by TAMARA MILLER
It is six a.m. and the line of cars outside the parking lot is already snaking out of sight. Silver Chevy Blazers, white Ford F150s, SUVs, pickup trucks, an occasional station wagon or ancient Buick idle in the glimmering pre-dawn. I sit with the heat running and read with the dome light on. At six thirty the gates are unlocked and cars start flooding in, filling each row in a disorderly quadrille. I park my black Mercedes between a beige station wagon that looks like someone bashed in the taillights with a baseball bat and a shiny white Escalade.
Everywhere car doors slam and overlarge vehicles explode with little girls in pink lacy dresses, their hair parted and pulled into severe shiny braids finished with rubber bands with little plastic balls at the ends. It is mostly women who come to visit; women with babies wrapped in spangled fleece blankets, grandmothers dragging their grandchildren, sometimes a single elderly woman coming to visit a son.
Every visiting day is a big occasion and everyone comes dressed and pressed like they are going to church. This is the only time these children get to see their dads, the only time the dads get to kiss and hold their babies and rub their girlfriends’ pregnant bellies. It is like a funeral and a wedding in one. And today is the biggest visiting day of the year, because today isn’t just Sunday. Today is also Christmas.
We don’t celebrate Christmas, of course, but it is still a holiday and I still feel a little festive. I even listened to some Christmas carols on the AM radio on the drive over. In addition to the usual assortment of flouncy white and pink, some little girls are wearing red velvet Christmas dresses. The baby getting pulled out of the LeSabre parked diagonally across from me is stuffed into a mini Santa suit. His older brother is sullenly dressed up as something resembling an elf.
If I didn’t know better, I might feel conspicuous. If I hadn’t been doing this every Sunday for four years I might think people were looking at me, judging me. I know better than that now. I know that no one cares what kind of car I drive or what kind of clothes I wear or even who the fuck I am. Or if they do, it is only in a friendly we’re all in this together sort of way. Because they don’t forget — and I don’t forget — that we are all here for the same reason. We are all here to visit someone incarcerated in the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin. And that’s a pretty big fucking equalizer.
I start to walk toward the processing center, stopping to help Mr. Delaveaga get out of his green ’77 El Camino. There are some handicapped parking spots, but even so it is a long trek to the building and a longer walk once we get inside the complex. Mr. Delaveaga has been making this trip for twenty years. His son is serving a life sentence for a botched convenience store robbery that ended in the shooting death of two store clerks. Mr. Delaveaga told me, casually one day, that there was less than two hundred dollars in the till.
He comes here every Sunday, one of a handful of visitors who, like me, don’t miss a week. His wife died 18 years ago and his son, Louis, is the only family he has. Louis is a higher up in the Mexican Mafia, a short, compactly built man with a wandering eye and a disarming smile. He’ll never get out. Mr. Delaveaga moved across the state to be close to this prison. Left his job, left his house. He is 72 and uses a walker.
When we get into the processing center they will take away Mr. Delaveaga’s walker and replace it with a prison issued walker. It is the same for Lisa Polanski who comes sometimes to see her dad. The prison guards take her wheelchair and give her a different one. She has to be bodily lifted from one to the other. There is no end to the small indignities we suffer because someone we love committed a crime.
Sometimes the best description I can give to people is to compare it to going through Ellis Island every week. We are investigated and inspected and queued up for hours, in intense heat and pouring rain, all the while hoping that there won’t be a lock-down, that we won’t somehow, unknowingly, violate the rules written in a language we don’t read, while trying to follow directions given in a language we don’t speak. Any false move may jeopardize our chance for entry and sometimes, despite everything, we are turned away.
The guards here are bureaucrats of the finest order: hard-nosed and humorless. Some are merely incompetent, while others are petty, arbitrary and corrupt. It helps to know each one. Officer Chisholm likes to get floated a little cash on the side, but Officer Groff will report you for it. Like trial by water, you will float and be burned or you will drown and be exonerated. But either way, you’re going to hell.
We line up but they won’t open the doors until 7:30. We can see them in there through the plate glass — refilling the stacks of forms, sharpening the pencil stubs, booting up the computers — like ants checking and rechecking the minutia of their hyper-stratified laminated world. Visiting starts at 8. There won’t be enough space today for everyone who wants a visit, and people will be turned away. The morning sky is a threatening pale pink tinged with black. It looks like rain.
I can’t bring anything inside, just a half empty zip lock baggy and some change for the vending machines. Mothers with babies can bring six diapers and exactly two unopened jars of baby food. I can’t bring a book, which means I stand here outside the door with nothing to do but stare at the lightening sky and play tic-tac-toe with my shoe in the dirt. I let the little boy who challenged me to the match win a few times before he gets bored and wanders away. It is cold. Jackets are not allowed, nor are jeans or baggy clothing of any kind. Tight clothes aren’t allowed either. I’m wearing a grey skirt and cream-colored sweater with a sports bra underneath because I can’t wear an underwire. I’m okay, but other people are bouncing up and down. I mean, we live in California, we’re not going to freeze to death, but 50 degrees isn’t exactly a day at the beach.
Finally they open the doors so we can file into the processing room. I am hit in the face with the force of the overhead heater, which groans and whirrs inefficiently above the door, spitting dust and stale air. Someone has decorated a fake tree in the corner of the room with those awful cheap green and red garlands, the ones that look like fake plastic leis, and wrapped a handful of empty boxes to put under the tree. It is pathetic affair, but I still appreciate that someone put some time and energy into decorating for us. As the line approaches the tree I see a small paper sign attached to the side of it: “Merry Christmas from the San Quentin Visitor Center.”
I fill out my pass and get checked in by the guard stationed at the computer. He looks at my ID carefully even though I know his middle name, that his girlfriend is seven months pregnant and that he went to high school in Visalia. He writes the number of my visiting room on my pass. Then I go through the metal detectors and get to wait outside again.
Once we have passed through the Visitor Processing Center we are locked in a fifteen by fifteen cement square “garden” area. There is no shelter out here. It’s a long walk to North Block. My numbered group has to wait for an escort who will check our passes again and then lead us out. It begins to rain. A baby starts to cry, then another and another. The young woman next to me impatiently shifts her twenty-pound, caterwauling bundle back and forth from shoulder to shoulder, glaring around her while making low shushing sounds punctuated by indistinguishable curses. I’ve never seen her before. She sees me looking at her and holds my eye a little longer than is comfortable. The elderly woman leaning on a cane, which is painted with blue stripes to show it belongs to the prison, lifts her face defiantly to the sky. Then our escort arrives and we begin the slow march through long paved corridors nestled between chain-link fences topped with razor-wire trim.
About twenty minutes after I get to the visiting room my brother comes in and sits down across from me at our assigned table. I hug him briefly. His eyes stand out, a deep, stormy sea-grey above the blue chambray prison tunic.
Whereas I inherited the petite, dark, Eastern European features of my mother, my twin brother got the genes of our large German father. He has long red curly hair, a broad face, a broad nose and just looks, well there is no other word for it, he looks Aryan. But he is 6’4” and 250 pounds of baby.
Once when we were still teenagers, lying on the couch watching a movie, he glanced down and seemed to notice himself for the first time.
“Erica, look at me, I’m enormous.”
I looked over at him and shrugged, “Uh, yeah, I guess.” This was not a revelation for me. Nor was it more interesting than Candyman 3 or whatever it was we were watching.
“No, look! Look,” he insisted. “I’m just so big.”
“I take up so much space… in the universe.”
Right now the universe is this windowless yellow room with speckled lime green linoleum tile floor. It is the water stained acoustic tile ceiling and stale overheated air. It is the decision to castle my king or to go on the attack. I can never decide. I love a good castle defense, but Adam loves to storm a castled king. That’s both the comfort and frustration of being a twin; nothing you do will ever be entirely unexpected.
We don’t talk. It’s just something we’ve never needed to do. We play chess. I thought maybe it would be a problem, at first, for him to play chess in front of the other inmates, but I guess there are advantages to being 250 pounds. And of course there is the gang thing.
“You got a new tattoo,” I say, indicating the lightning bolts on the back of his hand.
He looks down, distractedly examining his hands as if he were surprised. “Yeah,” he shrugs. Maybe it doesn’t matter that he is marking his body with symbols that denigrate our people, that he is etching the hate into his own skin. Who am I to question what he does, the choices he makes in there?
Mr. Delaveaga inches toward us on his way to the vending machines. He reaches over and gives me a pat as he goes by. I turn, smiling, his wide open face such a comfort. The buttons on his shirt are not lined up and a little blue tail hangs down on his left side. His beige old man shoes squeak across the linoleum.
I don’t mind coming to visit. It is just part of my life now. But it has made having other relationships hard. My husband never liked Adam. I think that is why he left me. “For Chrissake, Erica,” he would say. “He’s a grown man. He is not your responsibility.” But I don’t see him that way, as a responsibility. Of course I have to visit him, but also, I want to. And anyway that isn’t true. He is my responsibility. He has always been my responsibility.
Once when we were kids we found a ring in the backyard. We were playing Indians — we didn’t even know what that meant — and we built a tepee inside the hedge and gathered berries, pounded them into a red pulp and then painted dots on our foreheads with the juice. We were sitting there in the hedge sifting through the dirt and I found a ring. A real ring, like with a nice big diamond in it. So we changed the game and it was House and Adam gave me the ring to wear and it was so big I couldn’t play anything else because every time I opened my hand it would fly off. I wore it to dinner that night.
The three of us sat silently at the dinner table, the candlelight bouncing off the uncovered windows, the mirror over the mantle; the diamond sparkling in the semi-lit room.
“From whom did you get that ring, Erica?” our mother had asked.
I held it up, the proud owner of something so clearly important, “Adam gave it to me.”
Our mother kept her eyes on the ring and suddenly something was wrong. She said, “Adam, from where did you steal that ring?”
Adam’s eyes widened and he blinked. He looked at me and didn’t answer.
The long uncomfortable silence stretched out like a cat, delicately licking the remains of his last kill from his paws.
“Adam, tell me from where did you steal that ring,” she repeated, slowly, without a hint of inflection. Deadly.
“We found it,” I said, rescuing him. This would only make things worse. Our mother hated when I stepped in and answered for Adam. She couldn’t stand the idea of us as an “us,” as one unit, with me at the head and Adam at the tail. She couldn’t do anything about it, though. Adam was — is — just another side of myself; when I say “me,” part of that “me” is Adam.
I remember seeing the disbelief, the tightening around the mouth, a little flare in the nose.
“Give it,” she had said, holding out her hand.
“No! It’s mine. We found it,” I repeated, with increasing hysteria. “It’s ours!”
“You do not just find a ring like that, Erica,” she said. “You stole it and now you will have to give it back.”
But of course we couldn’t, because we hadn’t. I don’t know what she ever did with the ring. I never saw it again. To this day I think she still doesn’t believe me. It’s funny, you know. Why would I lie about that now?
But this lie is different; it has taken on a shape and that shape fills up every empty space in my life. I find it in the bathroom, behind the toilet, in the broom closet, in the space between my bed and the wall. We cover for each other, we always have, but it doesn’t make this easier. Coming to visit every week is such a minuscule contribution to our happiness. I owe him so much more, you know?
My mother doesn’t visit. She has never come to visit. At first I said she didn’t come because it is very far, but that isn’t the truth. The truth is — well, I think it is better this way. It is hard on Adam, but really, I don’t see any other way.
I saw it in her face when we left the courthouse. She came to the trial and sat carefully contained in her yellow plastic chair every day, barely moving, her slim painter’s fingers slowly twisting and untwisting the ends of her scarf. When his sentence was announced she drew in a little. It was subtle at first, a pause when I would say his name, an upward flick of the eyes. She stopped looking at me and when she did speak she concentrated so hard on a spot just behind my left shoulder, as if meeting my eyes would burn her. I haven’t heard her speak his name in four years. And now when people ask her where he is — “What is Adam up to these days?” — she lies.
“He is in Africa,” she laughs, shaking her head, stretching out her long browned arm to show off a bangle he may have sent to her. “I think. Or maybe India now.” It is so much easier for people to think her son is a renegade hippy than a drug-addicted felon.
I don’t know when Adam first started using drugs. It was probably in high school, but it might have been earlier. I found his stashes in so many odd places. The year we took Calculus he cut a tiny hole in the text of his TI-82 manual and hid his kit in there. There was no end to his ingenuity and creativity when it came to finding and hiding drugs. Even from me.
It is not easy to be a drug addict. I don’t think people realize that. It is a constant struggle to stay high, to stay right. But, in prison, it is a little bit easier. Isn’t that funny? Adam faked a back injury when he first got in and spent a week in the infirmary, talked a doctor into writing him a prescription for morphine pills. He has managed to get the prescription renewed for four years. He can trade the morphine for whatever he wants. Just like that. He has always been really good at finding a way to get whatever he wants. Of course, it was easier when I was working at the hospital, but this is better for him in some ways.
I think, secretly, although sometimes I wish things had turned out differently and that my brother were really in India or in Africa living the renegade hippy life my mother has invented for him, I’m glad to know that he is in a place where I can see him every Sunday, that he has a bed to sleep in. I’m glad to know that he will eat and bathe and have clean clothes. I’m glad just to know he is alive.
The day before Adam was arrested I prayed for the first time. I was standing outside Walden Pond, the not so subtly named bookstore near the lake, poking through the dollar bins. I had just finished a twelve hour shift in the Telemetry unit and stood absently skimming the titles, picking up one or two promising books, reading the back covers, when I heard a very quiet voice say, “Excuse me, miss?”
I turned around and then suddenly I was facing the most tragic looking homeless man I had ever seen. He was shaped like a dumpling, his face large, pale and soft, like dough that has risen too long and not been punched down and he had something growing, red and angry, between his eyes, which were brown and downcast. His straight black hair stuck out all around his wide head and ears, which stuck out even wider. He was clothed all in black, long black t-shirt, long wide-legged black shorts that made me think of a monk. He looked so gentle, so vulnerable and violated, and my heart broke for him.
“Excuse me,” he said again, barely more than a whisper. “Do you have a quarter? I’m very hungry.”
“Yes,” I said, the lump in my throat beginning to ache as I scratched the bottom of my purse for some change or a small bill.
I’m not a sucker. I knew that he probably wouldn’t use the money for food. But it didn’t matter. At that moment I thought, please G-d, don’t let this happen to Adam. Anything but this. So in a way, I think maybe my prayer was answered. I’m not sure if this is what I meant exactly, but life is mysterious, isn’t it?
He’s not unhappy in prison. Not very unhappy, I mean. County jail was really hard for him, but prison is easy. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to wear an orange jumpsuit and get carted around the county to pick up trash from the side of the road or clear trees that are becoming a hazard. No one slows down as they drive by, staring. In prison you don’t have to do anything, if you don’t want to. Except join a gang.
“What gang will you join, dummy?” I had teased him.
“I think the Norteños would take me,” he had replied, half-seriously. It was the week of his trial.
“They would not.”
“They’d take anyone. They’re outnumbered up here.”
It was a pretty thought. At least, I think we were both thinking the same thing. We grew up in Los Angeles where we went to a high school with a large and vibrant black community. The Young Black Scholars were the largest club in the school. Our sophomore year Stephan, a flamboyant Vietnamese exchange student, decided to join YBS. We thought he was crazy, but everyone in the club loved him. He became their mascot. I remember one fundraiser where they created an entire show around him, with two hundred Michael Jacksons and Stephan as a prancing Inspector Gadget. Maybe my brother imagined it would be like that. Adam, the lone enormous redheaded Jewish boy, floating in a sea of loving Mexican gangbangers.
But I think we both knew he wouldn’t really join the Norteños.
Adam reaches over and untwists my hand from the bottom of my sweater, risks smoothing out the fabric and holding my hand still. His is warm and dry and feels like home. I would drive so many more miles, wait so many more hours in pouring rain or snow or a fucking plague of frogs for this one gesture of kindness. How much of our lives are wasted making other people feel like shit? How much energy do we put into reflecting back the bullshit instead of just speaking the truth? I’m one of the lucky ones. I can count on an hour or two of unconditional love every week.
I stare down at this hand in mine, at the now visible symbol of what he has to do to stay alive. What he has to be in here. I trace the lightning bolt and Adam squeezes my hand harder for a moment, a signal. A guard walks toward us to say that our visit will be terminated early to make room for other families. This happens a lot. He hands me a copy of my termination notice. I could wallpaper my bathroom with these meaningless pieces of paper. We have ten minutes.
“I put more money in your account,” I say.
I stand up and walk over to the wall of vending machines to buy us a Twix to share. We started doing this when I was a resident in medical school. Adam would ride his bike over to the hospital to meet me during my break and we would share a Twix out of the vending machine. It was like a contest over who could take the longest to finish the candy bar without actually stopping eating it. And then when we were both finished, the visit was over.
Somehow, the fact that we can do this here makes the whole thing seem almost normal. It’s as simple as that. We can still sit and eat a candy bar together, so it is like everything is just the same as it always was, in a way.
When I get back to Adam he is crying. He isn’t moving or making a sound, he just sits there silently while the tears stream down into his enormous red mustache. I hand him his half but he doesn’t eat it. He just sits there with the chocolate melting slowly in his big freckled hand. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way our visit is supposed to end.
“What is it?” I ask.
He clears his throat and attempts a smile. “It’s nothing really. Just – all the families are here together and… you know, Christmas and all that. ”
The guard walks over and stands behind us, which means it is time for Adam to leave, so I lean over and kiss him on his wet cheek.
“Goodbye,” I say.
“Bye. See you next week?” We use the same script to end every visit.
“I don’t know,” I shrug, “Maybe… if I can get away from work.” This is what I always say, just in case. That way if something were to happen and I weren’t able to make it I wouldn’t be breaking my word.
Adam starts to walk away, but then he turns and says something else, breaking our carefully constructed dialogue, leaving a shard of glass in the corner of our immaculate kitchen floor.
“When you talk to Mommy, will you tell her I love her?”
What can I say?
I smile at my brother, and I lie.
Tamara Miller grew up in Los Angeles and got her degree from UC Berkeley. She is an actor, musician, birth worker, and avid backpacker. Tamara recently moved from Oakland to Santa Cruz, California where she is working on a middle-grade novel about music, magic and the outdoors.