“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.