Perry looks at me across the table. “How’s the weather today?” he asks. No matter if it’s cold and raining or sunny and perfect I always answer him the same way: “Awful.”
Perry raises a dark eyebrow at me. Grins.
“Well,” he says, “I think I’ll just stay inside then,” and we laugh. I can’t guess from looking at him how long he’s been here exactly, but his shoes, worn down at the soles like a pencil eraser tell me: a while.
Every Wednesday night for six months, I have visited a medium-security prison in Iowa to teach creative writing to locked-up men. Our group changes a little each week, but the three guys always in attendance are the three sitting here with us tonight: Josh, Kenneth, Perry. They rise from their chairs when Mary and I enter the small classroom, hurrying to pour us water in clear plastic cups. Sometimes they pass around a baggie of Jolly Ranchers or vanilla wafers, which they’ve all chipped in to buy from commissary. Get here alright? they ask us. More water, more cookies?
Once we’re settled, we go around the table and catch up on one another’s news. I changed cellmates. I started a new book. My lawyer visited. As each man speaks, we give him our full attention, nodding to let him know he’s been heard. How’s your dog, your students? they ask Mary. And to me: Grad school applications coming along? We’re not supposed to discuss personal details with them, but as we share our writing, intimacy becomes harder to avoid.
Tonight, like always, we begin class with a writing exercise. “Close your eyes,” says Mary at the head of the table. “Write rain in the air, write wind on your arms.” Together we work in silence, imagining ourselves into landscapes full of color and liveliness. One man reads about fishing at Lake MacBride with his little brother. Another remembers his mother’s vegetable garden in summer, the sun’s glow on their hands and faces.
After we’ve all shared, we move on to workshop. Every week one of us hands in writing, pages torn from notebooks and covered in pencil scrawl that Mary types up at home and copies for us. Tonight is Perry’s turn. Mary stands and passes out the latest chapter of his memoir, which is what most guys in here are writing, retracing missteps and fumbled dreams. Working back through their pasts in an effort to heal old wounds and emerge new.
Still, I can’t help my dread when I see Perry’s story—nearly thirty single-spaced pages, way over the usual ten or fifteen that others bring in.
“Sorry, Mary,” Perry says. “I know it’s a lot, but I appreciate your time.” He’s around the same age as her, mid-forties. His hair is long and tied into an enviable silver ponytail streaking down his back.
I look at Mary to gauge her reaction but she just smiles, eyes teasing him. “We’ll let you off this time, Perry,” she says, and he grins, lips stretching all the way to his ears. Perry and I graduated from the same university where Mary is a rhetoric professor. We were both creative writing majors and even studied with a couple of the same teachers, though Mary wasn’t one of them.
“How’s old Brooks?” Perry likes to ask me. “He still have you diagramming sentences?”
“Don’t remind me.” I groan and roll my eyes in a dramatic way that I know cracks Perry up; it feels good to share common ground, however small. We smirk at each other across the table.
One of my professors told me about Mary’s prison workshop. I emailed her immediately in hopes the weekly meetings would keep me writing while I worked as a bank teller and applied to MFA programs. Plus I was curious. I couldn’t believe I’d lived in Iowa City for four years and hadn’t known about the prison. Hadn’t seen it on my drives past the Coralville mall only two miles away, tucked back from the road behind a crop of other flat, beige buildings.
Mary takes her seat and now it’s time to get down to business. Perry adjusts his glasses on his nose and looks over the rims at the page in front of him. No matter how many times I’ve heard him read, his voice always startles me. Deep and firm, it’s much too confident for his shy eyes hidden by reading glasses and yet too gentle for the ponytail spilling messily down his back, reminiscent of wilder days.
Perry picks up where we left off weeks ago. He moves to Des Moines after college, the closest you can get to a big city in Iowa. There he takes a job at The Register as an overnight copyeditor. When his shift finally ends he’s no longer sure if it’s night or morning; outside, the sky is a smooth, whitish-brown, the color of his coffee after adding cream. Perry is sore all over. His eyes ache behind his glasses, his shoulders tense from hunching over his desk, a thick volume of The Chicago Manual of Style open in front of him. They’re always coming out with a new edition, it seems, always a new rule to make the old one meaningless. So many rules, he thinks, his temples pulsing as he walks to his car. Who makes them all up anyways?
Down the street from The Register is a tavern where Perry goes after work. A pack of motorcycles is always parked out front and soon Perry joins their group. He starts up with drugs: doing them, dealing them. A few stints in county before a judge does the math and finally sends him here on the same drug charges as Josh and Kenneth. I look up and see them watching Perry as he reads, their bodies alert, a quiet respect on their faces. Perry has been here longer than they have.
“He was a skeptic, he was young, abstract, and therefore cruel,” Perry reads, looking up from his papers. Our eyes meet across the table; he winks at me. The line is from one of our favorite books, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment . It’s about a young man who commits a murder to test his theory that some people are naturally capable of evil, and even have the right to perform it. Perry and I both read the book in undergrad. His marked-up copy sits on the table in front of him, pages dog-eared and yellow.
“Let’s stop for tonight,” Mary says, her voice startling me. I was so wrapped up in Perry’s story I didn’t realize how much time had passed; over thirty pages and not one word feels dull or out of place. By now I’ve read a lot of Perry’s work, but his talent still blows me away.
“Well,” Mary says, winking at Perry, “You’re not making my job any easier.” Perry smiles down at his hands, still gripping paper.
“Yeah man, great story,” says Kenneth. He’s tall and long-legged, wearing glasses and a thin gold crucifix around his neck. His gray sweatpants sag a little at his hips but otherwise he looks orderly and clean, freshly shaven. The more presentable you make yourself in here, I’ve been told, the more likely the guards are to leave you alone.
Perry lets out a breath. “Thank you,” he says, quietly. Across the table his eyes look wet; I smile at him and he nods, smiles back. We have a rule that when someone gets upset in workshop we don’t look away. In this room we want each man to feel visible, making space for the difficult emotions they work hard to conceal elsewhere: in the cafeteria, the darkness of their cells at night.
Kenneth slides a box of scratchy tissues over to Perry. We wait for him to wipe his eyes, leaving wet streaks.
“Well,” Perry finally says, looking up at us with a solemn face, “I guess you know how it ends.”
Tight smiles as we glance at one another around the table, double-checking with our eyes that he’s not serious. But Kenneth’s mouth knows it’s a joke. He starts to laugh as Perry breaks into a grin and then we’re all laughing, our throats and stomachs working hard not to fall back into silence, into the memory of where we are.
I turn my head to the door to look for Lansing. There’s no clock in here, so when we see his navy uniform outside we know it’s time to leave. At first it made me nervous not having a guard present in the room with us, but after a few visits I started to relax. To join our workshop or the choir you have to be a trustee, able to roam the prison with little supervision. Your freedom slowly parceled out to you based on how well you are able to surrender it in the first place.
When we are done with workshop, with the remembering and the listening, Mary leads us through a final exercise: “Go around the circle and name one thing you’re grateful for tonight.”
Family, someone says. My health. A good book.
“My sons,” says Josh, without looking at us. Eyes the blue shock of a summer sky, they stay pointed down at his hands, always drawing. I watch as swing sets and balloons and Christmas trees spring onto the pages, which he numbers and folds carefully into a book for his twin boys, only three months old. He’s going to read it to them in five years, he tells us, when they’ve grown up a little and he’s—hopefully, he says, in a soft voice—been released. Blond and baby-faced, Josh isn’t much older than me, twenty-three, maybe, or twenty-five. We could be classmates, I think, sitting across from him at the table, or even a couple. I try to picture him in jeans, a T-shirt.
Perry says, “I’m grateful you took the time to come see us,” and I try to hold the truths of what I’ve witnessed in them tonight—generosity, compassion—up against the truths of where they are, the barred doors and windowless cells. Most of the guys are here on drug charges, the sentences so long and harsh that it’s easy for me to sympathize. It is not my job to judge or forgive them, I remind myself, only to listen.
Lansing appears in the doorway. He looks like all the other guards here, with a bland, youngish face and brown hair cropped close to his ears. “Ready?” he says and we stand, say our goodbyes.
In the hallway I smell pasta noodles, a thick, wet starchiness in the air.
“Come back soon,” says Perry. In front of Lansing his voice is softer, less sure of itself. Kenneth and Josh stand behind him and look at my ears instead of my eyes.
And as Lansing begins to lead Mary and I away, back toward the metal doors we came through, I nod to Perry that we will.
Going back always gives me a certain dread. An hour or two before leaving my apartment I feel a heaviness, like water on my skin. My limbs lock up as I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, tugging at my baggy sweatshirt, orange instead of gray like the men have to wear. In their sweatsuits, they each look like somebody’s uncle at Thanksgiving dinner: stomachs swollen from the pasta I smell in the air, skin bunching around muscles slackened by immobility. In prison the body is stripped of privacy. You no longer possess yourself: not your diet, not your clothing. Not even your underwear, as I find out one day when I pass a bin full of clean white briefs in the hallway, worn and stretched to the shape of bodies that belong to no one and everyone at once.
What will it mean about me if I don’t go back? I stare at my face in the mirror. I like visiting with the guys and sharing our stories, but it’s hard for me to see them in this space, too. It’s hard to witness all the ways their lives are so limited—to walk out those awful metal doors at the end of workshop and know they’re still inside, locked up. I hoped being at the prison would make me feel good, but every time I step inside I look forward to leaving again. I feel sad at the sight of those blinking cameras on the walls. The plastic lobby chairs that have started to feel familiar but never comfortable.
I stare at my face in the mirror and my stomach knots with guilt. Car trouble, I could tell Mary. Sick. I try a cough; it crawls out dry and thin from my tight throat, in no way convincing to any teacher. I am too anxious to laugh at the irony of playing hooky from prison, my heart gnawing away at my ribs.
One evening we walk up to the classroom to find it empty.
“Lockdown has just been lifted,” says Lansing. “They’ll be along in a bit.”
“Lockdown?” I blurt, but Lansing ignores me. On his belt is a ring of keys that clink like sleigh bells; he plucks one out and lets Mary and I inside.
We sit in our usual seats at the vacant table, silently reading Kenneth’s story—“In My Father’s Kitchen” it’s called—about his father, who owns an Italian restaurant somewhere in Iowa, where Kenneth worked as a waiter before his arrest. Now, a cook himself in the prison’s cafeteria, he is trying to understand his father, a quiet but firm man who spoke to his son mostly through the call bell’s silver trill. “Order’s up,” he’d snap at Kenneth with his back turned, always, to the stove, his face partially obscured behind the steam that rose from whatever cooked in the pot in front of him: shrimp scampi, a Bolognese in a deep red sauce. Carefully Kenneth carried the warm dishes out to his customers, looking on with envy as they enjoyed the results of his father’s attention, a care Kenneth has never known but tries to show each man who passes through the prison’s chow line. He scoops them the largest portions he can get away with, their plastic trays held out for more.
The door slams open. Inside rush Kenneth and Josh and Perry, their faces grim.
Perry flings himself into the chair across from me; it scrapes the floor, loudly. “Fucking bullshit,” he says. I can feel the anger steaming off him like heat from a radiator, scaring me a little. I watch nervously as he flexes his right fist in his lap, blood squishing around his knuckles.
Kenneth says, “There was a fight in the cafeteria earlier,” with the flat resignation of someone who has learned to expect anything and nothing at once. He sighs, his shoulders and chest deflating. “We’ve been cooped up all day, had to skip yard.”
Perry glares down at the table. “I missed my shower,” he growls. Kenneth lifts a hand to touch Perry’s shoulder but he shrugs it off.
“Get the fuck off me,” he snaps.
Kenneth’s face flinches in pained surprise. “Easy man,” he murmurs.
Our eyes dart around the table. I can’t believe that a gentle intellect like Perry—a man who spends so much time thinking about words, who has read every book in the prison’s library at least twice—could use language so thoughtlessly. We all stare down at our hands and try not to breathe, the air between us strained.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Mary finally says. She looks warily at me across the table, her cheeks tired beneath fluorescent lights. In her face I see the sad weight of our visits, the lines around her mouth seeming deeper, her eyes soft with an ache we are not supposed to feel for these guys. But how can we not?
“We still have a few minutes, Kenneth,” Mary says quietly, “if you want to talk about your piece.”
With a tight smile Kenneth looks up at Mary. “Next time,” he says. His eyes flick to Perry, who sits with his arms glued over his chest, a hardness in his features that makes him nearly unrecognizable to me now. His long ponytail reminds me a little bit of Raskolnikov, the murderer in Crime and Punishment whose shaggy hair gives him a wild look. I’ve built Perry up in my mind as a victim of his own youthful mistakes—but now I see a different side of him. A raw anger that makes me afraid.
Perry looks at me and I quickly drop my eyes to the table. What do I want from him? Do I really know him or am I only imagining it, drawing connections between us where there are none? Or do the prison’s rules against intimacy make me want it more, every smile, every glance automatically more meaningful?
I’m relieved when Lansing appears at the door.
“See you next week?” I try to smile at Perry on our way out, but he doesn’t look at me. Without a word he turns and starts down the hallway back to his cell.
When the lobby doors thud shut behind me all my muscles collapse in relief. I step into the dark parking lot, coatless. Mary walks in silence next to me, December air slashing our cheeks and arms. I wonder where she lives, if she has a husband at home, kids. I don’t see a ring, or maybe she doesn’t wear it to the prison? Maybe she has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe she lives alone, like me. I think about asking her to get dinner but then she veers right, toward her car. She waves goodbye to me and pulls her door shut.
Bare arms clutched to my chest, I hurry the rest of the way to my car. My coat is here in the backseat; I grab it and wrap it tight around me.
In my headlights, snowflakes tumble gently through the dark. I think of Perry in his windowless cell. Think of him lying on a hard slab of bottom bunk with a book in his hands— Crime and Punishment , maybe—his silver ponytail undone and splayed like fingers across a thin pillow. How’s the weather today?
I pull out of the parking lot and drive slowly through the snow. In ten hours, when I wake up to go to work early, the unplowed roads will be covered. It’s my favorite time to be at the bank. No customers, no tedious tasks. Just one of the senior tellers in back and me, staring sleepily out the window at the vacant drive-through, my drawer full of cash. Sometimes if it’s especially slow I pretend to count the bills inside, bound neatly in gold paper straps that I pick at with my fingernails—never hard enough to break though I fantasize about it: the paper ripping, bills spilling loose into my hands.
In the distance, lights from the mall skim the dark. Some nights, instead of returning to my empty apartment after workshop, I like to sit and eat dinner in the food court, replacing my old senses with new ones: fry grease, hissing soda machines. A little cup of broccoli-cheese soup from Panera on my plastic tray, its farty stink overwhelming the smell of prison pasta in my nose.
At the stoplight I signal left to turn into the mall, when I see the parking lot. One week till Christmas, every space full.
Red blinks to green. I drive past the mall and remember my essay from last week about shoplifting as a teenager. Nervously I read an excerpt out loud, feeling Perry’s eyes on me across the table.
When I finished, the room was silent.
“There are some nice lines,” Mary finally said, without looking at me.
“Yeah,” agreed Kenneth, too quickly. He forced a smile in my direction, my heart sinking. The essay was immature, I realized, lacking the insight of the others’ work. As if on cue we all turned to Perry. He sat frowning down at my essay, glasses pushed up on his forehead so I could see the wrinkles webbing the corners of his eyes.
“I think,” he said finally, “that this narrator is ashamed of her innocence.” He was staring right at me, with a pointedness that made me anxious. I looked away, back down at my essay; without his glasses, Perry’s eyes felt too close to mine. I bent my head and pretended to take notes, embarrassed at my utter ignorance—at how I had wanted to prove to him that I, too, knew the desire to break rules. That I understood him.
“But that innocence,” Perry continued, his eyes on my face, “is what makes us feel close to her.”
Everyone was looking at me, the small room even smaller.
“That makes sense,” Kenneth said quickly. He looked at Perry for approval but Perry’s eyes were trained on me. I heard Mary clear her throat.
“We’re almost out of time,” she said. “Let’s pass Amy her notes.”
Papers slid across the table. I piled them into a stack, my stomach flipping when I saw Perry’s on top: “I wanted to find out then and quickly whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man,” he had written in his neat cursive. “Whether I can step over barriers or not.”
I recognized the lines immediately; they were from the scene where Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sofya, a shy young woman who works as a prostitute in order to provide for her family. Sofya sees the good in Raskolnikov and accepts him, making it possible for him to repent.
Quickly I shoved the papers into my folder and stood. I walked with Mary toward the door; she was saying something to me but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking of Perry nearby, of his words to me: Whether I can step over barriers or not . . .
Was he talking about my essay, I wondered, or was this some confession of his own? And why had he chosen me to hear it?
A couple weeks later, IMCC gets ready for high school visits, or as the guys like to joke, Take Your Student To Prison Day. Every year a few social studies teachers in the area bring their classes to tour the prison and hear from select inmates. This year Perry is chosen to meet with students. For two weeks he’s been drafting a letter to read to them, which he wouldn’t let us hear before tonight’s workshop. Across the table his hands shake a little as he pulls a sheaf of papers from his pocket, folded into a bulky square like a secret. The students arrive tomorrow and Perry has groomed himself for the occasion. His hair is washed and shining in its elastic band, jaw shaved smooth as a bar of soap. He looks up at us with a nervous smile.
“This was hard for me to write,” he says, “and even harder for me to share with you.”
His eyes graze mine but I look away. After Perry exploded on Kenneth I’ve tried to put some distance between us, keeping our interactions polite but impersonal. “Fine,” I said tonight, when Perry asked me about the weather. He frowned, crossing his eyes in a weird grin that coaxed a smile from me. I don’t know why exactly, but part of me feels drawn to Perry. Or at least to the way he makes me feel special, seen. Whatever we might mean to each other, it’s clear some line has been prodded. Though I know I should be careful, Perry still feels safe to me, our relationship colored by the constant reminder of his captivity.
Perry stands. He adjusts his glasses on his nose and takes a deep breath.
“Dear young minds,” he reads. “I submit to you my story not as a simple warning, but as a request.” Perry pauses, his voice shaking like I’ve never heard before. At the table Mary and Kenneth both lean forward on their elbows, smiling up at him encouragingly. Even Josh has stopped coloring, clouds hovering in a half-blue sky.
“A request,” continues Perry, “for your good faith.” He takes another breath, looks back down at the wrinkled paper in his hands. “All any of us want is to be known,” he reads. “I hope you will give me this chance today.”
I steal a glance at Mary across the table. She’s wearing the blank, neutral face of workshop leader, her eyes fixed on Perry. I recognize most of what he reads from his memoir—the tavern, the motorcycles out front, the drugs. Beside me I feel Kenneth getting restless, shifting in his chair. Even I’m zoning out a little bit, starting to wonder what time it is when Perry’s words hit me:
“I never touched her.” His voice breaks; he stops reading and looks down at the scuffed floor. With one hand he pushes his glasses up on his forehead and wipes his eyes, hard.
Mary asks, “Do you want to stop?”
Perry shakes his head no. He rubs his nose on his gray sleeve, readjusts his glasses. Throat full, he reads on. It turns out this is not his first time in prison, like I’d thought, but his second. I keep my eyes on the table and listen as he reads about the party, where he got drunk and high for the first time after being released. He passed out in the basement. When he came to in the morning, he found himself on the floor next to the sixteen-year-old daughter of his friend, to whom he owed drug money.
“I was set up,” Perry says, not even reading from the letter now. His eyes find mine, wet and angry and pleading. “I never touched her.”
No one moves. I can feel us all trying not to look at one another. Even if we doubt or disagree with someone in workshop, we aren’t supposed to show it. We aren’t supposed to judge. We have to look beyond the crime, Mary told me once, which wasn’t that difficult to do when I’d thought the crime was nonviolent, like drugs.
But this is different. Perry stands in front of me, gripping the letter in his hands. He looks at me again and I look away. What does he want from us, from me? Does he want me to forgive him like Sofya forgave Raskolnikov? Is that what this is about? Or is Perry putting himself on trial for us—a jury that isn’t supposed to judge—as if our silence could confirm his innocence?
“I didn’t do it.” His throat chokes shut, and I want to believe him. I don’t want to believe there might be places where empathy won’t go. Still, I can’t shake my doubt, can’t bring myself to meet Perry’s eyes. I had always thought he was good—full of mistakes, definitely—but moral at his core, and decent.
All any of us want is to be known. But how did Perry want me to know him? As the man he is, or as the innocent victim he and I both want him to be?
I don’t speak the rest of workshop. At the door later, when Lansing turns his back, Perry looks at me and lowers his voice.
“Are we okay?”
My eyes are on my shoes; I force my gaze up to meet his. Right now I don’t know that this will be my last visit to IMCC. Next Wednesday I’ll get in my car like usual only to turn around and drive back to my apartment, feeling guiltier each week that I don’t show up. Mary will send me a few emails that go unanswered— The guys miss you! —but eventually she stops writing me. I see her one night in the co-op’s parking lot, piling groceries into her trunk. Quickly I slouch down in my seat and wait for her car to pass, yellow beams washing over me. It isn’t really Perry I’m hiding from, I know, but something in myself—some shame, maybe, at my own naiveté—though I can’t claim to have understood this then.
“Yeah.” I look at Perry and nod. Try to smile. “We’re okay.”
He grins at me, his face cracking open in relief. “See you next week then,” he says, turning. I watch as he walks back to his cell, his sweatshirt fading into a sea of gray bodies until I can’t tell which is his anymore.