12 January, 2021
NEVER USE THEIR FIRST NAMES, the trainer said, and don’t tell ‘em yours. You call’em Inmate Zamora, Inmate Kavanaugh, Inmate Benally. That keeps ‘em in their place. They hate that word “inmate,” so use it to your advantage. You’re the alpha dog here. You’re nobody’s friend. You don’t get chummy with these scumbags — excuse me — with these criminals. They’re up to no good. And don’t you forget it, he said, pointing his ugly fat finger at me, though there were ten other new employees in the room. Fish, they called us. New employees are fish. He was a finger-pointer, that trainer. The brainwasher of the fish.
And so I never used their first names. I called them Mr. Zamora, Mr. Kavanaugh, Mr. Benally. And I never told them where to sit in my classroom as an alpha dog might have done; they placed themselves according to race, the Mexican men in the back left corner, laughing and slapping and punching each other, like brothers; across from them, quieter people – Apache, Pima, Navajo, Havasupai; in front of the Natives the African Americans sat, several in elaborate braids; the Whites, mostly hairless, claimed the space across from the African Americans. I tried not to think of the Whites as The Aryans, I tried not to judge, but more than once I saw a copy of Mein Kampf pass from hand to hand. Not to mention the swastikas.
Still, I moved happily among the segregated men, checking their work or encouraging them to do some. Or I stood at the whiteboard, showing how to find common denominators or how to solve for x, or where to place an apostrophe, or what Andrew Jackson was up to with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
When it was time for a break, which I couldn’t help thinking of as recess, the groups moved, intact, into the four corners of the cage outside the classroom, where they rolled up cigarettes and smoked them. Sometimes they ignored me at recess, and I stood alone by the door with the radio on my hip, in case I needed to yell for help. But sometimes someone approached me.
I’d been warned in my training as Correctional Education Program Teacher about conversing with inmates. Stick to the weather and to sports was the instruction, one that I found difficult to obey, since I didn’t follow sports and the sky was generally an uneventful blue, broken by the occasional raven floating by, or a cloud. Plus, I was curious: who were these men. But my trainer cautioned against personal conversations. You ask’em about their childhoods, he barked, and they’ll ask about yours. Pretty soon you’re blabbing your whole life to them. The more they know about you, the easier they manipulate you. That’s all these convicts think about, 24/7: manipulating staff. You let ‘em know what kind of book you like, they’ll have one brought in from home or steal it from the library and present it to you as a gift. They know you’re not allowed to accept gifts. They want you to take that book so they’ll have something on you, something they can bribe you with. The favors they ask of you in return will start out small: here, mail this Mother’s Day card for me, will you. My moms is sick. Then the requests will get bigger and bigger. Pretty soon you’ll be carrying in contraband.
So there we’d be, in the cage, making conversation. I could feign an interest in the Diamondbacks or the Cardinals or the Suns for a while, but soon the words would turn, disobediently, personal. Did you play baseball as a kid? I might segue to Mr. Moreno, one of whose big, strong arms revealed a blue Lady of Guadalupe. Or I’d ask Mr. Yazzie, the back of whose shaved head bore a long red feather, if he’d liked basketball in school. And then I might be transported onto a playground or into a childhood home where guns outnumbered toys. Or into a hogan, in front of a red rock wall near Kayenta on the Navajo reservation. A lone white horse could wander by. Or I’d be taken into a home much like the one I grew up in, with lilies of the valley in the backyard and apples and carrots in the kitchen and a full toybox in the den. Mr. Rose grew up in a house like mine. The dark-haired, broad-shouldered Mr. Rose.
Or there’d be a one-on-one conversation, there outside by the classroom door, in private, as in the confessional of old, maybe the story of the crime, or a blurting out of what a guard had done, or a question like this one: How come, Miss Malloy, how come all these Mexican cats can speak Mexican and I can’t speak African? You feel me?
How to explain that, in the United States, the Africans’ language had gotten away but the Mexican cats’ had stayed? Where to begin? Which layer? 1619? Coronado?
Oh, to really teach history. But I’d been warned about offering too much information on the subject. I was told to teach American History, yes, but to teach it with a twist, to avoid certain periods, certain topics, certain heroes. Civil rights, for example, my supervisor said, don’t mention them. You might want to stay away from the Civil War, too, now that I think about it. And then, World War II, well, that might be okay, but avoid any mention of Hitler. Definitely. No Hitler. No Holocaust. Harriet Tubman? Sojourner Truth? Are they off limits, I asked? How about Dred Scott? The cotton gin? Good Lord, no. None of them. Well, what’s left, I wondered. The American Revolution, was that safe? The Constitution, minus the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, of course? But I nodded and let the Correctional Education Program Supervisor tell me about the fiery feelings that could spark in my classroom and catch fire out on the yard as a riot if the AB boys were unhappy with the material I presented. AB? What’s AB? The Aryan Brotherhood, of course. I was horrified by this instruction but didn’t want a riot to break out on my behalf. Riots brought shanks, SWAT teams, lockdowns, yellow police tape, the warden out into public view in her blond page boy and powder blue pantsuit toeing around in the dirt, looking for blood or weapons. I was no troublemaker. I’d never been a troublemaker.
Even in prison, officials recognize the first amendment right for incarcerated per- sons to practice the religion of their choice. Many of the Natives there chose the sweat lodge as their place of prayer. So on Monday mornings, in the dark in the winter, at dawn in July, when I got to the yard, I could see smoke ascending from a domed hut made of curved branches, I could smell the cedar burning and hear drummers beating and men singing. My steps sped up or slowed down with the beat of the drum. The sacred came to the prison, on Monday mornings anyway. Native students were excused from Education on that day in order to pray, so few, if any, showed up for class.
Thursday was the day to worship Thor and other Norse gods. Thor’s Day. A day without Mr. Rose. Only rarely did a white student appear in class then and so Thursday became the time for me to offer stories about the Underground Railroad, to show pictures of people for sale on the auction block; to read Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail together; to discuss the 13th amendment and, once, to mention the plantation-to- penitentiary thesis advanced by Ava du Vernay in her film, 13th. I never got caught presenting such lessons and no riot ever broke out that I know of. My supervisor looked through the window into my classroom a few times a day in case I’d been tied up or knocked out, but he rarely walked in. He never checked on the content of my lessons. Security trumped education.
When I told my husband that I’d brought du Vernay’s thesis into a Thursday af- ternoon history lesson, he shook his head and took my hand. You’re losing your mind, he said gently. The kidnappers and murderers and rapists you spend your days with are not innocent men. They’ve shot people for twenty dollars and put them into wheelchairs for life. They’ve stolen from their grandmothers. They’ve sold drugs to children. Methamphetamine. Crack. Heroin.
No, no, I said. You don’t understand. They took drugs as children. Their parents gave them drugs. They didn’t have a chance, don’t you see? They couldn’t grow up right.
My husband chose silence after that, but his raised eyebrows said that he saw trouble coming my way. He gave me pause, that husband of mine did. He always gave me pause. I tried to rein myself in, but he didn’t know them, he didn’t know about their childhoods, in spite of which, on most days, my prisoners were cheerful and ready for any kind of fun.
One day we had fun with a poem, one of Emily Dickinson’s. It begins like this:
A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
and ate the fellow, raw,
Mr. Jordan, in his multitude of long elegant braids, set this stanza to a hip-hop beat in his corner of the classroom. Loving violence of any kind, we all clapped, even the Aryans. Later, at recess, out in his corner of the cage, Mr. Jordan rapped this one again, remembering every word of that first stanza and adding several stanzas of his own, going on about bears and lions, a fox, a hound, causing twenty or so men in orange to laugh and egg him on. And one Correctional Education Teacher, getting a little too chummy, the trainer would say, with the inmates. Maybe standing a little too close to Mr. Rose. Pulled to him like a mag- net. But…but… I defended myself, to myself, in preparation for the inquisition I imagined coming my way, . . . it was my first live hip-hop performance. And I’m supposed to be teaching the language arts, right? What’s wrong with laughing and clapping? Was I being watched? I searched the concertina wire for any sign of a camera, any sign of a microphone, but found none. Maybe I was safe out in the cage. Safe from those officers, the captains, the lieutenants, with their heavy boots on. Safe with my prisoners.
What’s your favorite book, Mr. Rose asked one afternoon during English class. Oh, I don’t know, I said. The one I’m reading now is pretty good, and I pulled Scott Spencer’s novel Waking the Dead out of my bag. A prison Wendy reading to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, I opened the book and read them the beginning. The action held them rapt: a car bomb had exploded, killing two Chilean dissidents and their American driver. The Chileans were in the U.S. to tell the world about atrocities committed by the military government back home. The suspicion was that the generals had ordered the planting of the bomb. This was fiction, I explained to my students, but it was based on a true story. They wanted to know where Chile was and why generals headed the government. I answered as well as I could, and then, always on the lookout for a pop-up geography lesson, pointed Chile out on the map on the wall, mentioned that Spanish was the official language there and why, which took a while and was a touchy subject given that the conquistadors were white, and then I told them that I’d put the book on our Books to Borrow shelf when I finished it, and I did.
A few weeks later, Spencer’s Endless Love appeared on my desk, with a note: For the Classroom Library. The novel’s narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy who’s obsessed with a girl named Jade. I remembered that there was a lot of sex, vivid sex, in the book, so I knew better than to begin aloud a passage I couldn’t finish, not even from the scene where the protagonist sets a house on fire, which my lost boys would have loved. I wanted them to love reading, even readings about conflagrations. I wanted them to take books back to their cells, to ignore the tele- visions bracketed to the cinderblock there in favor of building their vocabularies. But I decided to return the book. It did not belong in a classroom of twenty-five mostly young men and a teacher old enough to be their mother.
I knew who had “donated” the book; I recognized the handwriting on the note attached to it. It belonged to Mr. Rose, who would “accidentally” brush my arm with his mighty one as we passed each other in the doorway. Or he’d hold the heavy door open for me, his arm above my head, and motion me through. Chivalrous. The way southern white men treat their ladies. Was I his lady? Did I want to be his lady? His skin seemed clear of any Aryan-themed inkings, but I’d never seen him without his shirt on. He was older than a lot of the students but still young enough to be my son. He told me that his little sister’s name was the same as mine. Molly.
Molly, whose popularity in middle school grew when the news got out that her big brother was locked up. Neither Molly nor his parents had visited Mr. Rose. (Because Big Brother had gone off to prison and turned into a Nazi? I wondered, but lacked the courage to ask.) His family didn’t know about his years in solitary, about the captain’s boot on his neck, grinding his cheek into the concrete. They didn’t know about the strip shack. But for me, Mr. Rose pulled back the veil, and told me stories that made me shudder and pity him. He talked, I listened, my Desdemona to his Othello telling of the dangers he had passed. We talked often in the cage, at recess, outside the classroom door. Just the two of us, talking, and watching the others smoke and joke.
I decided to return the book to its donor, but I slipped it into a drawer of my desk instead and when the classroom emptied out, for the lunch break, I took a look at the passages that Mr. Rose had seductively underlined. My memory was correct: the sex is vivid. Was I being watched? Could the crime unit have gone to the trouble to install a camera behind a ceiling tile in my classroom?
The convicts called each other by their yardnames, Scar, Coyote, Misfit, Ladiesman, SnakeEye, Dope, etc. or, more often, Dawg and Homey and Carnal, generically, as in Hey, Dawg, pass me that pencil, will you, and some called me Boss or Teach, as in Hey, Teach, is that a wedding ring I see on your finger? I looked at it, admiring the tiny gold band that was the opposite of ostentatious, but for all its simple beauty, it wasn’t good enough for the protectors of white women I met in prison. Where’s your rock, Teach, where’s your diamond? A woman like yourself should wear a diamond as big as my fist, one pale little Aryan declared, shaking his fist. And the surrounding Aryans called out Yeah in unison. What’s wrong with your husband? That cheap bastard, one said, disgust lacing his words. He could have come at my husband with a torch.
Hey, you knuckleheads. What’s the matter with you? Don’t disrespect her husband, my new friend, Mr. Rose, said, with authority. She shows us respect, doesn’t she? And he used his mighty arm to punch the initiator of the attack on my husband in the shoulder. Respect was big at the prison. The disrespectors of my husband looked at their feet. He was becoming my defender, this Mr. Rose, this would-be donator to my classroom library, this sometime-carrier of my books, this maybe-Aryan, this heartthrob.
May I show you a different way, I said to Mr. Rose one afternoon in algebra class early in our time together. I’d been looking over his shoulder and noticed that, as he solved for x, he did most of the figuring in his head. At his enthusiastic assent, I sat by his side and showed him a more methodical route to solution, recording each step, each addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, with a pencil. Will you show me another one, Miss Malloy, he asked, and I did. Another one, he prompted, and I showed him a third, more complicated problem. How about one more, he said and during this last show ‘n tell, his knee fell over onto mine, where it stayed until I found the will to pull my leg away. The words of the imaginary inquisitor sounded in my head: how long would you say you hesitated, Miss Malloy, before pulling your pretty little thigh away from the inmate’s thigh?
You see the number 88 on some punk’s neck, my trainer barked. That’s not a celebration of the punk’s birth year. Nope. Anybody know what 88 stands for? Silence. What’s the eighth letter of the alphabet, he challenged us, and we all started counting on our fingers: H. Bingo, he said. You got it. H. Two H’s. Any idea what HH might stand for? Silence. How ‘bout Heil Hitler. Ever thought of that? Yep. Code for Heil Hitler. Ain’t that a clever dog whistle? 88. And how ‘bout the number 14? No, that’s not the age of their first kiss. That’s The Fourteen Words. You want to hear ‘em? Not exactly, I wanted to say, but I heard ‘em anyway: WE MUST SECURE THE EXISTENCE OF OUR PEOPLE AND A FUTURE FOR WHITE CHILDREN. How ‘bout them apples? And then there’s that green shamrock you see on forearms and necks around here. You think, how sweet. A celebration of St. Paddy and all things Irish? Nope. Not a chance. Sign of AB affiliation. Got it? Wise up, you all.
The first time I found a piece of chocolate on my desk after recess I knew whose eyes to contact. I contacted them and then picked up the chocolate and dropped it into the trashcan with some ceremony, without smiling, picturing an 88 sitting between Mr. Rose’s shoulder blades, or WHITE PRIDE stretched across them. How dare you try to woo me with chocolate, my look said. Were those eyes Aryan? By the second time a chocolate appeared, the inky images had dimmed for me. I let the rectangle lie there, on my desk. By then I had learned that convicts join gangs for protection, duh. That one might not hold to the beliefs of the Aryan Brotherhood but have no real choice about becoming a brother in that nasty family. I let the chocolate sit on my desk until my prisoners had gone back to their cells and then I placed it in my mouth and let it melt there, searching the ceiling tiles for the eye of a camera.
When a lieutenant burst in through my classroom door with two German Shepherds, a trace of chocolate remained on my tongue. How are you, Miss Malloy. he said, gruffly. Such visits happened periodically. The dogs were on a drug search, sniffing all around. The lieutenant pulled a few books off the shelf and flipped through the pages, looking for a tab of acid, a tiny cellophane of cocaine. I was glad Endless Love was not among the books; its underlinings could have attracted the lieutenant’s attention. My heart was pounding hard and fast against my ribs. Was he really looking for drugs or was he looking for Mr. Rose? But all the lieutenant said was, Looks all clean in here. Come on, fellas, he barked to his dogs, and they marched out through the door, leaving behind a whiff of German Shepherd.
Unfortunately, I had seen the movie, Mrs. Soffel, in which Mrs. Soffel, played by a young Diane Keaton, falls in love with a convict, played by a young Mel Gibson, while reading passages from the Bible to him through the bars of his cell. Though I ardently disbelieved the myth, the song, the cliché that Ladies Love Outlaws, the film was nonetheless convincing, even the part where Diane helps Mel escape.
I fell into a reverie on my drive home one day; in it, I helped Mr. Rose, whose eyebrows resembled Mel Gibson’s, escape. I climbed a fence, spider-man like, and held apart the strands of the concertina wire for him to slip through and climb down the fence on my side.
While within sight of the concertina wire, Mr. Rose was my guide, my fan, my protector. My translator. English majors love vocabulary and he defined words for me, words like stinger and shiv and Cadillac and dime (paperclip wires turned into a water heater, a cell-made knife, a convict’s bunk, a ten-year sentence). In return I taught him words like argot. You’re teaching me prison argot, I said. Argot has a silent t as in ballet – he liked that – he liked the sound of French words. Genet, chalet, poulet, ricochet. Ricochet? Really? There’s a t in that?
But once he was released – yes, I saw him after his release – his attention wandered. Out in the world beyond the gate, walking along an arroyo, he often wasn’t listening; he was admiring the clouds or pitching rocks at the saguaro, the agave, the ocotillo. He’d left his courtly prison ways behind. To get his attention I asked him questions. One of his answers was this: no, he hadn’t had to, or been invited to, join the Aryan Brotherhood, ostensibly due to some impure blood in his ancestry, and he didn’t think that white people were superior to people of color, but he believed in the separation of the races. No mixing, he said with authority, as if he had a PhD in something important. I remained silent, in spite of the urging, I’d received in my youth, To Instruct the Ignorant, a Spiritual Work of Mercy.
I’d had no intention of leaving my phone number on my desk the day before his release. But I did, my body did it, not my mind. And the first few times I saw an unknown number on my phone, the trainer’s words came to me: DOC EMPLOYEES SHALL REFRAIN FROM PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH CURRENT OR FORMER INMATES! But eventually I silenced that voice and said hello.
I checked his chest for signage. All clear. WHITE POWER was written nowhere on his body. I saw no 88s, no green shamrocks, no 14s, no swastikas. Skin as clear as a newborn’s, except for the scars you’d expect to see on a man such as he.
But just because he didn’t display white supremacist beliefs on his body didn’t make him perfect. Far from it. One day, in my car, he said, This hurts me almost as much as it’s gonna hurt you, Miss Malloy. We were on our way to the zoo. He’d claimed he wanted to see a tiger. We had the whole Saturday together, my husband was away. Mr. Rose, oh let’s call him Danny, though I never once called him that, was in the bucket seat next to me. I was driving. The Cranberries were singing on the radio. I detected motion next to me and turned my head to see him wrestle an angry little silver gun with a black handle out of his pants pocket.
He pointed it my way.
Let’s go to a cash machine. You’re kidding?
We entered the cubicle that housed the ATM. The bank was closed; no one was around. Danny beamed when he saw the balance in my savings account, but grimaced when pulsing green letters announced a $400 limit for a day’s withdrawal. I wanted to kiss him in spite of the gun. The machine dispensed his twenties; he stuck the gun in the waistband of his jeans to retrieve and count the bills, and then he was gone. Where were the captains and lieutenants when I needed them?
I had my phone, I had my car. I could have dialed 9-1-1, or given chase, but I was frozen. And anyway, what about the disgrace, what about the divorce, what about the dismissal from my job.
And more prison time for Danny. Even after the silver gun, and the four hundred dollars, I couldn’t send him back into those kennels, into the sloppy orange costumes, onto the chow lines, behind the long slits of windows in the cellblock that let in so little light, to the humiliations of the searches, in the cells, along the fences, in the strip shack, back into the ugliness of the prison when he appreciated beauty, the beauty of French words, of the pearl buttons on the back of my blouse, of the raven against the blue sky. Or was he just pretending?
And I didn’t confess to my husband either when he returned from his trip the next day. By then my heart had stopped pounding and my fingers had stopped rattling. I made dinner, poured cabernet, lit candles.
What would the courageous truth-telling women I’d celebrated in Social Studies class say about my omission? Sojourner Truth, for example. What would Sojourner Truth have said? Sarah Grimké, Alice Paul, Harriet Tubman. Oh, let them talk. Let the ladies talk.
When I got to work that next Monday, I expected trouble in the form of an inquisition. But it was just an ordinary day at the prison. A guard at the gate checked the trunk of my car, then waved me on through; another checked my bag at the door, as a machine checked my body for metal. I was handed my keys and my radio and I made my way through the sally port and on to the classroom, unlocking and re-locking padlocks and doors along the way, my hands shaking as I did so, my head whipping around in the blowing dust to see if anyone was coming after me. Anyone in black boots.
The Mexican men were rowdy that morning, the Blacks laid back, lounging in their plastic chairs, cool. The Natives engaged in the sacred at the sweat lodge; their corner was empty. The Whites were out in full force, all those bald heads.
I offered my usual Monday morning greeting: How was your weekend, a greeting that always got a laugh. Then, as usual, they turned the question back on me and, rather than tell them about the robbery involving a deadly weapon, I invented a story about taking my dog to the vet. They loved hearing about Buddy, my shiny black prince, even though he’s not a pit bull. They knew how he trembled when it thundered, how he picked up my shoe with his teeth when he wanted a walk and dropped it at my feet. So I took Buddy to the vet, I lied, it was time for his shots. Shots? broke in Mr. Jordan. Do like in the hood, Miss Malloy. Dogs in the hood don’t get shots. Buddy don’t need shots. Give Buddy a break.
A chant began in defense of my dog. Fists hit desks. Bud-dy. Bud-dy. No shots. Bud-dy.
Okay, guys, enough about Buddy. Shh. Shh, I said, a snake of sound leaving my mouth.
Stop it, I said. Stop it. I’ll write you up. Bud-dy. Bud-dy.
Shh. I’ll call the captain, I threatened, though the captain was the last person I wanted in my classroom. I raised my radio to my mouth.
The chanting stopped, but the men were not happy. Their happiness was no longer a concern of mine.
Don’t do us like that, Teach, instructed Mr. Jordan. What’s wrong with you, ma’am? Don’t do us like that, and then he turned to the others in the room and opened his arms wide and he asked, What other way they ever do us? and he started shaking his head. The others followed his lead. They were silent, but they were all shaking their heads. All those heads.