A few weeks ago, we typed the name “Eva Shelton” into the website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, looking for an address so that we could send her some exciting news: she’d won The Insider Prize for fiction. Sponsored by American Short Fiction and now in its fourth year, the prize highlights work by incarcerated writers in Texas, whether they live in state or federal prisons, local jails, or immigration detention centers. This time around the guest judge was Mitchell S. Jackson—who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his own writing—and he selected Shelton’s short story, “Bottles of Grief,” calling it “structurally inventive,” with a “keen and captivating first-person narrator.”
But when we searched for Shelton on the Texas prison system’s website, her name produced no results; it was as if she’d vanished. It turned out she had some exciting news of her own. She was released on parole earlier this year.
Shelton’s story takes us into a grief counseling group session, slowly turning the camera to each participant. Jackson describes it as “a powerful story about the ways in which people suffer and how that suffering can create a community, but can also anaesthetize us to the suffering of others.” He added, “It’s a testament to Shelton’s superb talent that I was right there in the meeting with those wounded humans feeling with a naked heart.” Shelton is the first woman to receive the prize.
In the memoir category, Jackson chose “The Myth of Me” by Keith Sanders, praising “his command of language, his gifts with symbolism, metaphor, allusion.”
“Whoa—I felt like I was reading the work of a brilliant philosopher,” Jackson wrote. “Keith Sanders’s reflection on atheism and religion and family and how the confluence of all three can shape one’s destiny was like bolts of light through my heart and head… I will be thinking about this indelible nonfiction for a long, long time.” Sanders won the prize for fiction in 2017, with a story selected by Lydia Davis.
We hope you enjoy reading the winners of this year’s Insider Prize.
–Maurice Chammah and Emily Chammah, assistant editors at American Short Fiction and co-directors of the Insider Prize.
“Bottles of Grief”
by Eva Shelton
I went to a grief counseling class today. Kind of an anonymous thing where no one’s really anonymous, especially not in a town this size. I listened to Ol’ Man Farmer talk about losing his daughter to cancer. “I lost her bit by bit,” he said. I pictured her waking up one morning missing a finger, the next day her hand, the next a foot. I imagined the turbid feeling of not knowing where the bits of you were going. The person to his left patted Ol’ Man Farmer’s knee, the woman to his right squeezed and rubbed his shoulder. They both nodded along to the story. I don’t know if they’d heard the tale before or if they simply sympathized with his sorrow.
Then came Jane Wilkins who lost a son in the war and a son to the needle. People in town would whisper how one was a hero and the other was a piece of shit. I’m not sure which they thought was which. I remember them both from high school. Thomas joined the Army to escape a prison sentence. Peter started using when his best friend was killed by a drunk driver. They say Peter did intermittent CPR on him for forty-five minutes while they waited on an ambulance to arrive. CPR on the drunk driver that is. Holding his hand and telling him to hold on. It was too late for the friend. I guess to Jane they were both heroes.
Marcus Murray sat with his eyes focused elsewhere, staring out at some horizon I couldn’t even imagine. His dad killed his mom and then turned the gun on himself. Marcus came home to find them sitting on the couch together. Everyone expected Marcus to wind up like Peter, but Marcus was made of different stuff, or was used to different stuff. Maybe it was a relief really. We’d all seen the black eyes, the casts, and we’d all looked away. What could life have been like for Marcus in that house? Always biding his time, trying to mollify his dad, trying to save his mom. “Poor Marcus,” people now said. Maybe we should’ve said it sooner and saved Marcus from becoming “Poor Marcus.”
I watched Sara’s hands as they knotted and twisted and wrung the battered handkerchief she held. She lost John to a heart attack a little over two months ago. Thirty-six years of marriage over in a missed heartbeat. Her life was a predictable pattern of comfort, now she stood on shaky ground, voice vibrating from the aftershocks of the earthquake which demolished her world. Little drops of rainbow fell from her eyes as the light caught the river of tears. She could’ve filled up an ocean by now. Morning coffee by herself, lunch all alone, dinner across from an empty seat. Wouldn’t be long I suppose before she crawled into her cold, lonely bed and her own heart gave out since there was nothing left to beat for. Nothing to beat along with. Some people aren’t meant to be solo artists.
Nancy Burke was here. I kind of resented her presence. Her sister lay in a coma over at St. Anthony’s. It’s not like Nancy’s sister was gone or missing. She was right there. Touchable, kissable. You could talk to her if you wanted to. We ought to hold group in the sister’s hospital room one day. You can see others clinch when Nancy says “When my sister wakes up…” Nancy can still dream, she can still apologize for whatever she needs to apologize for, she can still say I love you and hope one day the words are said back. I want to scream at her, “Don’t come back until you pull the plug, Nancy!”, but it’s not my place. Not my life. Who am I to measure Nancy’s grief against my own? The sign doesn’t say “Come in if someone has died.” No, the motto is “Come in if you’re hurting.” I’m sure Nancy is hurting. She’s definitely hurting me.
I imagine she’s hurting Michael and Gloria Sanchez. I see Gloria take Michael’s hand and squeeze. I’m not sure who’s calming whom. Four miscarriages. The last was the last chance. Twenty-six weeks, the longest one so far. Another chance to hope. Then the bleeding wouldn’t stop, not even after the baby slid lifeless and colorless into this world and never got the chance to suffer grief of its own. They took Gloria’s hope right after they took out the baby. No more chances, Gloria. Michael piled everything on the lawn and set it on fire. When the sirens came to the scene the firemen stood back and controlled the burn, but they let the fire burn everything to ash as Michael wailed and screamed. The grass never grew back so I guess that too is a painful reminder. A barren spot, a barren woman, two things incapable of growing the one thing everyone else seems capable of.
Mr. Nasir speaks in a shaky voice. He must stand on the same earthquake-riddled ground Sara stands on, those aftershocks making it too difficult to form a coherent sentence. Mr. Nasir works at the hospital. Oh, the people he has lost. If we were to keep a tally I imagine his little sticks would form a whole army. He works so hard to save them, he tries to keep people from having to come to this group. His whole family wiped out in a foreign country over an uprising in political powers. He doesn’t even know what happened to their bodies. Like Nancy, we at least know where the bodies are. Without a body you wonder what’s happened. Where are they? Are they really gone? Is that them over there? “Hey! Hey!” But it’s not, you notice as they turn to your taps on their shoulder and there’s something wrong. The shape of the eyes, the slope of the nose, everything else is just right, but there’s that one thing mocking you. Death and life both laughing at you. You know peace will not come until you finally lay down and don’t get back up.
Then there’s me. My first night and probably my last night because I don’t want to talk here. I want to keep all of my parts bottled up. Pints of grief lined up on the shelf. This isn’t for me, this talking and sharing. I didn’t lose mine bit by bit. It was one moment here and the rest of my moments not. I saw the body, buried it whole, tossed the required handful. But I made no peace. I curse God’s name, I shake my fist. I pound my chest and scream until my voice gives out. “Strike me down! Goddamnit, strike me down!” Every morning I keep my eyes closed a little longer because not until I open them do I become aware of or must fully accept the void in my life. I’m basically colorblind to any feeling greater than red hot anger, deep blue depression, or fiery orange hatred. To any feeling equal to or less than the all encompassing power of suffering. Then someone rubs my back, Ol’ Man Farmer nods his head, and I realize we’re not even alive ourselves. We’re just hanging on to fragmented memories, one hand clutching the hand of a lost soul as we will the clock to move a little faster so we can finally let go.
“The Myth of Me”
by Keith Sanders
On a sultry afternoon in the summer of 2005, I was in my cell winning that day’s skirmish with the southeast Texas heat (my cell-mate was at work, so I’d recruited his fan to fight the good fight alongside mine) when the prison chaplain paid me a visit. As he asked me for my name and prison I.D. number, my pulse quickened in trepidation. A clergyman on your doorstep means the same thing in the penitentiary as it does in the free world: a harbinger of bad news— he had come to inform me that my father was dying of brain cancer. My initial reaction was muted; I wasn’t so much overwhelmed as I was uncertain. How do I grieve for a man who was as much a stranger to me as the chaplain standing in front of my cell? I barely knew my father. I had met him once 20 years previously when I was 19 years old, and hadn’t heard from him since. My mom and her side of the family didn’t talk much about him, and what little was said was vague and disparaging. Thankfully, grief works in mysterious ways. As the idea of my father leaving this world for parts unknown gradually sank in, I felt sorrow well up inside me. (Along with some measure of relief: what sort of son would I be if I couldn’t grieve for my dying father?) The chaplain, waiting dutifully for this moment, bowed his head and invited me to pray with him. “No, thank you,” I politely declined. “I’m an atheist.” Now it was the chaplain who looked grief-stricken. After several seconds of silent interrogation, he let out a deprecating sigh. “Son, we all have to believe in something.” I countered with an insouciant shrug, then completed the all-too-familiar ritual: “I believe in a lot of things, sire. God just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”
That incommodious exchange notwithstanding, the chaplain and I parted company amicably enough. Over the next two weeks, he kept me updated on my father’s condition, arranged for me to talk with him on the telephone, and personally notified me on the day he passed away. My father exited my life as abruptly as he had reentered it and I was grateful for the chaplain’s calming presence and genuine sympathy; we were both left to mourn a man we knew next to nothing about. I appreciated, too, his tack [tact?] regarding my atheism. People of faith tend to jump at the chance to proselytize me. But he didn’t.
Nevertheless, his response to my unbelief was prosaic. Many believers, even well-intentioned ones like the chaplain, hold uninformed and misguided notions about nonbelievers. They think atheism is somehow synonymous with nihilism or hedonism or satanism or some other debauched “ism.” Generally, I try to follow the advice of Jonathan Swift, the 18th century Irish satirist who said that it is “useless to reason a man out of something he was never reasoned into,” and shrug off their misconceptions. Experience has taught me that attempting to correct their errors invariably ends in frustration, followed by a quick trip to the medicine cabinet for a double-dose of aspirin.
My life as an atheist began, naturally enough, in the womb. My unbelief persisted through birth and has remained with me throughout the entirety of my 53-year existence. There has never been a moment in my life when I believed in a god, souls, the afterlife, heaven and hell, sprites, trolls, goblins, aliens, or Spaghetti Monsters. Nor has there ever been a time when I felt a “spiritual” tug at my heartstrings and ignored it; admittedly, I’ve encountered the ineffable on occasion (ever look up and contemplate the Milky Way on a clear night without light pollution?), but I never felt inspired to conflate it with religious experience. Perhaps, like certain people who enter this world without the requisite DNA for athletic ability or musical talent, I wasn’t born with the so-called God gene. Whatever the reason, I’m utterly incapable of believing in such things: I’d sooner be able to flap my arms and fly away.
As a young boy, however, my atheism lurked well beneath the surface of my awareness. That’s not to say that it didn’t make itself known, albeit in its rudimentary form: I was a precocious skeptic as a child. (You could say I was a prodigy of sorts.) My preadolescent self doubted and questioned anything anyone told me, no matter how unimpeachable their authority or the obviousness of what I was being told. I took nothing at face value, accepted no first principles, and rejected out of hand every utterance of “Because I told you so.” I even doubted the claim that stoves could be hot.
In addition to hot stoves, sharp objects, electrical outlets and other commonplaces that I had doubts about (until, of course, I learned their oftentimes painful truths for myself), I also harbored strong suspicions about the existence of those three Sacred Cows of childhood: the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus. During the five-month span in my eighth year, each Sacred Cow was sacrificed at the altar of my skepticism. The first to fall was that mysterious, albeit generous, tooth-trader. Because there was some visual proof of the existence of Santa and the Easter Bunny, I had provisionally accepted them as real. The Tooth Fairy, in contrast, had no supporting evidence; what adults offered in lieu of proof amounted to anecdotal reports, third and fourthhand accounts, and explanations so flimsy and outrageous that I was astounded other kids could be duped by them.
Then again, I was only eight. Still a child. I couldn’t wrap my prepubescent brain around accepting the Tooth Fairy’s existence without proof, but did I want to believe? Did I want to drink the Kool-Aid, if only because all the other kids were drinking it? No, I didn’t. If given a cup of it, I would’ve poured the contents out on the ground. Obviously, I wasn’t like other children when it came to taking such leaps of faith. And, even at that age, I was acutely aware of being different because of it. Not fundamentally or radically different, just uniquely so. Like having neon green hair instead of brown, or being the only kid in the neighborhood with a pellet gun. My uniqueness was something that only I could lay claim to and I embraced it with overweening enthusiasm. Being different set me apart from other kids and, perhaps because I thought it conferred a certain childish cachet, made me feel exceptional, special even.
Discovering the truth about the Tooth Fairy, and the other Sacred Cows, is a rite of passage for most children. The curtain is slightly pulled back on the world, initiating them into the less-than-truthful realities of adulthood. Fortunately, the demise of each Sacred Cow is only fleetingly traumatic and soon forgotten with youthful alacrity.
Not so, however, for me. Learning that my mother and her adult accomplices had deliberately deceived me and my two siblings was the catalyst for a drastic shift in my development as a young skeptic. It instilled in me a belief that grown-ups were essentially untruthful and dishonest. My incessant questioning was no longer a quirky attribute of my personality but a means to ferret out their falsehoods; and the more I uncovered, the more convinced I became that adult mendacity was a universal truth. All the little white lies, the gray, indiscriminate half-truths, the mean black lies and angry red ons, the hurtful green fictions and soothing pink fibs—there were enough of them to permanently discolor my view of the adult world.
I once read somewhere that skepticism is a precursor to faith. But it can just as easily be a preamble to an all-encompassing contrariness. How could I have faith in what adults told me if everything they said wa suspect— and quite possibly a lie? To my adolescent logic, if what grown-ups said and did was untrue and wrong, then doing and saying the opposite was necessarily correct and true. If told to love, I’d hate; if to hate, I’d love; if asked to cherish something, I’d destroy it; if to destroy it, I’d cherish it.
By the time I turned 13, I’d become a one-boy insurrection. I engaged in a scorched earth policy that laid waste to all forms of authority. Among other acts of delinquency and defiance, I was expelled from elementary school twice for disobedience and once ran away from home (I was found about an hour later only a few blocks away). My mother, for her part, struggled heroically to quell the rebellion. She tried every strategy, every tactic—scolding, grounding, the Belt, Sunday school, counseling, even Ritalin. Nothing succeeded in managing or constraining my contrariness. Eventually, my beleaguered mother had no choice but to raise the white flag—she packed up my things and sent me to live with her parents in the country.
My grandparents lived on a 70-acre farm about two hours west of Houston. Growing up, my two siblings and I would spend our summer breaks from school with them. Like most grandparents, ours seemed overly eager to spoil us. They reveled in every opportunity to smother us with adoration, doting on our every whim as if “no” wasn’t part of their vocabulary. For three glorious months, while our mother stayed home to recover from the exhaustive demands of being a single parent, we grandkids were feted like royalty.
Although thrilled to have me on a permanent basis, my grandparents’ eagerness belied an undercurrent of urgency. Hardwired as they were to be forgiving to a fault, I was, in their eyes, an angel who could do no wrong. While certainly concerned about my delinquent behavior, they were more troubled by what they believed to be its root cause: poor parenting skills on my mother’s part. They feared her too strict, too authoritarian, and that my revolt was in some measure justified. My grandparents believed in a more hands-off approach and were confident they could undo the damage wrought by my early upbringing.
Not surprisingly, their laissez-faire parenting method didn’t succeed in rehabilitating me. The rebellion continued unabated, and even intensified under their guidance of patience and well-intentioned leniency. My grandparents ascribed to the values of old-fashioned Southerners—men were men, women were women, and everyone knew their place. Except for me. I challenged every attempt to make me conform to their rural ethos. I let my hair grow past my shoulders, had my ear pierced, listened to 80s heavy metal, and smoked pot. I flaunted whatever I thought ran counter to their cherished norms and traditions.
Initially, my grandparents tolerated my miscreant behavior. Outside gentle chiding, the occasional stern look, and oblique reproach, they endured my shenanigans in their own countrified way. They were unaccustomed to such behavior and thought, perhaps, that if they ignored it I’d eventually become more tractable. But when my contrariness—as it naturally would—took aim at their most cherished tradition, their tolerance began to wane.
The small farming community in which my grandparents lived wasn’t exactly in the Bible Belt, but it was close enough. There, like most of rural America, god-belief was taken for granted as an indomitable fact. Water was wet, grass was green, and God was real. Although my grandparents never attended a church service—at least not during the time I lived with them—they were devout. Especially my grandmother. Every morning and evening she read from a small Bible that she kept beside her rocking chair and was always willing to impart her spiritual wisdom.
In a culture where God’s existence was beyond doubt, much less outright denial, my grandparents were ill-prepared to contend with a teenage apostate. An atheist in their midst was an unprecedented anomaly, like coming across a mirror that reflected up/down instead of left/right. It simply didn’t fit into their worldview in any conceivable way. If asked, they would’ve described atheism as a vague yet menacing feeling, akin to the foreboding drop in air pressure you feel in your ears right before a tornado falls from the sky.
Everyone tried their best to make sense of my impiety. They thought I believed in their Creator’s existence and only said that I didn’t believe out of mischief or to provoke them or to hurt their feelings. For the most part, they regarded it as a manifestation of me being a malcontent. Over time, though, as my conduct incurred more serious rebukes and my apostasy went from mischievous subversion to full-throated disavowal, my grandparents’ reactions gradually took on a religious bent. Ultimately, they didn’t have any other frame of reference to understand my lack of god-belief except within the context of their religious faith. And for country folk like my grandparents, that meant interpreting it in its most simplified terms: as a negation of everything they held to be venerable, wholesome, and good.
Consequently, my behavior was recast in that light. Being an atheist was what made me incorrigible. As proof, Psalms 14.1 was routinely cited. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.” I was no longer acting badly but incapable of acting otherwise. Without god-belief, I was irredeemable, cut off from moral absolution. The tables, ironically, had been turned: now everything I said and did was considered suspect, my motivations selfish, my intentions malign. While everyone had faith in their god, none seemed to have any faith in me.
Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as a bad person, that I was bereft of decency, kind-heartedness, and integrity. Was I a troublemaker? Sure. Did I revel in being rebellious and contrary and irreverent? Absolutely. But I never saw my behavior as coming from a mean-spirited place, or because I was morally bankrupt. Yet the more I misbehaved, the more everyone believed I was an immoral—some would’ve said evil—atheist, the more opprobrium was heaped upon me. Their constant reminders that, as an unbeliever, I was incapable of being a virtuous person was corrosive. It slowly wore down my sense of self, in much the same way that an interminable drip of water can gradually work its way through hard stone. My psyche filtered itself through their negative and misguided ideas about atheism. What emerged was a distorted image of myself, one that ultimately supplanted my true self: their “you” became my “me.”
The result was that I fully embraced their illogic of atheism. What other choice did my younger self really have? I was presented with only two options: believe in their god or be ostracized as a malefactor. I couldn’t make myself believe, and I was too stubborn, too much of a contrarian to pretend that I did. Worst of all, I didn’t have anyone to succor me, no one to put a comforting arm around my shoulders and tell me that it was OK, that I could still be a decent person even if I was an unbeliever. In the end, I felt so isolated and alienated that I lost all hope in myself. By the time I graduated high school at 17, I clearly saw my destiny laid out before me. Where do the incorrigible inevitably end up? In prison of course. On the precipice of adulthood, filled with an acute sense of doom, I quit trying to be good and accepted my fate as a future felon.
For someone who rebelled against everyone and everything, why did I so readily succumb to their version of me? Why didn’t I reject being an irredeemable degenerate and prove them all wrong, that not believing in a god didn’t preclude me from being a good person? I didn’t know. I’ve been asking myself that for the past 30-plus years I’ve been incarcerated. Perhaps, because it’s always easier to do the wrong thing, I was morally lazy and took the path of least resistance. All I know is that I couldn’t ever bring myself to blame anyone else for my deplorable and criminal actions. Not my grandparents. Not my mother. Their religious beliefs weren’t at fault. And neither was my atheism. I was the one who used how others perceived me as an excuse to be a terrible person. I alone traded in an expensive life for a cheap existence.
Eva Shelton was recently released after 18 years in prison. She writes, “I have always loved writing and that passion helped me through some darker days in my life. I am now trying to figure out how to live and make my own decisions. Life has been tumultuous but I am thankful for the ability to get my thoughts down on paper and to connect with others through my words.”
Keith Sanders is an incarcerated playwright and writer who has been confined in Texas prisons for 32+ years. In addition to having three one-act plays professionally staged and produced, Sanders has won First Place in Drama three times in PEN America’s annual writing contest for prisoners, and previously won The Insider Prize for fiction in 2017. He is also a regular contributor to Prison Legal News and is an alum of University of Houston-Clear Lake, BS ‘01 and MA ‘05.
Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award in Feature Writing. His debut novel The Residue Years received wide critical praise and won a Whiting Award and The Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. His writing has been featured on This American Life, on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Esquire Magazine, and Marie Claire Magazine, as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Magazine, The Paris Review, The Washington Post Magazine, The Guardian, and elsewhere. His next novel John of Watts is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Emily Chammah and Maurice Chammah are assistant editors at American Short Fiction and co-direct the Insider Prize. Emily is a Fulbright Fellow and the winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her fiction can be found in The Common. Maurice is a staff writer at The Marshall Project and the author of Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.