I Volunteered to Teach in Prison But I Was Paid So it Wasn’t Really Volunteering
I looked at my time in prison as a pregnancy. I taught about nine classes and each one felt like a month.
The first stage of labor, the cervix fully dilates. Like eyes. I remember how much I wanted to take everything in. The way you see in the dark. I found out the lights never get turned off. You have to sleep in false daylight. If you turned off the lights, death would appear.
In the museum of criminals, they have a long hallway you walk down and you can see through the glass. All of the inmates’ toilets are right there for you to watch them urinate. The women guards see men defecate over and over and over again.
Dilate—to become wider, larger, more open.
I taught them Althusser. I taught them Foucault. The staff told me they wouldn’t understand Ph.D. level conversations.
The inmates understood Ph.D. level conversations better than the students I taught at Auburn. The inmates didn’t have frat party hangovers. The inmates had all the time in the world to study. The inmates soaked up learning like they would attack me if I walked in and filled the room with boredom.
During the second stage of labor, the infant moves through the birth canal and is born.
I told them to quit writing like white people. I told them to quit writing like they had dictionaries in front of them. Write how you talk. Write how you argue. Write how you fuck.
They told me all the fucking in prison happens in the church. It’s the only place where they allow the inmates to be unsupervised. They trust the inmates in the church and so the inmates do drugs and fuck and fight and kill in the chapel.
They read me stories about the clichés of prison.
I tell them that there are no clichés here. I tell them to observe what prison is really like. There’s no bars. In truth, there’s glass and open doors. There’s no bodybuilders. In truth, the men look old and pale and lacking proper nutrition, like they’ve given up. There’s no cameras. In truth, the room they have me in, if they wanted, they could take the pencils in their hands and jab them in my heart and neck and foot and back and head. I’ve been warned to never turn my back on them. I never do. I learn to write on the chalkboard while facing them, listening for any movement from any chair. They don’t kill me. They look riveted. They read stuff that hurts. They read stuff that’s specific. They read stuff that I can’t get out of the Auburn Composition students who are trying to impress the girl in the front row. There is no front row. There is no girl. There is only twenty years to life. There’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back life sentences. There’s a man who tells me he killed everyone in his family. His skin is so pale it seems celestial. It seems to glow with lack of future.
During the third stage of labor, the placenta separates from the uterine wall and expels from the uterus.
I get caught in lockdown.
I decide to check out the chapel. The chapel is open and wide and located so far deep into the back of the prison that it takes me a half hour to get there. I have to switch from one guard station to the next, have to be buzzed in, have to wait. The prisoners get thick. They multiply. You get the feel of numbers, of danger, of time. I wait. Lockdown is waiting. A prisoner missing. A prisoner possibly missing. A prisoner not missing but a mistake made. No reason. An alarm goes off. I continue. I get home. I drive with the window down. Fresh air. Fresh Air.
Several prison guards are killed. (I’m almost done. With the story. With my time there.) It happens on the same day that I teach. After I leave. On the way home, I pass the wreck. I get caught in the traffic. The guards involved in a terrible accident. The next time I teach, the prisoners tell me what happened. They don’t seem happy about it. They don’t seem sad. They seem bored. They seem tired. They seem gassed with a past of serious trouble. They ask me to stay and teach. I tell them they don’t need me. I tell them to need themselves. I tell them to kill people on the page. I tell them to do drugs on the page. I tell them to never to do it again in real life or they will be back here. They will return to hell. But if they act terribly on the page, they will be given awards. They will have fans.
One of the guys tells me he almost believes me. He asks what happens when he’ll get out.
I tell him he’ll start over.
He asks if he’ll see me again.
I say no.
I go home.
I write this.
I don’t know what he writes.
I worked as an EMT, so I’m thinking about which death I want to tell you about.
I was in the Navy, then in the Air Force, so I’m thinking about which death I want to tell you about.
I dated a nurse and she told me about some good deaths.
Then there’s all the other EMTs and the paramedics with their stories and lies and exaggerations. There’s the guy who was walking down the highway with his feet cut off. There’s the child who got his ribcage ripped open. The woman in the back of the ambulance looking up through my head at the ceiling of God.
Then my grandparents. Friends. Enemies.
My own. The suicidal night in Chicago.
I’ve worked in a lot of haunted houses—in Michigan and Illinois and California. Because I’m 6’7”. Because I look a bit like Frankenstein. If Steve Buscemi was a monster. That’s me.
All of the fake arms and legs, the fake torsos, heads. The rubber, the plastic, the silicone, the paper mache. Surrounded by waitress witches and student zombies. An unemployed chainsaw killer who needs the money.
Then the EMT training with more fake arms and legs and torsos and heads. Fake heads that vomit fake vomit. Fake legs that bleed fake blood that looks so real until we get to the real blood that looks so fake.
But the deaths, the actual deaths, seem holy.
There were some good lives I could tell you about too.
A guy from undergrad who always seems to post photos on Facebook of himself on mountain peaks, various expressions like he’s high on psilocybin mushrooms, free as Christopher McCandless with his emphasis on less. Let’s call him Les.
I’m so curious how Les is going to die. I have a feeling it will be a poem. I have a feeling it will be extraordinary and ordinary all in the same breath. When it happens, I’ll write about it. I’ll write the sequel.
I believed in God as a child. I remember watching televangelists and repeating what they told me. I called the prayer hotline and realized they wanted money. I hung up and prayed to God and watched more TV and was bored and looked up at the ceiling at night and wondered if he was as big as everything. I wondered if he was a he. I wondered why the Bible was written so poorly. I believed in God in boot camp, because when you went to church you got to avoid Personnel Inspections. You got to sit down in a room where you knew you wouldn’t get cycled. When we closed our eyes to pray, we tried to get some extra sleep. We’d get shaken awake by the person next to us. I got pneumonia in boot camp and the Company Commander wouldn’t let me go to the hospital. I hallucinated at night. I coughed like a thief. I crept up on God and told him to kill me. He kept me alive. I believed in God during Desert Storm. I didn’t go to church. The church was a mule. It was glue. You could get stuck. You’d be trapped in a mine. In foxholes, no one believes in God. They believe in fear. It’s impossible for me to say everything about God. Instead I say things like this. I say things that are so far from God that it feels like God has cancer and I don’t have the money to fly to see him. I believed in God until I dated a Christian girl in Cincinnati. She loved God more than me. She told me this frequently. I realized God tries to get all the hot girls to fall in love with him. He leaves us the atheists. He leaves us agnostics. He left me suicidal. It happens. You date a Christian girl. It looks like you might be able to follow all of her extensive set of criteria. You almost pass, but you don’t pray loud enough. You don’t have the muscle for God. When the guest pastor in Chicago says that homosexuals caused 9-11, you can’t keep silent. You confront. Her group attacks back. You’re losing her. You’re losing God. You meaning me. Me meaning whatever this blood is. All of this gory interconnection of thoughts. I should have lied. I should have told her everything she needed to hear. God wants promises. God is a cowboy. We are Indians. We gorge on theology. It fills up ego like hot chocolate. It has that ability to flick its tail. A concentration camp of God. The way we can’t put it into words. I sat in on a class at Harvard Divinity School where we never opened up the New Testament once. The instructor read from Shakespeare. He showed us the tetragrammaton in the swords of act five.
The rest is violence.
RON RIEKKI’s books include U.P.: a novel and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book and finalist for the Midwest Book Award, Foreword Book of the Year Award, Eric Hoffer Book Award, and Next Generation Indie Book Award). May 2015, Michigan State University Press publishes Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.