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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Eulogy for The Bomb

by Paul Perilli

The appearance of an email in my Inbox on the morning of January 9th brought news of the death of Thomas M, a.k.a. The Bomb. Reading it, the flood of images of him playing hoop on the asphalt court in our eastern Massachusetts hometown was immediate. I smiled at the thought of the five-ten floppy-haired Bomb dribbling in a kind of sideways crouch, his butt leading the way and his torso protecting the ball from hands that might desire it for themselves. I felt the heat of a blazing July sun and saw The Bomb lift off the ground in his white Cons with the pumpkin cocked over his right shoulder in a demonstration of perfect athletic balance and control. I silently applauded the quick flick of the wrist, the high arc, and the ho-hum look in The Bomb’s steely eyes after another sweet sfooshing snap of the net.
Then I remembered something The Bomb said one sultry summer afternoon when a few thousand games later it seemed we blinked our eyes to discover we were twenty-one. I have no idea what had preceded it, or if it was extemporaneous input, but he sent it out there and it stuck: “You’re only allowed so many baskets in a lifetime.”
It was a prescient and profound declarative statement and I wondered about The Bomb’s last basket. If it came during a winter league game when he was forty-one or forty-two and long past his best days. The Bomb now relegated to one of those hack leagues we used to ridicule, leagues with bad refs played in ratty junior high school gyms; a strained shot he just managed to get off over a younger defender that clunked the front of the rim and barely had enough forward spin on it to roll over the iron and fall through. Maybe those were his only points of the game and later, changing into his civvies in a locker room that stank of stale sweat, he decided his time might be better spent on the Treadmill or Stairmaster.
I saw him raise his eyes and give his head a little shake at the almost unbearable memory of the magic ease he used to pop in five or six baskets in a row just a few years earlier, long jumpers from deep in the corner or out beyond the top of the key, soft little hooks down low over taller defenders. Free throws were a reach for the coffee cup. Packing his sneakers and shorts into his gym bag that night I believe he knew there was no avoiding it. In The Bomb’s view of the world, even he was only allowed so many baskets, and after them that was it, he was all done.
Back in those early days The Bomb was known for having certain idiosyncrasies. He’d never play a game on a hoop without a net. He’d never be a skin in a game of shirts against skins. He also had an aversion for formal leagues. The Bomb never played for our high school. He understood his game was incompatible with the control-freak program implemented by the coach, who never warmed up to The Bomb’s hectic, run-and-gun style. The hours and hours of drills that were intended to set up a “good” shot in a game situation were a huge snore to The Bomb. When he had the ball he’d look to shoot, and it went in plenty often. And The Bomb knew as well as the rest of us that when it came time to pick sides out on the blacktop you wouldn’t choose the lettered boys over him. And if you did, The Bomb would pay you back with a succession of facials while at the same time illuminating the severity of your sin in a mocking voice.
But was that the real Bomb who would try to break you by draining basket after basket while uttering a string of personal insults? I swear that was a contradiction in him because off the court he was quiet. He never bragged, he never offended, he didn’t act like a tough guy. He was a kid from a poor family. He was a bad student with a limited vocabulary and range of knowledge. He had an inferiority complex that made him feel out of place in most social activities. But on the court, with the rock in his hands, some substitute personality came off the bench and overtook him. A rush of blood that induced an almost unstoppable onslaught and had him pounding the ball on the asphalt as if he feared it might stick to it and deny him a move to the basket.
I was a teammate on the one organized team The Bomb played on for the Boys Club. We were fourteen and fifteen traveling once or twice a week to Worcester, New Bedford, Lowell, Boston, and other places. Our coach, a twenty-five-year-old grad student who also drove the team van, named me captain, but in the games I deferred to The Bomb, and he applied his dazzling freestyle playground skills with an inexhaustible drive to score points. The result was an average of twenty-plus per in games that might end up 51 to 42 or 44 to 38. If assists had been kept, I’ve no doubt I would have led the league on The Bomb’s production alone.
I recall one game, a home game in the small gym on Exchange Street, when he filled it up for forty-three points. It was one of the few times I didn’t give a second thought to dish and deal the pill to The Bomb on almost every offensive set and suppress my own desire to score. I watched with awe as, without the slightest change of demeanor, The Bomb bobbed and spun and bumped and sprung in a delirious frenzy that overwhelmed the skinny white boys trying to defend him. Forty-three points seemed like a million to us in those days, a performance worthy of a mention on Sports Center. But at that time there was no Sports Center. Not even a headline to be read on the sports page of The News Tribune that might have raved THE BOMB GOES FOR FORTY-THREE, BOYS CLUB ROMPS. After the game, in the locker room that smelled of chlorine, The Bomb was cool about it. We slapped him on the back, impressed and giddy by what we’d witnessed. He smiled, but not a word came out of him that might be described as conceit. It was as if he too was surprised by his effort even though we all knew better. He’d had a good night. He’d have others.
And yet in all of that in all those years I don’t ever remember dialing The Bomb’s number to find out how he was and what he might want to do that night. Off the court I didn’t hang out with him much, if ever. When we were eighteen I went to college and The Bomb went to work lumping rubbish barrels for the Department of Public Works. It was a job, I understood without condescension, that suited The Bomb, that he didn’t mind going to nor being seen around town hanging off the back of a scarred-gray packer.
One of the last times I saw The Bomb remains quite clear in my memory. I was home for summer vacation before my senior year and went to the court that first afternoon. Sure as the round-ball’s a sphere, The Bomb was there with a questioning look in his eyes that wondered if this was the time I’d come back with a self-important air that would exclude him and compel a defensive response. It wasn’t. The hoops had nets on them and there were still some games to play together. Not a lot, but some, before I moved on from South Street for good. But by then The Bomb was a legend and I wasn’t and when I thought of him again I was struck frozen by his prophetic words, “You’re only allowed so many baskets in a lifetime,” knowing all of mine, like his, were already in the past.

Paul Perilli's words of the day appear in Volume 3 of The Transnational and The Satirist. “Trumped!” is forthcoming in The Transnational.

Monday, May 16, 2016

My Precious Stuff

by Joesph O’Day

Inside a bureau drawer in my parents’ dining room, there’s a grayed envelope filled with old pictures. I take it in hand and wonder if I should do a quick flip-through, a close inspection, or store it for later. Maybe I should just throw it out, since I’m already overloaded with photos.

I’ve taken this August week off from work to clear my mother’s house and prepare it  for sale. Since Dad’s death twenty years ago, Mom has lived alone in this large two-family, until the need for permanent nursing home care forced her to leave. At this moment, this first day of cleanout, the house’s sole occupants are seven decades worth of stuff, a testament to my family’s distaste for letting things go.

I inspect the envelope. Hidden beneath familiar prints are five 2 x 3 color photos, a family series—my mother and father, and Dad’s mother, father, sister and brother. They’re dressed formally, perhaps having been to church or a wedding. The day is sunny and dry, the background, the Salem Willows. My favorite is of Dad and Mom together. Dad’s in suit and tie, his arm around her waist. Mom’s in high heels and yellow dress, nestled into his side. They smile broadly. The date stamped on back is 1946. A year prior, my father had completed his World War II tour as an Army Medic. They’ll marry in three years, have my sister and me in eight. Mom told me how shy my father was when they dated. He was exactly what she wanted, a gentleman, quiet and mild-mannered, not savvy with women, physically strong and courageous. And a non-drinker; she’d witnessed enough alcoholism in her young life to want alcohol out completely. It’s a beautiful photo, something I’ll always treasure.

Realizing how close I came to trashing these pictures, I resolve to take the time necessary to scrutinize everything, even if it means making a clearinghouse of my own
 home. I begin packaging items using any containers I can find, including old wooden boxes having the musty smell of dust and grime.

On the second night, I wake up at two am in a panic, wondering if I’d discarded my little wooden bank, the one Mom gave me in grammar school. I rarely used it and forgot it existed until I touched it yesterday. But now I want it not to be gone, want it in place
 until I decide its fate. When I search the dumpster the next morning to no avail, I know it’s gone for good.

I discover the palm-size stainless steel transistor radio I used to listen to Boston Celtics games in the era of John Havlicek, Bill Russell, Sam Jones. I’d hide under my bed covers late at night so my parents wouldn’t know I was awake, our home team’s
 victories causing announcer Johnny Most’s sandpaper voice, and my joy, to rise to the stratosphere.

The ceramics. For years I witnessed my mother’s pride arriving home from ceramics class each week, carrying creations that would accompany us the next forty years. The beige French poodles, the small black dog, the big white cat. The basketball-size green
turtle and frog, set on their respective parlor end tables. I’d sit between them having intimate conversations with my father about problems and sports and colleges and
career choices. My mother would listen from the kitchen, preparing supper, shouting out perspectives and advice.

Day three arrives and my wife Kris comments on my expanding take-home list, saying she “hates clutter.”
A friend tells me there’s a term for my style of house clearing. “Hoarding,” she says. “It’s called hoarding.”

A cousin stops by offering to sell items at the flea market. When I mention I’ll keep the old kitchen set, he looks at Kris and says, “He’s bad!”

A month after the house is cleared, we’re walking with a friend on a sandy street towards his Hampton Beach cottage. Kris discloses objects I’ve brought to our house,
underscoring how movers let slip my mother’s “sixty-year-old” couch, causing it to tumble down her staircase, tear off four balusters, and make her cry.

His advice, gathered from experience with his own parents’ house, is to “Throw everything into a dumpster.”

“But I want to preserve memories.”

“That’s what pictures are for.”

The pictures. Thumbing through my parents’ wedding album, I find several that I’ve seen for decades displayed throughout the house. I find others, less familiar, that seem more candid, more real. A young woman readies herself for marriage with friends, sharing her last moments of singlehood. Mom’s sister holds open a limousine door to help her exit, both of them so young, so happy, so hopeful. Dad and Mom kneel at the altar, expressions solemn, focused on the Priest’s instructions, making sure they’re getting things right. Mom laughs at a man’s comments in the reception line while Dad, standing next to her, wipes his lower lip. These do more than preserve memories. They broaden the picture of my parents’ lives, allowing me to view them in new ways, making me want to keep every photo, not just the flawless ones.

Day five. I can’t believe the pain I feel going through my parents’ belongings. I find letters from my father to Mom from overseas during the war, saying she certainly is not a pest, writing so much. I find items they especially valued in her cedar chest: my mother’s wedding garter, her wedding crown, the top of their wedding cake. When I show the top of the cake to Kris, she says it’s nothing special. I know she means it isn’t a special one; probably inexpensive, unremarkable. But to me, it is special. It’s the top of the cake that celebrated their joining. How can I eliminate something that was such an important part of their lives? Where is the utensil Dad used to bang the pipe to wake me early weekend mornings so I’d work with him at the carwash? Can I save it and somehow bring him back, just for a moment, just for the time it takes to tell him how much I love him, to hug him and not let go?

In a tender moment last night, after a tiring day, Kris told me that I have my memories and carry my parents inside. To take a few things of theirs and call it a day. “Filling up our house doesn’t bring them back.”

In the end, although I keep many of their possessions, including the turtle and frog, I relinquish countless others. I donate the kitchen set to the Vietnam Veterans of America, pieces of furniture to the Salvation Army, unsalvageables to the dumpster.

On the seventh day, except for a few remnants (refrigerators, electric stoves, leftover furnishings), the house is empty—old white paneled walls and ceiling lights with burned out bulbs and worn rugs with holes.

I do multiple final walkthroughs, stepping into each room, recalling scenes past. I’m in the cathedral ceiling attic and see my father as a boy, living in one of two unheated bedrooms, leaving a closet door open on winter nights, stealing warmth from the heated floor below. I see him years later, arriving home late one night, unannounced, on army leave, not wanting to disturb his family, sneaking up the back stairs to his attic room, getting discovered by his English Setter, Buddy’s frenetic barking causing his mother, father, and sister to wake, to join in on the dog’s jumping and kissing and welcoming home.

I take the back stairs to the cellar, see my father in retirement puttering with plumbing and wiring and furnaces, wearing coveralls that were his uniform for twenty-five years at his car wash. I see him on his last day of life, interrupted by my three-year-old daughter’s request to come outside through the bulkhead and witness her rope jumping prowess… one jump, stop… one jump, stop, her brown curly hair bouncing up and down,my wife telling me how he laughed his wonderful, blissful laugh.

The house will be sold “as is” on a Friday in October. The Sunday before closing, I check it one last time. Garages, attic, cellar, first floor—all clear. Second floor—clear, except for a lone paper scrap on a kitchen shelf. I lift and turn it over, discover it’s my grandfather John J. O’Day’s funeral mass card. He died on August 11, 1955, a year after I was born. He’d known me for a year but I would never know him, except in stories my father told, and in memorabilia I’ve recovered: his gold pocket watch; his winter police coat with its brass Salem Police buttons; his policeman’s badge; the silver Mayor’s Cup he won in 1916 for being the force’s best marksman; photos of him directing traffic, of him sitting comfortably in a yard chair outside the house he purchased in the early 1900s and would pass on to my father. I place his mass card inside my shirt breast pocket. I want to protect it until I can get home and add it to my valuables.

Joseph O’Day obtained his BA and MBA from Salem State University and BS from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He has served as the Director of Pharmacy at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital since 1998. He has taken several graduate writing courses and is a long-standing member of Salem Writers’ Group. His writing focuses on the personal essay form, exploring family relationships and life transitions. Besides pharmacy and writing, he enjoys athletics and spending time with his family.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Fragile Landscapes

by Gillian Haines

“The war made us all sick fucks.” Wulf rubbed his shaven head and revealed a shrapnel wound that skipped and puckered along the pale underside of his right arm. “I’m glad it’s starting to come out. You should check out the articles I’ve been reading. One in Men’s Health describes this soldier in Iraq. He zeros in on this kid just as the kid takes aim to kill him.” Wulf’s freckled hands grasped a phantom M16 and he mimed looking through the sights. “The soldier doesn’t miss, the kid dies, and the soldier ejaculates. He’s horrified. Ashamed. But later, he can’t climax without that image.”
Wulf dropped his voice to a tired whisper. “It’s not just that. There’s two things going on. National Geographic says soldiers are brain-damaged by their training even before they get to war. Every time something goes off, you lose something. You can feel it!” he said, placing his hands on his ribs. “Those I.E.D. blasts! After every battle, blood comes out your ears, nose, and throat. How can we not be fucked up?”
He looked at me without blinking for a long time, and I nodded. He’d been issued prison coveralls too small for his bulging thighs.
“I’ll read them,” I promised.
Eight years ago, when I first volunteered to visit four inmates, I wasn’t sure why I felt such a tremendous pull toward confined men when I was already giving too much to a husband who was trapped in a different type of ruin. I didn’t think it was because I grew up in a country founded by convicts, or even because the government had hung my great uncle for setting fire to a hayrick. Only now can I admit that suffering had isolated me and I thought I could understand the loneliness of prison.
I sighed. I hated that plain white, windowless visiting room. Above us, a florescent light buzzed and flickered. Those lights that cast no shadows seemed to undress us. “I’m so sorry. I understand your disgust for people who don’t want to know about what soldiers have to do.”
He nodded.
“You say were a good soldier and you were promoted to Sergeant. What made you good?”
“The ability to keep calm in chaos—the worse it gets, the more focused I become. I kept my team together and did the job, whatever the goals.”
“That steadiness in a storm, I’m like that, too. When my husband was in the ER, the family in the room next door shrieked hysterically. They carried on so much, the doctor threw them out. In that instant, I knew the icy calmness I felt was essential.”
John, my husband of twenty years, had lost a fifth of his brain to a stroke on the day we moved to Tucson, ten years prior. He’d been a genius. He still scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for some cognitive tasks but he scored in the first for quite a few others. His fertile mind had been excavated and I was still seeking him in jagged crevices. Peering into sinkholes. Truth be told, I was looking for myself in those same places. I left Australia to follow him and in America, I gave up a job to look after him. I’d been the wife of a charming professor but suddenly I’d not been able to leave his side. Even after he’d shrugged off paralysis and returned to academia, his disasters consumed my life: dousing bonfires he lit in the fireplace, turning off our stove’s hissing gas jets, racing across town to deliver anti-seizure meds that he’d forgotten to swallow, and shrieking as he readied to throw our daughter into the air and into the whirring blades of a ceiling fan.
Early on, I sometimes had to drag myself to prison, wrung out and depressed. But then I’d started to look forward to going. I wanted to know how the men were doing. I’d become used to bearing the weight of their conversations. At some level, I knew they made me stronger. I listened with my ear and my heart and I forgot myself. The prisoners’ complications made mine simpler. By making space in my mind for their voices, I re-set my attention away from the hurried world where I lived—a world that judged before a thought had been completed—to a place of receptivity and openness, where two people paced their breath and pulse. 
 I gazed at Wulf, relaxing in his seat while I perched on the edge of mine, despite an ache in my lower spine. There were no tables. Just four mandated feet of space between our knees. Although Wulf took his ease against the backrest, I had no doubt of his complete attention. He ignored the many distractions across the aisle—shapely ankles in strappy red shoes, lustrous brown hair pinned with a yellow flower, bright swirls on a floral dress—distractions he must have hungered for. Such intense focus was rare, even on the outside.  
“Keeping your men together must’ve been a challenge. Some must have been terrified.”
 “They watch. They take their cues from you. You have to tell them it’s all right, even if it’s not.”
I nodded. When my husband’s body had first writhed as though captured by an invisible predator intent on breaking his neck, I’d squeezed my eight-year-old daughter’s hand. John’s rehab hospital had trained me for that moment so I was able to say, “It’s a seizure. Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll just be a few minutes and Dad will be okay.” She had stared at me, wide-eyed and unblinking.
“Were you scared?” I asked Wulf.
“No. I trained for it all my life.”
“But at first. You couldn’t have imagined what it was really like. Surely, then.”
“Maybe. But your training takes over.” He laughed. “It doesn’t prepare you for the stench. Dead people stink! Everyone releases liquid shit when they die.”
Across the aisle, a baby wailed and a prisoner placed it over his broad shoulder. It quieted immediately, hanging like a limp comma in a pale blue onesie.
 Wulf snorted. “The Hajjis stink when they’re alive. Urgh! Sweat and piss, they don’t wash much.”
I didn’t react when he bad-mouthed his enemy. It was probably essential if you were going to kill someone. And I didn’t want to silence him.
“When you survive a battle, every cell feels alive. It’s a rush! Sexual arousal is common.” His eyes never left my face, gauging my reaction.
I nodded soberly.
“Rape happens every day. It’s not the rare thing the news makes out. Rape and killing. The Hajjis hate us and we hate them. You get to a stage where killing means nothing.”
With all my heart, I hoped this man I cared for was a soldier who had never raped. Maybe I was a coward but I never asked. In prison, the fortress of boundaries, I drew a line I never crossed: only ask when you can deal with the answer.
But without realizing, I crossed that line. I asked Wulf why he was sent to that prison, a facility that specialized in sex-offenders, snitches, ex-gang members and the chronically ill. I thought his war wounds had been the ticket.
His handsome face went wooden. Wulf always looks me in the eye but for a long moment he couldn’t. Someone thumped the vending machine. The microwave pinged and the smell of bacon disturbed the layered flavors in the air: a woman’s floral scent and the reek of a full diaper.
Wulf looked back at me and raised his chin. “Conspiracy to transport a minor over state lines for unlawful sexual purposes.”
I felt like I’d trodden on a landmine. His forty-five-year sentence was so long I’d wrongly assumed he’d done something traitorous. In all the years I’d known him, he never flinched at my probing questions and was prepared to show himself in unflattering ways. We’d talked about sex and lovers using anatomical terminology, not interested in salacious details but curious about the rules of intimacy, the accommodations and the friction. I never detected an unhealthy interest. When he said his cellie was a gunner, a prisoner who masturbates in public, Wulf was so indignant. He said he wouldn’t live with a guy who jerked off where people could see and he forced the guy to stop. I’d believed that meant Wulf wasn’t a sex-offender.
I don’t know how I replied to Wulf’s tense recital of his crime. Somehow I continued the conversation but afterward, I didn’t remember a single thing. I kept my appointments to visit other inmates but was ensnared by a numbing fog. I know I laughed with them but the only thing I remember is that the Kung Fu shoes had gone. Prisoners now wore pale grey Crocs. I drove home troubled, feeling slightly nauseous.
I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I’m naïve. I went over all my interactions with Wulf but found nothing creepy. Quite the opposite. We had different values and disagreed about everything but he never got angry. He’d crossed boundaries I couldn’t imagine: from idealist to cynic, patriot to mercenary, protector to killer. I thought violence was a sickness and he thought it was the only way. But he protected mentally feeble inmates from prison bullies. He gave welcome packages of shower shoes, soap and deodorant to new men in his block and he told them how to survive. He gave prisoners ideas on setting up businesses and had shown the newest one how to iron tortillas to make burritos.
I shook my head. What sex crime could be so horrendous that just planning it got him forty-five years? What troubled me most were my feelings. I still cared for him, the worst kind of sex-offender: one who had hurt a child.  

Home life with a man who’d become like an autistic person had prepped me for prison. I got better at relationships with men I couldn’t fathom. And over the years, I’d already worked hard to understand rather than condemn Wulf. When I learned that he didn’t believe women belonged in the army, I was surprised. His blue eyes had shone. “I’m reading this real good book on the differences between the sexes. It supports what I’ve always thought: a division of labor makes sense. Women can’t carry the weight in my pack and every woman in the army has mental issues.”
When I challenged him, he listened good-naturedly and let me tease him about outdated attitudes. This willingness to banter made it easy to accept his sexism. But when he absorbed the racist prison code, I was dismayed.
“I’m not ignorant,” he’d said. “I’ve met two blacks in my life that I liked. I understand what you’re saying about pre-judging.” The freckled pink skin on his bald head shone as he turned to the right and then to the left. “You say this. But now I live with them, I see that. They’re noisy, they steal, and they don’t raise themselves up.”
Oh, yeah? And I guess Obama raised himself too high. But I tried to imagine what would happen to me if I were locked up in a place where fear forces you to form alliances based on color. When your life shrinks to the size of a prison bunk, it’s not just your joints that knot. Your thoughts become contorted, too.
“You give me so much trouble,” I’d said. “I keep leaving here thinking, how can I care for you? You’re sexist. You’re racist. You’re suspicious of altruism. And you believe in eugenics, for goodness sake!”
An amused expression had animated his face. “I keep telling you, you haven’t had the experiences I have.”
          “You know, that’s a bit…” I’d paused and then went for it, laughing. “It’s arrogant. I will go to my death bed believing in kindness!”
Wulf had looked at me with such a glint in his blue eyes that I thought he wanted to scratch me behind my ears. “Look, I’m glad there are people like you. It makes everything I’ve done worthwhile.” In his mind, war was worth it to protect goodness, a worn and faulty rationale for violence, but I didn’t say so.
At some unknown point, we’d shared so much of ourselves, we became friends. “You’re it,” he’d said. “I need you. I need to talk to you about what’s going on because you’re all I have. You have no idea what you do for me.” Like most prisoners’ families, Wulf’s abandoned him when he needed them the most.
Ours was a strange friendship. A friendship that would never have had a chance if we’d met outside prison. But Wulf allowed me to witness his struggle to make sense of a thwarted life, even as I fought to love a husband diminished, a man whose needs thwarted my own once-cherished hopes. Wulf helped me inhabit more of the person I wanted to become.
One day, he had exhaled loudly and looked away. “I miss fighting.”
My smile disappeared. He knew I was a peacenik. “How can you miss war? The fear, the danger? The killing?”
“If I was out today, I’d sign up in a minute! For anyone.”
“As a mercenary?”
“But you have sons! How could you kill other people’s children for a cause you don’t believe in or understand?”
“You think government-sanctioned killing is more legitimate than killing for money?”
My spit had evaporated. I slumped backwards and remained there while he watched me. “With wars fought over oil, you’re right.”
He nodded quietly.
“But that doesn’t make it okay! It’s not good for your soul.”
“It happens all over the world. Right now. And I’m good at it. Look,” he regarded me intently. “I don’t take pleasure in killing. I’m not a sadist. It’s a job. And I miss it. The intensity. It’s not fear. When you know you might die today, everything becomes crystal clear. It’s powerful to be with men who are good at what they do and who have accepted death.”
Shocked and at the same time, riveted, I tried to understand. “War must heighten everything. You live in the moment. And when comrades share that profound clarity, when they share the danger, and you trust them to watch your back, it must seem like a special brotherhood. Is that what you mean?”
          I watched his eyelids open very gradually until blue eyes locked onto mine. To call it a blink would describe the action but not the duration. At the same pace, he recaptured my own eyes and held them, nodding silently.
I understood that shared adversity unites. John’s stroke had been mine, too.
But I’d always imagined that soldiers overcame a reluctance to kill for duty and patriotism. Despite knowing that career soldiers existed, it never occurred to me that combat could exhilarate.
We lionize historical warriors like Patton and Lee, although both admitted to loving war, but it’s not acceptable for contemporary soldiers to speak unashamedly about their passion for combat. While I didn’t support the war Wulf fought in, I believe we are all responsible for the roots of conflict. And we set up young soldiers for isolation. After we train them to kill and they have achieved their purpose, their experience makes them social pariahs. I decided to deal with my discomfort at Wulf’s disclosures.
“It’s rare to talk like this,” I’d said, uneasy and fascinated. “Our values are so different and you must think I’m naïve but neither of us gets angry. I get to understand you because I’m not busy defending myself.”
I drove away from prison that day past desiccated creosote and wrinkled cholla, still green but wearied by drought. Mesquites thirsted for a rain that wouldn’t come, their canopies strung on branches like limp dishrags.

At the coffee shop, I sat beside my friend, Jim. “Now I know Wulf was going to hurt a child, I’m surprised my affection hasn’t disappeared. I feel like a bad person by association.”
Jim was detective-handsome with epaulet shoulders. Wavy grey hair added gravitas but it was an infectious, good-natured smile that made my women friends swoon. Now retired, he’d once specialized in sex-crimes but today worked as a private investigator. Although he loved crime novels focused on the dark milieu of world-weary gumshoes, his own demeanor was up-beat and compassionate. In my mind, viewing others with compassion after twenty-five years on the force made him due for a medal.
We never scheduled our meetings but had hung out on a nearly daily basis at Starbucks for a decade. We hugged only on birthdays but felt comfortable enough to lapse into silence or ignore the other while we typed or texted at our shared table. We were lonely. Jim was single and looking for a partner. I shared a marriage bed with a man whose brain injury made him forget how to love me.
“What you do in prison is a good thing,” Jim said. “You won’t stop seeing Wulf?
“No. I signed up to support men who’ve done terrible things because no one is beyond redemption, no matter how long it takes. No one deserves decades behind bars without a soul to visit. I won’t stop going but it’s hard.” I shot my hands in the air. “I don’t know what Wulf was planning to do to that kid. The title of his crime rocked me but now I’ve had time to think, he could have run away with an underage girl he loved. Wrongly! Stupidly! Illegally! That would be the best scenario. But I can’t help imagining others that are lots worse. I have to find his case somehow.”
“What if you find something that changes how you see him?”
“I know. But I’m already upset. I have to know the details and then I’ll settle it in my mind.” I sighed. “It’s stupid, really. I knew about this possibility from day one.”
“You’ll be all right.”
But I wasn’t. I couldn’t sleep. I’d cracked Pandora’s Box and burned to peer inside. Disgusted, I told myself that my job was to support Wulf while he endured prison, not to satisfy voyeuristic curiosity. But for peace of mind, I wanted to know the worst.
On my next visit, Wulf walked toward me with an easy grace born of fitness, holding his sculpted, bald head at a proud tilt, allowing his indigoed arms to swing loosely.
Before he even sat down, I blurted, “I can’t stop thinking about your crime. It’s messing with me. What happened?”
“I was back from Iraq doing this woman. She was fucking with her kid.”
“Abusing? Sex?”
Wulf nodded, pressing his lips together until they whitened.
“Why would you want a relationship with someone who did that?”
          “I was fucked up. I knew I wasn’t coping and had signed up for another tour. I didn’t belong here anymore. War was the only thing I understood.” He looked away. “I knew the woman was doing it. Their interactions were off. But it was none of my business.”
My stomach plummeted.
The skin on his face stretched tight over chiseled bones, as taut as I felt he was stretching our friendship. “Anyway, she didn’t have a car and asked for a ride. I dropped her and the kid off someplace.”
“Across state lines?”
“I lived five minutes from the border.”
“She made the trip to hurt her boy?”
“I didn’t know. Didn’t care, either.”
My mind went round and round. He’s a dad. How could he ignore an abused kid? I ached for that trapped child. It hurt to imagine a woman so damaged that she would inflict such pain. And I thought war had loosened Wulf’s grip on his soul.
As soon as I got home, I turned on my computer. The online documents I found said Wulf urged the woman to have intercourse and oral sex with her ten-year-old son while Wulf took photos. I slammed my computer shut and cried.
The tears dried but left behind an ache in my chest that made me want to run. I didn’t want to know more but I couldn’t not know, either. With my hand still over my mouth, I re-opened my laptop. I wanted to read the case transcript but could only find a decision denying Wulf’s appeal: a brief summary of the case. But I did learn that soldiers returning from combat in Iraq commit more violent and sexual crimes than their civilian counterparts. After the slaughter of war, I could imagine a heightened tendency to explode, to slash, and to screw. I could understand attempts to replicate combat’s adrenaline high when life at home seemed pedestrian and trivial. But the quiet perversion required to photograph a mother opening her legs for her boy’s virginity was something else entirely.
I dreaded my next prison visit. But when I got there, Wulf talked about his boys and I was able to cope.
“I call every night but they haven’t answered for six months.” Relaxing, he stretched his feet forward. He’d been issued a torn Croc shoe. “It used to amaze me how much Cliff remembered. He was only six when I fell. But if I was home, he was with me.” He smiled. “If I worked on the car, he was beside me. If I hung out with my guys, he was there.”
Tenderness washed his face. “When I came home injured from Iraq, I still had the bloody field splint on. I was helicoptered to the Green Zone and then to Germany but decided to come Stateside for surgery. I came through the airport doors leaning on crutches, and his little face fell. I threw my crutches down and called him over. I picked him up and he pressed his face in my shoulder.” Wulf’s arms moved to cradle the memory of his son and he laughed. “It hurt so bad! I was biting my lip so he couldn’t hear me crying. My dad came over and I had to lean on him. But I kept saying to Cliff, ‘It’s okay.

For six years, Wulf wore a beard that kinked its way to his chest, looking like it had been steeped in blood. But one day, he entered the visiting room with a neatly trimmed goatee. There was stubble on his head, too. He’d ditched that menacing prison style: bald and bearded.
“I like it.”
          “It’s a very pretty red,” he ran his hands over his hair.
The color was beautiful but I stared, checking my laughter, searching for a hint of self-ridicule. Surprisingly, there was none and I chuckled. “Even if you say so yourself!”
The room was full and noisy. Groups of loud visitors sat on either side of us and I jerked the row of connected seats forward. Two seconds later, an officer leaned over me. “Move it back!”
Wulf caught my eyes, twisting his lips together, as if saying, Welcome to my world. Then his handsome freckled face abruptly lost its vigor and his chest heaved. “I don’t feel like I’ve got much to offer. Life doesn’t change in here. I was listening to this guy tell his story; I’ve heard it at least six times before and I started thinking, ‘Do I bore her?’”
“No! We talk about so many things. Those conversations we always come back to are contentious and fascinating. You’ve helped me learn things that are important to me.” I shrugged, embarrassed. “I only knew it in theory before but friendship can flourish even when values don’t coincide. I’ve learned to suspend judgment in favor of curiosity and wonder.” I shrugged, embarrassed again.
But he nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t feel like I’m an asset anymore.”
“You are to me. You’re a window to worlds I don’t know. War, the military, prison, your peccadilloes. I don’t know anyone else who can disagree so adamantly without getting angry.”
He raised his eyes and sat straighter. “It’s true, contention is interesting. I like hearing different views in case there’s something I haven’t considered.”
He held my gaze for a long time. Then he whispered, “I just paid fifteen hundred dollars to a lawyer to review my case.”
“Because I didn’t do it.”
Connected by his silent stare, I regarded him closely. Strung about his neck, in place of a crucifix, hung a miniature axe. He was the most fascinating man I visited but he challenged me constantly. His laughter, his tenderness and his roving intelligence had not lulled and blinded me to the cut of his blade.
“Why didn’t you ever say?”
“Ambiguity matters. Character shows.”
I liked that he’d never tried to persuade me, that instead, he thought I’d work it out.
 “You took a plea bargain. You pled guilty.”
“I did transport the kid. But no one took photos. If there were photos, they would have charged me with that. They charged me with conspiracy because there was no evidence. His mother made it up to get me involved and to bargain for a lower sentence for herself.”
“Did you witness the acts?”
“No. But I knew something was up.”
I put both hands on my forehead. “My head’s reeling. I can’t process it, yet. You’re innocent! God, to go from the intensity of war to a cell, you must have been climbing the walls.”
“No. I was in shock. It was so far out in left field, I was stunned.”
I believe him. Oh, you’re so naïve. Why would you believe a felon? All you have is his word.
Almost as soon as those thoughts arrived, I didn’t believe them. In all our time together Wulf had displayed startling honesty and the courage to show himself even when he knew I might not approve. My decision to accept his innocence wasn’t necessary to avoid internal discomfort. When I thought him guilty, I learned to accept it and feel comfortable that I cared for him, still.
Eighteen months later, his lawyer said that Wulf had been imprisoned illegally and that he would fight for Wulf’s release. But such legal battles take time and Wulf and I will continue our conversations in prison for many years.
Conversations forge a path to those in-between places, like marshes that are neither sea nor land. Oozing, slimy places where missteps are fraught. Those fragile landscapes are disappearing because we want to drain them and fill them with rubble. But marshes are rich with tasseled reeds and the dense Belgian lace of interwoven roots. Wulf was not my guide when we explored there, nor I his, but you can’t go there alone.

Gillian Haines lives in Tucson’s desert where she loves hummingbirds and saguaros. For the past eight years, she has volunteered to visit four men in maximum-security prison because they only know the desert’s thirst. Her work has been published or accepted for upcoming publication in The Ilanot Review, Gravel Literary Magazine, Rain Shadow Review, Stories from the Other Side 6th edition, and an as yet untitled Punctum anthology. She is writing a memoir about her prison experiences.