Photo: Thomas Hawk

Message from Your Inmate

I think about you waking up. It gets light here early now, but I suspect it’s still dark when you rise. I don’t know if you sleep in a cell with other people or if you are by yourself. I don’t know what it smells like there, but I imagine wet rocks and rust. I don’t know what you do all day, how you pass one moment to the next. I am chasing time, always trying to catch up to something I missed or am about to be late for, an ever-looming deadline swirling ahead. For you, I wonder if time is slow—if the space between when you’re told to eat or allowed to exercise spreads open as an empty field. I hear from Mom that you’re doing well, you’re working out every single day and losing weight. She says you’ve been asking how I am. You haven’t asked for money since I said no again.


2 Old Fashioned Foods Grated Italian Blend

2 El Pato Chile Jalapeno Salsa Picante

2 King’s Burrito Peanuts

1 Nutella Hazelnut Spread

“God, that stuff is expensive,” Mom says. I’ve got the phone on speaker so I can type while Mom reads the list of the things my brother wants. I hear her suck the air in through her teeth.

2 Milk Chocolate Cherries

2 Mrs. Freshley’s Carrot Cake

1 Black Ice Body Wash

1 Gillette Mach 3 Antiperspirant Deodorant

1 Garnier Fructis Volume Extend Shampoo

“Mel-Mel, he wants the conditioner too, did you get the conditioner?”

“I just pushed the button to purchase.”

“What did you say?” Mom asks.

“I just pushed the button to purchase.”

She doesn’t say anything and I can tell it’s because she hasn’t heard me. She doesn’t hear well on the phone, especially when it’s on speaker. A few days earlier, Mom sent me a text message—i got a letter from Keith. it was lovely. he also explained how we could get a gift basket to him for Christmas. have to order real soon as it takes time to get there. if we split the cost, each will be about 30 dollars xo. Somehow I thought this gift basket would have something to do with chocolate Santas and candy canes, not shampoo and groceries.

I turn the speaker off and press the phone to my ear and speak slowly into it.

“Mom, I pressed purchase already and the order is going through.”

She is silent on the other end, but I can tell she heard me this time. I know she wants me to say, don’t worry about it, I’ll put another order through. But I don’t. I don’t say anything. I remember the line in an Adrienne Rich poem, the one that always makes me think of Mom, “Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live.”

Finally I take in a breath to say something, I don’t know what, when a box appears on the screen: Invalid credit card. Your order has not been processed. I sigh and open my wallet to dig out my credit card again.

“Mom, I’ll get the conditioner too.”

“You did?” She says, her voice hopeful.

“Yes, I am—I mean I did. I’m doing it right now.” I balance the phone with my shoulder and the side of my cheek.

Garnier Fructus Volume Extend Conditioner.

Select 1. Add to cart.

I retype my credit card number and press purchase. Since a chocolate Santa is probably the last thing my brother needs, I’m not sure why it would have felt better to send him that instead of jars of salsa and conditioner. After a moment, a confirmation pops up on the screen: Your inmate’s order has been processed and is confirmed.


There are so many things we don’t know about each other. You’ve never seen me in a play. I’ve never watched your son blow out birthday candles. You don’t know if I like cream in my coffee and I don’t know how you like your eggs. You’ve never visited anywhere I have lived. There was that apartment in North Hollywood when I had just finished school and was waiting tables and trying to get auditions. It was directly underneath the flight path of the Burbank Airport—my windows rattled with the passing planes, the sills gathering black dust from jet fuel. There was the third floor walk-up in Brooklyn, with the front door painted green and the firehouse directly across the street where they actually had a Dalmatian that sat proudly out front, tail slapping against the sidewalk. The place I wanted you to see the most was the house down the bumpy dirt road on Cape Cod. It creaked and moaned in the wind and was filled with light. I loved that house like it was a person. I lived there longer than I have ever lived anywhere.

The last time you came to a place I lived was on Hemlock Street in Portland, where I lived with our mom and my dad before I went away to college. I’m forty now. My husband and I just moved to the top floor of a brick farmhouse that was built in 1834. It’s on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts and there is still a working farm next door. The day we carried our boxes up the steps, I looked out the window at a cornfield shining in the late afternoon light. Days later, it was gone. We’d moved at harvest time.


Police were called to the scene of a crash in the area near West Rose Hill and South Owyhee streets in Boise on Jan. 21, 2013. That’s where officers found a vehicle with extensive front end damage attempting to leave the area. Police determined that the driver had crashed his car across the yard of a residence, through a fence and into a parked car.

Police said the driver got out of his car and kicked in the front door of the house where he allegedly battered a resident. When police arrived on the scene, they say the suspect lunged at one of the officers, hitting the officer with his shoulder.

You are charged with felony counts of battery on an officer and malicious injury to property, and misdemeanor charges of reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, and unlawful entry. In your mug shot, your eyes are glassy and defiant. I learn later that you got a bag of what you thought was crystal meth, but it turned out to be bath salts, which you were high on when the incident happened. I’d never heard of bath salts before but after obsessively trolling the Internet, I learn they are a designer drug made out of synthetic cathinone. Apparently, cathinone is a stimulant (clearly) and mimics the chemical found in the khat plant, which is native to East Africa. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that the drug “affects the brain in a manner similar to cocaine but is at least 10 times more powerful.” The Internet provides numerous gory cases of users becoming extremely delusional and violent, such as the story of a man in Miami who attacked a homeless person and attempted to chew off his face.

You are sent to Idaho State Prison outside of Boise and stay there for nearly ten months. When you get out, everything seems to be fine for a while until your probation officer calls and says you have turned up with a dirty drug test. You say you smoked half a joint with a friend while you were out golfing. “For Christ sakes Mel-Mel,” you tell me on the phone before your sentencing, “Pot’s legal less than a hundred freaking miles away from here.” The judge was not amused and said it certainly wasn’t legal in her state, nor was it allowed as part of your probation. She ordered that you finish out your original sentence and you find yourself at Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino for another year. “It’s over five hours north of Boise, Mel-Mel, how am I going to visit him?” Mom asks me on the phone in her high-pitched panic voice. I don’t know how to answer.

I return to the Internet to see what it knows about Orofino—it’s a town of nearly 3,000 people on the north shore of the Clearwater River and its name means “fine gold” in Spanish. Google Maps show that your prison is close to the river; I wonder if you can see it from the inside. In addition to the prison, Orofino is also home to Idaho State Hospital North, a psychiatric facility. Orofino High School is directly next door to your prison—their school mascot is “The Maniac.”


JPay, “your home for corrections services” is an online system where state prison inmates can send and receive emails, listen to music, and receive money for their commissary, all for a fee. Send money to your loved one in state prison, the website exclaims, with an image of an attractive young woman grinning and holding a credit card in one hand and brightly colored shopping bags in the other. Inmate email lets you stay connected to your loved one—a grandmother and a young woman beam at the screen of a smartphone. Video visitation lets you talk face-to-face with your loved one (available only in select locations)—a young mother and daughter gaze lovingly at a computer. Orofino is not included in the “select locations” for video visitation. That’s OK with me—I’m afraid to see your face come to life on my computer screen. So I buy a package of “stamps” for us to send emails back and forth. $2.45 gets us five emails; $4.70 for ten, and $8.60 for twenty.


Hello, you have received a message from your inmate, an email from JPay announces. I log in and you tell me that you’re hard at work on a plan for the hot dog cart business you’re going to start when you get out. Before you went to jail, your father gave you the money to buy the hot dog cart, which is now sitting in your backyard. You tell me that you bet a cookie on the Eagles game on Sunday in honor of my husband. I tell you I’ve been working a lot and I received a writing residency for next spring in California. You say you’re doing the Arnold Schwarzenegger Bible Workouts and listening to Pink Floyd in the mornings; I tell you I’ve been working too much and haven’t been writing. You ask me if we’re going to get a Christmas tree; I ask if you if your son still likes to draw. You say your son is going to come live with you as soon as you get out; I say I sent him some charcoal pencils and paper for Christmas. You tell me they put a Christmas tree up in the cafeteria and you like looking at it. You tell me you are surrounded by snow-covered hills and it is very beautiful. You tell me you would move to a place like Orofino if your life situation were a little different.


The summer I turned 12, my parents and I were living in Las Vegas and it was decided that I would go to Los Angeles to spend the summer with my brother. I adored Keith and was giddy as I stared out the window of the plane and balanced a plastic cup of 7-Up on the tray table in front of me. When I climbed off the plane at the Burbank Airport, Keith was waiting for me with a huge grin across his face. It was 1987 and Keith was 21-years-old, 6-foot-4 inches tall, and lanky. We had different dads and didn’t look much alike—me with brown eyes and blondish hair that was getting darker every year; Keith with Mom’s turquoise eyes and shaggy golden hair that hung down the back of his neck. He dried it every day with a chipped white blow dryer in the bathroom of his father’s house, shaking his head back and forth, droplets of water streaking down the mirror. He had a moustache that he clipped, stubs of blonde hair sprinkling into the sink. When he finished his hair, he spritzed cologne on his neck and the crotch of his jeans. The first time I saw him do this, I turned beet red and laughed, which caused him to do the same. “Mel-Mel, girls like it when you smell good everywhere—you’ll understand what I’m talking about someday. But it better not be anytime soon or that boy will have to face your Big Brother!” He growled and sprayed cologne at me. I fake gagged and pretended to pass out on the floor, both of us laughing and snorting until his father yelled to hurry up and stop hogging the bathroom.

I was definitely in an awkward stage. I had just turned 12 and had pimples all over my forehead, which Keith was always trying to pop. “Come on Mel-Mel, let me help you—you don’t want to walk around with a bunch of stored cheese in your face, do you? You’ve got enough there to spread on crackers!” He said he’d get them when I was sleeping, but I didn’t worry because he’d never be able to without waking me up, since I slept on his waterbed. He insisted on taking the couch and making up his bed for me, which was gigantic, taking up most of his room. You could only get out of bed on one side, or at the foot of it, where we tripped over our piles of clothes and flip-flops. Keith was very proud of that bed, especially the fact that it was heated. The first night I was there, he turned the heat on before I fell asleep so I could feel how great it was and I woke up covered in sweat, the sheets soaked through to the plastic. “Girls love waterbeds, Mel-Mel. You’ll understand what I mean someday,” Keith told me, but I wasn’t so sure. Every time I moved, it gurgled and bubbled like I was in a pot of pasta water, and in the mornings my back ached. But over time, I began to like how the bed swayed me back and forth when I rolled over. It felt like sleeping on something that breathed.

Keith’s other prized possession was his white Volkswagen Beetle. He was passionate about that car, spending hours washing and waxing it until he squinted with pride. There was something wrong with the starter, so usually we had to give it a running start to get it going. I would be in the passenger seat holding the wheel steady while Keith ran alongside side of the car pushing, and then leapt inside and turned the key. The car would jerk and sputter to life, and we would be on our way. We left it running when we went into 7-11 for Big Gulps and cigarettes, Keith watching out the window the whole time to make sure no one tried to steal it. We usually ate at In & Out—me with a grilled cheese and tomato and Keith with a Double-Double, both of us chewing down large orders of fries. Since it was a drive-through, we didn’t have to worry about turning the Beetle off.

Keith lived with his father and stepmother, but we didn’t see either of them much. We usually slept in past the time they left for work and came home long after they went to bed. On the weekends, we avoided the house as much as possible. Keith didn’t get along very well with his stepmother. I steered clear of Keith’s dad because of all the stories I heard of how he mean he could be. Keith said he was a lot different now because he didn’t drink anymore.

Keith was crazy about Ashley, a girl with white blonde hair who lived a couple blocks away. Ashley had just graduated from high school the year before, and Keith had taken her to the prom. He was thrilled—he’d missed his prom because he dropped out of high school. He wore a pale pink cummerbund to match her dress and they rode in a long black limo. He kept a picture of them smiling in front of the limo tacked up on the wall of his bedroom.

Keith announced that he was buying all three of us season passes to Magic Mountain, so we could go anytime we felt like it. “It’s really expensive, but I’ve been saving up. I’m going to surprise Ashley today. I was going to wait to tell you until we got there, but I guess I got too excited.” He said he considered taking me to Disneyland, but now that I’m growing up, I’m way too old for it. “My little sis is practically a teenager, so she doesn’t need Minnie Mouse and all that baby junk anymore.”

We sailed up in the Beetle in front of Ashley’s house and Keith beeped his horn three times. After a moment she came running down the porch steps. She was wearing a little white cotton tank top with spaghetti straps and khaki shorts, her hair still wet from the shower.

“Hi! I just need a minute, OK?” She leaned in through my brother’s window and kissed him on the lips. She smelled like candy apples.

“Sure baby, we’ll be here.”

“OK, be right back. Hi Mel!”

“Hi!” I waved and climbed through the middle into backseat.

Keith craned his neck to stare at her as she ran back up the steps.

“Isn’t she beautiful, Mel-Mel?”

“Yes, she’s very pretty.”

“She’s way more than pretty—she’s drop-dead gorgeous, like a fucking model, don’t you think? Jesus Christ, why does she smell so good?” He pressed play on the cassette deck and Mötley Crüe pumped through the speakers. I ran my fingers over my pimply forehead and watched Keith light a Marlboro Red with his Zippo. He stretched his arm out the window.

“What do you think she’s doing in there? Putting more make-up on?” Keith shouted over the music. “Hell, I think she looks best without it, personally.”

Soon, Ashley came skipping back down the steps, a purse made out of blue jean material swinging from her shoulder.

“Let’s get out of here,” she shouted as she climbed into the Beetle and kissed my brother again. “Good thing you kept the engine running, huh? That way you won’t make your poor little sister push again, right Mel?” She smiled at me over her shoulder and squeezed Keith’s thigh, taking the cigarette from between his fingers.

“Give me that thing, I’ve been dying for a cigarette all morning.” She took a deep drag and Keith pressed his foot down on the gas pedal. He cranked up Shout at the Devil and rested his hand on Ashley’s knee as we sailed onto the freeway. I picked my hair out of my eyes as the wind whipped through the car, dizzy with the smell of asphalt, cigarette smoke, and green apple shampoo.


These are the things that have happened while you’ve been in prison: you turned fifty, your father died, your son became a teenager, your sister got married, and your dog died. Mom got the neighbor to help her bury him in the backyard. She made a headstone that says, “Nuggie lies here” and texted me a photo of it.

There are, of course, many other things that have happened, are happening, or getting ready to happen. Mom’s still taking care of your other dog and it appears she has also taken in a stray—she’s been texting me photos of a skinny calico, this is Sunshine. isn’t she cute?? xo. She goes to the local animal shelter once a month and picks up a free bag of dog food and cat litter. I imagine her driving home in the truck your father left you when he died, the dog food bag crinkling on the passenger seat beside her. The tub of cat litter is probably heavy for her to lift from the floorboard of the truck after she pulls into the driveway and parks. She turned 71 while you’ve been in prison.


Looks like we’re not the only ones who want to be at Magic Mountain today, huh?” Keith circled the parking lot, finally finding a spot that had a couple empty spaces on either side.

“It’ll be cool here, don’t worry,” he said and winked at Ashley as he switched the ignition off. “We’ll have to make it a quick-y so we don’t roast to death out here. I didn’t see a single spot with any shade, did you?”

“But what about? Are you…are you sure?” Ashley looked around and tugged a strand of her blonde hair.

“Oh, Melenie? Not a thing to worry about. My sister is totally cool, aren’t you Mel-Mel?”

“Yeah, I’m cool,” I said from the backseat, not sure what I was supposed to be cool about.

Keith pressed something into Ashley’s hand and she opened the glove compartment door so it was like a smaller version of the tray table I had on the airplane. She carefully emptied white powder from a little plastic baggie on to it.

“Maybe give me your driver’s license or something?” She tucked the empty baggie into the side pocket of her jean purse.

“Mel-Mel, keep watch out the back and let us know if you see anybody coming,” Keith said as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.

I shifted around so I could see out the back window. The sunshine glared off the cars parked neatly in a row across from us, almost all with blue California license plates, except for one orange Oregon plate on a white van, and a greenish plate on a pickup truck that I couldn’t make out. I heard the tap-tap-tapping of the credit card against the glove compartment door. I peeked over my shoulder as my brother leaned across Ashley and snorted the powder into his nose through a rolled up dollar bill. He handed the dollar bill to Ashley and I turned back to keep watch. Ashley sniffed in twice and then giggled, coughing a little. Then a couple long, loud snorts from my brother, and then little ones, over and over, like my dad sounded when he cleared his nose out in the cold.

“Last one’s for you, baby. Are we all clear back there, watchdog?”

“All clear,” I said, looking both ways.

I peeked again and saw Ashley hold a fistful of hair back as she leaned over and snorted, and then caught movement out of the corner of my eye.

“Guys! There’s a truck coming!”

Ashley slammed the glove compartment door shut and looked back, her eyes as big as pancakes.

“It’s cool, nothing to see here,” Keith said, stuffing the dollar bill into his pocket. We sat still and silent as the truck passed by.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, did I waste any of it?” Ashley whispered, staring at the door of the glove compartment.

“No baby, you’re good—don’t worry, there wasn’t any left.”

Keith pulled open the glove compartment door, licked his finger and then ran it along the inside and slipped it into his mouth. Ashley sucked on her finger and did the same, pressing it between her bottom lip and her teeth. I pretended not to watch and dug in my pockets for my Cherry ChapStick.

“Wow,” Ashley says, as she twisted the rearview mirror toward her and painted her lips with a tube of sparkly pink lip gloss. “I could never, and I mean ever, do this in front of my little sister. She would totally flip out and go running to mommy and daddy like always. I can’t believe how cool your sister is.” She turned and beamed at me.

“Want some?” She passed her lip gloss toward me.

I took the gloss from her and smeared it over my ChapStick.

“You look really pretty!” She said, dropping the tube into her purse and smiling at my brother. He lit a cigarette and handed it to her, and then lit one for himself.

“I’m with the two prettiest girls at Magic Mountain, that’s for freaking sure! Now come on, let’s go. I’m sweating my ass off!”

We climbed out of the Beetle and headed toward the entrance, the hot pavement seeping through my jelly sandals. Ashley and I waited for my brother as he paid the cashier, and when he came back with season passes for all of us, she squealed and threw her arms around his neck.

We rode the roller coasters and the other fast and scary rides all day, the faster and scarier the better, in my brother’s opinion. There was the one that strapped us into a cage-like thing and lifted way up into the air, then dropped us so we free fall the whole way down. It scared the lights out of me, but Keith loved it so much we waited in line to go on it again, me shoveling clumps of caramel popcorn in my mouth as Keith snapped photos with a disposable camera. In between rollercoasters, we went to a stall and dressed up in old-timey western clothes and had black and white photos taken. There was one of my brother in a cowboy hat holding a rifle, me leaning against him in a ruffled flowery dress, a silver pistol dangling from one of my fingers. In another, Ashley was in a sequined dress and garter belt and Keith wore a sheriff’s badge. They giggled and talked about how kick-ass cool I was, and busted into peals of laugher when I sheepishly asked if we could get some lunch. “Of course you’re hungry—we completely forgot!” Keith laughed as they gave each other knowing looks, “Sorry little sis.” He and Ashley shared a frozen lemonade and smoked cigarettes as I devoured a bag of chicken fingers and fries, and then we headed off to stand in line again for the “World’s Largest Wooden Roller Coaster.” It was after dark when we piled back into the Beetle, Mötley Crüe singing Helter Skelter as I fell asleep with my cheek pressed against the vinyl of the backseat.


Mom sounds hollow and far away when we talk on the phone today. She is sifting through the Christmas decorations and says they depress her. “When your brother puts up the decorations, they look beautiful and festive and I immediately feel like I’m in spirit. But I’m looking at all of it strewn across the carpet, and I have to say, it looks like a bunch of cheap shit. Plus, something about the way the light is shining today makes me see how truly filthy the carpet is and I have no idea what in the world I’m going to do about it.” I tell her to put the decorations back in the boxes and tape them up—that she doesn’t have to drag out all of the Christmas stuff this year.

The last Christmases we all spent together were more than twenty years ago on Hemlock Street in Portland. We would hang around in front of the tree and wait to see if you’d show up. There was the year I came home from my first semester at college, lugging a boyfriend who was too old for me and hated Christmas—he talked endlessly about the gross consumerism of it all as he smoked joint after joint that Mom rolled. Mom shook her head and looked at me with her wide blue eyes asking, “Why’d you bring home the Christmas Grinch?” That year, you showed up, gripping a tattered black garbage bag filled with your clothes. You slept downstairs in the basement. We sang Happy Birthday to my father on Christmas Eve, and the next morning our stockings hung heavy from the mantel with big marijuana buds sticking out of the top of them. We smoked, drank coffee, tore open presents, ate, smoked, and slept. Then we smoked, ate, slept; smoked, ate, slept—repeat until the New Year came and went and I climbed back into my car and left for school.

Then there was the year we waited by the blinking Christmas tree lights and you never came. Sometime late in the night, the phone rang, and Mom pulled on her coat to drive downtown and bail you out—something about drinking too much and a fight. Hours later you and Mom came through the front door looking exhausted. I went away to graduate school and stopped coming back to Portland for Christmas. Then I went away to the East Coast and rarely came west.


What’s the matter, Mel-Mel? You aren’t scared are you?” Keith shouted up at me.

“No,” I lied.

I looked over the edge and down at the water—it seemed miles away. Keith said he’d go first and be down there waiting for me. We hadn’t been to Magic Mountain in weeks because Keith and Ashley were in a huge fight and might be breaking up. “I think she’s cheating on me with that dude you guys went four-by-fouring with that day I was at work,” Keith told me as we sat in the parking lot of the 7-11. He wiped tears from his face with his knuckles. “Can you fucking believe that shit? And she had the nerve to introduce my little sister to that shithead!”

To cheer himself up, Keith rounded up a few friends and we headed to a lake he said had a great jump-off spot. After a long, hot hike up a dusty trail we arrived at the spot, sweaty and thirsty. Without skipping a beat, Keith grinned, waved at me, and leapt over the edge. At the last moment, he gripped his knees into his chest and made a huge splash, disappearing underneath for what felt like a moment too long—then his head broke through the surface and he whooped and hollered.

“Make a cannonball like I did Mel-Mel!” He shouted up at me.

I didn’t want to jump, but I knew I had to. I wanted to climb back down the trail, back over the rocks and branches and pretend I didn’t care if Keith said I was almost a teenager and shouldn’t be such a scaredy-cat. I wanted to laugh and be carefree. I didn’t want to be too frightened to jump into a lake. I didn’t want to worry about what might be underneath.

“Come on little sis, it feels great in here! Don’t worry, your big brother won’t let you drown.” He kicked his legs and slapped his hands in the water, the splashes made rainbows in the sun.

I tried to take in a deep breath, but I couldn’t get the air in through my throat, so before I could think about what that might mean, I stepped to the edge and jumped. It turned out I had plenty of breath in me because the slap of hitting the water knocked all of it out. Everything went silent as I plunged under. I came up gasping and my brother was doggy paddling next to me laughing his head off.

“Come on Mel-Mel, let’s do it again! This time, don’t forget to close your mouth on the way down. That way you won’t eat a big water sandwich.”


I log into JPay and upload a photo of the Connecticut River that I took from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, close to where my husband and I live now. I tell you rivers always remind me of you and isn’t it funny Sugarloaf is called a mountain when it’s barely 700 feet tall? You say you like the picture very much and you’re glad rivers make me think of you instead of police stations and correctional facilities. I say you and I are used to the enormous mountains in Oregon and California—mountains that are actually mountains, not hills. I say I am cheering for you and that I will help you with your business plan for the hot dog cart. You tell me to think of you on the Winter Solstice instead of Christmas because you celebrate Yule now. I tell you our new friends have an eight-year-old son who I’m going to go sledding with when the snows come.

Of all the things I don’t know about you, I do know how much you love being close to a river. When you lived in Oregon, you spent every free minute you had by any river you could get to. “The water was other-fucking-worldly out there Mel-Mel,” you’d tell me after a day spent at Bagby Hot Springs or another favorite spot of yours. You talked about the sunlight making a million sparkles on the water and how good the air smelled—pine needles and warm rocks. I think about asking you if you can smell the Clearwater River from the prison, if there are any windows you can look out of and see it. Instead, I tell you it’s been so mild in Massachusetts this winter that it feels like I’m back in Northern California. I tell you I’ve been working a lot and not writing enough. You say you’re proud of me for all of the hard work I’m doing. I say rivers have always been you to me.


Orofino, Idaho appears on the screen of my iPhone when the calls come in. I don’t pick up. Not the five times you call on Saturday, or the seven times you call on Sunday. I don’t know exactly why I don’t answer. Part of me is afraid you’re going to ask me for something—money, specifically. Money for your commissary—a word I was never familiar with before you were in prison, but it rolls off Mom’s tongue now like she’s been using it forever. “Your brother doesn’t have any money left on his commissary” or “I managed to round up Keith’s friends and they all chipped in and put some money on his commissary.” I look it up in Merriam Webster: “Commissary: a restaurant in a movie studio, military base, or other institution.” A quick peek on Google shows several cookbooks that use ingredients from a typical prison commissary, including, most recently, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. I order it from Amazon and it appears in my mailbox two days later. I think about logging into JPay to tell you about the book, but I don’t.


It’s Christmas day and freakishly warm. The path along the Connecticut River smells of mud and wet grass and it’s mild enough to pull off my jacket and knot it around my waist. I want to tell you that my husband and I are settling into our new apartment, our cups and plates are finding their cabinets, and our fingers are learning where the light switches are in the dark. I want to tell you that I hung white curtains in every window. I think about Mom sitting at the kitchen table in Boise, looking out the back window at the hot dog cart. She says that she covered it up with a tarp for the winter, to protect it from the elements. My sneakers squish along the path and I want to say how much you would love it here. In the pale winter sun, the river shimmers; it’s moving so slowly, I realize I don’t even know which way it flows. As I look toward the sun and try to figure out which way is west, I see a large branch floating alone out in the center of the river. It’s moving more quickly than I imagined.



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  • Beautiful story, congrats.

  • Len Berkman says:

    Stunning details and exquisite shifts of address, to Keith and to us about Keith, keep me breathless (as when you leaped into the water and below its surface). Mel, you mirror yourself through your brother, the stages and sweeps of how you were then and how you’ve grown, while he was unwittingly boxing in his future. I’ll write more to you privately. What a splendid reflection, a memoir extract with staggering brilliance.

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