We can never, ever be sure when we’ve laid eyes on the shepherd of our last—not penultimate or semifinal, but last, as in absolute—chance of saving our oversoul.
Photos by Amy Elkins
vening call and we skip the pig iron and pool tables in favor of strolling the track and circuit a few laps appraising the yard. Since it’s one of those dreary summer days we get here where the rain ain’t an if but a when, it’s looking mighty scarce. Only the diehards out on the pile, laying a soundtrack of grunting and yelling, while meantime a couple of dudes who wished to God they owned a decent jumper play four-on-four on the gravelly asphalt they call a court.
“Good fortune,” he says.
“So that,” I say, “is what it’s called?”
“No, that,” he says, “is what it is.”
“But to you and who else?” I say.
“To me, me, and me,” he says. “Who ain’t never had none. Who else you need?”
My celly’s a lifer on the wrong side of half his life and, most days, especially the ones he’s juiced off his world-famous Pruno, you can’t tell him—it’s just my luck I’m always linked with a bootleg philosopher—he ain’t Nietzsche, Heidegger, Harold Bloom. But best you mind the venom; the man is also built like a steroid robot with fists big as demolition balls and a teardrop (one he earned back when I was a wee bit) inked under an eye, which means when he speaks, fools—including me—listen.
“All bullshit aside, young’in, only a few finished, but the ones that did, ain’t been seen back behind the walls. Now, I don’t profess knowin’ what he do,” he says, “rumored a whole lot of talkin’ and scribblin’ and whatnot, but whatever it is, it seem to work. So if I was you…”
He stops short when a flabby guard moseys over and stands Gestapo-ish nearby.
“I don’t mind the company, but if these folks gon’ let you fast-track, you best get on it. Believe me when I tell you, you ain’t built for no long stretch.”
My robot-built celly proceeds to turn what should be a friendly shoulder tap into a fucking hematoma. Throbs later, when they sound the horn for the end of yard, the iron pumpers make a fracas of reracking the weights.
ap lopes in and the room freezes in moon-shaped rows of metal fold-ups, a handful of us—me included—with eyes wide as bottle caps and lips damn-near sutured. He takes his seat by the portable board, empties a duffel of books and notes, and sifts through them a moment without a word or an eye for any of us. Then he lurches to his feet, shifts what must be fossilized bones, clears his slack gullet, glances from face to face to face to face, and waits what must be a Julian light-year before he says this: “My friends, the world ain’t set up for guys like us to win, but that’s all the more reason to win.” His voice is deep, metallic, severe—a baritone so coarse there must be spikes in his throat. “And if you aren’t about winning,” Cap says, “then you should leave now. This program is not the place for chickenshits.”
It’s worth mentioning that nobody leaves, that don’t nobody utter a word.
Here might be why: On top of nursing our oh-so-coveted good time, some of us are here because we heard the legend, and the legend is, spectacles on or not, this man can see right through your diaphanous-ass curtain to your guarded lockbox, see what’s in that lockbox, then tell you not only that he spied it but, minus any hype whatsoever, how it might produce whatever you need, which, for the bulk of us, at least the ones with an inkling of sense, is an outbound ticket that lasts for all time.
With all the grand stories I heard, a nigger was half-expecting a real live in-the-flesh giant, but no sir, the truth is the man ain’t all that physically big. Matterfact, he’s intimidating about none, and probably wasn’t an ounce more imposing when they began calling him Captain, or Cap—way back when he beat the biggest case the state had ever seen, those salad days of his when, as the myth has it, he was worth more scrilla than a blue-chip stock; no—I’m thinking he couldn’t have been but average-size at best for the span of years a few decades back that he managed over and over the abracadabra-alakazam. And peep, this millennium Cap’s a welterweight, stooped to what’s likely an inch or so shy of his apex, with paper-white longish hair raked backward and a face etched in intricate grooves.
But check it, though, the man’s weathered mug is one thing, but his digs are a whole other situation: a pressed cream shirt buttoned to his throat, a pair of army-green cargo pants that look half as old as anybody I know, and boots tied tight enough to make the average motherfucker’s foot fall right off. He inches along the rows jacking arms and querying names, and it don’t take no 3-D glasses to see the deference they pay, respect from nefarious dudes with tattoos on their necks and knuckles, with gully-wide gashes on their cheeks, from the musclebound old head who runs the Commissary Mafia, all of us forfeiting afternoon yard.
Anybody’s guess why, when he finally reaches me, the name I give him is the one that no one, and I mean nobody, hears out my mouth unless I’m under oath. Not only that, but the hope is that the man feels my strength, faith, resolve, feels the pledge lodged close by my padlocked lockbox, and the man must have a handshake message in mind himself, ’cause there ain’t sign the first of him letting me loose. “You! You!” he says. “You serious or wasting my time? I’m gonna die. And you’re gonna die. And tell me who has a moment to waste?” He says this and hovers stock-still, not that big in life but bigger than life—exponential. He peers into me with eyes that could douse my greatest fear or immolate my fondest dreams, which is why right this second there’s a rock band rehearsing in my chest, a flood in my pits, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, I’m overcome with the urge to confess my life. To admit how it’s one thing to be an ex-con, but another thing entire to feel convicted. How every stint feels less of time away and more of time at home. How most days all I ever see are emblems of what I could’ve been.
Plus, here’s the stone-cold ignore-it-and-that’s-your-sweet-ass truth: Either I’ve had all I can stand or I’ll never, not this year, not this decade, not this eon, get enough.
But me, I don’t mention any of this. And why? What are you, a priest? Why my nuts! It’s nobody’s business why.
The room is swathed in jaundiced light and reeks of disinfectant that could knock you dead. For a time, every tiny breath, shift, murmur, creak, cough, sniff, could measure on Richter. Then it all softens to ambient noise, and Cap glides amid the pseudoquiet to a post in the center of it all. He grabs a branch of chalk and scrawls the word narrative on the board in leviathan script. “My friends, everyone has a sob story,” he says. “But guess what, no one gives a goddamn about your sob stories. What the world attends, if it attends at all, is who you are now, and what you do with the moment at hand.”
You don’t have to be no psychic to know the most jaded of us will, no matter the prodding, refuse to treat this man with the utmost gravitas—aka a silly mistake that most days I’d be content to sit and watch be pursued. But for only God-might-know why, I’m struck with the urge to warn this handful of screw-face ne’er-do-wells how we can never, ever be sure when we’ve laid eyes on the shepherd of our last—not penultimate or semifinal, but last, as in absolute—chance of saving our oversoul.
he chapel ain’t exactly packed but ain’t exactly empty either. Us graduates occupy the rows nearest the rickety lectern and sitting behind the lectern in velvet-padded wooden chairs, the superintendent and his masculine-faced female assistant, the scowling lieutenant, the chaplain, and Cap. Cap lets his anthracite eyes go the distance, maybe to the handful of family members (females mostly, but my girl ain’t one of them) or the reporter, the only one present, stooped over his notes, or maybe further to where a duo of squat guards police the exits like them joints are the golden gates of third heaven.
Wouldn’t nobody I know consider the ceremony’s setup anywhere near lavish, and you’d think the meagerness alone would mean I’m cooler than cool, that my pulse is ticking off at a steady pace, but no such luck; my eyes are caught in twitching fits, and this heart of mine may as well be a twittering bird. No lie, it’s on the fritz to the point where, if I was another type of dude, I’d nudge the super-size blockhead who’s been locked near a decade for arson and ask if he too feels as though he’s swallowed stars. But as I said, that’s if I was another type of dude, and let me be the first to tell you, program or not, places like this seldom let us be who we could.
You just don’t know what I’d give to have a sense of time whiling away instead of this clock doing a number on my insides right up until the time the chaplain leads us in a prayer so moving even the born-again Muslim among us strikes a supplicant pose.
The superintendent bops up afterward, flashing a smile—homeboy’s teeth are damn-near citrine—that’s 9/10 fake, and taps the mic, and recites the most tarnished speech you ever heard about opportunity and life change and second chances, some drag don’t nobody believe, if anybody believes, but him. When he’s done, he gives Cap a cursory intro, relishes a few camera flashes, and struts back to his seat.
Cap, never afraid of the limelight, matterfact, always in lust of the limelight, makes a production of getting upright and shambling into view. He stops beside the lectern and peers at the crowd and glances from face to face to face to face to my face and clears his throat into a gnarled, wrinkled fist.
“All around us the noise,” Cap says, in a pitch that might be magic. “There’s the babble of today’s news, the clatter of all acts prior, the clamor of expectations. The extent to which one finds oneself in accommodations such as these is equal to the extent one is unable to sever oneself from the roar. Over the past months, these men have discovered they were once ignorant former subjects of the world’s boom, boom, boom, boom; have determined that, as it is for us all, the only way to be free is to position one’s self as discrete from the din of phenomena.” Cap raises a hand, whoops up what must be a chunk of lung, recomposes. “It is only then can one forge a life governed not by what’s prior, but what’s at hand. Only then can one truly live anew.” The man of the moment edges from one side of the altar to the other and casts those stone-colored eyes into the gray distance. “This life I speak of, the life for which these men are now destined, exists as a form of quiet,” he says, and gimps off the altar and onto floor.
He comes to a stop a centimeter from our pew.
“I want each of you to know that when you leave these walls, you will not be abandoned,” he says. “That I will never desert you,” he says, and ebbs along our row, pausing across from each of us for what feels like the better part of the rest of my life. “My friends, I say this to you with the full measure of what life to me is left: Outside, if ever you need, come find me,” he says. “In Cap you can trust. In Cap you can surely trust.”
He shambles back to the pulpit and stands, lucid as ever, not that big in life but grander than life—colossal. “Friends, family, chaplain, superintendent, when these men you see before you have left the confines of these walls, they will do so not as graduates of a program, but as philosophers of a new way of being.”
When it’s over, Cap banters with the superintendent, and my word, you never seen so many smiles and taps and nods, never seen a handshake that could end a world war. As I said, nobody from my fam is here, and since, ceremony or not, I ain’t at all in the mood for bantering with these dudes’ significant others, I don’t budge. Instead, I peep Cap dickering among the crowd, watch him hobble over and sit beside me and sift through pocket scraps and turn so we’re face-to-face. “It’s tough out there,” he says, and lets the silence linger too long. “But tough is what you want. Easy is for half-asses and dimwits, of which you, my friend, are neither.”
The room verges on a hush. The guards round us up well ahead of when they should.
ou can lose yourself in increments: this many and that many month-stretches at a time. One morning you slug out of a tiny bunk in some building bordered by razor wire, and your 20s, where the fuck are they? A few sets later, half your 30s—vamoosed, left your sorry self in a nasty communal bathroom plucking stubborn gray hairs out your chin while mourning the immutable fact your once superior hairline has begun a full-fledged recession.
What’s worse is you lost all of this, and what’s left of what’s left to covet is reaching a few days till last wake-up.
Here’s how it goes when you touch down. There’s the festivities and visits from the people you ain’t seen since the last time you were home or maybe a time or two for a distracted weekend visit during the first few months—try and get somebody to see you after that—of your set. How it goes if you come home to a short stash is, if you’re lucky, you get kicks from a female or fam or homeboys, the ones that not only say they want to see you back on your feet but confirm they’re beyond fat-mouthing by tossing your impecunious ass a few bucks. Those first days, weeks, back in the free world, you see all of mankind’s progress in the blink of an eye. When you left we’d just invented the wheel, but now, now we’re flying spaceships. Unless you’re a sucker2, home sweet home equals an abundance of has-beens ready to pay homage to your new (but, let’s keep it real, most times temporary) swoll biceps with a shot of refurbished pussy. But sooner or later, after you inhale those early, emancipated breaths, inevitably sooner rather than later, you end up gaping into the maw of the real, live, wide, apathetic, show-me-what-you-gonna-do-this-time cosmos—a position that clarifies options for even the most imbecilic of niggers.
Be who you were.
Be who you thought you could be.
Be somebody brand-new altogether.
elcome back is what the sign says, and you’d think this brand-new me was popping the fam’s just-came-home cherry with today’s turnout: My mama, my sis and baby bro, my twins (walking now), my fine-fine woman, all convened on the porch cheering and carrying on while I lug my luggage, a state-issued trash bag, up our rickety front steps. A trillion pats on shoulders built from a consistent season on the pile, plus yet another faithful push- and pull-up regime, so many encouraging words all I can hear is a hella-loud drone.
Uncle Sip is in the backyard stooped over a billowing grill, wielding a long spatula, a semi-empty brew sitting on a side table with the meat. Somebody—no doubt one of my young geek nephews—has rigged our giant home speakers so they reach the patchy, hillocked lawn. There’s an old soulful voice wailing across them, so you know one of the grown folks has gangstered DJing duties. My oldest Unc two-steps and nods his unkempt salt-and-pepper natural and keeps right on warbling along to the chorus till he sees me eyeing him from the porch. “What it is, Nephew?” he says. “What it is, what it ain’t, and what it shall be?”
“Unc,” I say. “You know.”
My response I mean literally. Unc’s the only one in the whole fam who’s logged more time in the system than me. One of those old heads who—when you’re facing new charges—can quote your prospective sentence under the new and old guidelines, who’s probably spent most of his adult years (probation, parole, house arrest, judge-ordered community service, mandatory outpatient drug programming, city-funded intervention: Clean Slate, Fresh Start, Second Chance…) on some form of paper. But Unc’s illustrious law-breaking/rehab history’s another story. Shit, I got more than enough trouble keeping up with my own.
The rest of the stage: See fold-up tables scattered around the yard, see the bushes trimmed to neat shapes, see here and there adults (and a few sneaky youngsters) circumventing potholes with Styrofoam cups in hand. See a dominoes game at a shaded corner table where one of my oil-tongued cousins harangues some dudes who don’t at all look familiar except they resemble in dress and bearing the old heads who parley in the neighborhood, preaching advice they didn’t have the brains to follow themselves.
While I preside over the scene, my woman taps my arm and motions me to follow.
My word, from the front and back my baby girl is a cham-P-ion! But the cool part is, her physicality ain’t even the half. Yeah, ask any old old head and he’ll warn against bestowing an abundance of faith in a woman, any woman, while you’re gone, which is sage advice for sure, but maybe once in a millennium you have a shot at finding an extraspecial one, the kind who’ll stay down an entire set, by which I mean will keep a few bucks on your books, pay you consistent visits, and send enough naked flicks to keep your balls from swelling to the size of melons. And if it’s true there’s something rare about a female who can do that once, imagine how sublime one is who manages any more than that.
And you, you, you, fair-minded listeners, will you please, and I mean pleeeeeeaaase, hold up on the hasty judgments. Yes, it’s true, while I was gone, she might’ve gave away the goods, but it’s also equally if not more true that my heart couldn’t stand an investigation.
With the hope that the light of my life is luring me upstairs for a shot of level-10 cranium, plus a skinny-dip in her nexus—the welcome home combo of my star-spent dreams—I hustle behind her.
My woman don’t so much as flash a tooth when I tell her how much I missed her, when I ask where she was my last weeks down.
“There’s no easy way to say this…” she says, and lets the next moment open up and suck me down.
And peoples, peoples, listen: To hell with what you, them, anyone says. There are times when it pays to be tough as steel. There are times when, no matter, we can’t fake an armored heart.
As if things couldn’t get worse, my PO pays a pop-up visit. My PO’s an Indian, excuse me, Native American, from some tribe in northern Washington whose name I can’t remember for nothing. You’d think with how bad his people have had it, he’d commiserate or at least show an atom of empathy, but hell nah, homeboy treats me like a direct descendent of Lewis and Clark. Look at this raggedy sucker squeezed in my pop’s (RIP) favorite reclining chair, with his feet kicked up and a notebook in his lap. “Thought I’d drop by,” he says, and flashes that supercilious I-own-your-discount-life smirk.
“Drop by on my first day home?” I say, as a question and complaint all in one. “Want to make sure you get off on the right foot,” he says. “Despite what you may think, I’m a good guy, have even cut a few loose early. And let me tell you, I’d love to see you finally off my load.”
“That’s the plan,” I say.
“Well, make sure this time your plan includes a job,” he says, and scribbles notes.
“Sure thing,” I say.
“Great,” he says. “How about we see you in my office with pay stubs soon.” My trillion-pound PO—no lie, the fool must’ve swallowed a tribe of Apaches—waddles for the door, his long ponytail swooshing across the mountain-size sweat patch printed in the back of his shirt, his shoe soles worn to the shape of an avalanche.
Chief Loves to Violate turns to me, his thick neck first, then the rest of him. “Looks like you’re having quite the party,” he says. “But if I were you, I’d steer far clear of any intoxicants. You of all people should know how those piss tests can just pop up.”
few days after the festivities, I hit the mall with my kick-start funds—scrilla the old me might’ve used to cop a sack—stuffed in a pocket and buy a white shirt and a blue shirt and a pair of khakis and a pair of polyester-blend slacks and a new tie and some hard-soled shoes, and the next day I scour the city in search of help wanted signs and, with worry I hope is at least semi-veiled, enter corner stores and grocery stores and liquor stores and car lots and car washes and pawnshops and restaurants and blood banks and gas stations and warehouses and dry cleaners to fill out application after application, hoping somebody with some authority or compassion or both will hazard a call to the number I listed, which,
truthbetold, is my mama’s home phone—a line she guards the way a Rottweiler or Doberman protects its owner—praying at least one fucking living human being will ring me for an interview, but since they don’t, I’m left a whole morning gawking at a contraption (a prehistoric rotary joint) I’ve tried more than once to coax alive by ESP; unsuccessful as shit till near noon when I dress and, since a nigger’s license is suspended till the day after judgment, slug out to catch the light rail or the bus or, if I’m lucky, to bum a ride or, if I’m less fortunate, to trek infinite blocks on foot to a whole new set of places taunting my soon-to-be-destitute self with virtually unavailable options, conceding my poor chances but filling out apps against the odds—every time wishing like crazy I had a whole other history to list—before trudging home to pick at leftovers, count my steady-dwindling funds, stab at sleep, and do it all over again, repeating the same script for so many mornings it takes on the feeling of a life sentence, repeating the same script so many mornings that one morning I backtrack to the mall where I copped my as-yet-unworn interview clothes, to ask security, stock boys, salesmen, managers, anybody with a name tag or a black or white button-down shirt for an opening, any opening at all, though there ain’t no signs asking for help in view, questions that harvest a steady succession of noes, and since a nigger can only stand but so many public setbacks, for the next who knows how long I spend hours upon hours at the employment office searching listings that appear so far outside my realm of possibility as to be excerpts of science fiction, reading the fantasy paragraphs till I’m good and debased, then trudging home to eat, watch another eon of depressing news, count the last of my last few bucks, and, on the bleakest nights, lie on the flattened twin mattress in the room above my mama’s head with the tepid hope my eyes stay the fuck closed forever, but since my wishes materialize about never, early the next AM an anonymous force tugs me out of bed and sends me slugging downstairs to post by a phone that, if it rings at all, is a creditor or telemarketer, but since it sometimes requires more heart to give up than it does to go on, with a gloom I pray is camouflaged, I shamble out of the house and into the jagged teeth of another day.
ut eventually… outfitted in my brand-new interview threads, I trek to an address on Swan Island, where I approach this guard in a small wooden booth who directs me to a huge building at the far end of the lot. Inside, I’m all but overcome by the horde of eager faces vying for a job that, to be true, a man with any standing in the world wouldn’t use to wipe his ass. So many of us competing for this minimum earner, only a certified fool would admit to anything that’d make him even infinitesimally less attractive. But since, as I said, I’m working on a new me, when I get to the question about a felony, I write “Will discuss in interview” in my neatest script.
A guy dressed in a faded denim shirt and wrinkled Dockers stomps out and calls my name and, for reasons I wouldn’t admit to another man, my legs are brittle twigs, sticks barely strong enough to carry me to a sparse office: a desk and a couple of chairs against unadorned walls. The guy—one of those suckers who’s probably settled for an innominate, redundant, riskless life—tells me to pull up a seat and proceeds to stand on the other side of a wide desk and stare a black hole through my skull.
“Well,” he says, “I have to be honest, your work history’s a bit spotty.”
“It’s been a rough couple,” I say. “But I’m hoping for things to take a turn.”
“That right?” he says, scanning the sheet. “So, what’s this you need to discuss?”
he next morning, after picking over food that I ain’t spent—as my mama confirms more and more—a dollar on, my attitude is fuck-staring-at-the-phone, so I rummage through my lockbox for names and numbers and make call after call after call till someone produces what might be Cap’s home line, but with my luck, might not.
“Well, well, my friend,” Cap says. “This is quite the surprise.”
He tells me that he can’t chat long, but gives me a few seconds to vent before breaking it off. He recites his address and tells me the best time to stop by tomorrow. In this moment, to be sure, my relief couldn’t translate to words.
Cap’s huge Victorian is in a neighborhood me and my boys used to burglarize like crazy, which is why it don’t take much to find his address, to locate a porch stacked with books, logs, and metal junk. I climb the steps without the first clue of what to say and ring a bell that makes the sound of a gong.
You can hear the sound of multiple bolts unbolting and hinges long overdue for lube. “Well, don’t just stand there,” Cap says, and leads me into a shabby front room where he points to an upholstered couch before reminding me he has to leave soon.
“What’s the trouble?” he says.
“It’s all bad,” I say. “Between that and worse.”
“So I see,” he says. “Well, here’s the word: nookie.”
“What?” I say.
“Nookie,” he says. “You getting some?”
“Are you serious?” I say. “You can’t be serious.”
“My friend, let me tell you. The right woman’s a salve for almost any harm,” he says, and fastens a shirt button and cuffs his sleeves. “You’ve got the felled look of a man who’s getting less than he should. Or less than none. Go out and score and have a look.”
“Huh?” I say. “See what?”
“C’mon,” he says.
“That’s it!” I say.
“And if not,” he says. He strains to his feet and motions me to follow. “Well, I’d love to keep chatting, “ he says. “But as I said...”
“Wait,” I say. “What about what you told us inside? The narratives. The noise.”
“My friend,” he says. “You didn’t really fall for that? Don’t tell me you really bought all that crap. Jesus, can’t a man make a God-for-living living.”
“No,” I say. “No.”
The man pushes the door wide, stands awash in the brightest light I’ve ever seen. “Listen, pal, don’t be chickenshit. We’re all up to our eyes in it. Not just you. There’s no big secret. Just decide.”
“Decide what?” I say.
“The choice of most consequence,” he says. “Whether we save our soul or save ourselves.”
y Uncle Sip is in a Northeastern tavern, posted by the bar, a half-guzzled brew beside him, yapping to some dude who, by the face, could’ve been an apostle. When I tap his shoulder, Unc swivels hella, hella slow. Judging by his glassy, rose-tinted sclera and the fact he smells as if he’s bathed in his drink of choice, he’s faded beyond his average percentile. “Nephew,” he slurs. “What is it, a blizzard?”
“Try a motherfuckin’ snowstorm,” I say.
“Well, pull up a seat and let me get you somethin’ to set your mind right,” he says. “Hold up, is you still on that paper? When they got you reportin’ next?
The most I can manage is tossing my head side to side. “Well, I’ll be gotdamned, Nephew, maybe you should go virgin. Can’t play it too safe these days.”
“Right now,” I say. “Man oh man, Unc, about right now!”
Unc warns against going any such route “just yet,” and claims, as luck would have it, he’s got an old patna that might could help us hustle up a couple coins.
The bartender shuffles over, and Unc orders a pair of stiff ones. A bulb dies, and the jukebox begins to moan.
What I say to Unc is, this bet not be no drag, that I hope to God it ain’t no drag.
“Aw naw, Nephew,” he says. “This here’s legit, a real live one. You know old Unc know one of those on sight.”
The drinks arrive, and they’re iceless and clear and filled to the lip. Unc pinky-stirs his double shot, pats his pruned ultra-sheened Fro, flaunts a grand gold-capped smile, lifts his lowball to the heights, and suggests we toast, as he says, “to the future.” But me, I look beyond old dude, down my drink in a gulp, bang the glass on the counter, and, with the ass end of my kick-start funds, order another round.