2021.01.29

When I write guys in prison, I can picture their cells. I’ve seen plenty during cell-front visits over the years, my nose pressed to the wired glass as we visit and I survey their space behind their jumpsuited shoulders. Some homies have actually drawn their simple, cinderblock homes for me: where they sit, where they sleep and shit, where they pin up a photo I sent them of us fishing here on the Skagit River before they got arrested again. We write long, old-fashioned letters to stay in touch, fold them into envelopes and open them in our separate solitudes.

So I can’t help but be aware of your spaces as I write to you both—where you’ll read these words—in opposite corners of the country.

Your house we know all too well, Murph. There’s no other friend in my life who’s mailing address I know like my own: 1868 N 1st Ave Upland CA 91784. I could give a virtual tour of your childhood bedroom where friends like me often squeeze into your old twin bed at 3am after deciding it’s better not to hit the road. Next door is the little office you’re probably in now, the former junk room confiscated from your mother a few years back when you began your PhD. I remember the late December evening we both sat on the floor in there, confessing to each other that we’d started writing some stuff on our own, for fun, and that, well, maybe we could read it to each other.

Like I said, we know your space well.

Less often do we see your pad, Wuck: the high-ceilinged, tightly-arranged apartment in Brooklyn. It was good for me to crash there again last fall on my way through NYC, to see where you write those songs, where you watch the Dodger game, where you’re reading those many novels and building your epic bookcases for them.

Both of you, I think, have poked your head in here too, my converted mudroom study, during your brief visits to the Northwest. I turn in my chair now and see it differently, as if through your four eyes.

You’d both zero-in on the large photo of all of us, I think, stretched onto a framed canvas and newly hung above one of the two doors. You know the one: the thirteen of us arranged in a tableau unmistakably like Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the restaurant otherwise empty. I didn’t get it at the moment, unwrapping it this past December, but it now makes sense that I was the one to receive a printed canvas of it for our most recent Guy Night: I’m the religious guy.

As I welcome your eyes in here another minute, I next see how many icons I have on my walls: crude and ancient art of the early Christian movement, later renditions of the saints in earthen tones, Lazarus unwrapped by friends at the open tomb, Christ’s hands forever extending toward another. I have these taped to my walls between art sent to me from those lockdown cells: pencil-shaded murals of guns and meth, prison bars and suicide, sad and happy harlequin masks, a baby daughter with a bow on her head. There’s Chagall’s surreal painting of the angel interrupting Abraham’s knife over his son Isaac, Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” more photos of homies I’ve loved, some holding up fresh-caught salmon, some holding up gang signs, some laying hands of prayer on another homie at his wedding, everyone in collars and ties or Dickies plaid. And now there’s a blossoming patch of family photos—Rachel and little Abram smiling back at me—here behind my banker’s lamp, between scribbled quotes from my favorite monks. These photos and drawings are all memory aids, like the Orthodox icons. They remind me of the stories that brought me this far.

Volunteering at a jail up here after my lonesome years at Berkeley, I found myself not just praying with guys in small visitation cells, but laughing together, sharing stories late into the night, just two or three of us. When they were sentenced and shipped off to far-flung correctional hells, they held onto my address. Through those letters, I got to know these gang members and drug dealers more deeply than most of my friends from childhood, high school, or college. I wasn’t trying to become a minister. It’s just where I found a richer communion.

But—and this is part of a longer story I haven’t yet told either of you—things have changed in my work. The last couple years have been terrible. I’ve gotten hurt. As dearly as I love so many of them, I can’t keep making the charming and traumatized guys cycling in or out of prison my closest and only circle of friends. I just can’t.

I turn in my chair again and look at this Last Supper some more: my hometown buddies I see maybe once a year, a fraternity as secular as they come. I realize I’ve experienced a communion among you guys longer than any church I’ve belonged to, longer than any ministry organization or chaplaincy post or prison I’ve given years of my life to. It’s significant. But when I fly south during Christmastime for Guy Night, or when we chat throughout the year on The Dodger Thread, I sometimes feel like a flat background character in a sitcom, just making my expected appearance and laughing along until next time. As we get older, I realize I crave something more. Something richer.

Then just two of us get a text from you, Wuck: “Wanna write letters?”

Yup.

What might happen here—in this shared space, this closed document—where just two or three are gathered?

gathered?
Murph
Or, like, what else besides letters?

I kidded myself all throughout grad school that the papers I slaved over, the papers I tirelessly revised and eventually published in top-tier peer-reviewed journals, would make some kind of meaningful mark on the world or, at the very least, be good for my career.

Neither was true. No one cares about the elephants in HEART OF DARKNESS or the teenage girls in the RECHERCHE, even if they’re supposed to. And good luck explaining to friends and family what your latest project is about, trying to defend and make sense of your hundreds of hours researching “narrating instance” to actual people.

For these reasons I long ago decided that exhausting such energy for an insensate academic community wasn’t for me. If I was going to write, I had to be able to imagine an audience more like my friends and family, had to imagine them being moved by the things I wrote. This decision pushed me towards fiction, pushed me out of my search for some far-flung research position and into a comfortable teaching spot at a local two-year school.

So when you say “letters,” Hoke, I just can’t help but see another dead end, think of another dead form, of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN or of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, stuff hundreds of years old. I mean, outside of your niche calling, Hoke, who the hell sends letters anymore? For that matter, who on earth reads the correspondence of others, especially from people like us?
I’m just not sold, I guess.

You both want to work on something with me? Tremendous. But, like, letters?
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