This is how sometimes I think of myself: the long, flat stretches across West Texas; the high, winding ascents and descents of Colorado; the wide expanses of New Mexico where the land only ends because the Earth is, by and large, spherical; the pause between the time when you take a deep, significant breath and when you let it out again, also significantly. Jameson would think of it as the shot between two scenes, the long quiet one that lets you know a lot of time has passed without anything happening that you'd really care to know about, and he might say so if he weren't asleep in the passenger seat, his fingers twitching like he does when he dreams of being Roman Polanski.
We are going to see my father.
Even as I'm crossing the state line between Colorado and Wyoming (past friendly good-bye and hello! signs from the appropriate sides), even after I've thrown a thousand more miles on the car than were there when it started, I still couldn't give you a full narrative about the particulars of why I am in this exact location at this exact time, headed in the exact direction in which I'm pointed. My father could, of course -- well, maybe not precisely about my current location and mental state, but he always knows where he's going. Or not going.
The trouble with prison, he writes to me, hand-writes on long yellow leaves of legal pad paper, his tight black script resting heavy on the blue lines, is that I cannot decide my own direction. It sounds like a nice prison, as prisons go, and he's been there long enough that the guards know he doesn't even mean the cockroaches trouble. He writes, I've had a lot of time to think about the nature of violence as a solution to life's problems; he writes, it's not worth breaking a man's jaw because he calls me Crazy Horse or Cochise; he writes, you can't punish the men around you for their ignorance. I don't know how much of it he believes and how much of it is a form of self-hypnosis, tiny scribbled incantations repeated until they come true.
These are crazy things to think; these are Jameson things to think. Except he's snoring, lulled into slumber by the melodic stylings of Explosions in the Sky (coming to you courtesy of my taking advantage of a standing driver-picks-the-music arrangement we have), so I'll have to think them on his behalf and wake up to ask again how I let him talk me into two thousand miles of highway each way.
He may be planning to do something unforgivably absurd. If he does, I have decided, I am well within my rights to stab him to death.
"Raymond FallsApart," I tell the guard who asks me who I've come here to see, and he nods as he hands me a clipboard with no fewer than eight pages of offiical-looking documents to fill out. I take them from him, along with a cheap ballpoint pen, and go to take the hard plastic chair next to the one Jameson has decided to occupy. There's no one else in the sterile waiting room, all its furnishings green-painted metal, all the walls cinder blocks gummed over with that standard white coat so thick it looks like melted marshmallow. It's a federal facility, and it's kept about as neat as you'd expect, but there's little explosions of pencilled graffiti along the wall, just above the line of the chair backs, tiny sentiments equal parts illiterate and irate.
Jameson sits just far enough away from me that I can't get angry at him for encroaching on my personal space, leaning over to watch as I write. My handwriting isn't like my father's; where his contracts, mine expands. I pencil my father's name in on the top row, right above where mine will go.
I grew up without thinking about it, because when you're a kid, you don't think about names; they're just names. I grew up around kids with names like Tender Bear Johnson and Mary Up-The-Mountain, and kids with names like Michael Johnson and Susan Brown, so it never was a big deal that I had my white mother's last name, and nobody off Reservations knew enough to care either way anyway. And so my father's name remained sort of a hidden joke, concealed in plain sight from me, until my mom arrived the day after he'd been arrested, and I heard her say it to the officer at the station not like a name, but like a sentence: Raymond falls apart. And we put Raymond behind bars until all the President's horses and all the President's men get their chance at putting him back together again.
Jameson crosses his legs in the way that the tip of his shoe brushes against my calf so casually it could almost be accidental, and I allow it because making a fuss would draw more attention than just letting it go. While I pride myself on being largely unapologetic about who I am or who has to see what I want to do with my life, there are places where being openly gay isn't the best idea ever, and one of those is a federal prison in Idaho. "I like your father's name," he says.
I fill in the little blanks with all my pertinent biographical information (dotting every t and crossing every i, as Jameson had once quipped, one of those stupid things he says once that end up rattling around in my brain for years), assuring the guards that I'm not about to make a jail break -- or, if I am, assuring them that they have enough information to catch me quickly afterward. "I don't."
My first thought on seeing him is that prison has drained him, sucked the blood from his body like a drought withers cedar trees. The grey in his short hair threads out from his temples back, and the wrinkles around his eyes seem to start from the same place, as though someone struck him sharply on either side of his head, and let all the age has creep out from there. The man they bring me, shuffling in slippers and an orange jumpsuit, was never a large man to begin with, but now seems his own shadow, drawn long and thin at the end of the day.
I make a mental note that spending too much time with Jameson makes me think like a useless poet, and resolve to ignore him for at least two days when we get back to Austin.
"Ya-hey, Junior," he says, and it's amazing how not even five years of separation has made me want to hear either of those words directed at me ever again in my life.
"Father," I nod, folding my hands on the linoleum counter in front of me. There's a plexiglass wall between us, nearly three inches thick and scuffed just cloudy enough that you can't forget you're looking through something else at the person in front of you; the only air that gets through comes from a circular spray of holes, like someone shot a BB gun at the glass. There's about a thousand metaphors to be made from this situation, and I stop my brain before it can think about any of them. "You look old," I say, because it's true.
He laughs a little and runs his fingers through his hair. He's not manacled, I notice, maybe because punching the federal officer who called you a racial slur doesn't quite qualify you for Menace To Society status, or maybe because every guard I've seen in the place outweighs him by at least a hundred pounds. "You look like a man," he tells me, and because he says it I have to believe it's true. "Is your blond man here with you?"
I point toward the heavily alarmed doors I'd passed through to get into here. "They'd only let one of us in."
He nods in kind, his face the same pleasantly grave mask he's worn all my life; with a stronger jaw, he might've passed for one of those wooden Indians you saw outside of general stores trying for that old-fashioned feel. "Maybe you can come back tomorrow and introduce me to him. He writes me more letters than you do." I must've made a funny face at that, because my father laughed at me the way he can without smiling. "He does, and tells me you're going to be graduating at the top of your class in May, and you've got a scholarship, and you're going to be a lawyer. The irony is not lost on your poor old father."
My resolve to stab Jameson to death grows with every and in my father's sentence, and I open my mouth to say something to that effect -- but the sentiment dies in my throat, choked by the stale air of the prison visiting room, rendered powerless by the lines on my father's face. "He also," my father continues, after allowing me space for a retort and seeing that none was forthcoming, "says that you're happy."
I find myself fascinated with my folded hands, with the silver ring around my middle finger, a simple band lightly engraved with a feather-like design, which I'd yelled at Jameson for giving to me on our fourth anniversary and never taken off since. "He says a lot of things."
"Mm," my father says, and I don't have to look to see the not-smile on his wooden face almost turn the corners of his mouth.
To his credit, Jameson doesn't say a thing until we've crossed the border into Montana, and even then it's just, "Are you hungry?"
"No," I tell him, which is almost true. He's got the wheel now, and I've managed to wedge myself into the seat so my knees are nearly at my chest and my forehead rests against the cold glass of the passenger-door window. Winter has passed, and the snow has all but disappeared from the medians and hills that line the highway, but the chill hangs heavy in the north country air. I've never been able to decide whether or not I like the cold, but after four years of living in Austin, I miss it.
It's another fifty miles of dark night road before he clears his throat. "...Worst Spring Break ever?" he asks, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, when what he really wants to know is, How mad are you at me? Once, after a long night of sex and alcohol consecutively and concurrently, he told me somewhat drunkenly that he measured my rages by how long he perceived it would be between the time he made me angry and the time I would sleep with him again; this had made me so furious with him that I'd managed to withhold sex for nearly a full ten minutes. By the way Jameson's fingers twitch, I guess he's figuring two weeks, minimum.
And I should, I really should, so he doesn't get it in his head that it's okay to pull stunts like this, to drag me back into arm's reach of the parts of my life best left several states away. Two weeks, definitely. Maybe three, depending on how he handles himself on the ride home. It's what a reasonable person would do.
I reach over and take his closer hand from the steering wheel, twining his fingers with mine, feeling where my ring hits metal on metal against the one I gave him. "No," I tell him, staring out into the desert night, "not the worst."
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