Tunnel of more than words

After three years in the prison's general population I am going to Protective Custody Isolation. The move has not been termed a punishment, though it will entail a loss of and the companionship of my fellow prisoners.

The new cell is in the oldest cellblock in the prison, the isolation wing. I find it on the top floor of the building, the last dark hole in a maze of dark holes. The interior is windowless, nearly airless. The walls are nearly as wide as my own body, more than enough to preclude human contact. I spend the first day thinning the veneer of grime which covers almost everything. Just before drifting off to sleep, I imagine I am hearing music: a warm Latinate voice singing quietly above the penitentiary dark. The sound is so beautiful -- a kind of lullaby -- I decide I am dreaming, though the music seems close enough to touch, almost tangible. . . .

I leave the cell three times a week for exercise and showers. Food and mail arrive through an opening in the cell door. The hand delivering it is anonymous , fully disembodied. The isolation at first is very difficult. I spend my time sleeping and pacing the floor. Later it becomes more tolerable. I am able to read, write and meditate, things I had little time for in the general population.

I still have not seen the man in the cell next to mine. It was he, this neighbor, whom I heard singing the first night. He continues to sing mornings and evenings. I have memorized the three songs in his repertoire. They are Spanish, a kind of scrambled mariachi,m two happy songs and one sad song. I decide that they are beautiful, exquisite almost, though the voice is always off key, hopelessly out of tune. I can't explain why I enjoy this, or why I stay awake nights to listen. When the man is singing I imagine I am somewhere else, with friends, at home. I wonder if the man knows I am listening. . . . Eventually I send him a gift, a small package of gum. The response is a prompt one, an enthusiastic graciasm echoing back and forth between the two cells. I yell back in English, but there is only silence.

Today I discover a hole in the wall of the cell. It had been disguised with a sheet of cardboard: an opening the size of a golf ball, extending all the way to the Spanish man's cell. It appears to have been carved with a spoon or some blunt instrument. The concrete at the edge is ground smooth, as if worn away with great care over a long period of time.

The diameter is large enough to see my neighbor's eyes -- two brightnesses, two fluid ovals dancing at the edge of the dark. I yell in English but receive no answer. I follow with the Spanish phrases I've learned in prison.

?Que pasa? Buenos noches. ?Como esta? Adios.m And gringo.m My answer is swift and fully incomprehensible, a strange outpouring of language continuing for nearly five minutes. I listen carefully, understanding nothing but immensely pleased, somewhat like Marconi receiving the first telegram. The only coherent word sounds like En-rekay.m Or, Enrique. Enrique.m A man's name.

I yell it back into the hole, repeat it twice and yell my own name. Michael.

Enrique. ?Que pasa? Buenos noches. ?Como esta? Adios. Gringo.m


Enrique and I talk at intervals throughout the day. I have little idea what he's saying, and it doesn't seem to matter. The exchange of soundsm is what's important. The emotion implied in the sound is something warm, something very basic. I listen carefully to his oratory: long narratives delivered with the eloquence of a Shakespearean actor. In return I read him the poetry of Keats, Blake and Walt Whitman. Keats receives the most encouraging response: a heartfelt series of andalesm and fantasticos.m

For nearly a month the relationship develops. In the evening there is still the singing, happier now, with a sense of celebration, almost of festival. Though I still know little about the details of my friend's life, I feel a closeness I've never felt with another person, something more than friendship -- a kind of brotherhood. I've learned to confide in him my fears and joys. I confess my shortcomings. I seek his opinions. I conspire with him. I've told him things I've never told anyone else. I trust him totally.I am certain that he trusts me. Though we speak different languages.

The cell door opens this morning without warning, sometime just before breakfast. I step onto the tier still dressed in pajamas. Outside are two brown-uniformed guards, their faces stern, hands full of documents.

The man on the right looks at me and says, "We want the other guy. Your neighbor. Enrique de la Cruz."

At the sound of his name, Enrique de la Cruz, my friend and intimado,m steps out of the dark and onto the tier. We appraise each other in silence. He is older than I expected, delicate and frail, his long hair a pure white above animated brown eyes. As I pump his hand, the guard explains that Enrique is a Mexican national, that he is being transferred to a prison in Mexico City. Before the guard orders me inside, I stop, and instead of releasing my friend's hand, I hug him. I place my arms around his shoulders and I hug him. ?Que pasa? . . . . Adios, gringo!m

I do not expect to see Enrique again. Something remains of him, though, which is permanent. I think about this often. I think about how prisons work to suppress feeling, how they are somehow metaphors for a more general suppression of feeling, a condition we impose upon ourselves, in and out of prison. When I think about Enrique I'm reminded that there are always holes, openings and bridges above these suppressions. It's amazing the places we find them!

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