Pen Pal Joey

Written by Beth Broome on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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.

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.

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.