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the vessels from the Eucharist in the sacrarium so that no drop of Precious
Blood wound up in the Concord sewers.
I didn't have an office at St. Catherine's. Father Walter did, but then
he'd been at the parish so long that he seemed as much a part of it as
the rosewood pews and the velveteen drapes at the altar. Although he
kept telling me he'd get around to clearing out a spot for me in one of
the old storage rooms, he tended to nap after lunch, and who was I to
wake up a man in his seventies and tell him to get a move on? After a
while, I gave up asking and instead set a small desk up inside a broom
closet. Today, I was supposed to be writing a homily—if I could get it
down to seven minutes, I knew the older members of the congregation
wouldn't fall asleep—but instead, my mind kept straying to one of our
youngest members. Hannah Smythe was the first baby I baptized at St.
Catherine's. Now, just one year later, the infant had been hospitalized
repeatedly. Without warning, her throat would simply close, and her
frantic parents would rush her to the ER for intubation, where the vicious
cycle would start all over again. I offered up a quick prayer to God
to lead the doctors to cure Hannah. I was just finishing up with the sign
of the cross when a small, silver-haired lady approached my desk.
"Mary Lou," I said. "How are you doing?"
"Could I maybe talk to you for a few minutes?"
Mary Lou Huckens could talk not only for a few minutes; she was
likely to go on for nearly an hour. Father Walter and I had an unwritten
policy to rescue each other from her effusive praise after Mass. "What
can I do for you?"
"Actually, I feel a little silly about this," she admitted. "I just wanted
to know if you'd bless my bust."
I smiled at her. Parishioners often asked us to offer a prayer over a
devotional item. "Sure. Have you got it with you?"
She gave me an odd look. "Well, of course I do."
"Great. Let's see it."
She crossed her hands over her chest. "I hardly think thafs necessary!"
I felt heat flood my cheeks as I realized what she actually wanted
me to bless. "I-I'm sorry ..." I stammered. "I didn't mean ..."
Her eyes filled with tears. "They're doing a lumpectomy tomorrow.
Father, and I'm terrified."
I stood up and put my arm around her, walked her a few yards to
the closest pew, offered her Kleenex. I'm sorry," she said. "I don't
know who else to talk to. If I tell my husband I'm scared, he'll get
"You know who to talk to," I said gently. "And you know He's
always listening." I touched the crown of her head. "Omnipotent and
eternal God, the everlasting Salvation of those who believe, hear us on
behalf of Thy servant Mary Lou, for whom we beg the aid of Thy pitying
mercy, that with her bodily health restored, she may give thanks to
Thee in Thy church. Through Christ our Lord, amen."
"Amen," Mary Lou whispered.
That's the other thing I love about the Church: you never know
what to expect.
When Shay Bourne returned to I-tier after three days in the hospital infirmary,
he was a man with a mission. Every morning, when the officers came
to poll us to see who wanted a shower or time in the yard, Shay would ask
to speak to Warden Coyne. "Fill out a request," he was told, over and over,
but it just didn't seem to sink in. When it was his turn in the little caged
kennel that was our exercise yard, he'd stand in the far corner, looking
toward the opposite side of the prison, where the administrative offices
were housed, and he'd yell his request at the top of his lungs. When he was
brought his dinner, he'd ask if the warden had agreed to talk to him.
"You know why he was moved to I-tier?" Calloway said one day when
Shay was bellowing in the shower for an audience with the warden. "Because
he made everyone else on his last tier go deaf."
"He's a retard," Crash answered. "Can't help how he acts. Kinda like our
own diaper sniper. Right, Joey?"
"He's not mentally challenged," I said. "He's probably got double the IQ
that you do, Crash."
"Shut the fuck up, fruiter," Calloway said. "Shut up, all of you!" The urgency
in his voice silenced us. Calloway knelt at the door of his cell, fishing
with a braided string pulled out of his blanket and tied at one end to a
rolled magazine. He cast into the center of the catwalk—risky behavior,
since the COs would be back any minute. At first we couldn't figure out
what he was doing-when we fished, it was with one another, tangling our
lines to pass along anything from a paperback book to a Hershey's bar—but
then we noticed the small, bright oval on the floor. God only knew why a
bird would make a nest in a hellhole like this, but one had a few months
back, after flying in through the exercise yard. One egg had fallen out and
cracked; the baby robin lay on its side, unfinished, its thin, wrinkled chest
working like a piston.
Calloway reeled the egg in, inch by inch. "It ain't gonna live," Crash
said. "Its mama won't want it now."
"Well, I do," Calloway said.
"Put it somewhere warm," I suggested. "Wrap it up in a towel or something."
"Use your T-shirt," Joey added.
"I don't take advice from a cho-mo," Calloway said, but then, a
moment later: "You think a T-shirt will work?"
While Shay yelled for the warden, we all listened to Calloway's playby-
play: The robin was wrapped in a shirt. The robin was tucked inside his
left tennis shoe. The robin was pinking up. The robin had opened its left eye
for a half second.
We all had forgotten what it was like to care about something so
much that you might not be able to stand losing it. The first year I was in
here, I used to pretend that the full moon was my pet, that it came once a
month just to me. And this past summer, Crash had taken to spreading jam
on the louvers of his vent to cultivate a colony of bees, but that was less
about husbandry than his misguided belief that he could train them to
swarm Joey in his sleep.
"Cowboys comin' to lock 'em up," Crash said, fair warning that the COs
were getting ready to enter the pod again. A moment later the doors
buzzed open; they stood in front of the shower cell waiting for Shay to
stick his hands through the trap to be cuffed for the twenty-foot journey
back to his own cell.
"They don't know what it could be," CO Smythe said. "They've ruled out
pulmonary problems and asthma. They're saying maybe an allergy-but
there's nothing in her room anymore, Rick, it's bare as a cell."
Sometimes the COs talked to one another in front of us. They never
spoke to inmates directly about their lives, and that actually was fine. We
didn't want to know that the guy strip-searching us had a son who scored
the winning goal in his soccer game last Thursday. Better to take the humanity
out of it.
"They said," Smythe continued, "that her heart can't keep taking this
kind of stress. And neither can I. You know what it's like to see your baby
with all these bags and wires coming out of her?"
The second CO, Whitaker, was a Catholic who liked to include, on my
dinner tray, handwritten scripture verses that denounced homosexuality.
"Father Walter led a prayer for Hannah on Sunday. He said he'd be happy
to visit you at the hospital."
"There's nothing a priest can say that I want to hear," Smythe muttered.
"What kind of God would do this to a baby?"
Shay's hands slipped through the trap of the shower cell to be cuffed,
and then the door was opened. "Did the warden say he'd meet with me?"
"Yeah," Smythe said, leading Shay toward his cell. "He wants you to
come for high friggin' tea."
"I just need five minutes with him—"
"You're not the only one with problems," Smythe snapped. "Fill out a
"I can't," Shay replied.
I cleared my throat. "Officer? Could I have a request form, too,
He finished locking Shay up, then took one out of his pocket and
stuffed it into the trap of my cell.
Just as the officers exited the tier, there was a small, feeble chirp.
"Shay?" I asked. "Why not just fill out the request slip?"
"I can't get my words to come out right."
"I'm sure the warden doesn't care about grammar."
"No, it's when I write. When I start, the letters all get tangled."
"Then tell me, and I'll write the note."
There was a silence. "You'd do that for me?"
"Will you two cut the soap opera?" Crash said. "You're making me sick."
"Tell the warden," Shay dictated, "that I want to donate my heart, after
he kills me. I want to give it to a girl who needs it more than I do."
I leaned the ticket up against the wall of the cell and wrote in pencil,
signed Shay's name. I tied the note to the end of my own fishing line and
swung it beneath the narrow opening of his cell door. "Give this to the officer
who makes rounds tomorrow morning."
"You know, Bourne," Crash mused, "I don't know what to make of you.
I mean, on the one hand, you're a child-killing piece of shit. You might as
well be fungus growing on Joey, for what you done to that little girl. But
on the other hand, you took down a cop, and I for one am truly grateful
there's one less pig in the world. So how am I supposed to feel? Do I hate
you, or do I give you my respect?"
"Neither," Shay said. "Both."
"You know what I think? Baby killing beats anything good you might
have done." Crash stood up at the front of his cell and began to bang a
metal coffee mug against the Plexiglas. "Throw him out. Throw him out.
Throw him out!"
Joey—unused to being even one notch above low-man-on-the-totempole—
was the first to join in the singing. Then Texas and Pogie started in,
because they did whatever Crash told them to do.
Throw him out.
Throw him out.
Whitaker's voice bled through the loudspeaker. "You got a problem,
"I don't got a problem. This punk-ass child killer here's the one with
the problem. I tell you what, Officer. You let me out for five minutes, and
I'll save the good taxpayers of New Hampshire the trouble of getting rid of
"Crash," Shay said softly. "Cool off."
I was distracted by a whistling noise coming from my tiny sink. I had
no sooner stood up to investigate than the water burst out of the spigot.
This was remarkable on two counts—normally, the water pressure was no
greater than a trickle, even in the showers. And the water that was splashing
over the sides of the metal bowl was a deep, rich red.
"Fuck!" Crash yelled. "I just got soaked!"
"Man, that looks like blood," Pogie said, horrified. "I'm not washing up
"It's in the toilets, too," Texas added.
We all knew our pipes were connected. The bad news about this was
that you literally could not get away from the shit brought down by the
others around you. On the bright side, you could actually flush a note down
the length of the pod; it would briefly appear in the next cell's bowl before
heading through the sewage system. I turned and looked into my toilet.
The water was as dark as rubies.
"Holy crap," Crash said. "It ain't blood. It's wine." He started to crow
like a madman. "Taste it, ladies. Drinks are on the house."
I waited. I did not drink the tap water in here. As it was, I had a feeling
that my AIDS medications, which came on a punch card, might be some
government experiment done on expendable inmates... I wasn't about to
imbibe from a water treatment system run by the same administration. But
then I heard Joey start laughing, and Calloway slurping from the faucet,
and Texas and Pogie singing drinking songs. In fact, the entire mood of the
tier changed so radically that CO Whitaker's voice boomed over the intercom,
confused by the visions on the monitors. "What's going on in there?"
he asked. "Is there a water main leak?"
"You could say that," Crash replied. "Or you could say we got us a powerful
"Come on in, CO," Pogie added. "We'll buy the next round."
Everyone seemed to find this hilarious, but then, they'd all downed
nearly a half gallon of whatever this fluid was by now. I dipped my finger
into the dark stream that was still running strong from my sink. It could
have been iron or manganese, but it was true—this water smelled like
sugar, and dried sticky. I bent my head to the tap and drank tentatively
from the flow.
Adam and I had been closet sommeliers, taking trips to the California
vineyards. To that end, for my birthday that last year, Adam had gotten me a
2001 Dominus Estate cabernet sauvignon. We were going to drink it on New
Year's Eve. Weeks later, when I came in and found them, twisted together
like jungle vines, that bottle was there, too—tipped off the nightstand and
staining the bedroom carpet, like blood that had already been spilled.
If you've been in prison as long as I have, you've experienced a good
many innovative highs. I've drunk hooch distilled from fruit juice and bread
and Jolly Rancher candies; I've huffed spray deodorant; I've smoked dried
banana peels rolled up in a page of the Bible. But this was like none of
those. This was honest-to-God wine.
I laughed. But before long I began to sob, tears running down my face
for what I had lost, for what was now literally coursing through my fingers.
You can only miss something you remember having, and it had been so
long since creature comforts had been part of my ordinary life. I filled a
plastic mug with wine and drank it down; I did this over and over again
until it became easier to forget the fact that all extraordinary things must
come to an end—a lesson I could have lectured on, given my history.
By now, the COs realized that there had been some snafu with the
plumbing. Two of them came onto the tier, fuming, and paused in front of
my cell. "You," Whitaker commanded. "Cuffs."
I went through the rigmarole of having my wrists bound through the
open trap so that when Whitaker had my door buzzed open I could be secured
by Smythe while he investigated. I watched over my shoulder as
Whitaker touched a pinky to the stream of wine and held it up to his
tongue. "Lucius," he said, "what is this?"
"At first I thought it was a cabernet, Officer," I said. "But now I'm leaning
toward a cheap merlot."
"The water comes from the town reservoir," Smythe said. "Inmates
can't mess with that."
"Maybe it's a miracle," Crash sang. "You know all about miracles, don't
you, Officer Bible-thumper?"
My cell door was closed and my hands freed. Whitaker stood on the
catwalk in front of our cells. "Who did this?" he asked, but nobody was listening.
"Who cares?" Crash replied.
"So help me, if one of you doesn't fess up, I'll have maintenance turn
off your water for the next week," Whitaker threatened.
Crash laughed. "The ACLU needs a poster child, Whit."
As the COs stormed off the tier, we were all laughing. Things that
weren't humorous became funny; I didn't even mind listening to Crash. At
some point, the wine trickled and dried up, but by then, Pogie had already
passed out cold, Texas and Joey were singing "Danny Boy" in harmony, and
I was fading fast. In fact, the last thing I remember is Shay asking Calloway
what he was going to name his bird, and Calloway's answer: Batman the
Robin. And Calloway challenging Shay to a chugging contest, but Shay
saying he would sit that one out. That actually, he didn't drink.
For two days after the water on I-tier had turned into wine, a steady
stream of plumbers, scientists, and prison administrators visited our cells.
Apparently, we were the only unit within the prison where this had happened,
and the only reason anyone in power even believed it was because
when our cells were tossed, the COs confiscated the shampoo bottles and
milk containers and even plastic bags that we had all innovatively used to
store some extra wine before it had run dry; and because swabs taken in
the pipes revealed a matching substance. Although nobody would officially
give us the results of the lab testing, rumor had it that the liquid in question
was definitely not tap water.
Our exercise and shower privileges were revoked for a week, as if this
had been our fault in the first place, and forty-three hours passed before I
was allowed a visit from the prison nurse, Alma, who smelled of lemons
and linen; and who had a massive coiled tower of braided hair that, I imagined,
required architectural intervention in order for her to sleep. Normally,
she came twice a day to bring me a card full of pills as bright and big as
dragonflies. She also spread cream on inmates' fungal foot infections,
checked teeth that had been rotted out by crystal meth, and did anything
else that didn't require a visit to the infirmary. I admit to faking illness several
times so that Alma would take my temperature or blood pressure.
Sometimes, she was the only person who touched me for weeks.
"So," she said, as she was let into my cell by CO Smythe. "I hear things
have been pretty exciting on I-tier. You gonna tell me what happened?"
"Would if I could," I said, and then glanced at the officer accompanying
her. "Or maybe I wouldn't."
"I can only think of one person who ever turned water into wine," she
said, "and my pastor will tell you it didn't happen in the state prison this
"Maybe your pastor can suggest that next time, Jesus try a nice fullbodied
Alma laughed and stuck a thermometer into my mouth. Over her back,
I stared at CO Smythe. His eyes were red, and instead of watching me to
make sure I didn't do anything stupid, like take Alma hostage, he was staring
at the wall behind my head, lost in thought.
The thermometer beeped. "You're still running a fever."
"Tell me something I don't know," I replied. I felt blood pool under my
tongue, courtesy of the sores that were part and parcel of this horrific disease.
"You taking those meds?"
I shrugged. "You see me put them in my mouth every day, don't you?"
Alma knew there were as many different ways for a prisoner to kill himself
as there were prisoners. "Don't you check out on me, Jupiter," she said,
rubbing something viscous on the red spot on my forehead that had led to
this nickname. "Who else would tell me what I miss on General Hospital?"
"That's a pretty paltry reason to stick around."
"I've heard worse." Alma turned to CO Smythe. "I'm all set here."
She left, and the control booth slid the door home again, the sound of
metallic teeth gnashing shut. "Shay," I called out. "You awake?"
"I am now."
"Might want to cover your ears," I offered.
Before Shay could ask me why, Calloway let out the same explosive
run of curses he always did when Alma tried to get within five feet of him.
"Get the fuck out, nigger," he yelled. "Swear to God, I'll fuck you up if you
put your hand on me—"
CO Smythe pinned him against the side of his cell. "For Christ's sake,
Reece," he said. "Do we have to go through this every single day for a goddamn
"We do if that black bitch is the one putting it on."
Calloway had been convicted of burning a synagogue to the ground
seven years ago. He sustained head injuries and needed massive skin grafts
on his arms, but he considered the mission a success because the terrified
rabbi had fled town. The grafts still needed checking; he'd had three surgeries
alone in the past year.
"You know what," Alma said, "I don't really care if his arms rot off."
She didn't, that much was true. But she did care about being called a
nigger. Every time Calloway hurled that word at her, she'd stiffen. And after
she visited Calloway, she moved a little more slowly down the pod.
I knew exactly how she felt. When you're different, sometimes you
don't see the millions of people who accept you for what you are. All you
notice is the one person who doesn't.
"I got hep C because of you," Calloway said, although he'd probably
gotten it from the blade of the barber's razor, like the other inmates who'd
contracted it in prison. "You and your filthy nigger hands."
Calloway was being particularly awful today, even for Calloway. At first
I thought he was cranky like the rest of us, because our meager privileges
had been taken away. But then it hit me—Calloway couldn't let Alma into
his house, because she might find the bird. And if she found the bird, CO
Smythe would confiscate it.
"What do you want to do?" Smythe asked Alma.
She sighed. "I'm not going to fight him."
"That's right," Calloway crowed. "You know who's boss. Rahowal"
At his call, short for Racial Holy War, inmates from all over the Secure
Housing Unit began to holler. In a state as white as New Hampshire, the
Aryan Brotherhood ran the prison population. They controlled drug deals
done behind bars; they tattooed one another with shamrocks and lightning
bolts and swastikas. To be jumped into the gang, you had to kill someone
sanctioned by the Brotherhood—a black man, a Jew, a homosexual, or
anyone else whose existence was considered an affront to your own.
The sound became deafening. Alma walked past my cell, Smythe following.
As they passed Shay, he called out to the officer, "Look inside."
"I know what's inside Reece," Smythe said. "Two hundred and twenty
pounds of crap."
As Alma and the CO left, Calloway was still yelling his head off. "For
God's sake," I hissed at Shay. "If they find Calloway's stupid bird they'll toss
all our cells again! You want to lose the shower for two weeks?"
"That's not what I meant," Shay said.
I didn't answer. Instead I lay down on my bunk and stuffed more
wadded-up toilet paper into my ears. And still, I could hear Calloway singing
his white-pride anthems. Still, I could hear Shay when he told me a
second time that he hadn't been talking about the bird.
That night when I woke up with the sweats, my heart drilling through the
spongy base of my throat, Shay was talking to himself again. "They pull up
the sheet," he said.
I took a piece of metal I'd sawed off from the lip of the counter in the
cell—it had taken months, carved with a string of elastic from my underwear
and a dab of toothpaste with baking soda, my own diamond band
saw. Ingeniously, the triangular result doubled as both a mirror and a
shank. I slipped my hand beneath my door, angling the mirror so I could see
into Shay's cell.
He was lying on his bunk with his eyes closed and his arms crossed
over his heart. His breathing had gone so shallow that his chest barely rose
and fell. I could have sworn I smelled the worms in freshly turned soil. I
heard the ping of stones as they struck a grave digger's shovel.
Shay was practicing.
I had done that myself. Maybe not quite in the same way, but I'd pictured
my funeral. Who would come. Who would be well dressed, and who
would be wearing something outrageously hideous. Who would cry. Who
God bless those COs; they'd moved Shay Bourne right next door to
someone else serving a death sentence.
Two weeks after Shay arrived on I-tier, six officers came to his cell early
one morning and told him to strip. "Bend over," I heard Whitaker say.
"Spread 'em. Lift 'em. Cough."
"Where are we going?"
"Infirmary. Routine checkup."
I knew the drill: they would shake out his clothes to make sure there
was no contraband hidden, then tell him to get dressed again. They'd
march him out of I-tier and into the great beyond of the Secure Housing
An hour later, I woke up to the sound of Shay's cell door being opened
again as he returned to his cell. "I'll pray for your soul," CO Whitaker said
soberly before leaving the tier.
"So," I said, my voice too light and false to fool even myself. "Are you
the picture of health?"
"They didn't take me to the infirmary. We went to the warden's
I sat on my bunk, looking up at the vent through which Shay's voice
carried. "He finally agreed to meet with-"
"You know why they lie?" Shay interrupted. "Because they're afraid
you'll go ballistic if they tell you the truth."
"It's all mind control. And we have no choice but to be obedient because
what if this is the one time that really-"
"Shay," I said, "did you talk to the warden or not?"
"He talked to me. He told me my last appeal was denied by the Supreme
Court," Shay said. "My execution date is May twenty-third."
I knew that before he was moved to this tier, Shay had been on death
row for eleven years; it wasn't like he hadn't seen this coming. And yet,
that date was only two and a half months away.
"I guess they don't want to come in and say hey, we're taking you to
get your death warrant read out loud. I mean, it's easier to just pretend
you're going to the infirmary, so that I wouldn't freak out. I bet they talked
about how they'd come and get me. I bet they had a meeting."
I wondered what I would prefer, if it were my death that was being announced
like a future train departing from a platform. Would I want the
truth from an officer? Or would I consider it a kindness to be spared knowing
the inevitable, even for those four minutes of transit?
I knew what the answer was for me.
I wondered why, considering that I'd only known Shay Bourne for two
weeks, there was a lump in my throat at the thought of his execution. "I'm
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah."
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