Dispatches | September 12, 2014
Literature on Lockdown: Vision of a Tree
By Michael Nye
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Eric Boyd
When you walk down a dark alley at night, you focus only on getting through it. The alley is wide, and in the peripherals of your eyes are unknown dangers; things that you know you fear and hope to avoid, but are right there, waiting. So you stare straight ahead and walk fast. There is good and there is bad and it is so simple.
In jail, you focus on getting out and going home, but that destination is so narrow and faraway that your whole world becomes the peripherals. And it never adjusts, never becomes clear. You see an entire population of men and women who live in a blurred world. And, for a certain kind of person—let’s say, someone who writes stories—it’s an education beyond anything a civilian can experience.
In jail, you are surrounded by people who made hard choices and lost. During my time, there were only two or three people I can recall who were even partially evil because, to be evil, one must understand that their actions are fundamentally wrong. Try telling a man who grew up in the projects and had his family harassed by gangsters that beating the living shit out of one of those gangsters was wrong. Try telling a woman who stabbed her pimp, or a soldier who owned dozens of illegal firearms and wore a bulletproof vest to bed. There is a time when the world is in focus but, at some point, your values are stripped from you, little by little, until everything you could possibly want from life becomes so small and elusive that anything surrounding that becomes flicker and fog. To be in jail not just with, but among and of those people, it’s hard to go back to “normal”.
I spent nearly nine months in the ACJ, from mid-2010 to early-2011. And let’s just get the history out of the way: long story short, my idea of helping an OD’d friend was to throw them into a bathtub and run water on them (at their mother’s suggestion, after I called in a panic), and take a photo of their condition so that, once they woke up, I could say, “Why did you do this to yourself?” I remembered when we were younger and that worked. My friend had huffed keyboard cleaner and a girl filmed them as they ranted, milky eyed. Later, that video seemed to really embarrass them, seemed to snap them into sobriety for a while.
The problem was, as all this shit with me was happening, they weren’t waking up. Whatever concept of righteous help I was offering up became a matter of life and death. In my attempts to wake my friend with the shower water, I began intermittently running cold and hot, not knowing what to do. I’d never been asked or expected to revive an overdosed person. So I kept going back and forth, cold water for a few minutes, hot water for a few. That hot water ending up giving my friend second-degree burns. They were in a stage-4 coma the entire time, making only the faintest of animal-like murmurs as any of this occurred. Once the police came, the mother hugged me and said, “What happened? I know you tried to help, but what the hell happened?” She was the first one to really knock me on the police reports, even though she’d been bartending—unable, she said, to leave work—the entire time any of this was happening. I ended up with an assault charge based on negligence and was sentenced to 11½-23 months in a halfway house, with work release. But I never went to any halfway house.
While I was inside, I read poems of Jim Morrison, Rimbaud, and Bukowski. I read Celine, Harper Lee, Hunter Thompson, and sure, the autobiography of Jenna Jameson. It wasn’t too surprising to see such work in a jail. People who didn’t quite fit in, who burned their own paths; people that had their books banned and their stories celebrated in narrow margins of the world. When a man who stole meat from grocery stores to sell to bars because he needed money for his family gives you Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, you tend to grasp his confusion of the world. So I was reading, taking notes. I still have yellow pads filled with scribblings. Let’s face it, I had nothing but time, and I felt myself being affected, changed. I knew that there was no going back.
All my life I have worked meaningless jobs in an attempt to get by. Pharmacies, candy stores, multiplexes. I had artistic urges, but my brain was scattered. I painted, took photographs, made t-shirts, sculpted, and drew. Notice I didn’t even mention all the writing. Screenplays, poems, experimental concepts, and the occasional story about time-traveling because of overly tight pants. I had no direction. I saw an apple tree and tried to unhinge my jaw to devour the whole thing. After jail, I only saw one apple, still ripening, wayyy up at the top of the tree. I did everything once, and none of it incredibly well; now I write fiction. Yeah I still take up shitty jobs to get by (which is hard when you’re a felon), but I don’t pretend it’s enough as I once had. I just quit a gig at a Thai restaurant because—aside from hating it—I realized they weren’t going to give me time off to attend the Tin House Writing workshop. I am letting everything fall to the wayside now. For money I donate plasma and look into medical studies; yes, my girlfriend helps out and we’re glad the rent is relatively low. I can’t even imagine if it weren’t. I have trouble imagining most things anymore.
Life after jail is difficult. Everyone expects you to be like you were, but it’s just not there anymore. Ghosts are not the spirits of the dead, they are the spirits of the living; they are the things stolen from a body still breathing. When you speak to a P.O. for the first time you feel like a monster. When you go to a forced mental eval you’re told to tell the truth in a tone where you know they believe you’re constantly lying. When you list your offenses on a job application the interviewer’s eyes shift to make sure enough people are around in case you do something. And maybe that’s not incorrect. Maybe I am capable of anything because I’m not who I used to be anymore. Somewhere in the Allegheny County Jail there is a part of me roaming around, crying out. That is the apple at the top of the tree. That is what I’m ascending to. A good review or a hefty advance would be nice, but those things would merely brush beside me as I climb. Through writing, I’m hoping to become a person again. I’m hoping to be made whole.
While serving time, you have to see an opportunity and take it, no matter the risk. If there’s a chance to bet on handball games and get extra long-johns in the winter, you make bets; if there’s a week’s worth of food to be had for smuggling pruno, you smuggle; if there’s a writing class to attend on Friday mornings, you attend, even if a few people make fun of you for it. After being released, that mentality stuck. I began submitting stories right away, sending off work to wherever I thought might take it. I got some work published, won a couple contests, and gave reading anywhere I was invited. My life has become a series of events with periods of waiting between. You serve a day in jail, find the chance for some small escape in the form of risky opportunities, and it leads to the next day in which you live with those choices. That’s how it is for me now. At any time I could trip on an errant branch and fall all the way down, flat. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the thing I’m climbing towards matters so much.
Everything around me is blurred now and I know that vision only worsens with time. For me, this is the only way. I write every day because it’s all that’s left. I can’t find good jobs. I’ve been on probation for a few years and I have one more to go. Some people think it’s “cool”. Some people think I’m a deviant. Neither is true.
As I go over this, I admit my eyes have welled up more than I’d like them to. I can write that though because, unlike people, writing doesn’t judge me. I know I’ve done stupid things, and I know I’ve been a stupid person—but I’d like to get that idiot back. I want to walk down those dark alleys and feel unsafe again. I want everyone to stop running away from me. I want to lead a fruitful life.
Eric Boyd lives in Pittsburgh but commutes to New York every week to attend classes at the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in, among others, Guernica, Fourth River, Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, and the Twin Peaks Project. He recently had a story in Akashic Books’ “Prison Noir”, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; next year he will appear in “Make Mine Words”, a teaching manual for nontraditional writing classes, featuring work by JCO, John Edgar Wideman, ZZ Packer, and more. Boyd has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is a winner of the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Award, a program which he now mentors for. He has helped edit several magazines including Pork & Mead, theNewerYork, and the upcoming Pittsburgh anthology from Rust Belt Chic.
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