An excerpt from Change of Heart
I have no idea where they were keeping Shay Bourne, before they brought him to us. I knew he was an inmate here at the state prison in Concord – I can still remember watching the news the day his sentence was handed down so I could scrutinize an outside world that was starting to fade in my mind: the rough stone of the prison exterior; the golden dome of the State house; even just the general shape of door that wasn’t made of metal and wire mesh. His conviction was the subject of great discussion on the pod all those years ago – where do you keep an inmate who’s been sentenced to death, when your state hasn’t had a death row for ages?
Rumor had it that in fact, the prison did have a pair of death row cells – not too far from my own humble abode in the Secure Housing Unit on I-tier. Crash Vitale – who had something to say about everything, although no one bothered to listen – told us that the old death row cells were stacked with the thin, plastic slabs that pass for mattresses here. I wondered for a while what happened to all those extra mattresses after Shay arrived. One thing’s for sure, no one offered to give them to us.
Moving cells is routine, in prison. They don’t like you to become too attached to anything. In the fifteen years I’ve been here, I have been moved eight different times. The cells, of course, all look alike – what’s different is who’s next to you. Which is why Shay’s arrival on I-tier was of great interest to all of us. As he was escorted in by a phalanx of six correctional officers wearing helmets and flak jackets and face shields, we came forward to the front of our cells, pressed up against the Plexiglas in our doors to better see.
There were eight cells in I-tier, each holding such distinct personalities that to me it sometimes seemed a miracle the steel bars could contain them. Cell 1 housed Joey Kunz, a pedophile who was the bottom of the pecking order. In Cell 2 was Calloway Reece, a card-carrying member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Cell 3 was me, Lucius DuFresne. Four and five were empty, so we knew the new inmate would be put in one of them – the only question was whether he’d be closer to me, or to the guys in the last three cells: Texas Wridell, Pogie Simmons, and – of course – Crash, the unofficial self-appointed leader of I-tier.
The COs passed by the shower stall, shuffled by Joey and Calloway, and then paused right in front of my cell, so I could get a good look. Shay Bourne was small and slight, with close-cropped brown hair and eyes like the sea in the Caribbean. I knew about the Caribbean, because it was the last vacation I’d taken with Adam.. I was glad I didn’t have eyes like that. I wouldn’t want to look in the mirror every day and be reminded of a place I would never have the opportunity to see again.
Then Shay Bourne turned to me.
Maybe now would be a good time to tell you what I look like. My face is the reason the COs don’t look me in the eye; it’s why I sometimes actually prefer to be hidden inside this cell. The sores are scarlet and purple and scaly. They spread from my forehead to my chin.
Most people wince. Even the polite ones like the eighty year old missionary who comes to bring us pamphlets once a month always does a double-take, as if I look even worse than he remembers. But Shay Bourne just met my gaze and nodded at me, as if I were no different than anyone else.
I heard the door of the cell beside mine slide shut; the clink of chains as Shay stuck his hands through the trap to have his cuffs removed. The COs left the pod, and almost immediately Crash started in. “Hey Death Row,” he yelled.
There was no response from Shay Bourne’s cell.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you, and when Crash talks, you answer.”
“Leave him alone, Crash,” I sighed. “Give the poor guy five minutes to figure out what an asshole you are.”
“Ooh, Death Row, better watch it,” Calloway said. “Lucius is kissing up to you, and his last boyfriend’s six feet under.”
There was the sound of a television being turned on, and then Shay must have plugged in the headphones that we were all required to have, so we didn’t have a volume war with each other. I was a little surprised that a death row prisoner would have been able to purchase a television from the canteen, same as us. It would have been a thirteen inch one, specially made for us wards of the state by Zenith, with a clear plastic shell around its guts and cathodes, so that the COs would be able to tell if you were extracting parts to make weapons.
As Calloway and Crash united (as they often did) to humiliate me, I pulled out my own set of headphones and turned on my television. It was five o’clock, and I didn’t like to miss Oprah. But when I tried to change the channel, nothing happened. The screen flickered, as if it was resetting to channel 22, but channel 22 looked just like channel 3 and channel 5 and CNN and the Food Network.
“Hey,” Crash started to pound on his door. “Yo, CO, the cable’s down. We got rights, you know…”
Sometimes headphones don’t even work well enough.
I turned up the volume and watched a local news network’s coverage of a fundraiser for a local children’s hospital up near Dartmouth College. There were clowns and balloons and even professional hockey players. The camera zeroed in on a girl with fairytale blond hair and blue half-moons beneath her eyes, just the kind of child they’d televise to get you to open up your wallet. “Claire Nealon,” the reporter’s voiceover said, “is waiting for a heart.”
Boo hoo, I thought. Everyone’s got problems. I took off my headphones. If I couldn’t listen to Oprah, I didn’t want to listen at all.
Which is why I was able to hear Shay Bourne’s very first word on I-tier. “Yes,” he said, and just like that, the cable came back on.
· · · · · ·
You have probably noticed by now that I am a cut above most of the cretins on I-tier; and that’s because I don’t really belong here. It was a crime of passion – the only issue is that I focused on the passion part and the courts focused on the crime. But I ask you, what would you have done, if the love of your life found a new love of his life – someone younger, thinner, better looking?
The irony, of course, is that no sentence imposed by a court for homicide could trump the one that’s ravaged me while I’ve been in prison. My last CD4+ was taken three months ago, and I was down to 75 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Someone without HIV would have a normal T-cell count of a thousand cells or more, but the virus becomes part of these white blood cells. When the white blood cells reproduce to fight infection, the virus reproduces too. As the immune system gets weak, the more likely I am to get sick, or to develop an opportunistic infection, like PCP, toxoplasmosis, CMV. The doctors say I won’t die from AIDS – I’ll die from pneumonia or TB or a bacterial infection in the brain; but if you ask me, that’s just semantics. Dead is dead.
I was an artist by vocation, and now, by avocation – although it was considerably more challenging to get my supplies in a place like this. Where I had once favored Windsor-Newton oils and red sable brushes, linen canvases I stretched myself and coated with gesso; I now used whatever I could get my hands on. I had my nephews draw me pictures on card stock in pencil that I erased, so that I could use the paper over again. I hoarded the foods that produced pigment. Tonight I had been working on a portrait of Adam, drawn of course from memory, because that was all I had left. I had mixed some red ink gleaned from a Skittle with a dab of toothpaste in the lid of a juice bottle, and coffee with a bit of water in a second lid, and then I’d combined them to get just the right shade of his skin – a burnished, deep molasses.
I had already outlined his features in black – the broad brow, the strong chin, the hawk’s nose. I’d used a shank to shave a picture of a coal mine in a National Geographic, and added a dab of shampoo to make the chalky paint. With the broken tip of a pencil, I had transferred the color to my makeshift canvas.
God, he was beautiful.
I enjoyed working at night because it was quieter. To be honest, I don’t sleep much. Even if I do, I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom – as little as I eat these days, food passes through me at lightning speed. I get sick to my stomach; I get headaches. The thrush in my mouth and throat makes it hard to swallow. Instead, I use my insomnia to fuel my artwork.
That night, I’d had the sweats. I was soaked through by the time I woke up, and after I stripped off my sheets and my scrubs, I didn’t want to lie down on the mattress again. Instead, I had pulled out my painting and started recreating Adam. But I got sidetracked, sometimes, by the other portraits I’d finished of him. Adam standing in the same pose he’d first struck when he was modeling for the college art class I taught; Adam’s face, when he first opened his eyes. Adam, from behind, the way I’d seen him before I shot him.
“I need to do it,” Shay Bourne said. “It’s the only way.”
Distracted, I walked to the front of my cell, to see who he was having a conversation with at this hour of night. But the pod was silent, empty. Maybe he was having a nightmare. “Bourne?” I whispered. “Are you okay?”
“Lucius. Lucius DuFresne.” I paused. “You talking to someone?”
He hesitated. “I think I’m talking to you.”
“I can sleep,” Shay said. “I just don’t want to.”
“You’re luckier than I am, then,” I replied.
“There’s no such thing as luck.”
“Oh,” I said. “Then I’m supposed to feel so sick in the middle of the night that I can’t lie down?”
“I only meant you’re no luckier than me, and I’m no unluckier than you.”
Well, in a way, he was right. I may not have been handed down the same sentence as Shay Bourne, but like him, I would die within the walls of this prison – sooner, rather than later.
“Lucius,” he said. “What are you doing?”
There was a beat of silence. “Your cell?”
“No. A portrait.”
“Because I’m an artist.”
“Once, when I was in school, my art teacher said I had classic lips,” Shay said.
“I still don’t know what that means.”
“It’s a reference to the ancient Greeks and Romans,” I explained. “And the art that we see represented on—“
“Lucius? Did you see that whatchamacallit on TV today?”
In a way, I was relieved to talk about TV instead of art history. Although I used to be a PBS snob, I now found myself watching the shows the rest of the philistines in here enjoyed. We were addicted to the Red Sox and the Patriots; we kept meticulous score of their league standings depending on the time of year, and we debated the fairness of umpire and ref calls as if they were law and we were Supreme Court judges. Sometimes, like us, our teams had their hopes dashed; other times we got to share their Super Bowl. But there hadn’t been any televised games today, and with the cable on the blitz, there’d barely been anything worth watching.
“That thing for the doctors,” Shay said, struggling to find the right words. “There was a little girl – “
“The fundraiser? The one up at the hospital?”
“That little girl,” Shay said. “I’m going to give her my heart.”
Before I could respond, there was a loud crash and the thud of flesh smacking against the concrete floor. “Shay?” I called. “Shay?!”
I pressed my face up against the Plexiglas lining the cell door. I couldn’t see Shay at all, but I heard something rhythmic smacking his cell door. “Hey!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Hey, we need a CO down here!”
The others started to wake up, cursing me out for disturbing their rest, and then falling silent with fascination. Two officers stormed into I-tier, still velcroing their flak jackets. One of them, CO Kappaletti, was the kind of man who’d taken this job so that he’d always have someone to put down. The other, CO Smythe, had never been anything but professional toward me. Kappaletti stopped in front of my cell. “DuFresne, if you’re crying wolf – “
But Smythe was already kneeling in front of Shay’s cell. “I think Bourne’s having a seizure.” He reached for his radio and the electronic door slid open so that they could enter. Is he breathing? On the count of three…
The EMTs arrived and wheeled Shay past my cell on a gurney – a stretcher with restraints across the shoulders, belly, and legs that was used to transport inmates like Crash, who were too much trouble even cuffed at the waist and ankles; or inmates who were too sick to walk to the infirmary. I always assumed I’d leave I-tier on one of those gurneys. But now, I realized that it looked a lot like the table Shay would one day be strapped onto, for his lethal injection.
The EMTs had pushed an oxygen mask over Shay’s mouth that frosted with each breath he took. His eyes had rolled up in their sockets, white and blind. “Do whatever it takes to bring him back,” CO Smythe instructed; and that was how I learned that the state will save a dying man, just so that they can kill him later.
· · · · · ·
When Shay Bourne returned to I-tier after three days in the hospital infirmary, he was a man with a mission. Every morning, when the officers came to poll us to see who wanted a shower or time in the yard, Shay would ask if he could speak to Warden Coyne. “Fill out a request,” he was told, over and over, but it just didn’t seem to sink in. When it was his turn in the little caged kennel that was our exercise yard, he’d stand in the far corner, looking toward the opposite side of the prison where the administrative offices were housed, and he’d yell at the top of his lungs to talk to the warden. When he was brought his dinner, he’d ask if the warden had agreed to talk to him.
“You know why he was moved to I-tier?” Calloway said one day when Shay was bellowing in the shower for an audience with the warden. “Because he made everyone else on his last tier go deaf.” He knelt at the door of his cell, fishing with a braided string pulled out of his blanket and tied, at one end, to a rolled magazine. He cast into the center of the catwalk – risky behavior, since the COs would be back any minute. At first we couldn’t figure out what he was doing – when we fished, it was with each other, tangling our lines to pass along anything from a paperback book to a Hershey’s bar – but then we noticed the small, bright oval on the floor. God only knew why a bird would make a nest in a hellhole like this, but one had a few months back, after flying in through the exercise yard. One egg had fallen out and cracked; the baby robin lay on its side, unfinished; its thin, wrinkled chest working like a piston.
Calloway reeled the egg in, inch by inch. “It ain’t gonna live,” Crash said. “It’s mama won’t want it now.”
“Well, I do,” Calloway said.
“Put it somewhere warm,” I suggested. “Wrap it up in a towel or something.”
We all had forgotten what it was like to care about something so much that you might not be able to stand losing it. The first year I was in here, I used to pretend that the full moon was my pet; that it came once a month just to me. And this past summer, Crash had taken to spreading jam on the louvers of his vent to cultivate a colony of bees, but that was less about husbandry than his misguided belief that he could train them to swarm Joey in his sleep.
“Cowboy’s comin’ to lock ‘em up,” Crash said, fair warning that the COs were getting ready to enter the pod again. A moment later the doors buzzed open; they stood in front of the shower cell waiting for Shay to stick his hands through the trap to be cuffed for the twenty foot journey back to his own cell.
Shay’s hands slipped through the trap of the shower cell to be cuffed, and then the door was opened. “Did the warden say he’d meet with me?”
“Yeah,” the CO said. “He wants you to come for high friggin’ tea.”
“I just need five minutes with the warden--”
“Fill out a request.”
“I can’t,” Shay replied.
I cleared my throat. “Officer? Could I have a request form, too, when you get a chance?”
He finished locking Shay up again, then took one out of his pocket and stuffed it into the trap of my cell.
Just as the officers exited the tier, there was a small, feeble chirp.
“Shay?” I asked. “Why not just fill out the request slip?”
“I can’t write. Not the right way, anyhow. When I start the letters all get tangled.”
“Then tell me, and I’ll write the note.”
“You’d do that for me?” There was a silence. “Tell the warden,” Shay dictated, “that I want to donate my heart, after he kills me. I want to give it to a girl who needs it more than me.”
I leaned the ticket up against the wall of the cell and wrote in pencil, signed Shay’s name. I tied the note to the end of my own fishing line and swung it beneath the narrow opening of his cell door. “Give this to the officer who makes rounds tomorrow morning.”
“Will you two cut the soap opera?” Crash said. “You’re making me sick.”
“You need to cool off, Crash,” Shay said softly.
For whatever reason, Crash actually listened. He went to the sink and turned the faucet, I could hear splashing. The last time he’d been acting like this, he’d set fire to his mattress right in his cell; maybe this time, he was aiming to flood it.
“What the hell…?” Crash said, and then he started to laugh. “Man. Oh man oh man oh man.”
We all knew our pipes were connected. The bad news about this was that you literally could not get away from the shit brought down by the others around you. On the bright side, you could actually flush a note down the length of the pod; it would briefly appear in the next cell’s bowl before heading through the sewage system. I stood up and turned the faucet in the sink. The water that spilled out was dark as rubies.
It could have been iron or manganese, but this water smelled like sugar, and dried sticky. I did not drink the tap water in here – none of us did. As it was, I had a feeling that my AIDS medications, which came on a punch card, might be some government experiment done on expendable inmates…I wasn’t about to imbibe from a water treatment system run by the same administration. But I bent my head to the tap, all the same, and drank straight from the flow.
If you’ve been in prison as long as I have, you’ve experienced a good many innovative highs. I’ve drunk hooch distilled from fruit juice and bread and Jolly Rancher candies; I have huffed spray deodorant; I’ve smoked dried banana peels rolled up in a page of the Bible. But this was like none of those. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed this was truly wine.
By now, everyone else on the pod realized that there had been some snafu with the plumbing. They were all drinking, hooting, shrieking. “Cool off,” Crash crowed. “Yeah, dude, I’ll cool off.”
I wish I could tell you more about what happened, but the sad fact is that I’m as fallible as the next man, and free alcohol is free alcohol. The last thing I remember is Shay asking Calloway what he was going to name his bird, and Calloway’s answer: Batman the Robin. And Calloway challenging Shay to a chugging contest, but Shay saying he would sit that one out. That actually, he didn’t drink. · · · · · ·
That night when I woke up with the sweats, my heart drilling through the spongy base of my throat, Shay was talking to himself again. They pull up the sheet, he said.
I took a piece of metal I’d sawed off from the lip of the counter in the cell – it had taken months, carved with a string of elastic from my underwear and a dab of toothpaste with baking soda, my own diamond band saw. Ingeniously, the triangular result doubled as both a mirror and a shank. I slipped my hand beneath my door, angling the mirror so I could see into Shay’s house.
He was lying on his bunk with his eyes closed and his arms crossed over his heart. His breathing had gone so shallow that his chest barely rose and fell. I could have sworn I smelled the worms in freshly turned soil. I heard the ping of stones as they struck a gravedigger’s shovel.
Shay was practicing.
I had done that myself. Maybe not quite in the same way, but I’d pictured my funeral. Who would come. Who’d be well-dressed, and who would be wearing something outrageously hideous. Who would cry. Who wouldn’t.
God bless those COs; they’d moved Bourne right next door to someone else serving a death sentence.
There were many reasons I loved Oliver, but first and foremost was that my mother couldn’t stand him. He’s a mess, she said, every time she came to visit. He’s destructive. Maggie, she said, if you got rid of him, you could find Someone.
Someone was a doctor, like the anesthesiologist from Dartmouth Hitchcock they’d set me up with once, who asked me if I thought laws against downloading child porn were an infringement on civil rights. Or the son of the cantor, who actually had been in a monogamous gay relationship for five years but hadn’t told his parents yet. Someone was the younger partner in the accounting firm that did my father’s taxes, who asked me on our first and only date if I’d always been a big girl.
On the other hand, Oliver knew just what I needed, and when I needed it. Which is why, the minute I stepped on the scale that morning, he hopped out from underneath the bed where he was diligently severing the cord of my alarm clock with his teeth, and settled himself squarely on top of my feet so that I couldn’t see the digital readout.
“Nicely done,” I said, stepping off, trying not to notice the numbers that flashed red before they disappeared. Surely the reason there was a seven in there was because Oliver had been on the scale too. Besides, if I were going to be writing a formal complaint about any of this, I’d have said that a) size fourteen isn’t really all that big, b) a size fourteen here was a size sixteen or eighteen in London, so in a way I was thinner than I’d be if I had been born British and c) weight didn’t really matter, as long as you were healthy.
All right, so maybe I didn’t exercise all that much either. But I would, one day, or so I told my mother the fitness queen, as soon as all the people on whose behalf I worked tirelessly were absolutely, unequivocally rescued. I told her (and anyone else who’d listen) that the whole reason the ACLU existed was to help people take a stand. To which my mother had replied, Try Warrior Two, then. You could kill two birds with one stone.
I pulled on my jeans, the ones that I admittedly didn’t wash very often because the dryer shrank them just enough that I had to suffer half a day before the denim stretched to the point of comfort again. I picked a sweater that didn’t show my bra roll and then turned to Oliver. “What do you think?”
He lowered his left ear, which translated to, “Why do you even care, since you’re taking it all off to put on a spa robe?”
As usual, he was right. It’s a little hard to hide your flaws when you’re wearing, well, nothing.
He followed me into the kitchen, where I poured us both bowls of rabbit food (his literal, mine Special K). Then he hopped off to the litter box beside his cage, where he’d spend the day sleeping.
I’d named my rabbit after Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the famous Supreme Court Justice known as “the Great Dissenter.” He said, once, “Even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over.” So did rabbits. And my clients, for that matter.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” I warned Oliver. “That includes chewing the legs of the kitchen stools.”
I grabbed my keys and headed out to my Prius. I had used nearly all my savings last year to buy the hybrid -- to be honest, I didn’t understand why car manufacturers charged a premium if you were a buyer with a modicum of social conscience. It didn’t have all-wheel drive, which was a real pain in the neck during a New Hampshire winter, but I figured that sliding off the road occasionally was worth saving the ozone layer.
My parents had moved to Lynley – a town twenty-six miles east of Concord, NH – seven years ago when my father took over as rabbi at Temple Beth Or. The catch was that there was no Temple Beth Or: his reform congregation held Friday night services in the cafeteria of the middle school, because the original temple had burned to the ground. The expectation had been to raise funds for a new temple, but my father had underestimated the size of his rural New Hampshire congregation, and although he assured me that they were closing in on buying land somewhere, I didn’t see it happening anytime soon. By now, anyway, his congregation had grown used to readings from the Torah that were routinely punctuated by the cheers of the audience at the basketball game in the gymnasium down the hall.
The biggest single annual contributor to my father’s temple fund was the ChutZpah, a wellness retreat for the mind, body and soul in the heart of Lynley that was run by my mother. Although her clientele was non-denominational, she’d garnered a word-of-mouth reputation among temple sisterhoods, and patrons came from as far away as New York and Connecticut and even Maryland to relax and rejuvenate. My mother used salt from the Dead Sea for her scrubs. Her spa cuisine was kosher. She’d been written up in Boston Magazine, the New York Times, and Spa Finder.
The first Saturday of every month, I drove to the spa for a free massage or facial or pedicure. The catch was that afterward, I had to suffer through lunch with my mother. We had it down to a routine. By the time we were served our passion fruit iced tea, we’d already covered Why Don’t You Call. The salad course was I’m Going To Be Dead Before You Make Me A Grandmother. The entrée – fittingly – involved my weight. Needless to say, we never got around to dessert.
The ChutZpah was white. Not just white, but scary, I’m-afraid-to-breathe white: white carpets, white tiles, white robes, white slippers. I have no idea how my mother kept the place so clean, given that when I was growing up, the house was always comfortably cluttered.
My father says there’s a God, although for me the jury is still out on that one. Which wasn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate a miracle as much as the next person – such as when I went up to the front desk and the receptionist told me my mother was in a meeting with a wholesale orchid salesman. “But DeeDee’s going to be your aesthetician,” she said. “Locker number 220.”
I took the robe and slippers she handed me. Locker 220 was in a bank with fifty others, and several toned middle-age women were stripping out of their yoga clothes. I breezed into another section of lockers, one that was blissfully empty, and changed into my robe. If someone complained because I was using Locker 664 instead, I didn’t think my mother would disown me. I punched in my key code – 2358, for ACLU – took a bracing breath, and walked out into the whirlpool area: a white oasis surrounded with white wicker benches where primarily white women waited for their white-coated therapists to call their name.
DeeDee appeared in her immaculate jacket, smiling. “You must be Maggie,” she said. “You look just like your mother described you.”
I wasn’t about to take that bait. “Nice to meet you,” I said. I never quite figured out the protocol for this part of the experience – you said hello and then disrobed immediately so that a total stranger could lay hands on you...and you paid for this privilege. Was it just me, or was there a great deal that spa treatments had in common with prostitution?
“You looking forward to your Song of Solomon Wrap?”
“I’d rather be getting a root canal.”
DeeDee grinned. “Your mom told me you’d say something like that, too.” If you haven’t had a body wrap, it’s a singular experience. You’re lying on a cushy table covered by a giant piece of Saran wrap and you’re naked. Totally, completely naked. Sure, the therapist tosses a washcloth the size of a gauze square over your privates when she’s scrubbing you down, and she’s got a poker face that never belies whether she’s calculating your body mass index under her palms – but still, you’re painfully aware of your physique, if only because someone’s experiencing it firsthand with you.
I forced myself to close my eyes and remember that being washed beneath a Vichy shower by someone else was supposed to make me feel like a queen, instead of a hospitalized invalid.
“So, DeeDee,” I said. “How long have you been doing this?”
She unrolled a towel and held it like a screen as I rolled onto my back. “I’ve been working at spas for six years, but I just got hired on here.”
“You must be good,” I said. “My mother doesn’t sweat amateurs.”
She shrugged. “I like meeting new people.”
I like meeting new people too, but when they’re fully clothed.
“What do you do for work?” DeeDee asked.
“My mother didn’t tell you?”
“No…she just said – “ Suddenly, she broke off, silent.
“She said what.”
“She, um, told me to treat you to an extra helping of seaweed scrub.”
“You mean she told you I’d need twice as much.”
“She didn’t – “
“Did she use the word zaftig?” I asked. When Debbie didn’t answer – wisely - I blinked up at the hazy light in the ceiling, listened to Yanni’s canned piano for a few beats, and then sighed. “I’m an ACLU lawyer.”
“For real?” DeeDee’s hands stilled on my feet. “Do you ever take on cases, like, for free?”
“That’s all I do.”
“Then you must know about the guy on Death Row. I’ve been writing to him for ten years, ever since I was in eighth grade and I started as part of an assignment for my social studies class. His last appeal just got rejected by the Supreme Court.”
I frowned. I could recall seeing something to that effect buried in the local paper, but I didn’t remember anything about the case. Then again, I had only lived in New Hampshire for seven years; and unlike DeeDee, I hadn’t taken up the civil liberties banner until after I graduated from college.
“Isn’t there anything you can do for him?”
“If his last appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court, probably not.”
She pressed her lips together and wrapped the plastic around me a little too tightly. “Tell you what,” I promised. “I’ll look into it.”
DeeDee smiled and covered me with heated blankets, until I was trussed tight as a burrito. Then she sat down behind me and wove her fingers into my hair. As she massaged my scalp, my eyes drifted shut.
“They say it’s painless,” DeeDee murmured. “Lethal injection.”
They: the establishment, the lawmakers, the ones assuaging their guilt over their own actions with rhetoric. “That’s because no one ever comes back to tell them otherwise,” I said. I thought of Shay Bourne, being given the news of his own impending death. I thought of lying on a table like this one, being put to sleep.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. The blankets were too hot; the cream on my skin too thick. I wanted out of the layers, and began to fight my way free.
“Whoa,” Debbie said. “Hang on, let me help you.” She pulled and peeled and handed me a towel. “Your mother didn’t tell me you were claustrophobic.”
I sat up, drawing great gasps of air into my lungs. Of course she didn’t, I thought. Because she’s the one who’s killing me.
It was late afternoon, almost time for the shift change, and I-tier was relatively quiet. Me, I’d been sick all day, hazing in and out of sleep brought on by fever. Calloway, who usually played chess with me about this time of day, was playing with Shay instead. “Bishop takes a6,” Calloway called out. For all that he was a racist bigot, Calloway was also the best chess player I’d ever met.
During the day, Batman the Robin resided in his breast pocket, a small lump no bigger than a pack of Starburst candies. Sometimes it crawled onto his shoulder and pecked at the scars on his scalp. At other times, he kept Batman in a paperback copy of The Stand that had been doctored as a hiding place – starting on chapter six, a square had been cut out of the pages of the thick book with a pilfered razor blade, creating a little hollow that Calloway lined with tissues to make a bed for the bird. The bird ate mashed potatoes; Calloway traded precious masking tape and twine and even a homemade handcuff key for our own portions.
“It occurs to me,” Calloway said, “that we haven’t made a wager on this game.”
Crash laughed. “Even Bourne ain’t stupid enough to bet you when he’s losing.”
“What have you got that I want?” Calloway mused.
“Intelligence?” I suggested. “Common sense?”
“Keep out of this, homo.” Calloway thought for a moment. “The brownie. I want that brownie you’ve been hoarding.”
By now, the brownie was two days old. I doubted that Calloway would even be able to swallow it. What he’d enjoy, mostly, was the act of taking it away from Shay.
“Okay,” Shay said. “Knight to g6.”
I sat up on my bunk. “Okay? Shay, he’s beating the pants off you.”
“How come you’re too sick to play, DuFresne, but you don’t mind sticking your two cents into every conversation?” Calloway said. “This is between me and Bourne.”
“What if I win?” Shay asked. “What do I get?”
Calloway laughed. “Whatever you want, since it ain’t gonna happen.”
“The bird. That’s what I want.”
“I’m not giving you Batman – “
“Then I’m not giving you the brownie.” There was a beat of silence.
“Fine,” Calloway said. “You win, you get the bird. But you’re not going to win, because my bishop takes d3. Consider yourself officially screwed.”
There was one pawn between Shay’s king and Calloway’s bishop. I’d probably be the one to fish the brownie from Shay to Calloway. I wondered if either of them would notice if I happened to steal a crumb or two for myself.
“Queen to h7,” Shay said finally. “Checkmate.”
“What?” Calloway cried. I scrutinized the mental chessboard I’d been tracking – Shay’s queen had come out of nowhere, screened by his knight. There was nowhere left for Calloway to go.
At that moment the door to I-tier opened, admitting a pair of officers in flak jackets and helmets. They marched to Calloway’s cell and cuffed him, then brought him onto the catwalk and secured the handcuffs to a metal railing along the far wall.
There was nothing worse than having your cell searched. In here, all we had were our belongings, and having them pored over and inspected was a gross invasion of privacy. Not to mention the fact that when it happened, you had an excellent chance of losing your best stash, be that drugs or hooch or chocolate or my art supplies or the stinger I rigged from paper clips to heat up my instant coffee.
They came in with flashlights and long handled mirrors, and worked systematically. They’d check the seams of the walls, the vents, the plumbing. They’d roll deodorant sticks all the way out, to make sure nothing was hidden underneath. They’d shake containers of powder, to hear what might be inside. They’d sniff inside shampoo bottles, open our letters and take out the letters inside. They’d rip off our bedsheets and run their hands over the mattresses, looking for tears or ripped seams.
Meanwhile, we were forced to watch.
I could not see what was going on in Calloway’s cell, but I had a pretty good idea based on his reactions. He rolled his eyes as his blanket was checked for unraveled threads; his jaw tensed when a postage stamp was peeled off an envelope, revealing the black tar heroin underneath. But when his bookshelf was reached – we were allowed five paperbacks at one time – Calloway flinched. I looked for the small bulge in his breast pocket that would have been the bird, and realized that Batman the Robin was somewhere inside that cell.
The pages were rifled, the spine snapped, the book tossed against the cell wall. “What’s in here?” an officer asked, focusing not on the bird that had been whipped across the cell, but on the baby-blue tissues that fluttered down over his boots.
“Nothing,” Calloway said, but the officer wasn’t about to take his word for it. He picked through the tissues, and when he didn’t find anything he confiscated the book with its carved hidey-hole.
Whitaker said something about a write-up, but Calloway wasn’t listening. I could not remember ever seeing him quite so unraveled. As soon as he was released back into his cell, he ran to the rear corner where the bird had been flung.
The sound that Calloway Reece made was primordial, bloodcurdling; but then maybe that was always the case when a grown man with no heart started to cry. He sank down to the floor of his cell, cradling the dead bird.
“Reece,” Shay interrupted, “I want my prize.”
My head snapped around. Surely Shay wasn’t stupid enough to antagonize Calloway?
“What,” Calloway breathed. “What did you say?”
“My prize. I won the chess game.”
“Not now,” I hissed.
“Yes, now,” Shay said. “A deal’s a deal.”
In here, you were only as good as your word, and Calloway – a card carrying member of the Aryan Brotherhood – would have known that better than anyone else. “You better make sure you’re always behind those bars,” Calloway vowed, “because the next time I get the chance, I’m going to mess you up so bad your own mama wouldn’t know you.” But even as he threatened Shay, Calloway gently wrapped the dead bird in a tissue and attached the small, slight bundle to the end of his fishing line.
When the robin reached me, I drew it beneath the door of my cell. It was still featherless and half-cooked, its closed eye translucent blue; veins thinly veiled beneath its onion-skin like a road map of life. One wing was bent at a severe backward angle; its neck lolled sideways, so that I could stroke its fragile throat. So this is what death looked like, when you held it in your hand: ugly and undone and real.
Shay sent out his own line of string, with a weight made of a regulation comb on one end, and reel in the bundle I fished out to him. I saw his hands gently slide the robin, wrapped in tissue, under the door of his cell. Then the lights in our cells and out on the catwalk flickered.
I’ve often imagined what happened next. With an artist’s eye, I like to picture Shay sitting on his bunk, cupping his palms around the tiny bird. I imagine the touch of someone who loves you so much, he cannot bear to watch you sleep; and so you wake up with his hand on your heart. In the long run though, it hardly matters how Shay did it. What matters is the result: that we all heard the piccolo trill of that robin; that Shay pushed the bird beneath his cell door onto the catwalk where it hopped, like broken punctuation, toward Calloway’s outstretched hand.
· · · · · ·
If you’re a mother, you can look into the face of your grown child and see, instead, the one that peeked up at you from the folds of a baby blanket. You can watch your twelve year old daughter painting her nails with glitter polish and remember how she used to reach for you when she wanted to cross the street. You can hear the doctor say that the real danger is adolescence, because you don’t know how the heart will respond to growth spurts – and you can pretend that’s ages away.
“Best two out of three,” Claire said, and from the folds of her hospital Johnny she raised her fist again.
I lifted my hand, too. Rock, paper, scissors, shoot.
“Paper,” Claire grinned. “I win.”
“You totally do not,” I said. “Hello? Scissors?”
“What I forgot to tell you is that it’s raining, and the scissors got rusty, and so you slip the paper underneath them and carry them away.”
I laughed. Claire shifted slightly, careful not to dislodge all the tubes and the wires. “Who’ll feed Dudley?” she asked.
Dudley was our dog – a thirteen year old Springer spaniel who – along with me – was one of the only pieces of continuity between Claire and her late sister. Claire may never have met Elizabeth, but they had both grown up draping faux pearls around Dudley’s neck; dressing him up like the sibling they never had. “Don’t worry about Dudley,” I said. “I’ll call Mrs. Morrissey if I have to.”
Claire nodded and glanced at the clock. “I thought they’d be back already.”
“I know, baby.”
“What do you think’s taking so long?”
There were a hundred answers to that, but the one that floated to the top of my mind was that in some other hospital, two counties away, another mother had to say goodbye to her child so that I would have a chance to keep mine.
The technical name for Claire’s illness was pediatric dilated cardiomyopathy. It affected twelve million kids a year, and meant that her heart cavity was enlarged and stretched; that her heart couldn’t pump blood out efficiently. You couldn’t fix it or reverse it; if you were lucky you could live with it. If you weren’t, you died of congestive heart failure. In kids, 79% of the cases came from an unknown origin. There was a camp that attributed its onset to myocarditis and other viral infections during infancy; and another that claimed it was inherited through a parent who was a carrier of the defective gene. I had always assumed the latter was the case, with Claire. After all, surely a child who grew out of grief would be born with a heavy heart.
At first, I didn’t know she had it. She got tired more easily than other infants, but I was still moving in slow motion myself, and did not notice. It wasn’t until she was five, hospitalized with a flu she could not shake, that she was diagnosed. Dr. Wu said that Claire had a slight arrhythmia which might improve and might not; he put her on Captopril, Lasix, Digoxin. He said that we’d have to wait and see.
On the first day of fifth grade, Claire told me it felt like she had swallowed a hummingbird. I assumed it was nerves about starting classes, but hours later -- when she stood up to solve a math problem at the chalkboard -- she passed out cold. Progressive arrhythmias made the heart beat like a bag of worms – it wouldn’t eject any blood. Those basketball players who seemed so healthy, and then dropped dead on the court? That was ventricular fibrillation, and it was happening to Claire. She had surgery to implant an AICD – a tiny, internal ER resting right on her heart, which would fix future arrhythmias by administering an electric shock. She was put on the list for a transplant.
The transplant game was a tricky one – once you received a heart, the clock started ticking, and it wasn’t the happy ending everyone thought it was. You didn’t want to wait so long for a transplant that the rest of the bodily systems began to shut down. But even a transplant wasn’t a miracle: most recipients could only tolerate a heart for ten or fifteen years before complications ensued, or there was outright rejection. Still, as Dr. Wu said, fifteen years from now, we might be able to buy a heart off a shelf and have it installed at Best Buy…the idea was to keep Claire alive long enough to let medical innovation catch up to her.
This morning, the beeper we carried at all times had gone off. We have a heart, Dr. Wu said, when I called. I’ll meet you at the hospital.
For the past six hours, Claire had been poked, pricked, scrubbed, and prepped so that the minute the miracle organ arrived in its little Igloo cooler, she could go straight into surgery. This was the moment I’d waited for, and dreaded, her whole life.
What if (I could not even let myself say the words.)
Instead, I reached for Claire’s hand, and threaded our fingers together. Paper and scissors, I thought. We are between a rock and a hard place. I looked at the fan of her angel hair on the pillow, the faint blue cast of her skin, the fairy-light bones of a girl whose body was still too much for her to handle. Sometimes, when I looked at her, I didn’t see her at all; instead, I pretended that she was ---
“What do you think she’s like?”
I blinked, startled. “Who?”
“The girl. The one who died.”
“Claire,” I said. “Let’s not talk about this.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s exactly what we should talk about.” Her cheeks bloomed with fire, the way they sometimes did when Claire got impassioned - the same fervor that also made her short of breath, sometimes.
“Easy,” I soothed, laying a hand on her head. “We don’t even know it’s a girl.”
“Of course it’s a girl,” Claire said. “It would be totally gross to have a boy’s heart in me.”
“I don’t think that’s a qualification for a match.”
She shuddered. “It should be.” Claire struggled to push herself upright, so that she was sitting higher in the hospital bed. “Do you think I’ll be different?”
I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You,” I pronounced, “will wake up and still be the same kid who cannot be bothered to clean her room or walk Dudley or turn out the lights when she goes downstairs.”
That’s what I said to Claire, anyway. But all I heard were the first four words: You will wake up.
A nurse came into the room. “We just got word that the harvest’s begun,” she said. “We should have more information shortly; Dr. Wu’s on the phone with the team that’s on site.”
After she left, Claire and I sat in silence. Suddenly, this was real – the surgeons were going to open up Claire’s chest, stop her heart, and sew in a new one. We had both heard numerous doctors explain the risks and the rewards; we knew how infrequently pediatric donors came about. Claire shrank down in the bed, her covers sliding up to her nose. “If I die,” Claire said, “do you think I’ll get to be a saint?”
I sat down beside her, gathered her into my arms. “You won’t die.”
“Yeah, I will. And so will you. I just might do it a little sooner.”
I couldn’t help it; I felt tears welling up in my eyes.
“I bet I’d like it,” Claire said. “Being a saint.”
“You aren’t going to be a saint, honey.”
“You don’t know that for sure,” Claire said.
“You’re not Catholic, for one thing. And besides, they all died horrible deaths.”
“That’s not always true. You can be killed while you’re being good, and that counts. Saint Maria Goretti was my age when she fought off a guy who was raping her and was killed and she got to be one.”
“That’s atrocious,” I said.
“St. Barbara had her eyeballs cut out.”
“Claire – “
“Did you know there’s a patron saint of heart patients? John of God?”
“The question is, why do you know there’s a patron saint of heart patients?”
“Duh,” Claire said. “I read. It’s all you let me do.” She settled back against the pillows. “I bet a saint can play softball.”
“So can a girl with a heart transplant.”
But Claire wasn’t listening; she’d learned long ago that hope was just smoke and mirrors; I’d been the one to show her. She looked up at the clock. “I think I’ll be a saint,” she said, as if it were entirely up to her. “That way no one forgets you, when you’re gone.”
· · · · · ·
The funeral of a police officer is a breathtaking thing. Officers and firemen and public officials will come from every town in the state and some even further away. There is a procession of police cruisers that precedes the hearse; they blanket the highway like snow.
It took me a long time to remember Kurt’s funeral, because I was working so hard at the time to pretend it wasn’t happening. The police chief, Irv, rode with me to the graveside service. There were townspeople lining the streets of Lynley, with handmade signs that read PROTECT AND SERVE, and THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE. It was summertime, and the ground sank beneath the heels of my shoes where I stood. I was surrounded by other policemen who’d worked with Kurt, and hundreds who didn’t, a sea of dress blue. My back hurt, and my feet were swollen. I found myself concentrating on a lilac tree that shuddered in the breeze, petals falling like rain.
The police chief had arranged for a twenty-one gun salute, and as it finished, five fighter jets rose over the distant violet mountains. They sliced the sky in parallel lines, and then, just as they flew overhead, the plane on the far right broke off like a splinter, soaring east.
When the priest stopped speaking – I didn’t listen to a word of it; what could he tell me about Kurt that I did not already know? -- Robbie and Vic stepped forward. They were Kurt’s closest friends in the department. Like the rest of the Lynley force, they had covered their badges with black fabric. With their gloved hands, they reached for the flag that draped Kurt’s coffin, and began to fold the flag. Their hands moved so fast – I thought of Mickey Mouse, of Donald Duck, with their oversized white fists. Robbie was the one who put the triangle into my arms, something to hold onto, something to take Kurt’s place.
Through the radios of the other policemen, we heard the final call: All units stand by for a broadcast, the voice said.
Final call for Officer Kurt Nealon, number 144.
144, report to 360 West Main for one last assignment.
It was the address of the cemetery.
You will be in the best of hands. You will be deeply missed.
144, 10-7. The radio code, for end of shift.
I have been told that after that, I walked up to Kurt’s coffin. It was so highly polished I could see my own reflection, pinched and unfamiliar. It had been specially made, wider than normal, to accommodate Elizabeth too.
She was, at seven, still afraid of the dark. Kurt would lie down beside her, an elephant perched among pink pillows and satin blankets, until she fell asleep; then he’d creep out of the room and turn off the light. Sometimes, she woke up at midnight shrieking. You turned it off, she’d sob into my shoulder, as if I had broken her heart.
The funeral director had let me see them. Kurt’s arms were wrapped tight around my daughter, Elizabeth rested her head on his chest. They looked the way they looked on nights when Kurt fell asleep waiting for Elizabeth to do the very same thing. They looked the way I wished I could: smooth and clear and peaceful, a pond with a stone unthrown. It was supposed to be comforting that they would be together. It was supposed to make up for the fact that I couldn’t go with them.
“Take care of her,” I whispered to Kurt, my breath blowing a kiss against the gleaming wood. “Take care of my baby.”
As if I’d summoned her, Claire moved inside me then: a slow tumble of butterfly limbs, a memory of why I had to stay behind.
· · · · · ·
There was a time when I prayed to saints. What I liked about them were their humble beginnings: they were human, once, and so you knew that they just got it in a way Jesus never would. They understood what it meant to have your hopes dashed or your promises broken or your feelings hurt. St. Therese was my favorite – the one who believed you could be perfectly ordinary, but that great love could somehow transport you. However, this was all a long time ago. Life has a way of pointing out, with great sweeping signs, that you are looking at the wrong things, doesn’t it? It was when I started to admit to myself that I’d rather be dead that I was given a child who had to fight to stay alive.
In the past month, Claire’s arrhythmias had worsened. Her AICD was going off six times a day. I’d been told that when it fired, it felt like an electric current running through the body. It restarted your heart, but it hurt like hell. Once a month would be devastating; once a day would be debilitating. And then there was Claire.
There were support groups for adults who had to live with AICDs; there were stories of those who preferred the risk of dying from an arrhythmia to the sure knowledge that they would be shocked by the device sooner or later. Last week, I had found Claire in her room reading the Guinness Book of World records. “Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times over thirty-six years,” she’d said. “Finally, he killed himself.” She lifted her shirt, staring down at the scar on her chest. “Mom,” she begged, “please make them turn it off.”
I did not know how long I would be able to convince Claire to stay with me, if this was the condition in which she had to do it.
Claire and I both turned immediately when the hospital door opened. We were expecting the nurse, but it was Dr. Wu. He sat down on the edge of the bed and spoke directly to Claire, as if she were my age instead of twelve. “The heart we had in mind for you had something wrong with it. The team didn’t know until they got inside…but the right ventricle is dilated. If it isn’t functioning now, chances are it will only get worse by the time the heart’s transplanted.”
“So…I can’t have it?” Claire asked.
“No. When I give you a new heart, I want it to be the healthiest heart possible,” the doctor explained.
My body felt stiff. “I don’t – I don’t understand.”
Dr. Wu turned. “I’m sorry, June. Today’s not going to be the day.”
“But it could take years to find another donor,” I said. I didn’t add the rest of my sentence, because I knew Wu could hear it anyway: Claire can’t last that long.
“We’ll just hope for the best,” he said.
After he left, we sat in stunned silence for a few moments. Had I done this? Had the fear I’d tried to quash – the one that Claire wouldn’t survive this operation – somehow bled into reality?
Claire began to pull the cardiac monitors off her chest. “Well,” she said, but I could hear the hitch in her voice as she struggled not to cry. “What a total waste of a Saturday.”
“You know,” I said, forcing the words to unroll evenly, “you were named for a saint.”
I nodded. “She founded a group of nuns called the Poor Clares.”
She glanced at me. “Why did you pick her?”
Because, on the day you were born, the nurse who handed you to me shook her head and said, Now there’s a sight for sore eyes. And you were. And she is the patron saint of that very thing. And I wanted you protected, from the very first moment I spoke your name.
“I liked the way it sounded,” I lied, and I held up Claire’s shirt, so that she could shimmy into it.
We would leave this hospital and maybe go to get chocolate Fribbles at Friendly’s and rent a movie with a happy ending. We’d take Dudley for a walk and feed him. We’d act like this was an ordinary day. And after she went to sleep, I would bury my face in my pillow and let myself feel everything I wasn’t letting myself feel right now: shame over knowing that I have had five years longer in Claire’s company than I did with her sister Elizabeth; guilt over being relieved this transplant did not happen, since it might just as easily kill Claire as save her.
Claire stuffed her feet into her pink Converse high-tops. “Maybe I’ll join the Poor Clares.”
“You still can’t be a saint,” I said. And added silently, Because I will not let you die.
A priest has to say Mass every day, even if no one shows up, although this was rarely the case. In a city as large as Concord there were usually at least a handful of parishioners, already praying the rosary by the time I came out in my vestments.
I was just at the part of the Mass where miracles occurred. “For this is my body, which will be given up for you,” I said aloud, genuflected, and lifted the Host.
Next to How the heck is one God also a Holy Trinity, the most common question I got asked as a priest by non-Catholics was about transubstantiation: the belief that at consecration, the elements of bread and wine truly became the Body and Blood of Christ. I could see why people were baffled – if this was true, wasn’t communion cannibalistic? And if a change really occurred, why couldn’t you see it?
When I went to church as a kid, long before I came back to it, I took communion like everyone else, but I didn’t really give much thought to what I received. It looked, to me, like a cracker and a cup of wine…before and after the priest consecrated it. I can tell you, now, that it still looks like a cracker and a cup of wine. The miracle part came down to philosophy. It wasn’t the accidents of an object that make it what it is…it was the essential parts. We’d still be human even if we didn’t have limbs or teeth or hair; but if we suddenly stopped being mammals, that wouldn’t be the case. When I consecrated the Host and the wine at Mass, the very substance of the elements changed; it was the other properties – the shape, the taste, the size – that remained the same. Just like John the Baptist saw a man and knew, right away, that he was looking at God; just like the wise men came upon a baby and knew He was Our Savior…every day I held what looked like crackers and wine, but which actually was Jesus.
For this very reason, from this point on in the Mass, my fingers and thumb would be kept pinched together until washed after Communion. Not even the tiniest particle of the consecrated Host could be lost; we went to great pains to make sure of this when disposing of the leftovers from communion. But just as I was thinking this, the wafer slipped out of my hand.
I felt the way I had when, in third grade, during the Little League playoffs, I’d watched a pop fly come into my corner of left field too fast and too high – knotted with the need to catch it; sick with the knowledge that I wouldn’t. Frozen, I watched the Host tumble, safely, into the belly of the chalice of wine.
“Five second rule,” I murmured, and I reached into the chalice and snagged it.
The wine had already begun to soak into the wafer. I watched, amazed, as a jaw took shape, an ear, an eyebrow.
Father Walter had visions. He said that the reason he became a priest in the first place was because, as an altar boy, a statue of Jesus had reached for his robe and tugged, telling him to stay the course. More recently, Mary had appeared to him in the rectory kitchen when he was frying trout, and suddenly they began leaping in the pan. Don’t let a single one fall to the floor, she warned, and then she disappeared.
There were hundreds of priests who excelled at their calling, yet never received this sort of divine intercession – and yet, I didn’t want to fall among their ranks. I stared at the wafer, hoping the wine-sketched features would solidify into a portrait of Jesus…and instead I found myself looking at something else entirely. The dark brows, the nose broken while wrestling in junior high, the razor stubble. Engraved onto the surface of the Host, with a printmaker’s delicacy, was a picture of me.
What is my head doing on the body of Christ? I thought, shaking off the very thought. I placed the Host on the paten, plum-stained and pinkened, a mirror image. I lifted the chalice. “This is my blood,” I said.
It was after One Life to Live but before Oprah; the time of day when most of the guys napped. I myself was not feelingso well. The sores in my mouth made it difficult to speak;I had to keep using the toilet. The skin around my eyes,stained by Kaposi sarcoma, had swollen to the point where I could barely see. I sometimes lay on my back and picturedwhat an opportunistic infection looked like, breaching thebarriers of my immune system: a jewel thief on a stealthmission, except in my case, it didn’t even have topick a lock. The door was left wide open.
Suddenly, I saw a fishing line whiz into the narrow space beneath my cell door. “Want some?” Shay asked.
When we fish, it’s to get something. We trade magazines; we barter food; we pay for drugs. But Shay didn’t want anything; except to give. Wired to the end of his line was a piece of Bazooka bubble gum.
It’s contraband. Gum can be used as putty to build all sorts of things, and to tamper with locks. God only knew where Shay had come across this bounty - or even more astounding – why he wouldn’t just hoard it.
I swallowed, and felt my throat nearly split along a fault line. “No thanks,” I rasped.
“Joey,” Shay said. “Want some?” He cast again, his line arcing over the catwalk. “For real?” Joey asked. Most of us just pretended Joey wasn’t around; it was safer for him. No one went out of their way to acknowledge him, much less offer him something as precious as a piece of gum.
“I want some,” Calloway demanded. He must have seen the bounty going by, since his cell was between Shay’s and Joey’s. “Bourne’s got gum,” he announced.
“No shit. I want some too,” Crash said.
Shay waited for Joey to take the gum, and then pulled his line gently closer, until it was within reach of Calloway.
“How many pieces you got?” Crash asked.
“Just the one.”
Now, you’ve seen a piece of Bazooka gum. Maybe you can split it with a friend. But to divvy up one single piece among seven greedy men?
Shay’s fishing line whipped to the left, past my cell en route to Crash’s. “Take some, and pass it on,” Shay said.
“Maybe I want the whole thing.”
“Maybe you do.”
“Fuck,” Crash said. “I’m taking it all.”
“If that’s what you need,” Shay replied.
I stood up, unsteady, and crouched down as Shay’s fishing line reached Pogie’s cell. “Have some,” Shay offered.
“But Crash took the whole piece—“
“Holy…” I could hear paper being unwrapped, the fullness of Pogie speaking around the rectangle that hadn’t yet softened in his mouth.
“I ain’t had chewing gum since 2001.”
By now, I could smell it. The pinkness, the sugar. I began to salivate.
“Oh, man,” Texas breathed, and then everyone chewed in silence, except for me.
Shay’s fishing line swung between my own feet.
“Try it,” he urged.
I reached for the small wrapped packet on the end of the lines. Since six other men had already done the same, I expected to see only a fragment remaining, a smidgen of gum, if anything at all – yet, to my surprise, the piece of Bazooka was intact. I ripped the gum in half and put a piece into my mouth. The rest I wrapped up, and tugged on Shay’s line. I watched it zip away, back to his own cell.
At first I could barely stand it – the sweetness against the sores in my mouth; the sharp edges of the gum before it softened. It brought tears to my eyes to so badly want something that I knew would cause great pain. I held up my hand, ready to spit the gum out, when the most remarkable thing happened: my mouth, my throat, they stopped aching, as if there was an anesthetic in the gum; as if I were no longer an AIDS patient but an ordinary man, who’d picked up this treat at the gas station counter after filling his tank in preparation of driving far, far away. My jaw moved, rhythmic. I sat down on the floor of my cell, crying as I chewed – not because it hurt, but because it didn’t.
We were silent for so long that CO Whitaker came in to see what we were up to; and what he found, of course, was not what he had expected. Seven men, imagining childhoods that we all wished we’d had. Seven men, blowing bubbles as bright as the moon.
· · · · · ·
For the first time in nearly six months, I slept through the night. I woke up rested and relaxed, without any of the stomach-knotting that usually consumed me for the first two hours of every day. I walked to the basin, squeezed toothpaste onto the stubby brush they gave us, and glanced up at the wavy sheet of metal that passed for a mirror.
Something was different.
The sores, the Kaposi sarcoma that had spotted my cheeks and inflamed my eyelids for a year now, were gone. My skin was clear as a river.
I leaned forward for a better look. I opened up my mouth, tugged my lower lip, searching for the blisters and cankers that had kept me from eating.
“Lucius,” I heard, a ragged voice spilling from the vent over my head. “Good morning.”
I glanced up. “It is, Shay. God, yes, it is.”
· · · · · ·
In the end, I didn’t have to call for a medical consult. Officer Whitaker was shocked enough at my improved appearance to call the nurse himself. I was taken into the attorney-client cell so that she could draw my blood, and an hour later, she came back to tell me what I already knew.
“Your CD4+ is 1250,” the nurse said. “And your viral load’s undetectable.”
“That’s good, right?”
“It’s normal. It’s what someone who doesn’t have AIDS would look like, if we drew his blood.”
“He did this,” I said, well aware of how insane it sounded; and yet desperate to make her understand.
“He made a dead bird come back to life. He took one piece of gum, and made it enough for all of us. He made wine come out of our faucets the first night he was here…”
“Okey-dokey. Officer Whitaker, let me see if we can get a psych consult for – “
“Haven’t you ever seen something with your own eyes that you never imagined possible?”
The nurse walked out of my cell and stood in front of Shay’s. “What do you know about Inmate DuFresne’s condition?”
“He can’t sleep much,” Shay said quietly. “It hurts him to eat.”
“He’s got AIDS. But suddenly, this morning, that’s all changed,” the nurse said. “And for some reason, Inmate DuFresne thinks you had something to do with it.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Suddenly, he stepped forward, animated. “Are you here for my heart?”
“My heart. I want to donate it, after I die.” I heard him rummaging around in his box of possessions. “Here,” he said, giving her a piece of paper. “This is the girl who needs it. Lucius wrote her name down for me.”
“I don’t know anything about that…”
“But you can find out, right? You can talk to the right people?”
The nurse hesitated, and then her voice went soft, the flannel-bound way she used to speak to me, when the pain was so great that I could not see past it. “I can talk,” she said.
· · · · · ·
It is an odd thing to be watching television and know that in reality, it is happening right outside your door. Crowds had flooded the parking lot of the prison. Camping out on the stairs of the parole office entrance were folks in wheelchairs, elderly women with walkers, mothers clutching sick infants to their chests. There were gay couples, mostly one man supporting another frail, ill partner; and crackpots holding up signs with scriptural references about the end of the world. Lining the street that led past the cemetery and downtown, were the news vans – local affiliates, and even a crew from Fox in Boston.
Right now, a reporter from ABC 22 was interviewing a young mother whose son had been born with severe neurological damage. She stood beside the boy, in his motorized wheelchair, one hand resting on his forehead. “What would I like?” she said, repeating the reporter’s question. “I’d like to know that he knows me.” She smiled faintly. “That’s not too greedy, is it?”
The reporter faced the camera. “Bob, so far there’s been no confirmation or denial from the administration that any miraculous behavior has in fact taken place within the Concord State Prison. We have been told, however, by an unnamed source, that these occurrences stemmed from the desire of New Hampshire’s sole death row inmate, Shay Bourne, to donate his organs post-execution.”
I yanked my headphones down to my neck. “Shay,” I called out. “Are you listening to this?”
“We got us our own celebrity,” Crash said.
Suddenly two officers arrived, escorting someone we rarely saw: Warden Coyne. A burly man with a flat-top on which you could have served dinner, he stood beside the cell while Officer Whitaker told Shay to strip. His scrubs were shaken out, and then he was allowed to dress again before he was shackled to the wall across from our cells.
The officers started to toss Shay’s house – upending the meal he hadn’t finished; yanking his headphones out of the television, overturning his small box of property. They ripped his mattress, balled up his sheets. They ran their hands along the edges of his sink, his toilet, his bunk.
“You got any idea, Bourne, what’s going on outside?” the warden said, but Shay just stood with his head tucked into his shoulder, like Calloway’s robin did when he slept. “What about you?” the warden called out to the rest of us. “Those who cooperate with me will not be punished. I can’t promise anything for the rest of you.”
Warden Coyne turned to Shay. “Where did you get the gum?”
“There was only one piece,” Joey Kunz blurted, the snitch. “But it was enough for all of us.”
“You some kind of magician, son?” the Warden said, his face inches away from Shay’s. “Or did you hypnotize them into believing they were getting something they weren’t? I know about mind control, Bourne.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Shay murmured.
Officer Whitaker stepped closer. “Warden Coyne, there’s nothing in his cell. Not even in his mattress. His blanket’s intact – if he’s been fishing with it, then he managed to weave the strings back together when he was done.”
I stared at Shay. Of course he’d fished with his blanket; I’d seen the line he’d made with my own eyes. I’d untied the bubble gum from the braided blue strand.
“I’m watching you, Bourne,” the Warden hissed. “I know what you’re up to. You know damn well your heart isn’t going to be worth anything once it’s pumped full of potassium chloride in a death chamber. You’re doing this because you’ve got no appeals left, and even if you get Barbara freaking Walters to do an interview with you, the sympathy vote’s not going to change your execution date.”
I realized then that even though Shay was a prisoner, he had a certain power over Warden Coyne. He had a certain power over all of us. Shay Bourne had done what no brute force or power play or gang threat had been able to do all the years I’d been on I-tier: he’d brought us together.
Next door, Shay was slowly putting his cell to rights. The news program was wrapping up with another bird’s eye view of the state prison. From the helicopter footage, you could see how many people had gathered; how many more were heading this way.
I sat down on my bunk. It wasn’t possible, was it?
I pulled my art supplies out of my hiding spot in the mattress, rifling through my sketches for the one I’d done of Shay being wheeled off the tier after his seizure. I’d drawn him on the gurney, arms spread and tied down, legs banded together, eyes raised to the ceiling. This time, though, I turned the paper ninety degrees, so that Shay was no longer lying down, but upright.
People were always finding Jesus in jail. What if He was already here?