The BOOKPRESS December 1999

Taking Leave


Joe Miceli

 
For the last 15 years Iíve been confined to a nine-by-seven cage of solid steel bars, squeezed between walls I can touch with my fingertips if I stretch my arms. On my right is my bed. Its mattress is as flat as a pancake, and next to a ceramic toilet which is covered with a wooden board to keep the stench out.

I was in bed, on the verge of falling asleep when my cell gate cracked. Any time it opened was a welcome relief. I jumped up, stepped out on the gallery and called to the officer at the control booth a hundred feet away.

"The chaplain wants to see you. Get dressed," he said. I laced my boots, snatched my jacket, and hurried outside. A call from the clericís office usually meant bad news. As I whizzed past my neighbors crib I heard him say, "Is everything all right Joe?"

"I hope so," I said. "I think Iím going to make an emergency phone call."

Ten days earlier I had written to my counselor, a man named Randazzo, requesting an emergency call. I usually found Randazzo sitting at his desk behind a stack of inmatesí folders. In between puffs of his cigarette, sips of coffee, and hurried scribbling, heíd shove my evaluation in front of me to sign, rush me out, and then call and wave his next customer in. Inmates were his meal ticket. The rules said I couldnít dial my grandmotherís hospital room directly. Only he could.

As I hurried across the snow-covered yard, groups of prisoners huddled together against the freezing wind. Blacks, whites, and Latinos bundled in multi-colored hoods, hats, gloves and mittens. Some were familiar, but most just faces in a vast sea of lonely insignificance. A few walked endless laps around the yard, others stared at one of four TVs. Most were lost in self-imposed distractions, doing the best they could to kill time the only way they knew how.

At the wire gate leading to the guidance unit, I shoved my pass into the tiny slot of the guardís wooden shack. The officer scrutinized it like a suspicious cashier looking at a counterfeit fifty-dollar bill. Then, dismissing me like a foreigner at a border crossing, he said, "Go ahead." Relieved, I sprinted towards the building. At last, I was going to speak with my grandmother, a tough 80-year-old lady who could curse you out in a minute if you got her angry. We had not spoken in several weeks, because my father, who had just completed a ten-year federal sentence, had disconnected the three-way service at Nanís house as a condition of his parole. When I spoke with my father he said, "Your grandmotherís in the hospital, but should be back in three days."

Although her health was deteriorating, I never expected such a sudden decline. I remembered our last conversation when she had cried and complained about her swollen legs.

"Nan, you got to try and walk around, stretch your legs and get some exercise," I pleaded.

"I do. You donít understand. My legs are no good anymore. Last week I went to the bank and fell down on the sidewalk."

I tried to ease her pain by talking about the good old days, when we lived on 98th street, and when Grandpa was alive. I pictured myself in her kitchen, watching her open the oven to peek at the golden brown loaves of Sicilian bread she baked for me and my grandfather. Back then, one of my favorite treats was a hot round loaf of homemade bread stuffed with chicken roll and washed down with a tall glass of milk. Those were great times, and now, here I was clinging to them the same way my grandmother was.

"You and Grandpa were crazy about my bread. You remember Gramps liked to smother his with butter and dunk it in his coffee?"

"Yep, and we played cards. You taught me how to play scuba with an Italian deck."

"Your grandfather loved to play scuba with me."

But even as we spoke about the happy times, she still cried bitterly. Her greatest fear was that sheíd be forced to live in an old age home.

"I want to die in my own house. I donít want to live with strangers."

"Nan, I promise nobodyís going to stick you in a home. Donít worry, when I get out Iíll take care of you."

"Did you talk to the lawyer?"

"Yes, theyíre still working very hard."

"I hope to God you come home before I go."

"I will Nan, you just take care of yourself." Although I was able to reassure her, my feelings of guilt lingered in my mind like the taste of spoiled milk.

When I arrived at the Chaplainís office an officer said, "The Imam wants to see you." The Imam? I said to myself. Randazzo mustíve made arrangements with him for me to call my grandmother. Inside the small room four Muslims were busy filling tiny bottles with scented oils. The room smelled like jasmine, musk, and coconut incense, penetrating and pungent, like the fragrance of head shops in the sixties. Imam Khalffa was talking on the telephone. He removed the receiver from his ear, and cupped the mouthpiece. In a soft voice he told the men to leave the room.

As they filed passed me, he continued talking on the phone while I impatiently scanned the room. Although his desk was cluttered with bottles and papers, my eyes were drawn to one particular document that seemed out of place. On it I noticed my name written in bold letters above my grandmotherís. It was a business letter from the Francisco Funeral Home.

The Imam hung up the phone and I asked, "Whatís going on?"

"Your brother Buddy called. He needs to speak with you."

"Did my grandmother pass away?"

He looked at me with sorrowful eyes. His gaze locked with mine, hoping Iíd discover the truth he was unable to speak. Somehow I believe he understood my sadness.

Two days later, at 6:00 A.M. I was awakened by a young officer named Rizzo. He was thin, had short cropped black hair, and a voice that spoke with the soothing calm of a priest in a confessional booth. Perhaps he also knew what it felt like to experience the loss of a loved one. I was grateful.

When we crossed the yard it was windy, dark and pouring rain. Inside the administration building, a burly Irishman with blonde hair and rosy cheeks approached me and said, "My name is Officer Warren, Iím sorry to hear about your grandmother." I put on the garments given to me by the prison for the trip; blue jeans, a white shirt, and a tan jacket. I wore my own sneakers. I glanced at myself in the mirror and was disgusted by my reflection.

At last, we climbed into a specially equipped van with a thick plexiglass partition separating me from the officers, who carried .38 caliber pistols strapped to their hips in black leather holsters. My legs were shackled by a 12-inch dog chain, secured tightly at each ankle. I was also handcuffed with a belly chain. This was fastened to my cuffs with a master lock. To eat I had to bend forward and strain my neck to peck at a sandwich clasped in my fingers.

I had not been outside the stone walls of the prison for 15 years. We drove past mountains, trees, and farms with black and white cows grazing leisurely on the grass. I felt like I was part of a surreal three-dimensional photograph. Soon we entered a valley that was covered in thick and deep fog. It consumed us like the smoke in woods after a smoldering forest fire.

Suddenly a deer darted from the mist. It leapt onto the highway and into the front end of the pickup truck that was ahead of us. The driver didnít have a chance to swerve. I whipped my neck around and slid to the edge of my seat.

"Did you see that?" Officer Warren asked.

I peered out the side window, through beads of raindrops scurrying across the glass, and saw the deer sprawled on the perimeter of the roadway. I strained forward in my seat, my shackles and restraints dug deep into my flesh. The deerís tongue dangled from her soft furry jaw, and her mouth was slightly open as she exhaled nervous panting puffs of steam.

"Itís still alive!" I exclaimed.

"Yeah, but she donít look good," Officer Warren said. I wanted to see her sprint back into the woods. Instead she lay motionless, as still as the fog hanging over the valley, as stiff as the trees.

We continued driving past huge cliffs of black rocks, some with waterfalls rolling over them. Soon the clouds lifted and endless stretches of trees whirred by me in a spectacular blur of red, green and gold. On the radio, Bruce Springsteen had just finished singing "Dancing In The Dark."

By mid-afternoon, trees were replaced by apartment houses and commercial brick buildings with an assortment of bubble shaped, multi-colored bright bold letters. Some of the structures were boarded up. Finally we exited Lexington Avenue, passed the piers of Manhattan, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, and emerged on Atlantic Avenue. The city was vaguely familiar, dreamlike.

I imagined myself in the old days, leaning on the arm rest of my black l983 Ninety-Eight Oldsmobile, gliding by avenues just like these. Iíd be listening to music with a thick joint burning in the ashtray. Inhaling the smoke of the sweet sticky weed, its pungent aroma drifting through a crack in the moon roof in swirling plumes. Once I had had it all.

On Atlantic Avenue there were rows of stores and bodegas and people buzzing everywhere. Beautiful women wearing tight pants, platform shoes, and leather jackets strolled by swinging shopping bags. They swayed their hips in sync with the seductive rhythm and style that spelled attitude with a capital A in the barrio. There were furniture shops with sofas outside, a black homeless man begging, and an amputee in a wheel chair hurrying across the street.

When we pulled up in front of the funeral home, Officer Warren said, "Hold on, I have to check it out."

Two minutes later he appeared and nodded to his partner. Then with Rizzoís assistance, I carefully climbed out of the van. "Wait," Rizzo said, stopping me in mid-stride. "Letís take the belly chain and cuffs off first."

I backed up to the vehicle and stood between the center doors that were wide open. He inserted a key into the master lock and with a quick practiced twist snapped it open. He reached around my back, unwrapped the chain and then removed the handcuffs. I stretched and rubbed my wrists. They were swollen and red, and had deep creases in them. Followed by Rizzo, I limped inside the lobby taking slow even steps to avoid tripping on the tether still attached to my ankles.

My brother Buddy appeared. He was tall and broad and impeccably dressed in a fine black suit. I could tell he was shocked and glad to see me. We shook hands and kissed. Then my uncle, whom I hadnít seen in fifteen years, sauntered in. He looked much older, seemed shorter, and was as round as a wine barrel. He paused for a second, studying me the same way I pondered him. Fifteen years was a long time.

"Joey," he said in his distinctive Sicilian brogue.

I wrapped my arms around him. "Itís good to see you uncle Charlie."

"Iím a grandfather now," he said proudly slipping a photo from his wallet. "Your cousin Joey and his wife had a boy. His name is Cologero."

I took the picture and glanced at it and wondered where all the years had gone. I remembered my cousin Joey when he was a teenager wearing a football jersey rushing out of his house in College Point to play two-hand touch. Now he was a father. I handed the photo back to my uncle and said, "Congratulations."

I stepped into the viewing room and encountered my sisters Gracie and Maria. Both were drowned in black clothes. We hugged and kissed and each cried on my shoulder. I was quickly surrounded by other family members, including my father, whom I had not seen in ten years. His hair was pure white and as fine as rabbitís fur.

"You made it," he said.

We embraced. "Yeah dad, security cleared me."

Because of restrictions, I had not spoken to my dad while he was away. I stood there and scrutinized him, searching for the man I had last seen on a visit ten years ago. I knew Iíd never find him again.

The room was still and quiet. Chairs lined one wall and a sofa the other. There were tables with lamps on them, and others that held crystal bowls filled with mints. At the rear of the room my grandmother lay lifeless, surrounded by an assortment of colorful floral arrangements. As I approached I could smell the familiar fragrance of freshly picked roses. I placed my hand on the edge of her bronze casket and gazed at her face. She was thinner than the last time I saw her five years ago. Her skin was pale and colored with a thick coat of makeup that made her look unnatural. She wore a smile that seemed more like a contrived grin. On her wrist was the same gold bracelet that she always wore on special occasions. It was heavy and adorned with several medals that jingled like bells when she walked. Now, the charmsólarge solid gold hearts and diamond-studded medallions inscribed with dates and heartfelt expressionsóhung stiffly from her frozen wrist. She was dressed in a beautiful silk and lace pink gown that stretched to her ankles. On her feet she wore tiny pink shoes, the color of sea shells.

All these years I had expected this day. I just never thought it would happen so damn suddenly. Now all I had left were memories. Fragmented remnants of our lives scattered on the lid of her coffin. One was a picture of my grandmother taken in l985, the year after I went away, standing by the dock of our home in Howard Beach. Boats adorned with flags, some with fly bridges as tall as our house, floated on the surface of the calm waters waiting to cast off. Sheís wearing a pair of shorts and sneakers, and has a huge grin on her face. And there beside her are the rose bushes she raised exploding in brilliant full bloom.

At our house my grandmother usually kept large bowls of warm food in the oven. Pans of chicken cutlets and pasta, or meat and white potatoes were always available for visitors who wanted to sit down and eat. On Sundays Nan always cooked a huge meal, large pastel colored bowls filled with pasta, marinara sauce, garlic and freshly picked basil. Then we passed around trays of meatballs, sausages, and meats stacked a foot high. I would wipe the sauce from my lips between mouthfuls of food and gulps of red wine mixed with Seven-up. My grandfather wore a napkin tucked into his shirt and a pen in his pocket; he would busily grate a chunk of fresh ricotta cheese onto his macaroni. His arm moved in round, sweeping, circular motions. When he was finished, I took the cheese from him and I did the same.

When I used to come home after Junior High School to a house filled with the aroma of sauce simmering on the stove, Iíd snatch a loaf of semolina bread, tear off a hunk, and soak it in the sweet red gravy. Before long Iíd hear my grandmother say, "Get outa there, will you?" She didnít say it in a mean way, she said it proudly, delighted by the thought of how much I loved her cooking.

The time to leave arrived with a nod from Officer Warren. Everyone surged forward to kiss me goodbye. My uncle and I grasped each other one last time and he said, "You were your grandmotherís world, she loved you more than anything." Then my father held me and exploded into a violent, shuddering convulsion of sobs. We stood there clinging to each other like passengers on a plane about to crash, hurtling towards the ground. At that moment, with my dadís tears falling on my shoulder, I felt like I was his father and he was my son, and in the solace of my arms he discovered the safety I had once sought in his.

I walked to the van and extended my hands to Officer Rizzo to have the cuffs clamped on my wrists again. Instead he said, "Weíll put them on later, after we eat." This surprised me. I hopped into the van, slid close to the window, and peered out one last time hoping to freeze this moment that would have to last in the pictures of my mind eternally. I watched my uncle reach into his jacket pocket, pull out a cigar, and light it up; taking short, quick puffs. As we rolled away I waved to him and wondered if my expression betrayed my sadness.
 

Joe Miceli is an inmate at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

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