I hate packing, so here's at least one good thing about going to visit my son Jake, who's serving a life term in an Arizona prison: I don't need to think very much about what to pack. It's always warm in Arizona, so I won't need many clothes. A few T-shirts, nylon sweat pants, shorts, some underwear, sandals. Lightweight stuff with drawstrings and elastic bands, no buttons, belt buckles, zippers to worry metal detectors in the airport or prison. Though I might have to dress for winter to catch my plane, I can count on summer when I land. Always summer. Or never summer, since seasons don't exist in Arizona, just a single unnameable unseason. Arizona killing seasons the way prison kills an inmate's time.
The best thing about visiting my son is the opportunity to touch him. The first hug, even the last one. Without the prospect of literal contact, the part of me that has settled into its own version of an unseason, the part numbed 17 years ago when my son began serving a life sentence, the unchanging ache of helplessness and despairing loss I cope with usually by disciplining myself to deny it, that bleak landscape would be blighted even more, become more punishing without the trips, once or twice a year to Arizona.
So throwing the few articles of clothing I'll require into a suitcase excites me. I can let myself go a little bit, begin to anticipate a meeting, a world where the possibility of being in the same place at the same time with my son is not a hurtful daydream I must keep myself from entertaining. This bag on my bed is packed for Arizona. I'll be wearing those pants, that shirt when I hug him, when he hugs me.
Prison depends on make-believe -- it's a cruel, artful installation designed to deceive inmates into thinking they've disappeared. Visits attempt to dispel one illusion with another. The sign above the prison entrance doesn't read, Abandon Hope; it says, Abandon Yourself. Prisoners are stripped down to the bone. Clothes gone, possessions impounded, name changed to a number, family and friends removed from sight. The basic rules of society don't hold. For all intents and purposes, there are no rules that apply because the inmate is reconstituted as an unperson with no rights the prison must respect. Choice by choice, as the inmate accepts or refuses the conditions of the prison environment, a new identity is formed. Compromises are effected between the ghostly remains of who you once believed you were and who you must be in circumstances cunningly, brutally contrived to destabilize and play you.
Can it be true that I see my son Jake more often than I see my 8-year-old granddaughter, Qasima. It's been more than a year since I visited her in North Carolina, no, closer to two years, her father, my son Dan, quickly reminds me as we're walking down Van Buren Street in Phoenix toward the prison. I'm ashamed. How could I allow as much as two years to pass, years in which I managed at least three trips to the prison in Arizona, and not arrange to spend time with my only grandchild. Reasons exist of course, some good, some inexplicable, but none I'd dare offer as an excuse to Dan, nor to Q, chattering and skipping, holding my hand.
Later, after the first morning at the prison, Dan will tell me how nervous Qasima had been about visiting her uncle. The long day flying to Arizona had exhausted her reserves. She'd been very quiet and subdued the previous evening, after we'd all arrived and met for dinner. Picked at her kiddie platter of fish and chips, dozing off between bites, until her father scooped her up and whisked her to bed. She needed to dream a path through this impossible labyrinth, perhaps. As her father dreams in the poems and stories he writes. Dan said Qasima retained no memory of her one visit to her uncle. There's a photo on Dan's desk of her cradled in his brother's prison-buff arm. Jake had been afraid to take the baby from her mother. In the snapshot, the grin on Jake's face expresses triple disbelief -- at the tininess of a newborn, at the fact he'd allowed himself to be coaxed to take it, at how scary and delightful holding his niece could be. Qasima had studied the photo, but it couldn't reveal what might be demanded of her this time. Beginning at dawn, she'd plied her father with questions. Uneasy, anxious, not herself.
Who is this man she's going to meet. Why is he in prison. If he's her father's brother and a nice person, why can't he come home with them. May I ask him questions, Daddy. Is he sad. Will we return soon and visit him again. More than the usual squirminess while her father combed out her hair, helped her bathe and dress. Sudden withdrawals -- burying her face in a book, laying out hand after hand of playing cards. Flutters of demands: Please, please, Daddy. Play mau-mau with me, Daddy. I want to play mau-mau. Please, please. Not herself, or rather having a rough time figuring out what portion of herself she could safely risk inside the prison. Would it have been easier for her if she'd understood that her father and grandfather, grown-ups who'd trekked many times to the prison, couldn't help going through the same changes agitating her.
With one hand in her father's, the other in mine, she seems just fine now, strolling down Van Buren, observant, curious, turning loose my hand to wave at a cop manning a barricade that diverts traffic and protects steaming patches of asphalt that machines and men are busily applying at an intersection. Dan hasn't described Qasima's nervousness yet, but I'm doing my best to entertain and distract her.
Q, look at the funny beards on the palm trees. Way up near the top, right under the fronds . . . the big leaves up there. All the palm trees have shaggy, gray beards. See the tallest one in front of us. He must be very old to have such a long, long beard.
She wears a navy-and-white striped dress, little girl straight and narrow from the shoulders to the tops of her Nikes, and, on her head, covering her copious hair, a white hijab, the traditional Muslim scarf. Dan adopted, or, he'd explained once, "reverted to," Islam when he married a Muslim woman from Sierra Leone. Qasima's hijab had been a permanent feature of her dress since she returned from two years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where her mom had taught. Ironic that an ancient, utilitarian article of apparel that had evolved in an environment of perpetual, blistering heat and blowing sand would arouse suspicion in this new American desert. I think nun and sphinx, dignity and elegance when I look down at the white curtain baring and framing Qasima's features -- her brown cheeks, enormous, curly eyelashes, stubby nose, lips fashioned to speak all languages. Wonder what the locals think -- the local vets and Army brats and retirees, the WWF and NASCAR fans, the cowboys, patriots, the red-blooded predators who love their meat raw and now get it processed, patted into patties, frozen, cooked, dispensed to them in scanty portions by brown hands working for bigger, meaner predators, the locals in pickups with gun racks, SUVs, big American sedans and vans -- what do they think when they roll past and observe two black males escorting a black female child wearing a terrorist scarf. Do they notice this other country of abandoned motels, motels converted to last-ditch emerging public housing, convenience stores, fast-food joints, vacant lots, a block-long Salvation Army administration compound, quickie rooms for rent with nonstop XXX-rated films, shuttered storefronts, acres of warehouses behind cyclone fencing, a juvenile detention center enclosed by brick walls, a hospital, a prison.
My first time in the neighborhood, trolling for a decent place to stay within walking distance of the prison, the small suitcase I pulled set off alarms as its wheels trundled over broken pavement, alerting women and men who popped out of doorways, glided from alleyways, slipped from between buildings, rose from folding chairs parked under shaded portions of motel courtyards, everybody eager to offer their services to the fresh meat who'd stumbled onto their turf. This same boulevard where we'd hear, after the second and final visit this trip, an old black woman who sounded like Billie Holiday singing a gospel hymn to two white-haired white men, her congregation that Sunday morning, each sprawled on one of the dozen or so plastic chairs arrayed in rows in front of an open tent and its tasseled gold-and-crimson banner: Faith Tabernacle Church of God in Christ.
See that bench at the bus stop. Only shade for blocks when the sun's up. I wasn't wearing a hat, so I plopped down there a minute to keep my brains from boiling, and guess what I found -- a pair of shoes. Men's shiny, black leather shoes, almost new. While I rested, I made up a story about how the shoes got there. Let's hear you make one up, Q. Why would somebody leave nice shoes like that.
I lend Q my sunglasses to ward off blowing sand. She's Lolita, a cartoon mouse behind shades bigger than her head. For a minute the silliness of propping up the glasses in front of her face is fun, then she hands them back. I'm okay, she says, squinting like me, like her father.
There's a plaque I want to show you guys. A block or so farther down Van Buren. At about 24th Street, if I'm remembering correctly. A brass plaque on a waist-high stone base. Phoenix started here, it says. Seems a gang of workers led by a man named Jack Swilling were digging an irrigation canal and camped around here for the night. Then someone, a Mr. Hellings, I believe, built a mill to take advantage of the canal. Anyway a settlement developed around the mill and became a town and that's the beginning of Phoenix, the plaque says. My dates and names a bit shaky, but I'm pretty sure the city incorporated in 1867. I'm going to copy the information from the plaque this time round.
But the plaque wasn't there. Wasn't there next morning or the next afternoon, either, after our final visit when I risked heatstroke racing down Van Buren and back to find it before the shuttle left for Sky Harbor airport. I thought I'd simply misremembered the location. Jogged blocks beyond the prison, but no plaque. Both trips with Dan and Qasima from prison to motel, I'd forgotten to look. The way back always heavy with visit. No sightseeing. No names or stories. Just a sinking sadness, a widening gulf of separation nothing relieves, nothing changes. The cheery, bright, mostly feel-good, satisfying visit inevitably transforms itself into a crushing weight as soon as the gate closes behind you.
THE FIRST MORNING after we short-cut through a break in a twisted wire fence we are probably not supposed to use and cross a large parking lot onto the grounds proper of ASPC Alhambra. I'm grateful for the distracting tableau of a guard supervising an inmate who's pruning a row of shortish palm trees in front of the administration building. The guard's in civvies, bluejeans and T-shirt; the inmate wears a bulky orange jumpsuit, a harness and side-spurred boots to secure himself once he mounts a trunk. The orange inmate hangs 20 or 30 feet in the air, clipping off droopy, withered foliage just under the pineapple textured crown of a palm. The barber's trimming their beards, Q.
This is it. As far as the piece goes. We'll sit out here in the temporary shade of a cluster of spindly, newly planted trees, about 50 yards from Flamenco Unit's reception room, on benches fastened to a picnic table, anchored within a buzz-cut plot of grass an inmate must have wetted down before we arrived at 7.30 a.m. The three of us very happy we're together. Or so unhappy, so lonely and frightened, two adults and a child, there is something good, something almost perfect in spite of everything troubling, about knowing this feeling, this moment we cannot speak of, this moment at the threshold of what comes next, is shared. For better or worse. Here we are. Shipwreck survivors on a desert island. Shocked into gratitude: for surviving, for not being alone, for being close enough to see and touch each other as the world shrinks. Or does the world grow away enormously from us while we sit waiting to be called inside where we'll be vetted and processed and wait for a guard to lead us back outside, down a few concrete steps, then right on a cement walk to the visiting compound and he'll unlock the many gates. A world, layer by layer, growing apart from us, a world whose size and distance I attempt to gauge by looking off to the right, beyond the street we walked to reach here, following the tops of the line of palm trees back to the wire fence paralleling Van Buren and looking beyond to more fences behind the far side of Van Buren, and power lines and more fences and ranks of palms parsing the sandy wastes stretching to Sky Harbor, where huge planes ferrying multitudes of invisible passengers are taking off and landing, vectors straight as arrows, every five minutes, tiny roaring insects against a vast emptiness of blue, the pale, peaked strip of mountains beyond, marking the horizon and beyond the horizon.
This is not a short story. It's not going to follow us inside the prison, nor solve the mystery of the missing plaque. Besides, my son has no desire to be visited by strangers. Hard enough, he said, to deal with visitors he loves, who love him. This story hasn't earned the right, quite yet, to greet him, touch him, spend the allotted three hours catching up on the nine months since the last visit, catching up on a whole life adrift in the unseason of prison time.
If indeed the ancient Egyptian tale is true and the fenix lives for 500 years before it flies off to be consumed in flames and born again, then based upon the data carved into the marker on Van Buren I swear I saw, the marker establishing the truth that Jack Swilling pitched camp there one night in 1867 in the very emptiness where I stood, then by my calculation, if you subtract 1867 from 2004, the present year, the remainder is 137, the age of Phoenix today, and if you subtract 137 from 500, the number of years the Egyptians claim the gods allotted for each life cycle of the fenix, you get 363 years, and 363 years seem a goddamn awfully long time to wait for this dying urban bird to rise from its fouled nest, a long, long time to wait for the desert to be clean again.
John Wideman will be joining the faculty of Brown University, where he will be a professor in Africana studies and English. A new collection of his stories, God's Gym, is to be published early next year.