The Fourth Wall

It’s a short walk on a warm sunny day. Perhaps 30 meters along a pleasant walkway, all uphill. On either side, green grass; some tall, leafy trees; and some summers, a flower bed.

The smell of a fresh-cut lawn. Colors that aren’t all shades of grey. My destination: a two-storey ski chalet sort of building, long and lean, picture windows covering the side I can see. Reminds me of the pavilion at Beaver Lake where I’d warm my bones when skating. In a different season of the year, and of life.

Colin McGregor    File Prisoner’s Chronicle

Behind the building, shielded by tall, porous fences on the left: a parking lot full of cars and trucks, the most noticeable of which shine in the sun in pastel colors. I remember cars. Cars mean freedom. Driving anywhere you want. The smell of car seats that look like leather. On the other side of the fence.

It is the visit building of my prison. I don’t get to go there much. But weeks ago, a letter addressed to me appeared in the guard post’s window on my cellblock. The script reintroduced someone I once knew. Where I am from, both in history and geography, it is impolite to type or print out personal letters.

The tone is warm, non-judgmental.  An old high school classmate read one of my articles, a book review in a religious magazine. Like most people I once knew, he imagined I might be dead. We are all sinners, he tells me. I could just as well be in prison as you. Not likely, I think to myself. Blonde, tall, always smiling, at our private school with its striped neckties and black blazers, if this angelic surfer type had ever been in detention, ever, we would have pinched ourselves to see if we were asleep.

He is curious. He wants to visit. And Colin, he also writes, what the hell happened to you?  Except he doesn’t use the word “hell.”

Today I am nervous. We ran into each other when we were in our 20s, at a benefit dinner. But now I am 50, and as I was always the youngest in any class, he must be even older, I calculate.

The visit room, on the first floor, is cleaner than rooms in the jail itself. The smell is of carpet shampoo. It reminds me of civilization. In one corner, child’s toys piled near a playpen. In another corner, coin operated candy and soda pop machines glisten. The floor, perhaps 25 meters long, is occupied by hamburger restaurant-sized tables spaced out evenly. Four swivel chairs attached to each table’s single, thick, metal leg.

One wall of the visit room is picture window, looking out on the path I just traveled. Two walls are murals of country scenes. The fourth wall, the imposing one, is dark. Reflective, like a giant lens of a patrol officer’s mirror glasses.

He is there, smiling. Thin, slightly bent over at the waist. Wisps of grey hair on his skull and his chin. He looks like one of our teachers, the kind one who will let you bring in your homework a day late if you don’t blab to other students. The world has aged without me.

For the first hour, he is full of questions; I speak like an auctioneer, hundreds of words spilling out of my mouth. He is almost apologetic for his curiosity. Ask anything, I say. He wants to know about all the details of a prison life I find mundane. How can someone not know when the counts are? Or what sort of tray our meals are served on? The parking lot I just saw flashes to mind. It reminds me that not everyone lives the way I live.

He asks about my crime. The papers said you were crazy. I get to the part when I am homeless, and people I have known all my life turn me away. The papers said that too, he says.  How…? I shrug. And besides… they didn’t do anything to anyone. I did.

The neon lights on the ceiling flash. My friend clutches my hands his bony fingers. Together, we pray. He is religious. That is who visits prisoners. The lights flash again. We get up. Families and children gather around a white, descriptionless door on the far end of the room, away from the picture window.  Some hug. Some do not.

He opens up his arms.

Then he is gone. To that parking lot beyond my reach. My big moment has passed.

I head to my door, on the side closest to the real jail. We inmates will be frisked one at a time. On the way, I cross in front of the fourth wall. I look at my own reflection. I too am 50. I wonder what the guards on the other side of the dark mirror think of all this. They are probably planning their own trips back home, to TV and family and bed.

They have seen it all before.

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