The Inmate Who Waves to Me After School
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I was gathering sticks in the field when someone waved to me from a window of the state prison. It was early summer, crickets vibrating all around. The sky ripe with dusk. Against the stout concrete building, I could just make out the motion, a distance away, the arm extended from the tiny slit of a window, waving. The sort of big, dramatic wave that you see people doing in old movies, like when lovers are departing on a train or boat. I looked at the guard towers, the layers of fence crowned with barbed wire, the sign reading STATE PRISON—NO TRESPASSING—Dept. of Corrections. There was no one else nearby, so I waved back. In another moment, the floodlights clicked on and I shuffled back into the woods toward home.
The next day, the arm was there again, reaching out from between the bars and waving to me just as it had before. It was afternoon and I could see the whole thing more definitively, could see how excitedly the arm moved, back and forth, in a proud arc. The emotion of the gesture seemed unmistakable, as if the person on the other side of the bars was brimming with joy at the sight of me. This time, I couldn’t help but feel excited too. I was ten years old and didn’t have any friends. I dropped my sticks and jumped in the air and waved my arms over my head like I was signaling a plane to the runway.
The prison stood in a long field surrounded by two miles of woods that eventually led back to the house where I lived with my parents and older brother. I was building a fort in the woods. There was a fallen oak just past the edge of the field and I stood in its ditch and wove sticks through the exposed roots to make a roof. My brother thought the fort was stupid and he told me so every chance he got. But I had big plans. I imagined an elaborate series of treetop platforms connected by ropes and ladders and elevated boardwalks. But all I’d managed so far was a hole in the ground covered with an ugly mesh of roots and sticks.
The prisoner waved to me the next day, and the next day, and the next day after that. I fell asleep each night wondering who they were. I didn’t know anyone in prison. I asked my brother but he only laughed at me.
“I bet it’s some psychopath,” he said. “You know what? I bet it’s that guy who kidnapped and murdered all those little kids a few years ago. Münz? Yeah, Münz the Maniac. That was his name.”
What if it was Münz? Or some other monstrous criminal? I imagined serial killers with teeth like nails and cannibals dressed in blood-spattered aprons. The prisoner kept waving to me, every day, and at bedtime, my imagination unraveled like a scroll of every crime I’d ever heard of. What if he was a mafia hitman? What if it was the lady who had cut off her husband’s penis? What if the arm belonged to some creep who drove a white van and diddled little kids?
But then I remembered, in school, the pictures I’d seen of Dr. Martin Luther King being led away in handcuffs. I decided he must be somehow noble or heroic. There was a boulder in the field outside the prison and I made a habit of sitting down on it every afternoon while I was gathering sticks. I would sit on the rock and watch my prisoner waving, and I would wave back, and we would carry on that exchange, waving back and forth, for a minute or two before I stood up and went back to building my fort. Once, I thought I heard him shouting something down to me—two syllables, unintelligible, the sound just barely discernible over the breeze. I stood still and listened but the sound was too far away and could have come from anywhere.
I began to invent a whole life for my prisoner. After a few weeks, I’d come to the decision that he was a normal person who had simply been caught up in difficult circumstances. I decided that his crime was somehow righteous: he’d attacked his lover’s abusive spouse or pulled a robbery to pay for his child’s surgery. I imagined that he might be released some day and, knowing no other person, he might wait for me at the boulder in the field. I could shelter him in my fort, I thought, at least until he got back on his feet. I imagined sitting in the fort, rain pittering on the roof I’d build, a column of smoke rising up through the trees as me and my prisoner cooked hot dogs over a fire. In another fantasy, I bumped into him somewhere—at the grocery store or the park—and recognized him simply by the energetic flap of his wave.
I held the prisoner in my imagination and every day, when I waved to him, my idea of him grew and became more refined. Maybe, I thought, the prisoner had, in fact, made serious mistakes. Mistakes for which his atonement must be profound. I came to the idea that he’d killed a pedestrian while driving drunk. Or maybe he’d been involved in gang violence at a young age and now, an adult, he’d been transformed by the weight of his guilt. In truth, I wanted for his crime to be both brutal and purposeful, a badge upon his soul that spoke to the absolute depths of his anguish and a testament to his reformation. Whoever the prisoner was, I just wanted to believe that he was a good person.
One night, I scrounged some cardboard from the recycling bin, and after everyone was asleep, I painted a sign. I wrote the word Hi! in dark blue letters, big enough to be read from a distance. When my brother found the sign the next day, he laughed at me. “You’re really in love with the maniac, aren’t you?” he said. “You’re really in love with Münz. I bet if he ever gets out of that place, he’s going to come straight here. First thing, he’ll come looking for you.” I didn’t care. I marched out to the field and held up my sign. The prisoner waved to me with such joy, such enthusiasm. As if something great had happened. As if being here on Earth and being able to recognize another creature like yourself, if only from a distance, were cause enough for celebration.
Then, one day, late in the summer, I went out to gather sticks and was greeted only by the gray face of the prison building. I looked to the window and it was empty. I stood before the imposing shadow of the tower, the indifferent curl of barbed wire. I jogged the perimeter of the building, wondering if he had been moved to another cell. Or, maybe, he had been released? A sick feeling began to form in my stomach. Maybe—oh, please, God, mercy—he’d been given the death penalty?
I walked back into the woods and continued working on my fort but stopped when I noticed a pile of cigarette butts smashed up in the corner on the dirt floor. I stood for a moment in frozen panic, then noticed, tucked up among the roots, a dirty magazine—a pair of legs, opened and wrinkled with moisture. Someone had been inside my fort. I remembered what my brother had said: if Münz was ever released, he’d come straight for me. Who else could it be? He’d seen me every day from the window of his cell, had seen me coming in and out of the woods. Anyone walking this direction from the prison would be able to find my dumb fort, no problem.
I yanked down the sticks I’d so carefully woven until all that was left of my fort was a mess of dead branches scattered around the forest floor. I ran home and got there just in time for dinner. I ate silently, wondering if I’d left a trail—footprints or snapped twigs—that could be tracked back to my house.
But nothing happened. A few days later, I crept back through the woods. As I approached the site of my ruined fort, I could smell cigarettes. I hid behind an old log and watched from a distance. I saw a figure standing up from the ditch of the fallen tree. My heart froze. But in a moment, I realized it was just my brother. I watched him stub out a cigarette then wander off through the trees. Then I walked out to the field and stared up at the empty window where there used to be a person who waved to me. I began to gather sticks.