Read A Round-Heeled Woman Online
Authors: Jane Juska
ONE NIGHT, the discussion turns to letter-writing and whether they do it, and, if so, to whom. Those who write lettersâalmost everybodyâwrite to their children. Virgil is too young to have children. Virgil doesn't write to anybody.
Virgil is housed on the Ranch, minimum security, located on the northwest corner of the prison grounds far across the yard. During this semester, the authorities will disallow prisoners on the Ranch from coming to the main compound where we are, something about weapons smuggling. So, while we don't know it, Virgil's time in my class is limited.
Virgil is in his early twenties, his hostility barely disguised. One evening, everyone is writing warm-ups where I say, “Give me a color. . . . Give me a kind of weather. . . . Give me a body part. . . . Let's write.” Then we see what we come up with in seven or eight minutes. Then we read our stuff aloud. Normally, I write with them. Tonight, I wander about, pausing here and there, looking over one shoulder or another. I get to Virgil, lean over to peek at his writing, and inadvertently brush his shoulder. Virgil whirls on me, eyes blazing, half rises, catches himself. It is only me. He remembers where he is, sits down, and returns to his writing. From then on, I am careful to keep a distance between the two of us.
Of all the men I will teach in the five years I am at the prison, Virgil is the only one I could identify with any certainty as a victim of rape, not because he has told me but because he is so wary of being touched; in the beginning, he refuses to join a writing group here in class; by choice, he sits alone and apartâ on the other side of the room from Frederick, need I add. None of the men I will teach seems like a rapist, though no doubt some of them are or have been. But the men have been in prison a very long time and most of them will remain in prison even longer. So I must conclude that they have made some kind of sexual life for themselves, some of them willingly (though in prison how can anything be said to be done willingly), some by force. In our class discussions, however, we never get any closer than “Proper Library” to talking about sex and choice and force and acquiescence. At least, not directly. Homer tells me, “I'm leaving here a whole man no matter what.” In the meantime, our class is a safe place, a time-out.
There is the oblique, however. As the weeks go by, Virgil relaxes, so that by the time our discussion turns to letter-writing, he is an intelligent and eager participant. I bring to class Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, “All the letters I can write . . .”
All the letters I can write
Are not fair as thisâ
Syllables of Velvetâ
Sentences of Plush,
Depths of Ruby, undrained,
Hid, Lip, for Theeâ
Play it were a Humming Birdâ
And just sippedâmeâ
“This is highly sexual,” says Virgil.
“Look at the words,” he says. “This poem isn't about no letter.”
“Read it again,” says Barney.
I do. Clearly, Virgil is right and I feel my face grow warm.
“You read it, Virgil,” says D.C. Virgil reads and we glow from the heat.
“That Emily, she something,” says Marcellus.
“I am in silent love in a loud body,”
says Lorrie in Ferrell's story. The bodies of my students are loud. They are proud of getting ripped, of being buff as the result of working out on exercise equipment. Underneath their tattoos Eddie's biceps bulge, D.C.'s shoulders strain at the fabric of his prison shirt. During my tenure at the prison, the authorities see fit to remove all exercise equipment. Eddie explains: “They don't want physically fit killers on their watch.” The mood grows somber, bodies less loud. But there is silent love.
Lionel has a large and loving family on the outside. His wife comes to visit and, when she can, brings their sons, the youngest just five, born after a conjugal weekend in the trailer provided by the prison. (Conjugal visitsâ“boneyards”âfor lifers, like the exercise equipment, have since been excised by the prison authorities.)
Tonight Lionel sits at my desk, waiting for me to comment on the writing he has given me. Much of what he writes, stories with an Afrocentric plot and setting, is for his youngest boy. “Lionel,” I say, “this is good. Where did it come from?”
Lionel takes scraps of paper from his shirt pocket. “From some of the warm-ups you have us do.”
I am looking, however, at a well-developed piece of writing. “How did you know how to make this into a full piece?”
Lionel, always the shyest, the sweetest, the gentlest student in class, who never, ever looks at me, stares now at the floor and says, “Well, I did that, that writing, here in class, and then I read it to my cellie and he told me to add things and make some changes and I did.” He shifts in his chair and murmurs, “Should I make some more? What do you think?”
“I think you should listen to your cellie. He's a smart guy.”
Lionel ducks his head, then looks straight at me and smiles. “Yeah, my cellie, I'm lucky.”
I smile back. Lionel loves this man, his cellie, who knows how, just that they are lucky to be penned up in a six-foot-by-eight-foot cell with each other.
AND THEN there is me. The teacher. Who is a woman. “Were you afraid to come here?” David asks one night near the end of class. “Yeah,” says Homer, “did they tell you we were terrible, desperate men who'd do anything to get out of here?” He laughs. “What're you laughing at?” says D.C. “We are terrible, desperate men who'd do anything to get out of here.” David insists, “So, were you scared?” Without thinking, I say, “No, I used to teach high school.” We all laugh.
By mid-semester, we laugh a lot, Steve, a longtime resident of North Block, being the exception, having forgotten how to laugh if he ever knew how. One night Steve's face is wildly contorted. “Are you all right?” I ask, fearing some illness has struck all of a sudden. “I'm practicing to smile,” he explains, “in case I come across something funny. It's a goal.” He is very serious about his goals and by the end of the semester he will be able to twist his mouth into what he insists is a smile. “Now, that was funny,” he will say about something in a story that is not funny at all. He is most serious about seeing to it that I am treated right. One of the requirements of this course is that the students submit a story or an article or a poem, something they have written, to a publication. They scour my copies of
for addresses. It is simpler for them to give their pieces to me since buying manila envelopes, if they are available, is more than their seventeen-cents-an-hour income can handle. Yet for me to pay for postage on that envelope and the SASE they will include will get very expensive, given that I have already bought the envelopes themselves. So I ask, “If at all possible, could you provide stamps? Any number will do.” Steve says, “No problem.” The rest of the class looks puzzled. He rises from his chair, puts his fists on his hips, and addresses the men, “She's not paying for any stamps.”
On the night the students hand me their pieces, complete with cover letters and SASEs, Steve takes from his pockets, from all his pockets, postage stamps. Some are crumpled, some torn at the edges, some pristine, all of them beautiful. “Here,” he says. I thank him and all the rest of the men, who nod a you're-welcome.
What happened was this: from the top tiers to the bottom and all along each row of North Block, all night long the men exchanged cigarettes for stamps, cigarettes for money to buy stamps. “It was mighty quiet up there last night,” Marcellus tells me. Steve, I think, is smiling.
As silently, as safely as they can, in their very loud bodies, the men love me. “Did you see what I did?” asks Mike. “I took my shoe off. You took your shoe off, so I did, too.” “Why did you cut your hair?” asks Homer, visibly distressed. “My wife cut her hair once. I got used to it, though. I liked it finally.” Homer has not seen his wife for fifteen years. “I hate this fucking place!” yells Willie one night. Steve rears from his chair: “None of that, none of that! There's a lady present!” “Sorry,” says Willie, “forgot myself.” Now, part of their gallantry comes from their desire to keep this class and the other classes in which they are enrolled going. They know that if one man gets out of line, if propriety is breached to any degree whatsoever, the prison authorities will shut down the program. My students do not want that. So, while I might enjoy a fantasy involving my own irresistibility, I know whence their courtliness springs. And yet, for all that, they love me, and what they love me for the very most is that I have brought them language. It is a gift they thought to have lost forever.
One night, in the classroom next to us, a young woman, a guest lecturer, talks and talks and talks. Virgil asks, “What's she doing over there?” He brings his hands together in front of his chest and pushes them against each other. “She's procrastiâ No, it's . . . She's prevarâ. Oh!” He raises his fists into the air. “I used to be a walking thesaurus! Now I can't remember anything!” “She's pontificating,” I offer. “That's it! Like the pope!” Virgil brings his hands to his sides. “It's frustrating,” he says. “I'm afraid I'll lose it all in here.” I lie: “When you need your language, it will come back to you.”
On another night, Homer says, “Shit.” And then, “Sorry, I forgot.” He explains, “You gotta understand, Professor.” (I am not a professor, but they want me to be one so I am.) “All we hear is the language in the yard. And that's pretty . . . bad. It's very simple language, if you know what I mean.” He smiles apologetically and ducks his head. “So when we come in here, we're supposed to understand what you say and . . . and . . . it takes a little while. But we can do it, we can.” Nods all around.
So I read to them. I read them Charles Dickens, from
“A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man
with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his
head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and
lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars;
who limped and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head, as he seized me by the chin.”
“Tell me about this man,” I say.
“He's a convict in the woods.”
“Down and out.”
“Read some more.”
On yet another night, Kareem asks about metaphor. “My history professor [a young man, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley who has grown a beard to offset his youthful beauty] says Nietzsche uses metaphor. Maybe that's why I'm having trouble understanding him.”
I write on the board, “My father is a bear.”
“Oh,” says Kareem, “I been using metaphors all my life. I just didn't know it.”
Another night I refer to our assigned story's point of view as “omniscient.” Heads go up, eyes light up. “Write that on the board,” they command. I do, break it into
” yells Dan.
They scribble furiously into their notebooks.
I write. “What's that?”
“Like omni, omni, everything , eating everything!” We are on a roll.
“Knowing everything!” It's very noisy in here.
“You are so smart,” I say. But they are not finished.
Marcellus shouts, “
All-powerful! Like God!”
“Write it on the board!” I do, they write in their notebooks, our classroom is abuzz with happiness.
It is the word
that brings down the house. I have written it on the board. It's what they're after in the stories they are writing. They look puzzled. I explain. They are enrapt.
But now an argument breaks out. “You can't have empathy with me,” says Kareem, “because you don't know my troubles.”
“Yes, I can,” answers Mike. “I can feel right with you,” he insists.
Kareem is stubborn. “You don't have children,” he says to Mike. “Unless you got children, you can't know my troubles so you can't have empathy.” They lean forward from their chairs into the middle of our circle, like two wrestlers who have found language irrelevant.
I interrupt. “Yes, Mike can,” I say. “He can feel right with you.”
Suddenly Steve, silent until now, speaks: “That was my problem, that was me. I didn't have empathy my whole life. I didn't care about anybody's feelingsâdidn't matter to me if anybody got hurt. Then a couple of years ago, when we used to have a really fine librarian here, he gave me this book. It was
How do you say it?” I tell him. He repeats the title. “That book changed my life. It gave me feelings, it gave me empathy. Who wrote that book, now?”
“Victor Hugo,” I say.
Steve repeats softly, “
by Victor Hugo.” He is wrapping up this gift and holding it close. It is his forever.
And in their writing, listen to David:
My first engine was an International Harvester DT4656, an inline six-cylinder diesel engine. . . . She was like my first girlfriend. Once you've been down deep into an engine all the way down to the pistons and have held them in your hands, and have . . . cleaned every single part and assembled every piece with care hoping it will be a success and last forever, it's like an intimate relationship. If the engine runs well and doesn't blow up, well then that relationship was a success, and you don't want to give the truck back to the owner, he won't know how to take care of her. Seeing my trucks rolling down the highway . . . is like seeing old girlfriends. You remember the long, intimate nights together, like women you really love but don't own and can't hold on to, you wish the trucks well and send them on their way.