Fiction: Visitation

Read More: A brief interview with Brendan Stephens

I had to remind myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Cody had put me on his visitation list and was expecting me. Yet being inside the grounds of the prison felt like I was somehow breaking the law, like instead of meeting a pen pal, I was trying to fool the guards so I could get close enough for a jailbreak. I expected to be turned away for having lipstick and matches in my purse as if they could somehow be MacGyvered into a device that could blast through concrete. All my jewelry had been left in the glove compartment of my car—earrings, necklace, even my wedding band—in case it might set off the metal detector.

Instead the guard, sleep still in his droopy eyes, handed me back my purse without even looking. A different guard directed me to the last visitation booth. As I walked by the other visitors and prisoners, I kept my eyes focused directly in front of me. Could any of them see the concentration in each step?

I slunk into the metal chair. Heat lingered from whoever last sat there. It was remarkable just how much the visitation room looked like a TV set: the plainness of the table, the plastic phone that smelled like disinfectant, the smudged handprint on the glass.

A guard brought Cody into the room. I’d only ever seen the few pictures of him that came up online, the most common being his mugshot. In that picture, he had the slightest upturn of a smile. At first I had thought that his smile was a defiant fuck you to the entire world. After our first collect call, I thought that his mugshot’s smile was proof of his innocence, that, when pictured, he didn’t quite understand why he’d been arrested at all. Yet, as he sauntered towards me, I realized that the smile was as much a part of him as his cowlick and his squared-jaw. The indentation of wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead either weren’t picked up in those pictures or the seven years had aged him more than I had assumed. I stood to greet him, as if we might hug, as if the room wasn’t divided by bulletproof glass.

He sat down, shifted around, and picked up the phone. I did the same.

I had to look away. His eyes were startlingly blue. Electric blue, like lightning pulsing through a jellyfish. I could barely breathe. Both of us squirmed in our seats.

Into the phone, he said, “The Eiffel Tower bends seven inches away from the sun. Heat expansion.”

The fluorescent tube lights drained the color out of Cody’s face and presumably mine as well. Everyone in there looked malnourished.

I laughed. “Who cares about the Eiffel Tower? I’m here.”

Cody knew more than anyone I’d ever met. He scoured books for weird facts. Once, in a letter, I asked him why. He said it was to impress me. The facts didn’t, but his effort did.

I wished the visits weren’t behind glass. Cody once told me that there were other prisons where you could sit together at a table. Even the places that banned touching often had a guard or two who would look away if bribed. Seeing him in front of me was almost like being in the same room, but his voice had the same tinny, static-y timbre of a phone.

“You’re really real,” he said.

“God, you’re corny.”

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Later, during our video chat, my husband Josh seemed to purposefully not ask about how the visit had went. He’d been on the road for three days, and wouldn’t be home for another two. I found it funny until I realized that he had forgotten I’d visited Cody at all, even though I talked about going for days. There was so much that I couldn’t tell Josh because I didn’t have the words. But I wanted his reaction, so I told him about how Cody’s hands were as small as mine, how both of us pretended that we hadn’t heard all our stories in letters, how Cody looked like he was struck by the buckle end of a belt when I told him I had to leave.

“Sounds depressing,” he said.

“It wasn’t. It was kind of fun.”

“Well, is it at least out of your system now?” Josh had never wanted me to visit Cody. He said so several times. Before that, Josh didn’t want me to accept Cody’s collect calls.

“No. There is just so much that we take for granted over the phone. All the visual cues. He just really understands me.”

He blinked twice fast, and then lay down on his mattress and propped his phone against the inside wall of his eighteen-wheeler. I could tell that he’d end the conversation soon—probably in a few minutes.

I didn’t have to remind Josh that in a roundabout way, he had led me to Cody.

Back then, I had quit my job to write copy freelance, but after a while the jobs slowed down until it was almost nothing. I was practically unemployed and unmotivated to search for something new.

Josh had started driving big-rigs. He was gone for weeks then back for a few days before his next assignment. It was hard to imagine him out on the road. He was a skinny vegetarian that filled his truck’s mini-fridge with curry-dusted tofu, quinoa salad, and cucumber sushi. But he liked the road. Before we met, he often toured the country in a punk band. Even though he never told me, I could tell he missed the road and that this was some sort of early-thirties equivalent to a mid-life crisis.

I was so bored that I took naps just to make the days end quicker. When Josh was home, I picked fights with him over things I didn’t care about because there was nothing better to do. Josh saw an advertisement in the classifieds looking for a pen pal. He handed it to me and told me to write whoever was on the other end. I was so mad that on his next assignment, I didn’t answer any of his calls, but I held onto the paper. There was something about crumbled sheets of paper, the wet streak of ink, and the taste of envelope glue that made me decide to reach out. That led me to Cody, who spent a month’s wages of prison labor on the advertisement.

When I received the first letter, I half-expected Cody’s handwriting to be jagged like his pencil was held with a full-fisted grip. But his handwriting was blocky and legible. Cody was an eleventh grade dropout, but he got his GED when he was nineteen while serving a couple years for an armed robbery. When released on that charge, he even earned most of the credits for a Political Science degree before his new sentence. He read like others breathed. If I started reading right now, I don’t think I’d ever catch up to what he’d read only seven years into his life sentence. It wasn’t until we talked about his crime that I remembered sort of hearing about how he strangled his older brother. Cody told me all the details that the papers got wrong and all the self-defense evidence his court-appointed lawyers neglected in the trial.

I had thought that I’d send a letter every couple of weeks, but soon after Cody and I wrote one another, I couldn’t tell who looked forward to the letters more. Sometimes I’d write a second letter before I had delivered the first. The longest hour in the day came right before mail delivery.

Josh asked me if I planned on visiting again.

I told him I did.

“Maybe visiting will be cheaper than all the collect calls,” Josh said, like it was a question.

“Maybe.”

I didn’t tell him that earlier I had wired fifty dollars into Cody’s commissary account for Cheetos, tuna fish, ramen, new socks, books, et cetera.

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After another visit, I came home to a thick letter from Cody in the mailbox. We were like that—we still wrote every day, even on the days that I made the hour drive. Inside the envelope, were a dozen origami cranes, pressed flat, their wings either at their side or pointed heavenward.

One of the cranes was covered in writing. I carefully unfolded it, hoping that I’d be able to fold it back up. The letter was like normal—thoughts, answers to questions, hopes for the future—except for the postscript which told me about a Japanese legend: if a person folded a thousand origami cranes they would have their most desired wish granted. He said that in time, I’d receive the rest. I set up the cranes on an end table.

I tried to fold the note back into a crane, but even following the creases, I couldn’t get it back to normal.

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Josh scrolled through the news on his laptop. Somehow, the bed felt larger with him in it than on nights I spent alone, as if, when he wasn’t home, I felt more confined to my side. But now, my body sprawled out, pulling at him.

“Can we throw out at least a few of these?” Josh picked up a crane. I had so many that the paper birds had invaded all of the tabletop space in the living room and bedroom.

“I’ll try to find a better place for them.”

“How many more is he going to send you?”

Almost nine-hundred. “I don’t know.”

Josh looked different in the lamplight, not just that his stubble had grown into a full beard, but he had a restless look, like time home was more work than the eleven hour drives. Outside, an autumn wind whistled.

I was reading a book that Cody had recommended, a book that was nearly a thousand pages that couldn’t hold my interest. I only made it two pages into the second chapter before giving up. I picked at a scab on Josh’s arm as he tried to shrug me off. Eventually he covered his arm with the blanket.

I leaned over and kissed him, our lips lingering, both of us gauging the other’s interest. He kissed slow and then hard before moving the computer to the floor.

I reached over and flicked off the lights.

“Leave them on,” he said. “I like seeing you.”

I didn’t respond.

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Over time, I learned the routine for visitation. I strolled through the metal detector with confidence and even joked with the correctional officers when they patted me down. The drug dog—a huge German Shepherd—was named King, and I brought peanut butter flavor snacks that the correctional officers gave King when he was off-duty. I learned the bureaucracy and felt silly for early visit nerves. My pulse fluttered only when Cody entered through the doors. There was a waist-high partition where visitors were allowed an embrace at the end of each visit, but we never could bring ourselves to even shake hands. Yet each visit, he handed me a couple cranes.

Everything was perfect until a correctional officer turned me away because Cody was in disciplinary segregation. I made him triple check to make sure that it wasn’t a mistake.

“You can still visit him, but only on Fridays,” he said.

“How long is he in there for?”

“That’s up to him.” There was a burst of static on a radio and some command I couldn’t understand. He cocked his head to listen, until whatever business was going on had passed.

“But how long? A day? A week?”

“Probably longer. Twenty days at least. He attacked his cellmate. Put the poor fucker into a chokehold so tight that it crushed his windpipe and put him in the ER. It took three guards with clubs wailing on him before he loosened his grip.”

I couldn’t picture him attacking anyone.

At the next Friday visitation, Cody limped in, covered in bruises—pale and green like Uranus.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“Just being here is nice.”

“What happened?”

“A gang jumped me in some initiation ritual. When I finally got the upper-hand on the new recruit, everyone else piled on and started to let me have it. The worst part is that when the guards finally came to break up the ruckus, they all spun some tale about me attacking them.”

“I heard that you were throttling your cell-mate.”

“Who told you that? One of the COs? Whoever said it doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.

His story did seem more likely. But I couldn’t help but notice how those bruises were long. They seemed more like baton strikes than fists, though perhaps a gang could have makeshift clubs. Either way, it didn’t really matter because the end-result was the same, twenty-two hours a day in a sensory-deprived room.

“It must be lonely in there.”

“It’s agony. I have nothing to do in there besides think about you.”

My stomach lept. No one had ever told me that.

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When Cody asked me if there was anyone that I could set him up with, I almost asked what was wrong with me.

A steady relationship with someone outside would really help him. He thought he had a shot with his appeal at reducing his sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

“If only I met you before Josh,” he said.

“I was out of your league,” I said, even though I didn’t believe it. I’d put up with plenty of boyfriends less attentive and less attractive.

We exchanged glances but immediately looked away when our eyes met. The room suddenly felt cold, and I fought a bout of shivering.

Eventually, even though I couldn’t conjure to mind a single woman that I knew that would be a good match for him, I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

He thanked me, and then we skirted around the topic until time ran out.

When I left, we lingered at the partition like usual. I gave the same half-hearted wave I always did. After handing me a pocketful of cranes, Cody stepped up to the glass and said, “Come here.”

I stepped so close to him that I could smell the faint anti-dandruff shampoo in his hair. Goosebumps crept up my arms. I had to remind myself to breathe. He held me around the waist, and I hugged him high.

He kissed my neck so soft that I thought it might have only been breath.

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Josh was back on the road, maybe up north somewhere since it was snowing where he was. Both of our phones were propped up against pillows, while Josh and I video-chatted. I was scooping armfuls of origami cranes into gallon sized freezer bags, blowing the bag full of air, and sealing them in a balloon full of tumbling cranes that would never be crushed. Josh had taken his old, beat-up electric guitar on the road and played it unplugged idly, the strings sounding like wiry plinks instead of notes. Neither of us were in frame for the video-chat.

“Do we know any single women? I’m trying to set someone up,” I said.

“I don’t know. Just look up some of your friends online.”

“I already did that.” I couldn’t find a single person that I thought would really give Cody the benefit of the doubt to really know him. Most of my friends had distanced themselves the closer that I had gotten to Cody, telling me, in different ways, that I was making a mistake.

He stopped playing. “You’re talking about setting someone up with Cody, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then Lacey,” he said.

Lacey was an old-neighbor, a desperate thrill-seeker with a drinking problem. Every ex-boyfriend she had left the state in a keyed car. My stomach turned because I could imagine her losing herself in Cody. She was exactly what Cody needed, someone that on the surface looked normal enough to sway a parole board but sick enough to enjoy having all the power and control in a relationship. If he upset her, she might even tank his appeal for payback.

“That’d never work.” Setting up Lacey and Cody, in the end, wouldn’t be good for anybody: not Lacey, not Cody, not me.

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In another origami letter, Cody told me about Roy Sullivan—a park ranger that was struck by lightning seven times. I didn’t see how it could be true, so I scoured the internet for everything I could find about him. In a picture, he looked indistinguishable from any other old man. Roy Sullivan came to believe that some force was trying to obliterate him.

If the odds of being struck by lightning once are one in 700,000, then the odds of being hit seven times are 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Even Roy Sullivan’s wife was struck once while hanging clothes with him. At seventy-one, he lay in bed next to his wife and killed himself over an unrequited love. His wife didn’t wake up for hours.

All my life, men seemed disposable. Another breakup—who’s next? I hadn’t gone more than two weeks without a boyfriend since I was in middle school. For a while, I even insisted on open-relationships because I loved feeling loved so much that one person’s could never satisfy. Most of the time, I didn’t even think that marriage was for me at all, but I knew that Josh would be there for me and that had felt like enough. Now I skipped his calls because I was in the middle of reading about the appeal process.

Why did it take me so long to realize I loved Cody? I didn’t care what others would think. I didn’t care that I knew better. If I saw a therapist, I’d know they would see the equation: the further Josh withdrew, the more pulled I was to Cody who couldn’t take off for weeks. And even if that were true, it didn’t change that what I had with Cody still felt more intense than all the love I’d had before combined. He was like an atomic bomb amongst hand grenades.

When I thought about life without Cody, I understood what drove Roy Sullivan to wake up in the middle of the night, find his .22, and shoot himself in the head.

I was afraid.

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On a weekend that Josh was home, I asked if he wanted to go swimming in the falls. We hadn’t gone in years. The drive to the falls took over an hour, but I’d gotten so used to driving to the prison and back that the ride almost felt like nothing. The main waterfall—the sixty foot one that tourists came to photograph—was in a state park with a paved walkway. However, the swimming falls were only accessible through a rocky trail almost a mile downriver.

It had stormed earlier that morning. The trail was slick with mud. When we had to scale a five foot drop, using roots and rocks for holds, Josh went first and then stood underneath prepared to catch me like he used to. I had forgotten how he’d done that.

“I miss this,” he said.

“Me too.” I meant it as well. It was a glimpse into our past. What I wanted to ask was if things would ever go back to the way it used to be. Instead I asked, “How much longer do you have to keep long-hauling?”

“Maybe in a few years. I need seniority to request local assignments.”

By the time we got to the swimming falls, it struck me that I couldn’t picture Josh ever taking a local assignment. He’d always be drawn elsewhere, to new cities, deserts, bayous, and badlands.

Just standing at the bank, we could tell that the storm had made the current too strong and the water too cold for swimming. We took a few pictures in the chilled mist just to feel better about turning back.

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“This is almost the last one.” Cody finished folding a crane. He’d finally made it back to general population after thirty-seven days. Still eye contact proved to be a problem and he flinched at sounds that weren’t even loud enough for me to register.

“Nine-hundred-and-eighty?”

“Nine-hundred-eighty-one.” He set it in front of him and then used a finger to push back on its tail, making it walk towards me.

“What is your wish? Or is this one of those ‘if you tell, it won’t not come true’ sort of deals?”

“I bet my wish is pretty obvious.”

I played dumb.

“To be alone with you.”

I wanted to laugh, but I was too sad. It was as if we were in grade school making a pact to marry each other if we were both single in thirty years. I didn’t tell him that deep down, getting his sentence commuted was only a daydream. It didn’t matter that it was self-defense so long as Cody’s mother testified his guilt. For a beat, I considered humoring him, but instead told him that I’d happily grant his wish, so long as we both made it to ninety when he was scheduled for release.

“Ye of little faith,” he said.

He told me about Methuselah who lived to nine-hundred-and-sixty-nine, about Tiresias—the blind seer of Thebes—who hit six hundred, about the first eighteen Hùng kings of Vietnam that each lived past two hundred.

“In the real world, I’d be happy to just see eighty.”

“Well, we don’t necessarily have to wait that long. There is another option.”

He smiled, letting the suspense of what he said hang between us like the glass, until I wriggled in my seat and threatened to leave.

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After Josh found out that I’d been wiring Cody two-hundred dollars a week, the maximum amount the prison allowed, Josh couldn’t even look at me. I almost wished that he would’ve screamed at me, maybe even threatened me, because when I explained myself as he silently moped, I sounded ridiculous. I told him that the mess hall slop was inedible, the soap gave him rashes, and deodorant wasn’t provided. Leftover money got him a television, DVDs, and books. The commissary overcharged, but I would have lived on rice and lentils if the money made Cody’s life more bearable. But none of that changed anything.

[…]


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Brendan Stephens is currently in the Creative Writing and Literature PhD program at the University of Houston where he serves as the online fiction editor for Gulf Coast Literary Magazine. His previous work has appeared in Epoch, Southeast Review, Notre Dame Review, Carolina Quarterly, SmokeLong Quarterly and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize.

“Visitation” won the 2019 New Writer Award (fiction/nonfiction).

Read More: A brief interview with Brendan Stephens