17 May, 2013

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Two convicts, Donnie and Old Joe, have been doing time in the same tumbledown prison for decades. Despite their surroundings and having little hope of ever again being free, the two aging men have kept their humor and are always telling each other jokes, to the point that they don’t even have to say the lines but instead just recite numbers to each other that refer to their huge inventory of zingers.

One day, Donnie and Old Joe are outside, walking the yard. Old Joe seems kind of down, so Donnie decides to tell him a joke — one of their dirtier ones — to cheer his friend up.

“Hey, Joe,” says Donnie, grinning. “Number thirty-seven!”

Old Joe’s hangdog expression barely changes.

“Aw, c’mon. That one’s a classic, man,” Donnie says.

“Yeah,” says Old Joe, “But you didn’t tell it right.”

08 May, 2013

Sub Rosa Writers

Fold, fold, fold. Seal the packet on three sides with die-cut border rectangles from a sheet of postage stamps. Use no names. Pocket.

Meet a trusted courier at the earliest opportune location for a hand-off. Pretend conversation as necessary to avoid detection. Do not, at any point in the transaction, look at the packet. Await the reply.

Days later, a different courier — maybe familiar, maybe a stranger (his knowledge of the arrangement is verification enough) — in a different location. Another hand-off. The reply packet is nearly identical, with differences noticeable only to the experienced eye: grayer, lighter-weight paper, text faintly visible from the opposite side of the page. But not at first. The precaution about looking still applies. Pocket. Acknowledge the courier’s cooperation with a nod.

In a safe place, later, unpocket. Unfold, unfold, unfold. Read: Skullface. Read the message. Read: Lefty.

There is no code. The names my comrade and I use for these earnest transactions are noms de rail — hobo monikers. If intercepted by authorities, the packets would not betray our true identities. The powers that be would be left to wonder who is Skullface Lord Slim Jim, who is Lefty Two Apples.

Following the communique are poems — poems for three pages, poems from what may as well be another world, poems from the opposite side of the fence. Shared writings are like samizdat in this place, this gulag. We prisoners may not exchange property or papers.

Another day. We meet at the fence, a chance encounter. We are watched but cannot be heard. Razor wire loops overhead. No eye contact. Vague nods of greeting through the chain link.

“Skullface,” he says.

“Lefty,” I say.

“I have a new story.”

“So do I. I’ll send it Saturday. You got the magazine I sent last week — the new Poets & Writers?”

“I did. And the February Poetry before that. Thank you.”

“It’s nothing.”

“How goes the effort to get the program started?” He means the writers group that would meet weekly, the cessation of all this secrecy.

“Not well. It’s difficult to find people on the outside who are sympathetic to our cause.”

“Keep trying. I read that Chatam University partnered with the Allegheny County Jail to workshop creative writing with the detainees —”

Over the loudspeaker: “Move along, gentlemen.”

Abrupt nods of farewell. He and I may not speak again for weeks. our packets, however, will move. Words will be exchanged. The writers underground, a conspiracy of two. For now.