel and cavalier and stupid. Yet look how they have transferred their affections to a little rabbit, sublimated the feelings they have all their lives denied and been denied. With this little bunny, they were trying to do better. To be better. To be forgiven.
So we take a few minutes to eulogize Forty-four. If any of the guys say anything about the writing itself, it’s simply “I liked it” or “That was good.” The story for them defines something about their plight as prisoners. The sagacious old freedom angel — a bird of prey, no less — came down to rescue Forty-four, but the weight of time and the pull of the yard were too heavy. As with Icarus, flying was too much for old Forty-four. The only way to quit the chain gang is to die. Besides, he probably would not have made it on the outside anyhow: that owl was fixing to eat him. It would not be stretching things to call this story a parable, though we don’t get into that either.
When I come in to teach, I’m quick to tell them that I’m not a guard and I’m not a shrink. A prison writing teacher’s main job is drawing out the story and then listening. You don’t get around to discussing the craft of writing, if ever you do, until after you’ve discussed the story, the plot. For the inmate, “getting it out,” like getting out, is the highest form of art, and each thinks his story is immortal — not unlike any other writer.
Many of them want to write because they are certain they have a bestseller or a miniseries in them. They watch plenty of TV, so they know what it takes. Each year, I get a handful of letters from inmates imploring me to ghostwrite their blockbusters. Unbelievable stuff, they insist. Sure to sell. We’ll split it fifty-fifty. No doubt, in the right hands, their stories could sell millions. Their rap sheets alone are page turners. But my hands aren’t the right ones. I’m too selfish about my writing.
At any rate, there’s a tacit — if unrealistic — understanding between teacher and students that these classes, all this writing and subsequent discussion, are ultimately in the service of release from the penitentiary. Which, in a practical sense, isn’t true. Inmates will not be released because of their stories. In all likelihood, their stories could inhibit their release. Yet, for a prisoner, writing can provide another kind of release. I don’t mean “getting in touch” with themselves. They don’t need pencils placed in their hands to afford them time for introspection. Rather, it’s the confessional, egocentric catharsis of writing that is soothing to them — and to all of us. But because they are “offenders” in a much more direct sense than a free man, they want more to be forgiven. To be released. And it works, for a while, at least during the workshop and, hopefully, later on the yard and in the cellblock and, who knows, maybe even beyond the walls. By listening and by nodding in that solemn, funereal way that prisoners nod when one of them is reading his story, they absolve each other. Writing is a place where they can be good and get away with it.
One night, I was teaching a poetry workshop deep in one of the subcellars of Central Prison, North Carolina’s nineteenth-century maximum-security house in Raleigh. With me was a poet friend who is an English professor at a small Quaker college. It was her first time inside a prison, and she was much taken with the men, simultaneously mystified by their lives and moved by their writing. So far as she could tell, these were good men, and she felt that they should all have another crack at life on the outside. (Of course, for those two hours, she saw the very best of them.) As we were leaving, she asked the program officer who had arranged our visit if “parole boards listen to poems.” When he realized she was completely serious, he told her politely that they didn’t. But for a moment, I had the wonderfully absurd vision of an inmate winning release by whipping out a sheaf of poems and transporting a stony panel of parole officials to personal epiphany.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes: “If [men] are deprived of all good, they will be absolutely nothing.” Inmates’ writing, even when it is about the most hideous things (what else do they know to write about?) is a personal declaration of vestigial goodness: goodness that has been denied them, and that they, of necessity, have so often denied possessing. Writing is their confession of goodness. In a letter to me, one of my students “on the outside” summed it up best: “I was trying to write like the somebody that I sometimes want to be; you know, the somebody who is me, only better.”
But this is an abstraction, and inmates don’t consciously traffic in abstractions. Make no mistake: they want out. Though I frequently cannot help it, I am guilty of sentimentalizing these men. In my defense, I can only admit to caring about them. After all, they’re my students, and I am not ashamed to say that I think writing truly helps release them.
I have my own confession to make. When I first heard the story of Forty-four, I swore that I would not steal it. It belonged to Bull City and was his to tell. He had recognized Forty-four’s appointment with that owl as a mystery that could be related only in a story — which took some savvy on his part. Not only that, he had formalized it in written language, rendering it immortal.
That writers have larcenous hearts is not news. We cannibalize everything, and there’s no better trove for stories than a prison yard. I’ve known inmates to eat tree bark, howl at the moon, stuff pillows under their shirts to avoid getting sliced while climbing through concertina, hack themselves to flinders with razors, keep copperheads as pets, swallow stick deodorant for a buzz, sever an Achilles tendon with a bush ax on caprice, store film canisters of dope in their rectums, become transsexuals and wear lingerie in the cellblock, vomit baggies of cocaine, and use voodoo dolls on one another. The list is endless and rich, and no writer could resist stealing from it. But these were all things I had witnessed or heard about or, who knows, perhaps imagined. They weren’t written down.
In the end, that image — that incomparable, allegorical, filmic image of the owl plucking up the rabbit, who is then hideously snared by the concertina and left to die an agonizing, lonely death — was too much to resist. How could I not tell you about it? And if l hadn’t, I rationalize, it might never have made it out of prison. Like Bull City and Forty-four, it might simply have done life to die, and it is too amazing a story to remain forever, like all the other stories doing dark and silent time, behind bars.
Still, though I recount it, there is no way I can make the story my own. I’m not sure I even understand it. While I have a layman’s sympathy for these men and for their stories, I feel none of their pain. I’m only the ghostwriter. I see dead rabbits on the road every day.