Things Left Unspoken
I flopped my head back against the hard plastic seat. Can I do this? The guard had put me too close to his desk. I felt nervous enough without officers listening in.
The metal door to the visiting room clanged and a large black man rambled into the room and then stopped, tilting his bald head backwards to peer at the scattered visitors. His eyes squinted and then flared wide-eyed. I felt a stab of fear. I bet he’s mine.
I had volunteered to visit men in maximum security federal prison; to offer conversation without agenda.
Slowly, the inmate turned away and sauntered to the guard station where he removed his ID card from the pocket on his chest. A handful of crushed tissues spilled out and he dabbed at his nose. In profile, his brow swept up in one smooth, enormous arc to join the bald skin of his skull.
The officer pointed at me and I stood up, smiling and holding out my hand. “Earnest?”
“Yeah.” His eyes were brown, focused somewhere between panic and resignation. They flared and narrowed again.
Oh, my God. What am I getting myself into? “What would you like to drink?”
He creased his face until it looked like a walnut.
“Um. What they got?”
“Coke, juices…” I looked at him expectantly but he remained silent, waiting for further elaboration. “I think I saw lemonade. Do you want me to look?”
I memorized the selections from two vending-machines and reported back. “There’s ginger ale, kiwi-strawberry, Pepsi, orange-pineapple juice, cranberry, Dr. Pepper, strawberry soda, Seven-Up and,” I grinned apologetically, “I can’t remember the rest.”
“Um,” he mopped his nose. “You choose.”
I stared at him, troubled. How do I know what you like? Denied choice, do we stop choosing? I bought him a ginger ale, hoping it was a drink not often on his menu.
“Thank you,” he said in a deep and melodious voice.
Probably in his early thirties, tall and broad-shouldered, he wore his strength unselfconsciously. His bulky muscles seemed relaxed rather than poised for action and he thrust his feet forward, crossing them at the ankles. He looked about the room with curiosity and the whites of his eyes showed all around the circles of dark iris. His shaven head gleamed in the thin florescent light.
His face made me uneasy. It was decorated with large cursive letters above his left eyebrow. They had faded to near illegibility against his black skin. I dared not stare because at the corner of his other eye, dripped three tattooed tears: gang-markings. Does that mean he’s a murderer?
But then I noticed the tattoo on his neck. In an almost comical pairing, it said: Boo.
“Where are you from, Earnest?”
“Ah, the ocean,” I said with the longing of a landlocked sea-lover. “I miss it! Are you a beach person?”
“Nah.” His warm smile surprised me. “I’m from the streets.”
“What did you do there?” I thought he would describe his life, his family.
“I robbed, I robbed, I robbed a bank.”
Unprepared for such frankness, I didn’t know what to say. “That’s why you’re here?”
“Yeah. Been in thirteen year.”
Mid-breath, I stiffened. He’d been locked up for the duration of my daughter’s life.
“When I get out, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna do the right thing.” His thighs bounced double time as he folded muscled arms across his chest. “I did a bad thing.” Rocking back and forth and shaking his head, his self-hug gave him no comfort. “I was out from prison. I didn’t have no money. My girlfriend had a baby and I wanted to look after my son. I robbed a bank.”
I stared at him. I hadn’t expected to talk about his crime. We’ve jumped in at the deep end. His vulnerability felt too naked to witness. Maybe he felt that way, too, because he darted a glance my way before staring hard at the floor. That stare was so intense, as if something secret were stenciled on the tiles; I couldn’t help but search in the direction of his gaze.
“It was armed robbery.” His feet drummed up and down, his legs vibrated, his torso shook. “I had a gun. I didn’t wanna hurt no one. I’m not a bad person. But an old man had a heart attack. If he’d a died, I’d a gone down for murder.”
My back ached from sitting on the edge of my seat; it was the only way I could hear. Why aren’t there tables? In the background, the visiting room had crowded but my attention was riveted on Earnest. Despite the increased noise, I felt as though someone had shaken a loose, airy fabric into the air to settle over the two of us. We were alone in a light tent of clear silence, as filmy as muslin. All distractions fell away.
“Luck was on your side that day.”
“Yeah. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t want that on my conscience. When I get out, I wanna, I wanna make good choices.” His black accent was strong and I am Australian; I strained to understand him. I can repeat his words today because he said the same things every time we met, over and over like a mantra: his prayer of hope that he would make good choices.
I nodded again but it felt inadequate. A moment’s thought only generated lame options but they were all I had. “Thank you. Thank you for telling me.”
His eyes stayed riveted on the floor.
I hoped he was trying to think of something to say. I was. How he could have done thirteen years and a previous sentence? He doesn’t look old enough. Our connection seemed to disappear; a long silence separated us. I groped for a new line of conversation but couldn’t think.
Someone slammed the microwave door. The layered smells of body odor and the stink
Of a baby’s full diaper retreated as the whiff of melted cheese spread through the room.
Earnest leaned forward. “What you like to do?”
I exhaled, trying to ease my back. “Well, I’m a reader. I love to read. I read a lot. Do you like reading?”
“Nah. I’m no good. Can’t read.”
My concern was for me, not him. That’ll make it hard. I loved to talk about books and ideas. Another silence fell. “How did you read my postcard? How did you know I was coming?”
He tapped his foot constantly. “Got someone else to read it. I’m not smart.” With a glance my way, he said, “My I.Q.’s not so good.” Shrugging and smiling apologetically, he explained in case I didn’t understand. “I’m below normal.”
I waited but he was looking at the floor again. What can I say to that? When nothing came to me I changed the subject. “Well, I’m learning to dance. I go to the university salsa club twice a week. I love it! The music’s great! Although most of the people there are students, I don’t feel too out of place. There are some oldies like me from the community. Do you like to dance?”
He laughed. “I can see you doing the salsa! You a good person. You made the right choices.”
Oh, my. I was uncomfortable that he assumed so much from so little. “You don’t know that.”
“I can tell. You a good person.”
“I’ve made my share of mistakes but I’ve had lots of luck, too. There were always people to help me. But I’ve screwed up.” I hadn’t in substantial ways but it seemed important to debunk his idea of me: the do-good prison visitor.
Against all advice, I was trying to avoid stereotypes myself. When I had attended the Bureau of Prison’s training for building contractors, Christian evangelists, Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors, and sundry others, I had bridled. That evening, in a monotone drone, an overweight, uniformed officer had read aloud each word of the text projected onto a screen, except those words of three syllables or more. As if we wouldn’t notice, he simply skipped them. To make it worse, he moved a black pointer beneath each word, highlighting those he ignored. Sometimes, his mouth formed a shape indicating a willingness to attempt the first few letters, but invariably, he reconsidered, maneuvering his pointer onward. When the slide show was over, he stated emphatically, “Prisoners are manipulators.”
There are many smart and decent prison officers, so when the prison psychologist stepped up to address us, I looked forward to a more nuanced presentation but was disappointed. He said it, too. Of course, there are men inside without pity and conscience, men who pry off fingernails for money or kicks. I planned to be alert but rejected the ideas that criminals are a different kind of being and that prisoners are all the same.
“You not like me.” Earnest dabbed his nose with balled tissues. “I’ve done bad things.”
“I am like you. I’m human.”
“Nah. Nah,” he said, shaking his head and smiling patiently, as if explaining something basic. “You ain’t done bad things.”
There was another long pause. My blue silk pumps pinched. They were new and I probably shouldn’t have worn them. But they were such an intense color; I thought Earnest might enjoy them like a vacation for his eyes. Most of the color he saw in prison arrived on his dinner plate.
I looked at him gently, “It sounds like you’ve had time to think about what you did. Sounds like you’re sorry. That’s important.”
There was another silence. I’m never going to be comfortable speaking to this guy.
A crackling voice erupted over the loudspeaker and Earnest cocked his head. I didn’t understand a word. A beautiful woman walked by us and her skirt flirted with her brown legs. Her hips moved to an ancient rhythm, back and forth and side to side. From all sides of the room, hungry inmate eyes followed the proud motion. But not Earnest’s.
I struggled to think of something to say. “Er, Earnest, what do you do in here to make it bearable?”
His eyes lit up. “I play sports. I like basketball. You like sports? ”
With a sinking feeling, I admitted, “No. I hate sports.” I didn’t care about Australian sports, either. But growing up in a country, you absorb details without realizing; I knew that there are four goal posts at each end of an oval in Aussie Rules football. In America, I didn’t know whether the Redsox played football or ice hockey.
His shaking, rocking body immediately stilled. “You don’t watch sports? Nothing?”
I laughed. “What will we ever talk about?”
His open face crumpled. “You gonna be my visitor, aren’t you? I don’t wanna see a different person every time I come out. If you not, I’m not gonna come out no more. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t wanna start again every time. I wanna build a relationship.”
My playfulness disappeared. “I want that, too. I definitely don’t want to see different people every time.” But how will we find things to talk about?
His eyes alternated between the floor, his lap, and my shoulder.
Racking my brains, I remembered the guard said Earnest worked. “How’s your job? You work in the kitchen, right?”
“Yeah. Worked there for years but it’s just a job.”
Come on, give me more. How lonely is he? “Do you have friends inside?”
“Yeah, I hang out with my cellies. I’m a friendly guy. I talk to anyone. But not like this.”
“You mean personal things?” Oh, my God! He’s so hungry for contact that he thinks this stilted talk is deep.
“Yeah.” He rocked, arms crossed, shaking his head. “We don’t talk about feelings.”
“Is it dangerous to show softness?”
“Yeah. How’s that woman, what’s her name? How’s Lonnie?”
Lonnie had visited Earnest for a short while. “She visits the medium security prison across the road now.”
Another awkward silence. I glanced across the spotless room. A man with a long ponytail sat with his family, their Native American hair as glossy and dark as obsidian. They formed an unnatural grouping: a row of four women focused on one, although I imagined his wife, his mother and his sisters yearned to sit beside him, seeking reassurance from the flesh of him after long absence.
“Do you ever see your son, Earnest?”
“Nah. I never seen no one since I been here.”
“No-one in thirteen years?”
Staring hard at that same spot on the floor, he shook his head.
“What about your girlfriend and your son, do they write, send photos?”
“Nah. Nothing. She broke my heart.”
I was sorry for his broken heart. But I was sorrier that for thirteen years, he hadn’t sat with someone who cared for him.
“It’s a long, it’s a long, it’s a long time ago.”
His eyes met mine for a fleeting second before he jerked them away.
I pressed the edge of a fingernail into the ball of my thumb. My legs felt fidgety but I willed myself still. My thoughts looped over. Think of something! He’s waited months for this. We have nothing in common. Oh, my God, I’m going to make him uncomfortable. Had I thought of it, I would have seriously considered a Fawlty Towers solution, along the lines of falling to the floor in a pretend faint.
Finally, I surrendered. The only way to proceed is to tell the truth. “I’m feeling a bit shy, here.”
Earnest stopped rocking. “Yeah, me, too.” He gave me a worried smile. “I ain’t done this in a long time. Tell me more about dancing.”
Thank God! “We’re learning some fancy moves.” I raised my arms in the air. “Like this. It’s hard but I love it! I love the music, too.” I looked at him but he simply nodded and smiled. I’ve got to milk this for all it’s worth. “The teacher’s so good. He encourages us to stay after the lesson and a small group of us dance non-stop for maybe forty minutes after. By the time I leave, my legs are jelly.”
“I can see you!”
Happy to see him laugh, I was ready to continue. I would have shimmied and tap-danced if it amused him. But then, he made a noise with his nose and his expression sobered. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t stand it in here!”
All I could do was nod, listening quietly as the lamentations poured out of him.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t ever come back here,” he groaned. “When I get out, how am I gonna make the right decisions? I don’t, I don’t, I don’t got nothing to offer! Who’s gonna hire me? I can’t read and I’m a criminal.” His anguished eyes remained fixed on the floor tiles but his body swayed and his legs jiggered.
Nelson Mandela wrote, “In my country, we go to prison first, then we become president.” I almost told Earnest but he would never aim for the presidency of a sports team.
He offered up his fears without calculation and I was transfixed. I had absolutely no idea what I could say but that didn’t matter anymore. I put my hand out to touch his hand, twitching on his knee. My hand on top of his. One hand in the bowl of another. When he raised his face to mine, I nodded and he calmed down. I didn’t say a word but somehow, it seemed enough.
We talked for over an hour before I said, “I’m sorry, it’s time to say goodbye.”
“I ‘preciate it.”
We shook hands. Rather than the strength I expected from such a powerful man, his arm wafted, seemingly devoid of bone, as I pumped.
The clock on the wall behind the officers’ desk told me it was one-thirty, well past my usual lunchtime. Someone microwaved a burger purchased from the vending machines and the smell made my stomach rumble. I walked over to view what else was on sale but the options were limited. And who knows how long they sit in those machines? I sighed and inserted six quarters for a tiny bag of corn chips. The paltry meal made me feel sorry for myself. I didn’t realize it then, but Earnest missed lunch for every one of our sixty visits.
Our monthly conversations over the years never got easier. I told him about my life and he repeated his hope that he could make good decisions when he got out. Those phrases were like a rosary, repeated every time we met, incantations to ward off fear. And yet, just as each worn bead feels differently when rolled between thumb and finger, every time Earnest ran through those heartfelt phrases, they pierced me afresh. For a long time, I tried to respond differently each time, hoping that I’d hit on a reply that soothed him. Groping for a reply to answer his riddle and lay it to rest. “I know you do, Earnest,” I’d say.” I know how hard you’re trying to get ready for those decisions.”
Finally, I realized that those repetitions were all he had to hold on to and that there was some comfort there. It was me who found them unbearable.
When he’d done his time, Earnest was released to a half-way house in his home state. Prison rules forbade me to help him or even contact him. But I used the inmate locator on the Bureau of Prison website to track him.
He returned to prison that same year. A year later, he was released but absconded parole.
I cried for the sweet illiterate man with a low IQ, the mountain of a man imprisoned for eighteen years in a cell barely large enough for him to extend his arms, the remorseful heart terrified of freedom.
He’ll be caught; they’re always caught.
It doesn’t seem like two years since I last saw him. It seems like yesterday that we sat together. Him laughing, saying he was no good at sports. Him telling me how he loves his Auntie. We never said goodbye because on our last visit prior to his release, the prison went into lockdown before I could see him. I think of all the things I never said. How I miss him. How he taught me to overcome a lifetime of shyness. Mostly, I think about what I might have said to stop him from running.
About the Author:
Gillian Haines is a desert dweller. Stately saguaros and hummingbirds made her happy. She volunteers to visit men in prison because they only know the desert's thirst.