It’s been a long while since I contacted you.
“Where are you?” you may ask, though you have my mailing address and I have yours.
I ask the same question most every day. Not out of geographic curiosity. I know where you are and I’ve an idea of what your walls may look like: the beds, the barracks. The sea of prison blue. I know you’re situated in the middle of King’s County with a sky that must be devastatingly incredible.
I’ve driven the 5 a few times over in the time you’ve been gone and have seen the tired pistoning of oil pumps; the ruminative cattle; and the white, white haze which seems to jump senses into whiter noise.
“It’s my family.” I sat on the stoop, shoulders with Maggie, attempting to tell her, exactly, why life had, through the course of one phone call, suddenly changed.
“Family? When is it NOT family,” Mags said in return, shaking back her sleeves and lighting a cigarette.
Twenty hours prior, we had exchanged surprise at the fifth of Amsterdam Maggie had secreted in a potted ficus, yet somehow forgotten during the course of a mutually attended wedding reception. Like goldfish we had disremembered our aqueous surroundings: David’s wedding was on the water, and we were aquarium drinking. There was a photo of us taken on a short pier, me and Mags seemingly in deep philosophical discussion, but most likely discussing the particular economy involved in sharing a surprise fifth–an odd number to split on the even—and she, smoking with abandon, her last cigarettes.
Maggie wore black to David’s wedding, because although David remained one of her favorite ‘Goys’, to Maggie weddings were on par with Shiva calls. She always wore Onassis sunglasses, especially when ‘I do’s’ were said, a widower’s affect despite not being a widow. She drug around her ex-husband’s last name, though, as if holding on to the dead like an odious and ill-expired pet, taxidermied and talismanic in the corner.
This is not chosen.
Maggie was herself seemingly always sitting Shiva, her own divorce something of funereal gloom and requiring shrouded wedding photos; since the divorce, funerals and weddings were all the same to her, attended with equal distaste and with equal aperitif of vodka, a bottle of which she carried in her clutch to mediate her more dour tendencies. All vows were requiems; all requiems were ‘Well, thank God that’s over’; life was just the something in-between.
She was the first person I called upon receiving the news.
I’m writing this letter. I need for you to hear me, or at least the story of the past three years–those you spent within labyrinthine corridors of concrete. Consider me a conduit. When lightning strikes a tree, its fires are shot through a thousand tissues and limbs fall in beautiful wreckage and the ground crackles a hundred feet around. In the end, the tree bears a scar and it continues wrapping rings of growth around its most blackened parts. The tree keeps growing but it will always have, coiled in its history, proof of its damage.
‘Hang in there’ was something Mags would never have said to me, and God help me were I to ever say as much to her.
‘Hang in there with what—a fucking noose?’
Maggie reserved her gallows humor for any day the executioner’s hood had any particular and existential menace. By this metric, her bed may as well been built over two trapdoor flaps, headboard at their join. Every day she wore black in presage of a coffin and the billowier her shroud the better—like Death, just ecumenical and without the scythe.
“My brother was arrested.”
Maggie smoothed out her dress, a Guatemalan print still wrinkled and maybe half-dry.
“Ok,” she said again, her Sag Harbor accent more prominent this time, and she leveled out the lap of her dress until it was in a neat triangle across her knees.
“Does he have a lawyer.” Maggie had placed her cigarette to the side, needing two hands to fix her skirt; she recollected her American Spirit from ash-headed perch on the stairs. We were sitting outside, the same stairs she had mounted just minutes earlier with crossed-arms and ever-present dark glasses.
It may have been the odd first question, not a query into the nature of the arrest, or inquiry into my wellbeing. Was I upset? Else perversely vindicated of any criminal excess I had participated in that weekend? Mags and I were both still riding vapors of the night prior, the effluvium of surfeit vodka seemingly present. If not present, at the very least coloring the bedsheets I’d left unmade back inside, me having been near malarial with sweat. Maggie certainly had more than I did the night prior, but by contrast was already properly coifed and perfumed, tight curls dried to her forehead like a magisterial wig.
The last time I sped through King’s County was with Bradley in a U-Haul truck. A trailer shimmied behind us bearing a vintage car and three bristling, sleep-deprived cats. The cab smelled of Kamel Reds and spent coffee cups. By mid-morning, just beyond the King’s County HP Station and directly beyond the rutted half-roads which finger out into the farmers’ fields, I felt I couldn’t concentrate any longer on the highway lines. We pulled over and slept on the grass beneath these wispy clouds that promised an unerringly still, cricket-shivering night. Brad slept on the trailer rig and, when he awoke, pointed out that I had slept in the grass beneath a sign reading: ‘Dog Lawn.’
“Does he have a lawyer,” she said matter-of-factly, and not as question.
Maggie and I both knew, contrary to American judiciary standard, that we were all—and without courtroom session necessary—guilty of something or other, no need for trial. Innocence was reserved for children and cats. Maggie’s Talmudic learnings plead otherwise, and she herself was a social-justice warrior—her collected poetry spoke to that end—but Maggie was wisened, jaded, fresh off a nasty divorce.
To her, life had become unfair, or at least only comprehensible if everyone shared in a free-floating and collective blame. You couldn’t exactly call Maggie a nihilist; still she wore black to weddings.
And she knew that what everyone needed, sometimes, was just a really good fucking lawyer.
“I don’t know,” I said rubbing my eyes. “I just found out. He was probably in the back of a police car when Dave was cutting the cake.” I borrowed Maggie’s cigarette and took a draw.
“My mom called,” I said exhaling, “Which means my brother’s already past his jailhouse phone call.” I handed the cigarette back. I still hadn’t showered.
“I mean, I’m sure Mom wasn’t the first one he called upon being brought in. Probably the last person he wanted to talk to.” I crossed my arms while waving away the smoke. “I’m guessing he’s out on bail.”
I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.
Maggie finally asked: “What’d he do?” She looked straight ahead, working backwards from her initial question. Mags was the esquire in reverse and, with black robes, presumed judge, too. I stopped my hand from stupidly waving and inserted it into an armpit. I turned to her with one eye squinted.
“Mom said he thought I’d have known.”
“Known what?” Mags wasn’t impatient, but rather soft in her questioning, dissolving me of complicity before I could place my own self in manacles.
I didn’t answer, not directly. Instead, I turned again to look straight ahead, parallel to Maggie’s’ gaze. I changed the subject.
“You know, I finished ‘American Psycho’ this morning. Ain’t that some fucked up timing,” I snorted. We stared at the street while Mags extinguished her cigarette. A jogger labored past, out of breath.
“Is your brother a psycho?” Maggie deadpanned, still working backwards with her line of questioning.
“Naw. But he is American, so there’s that.”
We’ve both ushered that fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.
Maggie allowed a half-smile. In her less sober moments, which were many, she’d throw on a Clash record and shout along with Joe Strummer: ‘I’m so bo-ooored with the USA!’, just replacing ‘bored’ with ‘scared’. These words she’d shout with expatriate gusto as if her garden gate was border enough to keep out the particular stars and stripes she eschewed on her own freak flag.
Mags was a raucous rabble-rouser, yet still privately scared of her own rebellion. She was convinced her phone was tapped and that the FBI had a file on her six inches thick. “Fuck the police!” was one of her war cries. “Fuck the Man! Fuck a duck!”
“My brother hit a woman over the head with a rock, Maggie. On a greenbelt. He wanted to drag her into the bushes and cut off her panties as trophy.” I scratched my head and blanched at the word ‘panties.’ I widened my eyes to rid them of disbelief.
I borrowed Mags’ smoke again. She had lit a second one already.
“Then again, Maggie, I dunno. Maybe he is psycho. On top of being American.”
I’m damaged. You are damaged.
Maggie simply nodded and placed her hand reassuringly on my knee as I blew smoke.
Maggie and I lived in North Park, perhaps a mile apart, and though San Diego spans a 100-mile stretch of shoreline, there are densely populated islands in the median, one of which Mags and I inhabited, just shy of Balboa Park’s arcaded museums. Regardless of proximity, we drove cars to see each other. It was like living in Los Angeles, but with greater sun-bronzed apathy. The coastal architecture was made up of disused naval ships instead of gantries, and culture less varied than one would expect from a border town.
The first and last prisons built in California reside on the US-Mexico border. If the federal penal system could extend its reach into the Tijuana pleasure-lands, it would, depositing prisons like unwanted cargo just past the border checkpoints. As it stands, San Diego is where Father Junipero Serra built the first Presidio before heading North, waving judicial crucifixes at ‘savages’ and proselytizing others.
Since Serra days, the state has extended a thousand miles north, then back, so that at journeyed loop, there is also the last presidio, Donovan Correctional Facility, a concrete structure, Class III-IV, parked above CA on one face, MX the other. It can’t go further either way, and bulldozers scape the face of the hill where Donovan perches tenuously. There’s a watershed amphitheater down the canyon to one side and a landfill on the other. A mile distant is an amusement park.
Donovan holds Sirhan Sirhan, a Menendez Brother, also one of the Toolbox Killers—all Los Angelenos with varying and gruesome psychopathy, all somehow housed in the same penitential block and classified equally despite the disparate sufferings of their victims. They’re all three hundred miles away from their respective crime scenes–the Toolbox Killers’ gore-theater in the Cleveland Forest being the worst—and now all are granted cinder block views of Mexico, in California’s fairest climate, all imperfect justice at the end of the Golden State Penal road. My brother almost wound up there.
Maggie’s boyfriend—her ostensible boyfriend—as they’d only pressed palms against bulletproof glass, else talked on jailhouse phones, resided meanwhile in Corcoran.
He’d been serving time in the hole—an extended stay—for having too many postage stamps on his person; this in a facility where, across the yard, Charles Manson lived in a lush solitary all his own, free to write as many lettered manifestos as he pleased, relative to his notoriety.
Maggie’s boyfriend, Christopher, ran a poetry press from his cell, and was made medicinally contrite, weakened by the lithium he was prescribed, otherwise ravaged by years of meth abuse up and down the SW Sudafed Highway. He was a three-time loser, owlish in his spectacles and with jaundiced eyes; sleight of frame; and sporting slick-backed hair. When the volume of Christopher’s correspondence became suddenly suspect, he was kicked to the Hole—this somewhere roundabout the time that Mansons’ third—fourth?—parole hearing was being televised.
There are no flashbulbs in the Hole, no video cameras, and precious bodily fluid certainly can’t be wasted on postage stamps, so Maggie—by default—ran Christopher’s press en absentia, dutifully licking envelopes and resuming correspondence where Christopher had left off, his Rolodex certainly less impressive, less shambolic than Manson’s. It was never talked about that Christopher may also have been dealing drugs during his Corcoran stay. It was easier to imagine his crime involved going postal, so to speak.
Maggie pours the scotch and we’re sitting on the back porch, which a friend of hers has fenced in with cheap lattice-work lumber, all to hem in the cat and otherwise give the ipoema a place to root, violet flowers sinking into wood, providing cover, but reducing everything to splinters in the meanwhile.
“What is this?” I jog a pill in my hand, white and nondescript.
Maggie rearranges her limbs to approximate queenliness. She has a crack in her glasses.
“A downer, I think?”
“I dunno. Let’s try.”
I shrug. Mags has a boom-box playing a bluegrass version of Pink Floyd. I swallow the pill with a hit of Dewar’s.
“Why—Mags—are your glasses cracked?” The Prayer Flags behind her are aged, evaporated with either over- or underuse, and there are two Guatemalan dresses left to dry in the evening air. Big purple blossoms break the lattice-work balcony, blue in the evening-set, and ‘Comfortably Numb’ plays, uncomfortably, on fiddle.
“I was so depressed today; and I got a second psychiatrist. I was prescribed something new and I literally hit the wall.” She shakes the rocks in her drink. “I mean, I fucking fell down.”
“Do your psychiatrists know about each other?”
“You really shouldn’t be mixing your meds,” I said, irony train neatly docking into station. The downer coursed my system, leaving behind a shivery wake. I fingered one of Maggie’s poetry books, which lay discarded on the patio table.
“Mayakovsky clutched a rivet, only the rivet metamorphosed into a gun pointing straight at his heart: Art”.
Maggie literally wrote poetry to save her life when life was an otherwise confusion of conflicting meds and medicated conflict.
During Maggie’s divorce, when existence was the figurative wall she crashed into, and not the literal one that cracked her glasses, she wrote a book called ‘7th Circle’. It is a slim-spined collection of poems about suicides; she had sublimated her pain into researching and writing various pieces on Mayakovsky, Jean Seberg, George Trakl, Diane Arbus. It won the San Diego Book Award for poetry.
Despite having narrowly avoided the Seventh Circle herself, still she says: “I can’t fucking take it anymoire.”
“I know Mags, I know.” On cue, ‘Comfortably Numb’ stops playing.
Maggie slept with a gun in her handbasket next to the bed, paranoid, anxious; she had a confusion of prescriptions, but always a neat handle of scotch in the pantry. I know because I unpacked it for her when I helped her move. Also, we hit it often when communally writing poetry, else editing other poets’ work. She was a mess and I was fast becoming one, all this speed and slowness, the cigarettes and pills; the walking into walls.
Maggie called life ‘Continuous Performance’, and that’s what it is, that’s what it was.
Sometimes I spent the night at Mags’ when the gun was too present in the handbasket, when she was drunk and scared; when I would sleep chastely in her bed, wrapping my arms around her, she the Maude to my Harold, the tobacco present on her dressing gown. I’d lie awake and smell her lavender and love her to sleep.
She had a boyfriend in prison; I had a brother in prison, and we’d fall asleep lotus-eaters, shot through with pathos, rocks settling in the bedside scotch.
I remember when Christopher was released for a brief time and how he held forum at Maggie’s house in front of an ashtray. He was smoking a long and almost effeminately thin joint. Which was “safe” he confided, because “California only looks for uppers in my system.” His hands were strange deep-sea jellyfish, fingers not unlike wavering tentacles. “California is a river of blue, ” he said tapping out an ash, “It is punctuated by a braking of bus wheels and penitentiary-blue lights.”
A wave of the hand, a drag on the tightly-rolled cigarette. “California is blue.” He looked pleased because, above all, he was a poet.
This all happened before and after 9/11. On 9/11, Maggie and I traded a bottle of wine back and forth on her bed and watched the news, saw the Trade Centers fall in occasional time-elapse, like films of flowers speeding to the ground.
“I always hated those buildings,” Mags said, handing me back the bottle of wine, but with tears in her eyes. She was a true New Yorker. Christopher had yet to emerge from the Hole and my brother was just skulking the greenbelts in practice-walks for his later crime. Maggie had vases of yarrow on her bedside, and rosebuds. We were both fiercely against the New Cold War and fiercely into drink.
I don’t know who said: “We deserve this, don’t we?”
And it may have been a personal revelation, on a duvet, in a house with a TV and with buildings falling down, or it may have been a revolutionary statement.
As Maggie wrote:
‘A Gestapo agent pointed to Guernica and asked/:Did you do this?/No—you did’
We may have had Mexican food that night. I vaguely remember. I just remember falling down in the restaurant and saying, “It’s all my fault” like a building crumpling, like a spent flower.
Christopher was released from the Hole before my brother rode the sea of penitentiary blue. Christopher attended my wedding even—eight months following Tower One’s collapse—as Maggie’s date. And my brother was there, too, hands folded in lap in some premonitory idea of manacles, while my wife and I released butterflies into the June malaise. Both Christopher and my brother would soon ride buses to penitentiary—in Christopher’s case, for the fourth go-round—near the same time.
Anyways, I thought of Christopher there on that dog-piss grass: I saw him last in the SD Jail. Maggie sobbed in the periphery of the visiting room and I took up the phone that lay unceremoniously on the steel-grey table. I picked up the receiver and looked at Christopher behind the glass–he was all slicked-back hair and waxed moustache; he wore a tight-lipped expression. By his admission, he was on a diet of heavy metals and liver medication. He wore thick glasses, which made his eyes look disproportionately huge and wallowy in the otherwise context of grey brick and cold, cold light. Maggie sobbed, and she sobbed. I held the phone to my ear and didn’t know a goddamn thing to say.
“Take care of Maggie,” Christopher had a habit of saying during his brief foray out of penitentiary, which I should have taken as premonition.
Christopher was picked up outside a house in La Jolla Farms, high on meth, having attempted to break into a house with clearly lit home burglary system alarms. He was seated calmly on the sidewalk in front of the estate smoking a cigarette in laconic fashion while flashing lights and a waiting pair of handcuffs coursed his way.
My brother, meanwhile, was found with blood on his shoes, walking in a daze after his victim had successfully fought him off. He had an unworn ski mask and a pair of scissors. He wielded other accouterments, too, he later told me, but he never revealed what. The full inventory must be recorded in some police ledger or stenographic receipt somewhere but I don’t have a transcript of his trial: I just don’t know, and some details are superfluous anyway.
To wit: I wore a black suit with a red shirt the only time I visited my brother at Avenal. I had IHOP for breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, black coffee, and two Vicodin Maggie had lent me for the occasion. Everywhere there were oil pumps in various stages of deterioration, piston heads slumped in mechanical inebriation, disused, rusted, their heyday sup of premium crude having long since been polluted with brackish transudation, a great and rusted machinery stopped. The fields were fallow and run through with weed-choked irrigation ditches. The suit which I caught sight of in the IHOP plate glass was the same I had been married in. My shirt was the otherwise feint at insouciance, a vintage find with a large collar worn unbuttoned at the neck. I was being an asshole. My visit was not so much out of compassion, and I hedged on it even being an obligation. No: I had come for my brother’s birthright. He was the eldest, the forever good son, and I had always been the black sheep—as evidenced even by my choice of black gabardine that day. I wanted to prove that after years in second place, my mere existence outside prison walls won me the favorite son pelt: I was Jacob, and my brother in his stupid penitentiary orange was Esau. Maybe he wore penitentiary green. Again, some details are superfluous. I just remember my brother ate from the vending machines in the visiting room, fingers childishly stained with orange Cheet-o dust, and I felt a snarling elitism. My fingers were clean, my shoes unbloodied. “Free, white, and 21,” as Maggie would always say, free in the sense I had virgin wrists, unlike my brother and Christopher, whose wrists had been defiled by the snapping of cuffs, their hands literally tied, manacled, courtesy of the penal system in the great and golden state Californ-i-a.
I first met Christopher on the phone 3(?) years ago when he corrected my pronunciation of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. And here we were again–on the phone, but face-to-face. “Thom, take care,” he said. “Take care of M.” I took care of Maggie by kissing her in some hopeless manner on the cheek, and leading her out of the Piranesi-inspired civic building, phone hung-up and Christopher disappeared.
In jail as in prison everything watches you. Elevators only open up to narrow corridors, there are mirrors everywhere. In penitentiary, there are gates upon gates, like steel-braced grimaces, and guards finger their clubs. It’s a matter of guilt by association, like Maggie said: ‘Everyone needs a good fucking lawyer,” even if there’s no blood on your shoes or if your system is clean of what the system says you can’t have. You’re just guilty for living, guilty by association, even if you haven’t been tried and accused of anything. We’re all guilty, and sometimes we sit on a curb waiting for the guillotine of justice to drop while waiting outside a burgled house, either high on Sudafed or with spatters of O negative on our boot-tip.
We’re all guilty. We’re all guilty.
At the Poetry Awards, Mags gripped my arm with nervous strength. A crooked arm flexed.
“I doin’t know,” she said, unsure if she should be here, there.
I kissed her cheek.
“Of course you should be here.”
We drank white wine and hid behind the junipers. When she was in her married house, citrus hedges hemmed in the house, and the wood was dark. Maggie always hid. Her current house was of a strange snail-shell design, her bed in the middle of a coil with an incongruent sunroof, briars out front. She decorated her windows with velvet draperies to hide in midday dark. She hid behind damask and dark sunglasses and drink.
She shouldn’t have been. She won. Maggie Jaffe for ‘7th Circle.’
I run too fast
I fly too high
I hit to hard
Too wide my eyes
Too full my heart.
Too deep the pain.
In the bathroom of the SD Jail I held her. She was in front of a mirror, red-eyed and cursing. There were so many cameras and squinched-in seats and phones and iron-greys; so many cramped elevators and narrow corridors and convex watching glasses; so many forms and disparaging looks; so much free-floating guilt.
She hunched over the counter with red-rimmed eyes, hands trembling, and her shoulder blades were butterfly-like when racked with sobs, pumping like wings.
“I just can’t take it anymoire,” she cried, jaggedly, and it was about being watched while simultaneously watching over, this curious opticon of prison existence where everyone is assumed guilty and no one is innocent.
“I just can’t take it.”
“I just. Can’t take it.”
“It’s alright, Mags. Let’s go home. I’ll drive.”