I cried when I found pictures from my years in prison. I closed the peeling lid of the box, but it was no use. My hands had no fingers, my teeth had become bone and grandpa’s face was a tattooed shadow across my cheeks. He took a Polaroid of me every month and handed it to me when he came to visit. He wanted me to have solid proof of my slow decay. He was the one who should have been locked away. The wig the warden bequeathed me shifted on my pounding head like a slatternly hedgehog, in rut and famished for rutabagas. I walked down dark streets into a shell of magenta-dawn and newness, although still tethered to the hands, legs and groin of my ancestry.
The month of thunder opened and I howled in. Days of lightning and hail, a murmur from something closer to a dog than a god responded to my prayers and the weather slowly changed. Black snow fell softly, lightly. It was not going to stop.
For two years behind bars I’d been wondering what was the deal with Frank Hinton? Did he wear a dress, a tie around his neck or both? It didn’t matter what Frank wore because I was his womb-child, his lost dream, his pet who carried his slippers to Frank’s favorite chair. As I got older I stole cars and sold Oxycodone and Ecstasy on the streets to bring home to Frank. We had a good thing going.
“Thank you, thank me, thank you,” Frank used to say to me. He said it over and over
until he understood. But I never did. Why did Frank leave me in the clutches of his psycho father when he ended up in prison?
I would take memory slices of Frank and turn them upside down with the one photo I had of him. The way grandpa did when I was a baby, before grandpa dropped me on my head.
Before my skull split and crushed and I saw the universe in strings and digits, the way it was meant to be before Caesar and his cronies deconstructed it. I still feel it. Still feel him. Grandpa’s fingers on my baby body, in my mouth, roaming. He couldn’t have expected me to remember. But grandpa lost his nerve. Let me slip. Let me fall. Let me crack. I belonged to no one.
Captured as he was, grandpa could shuffle only horizontally. This presented a multitude of problems. He trained, crawling over walls with his arms only. Time passed and with it his interest in life. “Well,” he thought, “at least there’s a beer culture.”
A captain of industry, he brought jobs back to the sad-sack coastal town. With the
crash of the waves, the Captain once again took to the seas in his head. “Sail with me,” he said. “There are oceans beyond our knowing ahead.” Unfortunately, the ocean was his cot soggy with his pee.
If you stare out to sea long enough, you will think you have all the answers.
And after swimming and swimming you’ll find that you’re still in prison and no one remembers you. The single sentence of our jailhouse zen meditation group had been to ‘live in the now’ which was a time I wanted to get as far away from as possible. I had one photo with Frank taken the night before the cops handcuffed him. Every time I opened my box it burst from the pile and crashed into my brain.
I lay back on my cot. There were no beds allowed in our apartment. Grandpa and me in the same room. One cot smack up against the other. My teeth were rattling in my head like glass scissors on a conveyer belt to doom. I imagined my mouth without sharpness, all soft hot pink gum, what that might feel like. What should a man make of the howling when the noise is the howl of silence; when silence is nothing more than air brushed against the coarseness of tattered skin?
Often in his sleep grandpa would hear the ship’s bell tolling, only to find what he’d heard was the clatter of keys—tools in the belts of men he wouldn’t have wasted spit for were they pasty young faces among those who once stood under his command. That’s when I’d wake up to him scratching and cursing at me, chasing me around the apartment.
“You good for nothing tramp. Get back to work you lazy cretin before I hide your ass.”
Grandpa was always with me. His hands found his cock as they always did. I shook my head while his wrinkled fingers wrapped in that thin skin like times gone by. When they began their wrestling, I realized it was my fingers, not his. I was tired of the incessant rattling of teeth. I had more interesting things to do. I grabbed some kleenex when my lap match was over. Everyone a winner, save me. Yes, save me.
Before grandpa died, before I knew he would die, the hospital stuck his hoary stick body, flaccid graying penis, shrinking old brain, in a special room for the elderly who have dementia. He got a single room, a window and got to have visitors which was nobody else but me. “Do you know what they do here?” his bony index finger swept over the vista. “They collect shit here. They are a bunch of shit collectors. Well, I’ve got plenty of that.” I agreed with him there. The day before his death he suffered an ironic fit of constipation as his major organs failed him: tongue, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and that once overly active penis.
I didn’t know where to go. I went to my room and went inside my head and lived there until he died. I went to his funeral. I wore the wig the warden had given me and a yellow sundress I wouldn’t wear before, because grandpa loved me all dressed up and had convinced me that I was a girl, just like he had convinced Frank that he was a boy and a girl depending on his mood. People looked at me and whispered about my lack of respect. I tried not to smile when I threw a handful of dirt on his coffin after it was lowered.
“I am your ancestor,” he shouted again and again into the darkness. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating and hear that old codger bellowing and haunting me from the other side, but by now, Frank had been released from prison and moved in. I was no longer alone and afraid. Frank would comfort me on those oppressive nights. He now slept on the other cot.
Frank and I exchanged prison stories and clothes. We were about the same size. Every day we had our cornflakes and coffee together and discussed what kind of a day it would be. Was today a good day to be a girl or a boy or both?
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet (AWP Version) are:
Brandon Hobson Janee J. Baugher
Roxane Gay Brendan Kiely
Randy Rosenthal Laura Isaacman
Susan Tepper Cindy Zelman
Larry O. Dean Larry Cook
Ryan W. Bradley Kona Morris
Robert Vaughan Ken McPherson
Leah Rogin-Roper Cheston Knapp
Tony Perez Lance Cleland
Jason T. Lewis Josh Denslow
Barry Graham Extie Ecks (xtx)
Bill Yarrow Sally Reno
Ben Tanzer Diane Goettel
BL Pawelek David Tomaloff
Lauren Becker Anna March