A Change of Heart
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Boo hoo, I thought. I took off my headphones.
Hey, our system thinks you're a bot.
It was a crime of passion — the only issue is that I focused on the passion part and the courts focused on the crime. But I ask you, what would you have done, if the love of your life found a new love of his life — someone younger, thinner, better looking? Someone without HIV would have a normal T-cell count of a thousand cells or more, but the virus becomes part of these white blood cells.
When the white blood cells reproduce to fight infection, the virus reproduces too. As the immune system gets weak, the more likely I am to get sick, or to develop an opportunistic infection, like PCP, toxoplasmosis, CMV. Dead is dead.
I was an artist by vocation, and now, by avocation — although it was considerably more challenging to get my supplies in a place like this. Where I had once favored Windsor-Newton oils and red sable brushes, linen canvases I stretched myself and coated with gesso; I now used whatever I could get my hands on.
I had my nephews draw me pictures on card stock in pencil that I erased, so that I could use the paper over again. I hoarded the foods that produced pigment. Tonight I had been working on a portrait of Adam, drawn of course from memory, because that was all I had left.
With the broken tip of a pencil, I had transferred the color to my makeshift canvas. I enjoyed working at night because it was quieter. Even if I do, I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom — as little as I eat these days, food passes through me at lightning speed. I get sick to my stomach; I get headaches. The thrush in my mouth and throat makes it hard to swallow. Instead, I use my insomnia to fuel my artwork.
Instead, I had pulled out my painting and started recreating Adam. Distracted, I walked to the front of my cell, to see who he was having a conversation with at this hour of night. But the pod was silent, empty. Maybe he was having a nightmare. Well, in a way, he was right. I may not have been handed down the same sentence as Shay Bourne, but like him, I would die within the walls of this prison — sooner, rather than later.
In a way, I was relieved to talk about TV instead of art history. Although I used to be a PBS snob, I now found myself watching the shows the rest of the philistines in here enjoyed. We were addicted to the Red Sox and the Patriots; we kept meticulous score of their league standings depending on the time of year, and we debated the fairness of umpire and ref calls as if they were law and we were Supreme Court judges.
Sometimes, like us, our teams had their hopes dashed; other times we got to share their Super Bowl. Before I could respond, there was a loud crash and the thud of flesh smacking against the concrete floor. I pressed my face up against the Plexiglas lining the cell door. The others started to wake up, cursing me out for disturbing their rest, and then falling silent with fascination.
Two officers stormed into I-tier, still velcroing their flak jackets. The other, CO Smythe, had never been anything but professional toward me. Kappaletti stopped in front of my cell. Is he breathing? On the count of three…. The EMTs arrived and wheeled Shay past my cell on a gurney — a stretcher with restraints across the shoulders, belly, and legs that was used to transport inmates like Crash, who were too much trouble even cuffed at the waist and ankles; or inmates who were too sick to walk to the infirmary.
But now, I realized that it looked a lot like the table Shay would one day be strapped onto, for his lethal injection. His eyes had rolled up in their sockets, white and blind. When Shay Bourne returned to I-tier after three days in the hospital infirmary, he was a man with a mission. Every morning, when the officers came to poll us to see who wanted a shower or time in the yard, Shay would ask if he could speak to Warden Coyne. He cast into the center of the catwalk — risky behavior, since the COs would be back any minute. God only knew why a bird would make a nest in a hellhole like this, but one had a few months back, after flying in through the exercise yard.
One egg had fallen out and cracked; the baby robin lay on its side, unfinished; its thin, wrinkled chest working like a piston. Calloway reeled the egg in, inch by inch. We all had forgotten what it was like to care about something so much that you might not be able to stand losing it.
The first year I was in here, I used to pretend that the full moon was my pet; that it came once a month just to me. And this past summer, Crash had taken to spreading jam on the louvers of his vent to cultivate a colony of bees, but that was less about husbandry than his misguided belief that he could train them to swarm Joey in his sleep.
A moment later the doors buzzed open; they stood in front of the shower cell waiting for Shay to stick his hands through the trap to be cuffed for the twenty foot journey back to his own cell. I cleared my throat. Could I have a request form, too, when you get a chance? He finished locking Shay up again, then took one out of his pocket and stuffed it into the trap of my cell.
Not the right way, anyhow. When I start the letters all get tangled. I want to give it to a girl who needs it more than me. I tied the note to the end of my own fishing line and swung it beneath the narrow opening of his cell door. For whatever reason, Crash actually listened. He went to the sink and turned the faucet, I could hear splashing. Oh man oh man oh man.
We all knew our pipes were connected. The bad news about this was that you literally could not get away from the shit brought down by the others around you. I stood up and turned the faucet in the sink. The water that spilled out was dark as rubies. It could have been iron or manganese, but this water smelled like sugar, and dried sticky. I did not drink the tap water in here — none of us did.
But I bent my head to the tap, all the same, and drank straight from the flow. But this was like none of those. By now, everyone else on the pod realized that there had been some snafu with the plumbing. They were all drinking, hooting, shrieking. And Calloway challenging Shay to a chugging contest, but Shay saying he would sit that one out. That night when I woke up with the sweats, my heart drilling through the spongy base of my throat, Shay was talking to himself again.
They pull up the sheet, he said. Ingeniously, the triangular result doubled as both a mirror and a shank. He was lying on his bunk with his eyes closed and his arms crossed over his heart. His breathing had gone so shallow that his chest barely rose and fell. I could have sworn I smelled the worms in freshly turned soil. I had done that myself.
Who would come. Who would cry. Maggie, she said, if you got rid of him, you could find Someone.
On the other hand, Oliver knew just what I needed, and when I needed it. Surely the reason there was a seven in there was because Oliver had been on the scale too. But I would, one day, or so I told my mother the fitness queen, as soon as all the people on whose behalf I worked tirelessly were absolutely, unequivocally rescued.
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To which my mother had replied, Try Warrior Two, then. You could kill two birds with one stone. As usual, he was right.
Majestic pop trio Las Aves release “A Change of Heart”
He followed me into the kitchen, where I poured us both bowls of rabbit food his literal, mine Special K. And my clients, for that matter. I grabbed my keys and headed out to my Prius. My parents had moved to Lynley — a town twenty-six miles east of Concord, NH — seven years ago when my father took over as rabbi at Temple Beth Or. The catch was that there was no Temple Beth Or: his reform congregation held Friday night services in the cafeteria of the middle school, because the original temple had burned to the ground.
By now, anyway, his congregation had grown used to readings from the Torah that were routinely punctuated by the cheers of the audience at the basketball game in the gymnasium down the hall. My mother used salt from the Dead Sea for her scrubs. Her spa cuisine was kosher.