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Al hesitated before he knocked on the door of Brian's cell. Sometimes Brian answered and sometimes he didn't, but Al was hoping that Brian would communicate today.
"Hey, Bri!" Al called out. "I thought you might like to read this letter I got today. It's from Wesley."
There was no response.
"I'm gonna slip it through the bars in case you wanna read it, okay? Wes asks about you. He says that he wrote to you, but you didn't answer him back." Al paused, waiting to hear if Brian would say something. Anything. "Anyway, I hope you read Wes' letter. I miss the little shit. It's kind of lonely without him around. You know how that is. Right?"
Al stood outside the cell to see if Brian might come to the door, but he didn't. There was no light on inside. The only way that Al even knew that Brian was in there was that he could hear the radio playing softly. Playing that Oldies station. Always the Oldies station.
Al walked up the tier to the Rec Room.
Emmy and Jackie were sitting on the old sofa, working on a needlepoint pillow.
"Al, honey! I heard you got a letter from Wesley!" cried Emmy.
"Can we read it?" begged Jackie.
"Sure," said Al. "I left it with Brian, but you can see it when he's finished."
Emmy glanced over at Jackie, who shrugged. "Is Bri Baby talking today, Al? What did he say to you?"
"Nothing," Al admitted. "I left the letter at the cell. But I hope he reads it. If it wasn't for Brian, Wes never would have gotten out."
"How's Wesley's mom?" Jackie asked.
"Not too good," said Al, his tired eyes looking sad. "But at least the kid is there with her."
"That's a blessing," said Emmy, patting Al's hand. Everyone on the tier had known that Al was attached to his punk, but no one -- probably not even Al himself -- had foreseen just how down in the dumps Al would be after Wesley was sent home to Indiana.
And Brian had managed it. Brian, with the aid of Father Bob and Dr. Caputo, had appealed to the Parole Board on Wesley's behalf -- and the Board had agreed. Wes ended up at his sick mother's side in time for Christmas. That made for two miracles that Brian had seemingly pulled out of thin air -- Justin's release and Wesley's parole.
But after those triumphs Brian seemed to go into full retreat. He was only rarely seen on the Yard and never in the Rec Room or the Gym. Every weekday morning Brian worked in the Law Library for a few hours, but then he returned to his cell and stayed there until dinner. He walked down to the Chow Hall alone, ate alone, and then went back into hiding in his cell, barely speaking or even responding to anyone, not even his best friends on the tier.
At first Emmy, Michelle, and Ben had tried to force Brian to interact with them. They walked to dinner with him, falling in step beside him as they all filed down to the Chow Hall. But Brian stopped and turned back, locking himself in his cell for the rest of the evening. Next they tried waiting until he was already in the Chow Hall and then sitting down with him, acting as if everything was perfectly normal. But Brian immediately stood up and walked out of the Hall, leaving his tray and uneaten food behind.
Now they merely left him alone. Everyone left Brian alone. They didn't know what else to do.
Shortly after Justin had been freed, a new inmate came into the East Wing and was placed with Brian. He was an older man in on a three-to-five for forgery and passing bad checks. But after three days with Brian he requested a transfer.
"I can't live in there with that guy!" he complained to the C.O.'s. "He's a fucking spook! I think he's psycho. He sits there in the dark for hours and he doesn't say a fucking thing. I don't care where you move me, just anywhere else!"
So the inmate was moved to the first tier.
A few weeks later another new fish came in. He was a younger inmate and a first timer. He lasted almost a week before he begged to be transferred out of the cell with 'The Spook.'
"He stares at me like he's gonna kill me!" the kid told the C.O.'s. "I'm scared of him! Please take me out of there!"
And the kid was transferred to the second tier.
Emmy shook her head. She wasn't certain what to do about Brian. Or if there was anything that could be done. He might well snap out of his funk and be back to his normal self any day. Or he might continue on this strange path indefinitely -- in which case he was bucking for a one way ticket to the Psycho Ward.
Every few days Emmy collected Brian's mail from one of the queens who worked the Mailroom and took it up to Brian's cell. One of the C.O.'s, Sergeant Tully, was also concerned about the radical deterioration of Kinney, who he considered a model inmate, so Emmy enlisted him to help Brian as much as they could. While Brian was at the Law Library Sergeant Tully would unlock Brian's cell and let Emmy in. Em would tidy up the cell, make up the bunk, and take away Brian's dirty clothes to wash. She would also arrange Brian's mail on the floor next to his bunk.
But so far Brian hadn't opened a single one of the letters he had received since Justin left. These were chiefly from Justin and Ron, but there were also letters from Amy Carver and a number of other people whose names Em didn't recognize, mostly with New York postmarks. The mail piled up next to Brian's bunk, untouched.
Em had also noticed that Brian didn't seem to be reading his magazines, either. His new copies of 'The New Yorker' sat on the floor untouched. Even when the excerpts from Brian's manuscript began appearing in that same magazine, there was still no change in Brian's behavior. When he first learned of the publication, Warden Horvath had angrily placed Brian under punitive lockdown, but it hardly mattered since Brian rarely left his cell anyway.
Some of the inmates got hold of copies of the three issues of 'The New Yorker' containing Brian's memoir and soon all of the men in the East Wing, as well as many in the South, were reading it avidly. Most of the guys already knew the outlines of Brian's history, but seeing it in print was fucking awesome! Brian told things the way they really were in prison, no holds barred, and the men respected that. Yeah, Bri Baby admitted that he was a faggot before he came into the Quad, but so what? They pretty much knew that shit already. What they liked was the way Brian came down hard on the legal system that had convicted him and on the former administration of Stanton for letting the gangs run wild there. Also for revealing the basic corruption of the whole lousy system. And for pointing the finger at the big shots who had orchestrated his conviction. The men all wondered what punishment would be in store for poor old Bri Baby -- as if he needed any more punishment than what he was inflicting on himself.
In the end Warden Horvath and the Board of Prisons did nothing. The 'New Yorker' excerpts ended with Ron's rescue of Brian from the low-riders's tip, an event that had taken place a decade earlier, long before the new administration had initiated their program of reforms. The powers-that-be looked at Brian's story -- as far as it went -- not as an indictment of the current state of affairs in Stanton Correctional, but of the old, discredited system. And the Board of Prisons released a statement saying just that. And then did nothing more.
Emmy left the Rec Room and walked down the third tier. She knocked gently at Brian's cell. She could hear Brian's radio playing softly. Em could almost feel Brian's presence inside. Almost hear his breathing.
"Bri Baby?" Emmy called. "Won't you talk to me, honey? Just to say hello?"
But the only greeting Emmy received was a profound silence.
"Sunshine!" cried Debbie Novotny in delight. "I was hoping that I'd see you here today!"
"Hello, Mrs. Novotny," said Justin. The woman hugged him tightly. A little too tightly. Justin slowly disentangled himself from her strong embrace. "I thought I'd see you here, too."
"And hiya to you, Mr. R." Debbie nodded to Ron, who was looming right behind Justin.
"Mrs. Novotny," said Ron, grimacing. "So nice to see you again."
The three were standing in line, waiting to go into the Visitors' Gallery. Debbie had a shopping bag full of items for her son, Michael, and Justin was holding a plastic bag to give to Brian.
"I heard that Bri Baby hasn't been feeling too well lately. I know he didn't come down to see you last month," Debbie said. "I hope he's better now."
"So do I," Justin replied. "I brought him a new sweater. It's been so cold that I thought he might need it." Justin felt himself choking up. "The cells in Stanton are... are so damp in the winter."
"You're a darling, honey," said Debbie, patting the boy's cheek. "So thoughtful."
What a sweet kid he is, thought Deb. Too bad about Bri Baby. Mikey's letters were full of worry for his friend. Poor Brian seemed to have gone off the rails ever since Sunshine was released. Maybe if he would come down and talk to his former cellmate -- BOTH of his former cellmates! -- he'd feel a lot better. It didn't help to isolate yourself when you were in prison. Sitting in your cell, day in and day out, only drove you nuts.
"So, you're going to take that apartment?" asked Debbie. "You think you can swing the rent, honey?"
"I'm definitely taking it, Mrs. Novotny," said Justin. "Ron is going to help me with the rent. And my mom is giving me some of her old furniture. But I want to paint the place before I move in."
"That'll spiff it up," Debbie agreed. "That's an old building, but the rooms are nice and big and the ceilings are high. You'll have a nice little place there when you finish with it."
So, the lawyer was helping the kid out by giving him money. And living with Sunshine's mom, too. That was a shocker. No wonder the kid wanted his own place. Must be quite a cozy little scene with all of them living together!
"You thinking of getting a roommate?" Debbie asked. "There's two bedrooms in that apartment."
"I know," said Justin. "I was thinking of making the second bedroom into an art studio. It has big windows and gets a lot of light. But I don't want a roommate." Justin hesitated, glancing at Ron. But what the fuck? "When Brian gets out he'll be living with me, but we'll only need one bedroom."
"Oh," said Debbie. "You think Brian is getting out soon?" Poor kid, she thought. He's really dreaming! Brian still had at least 10 years to go before he had any hope of getting out!
"I'm hoping, Mrs. Novotny," Justin smiled. "I'm always hoping."
Ron shook his head. Yes, they were both always hoping. But maybe... just maybe... that hope was closer than ever.
But then... what would Ron do about the kid? That was something that Ron had yet to figure out.
"Don't forget to stop by the diner and pick up your apron and nametag," Debbie reminded Justin. "And always wear a nice, tight pair of jeans to show off that sweet little tush! You'll get a lot of tips that way."
"Sure, Mrs. Novotny." Justin tried to smile, but he couldn't force himself. "I'll remember."
The doors opened and the visitors began to file into the Gallery.
Justin clutched his plastic bag. In it was a brown and gold plaid pullover. A wool and polyester blend. Justin had tried it on himself and it was nice and warm. Just what Brian needed. Justin had already gotten him a sweater at Christmas -- a maroon cardigan -- along with a lot of other presents that he had brought when he and Ron visited Stanton in December. But Brian hadn't come to the Gallery that day. They had waited for the entire hour, but to no avail. Finally, Justin passed the presents to one of the C.O.'s, who promised to get them to Brian. But Justin had never heard from his lover. Nothing. Justin pictured Brian wearing the maroon sweater. Then he pictured him wearing the new brown and gold pullover. And reading the books that he had included in Brian's Christmas package. But Justin wanted to know for certain. He didn't want to guess.
Ron led Justin over to one of the middle tables, while Mrs. Novotny sat down at the one next to theirs.
"We can't seem to shake that damn woman," Ron muttered.
"She means well, Ron," Justin replied. "She told me about the apartment. And she got me the job at the diner."
"When do you start there?" asked Ron. The place was an infamous hangout for hookers, drag queens, and other low-lives.
"This weekend. The morning shift on Saturday. I have to be there at 6:00 a.m."
"You better set your alarm, then." Ron shifted nervously in the hard, wooden chair. "If Brian doesn't show up today I feel like marching into the Quad, walking up to the tier, and knocking some sense into him!"
"I don't think you'd get very far," Justin pointed out. "I get frustrated, too, Ron. Knowing that Brian is right inside -- and not being able to communicate with him."
Ron glared at Justin. "Now you understand how I felt when Brian wouldn't see me and wouldn't answer my letters. You start to get desperate. Desperate for any word. Desperate for any clue to what's happening inside his screwed-up head. I know that you think I was a pain in the ass, Justin, but maybe now you understand a little better. You turn over in your mind every mistake you made. Everything you said. It gets obsessive. You get obsessive."
Justin nodded. "I know what you mean. I'm starting to feel that way, too. And I don't like it."
As much as Justin hated to empathize with Ron, the truth was that they were both in the same boat -- on the outside, with no way to reach the person they most wanted to be close to.
Except in the Visitors' Gallery. If only Brian would be there.
The Stanton-side doors opened and the inmates began to come in. Michael was one of the first, heading directly for his mother and giving her a big hug. He glanced over at Justin and Ron, but he didn't smile at them. Instead, he shook his head.
"Fucking Mikey," breathed Ron. "I bet he knows that Brian isn't coming down."
Justin put his head down and rubbed his eyes. "Please, God! Make him come down here and see me!"
"God doesn't have a fucking thing to do with it, kid," said Ron, angrily.
"Gentlemen!" said a familiar voice.
Justin looked up. "Em! What are you doing here?"
"Visiting," said Emmy. She sat down in the chair on the opposite side of the table. "Visiting you. I've never had a visitor before, you know. But I told the C.O.'s that you were coming to see me and they let me down."
Justin stared at Emmy. He had never seen her look so butch. She was wearing her plain workpants and blue shirt with no embellishments or jewelry, not even a single scarf or bracelet. And no make-up. Em had also pushed her long, light brown hair behind her ears.
"Since you're here in his place, Emmett," said Ron, coolly. "I suppose that means Brian isn't coming to the Gallery."
"No, he isn't coming," Em admitted.
"Shit!" Justin cried in disappointment. "What's the fucking point? What is Brian trying to prove?"
"He's not trying to prove anything, babydoll," Em said gently. Poor Justin! He looked so sad. "He's only barely hanging on. He's not talking to anyone, he's hardly eating, he... Brian is in trouble. And I don't know what to do about it."
"Is it that bad?" breathed Ron. "Does Horvath know? What about Dr. Caputo? Is anyone doing anything at all?"
"There's nothing they can do, Ronnie honey!" snapped Em. "Brian hasn't broken any rules. He hasn't caused any trouble. He... he's just THERE. But that's all. They can't even keep a cellmate in with him. Guys can't live with him because he only lies in his bunk and stares into space. He doesn't communicate. He barely responds at all, not even to me or Ben or Michelle." Em glanced over at Michael, who was sitting with his mother and whispering to her.
"Listen to me, Emmett," said Ron. "Brian has been like this in the past. It's not a good sign. He goes into these depressions, but he has always come out of them. Except...." Ron paused.
"Except what?" said Justin. A cold shiver moved down his spine.
"Except that sometimes he tries something stupid," said Ron. "But I was always there to stop it. Because I knew the signs. This is not good, Emmett, especially if there's no one in the cell with him. Or no one who cares enough to do anything."
Em tossed her head. "Don't you suggest that I don't care, Mr. Rosenblum! You may think that I'm a silly, worthless queen, but I'm Brian's friend. And so is Michelle and so is Ben! But what can we do if we can't talk to the man? I've been cleaning his cell and trying to reach out to him, but he simply won't give anything back."
"You've been in the cell, Em?" said Justin, eagerly. "Did Brian get my Christmas presents? And my letters? Is he readng my letters? Because he hasn't answered. Not even one page."
Emmy looked at Justin sadly. "He got your letters, cupcake. And yours, too, Ronnie. But he hasn't opened them. He hasn't opened any of his mail."
"Why didn't you tell me that, Em?" Justin asked. "Why didn't you let me know how bad it was?"
"I didn't want you to worry, babydoll," Emmy answered. "Especially not over Christmas. Besides, I thought he'd snap out of it by now."
Justin ran his hands over the bag containing the new plaid sweater. He could almost feel the soft, warm material. "What about his Christmas presents, Em? The ones I brought him last month?"
"They're still sitting on the floor of the cell. The package hasn't been opened," said Emmy. "I'm sorry, Justin."
Justin stared down at the bag in his lap. Then he laid it on the table and pushed it across to Emmett. "Could you take this to him, Em? Please?"
"Of course, hon," said Emmy. "I'll put it in his cell." Too bad it's only going to lie there on the floor, thought Em.
Ron sat in his seat, trying to think. If only he could get to Brian! If only he could talk to him! But in the meanwhile....
"Emmett, this is important. I want you to search Brian's cell the next time you're in there," said Ron.
"Search it?" Emmy frowned. "And what, may I ask, am I searching for?"
"Pills," said Ron bluntly. "I want you to see if he's hoarding pills. And if you find any, I want you to flush them immediately. Then make certain that he doesn't get any more. Have Dr. Caputo put Baby on suicide watch over in the Hospital Wing if that's what it takes. But do it!"
"But where would he be getting pills, Ronnie?" huffed Em. "He never leaves the cell!"
"Does he go to the Law Library?" asked Ron. "He must be, because Julie is still getting mailings from him regarding pending cases."
"Yes," Em admitted. "He goes there every day for a few hours. And he usually goes to the Chow Hall once a day to eat something."
"Then he could be going to the South Wing, too!" Ron shook his head at the queen's stupidity. "Or someone might be bringing him stuff from over there! Because if Brian is hoarding pills, that means he's only waiting for the right moment."
Justin gulped. "The right moment for what?"
Ron turned and stared at the kid. "To write the last chapter of his book. That's what!"
Ben stood in the chow line waiting to get his lunch when the guy behind him nudged his pal and said, "Hey, look. Here comes the Spook."
Ben turned towards the door and saw Brian slink into the Chow Hall. He looked dishevelled, even dazed, almost as if he were in a trance. His clothes were wrinkled, as if he had been sleeping in them. And he looked thin. Not as thin as he had after his stabbing, but close to it. All of the work that had gone into building Brian back up to full strength seemed to have been for nothing. Ben's heart sank to see him.
"That guy belongs in the Psycho Ward," said the second inmate. "I'm glad I don't have to cell with the Spook."
"Yeah, he might bite you when you're sleeping!" the first guy smirked.
Ben grabbed the guy by the collar of his workshirt and jerked him sharply. "You better shut the fuck up right this minute, asshole!" Ben warned. "If I hear you or anybody else using that name for Brian again I'm going to kick some ass in this Quad! You got that, punk?"
"B...but Juice...!" the inmate stuttered.
"No fucking buts! I don't want to hear it!" Ben pushed the guy away roughly. "So spread the fucking word."
"Sure, Juice. Sure thing!" The two pals hurried through the line and away from the Juice Pig. He was close to psycho himself, so it was no wonder that he was buddies with the Spook. The buzz was that Juice was hyped up on steroids and muscle shit and everybody knows that makes you freak out!
Brian took a tray and put a small amount of food on it. Then he sat at a corner table, alone. No one sat anywhere near him.
Ben took his own tray over to the queen's table.
"Brian came in," whispered Michelle to her jocker as he sat down next to her.
"I know," said Ben, shortly. "I saw him."
"He looks awful, honey!" said Emmy. She thought of Justin's desperate face as he sat in the Visitors' Gallery. "What are we going to do?"
"I don't know, Em, but somebody has to do something." Ben stared at the hamburger on his plate, but he no longer felt like eating.
"If Bri Baby would only go down and talk to Justin I'm sure he'd feel much better," Barbie prattled. "I always feel better after I see someone on Visiting Day. It gives me a big lift!"
"Brian needs more than a big lift, dolly," said Emmy. "He needs shock treatment!"
"Does the kid really want to see Bri looking like that?" asked Michelle. "That might be worse than not seeing him at all!"
"I don't think Sunshine cares what he looks like," said Em. "He only wants to be in the same room with him."
Ben listened to the queens dish poor Bri and poor Sunshine for a few more minutes before he couldn't listen anymore. "I'm going to the Gym," said Ben, standing up.
"But you didn't finish your lunch, Benjie!" Michelle whined.
"I'm not hungry anymore," Ben grunted.
Ben picked up his tray and took it back to the window. But the entire time he was watching Brian. Brian was eating, but it was mechanical. Like he wasn't even aware of what he was doing. Like he was lost in his own world that was somewhere far away from the Chow Hall. Far away from the Quad. Where are you, Brian? wondered Ben. Where is it that you spend all of your time? And how long are you going to be there?
"Your comrade is fucked up, Juice," said a deep voice.
Ben turned to see Baraka, the leader of the Brothers of the South Wing. He had recently traded his distinctive afro for a braided style that one of the newer black queens had learned before she came into the Quad.
"I know," said Ben. The two of them watched as Brian suddenly stopped eating, stood up, and rushed out of the Chow Hall, almost as if someone had summoned him and he was answering the call. "But what the hell can I do?"
"This isn't the first time," said Baraka. "It happens when the Baby can't deal. When he can't be in this place no more. So he's NOT in it. Kinney's gone."
Baraka wasn't quite as tall or as muscular as Ben, but he was a powerful figure. One of the few men in the Quad who could look the Juice Pig in the eye. One of the few men who wasn't afraid Ben -- or of anyone else.
"But where does he go?" asked Ben.
"Fuck if I know," Baraka admitted. "But if he don't come back soon he's going to die."
Ben was startled. "You think it's that serious?"
Baraka nodded. "I been in this hole almost as long as Kinney. The lawyer and the Baby were already tight when I came in. That was right before the 'Happening' on the Yard. I was a new fish then, but Kinney was already a veteran punk."
Ben shook his head. The 'Happening' was the name that some of the older inmates gave to the prison riot that had occurred in the summer of 1973. Ben didn't know much about it except that a war had broken out between the Brothers, who controlled one area of the Yard, and the Aryan Warriors, a White Supremacist gang who controlled another area. Something had set off a confrontation between the two groups and when it was over fifteen inmates, both black and white, and two guards were dead. The National Guard had to be called in to restore order to Stanton Correctional. After that disaster the corrupt administration of the prison had been thrown out and a new regime, led by Warden Carl Horvath, had taken over.
"That lawyer would tell you if he was here," said Baraka. "You think what went down with the low-riders was nasty business? Think again, Juice. I'm talking about scores being settled all over the Quad. Settled in blood. And if you didn't belong to one side or the other, you were fucked, because either side would kill you in a heartbeat. Kill you or fuck you over real good. You think that shit didn't do in the head of the Baby, who was already walking on the edge of the cliff? You think all the shit you survive don't make you a little crazy over the years? I seen that look on Kinney's face before, Juice. I seen it -- and it ain't good." Baraka held out his hand and Ben shook it, tentatively. "Now we understand each other, dig?"
"Maybe," said Ben, warily. There wasn't a lot of understanding between the races in Stanton, but one thing Ben did know was that Brian and Baraka had some kind of tenuous friendship that went back years. And that friendship was very rare between a black inmate and a white one.
"You have one of your queens talk to Loretta," said Baraka. "She knows all the shit going down in the South. Ask her. She'll tell your queen what you need to know. But do it fast."
"Ask about what?" asked Ben. It was like Baraka was talking in code.
"Do it. Fast," he repeated.
And then Baraka walked away, back to the South Wing.
Posted June 30, 2005.