Audio: Rachel Kushner reads.
If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged. That was what Gordon Hauser told himself, and what he told them, too. But there were days, like when a woman walked into the prison classroom and flung boiling sugar water into the face of another woman, when he did not believe it. There were days when it seemed as though the real purpose of the work he was doing was to destroy his own life by trying to teach people who wanted to burn each other’s faces off. The guards made everything more difficult, with their contempt for the women and their hostility toward free-world staff like Gordon. The guards had been forced to undergo sensitivity training and were furious about it. “It’s because you cunts cry and demand explanations,” they said. “Everything with you bitches is why, why, why.” They all reminisced about better times, when they had worked in men’s facilities, where they’d observed high-blood-volume stabbings on closed-circuit monitors from the safety of the watch office, and dealt with prisoners who lived by strictly self-enforced convict codes. Female prisoners bickered with the guards and contested everything, and the guards seemed to find this more treacherous than having to subdue riots. No guard wanted to work in a women’s prison. Gordon had not understood this until he got to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, which he’d chosen because working with women prisoners seemed less threatening to him than working with men.
His first placement had been with juveniles in San Francisco. He’d done that for six months, but it was too depressing. Kids in cages telling him stories about their foster homes, about sexual abuse, all kinds of abuse. Most didn’t have parents but some did. Gordon saw them in the court’s waiting area, before he passed through a sally port to get to his classroom: people with holes in their sweatpants, T-shirts emblazoned with random logos, inadequate shoes—poor people with chaotic lives. Couldn’t the juvenile judges understand, from looking at the guardians, that the kids didn’t stand any kind of fair chance?
There were notices instructing juveniles to pull up their pants, because to wear them low was disrespectful. One of Gordon’s students was always getting into trouble for wearing his pants too low, a big white boy whose eyes were set close together in the center of his face. “You talk like you’re black,” a black kid had said to him, “but you look like you’re retarded.” “No Bare Feet,” a sign at the building entrance warned. As if someone would try to walk into a detention center and court, a municipal building on a bleak, windy corner, far from the beach, without shoes. Another sign: “No Tank Tops.” Under it, typically, an entire three-generation family, all in tank tops, flesh spilling out. What was it about shoulders? Why did law enforcement fear them?
When you Google the town of Stanville, faces pop up: mug shots. After the mug shots, an article that cites Stanville as having the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers in the state. Stanville’s water is poisoned. The air is bad. Most of the old businesses are boarded up. There are dollar stores, gas stations that serve as liquor outlets, and coin-op laundromats. People without cars walk the main boulevard in the hottest part of the day, when it’s a hundred and thirteen degrees outside. There are no sidewalks, so they amble along in the gutters, scooting empty shopping carts, piercing the dead zone of late afternoon with a loose metallic rattle.
Gordon found a place to rent sight unseen, a cabin up the mountain from Stanville proper, in the western Sierra foothills. The cabin was a single room with a woodstove. It would be his Thoreau year, he wrote to his friend Alex, sending him the realty link.
“Your Kaczynski year,” Alex wrote back, after looking at the photos of the cabin.
“True, both lived in one-room huts,” Gordon responded. “But I don’t see much connection between them.”
“Reverence of nature, self-reliance. K was even a reader of Walden,” Alex wrote. “It’s on the list of books from his cabin. Also R. W. B. Lewis, your idol.”
“Aren’t you kind of oversimplifying?”
“Yes. But also: both died virgins.”
“Kaczynski’s not dead, Alex,” Gordon wrote back.
“You know what I mean.”
Over goodbye beers at their bar on Shattuck Avenue, Alex gave Gordon, as a kind of joke, a Ted Kaczynski reader. Gordon had looked at the manifesto. Everyone had. The guy had once been an assistant professor at Berkeley.
They toasted Gordon’s departure. “To my rustication,” Gordon said.
“Isn’t that when they boot you from Oxford?”
“They just send you down to the country for a while.”
His mountain place also had a poisoned water supply, but not from agriculture. There was naturally occurring uranium, so you had to bring in bottled water. He liked the cabin. It smelled of fresh-planed pine. It was logical in its compactness. Cozy, even. It was up on stilts, on a steep hill with few neighbors, and had an expansive view of the valley.
He spent the week before the new job started unpacking his meagre belongings and chopping wood. Went for walks. Nights, he fed logs to his stove and read.
Ted Kaczynski, Gordon learned, ate mostly rabbits. Squirrels, Ted reported, didn’t seem to like bad weather. His diaries were mostly concerned with how he lived and what he saw happening in the wilderness around him, and Gordon acknowledged that comparing him to Thoreau was not as crude as he’d first thought. But Kaczynski would never have written this: “Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors.”
Gordon’s new neighbors were all white, Christian, and conservative. People who tinkered with trucks and dirt bikes and made assumptions about Gordon that he did nothing to dispel, because he knew that those assumptions would work in his favor if he needed their help. It snowed up there. Roads closed, cutting off access to supplies. Trees fell and knocked down power lines. Gordon did not enjoy the grinding zing of dirt bikes’ two-stroke motors, which echoed down the valley on weekends, but that was the country: not a pure and untrammelled world of native wildlife and songbird calls but people who cleared the trees off their property with chainsaws and cut paths through the woods for motocross courses and snowmobiling. Gordon withheld judgment. These people knew much more than he did about how to live in the mountains. How to survive winter and forest fires and mud flows from spring rains. How to properly stack wood, something Gordon’s neighbor from down the hill had patiently showed him, after his two cords of chunk wood were dumped in the driveway by a guy named Beaver, who was missing most of his fingers. Gordon learned to split logs. Part 1 of his rustication.
One morning, Sergeant McKinnley yelled through the door that my G.E.D. prep session was that afternoon.
“When staff come back here after lunch I want no monkey business, Hall.”
I had not signed up for the G.E.D., which was the only form of education offered at Stanville. I had graduated from high school. I was not a bad student when I made the effort. But after he walked away my cellmate, Sammy, said, “Don’t correct, because you never know. Their wrong might be your right.”
That afternoon, I was taken from the cell. It felt like freedom to be chained and hustled down a hallway after weeks of confinement in administrative segregation. I was placed in a birdcage in the program office and left to wait, listening to the stutter and clank from the sewing machines on death row.
“You study real good, Hall. You prove everybody wrong. Show the world you ain’t all bad.”
McKinnley clomped down the hall in his huge boots.
If I’d understood, then, how much guards hated civilian staff, I might have been nicer to G. Hauser, which was the name on the I.D. pinned to the G.E.D. instructor’s shirt. The guy sat down in a chair next to my birdcage with a stack of worksheets. He was about my age or a little older, with a non-ironic mustache and ugly running shoes.
“Let’s start with something simple.” He read the first question on the math worksheet. “Four plus three equals (a) eight, (b) seven, (c) none of the above.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Is that (a) eight, (b) seven, or (c) none of the above? It sometimes helps to use your fingers, if you need to count it out.”
“It’s seven,” I said. “I think we can move to something more challenging.”
He flipped pages. “All right, how about a word problem? If there are five children and two mothers and one cousin going to the movies, how many tickets do they need? (a) seven, (b) eight, (c) none of the above.”
“What movie are they going to?”
“That’s the wonderful thing about math: it doesn’t matter. You can count without knowing the details.”
“It’s hard for me to imagine these people without seeing who they are, and knowing what movie they’re going to.”
He nodded, like my response was reasonable, not at all a problem.
“Maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves. How about we make up a question?” he said. “Or, rather, we take the question and simplify it.”
This guy had the patience of a genuine idiot.
“There are three adults and five children: how many tickets do they need?”
There was no sarcasm in his voice. G. Hauser was so determined to work with whoever he thought I was that I could not play along.
“You didn’t say if they let kids in free, so how can I know how many tickets they need? And, depending on what kind of people they are, what theatre this is—are they ghetto or are they squares like you? Because maybe they let one of the adults, like that cousin, in through an emergency side door, after they pay for two tickets.”
I saw the plush stained carpet of the multiplex out by the Oakland airport, the one where a cousin would sneak in through the emergency exit instead of paying. It’s probably gone, like all the other theatres I used to know. The Strand on Market, where, as kids, Eva and I drank Ripple wine with grownups. The Serra, which showed “Rocky Horror.” The Surf, out by the beach, where I went with my mother when I was young.
“They’re squares,” G. Hauser said. “Like me.”
“The kids all have to have tickets?”
“The answer is eight.”
“Excellent,” he said.
“You just congratulated a twenty-nine-year-old woman for adding three and five.”
“I have to start somewhere.”
“What makes you think I can’t count?”
“There are women here with innumeracy. Who have trouble with basic addition. I can give you a G.E.D. practice test, and, if you’re confident you’ll pass, I’ll schedule you to take it.”
“I don’t need a G.E.D.,” I said. “I’m here because I was called out here by mistake.”
“You might think you don’t need a degree, but in the future, when you are facing your release, you’ll be glad to have it.”
“I’m not getting out,” I said.
He went into a calm and semi-robotic spiel about people with life sentences and the numerous long-termer programs for which I’d be eligible with a G.E.D. I said I’d think about it and was taken back to the cell.
When he was my boyfriend, Jimmy Darling used to do math with my son, Jackson, for fun. It started with a lesson about the history of counting. Jimmy drew a circle on a piece of paper. “This is a stable where a farmer keeps his animals,” Jimmy said. He drew three circles for the animals. “What kind of animals?” Jackson asked. I guess we both liked to know the irrelevant information. “Sheep, how about?” Jimmy said. “The farmer has three sheep, and they each have a name: Sally, Tim, and Joe. Every morning, the farmer lets the sheep out to graze. In the evening, he herds them back into the pen. Since there are only three, he can easily go over the list of their names and confirm that Sally, Tim, and Joe are all safely back in their enclosure for the night, where they won’t be eaten by wolves. But let’s say the farmer has ten sheep, instead of three. If he names each one, he has to remember ten names when they return. He has to recognize ten sheep. Each name goes with a specific sheep. If Sally is the pregnant sheep, then he can recognize her by her broad belly and check her name off when she comes back from grazing. But let’s say the farmer has thirty sheep. Too many to name, right? So he gets a basket of rocks, exactly enough so that he has one rock for each sheep. He takes a rock out of the basket for every animal that leaves the enclosure in the morning. As each one returns in the evening, he puts a rock in the basket. When all the rocks have been put back into the basket, he knows that all his sheep are safely home. The sheep don’t need names anymore. The farmer just has to know how many there are.” He explained to Jackson that numbers started with counting and counting started with names. It was like prison—from a name to a number. Except my number was more like a name than the rock that went with the sheep, because the rock could go with any sheep, and my number went only with me.
When they escorted us out for the weekly yard time, we could see down into the caged area of death row. Sammy hollered from the catwalk, “Candy Peña, I love you! Betty LaFrance, I love you!”
Candy looked up. Her face dimpled into a sad smile. They were down there on their sewing machines, stitching a seam on burlap, then moving the fabric ninety degrees, another seam, turning the material again to run a third seam. Each piece was then tossed on a pile. I didn’t see Betty, who often refused to work and lost her privileges. They sewed sandbags on death row. Nothing else. If you see a pile of sandbags along the side of a California road, know that they have been touched by the hands of our celebrities.
Payment is five cents an hour, minus fifty-five per cent in restitution. The work is repetitive and doesn’t offer even the satisfaction of making a single finished thing. The bags still have to be filled. Who completes the bags? My guess is men. Men fill them with sand and close up the tops.
I spotted the G.E.D. teacher through the razor wire around our concrete ad-seg yard. He was on a path going into the ad-seg housing block. I waved. He called through the barbed coils. “Have you given any more thought to whether you want to work toward the G.E.D.?”
I said I had not.
“Let the administration know if you want to take the test. The questions were easy for you, and that’s a good indicator. Though I didn’t give you a reading assessment.”
“I know how to read,” I told him. “And I graduated from high school.”
He nodded. “I didn’t realize. I’d be happy to get you some reading material, if you’d like.”
Months later, when I was finally out of ad seg and mainlined to general population, I saw him again. I had got into a scuffle in work exchange, where they said I was setting off the metal detector and went through all my stuff. They even tore apart the baloney sandwich in the sack lunch they gave us outside chow hall, to take to work. I had to strip out in the little curtained area, and I was boiling with anger by the time I left. But, when I saw G. Hauser, something flipped in me, a switch. I called out a friendly hello. “Hey,” I said, “I was wondering if I’d run into you.”
I had forgotten all about him. I had not thought of him once.
“I’m on C yard,” I said, “and I’ve been thinking about your offer to get me some reading material. That would be great.”
He was excited, like I was doing him a favor by asking for one myself. We chatted, and, in his growing excitement, he said, “Why don’t you take my class?”
“All they teach here is G.E.D. prep. Which is the education level of our guards.”
“Yeah.” He laughed quickly, covertly. “But, since it’s the only thing offered, I structure it around reading. We read and talk about books. Try it out. I’d love to have you join us.” He told me how to sign up.
In the early morning, on his way down the mountain toward Stanville, Gordon sometimes glimpsed gray foxes, their lustrous tails trailing after them, as he followed the curves of the winding road, passing huge drought-desiccated live oaks, their jagged little leaves coated in dust, and banks of rust-red buckeye and smoke-green manzanita. On the straightaway toward the brown basin, the scenery changed to oil pipeline and derricks, whose axles wound and wound. After the derricks was a shaggy orange grove, and one farmhouse with two palm trees in front, where the road split. On the valley floor, the temperature was twenty degrees hotter and the air heavy with the smell of fertilizer. There were no more oranges, no oil derricks, just power lines and almond groves in huge geometric parcels all the way to the prison.
Gordon went through three electronic sally ports to get to his classroom, which was in a windowless trailer near the vocational workshops and the central kitchen. From the kitchen pumped a constant smell of rancid grease, overpowered only by the drift of solvents from the auto-body shop, where trucks—guards’ private vehicles—were lined up for super-discounted paint jobs by prisoners.
He had clearance to enter this part of the grounds, but the housing units and the yards were off limits to him, with the exception of one cell block on A yard, 504, where he worked with people from death row and administrative segregation. Gordon had dreaded death row but found that it didn’t quite conform to his nightmares. It was automated and modern, each tiny cell with a white-painted steel door and a small safety-glass window. There were twelve women, one to a cell, and a cramped alley with tables and sewing machines surrounded by meshed cage. A guard led Gordon in to meet with students one-on-one, while others knitted or made hook rugs at nearby tables. Betty LaFrance, who was not one of Gordon’s students but always insisted on speaking to him, brought a radio from her cell and played elevator music as she crafted. The women were allowed to come and go from their cells, which smelled of Renuzit air freshener and were blanketed in handmade afghans, for privacy and probably so as to make use of these afghans, which they churned out on the oily axle of time.
Administrative segregation, on the floor above death row, had no common area, and there was no interaction among the women except yelling. Gordon waited in a small office as a student clink-jangled down the hall in her restraints and was put in a cage for the lesson with him. That was where he’d first met Romy Hall, who was in his class now. What he had noticed about her was that she looked him in the eye. Many of the women had a way of looking at his shoulder or past him. Their eyes rolled every which way to avoid his. Also, she was attractive, despite the conditions. Wide-set greenish eyes. A mouth with a Cupid’s bow—was that what it was called?—an upper lip that swoop-de-swooped. A pretty mouth that said, Trust this face. She spelled well, read with good comprehension. He wasn’t looking for a good speller. He wasn’t looking for anything among the women in Stanville.
Gordon passed out photocopied sections of books—“Julie of the Wolves,” Laura Ingalls Wilder. He didn’t say they were children’s books; he kept it simple, since many of the women had only an elementary-school education. They wrote in bubble letters, like adolescent girls. Even London—whose nickname was Conan and who looked like a man—wrote in bubble letters. London was clever, it was obvious. Never did the reading but made the others laugh, which was something.
“Is ‘bosom’ plural?” London asked.
“Depends on whose, maybe,” someone said.
“The bosom of Jones. Sounds like an adventure film. Lieutenant Jones and the Bosom of Doom.”
Geronima Campos, an old Native American woman, drew in her sketchbook all through class time. Gordon wondered if maybe she couldn’t read or write. He asked her what she drew.
Portraits, she told him. She opened her sketchbook to show him. Each page had an image and, under it, a name. She could write. But the images were not faces. They were wild streaks of color. “This is you,” she said, and showed him a scribble of black lines with a staining splotch of blue ink.
When the class discussed a chapter of “The Red Pony,” by John Steinbeck—the third chapter, “The Promise,” about Nellie the pregnant mare—one woman raised her hand and said that, when she’d delivered, her womb was heart-shaped, “in two parts,” she said, “just like a horse’s, and even the doctor confirmed it.”
They read from the chapter out loud. At the mention of pigs, a student interjected that her cousin had written to her from lockup in Arizona, where they put a pig in the gas chamber one Sunday a month, to test the machine.
Gordon tried to steer the discussion back to the book. What was the promise that Billy Buck had made?
Romy Hall raised her hand. She said that Billy Buck had promised the boy, Jody, a healthy foal. Earlier, Billy Buck had said that he would look after the red pony, and the pony had died. This new promise was Billy Buck’s chance to be a man of his word, by delivering the foal safely.
“Did he keep it?” Gordon asked.
She said that that was the trick of the story. Technically, yes, but in order to deliver the foal he had to kill the mare. He smashed its skull with a hammer, and that was a bullshit way to keep a promise. The mare could have had other foals that weren’t breach, but she had to die because some cowboy was hung up on himself as a man of his word.
“It’s O.K. to make a promise,” London said to Gordon, as if summarizing for the teacher how life actually worked, “but it’s not always a good idea to keep one.”
Like one of the lucky women who have family or outside help, I got called to receiving and release to pick up a package. G. Hauser had got me two books: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“That’s what he got you?” Sammy said, stifling a laugh. “Even I read those already.” I felt sad and a little protective of the teacher for not knowing better. I planned on keeping them, even if I didn’t especially want to read them. They were a link to the outside world. But a woman in my unit offered me shampoo and conditioner in exchange for both. The state gives us indigents only gritty powdered soap for body and hair. Being able to properly wash and condition my hair made me feel happy, at least for an evening, in a way I hadn’t since I was arrested, three years before.
I had been in Hauser’s class for a couple of weeks when he stopped me afterward and asked if I’d enjoyed the books.
“I enjoyed reading them,” I said, “when I was fourteen.”
“God, I’m sorry. That’s embarrassing.”
“It’s O.K. You just don’t know me.”
He got me more books. One, called “Pick-Up,” was about two drunks in San Francisco in the nineteen-fifties. I started reading it and could not stop. When I finished it, I read it again. Scenes came into view for me, even though the character in the book doesn’t name many locations besides Civic Center, and Powell and Market, where the cable car turns around. When I was a kid, there was a large Woolworth’s at Powell and Market that had a wig department. Eva and I would go in and pretend we were wig shopping. The old ladies who worked there helped us pin our hair up in special nets and fitted us with grand and curly hairdos. We laughed and played around in the mirrors, sneaked makeup and hair products into our purses, and took pictures in the photo booth inside the store. Sometimes we went to Zim’s on Van Ness afterward, ordered a lot of food, and left without paying. It was different from dining and dashing at the more familiar Zim’s, on Taraval. We felt sophisticated downtown. The whole long era of my childhood I ran around like a street urchin, no more rooted than the teen-agers on the posters in the Greyhound station on Sixth Street. Tall figures in silhouette, like long shadows, and the words “Runaways, Call for Help.” A hotline number. My childhood was the era of the hotline. But we never called any, except as a prank.
I told Hauser I’d read “Pick-Up.” He asked what I thought.
“That it was good and bad at the same time.”
“I know what you mean. The end is a shock, right? But it makes you want to reread the book, to see if there were earlier clues.”
I told him I’d done that. And that it was good to read a book about San Francisco, that I was from there.
“Oh, me, too,” he said.
He didn’t seem like it to me, and I said so.
“I mean, near there. Just across the Bay, Contra Costa County.” He named the town, but I hadn’t heard of it.
“It’s an armpit behind an oil refinery. It’s not glamorous, like the city.”
I said that I hated San Francisco, that there was evil coming out of the ground there, but that I liked “Pick-Up” because it reminded me of things about the city that I missed.
He had got me two other books, “Factotum” and “Jesus’ Son.” I would read those next, I told him.
I said that I knew about the Jesus book because I’d seen the movie. Which was good, except that the people in it were supposed to be living in the seventies. “The girl in it—she’s got her midriff showing, and she wears a leather jacket with a fur collar like it’s San Francisco in the nineties.”
“But those people you’re describing—they’re all borrowing from the seventies to begin with.”
It was true. I told him how Jimmy Darling used to go to this bookstore in the Tenderloin to buy seventies-era copies of Playboy, which they had in stacks on the floor in the back. An old man once tapped Jimmy on the shoulder and whispered, “Sonny, they have the new ones up here,” nodding in the direction of the plastic-sleeved monthlies Busty and Barely Legal, which were on display at the front of the store.
“And Jimmy is—”
“My fiancé. And a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute.”
“Are you . . . still engaged?”
“He’s dead,” I said.
One evening, as class ended, Romy Hall hovered. Gordon started collecting papers from an awkward position, on the far side of his own desk, in order to create more distance between them.
She told him many things about herself in the span of about five minutes. She spoke them in a controlled voice. It seemed to Gordon that she had been saving it up. He kept stepping back, to be farther from her, and she kept stepping toward him, and he was not going to be manipulated. One woman had tried to bribe him to smuggle in cell phones for her, another tobacco. Staff and guards alike were involved in these schemes. Gordon wanted no part.
She was a lifer, she told him, and the mother of a young boy. She apologized for troubling him. Said she woke up depressed. Could feel the fog in her cell, even without a window, and said the dampness of it reminded her of home.
She wanted him to call a telephone number to find out where her kid was. She had it written down and this was exactly the kind of thing he’d been backing away from, as she moved toward him. Just because he had bought her books or found her pretty, just because he thought about her sometimes, that didn’t mean he was looking for family dramas.
The assistance he gave on his own, and against the rules, had all started with Candy Peña on death row, where they were knitting baby blankets that would go to a Christian charity in Stanville. Candy had cried like a child because she had no more yarn and no money and so she couldn’t help the babies.
He knew that he could bring in yarn. They almost never looked in his bag, and it would set off no alarm. When he delivered it to Candy, she melted in gratitude, which made him feel obscene. Not because it was against the rules but because it had been almost no trouble and yet she cried and said that no one had ever done anything so nice for her, not once in her whole life.
The only remedy seemed to be to do favors for others, so that he wasn’t Candy’s saint—to neutralize the act of giving by giving more.
He bought seeds for a student in his class who gardened. She had given Gordon fresh mint as a present, and when he asked her where she’d got it, she said it had ridden into the prison on reclaimed lumber, four-by-twelves they were using for construction. She’d replanted it, watered it. She told him she watched the sky and waited for birds to excrete seeds, and germinated them secretly in wet paper towels. The rules were that no plants were to be grown in the yards. But the captain on D yard, where the gardener lived, let her have her plants. She was a lifer. Gordon gave her a seed packet of California poppies. She put her hands to her face to hide her tears. “This is a God shot,” she said. “Thank you for this God shot.” Which started the cycle over again, the discomfort, the outsized gratitude. The packet of seeds had cost him eighty-nine cents.
And so he had been sending books to Romy Hall. You go on Amazon. Click a button. What was twenty bucks to him, if spending it meant several weeks of freedom of thought for someone in prison? But looking into her personal life in the outside world, calling a number on her behalf: that was different. It was honest-to-God meddling, not just in her life but in his own, too.
He put the paper she had given him on his coffee table. A phone number and the name of her child. He did not call and, to his relief, or his mixed relief, she did not ask him about it.
Candy Peña made baby blankets with the yarn Gordon had brought her. The blankets were collected by a unit officer and placed in the office of receiving and release. Whenever Gordon passed the office he saw them there, in a giant leaf bag, the colors of the yarn that he had chosen peeking out, garish and sad. One day, he asked the officer in R. and R. about their status. The officer was a scalded blonde with a tight ponytail, brusque, ex-military. She snorted. “These? Nobody wants ’em. I keep forgetting to tell the porters to take them out to the trash.”
That same officer supervised family visits, when inmates got thirty-six hours in the prison’s version of an apartment, with blood relatives.
Blood relatives. It sounded so violent. Or was Gordon losing perspective, everything warped by what was around him?
Was it difficult to watch them say goodbye? Gordon had asked the R. and R. officer, before he knew better. He had seen, on his way past, small children clinging to their mothers and crying hysterically. Someone had painted a lavender hopscotch pattern on the walkway outside the family units.
“You grow a thick skin,” the officer said, her mouth pulled into a frown, as if to demonstrate: this is thick skin. “Especially when you know it’s the mother’s own fault.”
It would have been better if the baby blankets had gone into the trash. Instead, one of the unit cops redistributed them to the women on death row who had made them. The next time Gordon was there, Candy Peña showed him how she’d patched together two baby blankets into a large vest, a sort of poncho, in soft, gauzy blue and yellow. She held it up. “I hope it fits?”
“Knit” was the past tense of “knit.” And no one wanted what Candy Peña knit, not even Gordon, who put the vest in a paper bag deep in the trunk of his car and tried to forget about it.
Hauser had made it pretty obvious that he liked me. Everyone in class knew. It became a joke, Conan humming “Here Comes the Bride” as I walked into the classroom trailer, sweaty and coated in wood-shop dust.
Sammy went into overdrive about Hauser’s crush on me when I told her I had given him a number to call. Sammy was a walking historian of every person who had faced every adversity in prison, and could produce examples of all the cases where staff, or even guards, had stepped in and raised the children of imprisoned women. Hauser was going to adopt Jackson, she decided. She went on about it, and she meant well, but it didn’t comfort me. I didn’t think she was reading things right. This was a normal and nice college-educated guy who probably separated bottles and cans from the rest of his trash. He wasn’t going to adopt my kid. He’d marry a nice girl like him who also recycled, and they’d have children together, their own.
But, in truth, I had begun to live for his G.E.D. class, even if I didn’t admit it. I was determined to work on him for Jackson’s sake, but I also worked on him for a less delusional reason. He knew places I knew. When I talked to him, I became a person from a place. I could roam neighborhoods, visit my apartment in the Tenderloin with the Murphy bed, my happy yellow Formica table, and above it, the movie poster of Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.”
Hauser, too, knew the mechanical museum at Ocean Beach. “ ‘See Susie Dance the Can-Can,’ ” he said, as proof. The Camera Obscura, where a large dish showed the froth of the waves. A huge sign that announced “Playland,” but no Playland around. Only the sun-bleached sign next to a fake cliff, man-made, which people said had been put there to trick the Japanese during the war.
“There’s a pizza place up Irving,” Hauser said. “They spin the dough in the windows.”
I saw everything. The stretching floury disks that collapsed on the hands of the dough-makers in their chef’s hats, fists working the disks around, dough growing in girth, orbit, then back up in the air. I saw the huge wreath of flowers that hung from the closed entrance one morning, announcing the death of the old man, the pizza patriarch. I’d never seen a wreath that large. I was eight or nine. Not yet into trouble.
I saw the shining lid of the ocean from Irving Street, the way it rose, on a clear day, like something that breathed, that was alive, down at the end of the avenues.
“You’ve got something with that teacher,” Sammy said. “Most of them don’t get involved with prisoners. Too jaded. But he is open.”
Hauser had a lost quality. He didn’t seem to have much happening outside work. Not that he discussed his life with us. At Stanville, he was an oddball to the rest of the staff. The guards made fun of him, mostly as a way to make fun of us. Go teach those dumb bitches to read, Mr. Hauser. Teach those cows two plus two. They thought what he spent his life doing was pointless, not a worthy endeavor like watching us on security monitors or masturbating in a guard tower.
Candy Peña bragged to whoever was on her air vent that Hauser was her boyfriend, that he got her “a whole grip” of knitting supplies. Anything she wanted, she said. She should have known you don’t brag about something like that. You keep it to yourself and you cultivate it.
In his essay celebrating the wonder of wild apples, Thoreau concedes that they taste good only out-of-doors. Even a saunterer, Thoreau says, would not tolerate a saunterer’s apple at a kitchen table. Their bitter flavor was best rationalized in the context of a beautiful autumn walk. Gordon walked whenever he could, up logging paths, through grazing meadows that were federal land and went on for miles. On a cow trail above his cabin, he found a paper-wasp nest. It looked like a half-crushed helmet lying on the path. Gordon carried it inside and placed it on his table, this grand and mysterious, half-deflated, torn-open thing.
After walking, he’d fix dinner, a can of soup, the staple of his one-room life, and then he’d go online, where he had developed a bad habit. He had started running their names, as the women would call it. To run someone’s name was to have a contact on the outside who could Google the person or ask around. What the women needed to confirm, most often, was: Had their cellmate, unit mate, work partner, prayer-group associate, friend, fuck-friend, or enemy, had that person hurt a child or turned state’s evidence? Those were the two types that needed to be verified, baby killers and snitches.
Gordon’s search was more open-ended. He didn’t know what he was searching for. He hoped that some equilibrium could be established from the process of obtaining facts. He also sensed that this thing about facts and equilibrium was a lie he told himself to justify going after squalid details that were none of his business.
You were not supposed to ask what people had been convicted of. Asking was met with an opprobrium so deep it seemed also to bar speculating, even privately. You weren’t supposed to wonder about the facts that had determined people’s lives. He had in his mind something that Nietzsche had said about truth. That each man is entitled to as much of it as he can bear. Maybe Gordon was not seeking truth but trying to learn his own limits for tolerating it. There were some names he did not type.
The first prisoner he looked up was Sanchez—Flora Martina Sanchez—whom the others called Button. Her case was all over the Internet. Sanchez and two other teen-agers had assaulted a Chinese college student near the U.S.C. campus, in an attempted robbery. All three kids mentioned in their confessions that the victim had cried in a foreign language as they hit him with a baseball bat.
When they tried to rob the student, they did not know what they were doing—Gordon was sure of this as he read. When they killed the student, they knew even less. When they were picked up separately, the morning after, and brought in for questioning, and spoke freely, but each in self-interest, to homicide detectives, with no parents present and no lawyers, they did not know what they were doing. They all got life without parole. Button was in prison and would die there, a lost little girl who looked twelve years old. Once, when Sanchez smiled as Gordon praised her in class, he’d seen her young essence. It was so wanting and bright that he’d had to look away.
Reading about Sanchez’s case, Gordon felt as if he were trying to cross an eight-lane freeway on foot. He had his argument almost worked out, about why she was a victim, when he found an article that quoted a Youth Authority counsellor, who testified that he’d overheard Sanchez talking about the crime. “We didn’t even get anything off the Nip,” Sanchez had said.
Those were the worst nights. In the light of day, his mood improved. As he drove the roads that wound down to Stanville, the hillside grasses green-tipped and mohair soft, heart-shaped clots of mistletoe clustered in the branches of the oak trees, he knew that he could not judge. I cannot judge, because I do not know.
Gordon was familiar, from his time at college and in graduate school, with rich kids. If you grew up rich, you played a musical instrument—violin or piano. You were on the debate team. Preferred a certain brand of jeans cuffed just so. Maybe you puffed a ciggie or smoked bowls with your friends in your dad’s Lexus, then were late to your SAT tutorial. But if you were from Richmond, or East Oakland, or, like Sanchez, South L.A., you were probably trained practically from birth to represent your neighborhood, your gang, to have pride, to be hard. Maybe you had a lot of siblings to watch and possibly you knew almost nobody who had finished school or worked a stable job. People from your family were in prison, whole swaths of your community, and it was part of life to eventually go there. So you were born fucked. But, like the rich kids, you, too, wanted to have fun on Saturday night.
“No Tank Tops,” the sign at Youth Guidance had said. Because it was presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court looking like hell. The sign might as well have said “Your Poverty Reeks.”
He kept looking, searched other names.
He knew, at a certain point, that he was doing it to forestall searching for the person he was most curious about, and most hesitant to betray.
“Did you ever see the green flash,” she asked him after class, “down at Ocean Beach?”
He had not, he told her. She explained that it was an optical effect at sunset, when rays from the top of the sinking sun turned green. She had never seen it, either, she said.
“Are you sure it isn’t a story cooked up by the Irish drunks who live out there?”
She laughed. They were standing outside the school trailer. It was a June evening when the sun set late. The light was gold, from haze, and slanting into her eyes.
Looking at someone who is looking at you is a drug as strong as any other.
“Move it, Hall!” an officer yelled. It was time for evening count. “Move your ass now!”
He researched the green flash of a setting sun. It existed. There were Web sites with lengthy explanations of the physics of light. But he did not type the three words of her name. Instead, he kept on with the others.
Of Candy Peña, Gordon learned that her mother had worked concessions at Disneyland in Anaheim. Candy Peña had worked at a McDonald’s. Her manager testified for the defense that she had never given him any problems. The mother of Candy’s murder victim, a little girl, had cheered in the courtroom when the death-penalty verdict was announced. And then Gordon found another quote from the same woman, who said that she felt for Candy Peña’s mother, knowing herself what it was like to lose a child.
He found Betty LaFrance on a prison pen-pal site.
“Single and ready to mingle, an old-fashioned gal who likes champagne, yachts, gambling, fast cars, VERY expensive thrills. Can you afford me? Write to find out.”
There was a list of standard questions that Betty LaFrance was obliged to answer on the site, for its users.
“Do you mind relocating?” (No).
“Are you serving a life sentence?” (No).
But at the bottom, under “On death row?,” she’d had to check (Yes).
This gallery of people. Every name he could think of, to avoid typing her name.
Geronima Campos, who had sketched Gordon’s portrait, had apparently dropped her husband’s torso off a bridge somewhere in the Inland Empire.
Geronima was now involved with a peer-counselling group and taught human-rights law to any prisoner who wanted to learn it. She had a flawless disciplinary record. She had gone up for parole eight times and been denied every time, despite her record of service and her support from people on the outside. There was an Internet campaign page, to advocate for Geronima’s parole. Those who signed the petition included their reasons for doing so:
Geronima has done her time.
She is no longer a threat to society.
She is a survivor of spousal abuse.
Geronima is an indigenous elder lesbian who is being unjustly held at Stanville Correctional Facility.
She is needed in her community.
She has served her time.
She had indeed served her time. She had done the time the court had given her. It was time for Geronima to go home. But every time she went before the parole board—which Gordon pictured as a row of Phyllis Schlaflys, all frowning, with stiff hair, industrial panty hose, and little rippling American-flag pins like the ones Republican candidates wore for political debates—Geronima told them that she was innocent. Her supporters said she’d done her time and was no longer a threat. But when she faced the parole board she said, “I’m innocent.” It made no sense. But Gordon understood why she said it.
Whatever space Geronima might have needed to find a way to face what she had done was not provided in prison. Prison was a place where you had to be strong to get through each day. If you thought about some awful act you’d committed, every day, in graphic detail, enough to prove to a parole board that you had insight, the proverbial insight they wanted, needed, in order to let you go home, you might lose your mind. To stay sane, that was the thing. To stay sane, you formed a version of yourself that you could believe in.
And if she did show insight, told them what was on her mind the day she killed her husband, why and how she did it and what she felt afterward—excitement, guilt, denial, fear, revulsion—if she showed the board how honest and precise she could be in her knowledge of her crime and why she’d committed it, if she spoke openly about the impact it had had on her victim and on others, on society, if she trotted out the whole horror of it, she would, at the same time, freshly reactivate for the parole board all the reasons she’d been locked up in the first place.
“I’m sorry about your fiancé,” he said one night as Romy Hall lingered after class. He was stacking photocopies in an unnecessarily fastidious way, to draw out their few minutes together, before a guard oversaw the students’ transfer through work exchange. “What happened?”
It was easy, he found, to affect the concerned tone of an adviser, when really he was fishing for information.
“He wasn’t my fiancé. And he’s not dead. He moved on.”
She said that there were women on her unit who got married to men they met through the mail. “Jimmy wasn’t a loser like that,” she said. “He had a life. I’m sure he’s out there living it.”
Gordon’s cabin was mostly packed. He would be leaving Stanville soon. He was going back to school, to get a master’s in social work. It was probably an improvident time to quit a job, with the economy tanking, but the rhythms of the world did not always coördinate with the rhythm of the person. Two cartons of books, some cook pots, a Melitta thing you place over a cup, clothes in garbage bags. He put a log in his stove, watched the gold-blue liquid updraft, to be sure it caught, and then he typed her name. He had made rules, and this was one, to look only now.
Romy Leslie Hall.
Nothing. No entries found.
Romy L Hall. Hall prison Stanville. San Francisco life sentence Hall.
He looked and looked, as the wood burned down, shifted softly, embers making their mealy tick.
Jimmy San Francisco teach Art Institute. Nothing. He spent hours looking through the faculty lists. There was a James Darling in the film department. Googled James Darling. Film festivals. Artist’s statement. But he wasn’t even sure this was the guy.
He listened to a dog bark, somewhere down the mountain.
People in the area made nature domestic, and also hostile, with their guard dogs, their beware-of dogs. German shepherds. Dobermans.
The dog barked and barked, down the mountain, echoing up it. An excavating 3 A.M. bark, digging and digging at nothing. ♦
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