Super-Maximum: Taking a Phone Call from Solitary while Rocking a Newborn

He calls while I’m rocking Louis, my three-month old son who is struggling to find rest. I’ve been helping him along for half an hour when my phone rings.

I know it’s him. I don’t want to take it. Louis is almost asleep. But he’s been in solitary for over twenty years, so I take the call and my chances. His cell window looks out on the parking lot. I imagine he’s tortured by watching the cars and people come and go—a strange ebb and flow of lives and routines.

Developmental psychologists say that we learn and grow from our contact with those around us, but contact for him is so fleeting. I know that when he hugs visitors goodbye, his next touch is from a guard checking his anus. And I know that it’s been over twenty years since he’s seen the sun high in the sky, squinted his eyes, and felt the burn on his brow.

 

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I hear, “This call originates from an Ohio correctional facility” and the occasional shout and door slam. When we visit, it’s in a visitor’s room, the nicest room in the prison, a room on the other side of enormous doors.

But now he’s behind those doors. Somehow now I feel closer to him than when I’m meeting with him face to face.

A fire burns in the woodstove and I can still smell bacon from breakfast. The sun reflects off snow in the branches of a Norway spruce behind our house.

“What’s that noise?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Could be the connection,” I reply.

I hold the phone under my chin and shift Louis around and start squatting up and down, hoping that will work. Louis closes his eyes and seems to be drifting off. I keep squatting up and down and he keeps talking.

We talk about mutual friends. He talks about re-reading Black Boy; he always talks about Black Boy, about Richard Wright. And he talks about his case. He’s feeling hopeful.

In Louis’s room I have corn growing in an old egg carton, deep black soil with thin pin-like shoots that lean to the light. This morning I saw that they’d opened overnight, magical how this happens while we sleep our eyes twitching impatiently while this steadfast urgency unfolds.

Louis starts to cry again.

“Man, what’s that noise?” he asks again.

“Oh, that…Louis is crying.”

And then I don’t know what sound I’m hearing whether it’s laughter or crying or both.

 

“Highly Recommended” CHOICE Reviews The Thirteenth Turn

“Why did so many lynchers revert to the noose?” the author asks.  And, he continues, “how did they learn to tie the knot?”  More broadly, this book uses the “cultural technology” of the rope noose as a ready-made symbol to explore questions of public executions, vengeance, and folk justice in US history.  Shuler (literature and black studies, Denison Univ.) begins with a broader history of the noose in Western culture and in some fascinating early chapters looks at the public execution (by hanging) of slaves who were allegedly plotting against the colony of New York in 1741, a 12-year old girl in New England in 1786, John Brown in 1859, and an assortment of other stories.  Much of the book’s second half then takes up the harrowing subject of lynching, where the rope noose took on the powerful set of symbols and meanings now associated with it.  Those meanings are themselves complex, as evidenced by the fact that the song “Strange Fruit” actually comes from a midwestern, not a southern, lynching.  The last portion of the work takes up some more recent stories and documents the continued power of this simple cultural technology.  The result is a book that is as haunting as its subject.

–P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs