away, my brother began his education. He had time now to learn, after
years of avoiding it. It was written in the letters I never answered.
He was full of knowledge.
math in a classroom the color of slate, chalk squeaking out numbers
and signs on a blackboard. A fat man, an inmate, a man who did something
illegal to his own children long ago, sweated and talked about theorems,
formulas. Numbers, in the abstract, my brother found difficult. The
fat man, he wrote, was smart but a bad teacher, full of water and
ideas and terrible secrets, unable to fully share for fear of revealing
a dark part of himself. My brother worked hard, though, to prove something.
At lunch he counted men like children do apples or spotted cartoon
dogs. He learned that two men were most likely able to overpower one,
that three men could always overpower one, no matter what you might
hear, and that it was better to be one of the three than the only
shop he made a clock, a working clock he was proud of--tick,
tick, tick, I could hear him saying--that someone smashed when he
wasn't looking. Then he made a shiv for when he found out who smashed
his clock, which, I believe, had come to symbolize, in some vague
way to him, his progress as a human being, his ability to do things
people on the outside might consider productive. He needed to kill
the fucker who crushed his human progress. He stabbed someone he didn't
like, hoping that he was the crusher of human progress. But
it was the wrong man. Inside, these things happen. All is flux. The
right man and the wrong man are the same man; it's all about intention
and revenge, the means not the end. Someone deserves it; someone gets
it; if they're not the same someone, who really gives a fuck? For
this he slept in a dark room for 45 days, until his eyes were glued
shut and his lips were cracked and his skin was the color of the squeaking
chalk the fat man used for the theorems he wouldn't share. He counted
the days in cold, soupy meals.
letters he misspelled the crucial words. He spelled "niggers" with
one g and "spicks" with an x. I fixed his letters and put them away.
P.S., he wrote, please write me back, brother. Please. He used the
word "please" like a weapon. I hated him the way you can only
hate someone you love, hated him so much it burned bright red inside
quickly that blacks hated whites and whites hated blacks. A fact,
like natural law. There was no compromise. A compromise would get
the white compromiser killed by the rest of the whites. The same was
true for the blacks. Hispanics, however, were different; depending
on their skin tone they could go, occasionally, either way, if they
knew the right people, although mostly they stuck together, too. It
was different in the west, he had heard, where there were more Hispanics.
But in Virginia, he wrote, the spix are few and can go either way.
Inside, he wrote, it would not be bad to be light brown. He longed,
I imagine, to be unidentified.
learned, slowly, to read and write. Just a few years ago. In his thirties.
Then came the letters, like a killing flood. He wrote all the time,
to me, an old girlfriend, our mother, filling up our desk drawers,
boxes. He wrote and wrote and w rote, manic with the power of language,
roaming back and forth through his whole life, remembering, inventing,
reinventing, shaping, trying to articulate, looking...He read the
Bible. It was the only book they'd give him; it was the only title
he could remember. It took him a long time to read it, but he found
it both cryptic and intoxicating. So he read it again--and again and
again...Later, he felt God in his fingertips and was sorry for so
many things that he could not stop crying. He lived in a sorrow you
can only find in a dark place without freedom, a place where time
meant everything and nothing and space was a myth passed around for
comfort. He learned that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and
that on the third day he rose from the dead. He liked that, rising
from the dead. He liked the idea of Heaven, he wrote me, of just dropping
your body and moving on. He liked that the end of the Bible became
dark and cautionary, warning of a preordained end to us all. He said
he liked St. John as much as Jesus, maybe more. The Bible made
him feel small, though. It was so big, so beyond him. He professed
his love for God, which helped, but only some. He had been an empty
vessel up to now, he wrote, misspelling the words, and now he was
Christian, after learning about the death of the body, of all bodies,
he did not so much mind the things he did. He had learned early on
that it was best to choose--as much as one was able to choose--a group
of men that you did not mind having sex with. This way, he learned,
sex was paid for by protection from others that might want to have
sex with you. He learned to give himself to a few to be saved from
the many--he thought of this in instinctive mathematical terms. He
learned that he was probably not a homosexual but was capable,
in certain circumstances, of acting convincingly as one. He learned
one day that being raped was a terrible, violent, humiliating thing
but that fighting it often made it worse; fighting it made it all
violence and no sex; pretending was the way to go; pretending was
self-preservation. He prayed every night. His asshole bled. He never
got an erection again, never, he wrote, even when he fantasized about
women, the ones that seemed almost fake, the ones from magazines with
giant breasts and white-blonde hair, the ones that used to work for
him every time, the ones that now turned into smiling men right there
in the middle of his head. He had become, he wrote, a woman, a whore.
He cursed God and then apologized. He bit his lip, tasted blood. It
wasn't him they wanted to destroy, he reasoned, staring at a ceiling
the same cold color as everything else; it was his body, and the body,
he had learned from Jesus Christ himself, was temporary.
then, to cooperate, sacrifice.
from a priest, the same man who taught him to read, that having killed
another human being (pointlessly and intentionally) considerably lessened
his chances of being saved. It doesn't just happen, the priest told
him, you have to work . His last letters are about the difficulty
of being saved.
to work harder than he could.
when he was exhausted, that drinking cleaning fluid was not good enough,
that they could pump your stomach, bring everything up in a blue stream.
He learned that it was hard to leave your body in here if they didn't
want you to.
not own your body in prison.
he wrote me, please write me back.
boxes full of pleading.
that a belt, even if you could get one, was not the best thing; buckles
are made of different pieces, and different pieces, as a rule, eventually
thing my brother learned, after so much trying: A shirt, or a sheet,
tied in simple slipknots, was the best thing for the burden.