Burl Corbett was awarded 1st Place in Nonfiction Memoir in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

I woke this morning to yet another gloomy, rainy day.  My “home” prison rests at the edge of the Lake Erie “snow belt”, and the same meteorological “lake effect” that strengthens the winter blizzards can also enhance the force and duration of our rainstorms, too.  Stormfronts seem to linger, as if restrained, spitting their annoyance from the lowering banks of angry clouds scudding off the lake.

The wide expanses of dandelion-studded grass between the cell blocks of our “modern” prison were designed to separate potential rioters, not to gratify the aesthetic preferences of country boys like me.  Upon the interlaced webbing of the concrete walkways, guards and inmates alike plod endlessly about, their daily routines made even drearier by the days upon days of bleak weather.  Last winter, from the end of September, to the beginning of April, I recorded 119 totally overcast days out of 183, a “depression factor” of 65%.  The “doldrum tally” the year before reached 71%, a degree of misery high enough to put the ever-cheerful Tele-Tubbies into a mindless funk.

Fortunately, I am immune to the rainy day blues.  Since childhood, I’ve had a thing for inclement weather, have enjoyed a long, happy affair with a constant mistress, whose persistent tapping upon the roofs of my life have reminded me of her faithfulness.

After morning count, before being summoned to chow, I lay in bed to watch the shadows of raindrops inch down the wall, their images cast by the outside light tower, their voices muted by the layer of reinforced concrete above my bunk.

In a former life, I often awakened to the friendly tattoo of rain upon the porch roof beneath my bedroom window.  Sometimes when I looked outside, across the fog-hung pasture, I would see our sheep dispiritedly trooping, nose to cropped tails, back to the dry barn.  But now, from my tiny window, all I can see is the ragged columns of disgruntled inmates trudging to the chow hall, carefully stepping over the thousands of flooded-out-of-their-burrows nightcrawlers.

In my previous life, I fished for trout and catfish, crappies and bass, while sacrificing countless worms to the insatiable Molech god of Angling.  One day, a neighbor familiar with my obsession, told me about a stretch of driveway at the school where he worked as a night janitor.  “Everytime there’s a thunderstorm, it’s covered with worms.  Next time we have a storm, bring a flashlight and a bucket”, he advised, “and you can pick up a summer’s worth, if the skunks and ‘coons don’t beat you to them”.

Although I suspected he was gilding the old lily a bit, I waited until the next downpour, then drove to the school, where I found a hundred-foot stretch of macadam absolutely overrun with future fish bait!  In less than an hour, I half-filled a two-quart pail, and could have gotten more if my back hadn’t cried for mercy.  I imprisoned my captives in a large wooden box inside the barn, fed them cornmeal and water, harvested them as needed, and rewarded my neighbor with a case of beer.

Now, as I plod head-down against the rain, stutter-stepping over the oblivious wrigglers, I ironically note how the karmic table has turned; Now, I am the prisoner, and the worms are free to pursue their collective destiny, tenuous as it may be.  Water dripping from my hat brim, I enter the chow hall to devour my cornmeal grits, shaking my head over the rueful absurdity of it all.

Usually, I turn on my radio immediately after morning count, and leave it on until nine o’clock bedtime.  Unfortunately, the prosaic playlist of the only interference-clear rock music station I can pick up doesn’t include my favorite “rain song”, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Rain on the Roof”.  Although other songs with “rain” in their titles often play – Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song” – only John Sebastian’s tuneful paean really captures the magical essence of a lazy, rainy day.  The others merely co-opt the adjective for effect.

As a rain-bound boy, I often fled to the barn from by boring home, where I could lie upon mounds of fragrant hay, staring upwards to the shadowy vault above, listening to pigeons coo and murmur their accompaniment to the monotonal symphony playing above their rafter nests, while below in their stalls, the sheep baaed in harmony.  There in that semi-dark cathedral, I rested contentedly, saturated with reverence and imbued with inner joy, oh-so glad to be young and alive.  

On other rainy afternoons, I went to our attic, where I would recline upon Granny’s old love seat, its faded green damask faintly redolent of camphor, to listen to the thrumming rain just above my head, its voice appearing to issue from the long-abandoned panpipe nests of mud dauber wasps.  Upon that musty couch, amid a dusty depository of my ancestors’ discarded pasts, ten-year-old me dreamt of my future happiness, as promised by my friend, the rain.

A born Romantic, a Gemini air spirit whose soul was captured at an early age by the naiads, the water nymphs that frolicked in our creek, I entered my teens thoroughly in love with nature, and roamed our 123-acre farm and the adjoining 3000-acre watershed year-round, rain or shine.  The trees and flowers were my first-name pals, and among them I flitted as free as a bee, coming and going as I would, knowing that my best gal, Miss Nature, would never break my heart.

By late August, I tired of summer’s heat and humidity; my soul craved cooler weather, itching for hunting season.  Our farm was only a hundred miles or so from the New Jersey shore, and the remnants of the late-summer hurricanes creeping up the Atlantic seaboard often battered us with two and three-day blows.  Then, shielded by a hooded sweatshirt and leather cap in lieu of an umbrella, I prowled the fields and streambanks, scouting for the scrapes and rubs of (please forgive the pun) horny rutting bucks and the tracks of muskrats and racoons.  Under lowering, misty skies, I walked through the fallow fields overgrown in hip-high buck grass, passed beneath the dripping crowns of oaks and hickories, as their wind-loosened mast fell upon my head.  After an afternoon afield, I returned home refreshed, though wet, my spiritual batteries recharged.  Rain was my lover; nature our best friend; and ever so it would be.

But here in this prison, there are no overgrown meadows, no wildlife to track, no showers of acorns to dodge.  Last year, all the trees were cut down after an inmate made a half-ass shiv from a broken branch, and then all of the shrubs that provided brief smudges of welcome color each fall were removed, too.  Next, to double the insult, a duo of border collies were assigned to chase away the only wildlife willing to visit, the raucous flocks of constantly defecating Canada geese.

Mercifully, the authorities can’t stop the rain; it still has the power to soothe my bruised heart; permits grown-up me to mentally re-live happier times, when a younger me came and went as he would. 

Sometimes on dismal afternoons, if my cellie is away, I turn off the radio and think back to my high school years.  Outside the windows of my rural school, cornfields and meadows cross hatched by wooded hedgerows extended to the horizon.  My teachers droned on, but to little avail: I was outside in the rain, exploring the sodden fields with eyes wide open.

However, oddly enough, the rain also evoked a soothing sense of security that I also cherished.  Ensconced at my desk in the warm, well-lit classroom, sheltered from the outside storm, surrounded by my coevals, I experienced the sense of atavistic security known by our cavemen ancestors as they hunkered in fire-warmed caves.  And all these decades later, I still get the same feeling on rainy days, even though nary a cornfield or even a bush is visible from my cell, only soft clouds above hard concrete, tempered glass above the supple grass, and endless columns of hapless souls trudging under the razor wire’s lacy hem.

My cellie works morning shift, which allows me the privacy to write while I’m still fresh and full of pep.  Every day, I sit before my typewriter, baste together a patchwork quilt of faces and places from the past, then drape it over my characters to warm them up for action.

For several years during my twenties, I “chased the sun” as a cross-country pipeliner, sometimes six days a week, from “can (see) to can’t”, except when it rained.  And during those wild bachelor days, after a hard day’s hard night, I often prayed for rain.

Without a family to support, I could blow my paycheck without guilt, and to expedite that end, I usually left the better part of it in the cash register of my favorite rainy-day haven, a no-frills rural tavern owned by a capricious man who unplugged the jukebox to facilitate conversation.  A popular haunt of the local blue-collar workers, by noon its stools were filled with a boozy mishmash of rained-out tradesmen.

Perched at the bar, playing liar’s poker with the sort of jovial toppers whose ancestors had inspired Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous praise of a “good tavern”, I re-experienced the same sense of fraternity that I had known in school.  Served by a happy-go-lucky Irish rakeshell rather than lectured by a boring teacher, I laughed away the day amid a smoky nimbus of goodwill, while outside the fogged front window the rain slanted down.  The swish of passing vehicles was audible from my rented throne, and I pitied the drivers en route to their prosaic destinations, while we blessed were solving, a mug at a time, the world’s problems.

Now, in my old age, I realize that some problems will never be solved, and I’m kind of glad.  Because if they were, then what would all the rainy-day philosophers pontificate about after downing a few rounds of “argument elixir”?

After many years spent afield, I have concluded that rain also soothes the nerves of usually skittish wildlife.  During my pretrial stay at my county prison, I often witnessed from my second-tier cell window wary herds of deer and even warier flocks of wild turkeys venture from the nearby woods to browse and feed on rainy days.  And I had seen foxes and even a super-elusive mink prowling about on dimly lit, rain-swept days.  And what duck hunter worth his hip boots doesn’t know that his quarry flies lower when it rains, which is good for the hunter, but not so much for the mallards and pintails.

Just as birds need nests, and animals burrows, we humans need our refuges, too.  Our Neanderthal ancestors were forced to huddle before smoky fires in damp caves, clubs in hand, cringing as saber-toothed tigers steamed for meat.  But, we fortunate moderns sit in comfy easy chairs before our fireplaces, purring cats upon our laps, as we watch the summer-cut logs burn away our winter blues.  I often suspect that God created rain (and its romantic cousin, snow) not only to water the flowers and please the fish, but to bring together, if only briefly, His legions of contentious children.  Sure, He overdoes it a smidgen now and then – the flood and hurricanes and whatnot – but more times than not those rainy days and nights comfort the souls of everyone, not only the prisoners of this planet.  They are gifts, and we should regard them as such, rather than transient inconveniences to our inconsequential affairs.

Today, I watched the walkway officer, protected by a long, black slicker, pop in and out of the open-fronted, tin-roofed entryway of the Education Building as she checked the passes of random inmates.  Between customers, she retreats inside the door, watching through a small hole she rubbed in the fogged glass.  Hers is a tedious, but demanding task, on her feet all day, and I sometimes wonder if she and the rain have made a separate peace, or if she just regards its periodic visits just another cross to bear during her long journey to retirement.  If the latter, then I pity her refusal to see the silver droplets inside the dark clouds I’ve come to love.

On days when I am especially blue, when my spirit is lower than a sump hole, I remember a day during the 1967 “Summer of Love”, when I was young and free and as wild as the times required.  One muggy afternoon, as my girlfriend Mary and I strolled through Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village, we heard the hollow rumble of an approaching thunderstorm.  Spurred by the first spatters of rain, we raced up Bleecker Street, reaching the door of my second-floor loft just before the bottom fell from the sky.  Laughing with anticipation, we bounded upstairs to make love upon a couch beneath an open window, our bodies anointed by the windblown raindrops.

Afterwards, we shared cigarettes in bed, while Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor played on the radio, its trills and arpeggios muted by the downpour.  

“Isn’t it pretty?”  Mary murmured sleepily.  Reluctant to spoil the mood, I grunted my assent, eyes closed.

The concerto ended; a Mozart quintet began; the rain fell steadily.  With Mary’s dozing head upon my chest, I thought of all the storm-dimmed lofts across the Village, envisioned all the poets and composers and writers therein, wondered how many elegies, ballads, and memoirs would be inspired by the serendipitous convergence of the storm and Grieg’s romantic masterwork.

When I awakened hours later, I’m confined to a second-floor prison cell only a short boat ride away from a foreign country, unable to outrun a wheelchair, let alone a storm front.  And although the soaked clothing draped over the railings and the dayroom seats are proof of the storm outside, its bounty falls unheard upon the distant roof.

Dreary weather sometimes facilitates incongruous thoughts, and on this cool and gloomy spring morning, I remember my bygone cat, a gentle creature that loved popcorn, hated television birds, and graced  my lap on blustery evenings as the woodstove warmed our bodies and souls.  She, like tender Mary, is but a memory now, just another spark of sentience swallowed by the maw of time.  Once, a younger me loved them both, but he has also vanished, along with his freedom.  Outside this concrete and steel jungle, a softer world exists for others, but not for me.

Tomorrow or the day after – sooner or later – the rain will stop, taking with it my rainy-day memories.  But they’ll return with the next storm, I’m certain, and, unfortunately, I’ll be here to greet them.

Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.