Forty-Two Measures of Rest

My younger sister Beth is driving home from a visit to her college town. She is flipping through songs on her iPod, listening to her friend Matt talk in the passenger seat. Christmas was a few days ago and snowflakes drift lazily through the air, too light and swift to land. The day seems simple and good.

Beth rounds the interstate’s corner. A minivan is upside-down in the ditch. Four people are standing in a circle nearby, but their heads snap tick-tock toward the van and back at her, so she knows there’s someone inside. She pulls over, calculating geometry in the hacksawed tire tracks. An ambulance hasn’t been here yet. She shoves the car door open, out into the snow bare-armed in her t-shirt, past the group of people standing—if they are standing and talking they must be mostly okay—yells that she is an EMT, runs toward the upside-down van. A woman is ragdolled under the back tire, her body tangled in metal. Her head is the wrong shape and part of her skull hangs open, wet and glistening, the snow falling in and melting inside. Beth pulls herself into the van. The engine clicks; it’s still warm from the heater, chugging through the Michigan winter. Beth puts two fingers into the woman’s neck. Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats.

Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats. Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine.

Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine. I’m in a wine bar in Howell, one of the single-street small towns that spiderweb their way across the Midwest in square-mile grids before fading away into forgotten storefronts, forgettable suburbs. Garlands twisted with Christmas lights wrap around each streetlight. I lift the glass to my mouth and sit back into the shabby, bottomed-out couch. My two friends are talking about weddings. I am visiting home from Boston where I now live, 25 years old, the age where it’s no longer surprising to talk about weddings. Brittany is already planning hers even though she and her boyfriend aren’t engaged. Sarah got married a few years ago under an awning in her parents’ backyard in a short white summer dress, reception in the local dive bar with greasy pizza and pitchers of beer and homemade cakes brought by the people who loved the couple, three months pregnant and clueless and happy. Sarah is planning the wedding she never had, the one where her parents aren’t deadbeats and she doesn’t have to be pregnant, one with white-starched tablecloths and overpriced centerpieces. Instead of talking about love we compare blue versus pink bridesmaids. Brittany is talking about tuxedo vests and I think, is this all that we have become? Will real things stop happening to us? To me?

*     *     *

I have a history of not knowing the right thing to do or the right way to be. Or maybe there is no right thing to be done.

While I was in ninth grade World History, writing a note to my friend about how cute Mike Munsell looked in his Abercrombie shirt, terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. Living in Michigan, I wasn’t sure exactly what terrorists or the World Trade Center were, but I knew they must be important by the way the teachers ricocheted through the hallways like electrified pinballs.

By fifth hour band, kids with family in New York had evaporated from school. Everyone was already rehearsing their stories of where they were when it happened and it was an unspoken contest of whose was the best. I had no idea what was going on but it was big and important and I wanted so badly to be important. Alisa knew how tall the towers were and had been able to cry about it so she was already ahead. And then I remembered—how could I have forgotten?—that my aunt and her wife lived in New York.

In reality, they lived somewhere woodsy, too far away to see anything or be seriously injured, but in my mind I moved them into a high-rise downtown. Here was my chance to stop being irrelevant.

But as with most of my grandest plans, I was too afraid to actually do anything. I couldn’t cry and no one would notice me otherwise, so I elbowed one of the crash cymbals out of its tray. People turned and I put my hands to my mouth, all ready to be distraught, but completely lost my nerve. Everyone turned away, back toward the television while the towers angrily smoked. I turned to the boy next to me and interrupted his conversation.

“My aunt is in New York,” I said. His face did not register anything. I was crushed. So I said it again. “I have an aunt. In New York. Right now.”

“Is she okay? Why didn’t your mom come to get you?” I had no answers. I didn’t know anything. I became obscure again.

Mr. L, the band teacher, tried to get us to play. I thought he should probably say something important like how the music would bring us joy in this time of tragedy, but instead he jabbed his white baton at us like he hated us, just a little more than usual. I leaned my head on the big upright bass drum and let the vibrations thunder through me like I was empty. The second tower fell. The trumpets blared their hideous solo while I counted 42 measures of rest.

For the next few years I lied, trying to tell a better story, even though I can’t understand why I wanted to. I made Mr. L a sympathetic character. In this version, he doesn’t make us play. His radio won’t work, so he lets us out into the parking lot to listen to the news in our cars. Probably he sobs over our practice records in his office. In this version I follow Ryan, the junior drummer, out to his car with a group of somber-faced friends. There is not enough room for me in the back seat, so he pulls me onto his lap, and I am close enough to touch the odd half-moon dimple above his left eye. The towers fall, and we think we hear people screaming, and Ryan locks his fingers around me. In this version I am visible, wanted, important. In this version I know about tragedy.

When I get home, my mother rests her head against the humming refrigerator and cries. I start to fear bombs the way my mother fears nuclear fallout. I’m sure the next one is coming. For weeks I can’t stop myself from doodling American flags, over and over.

*     *     *

On the side of the interstate it is far too quiet up in the cavity of the minivan while this woman tries not to die, except for the slow chugging of the exhaust of passing cars, the people inside open-mouthed, saying oh my god and so glad it isn’t them. They will drive home and tell their families; they will feel as if they’ve been a part of something important. Someone else has pulled over, and a swarm of new hands are clutching at the woman trapped in the car. Beth doesn’t look up and swats them away, knows they might break her neck or worse if her back is broken (though she wonders how, really, it could be worse) until she sees the red lights swirling dizzy-round, big men in fire suits, a plastic blue backboard sliding in the snow with its reassuring straps and buckles (she thinks ridiculously of sledding, snow and  ice white-hot-cold on her face); snow drifts, gorgeous and grotesque, into the woman’s hair while the firemen crack the ribs of the minivan wide, slide the woman out. Beth is small so she sits on the backboard with the woman and starts bloody-handed CPR, a cadence she can’t stop, chest compressions. She does what needs to be done. She does not have time to think about its importance. The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over.

The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over. Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine.

Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine. We have decimated the cheese plate, which wasn’t really a cheese plate at all but clearly just crackers from a brown-plastic sleeve and cheese sliced from a few blocks by someone’s mother. It’s all so small I could die. My friends are talking about the pros and cons of buffet versus family-style wedding dinners. None of the things I have to say fit the script. I want to say, really, how many of us are going to be divorced? I want to say that I’ll probably never have enough money to want to buy a house, and is buying a house something I have to care about now? I almost blurt the word mortgage into my glass of chardonnay because that sounds right. So I mention engagement rings, and realize that, fuck me, I’m enjoying myself.

*     *     *

Five years old, at a campground called Marble Springs, I was climbing down the ladder into the swimming hole when I saw a girl floating face down in the water. Tiny waves from the other kids on the shore lapped over her blue bathing suit. I looked at her like she was a sea creature, her blonde hair an anemone crawling outward. I do not remember feeling afraid. I did not know I should be afraid. She was a curiosity. I went to my mother and said, “A girl is floating over there.” My aunt, the one I would later forget on September 11, went over and fished the girl out of the water. Here my memory stops, and I only know what I’ve been told. The girl was heavier than she should’ve been for such a tiny person, so full of water. My aunt, another trained EMT, says she was dead, but she started mouth to mouth anyway. Soon the girl choked, regurgitated water. So much water, my aunt says, gallons and gallons of it. The girl turned from gray-blue to pink again, cried, alive. If it weren’t for you, everyone says, she would probably have died, her brain drowned. But I felt that I had done nothing. I didn’t know anything about ownership of tragedy. I knew I was not a hero. I went back to playing in the sand. To me the water was still clean.

*     *     *

In my family I am surrounded by women who know what they are doing: four trained EMTs, three nurse anesthetists, one medical student. When something bad happens, they do. What if I had been a bit older when I’d seen the drowning girl at Marble Springs, without the instinct to go straight to my mother? Would I still have stepped forward? Or would I have stood back, thinking—what’s going to happen to me?

*    *     *

On the side of the road, the paramedics have finally shown up. Beth still leans on the woman’s chest, trying to pump her unwilling heart, sweating through her clothes; the sweat starting to freeze over, though she can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s blood. She isn’t thinking about the complexities of life and what is meaningful and how we manage it—she does a job. She counts, one two three four five, important numbers. The paramedics lift the back board into the ambulance while she’s still pushing on the dead woman’s chest—and of course she’s dead, how couldn’t she be, with her brain glistening like that, with pieces of her on Beth’s jeans?—but Beth’s arms move compulsively one-two-three-four-five, a bird perched on the back board, until the paramedics say no, stop, she’s gone, too bad, so near Christmas—they say time of death, stop Beth’s counting. Everyone moves so slowly now. Beth is wearing a brand-new outfit, unwrapped from bright-red paper, the fabric perfect and meaningless. Her heart hammers out its own one-two-three-four-five and she is her own earthquake, shuddering. She has to walk back to her car, drive home, have dinner, so fucking normal. Her friend Matt throws up at the sight of her and she tells him it’s okay even though it isn’t, even though he had to stand there talking to the woman’s family, telling them it would be okay when it wouldn’t.

The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat.

On the way back Beth realizes they’ve forgotten dinner so they pull into a Wendy’s. The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat. In the bathroom she tries to clean her face with scratchy paper towels. She does not want to look in the mirror. Matt orders fries and they sit at a plastic table, saying nothing. The fries are hot and salty and she does not want them to taste so good but still, they do.

When I come home, Beth sits on the couch, wrapped in blankets. She can’t get warm. When she tells me what happened, I have nothing to say. Beth had always complained that she drives by accidents too late to help. She always just missed it, and wanted so badly to do something, to be a part of it. I apologize to her like it is my fault, and I feel like somehow it could be.

The next day Beth’s body will ache like she’s absorbed too much, tender to the touch. It will be New Year’s Eve, when we are pretending to start over. The light from Times Square will flicker from the television. On my way out, Beth says, “Wear your seatbelt.” I can’t help myself from telling the story later on that night. I can’t stop telling it. It is a great story for a party. Telling it makes me feel like I might absorb some of my sister, like instead of getting drunk in the afternoon and talking about carats, I might have been doing something important. Later Beth will say she wishes she’d missed the accident. She should never have wanted to be a part of it. She throws her bloodied clothes into the washer because somehow things have to get uncomplicated and clean.

*     *     *

Two years after I have left Boston for San Francisco, two men have bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am riding an exercise bike when I find out, watching the TV with the sound off. Red banner; breaking news. CNN plays the same ten seconds of explosion footage over and over until I realize that I recognize the streets. This, now, is the bomb I have always been sure would come. People lie bleeding with shrapnel studding their bones on Boylston Street where I used to walk to the library, walk to get frozen yogurt on my lunch breaks, my umbrella whipped out of my hand and into the gutter on windy rainy days. I pedal and pedal on the exercise bike, legs whipping in circles, too fast. I can’t seem to stop. I finish my workout but I don’t know why. I tell myself I am too afraid to go find my phone. I try to fend off the thought that finishing my workout might be more important to me than a bombing.

In the locker room, I sit on a wet bench and text all my friends in Boston, my coworkers in the building near the second bombing site. Everyone is fine and I expect to feel relief or feel like I have been a part of something, but instead I feel nothing. I feel sick. I stand in the shower until my skin is red.

I walk to have someplace to go. Here in California, summer winds have blown into town early at 40 miles per hour. The wind blows so hard that my legs are knocked around, askew. I lose track of my feet. I end up in a deserted sushi restaurant. The waitress brings me hot tea and I order much more than I can eat. I’ve been consuming nothing but news for hours. I used to live in Boston, I say. I still can’t help myself. A very bad thing, she says, and turns the TV to CNN for me, turns up the volume. Marathon runners cross the finish line in slow motion. Their legs tick the seconds. One, two, then the bomb blooms orange beside them, the energy wave rippling through their bodies simultaneously. It is almost beautiful.

In the library next, I try to read. The wind howls at the windows like an angry cat. It claws in through the seams so hard that I can feel it through the walls. It feels wrong that it should be so sunny. On my phone I thumb through the news. A picture is marked as graphic; a friend warns me not to look at it. I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to look. But of course I am. Of course I look. A young, ash-covered man in a wheelchair clutches his thigh. From the knee down, his leg has been blown off. His bone is so white and his skin flutters like bright red ribbons around a maypole. His eyes are open. He is awake.

Everything ordinary is horrible: the Styrofoam coffee cup in front of me, the blonde-haired boy in the fiction section clutching at his mother’s leg and calling mom mom mom. While Boston is in lockdown for the manhunt, my friend calls to tell me she is terrified, but she is taking her dog for a walk anyway, and it feels big and important. I want to tell her she is important. An ordinary thing is good. I want to be okay with smallness but I know the big important things will continue to come and I will still be unsure how I measure up. My father calls me and says he is glad I’m not in Boston anymore. I tell him, me too. For once I do not want to be a part of it.

I want to talk to Beth. She would know what to do, how to act, where to measure the pulse, how to breathe properly. I want her to say, that girl is floating over there; I am an EMT. I want to go back to the swimming hole and save the drowning girl not by accident, but on purpose; to know the simple and right thing to do.


Jill Kolongowski grew up in Michigan. She is the managing editor at YesYes Books and is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at St. Mary’s College of California. She’s also a proud member of the 3-4-5 writing community. Her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Revolution House, Fugue, and elsewhere.

Just Walk Away

I grab my baby and run outside, screaming for help. No one steps outside when they think there’s trouble. It’s hotter than hell on this shit hole street in Tucson. The neighbors are sitting inside drinking beer, cursing the humidity that’s sucking away the coolness from their rusty swamp coolers. I’m standing on the road, carrying my limp baby, who I am certain is dead. A more sensible mom would call 9-1-1, not scream for help from unknown, unseemly neighbors. And then Ania breathes. And I cry. We return inside the house and I pull out my breast, the cure-all for all misery. I look at my baby and wonder what just happened? We had just finished taking our nightly bath, and then, while putting on Ania’s pjs, she started crying. The crying intensified, transforming into a hellish wailing. I picked Ania up, did the calm-down bobbing up and down step routine, while singing our song: “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone ….” And just like that she was quiet. Too quiet. Blue and limp. And I ran outside, not wanting to be alone with my non-breathing baby. But we were alone, standing outside, me screaming, Ania doing whatever she was doing. I watch her nurse. She looks at me with suspicion, as if I am to blame for this non-breathing fiasco. As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt. I automatically assume all blame. In the past, I must have strived for amorality, or so it seems tonight, because I am riddled with complex guilt. In the past I have done shitty things, yet, I remained guilt-free. I don’t even know how I am so personally responsible for my baby’s passing out, but as her mother, I claim all responsibility. I must have missed some crucial detail, forgot to do that one thing that prevents your child from stopping to breathe. I fucked up somewhere down this maternal road.

As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt.

In six months of living, she has never stopped breathing. At least not that I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention. We’re never apart; surely I’d know if my baby wasn’t breathing. She sleeps with me, no crib, but now I wonder if crib death could mean sleeping next to mother in a real bed also. I rock my baby back to sleep and rock myself into an obsessive worry, wondering what caused this turning blue, this cessation of breathing. We had just moved into this rental house. For months, we drove around Arizona in my truck, carrying all our belongings with us, housesitting for kind friends who were leaving for extended vacations, kind friends who knew my baby, dog, and I had nowhere to live. No need for baby monitor. No need for painting the baby’s room. We carry everything in the back of the truck. Good intentioned parent friends, friends that know how parenting is supposed to be (and friends I am now tossing onto my asshole list, hopefully on a temporary basis, the same way I’m hoping this streak of poverty is temporary), like to point out that I have been ruining my baby, and I am missing out on all the wonders of having a baby by not living in a house. It wasn’t until I became a single mother that I couldn’t find anyone who would rent to me. As an unemployed student, I could easily find a place to rent. As a mother, I endure endless questions about my bleak financial situation, and no one offers me a lease. It didn’t matter that I had the money for the first month’s rent and the security deposit in my hand. No one trusted that I’d have the money for the second month’s rent. I finally returned to the divey rental houses where I had lived as a grad student. I tried moving into a better house, a safer neighborhood, but I was so relieved to get the key to this dump, this shitty house suddenly seemed to have endless potential. It even had two bedrooms, one bedroom more than the unit I rented next door. A fenced in front and backyard for the dog. Life was good again. I was about to understand the joys of being a parent with a house.

 *     *     *

I look at my baby and know that she didn’t mind traversing across the state, sleeping here and there. I minded. I wanted a house, a mailing address, a phone number, but not Ania. We’d find swimming pools, go on bike rides, and long hikes with our dog. I’d hear Ania cooing away behind me, tugging my hair every now and then, and feel her head flop off to the side as she slept soundly. She had no worries about food or bed. I am her food and bed. She never turned blue when we were house sitters, which sounds so much more uplifting than calling us homeless. When friends saw us arrive at their homes, and then not leave, but linger on as they hinted it was time for bed, I must’ve looked a bit distressed, because they always ended up saying, “Why don’t you guys spend the night?” The dinner guests who never leave. But we’d leave. Other vagabond friends would be leaving the country, and off we’d go to occupy their home. Good friends every one of them. Good friends who knew me when I was childless, and I was like them, taking off here and there. Thirty-three years of just being me. And now I never go anywhere without picking up my baby, heading off somewhere together. Now we have a home. An address. We get WIC, which means I give the neighbor gallons of milk. She has five kids. I have one who only nurses. I look at my baby sleeping soundly and want her to always breathe. We have an entire life to live together. She must breathe. It’s as simple as that. Breathe baby, breathe. We live like real families now. We joined a baby and mom swimming class. I drop her into the water and her feet hit the bottom, then she bobs back up. She floats, doesn’t sink. I stand by the wall and she swims to me. We live like normal people. I’m a parent who cheers my daughter onward. The Parks and Rec folks let us take classes for free. They encourage me to take a class just for me, have a little me time, but I sign us up for crawling classes. “Maybe next time I’ll take a class for me,” I say. No one knows that we are the freebies. We fit in with everyone else, except Ania has no interest in crawling. She’s young for this class. She sits on the mats and laughs. “She’ll crawl one day,” all the parents say to me. “She can swim,” I boast.

*     *     *

I look at my baby and wonder if she has a fatal illness. I want to start researching all the reasons a baby stops breathing, but I don’t want to put her down, and I doubt I have any books with such answers in our house with no belongings. I don’t want to find out bad news. I imagine all the reasons a baby may stop breathing and start crying. For once it’s me crying, not Ania.

 *     *     *

The next morning I call a doctor. I’m so damn relieved we have this address because this address has given us health insurance for Ania. We get right in to see a specialist at the university hospital. They must think this non-breathing is very serious. The first doctor asks me questions, his intern stands beside him, and I wonder when I’ll answer the question that finally reveals how I fucked up. “Home birth? Why?” he grunts. I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question or the question that determines just how badly I’ve fucked things up. “I liked the midwives.” I sound lame. “Hospitals are safer.” “I had a back-up plan with the local hospital.” “Back-up plan.” He rolls his eyes. The intern looks uncomfortable. I feel like a pathetic mother. “She’s a big baby, incredibly healthy, all things considered,” he mutters. I wait for the bad news. She’s big and healthy, but may be dying. There is no bad news. He tells his intern to take over, pats Ania on the tummy, shakes my hand, and leaves the room. The intern seems embarrassed for me and tries to be uplifting. He takes out his pen, Ania grabs for it. He laughs. She laughs. He continues with his playful doctor activities, then looks at me. “You have a really bright baby.” He’s trying to break the bad news gently. He then hauls out a huge medical book, the book I want to bring home with me, and he flips through pages, while asking me more questions. I start reading over his shoulder. “I’ve got it.” He’s so damn excited to have figured out the root of my daughter’s illness, I’m frightened. “She’s manipulating you.” “What? She’s only six months.” “She’s smart. She’s a breath-holder.” “What? Why?” “She’s manipulating you. I’d bet money on it. She is perfectly fine. We could run CAT scans, do tests, but I’m positive she’s a breath-holder.” “I have insurance. You can run tests.” “There is no test for breath-holders.” “Why would she decide to be a breath-holder?” “Because she can.” “What am I supposed to do?” “Ignore her.” “What if she dies?” “She won’t. Look, “ he says, shoving the book at me. “She’ll start breathing automatically.” I start scanning through the material. “She’ll do this until she’s four?” “Maybe. If you let her.” Let her? “There’s nothing I can do to make her breathe?” “Next time she does this, because trust me there will be another time, I’d bet money on it, just walk away. Make sure she’s in a safe place and walk away. She’ll be fine.” “What am I doing wrong?” “Nothing. Your daughter is a manipulator.” “Don’t say that. She’s just a baby.” I feel betrayed. My daughter deliberately wants to cause me extreme anguish. She wants to manipulate me. I should’ve read those parenting books more closely. Surely there are plenty of chapters on how not to raise your child to be a manipulator. “Lots of babies do this. I bet you she’ll stop doing this before she’s four. Be firm.” “That’s it? She’s fine? Not dying?” “She’s so smart, she’s a master of manipulating you. Be careful. This precious baby knows you more than you know yourself. She knows how to get a reaction out of you.” He starts laughing remembering my story about running out in the street. “I can’t believe you ran outside with her.” “I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” “Nothing else?” He laughs again. I am asshole homebirth mother. “But why would she hold her breath until she passes out?” “Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.” As we ride the bike home, I wonder about all the babies I’ve known, and there have been many, and I can’t think of one baby who was a breath-holder. Not one.

“Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.”

I call the American Red Cross and ask when they’re having their next Infant CPR class. I am having a hard time believing my baby holds her breath until she passes out to manipulate me. I’m relieved she isn’t dying of cancer, or suffering from seizures, or any of the other possible medical disasters that could have been the cause of her passing out, yet, I’m not convinced she will always simply start breathing. I need to prepare for the inevitable. I look at my baby as I nurse her to sleep and wonder what I’m missing that she wants me to know, when she’ll next hold her breath, and why does my daughter want to manipulate me. I’m already a pushover. Manipulation sounds so evil, so cruel. I will teach her words. Millions of words. She will tell me what she wants. I’m so damn idealistic. I think about the doctor’s final words: Just walk away. Before becoming a mother, I was a public school teacher. Parents would say to me, “You don’t understand because you’re not a parent.” At least I didn’t ask the doctor if he was a parent, a parent who could simply walk away. It will happen again. Just walk away. I rehearse my new maternal mantra. It will happen again. Just walk away. Just walk away. Just breathe, baby, breathe.

Payne candidDiane Payne is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom’s Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals.

Heart of the City

Cliff’s meaty fingers hunt and jab through his report on Arthur Ashe—eyes darting between computer screen and handwritten paper—while Starship’s We Built This City plays on 106.7.

“Yes, sir,” Cliff says in his gravelly voice, tapping his foot. He jabs a letter, glances at the screen, jabs another, double-checks to make sure this machine isn’t on a coffee break. The letters appear as commanded, but Cliff is skeptical. He mutters something about “a white’s man’s contraption.”

“Playing the race card while listening to Starship?” I ask.

He shoots me a quick look, then stabs two more letters like stray peas on a plate.

“Damn right,” he says. “Damn right. But don’t matter anyhow. All comes back to us. We laid the foundation for this shit.”

Who counts the money
underneath the bar?
Who rides the wrecking ball
into our guitars?

“You must be very proud, Cliff.”

He shakes his head and continues typing. Slowly, surely, letter by letter, he finishes the first sentence: Can you imagine being born down south and wanting to be a tennis player—that’s crazy!

“I like this station,” he says. “Songs that won’t embarrass you in front of your boss.” He repeats the station’s catch phrase nearly every time we meet, even on days when we don’t listen to the radio. Each time he laughs, an inside joke he has with himself. Maybe he’s thinking about his old bosses, big white foremen in orange reflector vests pointing down at the asphalt, Cliff following them with a jackhammer. Or perhaps he’s chuckling over the idea of having any boss at all, something he finds very amusing now that he’s retired.

The door creaks open and an officer pokes his well-manicured head into the room.

“Count time, gentlemen.”

I nod and smile. “Thanks.” Cliff searches for the “F” key. He takes his time.

“Save this for me, huh?” He exhales, slaps the tops of his thighs and stands up. “Okay. I’ll be seeing ya.”

He walks out of the room, the officer behind him whistling the song’s final bars.

*     *     *

The first time I asked Cliff if he wanted to take my class, he didn’t know what to make of me.

“I’m sixty-five years old, man.”

“Never too old to read, Cliff.” I was new, and sometimes I felt like I was reciting motivational phrases I’d read on posters.

He glanced down at my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“This the one with Jack Nicholson?”

“Well,” I said, smiling. “Sort of.”

He exhaled. “Either it is or it ain’t.”

“No, yeah. It is.”

He nodded and looked around the room. Up at the ceiling, followed the white cinderblocks down to the floor and scuffed his sneakers on the linoleum. He glanced at the paper snowflakes the previous teacher hung above the dry erase board and grinned.

“All right. Sign me up.”

*     *     *

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too, as if he alone walked up to an abandoned lot with a canvas bag of tools in one hand, lunchbox in the other. Sometimes in the middle of class I’ll see him look around the room and nod. Or he’ll run his hands over the cinderblocks, fingertips reading history in the bumpy lead paint.

After forty-six years as a construction worker, Cliff sees the world as his job site. A place where things need doing. Plans designed and executed. He’s methodical and precise and despises laziness. His body is permanent muscle. Calluses shaped like hands. A round protrusion on his bald head that other students call his “devil horn.”  Piss off C and he’ll sic his devil horn on ya. He looks ridiculous crammed into the wooden chair with the desk attached—all the students do, but especially Cliff—his hulking frame and thick legs engulfing the chair so it looks like he’s squatting in the center of the room, a comma-shaped slice of wood pressed to his side. He holds a book as if it were just another tool, something to swat a fly or level a shaky workbench.

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too

“I built this fuckin’ place,” he tells William, a new student.

“We know, Killa. We know,” says Carlos, Cliff’s sidekick.

“Yeah, but he don’t know.”

“Well, now he knows.”

“Shiiit,” William says. “This one job you no need to finish, brotha.”

*     *     *

I don’t ask Cliff why he’s here. I never ask any of my students about their crimes. It’s not so much off limits as it is bad taste. Like talking about the cause of death at a funeral. What difference does it make? We’re here now.

He alludes to domestic abuse, his wife that just would not shut up, and the other students nod in agreement. One day a crazy wife, next a crazy girlfriend. First the wife is cheating, then a prostitute steals Cliff’s wallet at a Motel 6.  He tells me I couldn’t handle a black woman. Too much work. You ain’t got the skills for the job.

Cliff also tells me stories about buried treasure he dug up on job sites all around Boston. Gold coins, pearls, rubies, diamonds. Secret riches everywhere. When we watch a documentary on Ancient Rome, camera panning across crumbling columns, Cliff stands up and shouts: It’s right there, man! Underneath all that shit. The narrator describes a sharp tool called a dolabra, which workers used to carve out blocks for the city’s defensive wall. A foreman once drove a dolabra into the chest of one of his workers for sleeping on the job. But Cliff doesn’t seem to hear any of this. He leans in close to the screen, still squinting for gold.

Cliff had to turn over all his treasure to the foremen. The way he describes them, his foremen were loony old prospectors with scraggly beards and short cigars. Beneath Emerson College, he tells me, while they were constructing the new freshman dormitories, they found pirate bones.

“No bullshit. You wouldn’t believe what’s buried underneath this city.”

*     *     *

The House of Correction is a ten-story building crowned in concertina wire and an American flag that, on windy days, clangs and pops like a docked sailboat. The HOC is on the edge of the South End, a rich part of town where young couples sleep in piano factories converted into luxury lofts. Construction began in the late 1980s and finished on Christmas Day, 1991. The old House of Correction was on Deer Island in the Boston Harbor—a looming Shawshank of a building that seemed to have always been there, as if it rose from the ocean like volcanic rock. Though the facility on Deer Island wasn’t built until the early 1800s, the island has been home to prisoners since the 1600s, when the Colonial government shipped thousands of Native Americans off the mainland and onto the Harbor Islands. Many remained there until their death.

So when Cliff tells me Deer Island was haunted because it was built on an Indian burial ground—that some nights the snow drifting through his barred window formed an angry white face—I start thinking about college students sleeping above pirate bones.

*     *     *

Cliff also built Pine Street Inn, the homeless shelter around the corner from the HOC, where, in a few months, he’ll stand in line for a room. At night, he’ll buy a blowjob in the alley, lean back against the stone wall, calf muscles flexing against the chipped foundation.

“Unless the wife takes me back.”

He built the methadone clinic. The Food Bank. The Prudential Building. The Copley Mall. The Gucci and French Connection stores on Newbury Street. Hynes Convention Center. The parking garage beneath the Common. The Hancock Building. The Tobin Bridge.

He was part of the Big Dig, which re-routed Interstate 93, Boston’s central artery, into a four-mile tunnel through the heart of the city. Cliff is reluctant to give details about the job, a blemish on his resume. If he could do it all over again, he never would have worked on such a costly, incompetent, crooked site. Never would have used substandard materials—shoddy concrete, cheap rebar.

“And for the record, I was in prison when the tunnel collapsed on that broad.” He wipes his hands together then holds his palms up by his sides. “That’s one thing the city can’t pin on me.”

*     *     *

When Cliff blames the White Man, somehow it’s clear he’s not talking about me. It’s more like all his problems—his wife and back aches and court cases—were hollow outlines in his mind and needed a color. Other times, when we’re listening to the radio and working on the computer, his tough facade falls, brick by brick, letter by letter, and he talks about his life in no color at all.

Two dozen years ago, his breakfast of champions was a hardboiled egg and a glass of Wild Irish Rose. Narragansett tallboys rattled in his lunchbox. As he walked to work, he sipped a flask of Jack Daniels. After lunch, his eyelids heavy, he scaled the HOC’s iron skeleton. He stood on the fifth floor beam, hardhat tucked under one arm, swaying with the breeze. The city stretched out below. He watched the traffic stream down Massachusetts Avenue until the cars and trucks vanished behind the buildings. He crammed his hardhat between his knees and put his palms on either side of The Prudential Building. Like a vise, he slowly pressed his palms together until the building disappeared.

And then he was on his back, in a giant pile of sand, blinking up at an empty sky.

*     *     *

For a few weeks after the fall, he didn’t drink. He didn’t visit prostitutes. He came home early to his wife. He tells me this one day when we’re alone, his back to the computer screen’s blinking cursor, radio off. He talks in a slow, gruff voice like a statue learning to speak. A droplet of sweat lingers on his bald head, then rolls over the lump above his temple.

“I was even cookin’ her dinner, man. Baked macaroni with ham. Steak and mashed potatoes. Pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw and corn on the cob. From scratch.”

He describes his wife as a tall, lean woman, sharp features like carved mahogany. A tennis player from the projects. Cliff was hypnotized by her side-to-side movements, her little white skirt, how she waved her racket like a wand. They met when Cliff was eighteen, a year before his first construction job. She was sixteen. They made love for the first time in an abandoned lot between two vacant buildings. Cliff tucked a paint-splattered drop cloth underneath his arm and when they came to the lot’s chained link fence, he peeled back a loose section and guided her inside. A year later, they married.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had to work on her. Wear her down some. ‘Member what I told you ‘bout black women.”

*     *     *

The Friday before Christmas, we watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I always have perfect attendance on movie days; the room is full of men all shapes and sizes, ages and races in baggy tan jumpsuits. Cliff sits in the front row, legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, hands behind his head. He snaps his fingers and calls me “maestro” and asks if he could trouble me for a large popcorn. And a root beer.

“Can it, Killa,” Carlos says. “Chief’s about to bust loose.”

Cliff stares at Carlos as the music swells, then turns to watch Chief raise the marble water fountain over his head. Higher. Higher. The first uncertain step and the fountain tips forward and Chief’s huge body and the momentum of the heavy fountain and the iron screen and glass burst onto an open field and in the end it’s gravity that flings man and marble back into the world. The other patients bolt up in their beds and cheer and holler and pound clenched fists against the air.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says.

A slow drum beat guides Chief toward Canada. Carlos leans forward and squeezes Cliff’s bicep.

“Damn, yo. You been liftin’ water fountains or what?”

The class laughs as the credits roll.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says. He leans over and gives the white cinderblocks two solid smacks. “Like to see him try that here.”

“You proud’a this place, Killa?” Carlos asks, eyes narrowing. The clock ticks behind its metal cage.

Cliff leans back in his seat, points his copy of Cuckoo’s Nest at Carlos. “Damn right.” He paints a long arc in the air with his book. “All of it.”

The officer pokes his head into the silent room and shouts “Count time, gentleman!” The students quickly file out, whispering “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.” Cliff stands and stretches, lingers in a wide, Papa-Bear yawn, then struts up to my desk. He glances at my folder, peeks under a few stray papers. I take out the picture of Arthur Ashe I printed to hang up with his report.

“There he is,” Cliff says, grinning.

I stand up on a chair with a thumbtack in my hand and hold the picture above the dry-erase board, where the paper snowflakes once were.

“That ain’t straight,” Cliff says.

I reach higher and adjust the paper. “How’s that?”

Cliff shakes his head. “Little to the left.”

The officer shouts Cliff’s name from the hallway.


“To the right.”

I turn to see him holding his thumbs and pointer fingers like a field goal post.

“Perfect, maestro.”

Daries photoAnthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN/New England Discovery Prize in Nonfiction and was recently awarded a gold medal at Foreword Magazine’s 2012 Book of the Year Awards. His essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Solstice, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He has taught literacy and creative writing in the Massachusetts Correctional System and is currently the Director of the Writing Program at Regis College.