Early that morning, the storm moved south over the dark Quebec woods, crossed into Vermont at Lake Memphremagog, the inland sea of the Northeast Kingdom, and picked up speed from the wind off the lake, made the shore at Newport and kept going south, rattling windows in houses and trailers and shacks, shoving wood smoke back down the chimneys and rusted stovepipes. The thunder tore through the trees, hit the bare farm fields around Saint Johnsbury. The air inside my cell shifted from the sudden pressure, carrying the boom. The sound moved something deep in my chest and I woke. I lay there on the top bunk, listening to the thunder muffled by the thick concrete. My cellmate was a man named Don Wilcox. He sat fully clothed on the stainless steel toilet bowl that was attached to the wall directly at the head of his bottom bunk. He was smoking a cigarette, flicking ash into the toilet between his legs.
"Coop, you up?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. The cell was dark except for the red ember of his cigarette, moving in an arc when he flicked it.
"Some storm," he said. "Must be something, if we can hear it in here."
I nodded in the darkness. "Sounds bad," I agreed.
"I hope it doesn't scare my kids," he said. Don Wilcox was in his late thirties and had a wife and three young boys, in Greenville, Vermont, about twenty miles away. They always came to Saint Johnsbury on visiting day. Wilcox had been convicted of arson. He'd burned an outbuilding on his mother's old farm in an attempt to get some insurance money after his mother died. He'd been in trouble before, years back, and the prosecution held his prior record against him. He was just beginning to serve his ten- year sentence. For the past eight months, he'd been my cellmate, my ninth in a little over sixty months at Saint Jay prison. I could barely see him in the dark, only the red eye of his cigarette.
"Are your kids scared of thunder?" I asked.
"My middle boy is," he said. "Makes him wet the bed." The stubble on his chin raked the collar of his work-shirt. "I used to yell at him when he wet the bed." He was very quiet and I heard the thunder. "I wish I was out."
There was nothing to say to that. He talked for a while longer, stories about his kids I'd already heard, about how he hoped his wife was faithful. I drifted off, back to sleep. When I woke up again the cell was filled with cigarette smoke. I heard the voices of other inmates in the cellblock, heading to lunch. I swung myself down to the concrete floor from the bunk and went to eat.
I stepped off the chow line carrying a lunch tray and found a seat alone, at the end of a long stainless steel table. The mess hall was full of other prisoners - sometimes Saint Jay holds over a thousand men, although it was built for eight hundred - all wearing street clothes, jeans and flannel shirts, because the Vermont Department of Corrections never got around to installing proper heat in any of its facilities. Winters were too cold for the customary prisoner jumpsuit and the Vermont winter could last till May. Even beyond. The storm had stopped and now the noise was the usual loud voices cursing, laughing in a nasty way. As I ate my sandwich, an old con came and sat across from me. I looked up at him.
"You Ray Cooper?" he asked. His beard was a mess - gray, black, uneven - and he was almost bald. He wore a green work shirt. His lungs sounded bad. I recognized him as a trustee from being in the library, but I couldn't think of his name. A faded jailhouse tattoo, the letters FTW, were inked on the back of his left hand.
I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "So what?"
"You're bein' transferred," he whispered. The mess hall made it hard to hear him, with all the voices bouncing off the walls and ceiling. He looked around at the other prisoners and the guards by the door and leaned closer. He did it so easy. Anyone looking at him would have thought he was adjusting the seat of his pants. "I heard them say Cooper this morning, they're just waiting for the paperwork." He lowered his voice to less than a whisper, just barely moving his lips and trying to breathe the words out. He wasn't looking at me. "Don't tell anyone, they'll stab you in the night." He smiles, as another prisoner walked past looking for a seat. He breathed through his smile, through his missing teeth. "They're jealous. But you've got to try to live."
I looked at the dim sunlight coming through the windows thirty feet above the floor, set in a row of concrete blocks right below the ceiling and individually covered with screens of heavy gauge wire. Thick, black dust covered the screens. "When are you out?" I asked.
The old man stood, his back crooked and he held onto the table with one hand.
"When I say hi to Jesus, that's when I'm out." He shuffled away, toward the chow line and the other prisoners. He was gone when I looked up again. Vanished into the crowd. Left me to think about The Farm. The minimum-security prison run by the Vermont Department of Corrections. Two hundred men were held at The Farm. There aren't many prisons in the Vermont system-two in the north, higher security Saint Albans or Saint A, as inmates call it, along with Saint Jay. The sex offenders are housed in Newport and there are facilities at Rutland and Woodstock, each holding a mixed population of convicts. If prisoners manage to avoid fights and develop clean records of good time, they usually end their term at The Farm, which has an extensive wood shop and sawmill operation, all located on seven hundred acres of fields and surrounding hills. Only the fences and concrete cellblock buildings set it apart from the Vermont landscape. Days at The Farm count as two and a half regular days in the bizarre math of good time calculations, because everyone is a low security risk and expected to go to work and go to programs. GED classes, anger management, AA meetings. All things that normal people do outside the fence every single day, without expecting good time in return.
That night in the cell, Wilcox was sick from bad chow. I watched him hard from then on, harder than before, but he never gave any indication he knew I was leaving. Ten years stretched out in front of him and filled whatever part of his mind wasn't devoted to his boys. Sometimes I doubt if he even knew I was in the cell with him.
The paperwork came at the end of July and they transferred me south in an unmarked, four-door jeep on the last Friday of the month. I didn't say a word the whole ride down out of the Northeast Kingdom - just sat cuffed on the rear seat, sweating from the sun. Watching the trees and country and what I could see of the sky pass by the shatterproof windows. We pulled up to the entrance guardhouse at dinnertime, but I was held in the sergeant's office for in processing, shackled and cuffed to a steel ring welded to a metal desk.
Humid and hot that August in Windsor, Vermont, with hundred degree-days coming one on top of another. Every night the window of my new cell allowed me to watch heat lightning flash over the fields and high fences of the facility. I had just turned twenty-eight and was serving out the last eighteen months of my eighty-four month sentence at The Farm.
The Farm itself is surrounded by a five-foot high barbed wire fence, topped with razor wire. The short fence is old, a reminder of a less violent time. A dirt road runs around the outbuildings and prison dormitory, allowing the guards to ride patrols between the outside, shorter fence and the new inner, electrified fence. The inner fence is twenty feet high, crowned with two strands of razor wire. The last six feet of the fence are angled inward, making it difficult to climb from the inside and the razor wire is set at such a pitch that scaling it from the outside would require a professional level of skill and tools that no average person would ever have. Full voltage runs through the fence wire and the hum fills the facility, as if an angry swarm of bees is floating in the woods, waiting.
I'm not an innocent man. When I was seventeen, I was set up by an informant during a pot buy. I did three years and got out. A year later, I smashed a truck window one night near Essex Junction, Vermont, and took a large briefcase I saw resting on the front passenger's seat. I was drunk, not that drunkenness makes such things okay. I managed to open the case with an acetylene torch and they took me into custody three hours later, but for those three hours, I was in control of the contents of that briefcase, which happened to belong to an investigator for the Vermont State Police, who kept four pistols locked and loaded inside, along with some of his police identification. He wasn't on assignment that night. Parked on a back road, he was visiting his girlfriend, which was bad because he had a wife and his girlfriend had a husband. So he wasn't where he should have been and this hit the local paper and the paper in Burlington and made the State's Attorney eager to put me away for causing so many problems for a law enforcement officer. I got the maximum time allowed on the illegal handgun possession, all four guns, all felonies, plus theft, breaking and entering, destruction of private property, illegal possession of official identification, which is another felony. The list seemed to grow longer each time I appeared in court, as my public defender struggled to remember my name, once asking the judge for a continuance on behalf of his client Mark Copper, and appearing surprised when his honor spoke from the bench and asked him who that was, as I sat next to my public defender in shackles and cuffs whispering Cooper, Ray Cooper. My name didn't matter anymore, at that point. I was sentenced a month later, credited with the time I'd already served, but bound over to serve more, my priors held against me. I stood for the maximum fall, eighty-four months.
The parole board consistently denied me parole and after three hearings, I wouldn't be considered again, since I was termed "close to maximum release date." The board put in the special transfer order that sent me to The Farm to serve out my time, to free my cell in the fiercely overcrowded system.
The trooper, who remained on the force, took an active role in keeping me locked up, attending all of my parole hearings, relating the story of the guns and the pain of his divorce and the terrible part I played in it. Every time, after he had his say, he stood up in his full dress grays with medals, adjusted his Sam Browne belt and put his black Smokey-the- Bear trooper hat over his honest crew cut and gave a sharp nod to the old Vermonters who made up the parole board as he marched out of the room, back to his job, back to towns and situations that needed his bright justice, something I had managed to tarnish.
I doubt the old Vermonters even saw a human when they turned back to look at me, and certainly, after the first couple of years, I began to feel less and less like someone who'd once lived down the road from them and got drunk and did something stupid. I felt like what their eyes said I was, someone who needed to be in a tiny concrete room behind high fences and armed guards and locked down but good, for as long as the locks held and longer if possible. It was probably only procedure that I was transferred to The Farm, nothing more. In their hearts, no one on that parole board wanted me one step closer to the door - one step closer to being in a grocery store in their town, one step closer to walking down Main Street.
I answered the questions they asked of me, that I planned to go live with my sister Elizabeth in Essex when I was released, and I produced an old letter from her, giving me permission to live at her house and inviting the parole board to call her if they had any questions. She had stopped coming to visit me after three years and I didn't blame her. She still wrote occasionally-wrote when my grandmother died - and I was still planning on living at Elizabeth's house when this was over and that's all I could ask of anybody. My girlfriend at the time of my arrest, Mary, used to come see me. When I first got in and Mary would come on visiting day, I always talked to myself in my cell, to make sure prison hadn't worked its way into my voice. Hello, Mary, I would say, thanks so much for coming. Hello Mary, it's nice to see you. Mary had stopped coming to see me after eight months. For a long time, I kept the last letter from Mary folded in a notebook, explaining why she wasn't going to come visit anymore. Dear Ray, it began, I have some hard things to say and I hope you know how difficult this is. I understood. People have lives. My sister wrote that she'd read in the paper about Mary's wedding, four years after I'd been inside. Good for Mary. Now I was at The Farm and there was an end in sight.
Fall came and the leaves colored and died. The ground froze solid and the first of the snow came. I went to some programs and the library, but with the snow I stopped. I sat up all night watching it fall under the halogen lights that made it seem as if the sun had descended to earth at midnight. I felt no interest in programs anymore, they weren't helping me. My days counted two and a half whether I attended or not and I actually began to think that I might get out and what I would do then.
Two weeks before Christmas, a corrections officer named Walter approached me as I got on the morning chow line. Would I like an outside work detail, he asked. I said okay, since it was probably the only time I'd get out until after Christmas and I wanted to see if I could handle it outside. I went back to my cell after chow and put on my old army field jacket with Riley stitched above the left breast pocket - I always wondered who Riley was and what he'd done, to have his name stitched on the jacket and then to have it find its way to the prison laundry lost- and-found.
I went to the breezeway, the outside door and the guard station. Walter stood there, with a guard named Frankie, and they filled out the paperwork on me, signed me out of the facility, and popped the electronic lock on the door, sending me into the open yard and the early morning snow.
Another inmate, Russ Harper, was already outside, smoking a cigarette. I recognized him from the library and around. He was a programmer, the first one in his seat at AA, kept the best journal in anger management. He wore a green field jacket with an attached hood pulled up against the snow and small patches of West German flags on each shoulder. We started to walk through the snow toward the back field, following a set of tire tracks. Russ offered me a cigarette.
"No thanks," I said. The snow was coming heavier now. The facility got smaller as we walked away, one thin line of smoke coming out of a pipe on the metal roof, the screen of snow coming down in front of the halogen lights.
"Haven't seen you much lately," he said.
"I stopped programming," I said. "Couldn't see the point." We were walking side by side on the tire tracks.
"You got denied?" he asked. It was a fair question.
"Yeah," I hedged. "I got denied and I didn't think programming was helping. I thought it was hurting."
Russ nodded, his red hair poking out from under his hood. "I understand," he said. "To each his own." He had moved off the tire track and was having trouble walking through the crusted snow that was powder underneath. The snow coming down now was wet and sticking. He stepped back on the tire track. "My mother died after I'd been in for two years, so I understand things. My father's dying now." The hood covered his face. "Cancer."
"That's too bad," I said. We walked along next to each other. "What's this work detail about?" I asked.
"Walt didn't tell you?" he said.
"Well, it's no fun," he said. A fast snap from the electric fence made him turn around, but there was nothing to see and the fence returned to its hum.
We stayed directly in the tire tracks to reach the top of a small hill that rose along the back field. Behind it lay was another long, snow covered field and in the rear right corner sat a blue Department of Corrections pickup truck. We started to walk down to it. The truck was parked about fifty yards from the electrified fence. Behind the truck stood another separate, fenced-in area. Square, about fifty by fifty. Cables ran out of the back of the truck into the small fenced-in area, where a generator was going. We walked down the hill and the facility disappeared behind us, hidden behind the hill. We stumbled a little in the snow, trying to stay in the tire tracks. For the first time, I felt the cold biting my face. I could see my breath. The hum of the electrified fence was constant. The ground angled slightly to the fence, then there was the guard road, the low fence, then the woods. I realized the area inside the small square fence was the prison cemetery.
Bobby Phillips sat on the open tailgate of the truck. Smoking a joint, he made no move to share it with us. The army field jacket he wore bulged at the arms and around his thick chest. A black ski cap came down around his ears. He laughed as we came up. Bobby was the outside trustee and most of the guards were scared of whatever racket he ran.
"Look what they send me," he said. "An old time programmer and the new boy." He shook his head.
In the back of the truck lay two large black body bags. Bobby motioned at them. "They came down two days ago, but with the snow and all..." He stuck his thumb at the sky. The snow was falling steadily and the clouds showed no break. "Usually, we bring the Turbo Cat back and do it that way, but the one Cat's broken and Town of Windsor got the other for snow removal." A gated section of the chain link fence hung open and two ground warmers, like little jet engines, stood stationed five feet apart from each other, the bare ground turning to mud beneath them. The tops of white wood crosses poked up through the snow crust.
"How do you end up here?" I asked.
Bobby motioned at the graves. "Vermont law, if your people can't or won't pay to have you carted when you die anywhere in the state system, they send you here." He grinned. "And I plant you." He pointed again in the direction of the graves and pulled two shovels out of the back of the truck. He smacked the end of the body bag on the left. "Dig this one first, he's from Saint A, he was a good shit. This other one," he nudged the body bag with the shovel blade, "he's from Saint Jay and fuck him, I heard he was an old rat. We'll bury him at three feet instead of six, so he can feel that ground freeze and thaw for the rest of forever."
"How'd you know he was a rat?" I asked.
Bobby gave me a hard stare. "Was he a friend of yours?"
"I don't know," I said. Russ was already digging the first hole.
Bobby grabbed the body bag and yanked it out of the truck, letting it fall onto the snow. He reached down and pulled the zipper back and I heard the big metal teeth separate. The dead con's eyes were closed and he had a mass of gray hair swirled around his head. Snowflakes landed on his cheek and stayed. Bobby stood there, waiting for me to answer.
"I don't know him," I said.
"Then shut the fuck up and dig," Bobby looked over at Russ digging. I started to dig too. Bobby climbed into the bed of the truck and shoved the other body bag to the ground. He opened the zipper on that one and I could see the dead man's head, his closed eyes. There was a smell. "That's one thing you don't get on the outside, to watch your own grave dug," Bobby said. He walked to the front of the truck, leaving Russ and me digging. The smell of the joint drifted faintly to us. After a while, a pickup truck drove down the guard road and stopped opposite us, between the fences. The three of us stood up straight and then the truck continued on, marking us on the headcount sheet for that shift.
We had just finished putting six feet of dirt back on the first man, along with a white cross, when Bobby came over and pointed at the woods and whispered. "Look."
At the edge of the woods, barely visible through the snow, a tiny herd of deer, including a large buck, moved to the tree line near the low, outside fence.
"I count five," I said softly. The wind was blowing from the woods over to us, so the deer probably didn't smell or hear us.
"Me too," Bobby said. "Five. That's a good size buck." We watched as the deer pawed at the snow and shifted positions. Then the buck took two quick steps and jumped the low fence, landing on the jeep track between the two fences. He stuck his head to the ground and came up chewing, with a nose full of snow.
"Must be grass or apples or something over there," Russ said.
"Wild apples," Bobby said. He pointed at a tree that hung over the two fences. "I think that's an old wild apple tree. The truck breaks the crust on the snow and then the deer can get at them." Two other deer quickly jumped the low fence and began pawing around on the guard road. It was hard to see what they were coming up with. The snow was falling steady and I could barely see through one fence, let alone two and beyond. The chain link is twisted into the shape of empty diamonds and looking through two makes everything take on a dark zigzag pattern that shifts, the shadow of something that was never there.
I waited and my eyes settled directly on the next deer, a doe. She took three steps up to the fence and got into the air. For some reason, though, she didn't get high enough, just landed directly on the wire and stuck there. A terrible noise came out of her mouth.
"Jesus," Russ said. The young deer struggled and became more entangled in the concertina wire. I watched her shake violently, only to have the wire shake back and stick deep, just below the ribs. The other deer took off down the guard road, hopping the fence with white tails showing for a second, gone into the snow and woods. "Bobby, call a C.O.," he directed. There was a radio in the pickup truck.
"I'm not calling anyone." Bobby shook his head quick. He looked at the wire. The deer hissed and made a short, high-pitched scream. "That wire will fuck you up every time," he observed.
Russ put his shovel down. "I've got to take a leak." Slowly, he walked around the ground warmers and out of the fenced cemetery. He walked until he was about ten feet away from the electrified fence, directly in front of the impaled deer.
"Those other deer are gone." Bobby shruged. "Just like people." He spit into the snow.
I couldn't see Russ clearly through the snow and the one fence, but I knew he wasn't taking a leak. From the back, it looked as if he was crying. Bobby picked up on this. He yelled over at Russ.
"Hey program boy! Can't take a deer stuck on the wire, how are you going to settle accounts on the outside?" Russ was crying out loud and now we could hear him. Bobby must have hated that sound. It set him off. "What the fuck makes you think you'll ever get out, you long time bastard? I've seen your sheet, you still got fifteen years to do! I'll be fucking planting you back here! Nobody's going to pay to have your sorry ass buried in Vermont, you worthless fucker!"
Bobby went and sat in the truck. I heard Russ whimpering. The deer was quiet now except for a terrible rasping every time she tried to breathe. Bobby tossed a beer can in the snow. He got out and hefted the ground warmers into the back of the truck. I was digging the second hole. Bobby handed me a white wooden cross that was hand carved. He showed me the bottom, with the word RAT burned into the wood.
"Put that shit on top of him when he's planted," he said. "I'm heading back. Bring your shovel and lover boy and lock the gate when you come." He got into the truck and drove across the field and over the bank. I could still hear Russ. The deer was dead. The rest was just the electronic fence, standing there waiting, with the same low-grade hum. I bent to dig and when I looked up, Russ was gone. I couldn't see his tracks, because the snow was coming down too hard. The deer's head was pointed down at the snow and underneath it, I could just make out a spot of bright red, spreading into the white. The deer's eyes were wide open and all white too, as if the snow was somehow inside it. White was the only color except for the gray of the chain link fence, the shiny razor wire, and the green of my jacket, close to my face. All the rest was snow.
I was determined to give the man his full depth, but I couldn't do it. At about three feet, I ran smack into several large rocks, none of which I could move with my shovel. I wasn't going to walk back to the facility and try to get a pry bar that I probably wouldn't be allowed to have anyway. I tried again with the shovel, but I thought the handle might shatter and I stopped. I grabbed the body bag and dragged it over the snow and dropped it in the hole. I covered it with dirt and put the cross on top. Then I locked the cemetery gate, put the shovel over my shoulder and walked back to the facility. The snow was coming down so hard that when I looked back over the field I couldn't make out the individual graves, or my own tracks coming out.
I checked back in and Phil, the guard on duty said, "Where's Harper?" "I don't know," I said.
"Did he walk away from work detail?"
"When I looked up, Inmate Harper was gone," I said. I told Phil about the deer, but I don't think he listened. Later I heard that Russ Harper had been given a disciplinary hearing and six months was taken off his good time, for walking away from the outside work detail. I never heard anything else about it, whether cancer took his father, or not. I'm sure that after walking away from work detail, they wouldn't let him attend the funeral, not even in shackles.
I watched out my cell window, the spring and its mud season and the rain. I tried to stay away from the other prisoners as much as possible. I heard the occasional scuffle at night. Noises that came and went in the dark. I'd been hearing them ever since I came in, eighty-four months earlier. My days were counting, all at two and a half, moving faster. Soon I'd be done.
Late on a Thursday afternoon, I was called to the main administrative offices by a sergeant. He took me in to see the chief officer, Rogers. We just got your paperwork, and your max release date comes up on Sunday, he said. Since we don't release anyone on the weekend that moves your release up to eight a.m., tomorrow morning. We'll have an officer from the field supervision unit in White River Junction give you a ride to the station in White River. So be ready to go in the morning.
And that was it. I was terrified and didn't come out of my cell for the rest of the day. I didn't even try to place a call to my sister. I didn't want anyone to know. I didn't want to be stabbed. Late that night, pacing, three steps then turn, three steps, turn, I noticed the letters FTW scratched into a concrete block near the cement floor. The marks looked old, probably from some con years ago who was in for good. Fuck the world. The guards came and got me at seven the next morning and I was awake, hadn't slept all night. I was standing there, had my property inventoried and stuffed it all in a gym bag that had been with me for the whole bid. The guards took me up to the fence and walked me to the main guardhouse at the front entrance and told me to wait there. An unmarked four-door jeep pulled up and the gate snapped its electronic lock. I stepped out and went to sit in the front seat. Get in the back, the officer said, state regulations. I sat in the back with my gym bag. We started on the road to White River Junction.
"You probably won't make it," he said, "most of them don't. Just don't come back here again, because we'll hit you with the max all over. Don't go stealing any guns, you freak. Keep your hands off stuff that isn't yours. And he's still on the force, so remember it's a small state. Personally, if I was you, I'd move. Florida, lots of construction work down there since the hurricane and plenty of sunshine. You can still work, can't you? Nothing happened to you, right? Nothing happened to you on the inside that will keep you from working, did it? Frankly, I don't know if people up here will even give you a job. So think about it, it might be a trip worth taking. Don't harass anyone at the station, I'm telling the Amtrak employees who you are and what you were in for, so no funny stuff. Just go up to Essex. Don't bother any of these people."
By the time we got to White River Junction, the sky was dark. It was just beginning to rain as I walked up the concrete steps to the Amtrak station.
I stood there in the waiting room with my DOC issued rail ticket. For the first time in my life, I knew that all the people around me knew I'd been to prison and that I'd never have that stench off me. I remembered the deer and how she maimed herself by struggling. I stood still. I became part of the wall. I didn't move or blink or breathe. Nothing. All I heard was the thumping of my own blood, running everywhere at once. Sweat started off my forehead. When the train came, I forced myself to walk across the concrete platform and find a seat alone. I was soaked, with rain dripping off me. I kept touching my gym bag, as if it held something important. It was soaked, too. I opened the zipper a little. My clothes and papers were as wet as I was. I thought about the man I'd buried shallow. For a minute, I was him, his dead face wet from the rain seeping through the canvas body bag. When I looked up, the rain was coming down even harder.
On the train the conductor came by in a uniform and asked for my ticket and I already had it out. He said "Where are you going?" and I tried to say Essex Junction, but my voice cracked badly on the first syllable and it just came out like a high-pitched squeak. He laughed at me. Essex Junction, he said, I think you meant to say Essex Junction. Work on your voice there, mister, and he went down the line, taking tickets and talking.
I put my hand over my mouth, like I was resting it there, thoughtful, and started to try to take the prison out of my voice, right there on the train. Softly I spoke into my hand. Hello, I said, it's nice to see you. I couldn't bear the thought of my voice cracking in my first words to my sister and I cleared my throat and continued softly under my hand. Hello, I said, it's wonderful to see you.