Editor’s Choice Award
BY Elizabeth Cone
The phone rings in our yellow suburban kitchen. My mother stretches the cord into the dining room for privacy. In that way every kid knows, I stay out of her eye-line but close enough to hear, and I figure out who she’s talking to and what they’re talking about from only one side of the conversation. My mother and father are lending my aunt and uncle money to fly down to Florida to bring home Dave, my 16-year-old cousin, who ran away but got picked up by the cops after a high-speed car chase in Daytona. I’ve never run away, and my brother Mike never gets far when he does. Mike and I, eight and 11 years old, respectively, already think Dave is our coolest cousin. Now he becomes mythical.
Adrienne and her three-year-old son, Dillon, fly down to Atlanta and stay in a hotel with me. I am attending the wedding of a college friend. The day of the wedding, Adrienne and Dillon visit Dave, Adrienne’s brother, who is in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for armed robbery. Adrienne tells Dillon that they are going to visit Uncle Davey’s big house. I go with them the next day. After we’re there a while, Dillon and I walk over to the vending machines to get Dave Fritos and a Milky Way. Dillon reaches up to put the quarters in the machine and retrieves the snacks when they fall. As Dave eats, he tells us about the guys he cooks Italian food with on Sundays in the prison kitchen. Adrienne catches him up on the news from their block in Brooklyn. Dillon falls asleep on Dave’s lap. Dave tells us stories from when he and some of our other cousins were younger, when Adrienne and I were too little to do cool things like blowing up crab apples with firecrackers and playing “Ring and Run” on Thanksgiving nights at our aunt’s house in New Jersey. He tells us that he is playing drums in a prison band. He doesn’t tell us about his days and nights in solitary. Then the prison photographer takes a family photo of the four of us: Dave in his prison khakis, Dillon in Dave’s arms, Adrienne and I on either side of them.
Sunday afternoons while I’m away at college, my parents call with the family news. This week, they tell me that no one has heard from Dave in a while. Later, I go down to the dorm lounge to watch Bright Lights, Big City. The movie feels like a drug-blurry collage of decadence and cocaine and pain. It is how I imagine Dave is living. Afterward, I sob—gulping, chest-hurting, snotty—in my room, a six-foot tall poster of a Molson’s beer can acting as the curtain on my window. I hope no one hears me.
I’m back in Atlanta for an American Federation of Teachers conference, and I visit Dave. I remember from last time that I should bring change for the vending machines in the visiting room. I forget that you have to bring your change in a Ziploc bag, and I stroll in, sign my name in the visitor’s log, and show the guard my roll of quarters. “You can’t take that in there,” he says. I break it open and carry, in my cupped palms, 40 quarters, through five sets of prison gates, one closing behind me before the next one opens, to get to the visiting room. Inside every set of gates, I get my hand stamp-scanned and I spill a few quarters.
The weekend we move to Smithtown, Dave comes with us, and spends a whole day helping my dad rip up old carpeting. He is six. When they are done, they sit on the back patio together. My dad lights up and Dave says, “All working men smoke, right, Frank?” And my dad gives him his own cigarette.
That first visit, Adrienne and Dillon take a cab through the stifling heart of Atlanta to the prison just outside of the city. They wear shorts and tank tops. When they check in, they’re told they’re not allowed to wear anything that shows shoulders or knees, so Adrienne runs to the convenience store across the street and buys two t-shirts and two pairs of sweatpants. Everyone else checking in is dressed up. Sunday dresses, suits, hats adorned with flowers and fruit, ribbons and tulle. Like the Easter Parade.
Dave comes out from Brooklyn and stays with us on Long Island for weeks every summer. My dad teaches him to drive manual when he is 11. One muggy night, my parents go out and Dave babysits. He makes me go to bed while it’s still light out. I lie in bed fuming and sweating, sheets and blankets flung to the floor. Then, I get up and whisper as loud as I can, my lips up against my bedroom window screen, “I hate you, Dave.”
“I heard that,” he says, from outside, laughing, his bright red hair visible even in the dusk.
The day before we leave for Atlanta, Dave calls. I accept the prison call and think, like always, that it’s going to be weird, talking to a prisoner, but then it’s just Dave. He tells us we need to fill out applications to visit in advance. We fill them out and fax them but we should have done this weeks before. It’s all okay, though. Adrienne’s sister’s ex-boyfriend’s dad is in some other prison for racketeering, and he knows a guy in the Atlanta Pen, and that guy gets our paperwork processed overnight. Dave points out the guy who got us in, but you’re not allowed to get up and move around in the visitation room, so we can’t thank him. Anyway, Dave says he’s in for murder.
When Mike runs away, he packs a pair of tighty whities and a Matchbox car in one of my dad’s old briefcases. He says he’s going back to Canada, where he was born. He usually only makes it to the corner of our street, except one time when my dad took him all the way to the train station before he got scared and said he didn’t really want to go. When Dave runs away, he takes money embezzled using stolen credit cards from the gas station he was working at, and a car he bought for $100. He makes it all the way to Florida.
The second visit, I’m staying at the Westin Peachtree Plaza, and the morning after my colleagues and I have dinner and drinks in the rooftop revolving restaurant, I take the glass elevator to the lobby, and tell the uniformed doorman, “I would like a taxi to the Atlanta Penitentiary, please.”
One Saturday, Dave is at my parents’ house. I drive over to see him, and on my way, the regulator in my 1977 Ford goes and I’m stuck on the side of the road. I walk to a payphone, call my parents, and tell them I’m going to call a tow truck, but Dave gets on the phone. “Don’t pay hundreds of dollars to get it fixed. That’s a $15 part,” he says. “I can replace it in about 10 minutes. Mike will help me.”
I hear Mike in the background. “No way. I have plans.”
Dave, to Mike: “You’re gonna help your sister.” And then to me, “We’ll be there in a few minutes. Sit tight.”
I hang a copy of our prison family photo right next to a photo of me with Dave when he was about five and I was a baby. In the second photo, we’re lying down together on a blanket, nose to nose. His red hair and my fat baby cheeks.
When my dad gets Dementia, he sometimes thinks he has three children: Mike, me, and Dave. Dave was born with my father’s face. My mother said it was creepy, seeing my dad’s face on a new baby. While my father carefully walked the line between mischief and the criminal, Dave stepped right over. Dave is my dad 2.0.
We are sitting inside a Starbucks somewhere near Clearwater. Dave is telling me about the first scene in a screenplay he started to write about his life.
“So when you drive down there from Mesa, down to Florence, you’re on kind of, you know. . .I think it was a paved road but it’s like real dusty, you know? And I envision these two white vans, helicopter shot or drone shot, with the dust cloud following the two vans. And then, I even had the music. Kind of a Molly Hatchet ‘One Last Ride’ or ‘Devil’s Canyon.’”
“So the music’s playing and basically the opening scene was gonna be, you know, the vans, and them processing me, and then, like the cell door slamming behind me. And then it would pick up the sounds of the jail and all that. And then there’d be narration to kind of go back. . .”
It’s a couple of hours until closing time, and there’s a guy next to us who turns out to be some kind of climate change expert. He and Dave go outside for a cigarette and I follow, and the guy tells us that in 50 years, it’s going to be too hot to live in much of the United States.
Dave takes a drag, and then, cigarette between his fingers, outlines a small square of space directly in front of himself, and says, “This is where I live.”
“The next five minutes?” I ask.