When the warden said we'd be excavating a cave, I confess, I pictured
myself investigating a dark, mysterious cavern like Cave of the Mounds,
with one of those shining lights on my forehead, as the trustys navigated
the dripping calcite. I thought I'd bring my son to the cave so he could
get it through that I'm not a bad man up at work-- that this isn't the
kind of job to shame either one of us. But the whole discovery came from
our state geologist taking resonance measures on little machines, which
isn't nearly so romantic and leaves nothing to show my son but me busting
the gritty humps of trustys under the hot summer sun. I'm guessing this
is what already goes on in his head.
It's over ninety today, which seems unbearable for this part of Wisconsin,
and I tell them that they'll be cooler down in the cave, thinking that
might get some more work out of a talky one like Hennick. Of course it
won't be a cave until these trustys pull out more of that black dirt. There's
no timetable, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the state decided to
fill things all back in as soon as we got it hollowed out. But I don't
like them thinking they shouldn't put their backs into whatever we bring
them out to do.
It's not Rod's idea to have Hennick on his ear like some cartoon puppy
all day, but it might as well be. Inmates are social creatures, and even
someone as bottled up as Rod, who's been in here for years and, more importantly,
has years left, won't chase off an overeager pup like Hennick. Even if
Hennick can't stop talking.
This job has been weeks of buckets of dirt and leaves and little yellow
flags, as if we're up here installing some fool's pool. Rod cuts his shovel
into the black earth and lets it stand there, like a cowboy grave marker,
before sauntering over to the water jug under my elbow. "You ever
think Hennick might be a retard?" Rod says, looking out over hills
between us and Lake Winnebago. The lake looks miles wide from here, but
it's no more than a dozen feet deep anywhere.
"He's sweet on you," I say. I try not to, but my gaze adjusts
to see if Rod is really looking out there at anything or if he's just thinking
what I'm sure they all think. The air's sweet with the breeze, but there's
an infinity of hot failure lurking on that green horizon. "No, Hennick's
not retarded," I say. You have to be clear, always, and not just because
we do get some who are retarded. "You'd better get back at it, if
you want me to sign off."
Before he saunters back to his shovel, Rod gives me that look, through
his one good eye, I know he's been meaning to give me all day. I can trust
Rod about as far as I can throw him, but he and I both know how to walk
the walk. Rod won't even cuss in front of me, though I'm sure that doesn't
keep him from imagining me on the business end of that shovel, or that
his renewed energy is supposed to suggest that he's only digging this hole
to put a body in. Something he knows how to do.
Rod's up to his neck in the hole now, and there's barely room for him
and Hennick to work and not bump into each other. It'd be just like Hennick
to have to go to the infirmary because he caught a shovel under his chin
or across his face. He's already covered in scars from sixteen years with
his daddy and another couple in the juvenile hall, where talking nonstop
will eventually make someone shut you up. I put in a couple of years at
the juvenile hall down in Fond du Lac, right out of college, and I know
factually that it is a harder place to be than up here with the big kids
like Rod. It takes more time than most these kids have for everyone to
get comfortable with the rules and to learn the codes that'll keep you
from getting a beatdown.
When I walk closer to the rim of the excavation I can see Rod's upper
torso spitting out earth. He's wearing his tank-top, his "wife-beater"
he'd say if it wasn't so unfunny, and his tattoos are starting to fill
in with rivulets of sweat and cakes of black dirt. The spider's web on
his elbow looks as if it has caught dinner every time a shovel-full comes
flying up out of the hole.
I can see the geologist's cruddy little Neon creeping up the hill as
the sun inches down into the shallows of Winnebago. That'll mean it's time
to knock off, sign the sheets, and head home to my family while Rod and
Hennick, and the rest further up the hill, head back to the lock-up for
"You're black," my son, the teenager, says when I come in
I look down at my uniform, thinking I must've got a good dusting up
at the cave. "Whuh?" I say, brushing at my collar and the high
places I can't see.
"No, you're black. African-American. Like Jesus," he says.
He's wearing a too-big t-shirt with what looks to be the name of some rap
band on it. Or hip-hop. It's an insult to him personally when I call it
rap. "Am I my brother's keeper, I ask you?"
"Oh, not The Good Word again," I say. "Clarice! Did you
give him money to buy another damned t-shirt?" I can hear the television,
which means she's already mesmerized by the QVC and the Nolan Miller Glamour
Collection. Why is that name now emblazoned on my memory? We'd agreed not
to give him money, but I know she does.
"No-oh," her reply echoes. I wait to hear something else,
but it never comes and there's my son blocking my path to the kitchen,
with his tiny little arms poking out of the big black holes in his shirt
that reads: AMERIKAz NIGHTMARE. Last year we tossed the ball in
the yard or shot hoops. I could still pick him up and swing him around.
He let me do those things. This year he recoils to his room to relentlessly
blast these angry chants. His shrink says we have to let him vent that
way, but what I don't understand is what he has to vent about when all
his needs are met.
If you want to read the rest of this story and the rest of Inside &
Out, you can order a copy today from the MSR
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