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 homilyif I could get it

down to seven minutes, I knew the older members of the congregation

wouldn't fall asleepbut 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.

"Father Michael?"

"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

scared, too."


"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 catwalkrisky 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 barbut

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!"

Joeyunused 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 countsnormally, 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

in that."

"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 truethis 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, tootipped 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 enda 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's responsible?"

"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 meCalloway 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 Brotherhooda 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

cellit 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."

"About what?"

"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

really sorry."

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah."


: 2015-09-13; : 111; !;

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