I’ve been exchanging letters with an inmate at Downstate Correctional Facility, the friend of a friend. In my letters I talk about my work, the woods and the hours. Even though I scoff at Lena’s “attracting happiness” theories, I encourage my friend’s friend to “keep his head up” and I assure him that he is loved. I decided that when I got laid off, I would drive to Fishkill, New York and visit him. Leaving my cellphone and wallet in a drab locker room that smells like puke, I cross the metal detector. And then I’m in the visitors’ center at table 5-3, waiting. A young man plays dominoes with his mother. Another eats M&M’s with his girlfriend. In a play area for parents, a laminated sign taped to a kiddie slide reminds inmates to “clean up after your children.” My friend’s friend doesn’t know that I’m coming. I feel anxious, but not really in a bad way. I’m just unsure of where to rest my eyes. I’ve made money and I’ve pawned X-Box games. I’ve gone months without a decent meal and Pablo and I have made ourselves sick at the Brazilian steakhouse on Lehigh Street. I’ve brushed up against a lot of strange that eventually became comfortable. But rarely have I felt so out of place. Do I look at the correctional officers? Will my gaze interrupt the few minutes of peace a young couple gets to spend in each other’s company? Should I just stare at the floor? My friend’s friend walks past me. Neither of us knows what the other looks like. The correctional officers point him in my direction. He’s tall and moves with athletic grace. He tells me about his job working in the prison’s kitchen. His cellmate doesn’t shower. I buy him a soda and some boneless wings from a vending machine. I microwave the wings. He doesn’t have the freedom to do that. On the floor, red electrical tape indicates to the inmates where they can walk and where they can’t. He tells me about his daughter and how she’s learning the alphabet. When he talks to her on the phone, he plays dumb, stumbling over the order of letters so that she can correct him. I know once I leave the prison, I’ll be rushed back into the grittiness of my own life. Loneliness broken up by sports podcasts, strip malls, half-read collections of poetry in my glove box, and laughs with Pablo. But at table 5-3, I’m humbled and I can’t escape the overwhelming reality that my life is as good as any. I rest my eyes on my friend’s friend. I do my best to listen. Suddenly our time is interrupted by an alarm. Visiting hours are over. We shake hands and hug, and I’m shuffled out of the visitors’ center with crying loved ones and loved ones hardened by years of this routine.
Conor McNamara, a Seattle native, earned a BA in English from the University of Montana and an MFA from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. His fiction and poetry have been featured in agape, Gambling the Aisle, Riprap Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, The Saturday Evening Post, and Valley Voices. In 2017, he started a reading series in Pensacola, FL called Words Matter. He currently travels for work on a land survey crew.