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Brian was lying in his bunk on Saturday morning, looking over some papers, while Justin was sitting on the floor, working on a new drawing.
"Hey, fellas? Can I talk to you guys for a minute?"
Justin tensed. He did that whenever anyone came to the door of the cell, even someone he knew well, like Al from next door.
Brian got up and went to the door, while Justin stared at the figure looming there.
"What's up, Al?" said Brian through the bars. He only opened the door of the cell and let anyone in when it was absolutely necessary. Otherwise, Justin got too upset. He began feeling claustrophobic and anxious, as if the intruder were sucking all the air out of the room.
"It's Wes," said Al. The man looked worried. He licked his dry lips. "There's something wrong with him and he won't tell me what it is."
Justin heard Al's words and immediately stood up and went to the door. "What's the matter with Wesley?" Justin asked. "Is he sick?"
Al shook his head. "I don't think so. He got a letter this morning from Indiana. I think it was from his mom. There was something in that letter that's got him all turned around. He's in his bunk, crying and stuff. And that ain't like Wes. He's kind of soft, but he ain't a crier unless he gets his ass kicked or... or unless it's real serious." Al frowned. "Like when you got shanked, Bri. Wes took that hard and he cried over it, but so did lots of the punks and queens. But it ain't like Wes to start bawling over something in a goddamn letter."
"Can I talk to him?" Justin offered.
Brian was surprised at that. Justin rarely volunteered to leave their cell these days, especially not in order to enter someone else's -- not even that of a good pal like Wesley.
"Sure," said Al. "Maybe you can figure out what's going on. Because he won't say nothing to me!" Al looked hurt. "I'm his jock, but it's like he don't trust me!"
"Maybe this is something very personal," said Brian. "Or something he's embarrassed to talk about to you."
"Maybe," grunted Al.
Brian could see that Al was truly concerned about the kid. Al liked to put up the facade of a tough guy, but Brian believed that he had true feelings for his punk. Yes, he cuffed Wes around a lot and yelled at him constantly, but Al also was capable of treating Wesley very tenderly. And Al was extremely jealous of attention any other jocks paid to his personal property -- his very own kid.
"Let me go in an see him," said Justin. "Please? And -- can Brian come with me?"
Al hesitated, but then he shrugged. "I guess so." Al knew that Bri Baby was safe around Wes. He wouldn't try any funny stuff with him like another jock might.
Brian unlocked the door and he and Justin walked over to the next cell. Al let the pair in and locked the door behind them. Then he went down to the Gym to blow off some steam.
Wesley was in the upper bunk, his face buried in the pillow. He looked up when he heard the cell door open.
"Hey, Wesley," said Justin. "It's only me. And Brian, too."
Wesley wiped his eyes and nose on the sleeve of his workshirt. "Hey," he said weakly.
"Tell me," whispered Justin. "Did you get bad news from home?"
Wesley nodded slowly. And the tears began to course down his cheeks. "It's Ma. She's in the hospital. My aunt wrote this letter telling me." He gave the letter, which was wrinkled and damp with tears, to Justin. "She's real sick, Justin. My aunt says that she was asking for me. What am I going to do? What if she croaks or something?"
Justin climbed up into the upper bunk next to Wesley and held him. "I'm sure nothing bad will happen to her, Wesley. They take good care of people in the hospital. Look how they fixed up Brian. Good as new! Right, Brian?"
Brian took a deep breath. "Right, Justin. Look at me."
Brian was quietly scanning the letter that Justin had handed to him. It looked like Mrs. Richmond was in bad shape. She had a heart condition, among other health problems, including being diabetic. The aunt sounded pretty gloomy about Wesley's mother's prognosis, but that could be female hysteria.
However, if Wesley's mother really were seriously ill, that might be grounds to get the kid a quick early parole. After all, Wesley was a model inmate, he was taking classes to get his High School Equivalency diploma, and his main crimes had been committed as an accessory to his cousin, who was doing harder time in a maximum joint.
Brian began putting together a proposal in his head. He'd have to get Father Bob in on it. And maybe Dr. Caputo, too, to explain to Warden Horvath just how serious the mother's ailments were. Anything to get this poor kid out. If Brian could get him out and back to Indiana in time.
Wesley shouldn't be in here in the first place, thought Brian. Like Justin. Wesley's main crime was being neglected. He had a deadbeat father, an ill mother, and a brother and then a cousin who both led the boy into serious trouble with the law. Then he got nothing but abuse once he was locked away. Al wasn't a bad guy, but he was a full-grown jocker taking advantage of a basically straight kid who still cried out in pain every time the man fucked him.
Justin had also told Brian that some of the other punks were ganging up on Wesley whenever they got the opportunity and using him to relieve their frustrations. Justin refused to squeal by naming names, but Brian could guess without too much difficulty who those punks were. It was dog-eat-dog in the Quad, where the strong preyed on the weak. And chubby little Wes was as weak as they came.
Brian turned away as he listened to the boy weeping for his mother, while Justin cried along with him. He thought of the terrible trailer visit and his own mother, so grim-faced and cold. Mom, who wouldn't touch him or hold him. Who had rarely ever touched or held him, even when he was a child. And Pop, sitting in front of the TV, gasping for breath through a tube. His old man, who would certainly be dead very, very soon.
What was the fucking point of it all? Brian pressed the palms of his hands over his eyes as if to push the pain out of his aching head. What was the purpose of all these wasted lives? What good did it do to yell or protest? Brian had once been idealistic. He had thought that he could do something to change the world. He had thought that he could love someone freely and without fear. And so he ended up in the Quad, living like an animal and being treated like a slave.
Brian thought about his manuscript. Would people even believe the stories that he related in it? He sometimes even he couldn't believe them -- and he had lived them. And if those people read his stories and did believe, would they do anything to change conditions? Or would they turn away? Who gave a shit, after all, about some criminal, even if he was only a pathetic punk kid?
But Brian listened to Justin, soothing Wesley. Wiping the boy's tears and stroking his hair. The way Brian did to Justin went he woke up shaking in the middle of the night, tormented by dreams that he couldn't even relate.
And the way that Ron had held Brian when he was in despair and only wanted to die. The way Ron had told Brian that he needed to live. That one day he would make a difference in the world, even if it was only by helping one other person.
Yes, Ron can be a shit much of the time, thought Brian, but without him I would have been dead many times over. And if I'd died any of those times, then who would have been here to protect Justin? No one. Brian knew that much. Justin was damaged in ways Brian didn't even want to think about, but at least he would walk out of the Quad with his body intact and his soul in his own possession. The rest might take years to fix, but it was fixable. The fact that Justin could push aside his own fear in order to comfort Wesley was the proof of that.
But who would fix Brian?
Brian rubbed his eyes. Soon, soon, soon, he chanted inside his head. That was all the longer he needed to hang on.
Until that moment when Justin walked out of their cell for the last time.
Anything after that didn't really matter.
Amy Carver was nervous walking into Papagano's. It was one of the most exclusive and expensive restaurants in Pittsburgh. On her salary as a writing instructor, Amy could barely afford an appetizer in a place like this, let alone have dinner there.
"I'm meeting someone," Amy told the hostess. "Mr. Rosenblum."
"Yes," said the hostess, checking her list. "Follow me, please."
Amy noted the atmosphere of the place as they walked through the dining room. The lights were low and many of the tables were set up for couples, who sat with their heads together, sharing bottles of champagne.
Ron Rosenblum stood when he saw Amy. He took her hand and shook it warmly. "Miss Carver. I'm so glad that you could join me."
The hostess pulled out the chair and Amy sat down.
"I've taken the liberty of ordering a bottle of wine," said Ron. "It's a rose, so it should go with whatever we might want to eat. Papagano's is known for its Italian cuisine, of course."
"That sounds wonderful, Mr. Rosenblum," said Amy. "Whatever you suggest is fine with me."
"I've already ordered an antipasto to start," Ron said, opening the menu. "But may I suggest the calamari? Do you like squid?"
"Squid?" said Amy. She fumbled with her menu. "I don't really know. I've never had squid."
"They prepare it very well here," said Ron. "In a basil and lemon marinate. But if you prefer something else, perhaps the Osso Buco or the Veal Florentine?"
"Anything," said Amy, who was rather flustered by the menu -- and also by Mr. Rosenblum himself.
The waiter brought the antipasto and poured a small amount of wine into Ron's glass. He tasted it and nodded. Then the waiter poured a full glass for him and another for Amy.
"This is quite good," said Ron, sipping his glass. "Papagano's has one of the best wine lists in Pittsburgh. I'm not an expert on such things, but I enjoy good wine and good food."
"I can see that, Mr. Rosenblum," said Amy. The wine was very good. She nibbled at the antipasto platter. It was good, too.
"Please call me Ron. After all, we are going to be working closely together on Brian's manuscript. Without you and your discerning eye, we wouldn't be sitting here, thinking about Brian's work becoming a book."
"That reminds me... Ron," said Amy. "Aren't we supposed to be meeting with the literary agent tonight?"
Ron poured some more wine into Amy's glass and then into his own. "Yes, James Crossley. He's been delayed, but he should be here in time for dessert."
"Oh, I thought that the whole purpose of this dinner was to meet with the agent and discuss the arrangements for Brian's manuscript." Amy picked up her refilled glass and drank. This was very pleasant.
"Yes, but I also thought this would be a good opportunity for the two of us to get better acquainted," Ron replied.
The waiter came at this point and took their orders. Amy had the Veal Florentine, while Ron asked for the calamari.
"Not quite ready for squid, my dear?" Ron smiled, handing his menu to the waiter.
"Perhaps next time." Amy smiled back at Ron. She had heard so many things about Ron Rosenblum, including what she had read in Brian's manuscript, but she hadn't been prepared to be charmed by him. She thought of an ex-convict as someone hardened, like criminals in the movies. Someone with a rough surface or a blunt way of expressing himself. But Ron was elegantly dressed and a perfect gentlemen. Amy tried to imagine this man surviving in prison, but it was difficult to picture.
"Amy, my dear," Ron began. "I've been in discussion with Mr. Crossley, the literary agent, and he has a strategy for selling Brian's manuscript to one of the major publishing houses. But one of the things I want to be sure of is that all of the people who have been instrumental in getting Brian's story before the public be part of a team effort. After the first excerpt appears in 'The New Yorker' I believe that there is going to be intense interest in what Brian has to say. And because he's in prison, he won't be able to speak on his own behalf. That means we must speak for him."
"And say what?" asked Amy. She was confused. What did she have to do with all of this?
"You are the one who discovered Brian. There will be great interest in the story of how you came to read the manuscript and get it out of Stanton. However, as you know, there might be serious consequences for both Brian and Justin if the powers-that-be at Stanton decide to punish the boys for revealing the dark underbelly of prison life."
Ron paused for dramatic effect and watched Amy's alarmed face.
"I... I never considered that anything bad might happen to Brian -- or to poor Justin -- because of the manuscript," said Amy slowly. "Maybe we should withdraw it from 'The New Yorker'? Maybe this whole thing is a bad idea!"
"No, my dear," said Ron, soothingly. He reached across the table and patted her hand. "This work is an opportunity for Brian's story to be told. And the more people who know about it, the better the chance will be that he will get a new hearing. Perhaps even a new trial. If Brian's case becomes a cause celebre, then the prison administration may lash out against him -- but not for long. There would be too much bad publicity for them. If they are seen treating Brian, who has been a model prisoner and done many things to help other inmates, in a rough or unfair manner, then there could well be an outcry against his imprisonment. That kind of public scrutiny is exactly what we want."
"But what about Justin?" Amy hesitated to tell Ron that Justin was in a bad way lately. That he was nervous and fearful and very unlike the bright and eager boy who first gave her his cellmate's work so many months ago.
"Ah, Justin," said Ron. He sat back in his chair and gazed at Amy Carver. She would be quite attractive with a haircut and some decent clothes. Perhaps Julie might suggest some ways to make her more presentable to the public. Ron made a mental note to ask Julie about that tomorrow. "We are working on Justin's case separately. But we are certainly working on it. However, I believe that it is important for you to downplay Justin's part in your discovery of the manuscript. That's for the boy's own protection, of course."
Amy blinked. "But it was all Justin's doing! I never would have known about it if it wasn't for him."
"I understand that," said Ron. He leaned forward and stared into Amy's eyes. "But you want the poor boy to be protected, don't you? Justin's mother is very concerned about his safety and well-being. She thinks -- and I agree with her -- that it would be better if his name never came up in connection with Brian's book. At least until both boys are safely out of prison. Then the story will be theirs to tell. Do you see my point?"
Amy hesitated. "I think I see it. I wouldn't want Justin to come to any kind of harm. Or Brian, either. They've both been through so much already. I only want this publication to help them, not hurt them!"
"And it will, my dear Amy," said Ron. The waiter brought their main courses to the table and set them down. "And now we can enjoy our meal and wait for James Crossley to arrive from his previous appointment. Oh, and this...." Ron pulled his card out of his wallet and handed it to Amy. "If you wouldn't mind, I'd like you to come and see me in my office. The soonest you are free. I want to follow this discussion up in a more private venue. And..." Ron smiled. "Perhaps you'd have lunch with me afterwards? I know some quiet and interesting spots around town where we could talk quite uninterrupted."
"Oh," said Amy. She felt a bit perplexed. Reading Brian's manuscript had left her uncertain about Ron Rosenblum's sexuality. She knew that he had been married at the time he was in prison, but that his relationship with Brian had also been sexual. Frankly, Amy wasn't sure what to think about the man. Except that he was attractive. And very persuasive.
"I think I'd like that, Ron," Amy decided. Then she smiled at him again. She tasted the Veal Florentine. It was excellent. Maybe she should have tried the calamari. After all, you don't learn anything unless you try new and different experiences.
"Would you like a taste?" said Ron, offering her a piece of marinated squid on his fork.
"Why, Ron! It's as if you could read my mind!" Amy laughed. "I don't mind if I do."
And Ron lifted his fork to her lips.
Posted June 22, 2005.