As your eyes settle on these words, and you turn the last blank page at the beginning of this book, a part of your consciousness has already been wondering; you have heard this is a prison novel, yes, yet one more prison novel.  How will it or how can it be differentiated from the tens of other prison stories that are now propelled by the mass media toward your mind as a consuming citizen?  For, as an ordinary citizen, you have noticed that after decades of silence the prison appears to have been opened, the gates have swung wide and cameras, lights, the furtive, searching thoughts of prospective authors, the earnest tones of public radio commentators, the odd writer searching for an angle, the somewhat disaffected nun whose spiritual crisis in sidelined by her efforts to save the soul of a dying man, the hard case who laughs as a svelte teen-ager is gang banged in the holding cell, all have been admitted to the prison, though, to be sure, only a select few, and then for odd reasons, have ever been released.

For a mere moment you are curious about the nature of this confinement; how people are held and how liberated, the nature of freedom and restriction, what is taken forward and what left behind.  These are profound issues and quite frankly you are unsure if you are prepared for such a journey; you don’t know if you brought with you the necessary equipment to handle all forms of weather and terrain; and then you ask yourself, if I do not possess it, where did I leave it behind?  Must I retrace my steps until I find it lying there, leaning against a tree or tucked in the back drawer of a long discarded bureau?  Is it lying under the stove with the dust balls and broken plasticware?  It seems that there is a race between the alacrity with which you can discover these supporting items and the advancing elements, such that you are quite reasonably concerned that you will be caught out unprepared and will be discovered, come springtime, revealed in ghastly, lifeless form to some observant hiker as he trips down a forest trail.  As your father said, so many years ago, preparation, preparation, preparation – why, you wonder now, did he so often say things like that, in threes?  You stood transfixed as he completed the second and third repetitions, knowing that to interrupt would cause a scene, knowing that in some deep way his energy was discharged and balanced in this tripling, his trebled emphasis communicated the passion he could not express in any other way, and you cared for him, at no small price, through your silence.  But then, as soon as you could, you fled.  And you wonder if you should do the same now, before you are caught up in another melodrama similar to the one that imprisoned you for so many years,  But nonetheless here you are, feeling ill prepared for this small journey as you have felt unready for so many significant events in your life.

And you remember now, yes, as you stand smiling with the remembrance, you recall that during the tumultuous days of your youth you thought preparation was for the untalented; the truly gifted, among whose number you once thought you belonged, could spontaneously generate from their inner gifts whatever the situation called for. You laugh aloud now, suddenly, loudly, and a middle aged woman glances up from across the stacks, her green eyes questioning, thinking that she might join you in your merriment, but wondering at the same time if you are just an idle madman come in from the cold to warm himself by these piles of books, you see her evaluate your coat, your shirt, her eyes dance down to your shoes – not too bad, a solid hiking boot, she doesn’t know that you got them just last week at half price at the off brand store – then, with a slight blush, her eyes return to her book.  Those were wonderful days, yes, when they were wonderful.  But then came the hard lessons.  The smile slides from your mouth and your gaze grows distant as you wonder again if they could ever return.

So it is natural for you to question; is this another peek into the much-discussed “bowels” of the prison?  As a person who loves language you then reflect, who first began to use digestive terminology to describe that which we fear as dark or offensive, and why should the worthy bowel, which if functioning smoothly is a cleansing organ essential to any hope of lightness of being, be called upon to play such a threatening role?  Is it because the bowel itself is courageous enough to encounter the waste of the world, has the judgement to separate good from bad, and the biological wherewithal to jettison that which is determined to be toxic to the system?  Is not the prison, with all its legendary violence and boredom and frustration, a poor reflection on the noble bowel?  So perhaps first, before even agreeing to embark on a journey whose first tentative steps you have taken by reading these words, we should agree on a lesson; we should be careful what we say, what metaphors we use, what signs we allow to point to other signs, for we never know when, just by agreeing to go where directed, we may have stepped into a trap, albeit a trap that has captured many before us, a pit, not too hard at the bottom, where we tumble, shaken, into all of the others who have previously fallen, jostling them like bowling pins and causing them to cry out, “Hey, be careful there! You have fallen into the trap just like us, you are no better, no worse! You need to learn from the start that, as crowded as we are in here, we must be thoughtful of each other, for, as you will learn, it is the trapped who must be most considerate and kind.”

With that modest agreement you consent to proceed – but still you do not know where.  Already you are suspecting, perhaps with some disappointment, that this will not be your typical prison novel, there will be no predictably satisfying rising action leading to a riot, no rape scene, no corrupt warden skimming funds by feeding his sorry charges garbage from the local dump.  There will be no surreptitious meetings in the back room of a local bar where an envelope of cash is dropped on the table of a local gangster who appears to be high on amphetamine and aching to explode.  He will not count the money, find some reason to be dissatisfied, and suddenly brandish a weapon and so begin a ritual of degradation, as he shoves the pistol in his victim’s mouth, watching his eyes as the poor slob awaits his death with the terror reserved for those who have not before that moment contemplated the difference between being and nonbeing, and have only the merest of seconds to apprehend its actuality before an obliterating explosion that projects them to a place they have never been before.  No, there will be none of that.

If you are leaning back on a beach towel, positioning the book so it just blocks out the harshest rays of the sun, you may be particularly grieved, since you had hoped to be drawn into the devious twists and turns of a complex plot, its twists maneuvered by engaging characters, so that as you turned the pages with increasing forgetfulness you lost track of time and the unrestricted freshness of the seashore washed over your limp body and, hours hence, you suddenly raised your eyes from the page and with  sense of shock discovered that the sun was far to the west, long shadows played over the dunes and the world was covered in that crisp orange light of late afternoon; you blinked your page-weary eyes and experienced the sublime sense of restfulness that comes with losing time, the deeply satisfying knowledge that somehow you have gained while you have lost, you have been restored to some state very near that which you experienced long ago at the beginning of your life, before you learned to expend so much of your energy on your work, your family, planning the near future and then the distant future and then the uncertain, unknowable future and struggling with all your resources to force events to in some way comply with your vision.  You are on vacation and your modest expectation is that you will be able to drop into some moments of forgetfulness, when the mundane life which has inevitably captured you is surrendered and you look again at the world with new eyes.

Yes, to relinquish that hope is good reason for disappointment, even anger, as you find yourself confronted instead with what is beginning to appear to be some post-modernist deconstructionist text, forever commenting on itself, unable to forget itself even for a moment.  You understand, from painful experience, those deconstructionists are such snobs!  Talk, talk, talk!  They believe, quite mistakenly, it appears to you, now that you think about it, that all life is conscious life, and the unconscious immersion in the simple pleasures of taste, the pure enjoyment of texture and sound, are the primitive escape of the oppressed classes and as such are to be abhorred by anyone the least bit interested in the cause of global justice, or, to be sure, anyone who would like someday to advance to full professor.

It is oppressive to expect a good distracted read, and you should feel guilty about this desire as you feel guilty about so many private desires, when you were prepared even to forgive some obvious offenses to your credulity, when you had made yourself ready, ready to give your trust over to this prison book, perhaps recommended by a bookseller or a friend, and instead here you find yourself confronted with epistemological minutae, debates about presence and absence, meaning and meta-meaning, people talking who have long since given up the possibility of communication, and here you have to listen!  Yes, it is oppressive, there should be a union of informed readers to prevent such deceptions, and there would be, in a just world!  But then you realize, again with a sinking feeling, that you long ago realized the world is not just.

But then it is possible that this construal of events is entirely mistaken.  You are not our sandy vacationer in search of distracted transport from his dreary life.  Far from it!  You are the type of reader who wanders about the bookstore, pulling out a volume here and there, turning a few pages, stuffing it back in again, your fingers tense with exasperation.  You are the determined reader, fishing about for something unique, something that can engage the attention of a reader who has lived a good part of his life on the margins, who is even somewhat comfortable there, who well understands that the margins are where the creeping, laborious, ungraceful growth of knowledge ensues.  Granted, you haven’t been as successful as you thought you would be, back in the impetuous, naïve days of your youth, and you have found that, all in all, the general public, while they bear you no direct malice, are not as kind as your parents – and your parents were not all that kind; there is a hard surface beyond which you cannot progress and it is at this wall that your life seems to have stopped, and lingered, these many years.  You are encamped there, at the base of that wall, extracting a meager living from whatever plants may grow among its stones, and accepting, though not without some resentment, the odd coin dropped before you by a thoughtful passerby.  But still within you a small candle has been protected from the harsh winds of fate, and still you search for something different, something new, a voice that will speak to the part of you that is almost, but not quite, vanquished.  You need cool water to bath the parched soil, you must have water to moisten it until it is a deep mauve, till the miniscule granules begin to separate, molecules in their inorganic wisdom begin to exchange their electrons and, suddenly, in a way you thought would never again occur, life emerges from the tepid pool!  Something emerges unheralded from nothing, a flower struggles from a rock crevice and you reach down with a trembling finger to touch its pink surface, careful, so careful, not to disturb its fragile, tiny leaf.  It is no wonder you search with such fervor, such persistence, when life presents itself in so unlikely a place.  So, now, decisive in your hard experience, you reach down and snatch the book up from its stack, quickly flip through the requisite introductory pages, all the while wondering, wondering; could this be the book for you?

You could care less if it’s about prisons or horticulture or seventeenth century art; will this particular book speak to you?  It is a clear challenge, and it is the very clarity and specificity of this challenge, your challenge, that has in the past made it so difficult to overcome.  But that is the kind of reader you are, and you have long since given up the attempt, so often suggested by others in positions of authority, to change yourself.

But then the work begins.  This is the part that has always thrown you off, perhaps because it reminds you of school, those laborious hours struggling to memorize verb tenses, geometric axioms and corrollaries, physical equations.  You know there is meaning there, meaning that has engaged thousands before you, but you are unable to discover it.  If this is indeed a prison novel, another prison novel, you would like to know a few facts before you invest any more time in this venture; where precisely is this facility located, is it medium or maximum security institution or is it one of those prisons that is not really a prison at all but rather some kind of camp where prisoners, now called community participants in the trusting assumption that an alteration in labeling will, in time, result in an evolution of character, go off to work each day and then return like pigeons who know in some neural recess of their pigeon brains that their food, their berth, is waiting?  Or is this place we are entering surrounded by high gray razor wire topped walls broken each forty yards by square towers atop which you can barely espy blue clad officers who raise binoculars and carefully and dutifully scan your car as it approaches?  You have learned from your own reading that a prison must have such walls if the national certifying body, the American Correctional Association, is to certify it as a maximum security facility.  But still you wonder what the guard is thinking as he peers down through his high powered binoculars into the interior of your car.  Does he notice the mess of papers on the front seat?  The stain from the coffee you spilled this morning?  The crumbs from the muffin you tore into as you drove?  You know then as well, having scanned the article some years ago while browsing in your local library, perhaps in preparation for this very journey, about the traps, the cameras, the electronic bolts, the endless, repetitive searches that mean it would be much easier if everyone walked around naked, were it not for the fact that the human body itself has its own convenient cavities that must be searched, albeit, in these days, with some measure of civility and respect.  It was at this point, back when you were doing your researches, that you closed the book, not because you were not curious, but rather because the language was as stilted and confining and repetitive as the years in prison themselves; “All parties seeking admission, either for the purposes of a visit with an inmate in the custody of the Department of Corrections or for professional consultation under the auspices of G.L. Ch. 742-5, sec. 53B must submit form R370 to the Chief Internal Security Officer a minimum of two weeks in advance of their arrival…”  There are limits even to your desire for knowledge!

But then you see them, crowded around a small table in a hallway adjacent to a series of cells.  You notice that the table is bolted to the floor.  The officer, a minute earlier, pushed a button and the doors slid open; the men gathered around the table reflexively, as if actors in a scripted stage drama.  Light, natural light, slants in from a small screened window high on the wall.  One produces a deck of cards and begins flipping them across the plastic surface, one, two, three four, then back to the start again.  Two others are seated just off the shoulders of participants, leaning back in their chairs, watching.

“And so it seemed she was mirroring me…” one of the men says, as if he is continuing a conversation only just broken off.

Another man is picking a cards, carefully sliding them toward himself so the surfaces are never exposed. “What?”

“Mirroring,” the first man repeats.  He speaks patiently, as if he has all the time in the world – and in fact, he does.  “Doing what I do right after me.”

“How much lag time was there?” another man says, leaning forward.  He is staring openly at the other two, a small smile on his face.  “The lag time is important.”

“No more than two seconds,” the speaker continues, “It was as if we were in some kind of dance.  She was looking at me the whole time, waiting, responding.”

“Sounds like a lot of pressure to me,” the fourth man says.  He is heavy set with a bulging belly and the cards rest on the upper surface of his belly as if it were a shelf.  “The responsibilities of leadership.”

“It was in her eyes,” the first man says, “there was no pressure.  That’s the important part.  The nature of her waiting.  There was no impatience, no demand. Just a response”

Now one of the men off to the side spoke up for the first time.  He was young, thin, with a messy mop of brown hair.  “Or maybe that’s just what you thought.”

The speaker does not acknowledge the comment.  But the man with the big belly shakes his head. “Kids.”  He says, “What the hell do you know?

The brown haired young man stiffens in his chair.  “Hey, fuck you, fat man,” he says, gazing at the big bellied man with great intensity.

“Fuck yourself,” the big bellied man says, not bothering even to look up from his cards, “and get used to it, ‘cuz that’s the only person you’re going to be fucking for a long time.”

The young man stands up, his chair scraping across the concrete floor, and leans forward toward the fat man.  His hand trembles by his side.  The men slap down cards on the table, ignoring him.  His eyes flicker around the table, then he jerks away and strides down the narrow hallway and disappears into a cell.