Pen Pal Joey


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I poured myself a glass of water, sat down at the dining table, organized the small envelopes by postmark in my lap and, one by one, pored over those pieces of prison-issue stationery. I guess I was hoping to reconstruct that strange episode of long ago, glance over my shoulder into the world of a convict. You don't seem to hear a lot from people on the inside. I mean, I haven't been reading much about how Justin Volpe is getting on these days, or what's happened to Manson since his guitar got smashed out in the exercise yard. But lots can happen in jail. People change there. Inmates meet Jesus Christ for the first time or swing into the gray haze forever.


Sometimes they compose thick tomes, think great thoughts or have revelations behind the bars. All those years ago I had needed Joey's letters to help get me through a rough ride. Now, 13 years later, I was ready to read the deeper messages buried between the lines.


But the letters weren't quite as I had remembered them. Stale sweet nothings, cribbage strategies, floor hockey scores. He mulled over the logistics of watching tv or doing laundry, and described, without fail, the miserable daily menu.


"Enclosed you will find paint chips from my cell," read one note. "Tan is from the wall and white is from the ceiling. By the way, the floor is brown." Every once in a while there were scribbled thoughts, or there was a plan. "Now as for when I get out, here's what we do: 1. Go to the Villa for some Italian food, I think I'll have manicottis; 2. We smoke a big fat joint that you will have waiting for us; 3. We have a few beers (Bud or Michelob); 4. We go into hibernation for the thirty days we missed." There were musings like: "You know, I've been thinking about it and I would like to get another tattoo. Now don't get mad. What I want is a heart with your and my name in it like this: [sketched diagram]. But a lot fancier." And lines and lines about sliced hotdogs with sauce, American chop suey and fruit cocktail.


The dronings were about as unsensational as the reason behind Joey's incarceration. He had neglected to show up for drunk school after getting bagged for DWI some months before. One night he got a summons in the mail. A few days later he showed up for a brief court appointment that ended up with his getting hauled off to the big house. Simple as that?nothing racy or sensational.


So Joey had become cell B-10 and I started to race home from school to wait for his collect calls. Those days were about high hair and Deep Purple and roach clips on the rear-view. I was barely 16 and had no license, so I depended on brothers and mothers and friends to take me on my twice-weekly visits, an hour-long ride up Rte. 3 to Billerica.


I remember one February afternoon in particular. I had snagged a ride from Joey's brother, Richie, in his mother's blue Nova. It was a raw winter. In my memory it was always snowing or about to snow or had just snowed, and the sky was interminably bruised. There was never much of anything to say on those drives. The radio was broken, so I just listened to the slush beating in the tire wells. The two of us spent the time chainsmoking.


That afternoon, as usual, Richie pulled into visitor parking and we shuffled up the icy gravel path to the heavy double doors leading into the brick. Behind the doors we joined the huddle of beat-down women sucking cigarettes to the filter under dim light and smoke-shrouded babies' whining. I don't think any of the other women ever noticed me in that dead space of murmurs. I had this "there's been a terrible misunderstanding" kind of attitude and felt about as connected to them as I feel to the women I see when I take the Metro-North upstate to visit friends in the country. I get out at Harlem Valley-Wingdale along with the wives and girlfriends and mothers who are there to visit the correctional center across the street from the station. They're all gloomy, carrying their plastic shopping bags and dirty strollers, dutifully making a trip they seem to know quite well. I get in my friend's SUV and the women are gone.


In the foyer the huddle moved forward. Richie and I stopped at a folding table where an officer weeded through my bag of gifts?underpants and Night Shift and Bic pens and a carton of Marlboro Reds?deciding what was okay to let in. We emptied our pockets into a bucket, took off our belts and shoes and passed through the metal detector. Another guard nodded to a man to press the buzzer that opened the barred door that we passed through into the waiting room.


The waiting room had linked plastic chairs, p.a. announcements and wire glass windows opening onto the visiting room, where there were rows of more chairs facing each other and prisoners in blue worksuits being escorted to their seats. The last step was passing your ID through a metal flip tray to the man in the glass-cube booth, perched high above the linoleum. Since I had no license, I flipped my passport through the tray into the box. "This is a baby picture!" the officer bellowed at me and everyone in the room. "If you think you're going in, you're very wrong," he laughed. I looked for Joey beyond the meshed window. He was sitting with his back to me, his legs splayed out, arms draped over the back of the chair, head tilted to the side. That glance was all there was of my visit that day. Richie passed the guard his license and I turned and went out to wait in the snow.


At the dining table, I stared at that mound of tedious drivel that had yellowed into something mythic at the back of a drawer. I got up, dumped the pile in the garbage and poured myself another glass of water.


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