It seemed like our class would bomb last week. The jail has been over capacity for months, so the blocks are being shuffled around. Many of the guards seem stressed. As do the inmates. And so, although nine people came to class, six ensconced themselves at the far end of the table and wanted to talk amongst themselves. Only three sat close, intending to discuss poetry with me.
But I’d brought excerpts from Natalie Diaz’s excellent collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I read her long, brutal poem “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs.” Everyone was rapt.
“Wait for him in the living room
of your parents’ home-turned-misery-museum.
ten, twenty, forty dismantled phones dissected
on the dining table: glinting snarls of copper,
sheets of numbered buttons, small magnets
Your parents’ home will look like an al-Qaeda
yard sale. It will look like a bomb factory,
which might give you hope, if there were
such a thing. You are not so lucky –
there is no fuse here for you to find.
The guys laughed in recognition. These lines come early in the poem, before the swerve to darkest hurt.
One guy told me that, if you needed to keep a friend safely occupied after he’d had too much meth, “best thing to do, tell him, hey, can you fix this radio for me? There’s one piece in there that’s broken, but I’m not quite sure which one.”
“Aw, man,” said a dude who’s been studying the programming language Python during his time inside, “at my gramma’s place, there must be, like, eight dismantled computers I was working on.”
The programmer said it was getting harder and harder to keep clean each time he got out. “Because it’s showing up everywhere, now. It used to be, you could stay away from all that by just hanging with different people. But now, like, middle class people, crowds that used to be all pot and psychedelics, now you go over, they’ve got meth, or they’ve got H … ”
I shook my head.
A man who wrote a jarring poem about the nightmare of his kid shaking him awake after an overdose (“I hear the sound of his little feet running / down the hall, I look to make sure the door / is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear / his joy as he yells, I’m superman. / I do the shot”) agreed. They could keep sober if the stuff wasn’t there, he said.
“Last time I got out, I’d been three years clean. I didn’t want it! Wasn’t even thinking about it. But I’d made it two blocks, and right there in the Taco Bell parking lot, somebody handed me a loaded rig and said, like, hey, dude, wanna hit this?”
(“I was so terrified of being like my stepdad,” this guy told me once. “He beat me all the time. But all I managed … I mean … it’s like, I just turned into my real dad. Never there.”)
“Taco bell … ” I said.
“It’s like right there,” he said, pointing. Indeed, I walk past that place each week on my way in.
“But it’s not like your time here is gonna make you want it less,” said the programmer. “First time I got busted, they sent me to this juvenile facility. That’s honestly the most horrible place I’ve ever been. You’re by yourself, you have to just sit on a stool in this classroom kinda space all day. The only book you’re allowed in there is a Bible, but for my first three days, they didn’t give one to me. So I just had to sit there with nothing on that stool. And you’re not allowed to sleep during the day. They try to catch you sleeping. Like a guard might come to check on you, then open and close the door so you think he’s left, but then come sneaking back.”
A lot of his anecdotes involved sleeping. It must be awful trying to re-establish a regular sleep cycle after months on methamphetamine. Living inside a jail or prison – with schizophrenics in solitary kicking their doors and hollering through the night, minimal access to natural light, overhead fluorescents turned off for only four and a half hours each day – probably makes it harder. He once told me that a particular state prison wasn’t so bad – everyone felt pretty safe there – except that there were so many little rules that you were constantly worried about being written up and docked good time for an infraction.
“My job there, they had me delivering ice in the middle of the night. Either you’d load the cart too heavy and struggle to push it around, or else it took hours to finish … and they still expected us to wake up at the regular time. So I’d practice hiding, like rumple my blankets or whatever so I could still be in my bunk sleeping but the guards wouldn’t see me.”
These men cycle in and out of jail. Sometimes people outside offer them drugs at the Taco Bell, sending them spiraling right back in. Sometimes, people outside try to help instead. But the help often falls short.
you have come
to take him to dinner – because he is your brother,
because you heard he was cleaning up,
because dinner is a thing with a clear beginning
and end, a measured amount of time,
a ritual everyone knows, even your brother.
Sit down. Eat. Get up. Go home.
She will try to help him, and she will fail. And he will also fail himself. The drugs will make Judas of them all – safe only when locked up, “happy” only when fucked up (the guys told me, “When you’re on meth, it can feel like ecstasy. But, man, coming down … ” Another finished his thought: “That’s why you gotta have more, to make sure you don’t come down.”), her brother can only be betrayed.
You will pour your thirty pieces of silver
onto the table and ask, What can I get for this?