Last spring, I approached Nickolas Butler, internationally bestselling author of the novels Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men, and Godspeed, to be the judge for this year’s Insider Prize, American Short Fiction’s annual literary award for incarcerated writers in Texas. He’d worked with incarcerated writers in the past, championing their work. His own writing explores the marginalized and forgotten corners of American life. He jumped at the opportunity and provides illuminating commentary on the winning stories below.
Deb Olin Unferth, Maurice Chammah, and Emily Chammah first opened submissions for the Insider Prize in 2017. In doing so, they began a boldly empathetic project: stories and essays written from the inside, read by and responded to by editors and friends of American Short Fiction, evaluated by a judge of high literary achievement, and awarded on the basis of their literary merits. Since then, we’ve received hundreds of submissions, each one startling in breadth and depth of imagination. Each one the product of a singular perspective. Of a living, breathing human being.
The winners for this year’s prize were announced at a public event on September 21 held at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, in partnership with HT’s English Department and Institute for Justice and Equity. I thank them for their partnership and support. This new collaboration is a bright spot for this project during a perennially challenging time for incarcerated people living in Texas.
Provided are three very different stories about trapped men. A man trapped by poverty and mental health struggles, another by grief and addiction, the last in prison itself. However, each finds hope in his circumstances and each undergoes a deep change by the story’s end. I felt myself changing while reading these stories, catching the glimmers of hope in every human life. Any great story will do this. I hope you will sense some transformation too.
–Adam Soto, Insider Prize Director
First Place: Michael John Wiese, “Dying for a Chance to Live”
From its very first sentence, I should start by telling you I’m not suicidal, “Dying for a Chance to Live” snagged me. The voice in this story is compelling and hilarious and tragic. Reading this story is a bit like a comedy wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a love-story. I kept turning pages because I was invested in the quirky narrator and I did not want to believe that his fate was sealed before the story even began; I wanted to believe in redemption and self-determination and even, in good old-fashioned character development. Wiese delivers on all fronts. As a stand-alone short story, this tale works and works well. But honestly? I hope Wiese turns this into a much longer project—a novel. And that is the beauty of a contest like this. Hopefully winning this competition is the sort of assurance a writer needs to keep going, to keep getting better, to keep reading, and not to quit on their craft.
By Michael John Wiese
I should start by telling you I’m not suicidal. So, don’t go Googling phone numbers and prevention lines even if there was one time when I technically killed myself. Calm down, I wasn’t dead for long, three minutes tops, and there weren’t any lights or voices, or any other formulaic things you may be thinking. It was just blank, like a page that has yet to be written on, a pile of dead pulp waiting to come alive. I have to admit, when everything came crashing back I was a little lonely for the blankness.
Now it’s Tuesday. I’m walking out of my one-room apartment, heading to my dead-end job, when my landlord stops me and asks about the rent. I want to tell him I’ll be dead in a month and I don’t really care about his rent, but I’d rather not spend the last thirty days of my life sleeping behind a McDonald’s dumpster, and so I ply him with a smile. “I’ll do my best,” I say.
As I walk to the bike rack I do the mental math: I am twenty-three years, three hundred and thirty-five days old, exactly, as of 2:15 this afternoon. That means, I know—like my landlord, my perpetually angry ex-girlfriend, and my formidably stoic father do not—I will die sometime in the next few weeks, but most definitely before my twenty-fourth birthday.
I’ve known this for as long as I can remember, but distinctly recall being a five-year-old and knowing I would die when I was twenty-three. I knew then, like I know now, that this is a truth beyond any question; I trust it more than gravity or E=mc2, and way more than my Aunt Charlotte’s amens and hallelujahs in Sunday church.
I’ve never told anyone about my impending doom—it just seems silly to state it out loud. It’s not like I’m a saint or anything, like I’m trying to spare their feelings, but what would be the point? What could they do about it? It’s the pivotal fact of my life: I’ll die when I’m twenty- three, and I won’t be twenty-three very much longer, and so it will happen soon.
As I ride to work I hear the voice in my head doing the math over and over again. I know what you’re thinking, “Great, now he’s schizophrenic,” but I’m not. I have it on pretty good authority, including six psychiatrists, two psychologists, and three mental hospitals, I am in fact bipolar and not schizophrenic.
Unfortunately, I feel like my bipolar and seasonal affective disorder have been dry humping these past few months and given birth to a tiny homunculus in my head that does math. I hate that guy.
If I’m hard pressed, I’d admit all this voice stuff might have something to do with me stopping my medication, but who wants to live the final weeks of their life doped up on psych- meds? Not me, I mean have you ever taken those pills? They suck. It’s like a self-inflicted Munchausen Syndrome, the “sickness is the cure” type thing. It’s like walking around in molasses all day. Everything is thick and blurry, my mind becomes sticky, my synapses firing off at half-speed. The meds might take away some of the bad, but they take a lot of the good too.
I’m not going out like that, although I am going out. The rest of the bike ride to work I’m thinking about how it will happen. God, I hope it’s not the grease pit at work. That would be the crap crown on a mature life. If this world has taught me anything, I know my passing won’t be drifting off into a peaceful sleep to never awake.
I wish that death for everyone, except the little homunculus in my head. I hope he dies screaming, fuck that guy. A peaceful death is unlikely though, being French-fried is much more probable. The thought almost makes me crash into a parked van. Death may be fickle, but it isn’t without irony, and I love French fries.
Damn it, why do they have to be so good?
As I walk into work, the manager is already screaming at me. I tell him I need freezer duty and his mouth pops open and closed a couple of times before he catches his breath and screams, “What in the hell is freezer duty?!”
I argue-scream my way to a spot at the grill, which is still only spitting distance from the grease pit, but at least I won’t spend the next eight hours staring down into the fiery hot liquid vat of my demise.
If I’m honest with you, it was the French fry that did it. The restaurant has a policy about eating the food without permission, i.e. without paying for it, and I had snuck a couple golden sticks of deliciousness in the break room.
First, the boss walked in, like he personally counted the fries and knew three were missing. Secondly, he started yelling, which wasn’t abnormal and didn’t matter much, but then he wanted the last uneaten French fry back.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched your own personal “end of days” flying at you on the tip of an ultrasonic missile, what that can do to you, but I’ll tell you this: that man wasn’t getting that fucking French fry without military aid.
The next thing I know, everything is fuzzy. My head, yes, but also my eyes. As they split open, I know I’m in mental hospital number four.
Getting hit with a shot of Thorazine is like chugging an entire bottle of Jack Daniels and having someone smash the empty bottle over your head. Waking up from a shot of Thorazine is more than a little confusing. My vision is cloudy, like I spent a week in a heavily chlorinated pool without any goggles on. I groan when I realize I’m strapped down; I hate being strapped down.
It’s twenty minutes before the nurse comes in and I’m seconds away from pissing myself. I tell her, “I gotta go,” but it’s slurred.
“No, honey, you’re not going anywhere,” she says.
I hate how they call you “honey” or “baby” or “shuggums” (what the hell is shuggums?).
“B-bathroom, I gotta go bathroom,” I slur out.
“Oh, I see. Well, you just go right ahead. I put a diaper on you when we changed you into your uniform,” she says.
Great, so Nurse Ratchet has seen my danglies, pretty embarrassing with mental hospitals as cold as they are. “Bedpan?” I ask hopefully. The nurse rolls her eyes, but she moves toward the bathroom. Either they sent me to a private hospital or she’s abnormally kind, a newbie. Kind or not, I don’t mistake the look on her face as she walks to the bed and says, “Do not piss on me or you’ll have cherry red diaper rash by the time you’re off that bed.”
Humiliation seeped in humiliation, the doctor walks in as I’m trying to coax my shy bladder into a steady stream. He glances at the plastic urinal the nurse is holding and then at my face.
“So, you’re bipolar,” he says, but the tone at the end makes it sound like a question. The two-inch-thick file in his hand about me makes it clear there is no question about me being bipolar and my tongue is fighting my teeth trying to say all 1,467 smart-ass comments that have popped into my mind.
Being a smart-ass in a county hospital is a good way to get a month of Thorazine Shuffle and as I’ve explained I only have a few weeks to live, so I play nice, “Yeah, bipolar.”
“How long have you been off your meds?” he says, and even though he expects an answer, I know it is more of a statement than anything. I know my mom has already gone to my apartment and counted my pills, but again, I’m playing nice, “Like, fifteen days?”
The nurse gives me an eye-roll and head shake like she understands shit about it, and she finally pulls the cold plastic away from me. I note she puts the diaper back on. I’m not to be trusted with big boy underpants yet. The doctor cuts into my thoughts, “Why did you stop?”
This actually sounds like the question it is and this confuses me for a second because I’m trying to decide if he wants an actual answer or if we walked into Rhetorical Land while I was bracing myself for the rough feeling of my soft places being raked across a hard-plastic urinal.
What I cannot tell him is I stopped my meds because I’m going to die. While I’m trying to figure out what to say, the doctor says, “Don’t tell me it makes you fuzzy, that’s no excuse.”
The heat in my face rises rapidly. He took my answer, that smug bastard, now what am I going to say? Before I lose another answer to him, I blurt out, “I felt fine, I didn’t need them for a while.” For a second, I see the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes soften, but they return just as quickly.
“There is a member of the Golden Arches team that would strongly disagree with you. I think the police report states you were going to French fry his ‘mullet-wearing ass’ in the fry pit.”
I don’t remember saying this, but it sounds suspiciously like something I’d say. Damn it. A police report means this is a fourteen-day trip at the least. If I cooperate, I’ll be out of the bed in two days and the mental ward in fourteen. Maybe in enough time for me to die free.
Unfortunately, “being nice” includes taking that awful medicine, but I will get to go to group therapy. I’d never speak the blasphemy out loud, but I actually enjoy that sort of treatment. I’m a talker, and since they prefer the Schizos to talk as little as possible and the Depressives are usually a drag on everyone—a doctor’s words, not mine—I was usually center stage at group therapy. Little do I know that this will be my downfall.
It isn’t entirely my fault. By the third session, I am somewhat smitten with this Goth girl sitting directly across from me in the circle. She has eyes the color of a navy sweater my mom used to wear. They are set in a milk-white face, which is framed with straight black hair, in a bob cut. She is the perfect amount of sad and angry and sarcastic. Her name is Allison but told the group to call her Kat, “with a K.” I almost choke on my own tongue. Ally Kat, really? We lock eyes and she knows I’m the only one who got it. Her smile makes me want to not die.
After the discussions, during which I waxed poetic about peanut-induced anaphylactic shock in elephants, Kat finds me at the juice table. “I saw you in the pill line. You’re cheeking your meds,” she says. I know she’s not a snitch and so I don’t deny it. “You watching me or should I add paranoid to my symptoms list?”
“Don’t worry, I do it too. What’s in your chart?” Kat asks.
I’m momentarily taken back, it’s a shockingly personal question in a psych-ward, but she’s really cute and so I say, “bipolar extraordinaire, at your service,” as I tip an invisible hat in her direction, hoping she’s not a hallucinator.
“I’m un-polar, just got the depression side. Fuck, I wish for manic sometimes.”
“I don’t mind the manic mostly, but sometimes it’s blacked out angry manic and I wake up in trouble,” I say.
Kat pulls up the sleeve of her black Hello Kitty hoodie and I see the crisscrossed white scars. “I’m cute without the ‘e’.” I’m watching her lips as she talks, thinking she’s cute with the ‘e’ too, and that’s why I say it, the thing I’ve never said, “I’m going to die.”
Kat snort-laughs and says, “We’re all going to die.”
I lean in closer and I can smell Hawaiian Punch on her breath, which makes me tingle and I say, “I mean I’m going to die soon, like before October 15th, to be exact.”
Her deep blue eyes fix on me and with no shock or judgment she asks, “Suicide?” I roll my eyes at her, “No, it’s just going to happen.”
“That’s not a bipolar thing,” she says.
“I know, it’s a reality thing.”
“No, I mean, that’s a BPD thing,” she says.
A BPD thing? My whole world starts spinning, she’s heard of this before? What the hell is BPD? As if she reads my mind she says, “Borderline Personality Disorder, they often have a deadline for their death, or the end of the world or whatever.”
I’m silent and I can’t breathe very well. My entire life this fact has been a secret piece of me, a very private piece, and here this girl just rattles it off like some kind of symptom. All I can get out is, “No way.”
Kat laughs, it isn’t a coy-hand-covering-a-pink-mouth kind of laugh, but a full-throated in-your-face-because-you’re-a-dumbass kind of laugh. The confidence of it puts my retorts on pause, the musical notes catch the pieces of my broken world as they tinkle toward the ground, and the very soundwaves take me and save me from snapping.
“But, I’ve been taking bipolar medicine for years.”
“BPD presents like bipolar, but the medicines aren’t the same. Probably been fucking you up for years,” Kat says. The only reason I am not screaming and running around stark raving mad is because I’m halfway in love with this girl. Plus, if they find out I’m still off my meds they will definitely treat me to the Thorazine Shuffle for a few weeks. Suddenly, a few weeks seem like a fraction of time.
Then I’m walking and I slide into a puffy chair and Kat is next to me asking if I’m okay and I’m dizzy. It’s crashing down on me that I’m going to have to live for an indeterminate amount of time and so, for the first time in my life, I have no idea what my future holds.
I say the only thought running through my mind. “What am I going to do now?”
Kat says, “Fuck if I know.”
Second Place: Jim Kunkel, “This Cold, Dark World”
Your voice-driven story was something of a page-turner for me. There was the sense as I read, that something bad, something awful was going to happen, and I kept reading and reading to better establish who the protagonist was and what exactly had caused his life to come unhinged…One of the wonderful things about writing is that we can take all of our disappointments, pain, and tragedies and make it into art, which most of the world might think isn’t important, but then, you find one reader who internalizes your art and understands your art, and it can feel like friendship, or salvation…There is a darkness to your work made more powerful by the fact that you understand how to modulate that darkness by incorporating love and kindness.
By Jim Kunkel
It all started with a missing shoe. Then a few overturned couch cushions. Characteristics of having a rambunctious dog and a preschooler in residence.
The missing remote? Too many beers last night, probably. I’ll look for it later. Shouldn’t be too hard to find. Hell, the cushions are already halfway to the floor! I’ll find it in a jiffy. No problemo.
My misplaced car keys? Now that was the real mystery. I mean, I’ve hung them damn things up on the same damn hook for how long? Like, ever? Yeah, that long. There’s no way in Hell they up and unhung themselves and found their way out to the car all on their own. Nope. No way.
Probably should go check anyways. Just in case . . .
I’m not sure what prompted me to look for those damn keys in my sock drawer, of all places. Maybe it was ‘cuz the drawer was already open? I dunno. Dunno why it was open either. Hadn’t changed my socks in-“sniff-sniff”-Pheew! Must be six days now. Damn! Gonna hafta ‘member to take care of that.
The Boss gimme two weeks off, onna counta the doc says I’m depressing, and might be experiencing a sudden onset of psychosomatic hallucinogations, or some shit. I dunno. What I do know is, I can’t find my fuckin’ car keys. And I’m almost outta beer. Gonna hafta walk my fat ass down to the corner store, I guess. Hate that place. Goddamn thieves, they want fifteen bucks for a twelver! Fif – teen – bucks! That’s like, a buck a beer! Outrageous, I tell ya. Oh, well. Man’s gotta do whatta man’s gotta do, right?
Should prolly change my socks first. And where’s that fucking shoe?!
Thank God for sandals, huh? Didn’t hafta change my socks after all. Took ’em off though. Cripes, did they stink! Right in the trash went them sumbitches. Good riddance! Gonna hafta ‘member to take the trash out this week. Missed it last time. Forget what day the truck comes anymore. What day is it anyhow? Is today even a weekday? Ah, fuck it. Gotta hunnert bucks wortha beer. I’m ahead a the game.
Oh, shit. I forgot the game was on tonight. Wait. Was that tonight? What day is this? Fuck it. I’ll surf till I find somethin’ interesting. Now where did I put that remote?
Woke up this morning to find the dining room table set for a feast. The fuck? Gonna hafta check with the wife, see if we got company coming.
Found that shoe I was lookin’ for. In the bathtub. Maybe the dog’s tryin’ to tell me he needs a bath. (Maybe he’s tellin’ me I need a bath?) Whatever. Got my fucking shoe, s’all that matters.
Can’t find the little woman nowhere. How’m I posta know if we got company comin’ or not? Christ. Gotta do everything myself around here.
Maybe I should call Jimmy. Jimmy’ll know if we’re havin’ a shindig or not. He’s always up for some shindigging. Maybe he’ll stop and grab a few beers for me. Supplies are running low already.
“Yea , Jimmy? Hey, buddy. It’s me. Yeah, good to hear your voice, too. Listen. You know anything ’bouta shindig happenin’ over here? Huh? What? No. No, I don’t think so. But, you see, the table is set fit for a king and . . . Huh? Naw, I ain’t had that much to drink. Oh, stop it! You sound just like Sheree.
“Huh? Whadja say? I can’t hear ya. You’re breakin’ up. Say. Why don’tcha grab a coupla twelvers and swing by? We ken watch the game and shoot the shit for awhile. Alright?
“Whadya mean, ‘What game?’ The freakin’ Lakers game, ya mope! Huh? When did that . . . A week ago? Shit. Musta dozed off.
“Well, whaddya say you grab some coldies and swing on by anyhow? Oh. Oh, alright. My bad. I didn’t know it was Tuesday. Naw, the doc gimme another two weeks off. Wants me to ‘dry out’ a while before I start therapy. Huh? Yeah, sure. Why not? I mean, insurance is footin’ the bill, right? Exactly! I dunno ’bout that whole dryin’ out part tho. Ain’t all that simple, know what I mean? Heh, heh.
“Okay. Okay, Jimmy. I’ll see ya on Saturday then. Tell Theresa ‘Hi!’ for me. Say, why don’t ya bring her and the kids witcha? That way the girls ken catch up and the kids ken play together, while we watch the game and shoot the shit. Sound good? Alright. Alright, Jimmy. See ya Saturday. Later.”
Woke up to find every freakin’ window in the house wide open. Sheree must be airing the joint out before our company comes. I should take out the trash. Shit’s overflowing. Stinks to high Heaven too!
Sheree’s a good girl. Love a my life, she is. We met right outta college. Married a year later. Time’s was tough back then. Shitty, one-bedroom ‘partment costed like, sixteen hunnert bucks a month! Goddamn slumlords.
We hadda share the only piece-o’-shit car we could afford. But Sheree? Sheree didn’t mind taken the bus most days. Said it gave her peace of mind not having to deal with rush hour traffic and whatnot.
Sheree’s a good girl. Love a my life, she is . . .
When I finally got the promotion down at the plant, we moved into this dump. Pretty nice digs, all things considered. Rumor has it, it was taken apart brick-by-brick, board-by-board, and shipped here from Bangor, Maine. Some author dude used to own it, or some shit. Disappeared in the middle of the night one day. Never heard from again.
Weird shit right there. Wonder who he was? Wonder if I ever read his shit? Meh. Whatever. Better get these windows shut. Gettin’ kinda chilly in here . . .
Whatta freakin’ nightmare! Dreamt old Jimmy came over and told me my wife and kid was dead! The fuck? Said it’s been like, two years now? Damn shame you gotta pop your buddy in the mouth in a dream. Popped ’em good, too. Shut ’em up real quick. The fuck he thinks he is? Nostrildamus? Now I’m havin’ trouble sleepin’ again. Thanks, jerk off.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. So we get hitched, right? ‘Vested inna old jalopy, saved some dough. Bought this place. Then we practiced real hard at makin’ babies. Feel me? Huh? Huh? Yeah, you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout!
Anywho. We come up empty handed. In the baby department, that is. I mean, who lays the salami every night for a year—and twice on Saturdays—and don’t get no results? We do, that’s who. My pride took a hit on that one. Guys down at the plant bustin’ my balls ’bout it. Sheree feelin’ all breft? I think that’s the word. Talkin’ ’bout fraternity specialists and sperm counts and whatnot. The fuck ever. But, I love her. I’m gonna do what I gotta do to fatten my chick up.
Turns out I got me some really healthy swimmers down in the old sack. We’re talkin’ Michael Fuckin’ Phelps Olympians here, right? Problem was, Sheree’s subway system’s a little outta whack. Train keeps jumpin’ the tracks, so the passengers gotta catcha ‘nother ride in order to get where they posta be. Somethin’ like that. I dunno.
We ended up doing some kinda video fertilizationism. Real expensive shit, too. Thank God our insurance was paid up!
And I guess we was real good at it too, ‘cuz the doctor said it took on the very first try, and that was a rarity.
Strong swimmers, just like I tole ya . . .
Nine months, twelve gallons of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, a whole hockey season, and three false alarms later, Elizabeth Michelle arrived. Sheree told me that that little bundle of wrinkly skin was gonna change my whole world.
Oh, the stories I could tell ya ’bout her!
Fuck. Another nightmare. Shit’s gettin’ old, lemme tell ya. Dreamt I found old Fred lyin’ dead in the back yard. Am I eatin’ the wrong shit at night? Maybe s’not agreein’ with my sleep number cycle or somethin’? Shit’s gettin’ old, lemme tell ya . . .
Elizabeth was just four-years-old when we introduced her to a Chicago-Style deep-dish pizza. It was love at first sight. But she was too young to properly articulate such a grown-up name. Instead, she called it “Pizza Cake.” So wise, this four-year-old. She was what my ma always referred to as an “old soul.”
Liz didn’t really understand when her Gramma passed away.
But she knew that she missed her, and missing her made her feel sad. Like I said, my Lizard Butt was a wise one, she was.
After I buried old Fred—and cried my ever-lovin’ eyes out—I placed his water dish over him, like a stainless steel grave marker. Sheree had had his name engraved on it at the mall where she bought it. Like he didn’t know who’s bowl it was. She was silly that way, sometimes. So full of sunshine in those days. Before the world turned dark, and cold…
The birds use the bowl as a bathtub, so I try to make sure to keep water in it. When I remember, that is. I know when it gets dry by the “reminders” I find splattered on my windshield at 6:00 in the morning. I swear, those goddamn birds get up extra early just so’s they can shit on my car!
But it didn’t take me long—ahem! It didn’t take me too long to figure out what they was tryin’ to tell me. Now, when I’m hosing off my windshield, I’ll take the extra 23.7 seconds to aim the nozzle over the fence and shoot some water into the bowl. Maybe give the lilac bush a quick spray while I’m at it.
Twice a month, we’d work together as a family in the yard. We each performed our own self-assigned chores. It was cute; it was fun.
If we were washing the car, I got to scrub the roof, wind shield, trunk, and hood, while Sheree was in charge of the windows and doors. Lizard Butt took care of the rims and bumpers. She couldn’t really reach much past that, without a boost. Big Daddy had the cleanest rims in da ‘hood. Believe dat!
My wife picked up on the anomalies first: the sudden loss of what was once a voracious appetite. (Voracious. That was Sheree’s favorite word to describe our family’s eating habits. Voracious. I love the way it rolls off the tongue. Voracious.)
This, of course, was followed by some dramatic weight loss. Lizzy was already tiny for her age. Hell, who am I kidding? She’d entered this cold, dark world at a whopping six pounds, seven ounces. She was so tiny, they had her clipped, cleaned, and swaddled, and on her way to Sheree’s swollen breast, before Sheree even knew it was over! A real trooper, my Sheree.
When Lizard Breath’s sleeping habits changed, Sheree really began to worry. Not me, though. Nope. What I saw was a six-year-old kid who slept like a champ—just like her old man! I took full credit for this genetic indulgence. I was a Happy Camper. I was a Proud Papa. I was a fucking idiot.
After mowing the lawn, I’d maybe trim a hedge, prune a tree or three, while Sheree weeded the Tiniest Garden In America. No, really. She had a sign made up and everything! She grew tomatoes and jalapenos. That’s it.
Bizzy Beth shared in the work as well, collecting the smaller clippings, picking up the plucked weeds, and would make a neat pile over by the “portable” fire pit. Cheap piece of crap. You couldn’t getta respectable blaze going in one a them things without the sides sloughing off like a cliff’s edge.
Sheree would laugh her ass off every time, spilling pink zinfandel down the front of her blouse while telling me: “Honey, your fires are hotter than a kiln!” Like them damn things ever saw the inside of a kiln. At seventy-five bucks a pop, I was easily spending a grand a year on ’em! But it was worth every penny.
Whenever Elizabeth saw one of the new ones sitting in its place of honor, she’d say: “Daddy, that one looks different,” and the scrunched up look of confused concentration on her pretty little face would make my heart do flip-flops in my chest. Such a beautiful, innocent child. So full of life and wonder.
Life. And wonder. Too bad broken hearts don’t do flip flops…
“I’m okay, Mommy,” she’d say. “I’m just tired. ”
“I’m okay, Daddy,” she’d say. “I’m not very hungry.”
“I’m okay,” she told us. And we believed her.
The initial tests came back negative. (I don’t know what it was they were looking for, I just know they hadn’t found it. Yet.) But Sheree? Nuh uh. She was having none of it. She was a mom, first and foremost—and if you know anything about moms, you know that they just know things.
“You smell like cigarettes,” my mom would casually tell me.
“Umm…” I would mumble. “Jimmy’s Ma smokes in the car, so… you know.” What? It wasn’t a total lie. I mean, his ma did smoke in the car!
“Nope,” she would state matter-of-factly. “Smells like you smoked at least three cigarettes.”
How did she do that?!
We never confessed to Lizzy that we’d replaced the fire pit. Over and over and over again. Did we lie? Perhaps. But only by omission. It was but the tiniest of little white lies. More of a personal joke, really. Or maybe a secret? I don’t know. But what I am sure of, mostly, is that Liz knew. That she knew that fire pits didn’t magically change their colors overnight. (One time, the store was down to a single pit, a dookie-brown one. The last one we had was pale-pink with blue and yellow swirls!)
I think she became even more suspicious when there was absolutely no evidence of a fire ever having been lit inside the new ones. But she never gave voice to these observations. She was very mature in that sense. She let her mommy and daddy have their little secret, and we enjoyed pretending like we’d gotten one over on her.
Yep. We were good at keeping secrets. Until we weren’t.
I sat quietly on the edge of the hospital bed, holding Elizabeth’s one free hand; the other one was holding up her favorite stuffed animal, Nail Bunny, so he wouldn’t fall over while they watched the muted TV hung high on the wall.
“You must have missed something,” Sheree said to the attending pediatrician. “Please, look again,” she begged.
We didn’t know this guy from Adam, therefore, he didn’t know us either. Liz’s primary pediatrician, Doctor Angie, couldn’t make the appointment because her private practice was clogged up with snot-nosed kids—typical, considering it was Corona season—and had recommended this schlub.
“Ma’am,” he began. (Like I said, he didn’t know us from anybody, so he didn’t immediately notice the atmospheric changes taking place as my lovely wife took offense at his seemingly patronizing tone.) “I am a trained professional,” he continued, “and I can assure you-”
Dude never had a chance. When Sheree crossed her arms and raised that one, perfect eyebrow a fraction of an inch, the “trained professional” guzzled an entire can of Shut The Fuck Up, and took a step back.
The nurse, who’d been busy fluffing pillows and picking up Styrofoam cups, let out a gasp and froze, while Lizzy and I concentrated on the commercial that was silently playing, trying our damndest not to hear words a Lady shouldn’t use.
“Oh. Assure me, can you?” she said as roiling, black thunderclouds gathered within the crowded room. “Well then, I suggest that you assure me you’ve already spoken to Dr. Howard from down the hall, and have gotten a second fucking opinion,” she said icily. “Can you assure me, doctor,” she spat, taking a threatening step forward, “that you triple-checked the test results before you came galloping in here on top of your high horse, like a knight in shining loafers?” she finished with a lethal neck snap.
She took a deep breath before completing her tirade with a broken voice. “Do you dare assure me, Mr. Trained Professional, that my daughter—the light of my life—will live to a ripe, old age? Do you?”
The hospital room was so quiet, the commercial on the muted TV seemed excessively loud all of a sudden.
Like any man who’s just had his face ripped off by an overprotective mother bear, the young doctor mumbled, “Very good,” turned on his heels, and quickly left the room.
The nurse, standing with a pillow clutched to her chest in mid-fluff, looked back and forth between my wife and the empty doorway, uncertain what she’d just witnessed; unsure what to do next.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she finally asked, “Can I get anyone something to drink?”
This simple courtesy broke the tension in the room as all three of us answered: “Yeah!”
“Can I have a purple pop?” asked Liz; “Coffee would nice,” Sheree answered distractedly; “Make that two purple pops, please,” I added.
The room remained eerily quiet after the nurse departed.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Three words no parent is prepared to hear. Ever.
If detected early on—and aggressively treated—there is a good chance… yadda, yadda, yadda.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“It’s gonna be okay, Daddy,” Lizard Breath croaked in a dry, raspy voice. This had become her “new” voice, it seemed, ever since her last blood transfusion. The last transfusion.
I wasn’t crying. Yet. My tears normally didn’t spill over until I was alone, in my man cave, having a beer, watching a game, talking to the dog, breathing.
But somehow Lizzy just knew. Knew when I was struggling with my emotions, and she never, ever failed to put in the extra effort to make me feel better.
Tough day on the job? “It’s okay, Daddy. You’re home now.”
Moody from rush hour traffic? “It’s okay, Daddy. You gotta pitcher o’me on the smashboard.”
The smashboard. How cute is that? If she only knew how often I used the dashboard for a punching bag these days. But I’d never allowed her to see me act out in anger. Well, not true anger anyway. It’s one thing to holler at the refs on TV. I mean, c’mon! That was clearly goaltender interference! You mean to tell me there are four zebras on the ice—and nobody saw nothin’? Really? Really?!
“That’s okay, Daddy,” she’d say. “They’ll beat ’em in overtime.” And they would. I often wondered if my little princess was clairvoyant.
Three beers and two goals later, all was forgiven; all was forgotten.
“While you’re sitting there, picking your nose,” my wife would say, “she’s busy picking winning teams.” Truer words were never spoken.
No parent is prepared to bury a child. Six-year-old Elizabeth Michelle Stanley; daughter, granddaughter, Princess; was laid to rest four months after her initial diagnosis. She’d never even gotten the chance to prepare for the battle she was facing. Then again, neither did we…
Sheree Leanne Stanley, née Donaldson; wife, mother, Queen; joined our daughter fifteen short months later, after losing her battle with severe depression. Unmentioned is a misdiagnosed opioid addiction and alcoholism. A potentially lethal combo for any adult. Especially a grieving mother.
Imagine my surprise when, after I woke up and took a leak, I couldn’t flush the toilet; that I couldn’t turn on the water faucet to wash my hands. I was really worried at first, but only because I thought: If I’m still sleeping—and this is all part of my dream—did I really just take a nice, long piss?
Back into the bedroom I went, and was oddly relieved to find myself still in bed; an end of the sheet tangled loosely around one ankle, the other end dangling over the edge. My mouth was agape in a pained grimace, like I was smelling a fart. Huh. Who knew I was such an ugly sleeper?
Then I thought: This is so fucking cool! Like an outta body experience!
I drifted down the hallway—yes, drifted—then floated down the fourteem stairs, coming to a hovering standstill in the kitchen doorway. That’s when a sly idea entered my pipe dream.
Approaching the huge sub-zero refrigerator (in brushed stainless steel, thank you very much!), I attempted to open it. Dummy me. I’d already forgotten about my troubles with bathroom fixtures.
Then another bright idea came to mind. Sticking my head through the door, I was now able to see inside my fridge, without having to mess with it. (In the spirit of full disclosure: This bad mamba jamba was equipped with a touchscreen, which, theoretically, would have allowed me to view the contents of my fridge from the outside. However, as I previously mentioned, I could not physically manipulate any solid implements. Besides, doing it this way was way fucking cooler. Except for the fact that I also couldn’t grab any of the ice-cold beers that were lined up, waiting for me).
Bummed out—but not totally discouraged—I decided a trip into the brisk, early morning air was what I needed.
Through the French doors I went, coming to a rest next to my natural gas grill—which had become my most used appliance as of late—outside of the Sub Z, that is—because a grill didn’t require that you clean it before or after use. Unlike a stove. Or a microwave. Or that goddamn toaster oven Sheree had spent a fortune on that always, always burnt my toast to a crisp!
Taking a deep breath, I realized two things: 1) I breathed in my dreams, and 2) there weren’t any birds or squirrels in the yard. This was strange because there were always birds and squirrels in the yard these days. Especially after poor Fred…
Looking down at the shiny, stainless steel water dish/bird bath reminded me of the good times in life. A life that seemed to fade away right along with Liz’s passing. And Sheree’s. And Fred’s. Life wasn’t worth two shits now. Not without them it wasn’t.
Like many times in the past, I imagined I could hear Fred faintly in the distance, barking in the way he did when he wanted to play fetch: WooWoof! WooWoof! Goofy mutt. God, why did he have to go and die on me too? He was the last friend I had!
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I was hit in the back by something soft. And wet. Something… mushy?
Turning quickly around, I saw, rolling away from me, a grungy yellow Spaulding tennis ball. Actually, only paul g showed, so chewed up was it. I recognized it right away.
But just as quickly as it appeared—it disappeared.
Disappointed, I turned away and became distracted by the sight of the lilac bush I’d neglected for the past… how many years has it been? Too fucking many. Not nearly enough. It was in sad shape; ugly cobwebs (or were those cocoons?) wrapped around the ends of sagging, half-dead branches, slowly choking the life from it, further diminishing its beauty. And it no longer produced that intoxicating fragrance Sheree loved so much. I loved so much. With every passing winter it looked more and more like that pitiful tree in It’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The thought made me laugh. Until I started sobbing uncontrollably. I do that a lot lately. Am I such a fucking mess that I’m now crying in my dreams too? That’s a sobering thought right there. Shit. I need a beer. Bad.
Elizabeth wanted a baby brother, and we were more than happy to work on providing one for her. But due to some sorta “surgical complications” that we were never made aware of during Liz’s birth, Sheree could no longer conceive. No amount of insurance money could ever fix this particular problem—but the malpractice lawsuit we filed did help. A little.
Adoption was our next… No. Adoption was our only option, and we thought long and hard about it before presenting the idea to Bizzy Butt.
“You mean I get to pick my little brother out, like a toy at the store?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.
Sheree and I shared a look. We hadn’t thought about it quite like that but, hell, the kid was right.
“When are we leaving?” was her only other question. Kids. Gotta love ’em.
Unfortunately, life got in the way, and the dreams of expanding our happy little family quickly faded.
Before I could turn around and go inside to wake myself up—in order to start the day off drinking—I was again hit in the back by that imaginary tennis ball. (Of course it was imaginary; this was a dream after all!) Only this time, I bent over and picked it up before it could disappear on me.
Yuck! Goddamn thing really was all wet and mushy! If I was the sort of guy who analyzed his dreams, I’d probably find some archaically insightful meaning behind this. But, nah! It was only a dream. Albeit a realistically graphic one—but a dream nonethefuckingless.
Staring down at the soggy mess in my hand, I again imagined I heard old Fred woofing at me, urging me to throw it:
So I did.
Out of nowhere, a chocolate Lab bolted past me, only to come to a graceless, skidding halt, as the ball bounced off the privacy fence, changing its trajectory without notice. Ha, ha! You’d think that after thirteen years of doing this, Fred would’ve learned by now. Dumb dog.
Undeterred, he quickly changed course, leaping after it and scooping it up in a single bound before it had a chance to roll to a standstill.
“Didja see that, Daddy?” I imagined Elizabeth asking excitedly. “He got it before it stopped. That means he won!” she would say, explaining the nuances of fetch to me for the hundredth time.
“He sure did, Bizzy Beth,” I answered back for the hundredth time as I stared at the wet splotch the ball left on the stained wooden fence. That’s gonna leave a mark, I thought. Another mark! I corrected myself.
While she giggled and tried to coax the ball from him by telling him how good of a boy he was, I plucked a fresh sprig of lilac from the flowering shrub, losing myself in its heavenly fragrance.
“Mmmmm,” I imagined Sheree moaning in ecstasy as she wrapped herself around me from behind. “Smells like it’s gonna be a good year,” she said, giving me a squeeze.
I closed my eyes, forcing the gathering tears to vacate the premises and streak slowly down my cheeks. A familiar feeling if ever there was one.
I clamped my eyes shut tighter and with a shuddering breath said, “I could really use a good year, honey.”
After a moment, she let go of me. Afraid to open my eyes and lose this little slice of Heaven, I just stood there, crying silently.
The feeling. of a hand other than my own wiping the tears from my face prompted me to open my eyes. There in front of me, shimmering through my tears, stood my beautiful wife. A sad smile on her slightly upturned face.
“Hi baby,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”
I grabbed her up in a hug, and with my ragged voice I said into her silky, golden-brown hair, “I’ve missed you, too. Soo much!” Then I really lost it.
She held me tightly as violent sob after violent sob wracked my entire body, ignoring the snot and the tears that drenched her shoulder. My long-lost trooper.
Pulling back a little, she gave me another pained smile and asked, “Feel better?”
I did. But I could only nod in answer, not trusting my voice.
Simultaneous collisions to both my legs nearly buckled me but for Sheree’s firm hold. Glancing down I got a look at old Fred, leaning heavily on my left leg in anticipation of a good ear scratching.
On my other leg was my precious baby girl, squeezing me tightly, expecting to receive the same attention as Fred. It felt just like old times. I was paralyzed.
Jimmy stopped taking my calls about six months ago. Never could figure out why.
I quit drinking about two months later. Right around the time I ran outta beer, I suppose. That was prolly for the best, I think.
The doc declared me disabled and unfit to work. Seems I’d surpassed bein a ”functioning alcoholic” and progressed right on to manic depressive, without even realizing I’d made the transition. Yay me! My reward for this accomplishment? $1,800 a month, and a lifetime supply of vacation days.
Problem was, I could no longer drive; I was too fucked up emotionally. Mentally. Every time I got behind the wheel, I just wanted to…
And without Jimmy around to pick things up for me, drive me places, I was stuck at home. Alone. Sober. And miserable.
That was alright though, because I’d discovered in the medicine cabinet a whole bottle of Sheree’s old “Happy Pills,” sitting on the shelf, collecting dust.
Goddamn! I thought. If this lucky streak continues, I’ll have to start playing the Lottery!
“Sweetie,” Sheree said to Elizabeth. “Why don’t you run inside and get Fred a T-R-E-A-T, while I talk to Daddy.”
Sherree firmly believed that old Fred understood English perfectly but couldn’t spell worth a damn.
“Okay Mommy,” she said with her usual enthusiasm. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere, Daddy!” she ordered.
With the two lovable playmates out of earshot, Sheree again looked up at me, a serious expression now on her face. Uh oh. My heart raced as I realized I was about to fuck up the best dream I’ve had in years. Why? Why did this always happen? Why couldn’t I, for once, just…
“You never threw away my Brisdelle pills,” she stated.
I was confused by her sudden tone, by her overbearing presence, and expected to wake up—alone and miserable—any second now. That’s usually how my dreams ended: Me, alone in my bed of misery, the reek of stale beer, of stale ass permeating the unwashed sheets.
I looked away in shame and was shocked back into reality—or whatever the hell it was called in this bizarre world version of Dreamland—when I felt a sharp sting on my left cheek and heard a loud Crack! explode in my left ear.
Ow! Did she just… Did she just fucking slap me?! What the—
“Look at me, you bastard!” she hissed.
I couldn’t. I was confused. I was ashamed. I was—
Crack! It was my right ear this time. Ow! Who knew she was such a diverse slapper? I mean, I—
“I. Said. Look. At. Me!” she growled.
I was in trouble now. Chancing a look at her, I expected to see All Fires of Hell blazing within her gorgeous green eyes. Instead, what I saw was kindness. And understanding. And… And… And I must’ve been drunk. I mean, she just slapped the shit out of me. Twice! There’s no way what I was seeing could be anything but—
“You stupid, stupid man,” she whispered, her hand on my chest now. (At least it wasn’t coming back for thirds!) “Have you not learned anything?”
I took that rhetorically ’cause if anyone knew how dumb I could be, it was definitely Sheree.
She let out a sigh and gently rested her forehead on my quivering chin. “Why? Why would you—”
But I didn’t let her finish.
“I just thought… you know… maybe… maybe they would work for me,” I stammered. “I thought they’d help me get out of this… this funk. I’ve been so miserable without you. Without Lizzy. Without Fred.” The words poured from my mouth and I was determined to get ’em all out this time before I woke up to the living nightmare my sorry excuse for a life had become.
“Honey, I just wanted to feel better for a change. And I do. Now,” I admitted. “This is the best I have felt in like, forever. You know?”
Smiling, Sheree shook her head but whispered, “Yes. Yes, I do know.”
Music to my ears.
Taking my hand, she led me away from the lilac bush.
“We should go in and make sure Elizabeth didn’t feed Fred the entire box of Snausages,” she said, adding, “I swear, she spoils that dog more than you spoil her.”
This wasn’t true. But I would never admit that.
“There aren’t any Snausages,” I said, feeling guilty while sadness crept up on me. “I haven’t bought any of those since—”
“Dear,” she interrupted my gloomy confession. “How many of those did you eat?”
Confused, I thought she meant doggy treats. “What?!” I said, insulted. Just how bad did she think my life had become that I was subsisting on dog food? “Jesus Christ, Sheree,” I began, only to be interrupted, again—this time by a frowning Little Bit who stood in the doorway holding an empty box of doggy treats.
“You shouldn’t say that, Daddy,” she admonished. “Oh, and we’re all out of T-R-E-A-T-S,” she added with a sideways look at Fred, who sat there licking his chops, waiting patiently for the next handful of treats to hit the floor.
Sheree laughed the laugh that made me fall in love with her, over and over again, before telling Elizabeth to put some shoes on and grab Fred’s L-E-A-S-H—we were going to take a W-A-L-K down to the corner store and pick up another box of T-R-E-A-T-S.
After Lizzy ran back inside, Fred on her heels, Sheree repeated her question: “So, how many did you take?”
Realizing now what she was referring to, I told her. “All of them.”
“Hm,” she hummed. “You’re smarter than you look. I had to take those damn things for a whole year before I figured out how to make them work.”
I laughed at this. I know I probably shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself. It was such a Sheree thing to say, and I cherished that. I missed that.
“Honey,” I said, “the directions were right there on the bottle.”
Sheree smiled the smile that made me fall in love with her, over and over again, and gave my hand a squeeze before telling me, “Yes. Yes, they were. Who knew?”
Third Place: David W. Jones, “That’s the Point!”
The character development of Dirty/Cy and our narrator are so thoughtful given such a small narrative space, and your compression of their lives leaves us with their density, complexity, and depth. The narrator exhibits a sort of grace, forgiving the relentless passage of time—marking it with humor through “breaking news” as well as candor as the narrator descends into depression and drug abuse—highlighting how the most arbitrary and unfair events in life come with some of the profoundest lessons we can learn.
–Insider Prize Editors
By David W. Jones
“I’ve been in prison for twenty years and I got all my teeth,” a man yelled from behind his locked cell door.
With my eyes, I asked Dirty—who was across the dayroom—what that even meant. I had only been here for a couple of years and had not heard that phrase before. I had, however, quickly learned that sometimes it’s safer to talk with your eyes.
Dirty was a recent acquaintance of mine (I had always been told that in prison you do not look for friends). He made his way over to the table where I was sitting and told me, “That is a statement of survival, Youngster.” He’d been calling me that since the day we first met. “He’s still got plenty of time to lose those teeth, though,” he added, glancing up at the cell door.
On this unit, the dayroom was surrounded by three tiers of cells. The guys who’d launched into this most recent tirade from behind their locked cell doors were called “Cell Warriors.” They were always mad about something and vented in this way, momentarily safe from bodily harm. Only problem was that those cell doors would have to open eventually. How else would we get dayroom time, go to chow, or even recreation?
Dirty did not earn his nickname due to hygienic issues. He had told me soon after we met that it was due to how he conducted his business. “We’re in prison, after all, where cheating and fraud are the norm. But people have actually gotten mad, Youngster, when they realized that I cheated them.” He chuckled. “I used to smile and say, ‘What part of “Dirty” don’t you get?’”
I asked him how many fights this had caused and he said plenty. Looking at him then, I decided I would not want to meet him in a dark alley, or a prison dayroom for that matter. He was big, Black, and muscular. “I love a fight,” he’d said with that cocky confident smile.
“But people change,” he went on. “It’s just that trying to get others to stop calling you by a name that they always called you is impossible in here.” Then he looked at me real serious and said, “And change is the point, right? Youngster, you don’t want to get out of prison the same as you came in. I no longer defraud people but I don’t have to prove it to them. I am satisfied with myself that I don’t do it anymore.”
Sitting with him again, ignoring the ranting Cell Warrior, Dirty decided to share some more “convict wisdom” with me. Taking ten squares from my roll of toilet paper and, using some water from my water bottle (two necessary items when we are stuck in the dayroom), he formed each square into something that resembled a die. When he was done, he held in his hand ten paper dice.
“Um, excuse me, but what are you doing?” I interrupted him.
“What do these look like to you?” he asked me.
“Well, you know how long it takes before the CO comes over here to open the cell doors, right?” Not waiting for a reply, because we all know that COs are never on time, he said, “By that time these will be dry and hardened. And they resemble teeth, too, right?” Again, rhetorical. “Well, when that Cell Warrior comes out and the CO leaves, I’m going to slap the hell out of him, then throw these ‘teeth’ on the floor and tell him, ‘If you don’t want to take your teeth home in a baggie then stop all that yelling from your cell, it’s disrespectful,’”
“But won’t that start a fight?”
“Look, Youngster, people like him who yell behind locked doors are cowards. He ain’t gonna fight. Then again, you never know, people change. I just don’t think that he has got the point yet.”
Even though I was told not to look for friends in prison, I found a friend in Dirty. And he taught me a lot more over the years. We considered ourselves lucky. The state of Texas has over a hundred prisons and the administrators can transfer an inmate at any given time, separating “friends” forever.
You may think this wouldn’t have mattered amongst a bunch of hardened criminals but you’d be surprised at just how human we cons are despite some of the more heinous decisions that got us in here.
Eventually, I began calling Dirty by his true name, Cy. He was what the prison system called LWOP, life-without-parole (pronounced el-whop). He had already served twenty-four years of his sentence by the time I met him. But he had told me that he didn’t keep count because, “What’s the point?”
I was twenty-four then. Now I am fifty-three, and no, Cy did not eventually start calling me “Oldster.” I go by DJ. David Koresh was on the news when we first met. Looking back, it seems that I could give you our whole life story as they coincided with all the breaking news over the last thirty years.
We were on a healthy workout routine by the time of the Oklahoma bombing. We were the stars of the prison basketball team when CNN broadcasted the OJ trial. We mourned the tragic deaths of Princess Di and those thirteen kids at Columbine.
We laughed at Monica Lewinsky jokes and had been demoted to medium custody by the time the Clinton impeachment trial began. Those were our drug years. We were so glad when “Dubya” was elected as president. Not because we liked him. We were just glad he was no longer the governor of Texas.
On medium custody we became more than friends. Yeah, in prison it happens. Prison is a lonely place and it helps to do your time with someone rather than alone.
More mourning when 9/11 happened (Get them freedom haters, Dubya!). Then time seemed to go by in a blur. Day after day, doing the same thing over and over, the days all just ran together. I lived in a fantasy world because, let’s face it, reality sucked.
When I wasn’t high, I escaped through books, fantasies, and sex. The prison system does nothing to challenge or motivate us to think, change, or understand why we do the things we do. Cy told me that it was like the prison system had adopted the same sentiment as the Founding Fathers.
“They put it into the Declaration of Independence that ALL men are created equal but that didn’t mean they treated ALL men equal.”
I agreed but didn’t understand what that had to do with twenty-first century prisons.
“The prison officials tell the public that they are in here ‘promoting positive change in offender behavior’ while at the same doing nothing to promote positive change.”
“And change is the point, right?”
Cy told me that if I wanted to change that I’d have to do it myself. I told him that I’d rather just keep getting high and fantasizing.
In 2011 Cy’s mom passed away. We stopped having sex. But I was there for him. The next year, my mom passed away. I wanted to get high. Cy stopped me. “Grieve, DJ, grieve,” he said. “Grief and pain is a part of the love that you have for her. Don’t malign it with a high.” He was there for me.
It hurt though. How could I have met a person like Cy in a place like prison? I wondered. We are supposed to be criminals, even monsters. But Cy grieved with me and kept encouraging me to change.
But that’s the point, right?
In 2015 Cy was killed. He tried to stop a fight and got a shank in his neck for his efforts. I held him as he bled out. I talked to him with my eyes. I conveyed my love.
What kind of place is a prison that a man like Cy could just be killed like that? After changing.
Was that the point?
As time kept slipping into the monotonous assimilation of mass incarceration, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The pointlessness of it all.
I was alone when they caught Osama. (Are we still at war?) Alone during the Trump years. (What do we call those?) Alone through both of his impeachments.
Just thinking about change.
Then COVID hit and everything changed.
Cy’s words came back to me. “Change, that’s the point, right?” And I set out to do just that.
By the time we were abidin’ Biden (are we still at war?), I was spending most of my time alone in my cell due to quarantine. I finally changed. I stopped disappearing into drugs, sex, and fantasies. I began “Living in Reality” because “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Prison.”
I wrote a book about it. About my change and what Texas prisons need to do to ensure that others in here can change too.
Before I forget, one last thing: I’ve been in prison over thirty years and I got all my teeth.
That’s the point, right?
Nickolas Butler is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men, Little Faith, and Godspeed, and the story collection Beneath the Bonfire. Butler is the recipient of multiple literary prizes and commendations and has published articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry in publications such as Ploughshares, Narrative, and The New York Times Book Review, among others. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Iowa Writers Workshop, he now lives with his wife and two children on sixteen acres of land in rural Wisconsin.
Michael John Wiese has published work in The Old Red Kimono, The Willow Review, The Listening Eye, Illuminations, the online poetry journal Ekphrastic Review, The University of Iowa’s WritingUniversity.org, Haight-Ashbury Literary Review, and the anthology Hear Us. He won the 2021 Willow Review Award in Nonfiction for his short memoir piece “The Inside Kind of Storm,” the 2021 Arizona Poetry Center’s Nonfiction award for “The Necessity of Community,” and the American Short Fiction 2022 Insider Prize for “The Execution.” He is also a prisoner. You can read more of his writing at www.michaeljohnwiese.com
Originally from Markham, Illinois, Jim Kunkel now resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is hard at work attempting to complete his first novel—something within the Urban Fantasy genre, or so he believes…
David W. Jones, Texas prisoner and author of Living in Reality, is a strong proponent of change, especially concerning prison reform but believes that it starts with the self.
Adam Soto is the author of This Weightless World, longlisted for Best Debut Novel 2021 by Locus Magazine, and Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep: Ghost Stories (Astra House 2021/ 2022). A former Michener-Copernicus Foundation Fellow, he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives with his wife in Austin, TX, where he is a senior editor at American Short Fiction.
About HT’s Institute for Justice and Equity
Huston-Tillotson University’s Institute for Justice and Equity (IJE) is dedicated to advancing and applying justice and equity knowledge. IJE aims to infuse equity principles and practices into what we do at HT—teaching, learning, research, administration, service, and community engagement.
About Huston-Tillotson University
Huston–Tillotson University is a private historically black university in Austin, Texas. Established in 1875, Huston–Tillotson University was the first institution of higher learning in Austin.