Burl N. Corbett was awarded second place in Drama in the 2020 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.

The illustration for this piece of writing was expressly created by an incarcerated artist curated by Justice Arts Coalition. This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


Three silhouettes stand at the edge of a railing in the shadow of a tower. In the top strip of the image there is a dark starry sky.

Image by Samson Loynachan

Tom: a seventy-three-year-old New York City man doing five years for a pot deal gone bad.
Sean: a seventy-two-year-old country boy serving life for self-defense-without-the-means-to-hire-a-decent-lawyer.

Four a.m. in a 7′ by 15′ double-bunked prison cell with a small corner table under a single 11″ by 3′ outside window and two wall mounted storage bins. A stainless steel toilet and a tiny ceramic sink complete the furnishings. The overhead fluorescent light is off, and a parallelogram of slanting light from the outside light provides the only light. Through the double 5″ by 2′ cell door windows, a muted dayroom TV flickers unwatched.

(Sean awakens on his stomach, rolls onto his back for a moment, then sits up in his bottom bunk, coughing. In the upper bunk, Tom wakes up, coughs too.)

TOM (sitting up too)
You up, Sean?

Yeah, got my seven in, might as well get up before the bad memories come wanderin’ in like a bunch of restless ghosts lookin’ to bust my balls.

That bad, huh?

Nah, I just like to bitch a little, keep my hand in. There’s plenty of good ones, too.

Yeah, man, I can dig it. Sometimes I wake up early and just lay back to groove on all the cool shit that went down back in the day, you know, when the Village was populated by real hipsters, not the moneybag sons-of-bitches who de-burmed the goddamn Bowery and turned CBGB into a fucking upscale mens’ store, man!

SEAN (chuckling)
Musta been a real “bummer,” huh, man?

TOM (peevishly)
G’wan, hillbilly, turn my tragedy into a lame-ass pun if you want, but it sucks bigtime to see your world swallowed up block by block, and you’re sitting help less just waiting for the hungry monster to take the first nibble of your damn street!

SEAN (with empathy)
Same thing happened back home in the late ’80s when the state opened up the expressway between King of Prussia and Pottstown, and pretty soon all the sub urban Philly yuppies came flockin’ out to tear up the farms to build a bunch of McMansions. Next thing you knew, a man could hardly drive his pickup to town without a goddamn beemer on his ass honkin’ his horn and tryin’ to pass on curves. I liked to cruise the back roads listenin’ to the radio and lookin’ for deer, but a man can’t hardly do it anymore, he’ll get run in a ditch and left for the buzzards or cops, whichever finds you first.

TOM (nodding his head)
Yeah, man, I guess we’ve outlived our times. And all along we thought we’d never get old. What the fuck happened, Sean? Who rewrote the damn script when we weren’t looking?

SEAN (shaking his head slowly)
Beats me, pal. We might as well ask the ghosts of the flappers or the hippies. Their world drug up stakes and took the night train outta town, too.

TOM (lying back down)
Next train’ll be our last, man. First stop, eternity.

Didn’t Emily Dickerson say somethin’ like that? You coppin’ her thunder, man, rippin’ off a poor dead lady who never laid no grief on you?

TOM (with a tone of wonder)
I gotta hand it to you, man. You’re the first goddamn hick I ever met who actually read all the goddam books the professor cats used to brag up. What the hell ever brought you here anyway?

SEAN (standing up and stretching)
Bad karma? Like yours? Aw, lets’s not go into that. Late night’s the time for rememberin’ the good, not obsessin’ ’bout the bad.

OK, I can get behind that. Hell, even when I was only in my thirties, I used to wake up ’round this time of night and think about all the chicks I balled and scenes I made. I was like a barfly in the Memory Lane Cafe, man!

SEAN (chuckling)
Yeah, all of their waitresses know me, too, Tom. What say we trade a few memories to pass the time before mornin’ count?

TOM (shifting about to get comfortable)
Sure, man. You go first.

SEAN (getting up to sit on the table)
All right, I’m game. Back on our farm when I was a kid, I liked to sit on the porch swing in the summer after the late movie ended to watch the lightnin’ bugs drift and blink in the sheep pasture. Sometimes when the moon was out and a veil of mist hung low above the meadow, a whippoorwill would commence to callin’, and then another one in the back hayfield would answer, and I’d think just how damn lucky I was to be alive.

I hear where you’re coming from, Sean. Even in the city things quiet down after midnight, especially down my way on the shitty end of Bleecker, only a block from the Bowery. The bums were all bombed out, huddling en masse on subway grates, or curled up in doorways, and hardly any traffic to speak of, and except for some kinda infrasonic hum—like the slowly expiring residue of the day’s accumulated racket—you can’t even hear a heat pipe cough, let alone some hipster chick choking on a lungful of uncured weed. I used to lean out the window just to dig the silence, look across the street at the second-floor corner brick that’s embossed with the words “Mott/Bleecker,” and consider myself blessed to be living in a loft on the most famous street in Greenwich Village during the hippest goddamn decade of the whole fucking century, man!

Now you’re coppin’ Dylan’s licks, cellie, what with the “coughin’ heat pipes” bit! How would you like it if I lifted a metaphor or two from Faulker, spiced up a memory or two with some Spanish slang à la Cormac McCarthy, or, what the hell!, threw in a line or two from the old master himself, Ernie Hemingway. If I ain’t mistaken, he once observed that bad writers borrow from their betters, but good writers steal!

TOM (with a laugh)
Funny, man, but how the hell do you go about shoplifting someone’s memories? Better yet, why would anyone even want to?

Just fuckin’ with you, man. It’s a good thing that I have an endless supply of my own, because I’m lookin’ out this window and what do I see? Nothing but grass and concrete walks and coils of razor wire everywhere I look. There ain’t but one scraggly-assed bush in sight—I’d hate to insult the forests of the world by dig nifyin’ it as a tree—and we don’t even have a flower garden anymore because some nitwit horticulturist in the purchasin’ department last year ordered a bunch of moonflower seeds, never realizin’ that they had the same psychedelic properties of their near-cousins, mornin’ glory vines.

TOM (sitting up with excitement)
Oh, shit! I remember that! Pretty soon, the C-Block gardener is lying in the grass, tripping out on all the groovy colors dropping from the sky like rain. Bingo! No more gardens.

SEAN (shaking an accusatory finger)
Jeez! Now you’re rippin’ off Shakespeare! Who’s next Christopher Marlowe?

Marlowe? Who he? Nah, man, like these terms are just floating around in the vernacular, and I’m just snatching them up as they go by. Go on with your memory, Sean. I believe you were putting down our poor little tree.

I was just about to compare our sorry view with the one from my bedroom window. Man, there were three kinds of maples in just my yard, three different colors come fall, plus a big tomato-killin’ walnut and next to the woods a big ole serviceberry whose white blossoms were the first to bloom come April. Up on the ridge behind the barn were aspens and poplars and oaks and hickories and whatnot, and every October I slogged through their drifts of multi-hued leaves, just cake-eatin’ happy to be alive. (He walks to the sink for a drink of water.) Would you fuckin’ believe I haven’t so much as touched a goddamn tree in goin’ on twelve years?

TOM (nodding in sympathy)
I can dig where you’re coming from, man. Even a city mouse like me liked to bop on down to Washington Square Park to watch the squirrels and girls and maybe do a number and get off on all the trippy colors. Now the only trees are three hundred yards the other side of the fence.

Yeah, out past the water tower. You ever notice all the damn buzzards circlin’ it? Every evenin’ a dozen or more roost on its inspection railin’, and God only knows how many are on the other side.

Is that what they are? I pegged them for seagulls or some kinda big pigeons. Don’t buzzards eat dead stuff, like roadkill and such?

They sure ain’t particular. I seen one gobblin’ up the guts of a three-day dead groundhog that was lyin’ in the road by the barn, just a-scarfin’ up its guts like we would eat spaghetti.

TOM (with a tone of disbelief)
And this is the kinda shit you think about when you can’t sleep? Christ, no wonder you have nightmares now and then.

What I was gettin’ at was sometimes when I see those buzzards I remember an old abandoned, water-filled quarry out in the woods where all the local kids used to swim and party. Its cliff face was over three-hundred feet high, and up top there was a grassy lookout. We didn’t party up there for the obvious reasons, but, man, what a view! About three miles away across a flat valley was a solitary wooded hill, and between the opposite peaks prowlin’ hawks and noisy flocks of crows and gracefully swoopin’ buzzards rose and fell and basted the edges of the blue sky to the green hem of the earth. Sometimes in the middle of the winter when I got cabin fever, I’d go to the lookout and think of June, recall July and August, and remember with a grin the girls of summer in their cut-off shorts and halter tops and wet bikinis smiling across a bonfire at me.

Wow, if a bunch of stinky old buzzards can summon up memories like that, I wonder what a robin could do?

SEAN (chuckling)
Not a damn thing extra, I’m thinkin’. It’s hard to improve on perfection, Tom, and the summer of ’69 was about as close to it as possible. (Moment of silence while both men recall what they would.)

And where are those girls of summer now?

SEAN (In a small, contemplative voice)
Freckle-faced Mary got married, not to go all alliterative on you, and pig-tailed Vicky married and divorced my best friend, then moved to Vermont. And Joanne, the loveliest woman I have ever known, joined the “Twenty-Seven Club” when she OD’d on junk the first time she tried it. As far as the others, who knows? Time bears away all without its victims’ consent.

TOM (shifting uneasily)
Well, Linda Ronstadt sang that “time washes clean,” and I hope she meant the bad shit would vanish, not the good stuff.

The way I see it, time’s the great destroyer, the sandpaper that smoothes the rough edges of our painful memories, and if any of the good ones suffer collateral damage, well, tough titty and all of that.

TOM (dangling his legs from his bunk)
Hey, man, what say we stifle all of this philosophical static tonight? I thought we were going to share our good memories, not wake up the bad guys!

SEAN (retaking his seat on the table top)
Sorry, man. Tell me about your good ole hippie days.

TOM (with outstretched palms)
Whoa, partner! Enough with the insults, already! If anything, I was the last of the beatniks, hit the Village a year before hippies even had a name. I was just a young cat on the hustle for the “Three G’s.”

All right, I give up. What were the ‘Three G’s”?

TOM (laughing)
Guitars, grass, and girls, man, what else?

I dunno. Music, art, and literature, maybe?

And chicks, of course.

Of course. By the way, Don Tomasco, did you ever meet any of those luscious-type folksinger chicks like maybe (grabs his chest as if suffering a heart attack) Judy Collins?

TOM (chuckling)
No such luck, man. I did run into Allen Ginsburg in Washington Square Park as he recited his poem “America” to a bunch of clueless hippies and a gaggle of out raged tourists. His eyes kept pinballing from boy to boy searching for new talent, but when they met mine, I beat feet.

SEAN (in an amused tone)
Didn’t much care for his poetry, then?

I’ll put it this way: New York City will never name a bridge after him like Philly did for Walt Whitman.

Don’t bet on it. Pittsburgh actually named a bridge after phony-baloney Andy Warhol, so anythin’s possible today.

And yet another dissatisfied customer is heard from.

SEAN (walking over to the cell door to look out its window)
Back home, there was an old guy called “Stoneman.” He was a hired hand who lived and worked on a local farm. Come evenin’, you’d see him walkin’ the back roads talkin’ to himself. One day my buddy Wes and I saw him comin’ along, and Wes stopped his car to ask him how he was doing. The old dude whipped out of his jacket a Bible in his left hand and a flat rock about the size of a paperback book in his right hand, and proceeded to whomp himself on his noggin with the rock, while holdin’ up the Bible and hollerin’ that Moses (or Elijah or some such prophet) promised him that “Neither cudgels or stones can harm thee!”

TOM (in an incredulous tone)
Wow, man! And this cat’s running loose without a keeper?

Yeah, but when we drove away, I noticed that his head had nary a scar, so maybe he was on to somethin’.

No, you got that bass-ackwards. Most likely he was on something, like maybe Jimson weed or some kinda weird redneck zombie weed?

SEAN (laughing)
Naw, he was just a believer, and if history proves anythin’, it’s that the true believers are the creators of history, not the belly-button gazers who wind up its victims.

Like us, huh?

SEAN (returning to the table)
I prefer to think we’re workin’ out our karma. ‘Course, a cynic might say that in doin’ so we just create another helpin’ of karmic pie.

TOM (lying back with a sigh)
So, what’s the answer, Mr. Swami?

Well, Blaise Pascal said that all of our troubles derive from our inability to sit quietly in our rooms.

Oh, yeah? Like we’re doing now? (Sits up, holds right hand over his eyes to mimic the act of searching.) Shit! Don’t see my troubles beating feet outta here!

SEAN (slightly irritated by Tom’s flippancy)
You know what your trouble really is, besides the time you gotta pull?

TOM (with amusement)
No, man, why don’t you just lay it on me? I’m a big boy, now, I can take it.

SEAN (forcefully)
You’re a goddamn literalist! Sometimes you remind me of one of those law-abidin’ type citizens so afraid of violatin’ some obscure regulation that they’d like to get the criminal code tattooed on the inside of their goddamn eyelids so they can study it while they sleep! Jesus, man, haven’t you ever heard of an analogy or metaphor?

TOM (laughing aloud)
Hell, no! I was too busy hunting the “Three G’s”!

SEAN (in a quieter tone)
You know, I was sittin’ at home mindin’ my own damn business when a drunken ball buster showed up, just a-spoilin’ for trouble, and now I’m doin’ life for just defendin’ myself. I wonder what old Blaise would say to that?

Well, in my case, he was hammer-on-the-nail right. If I had stayed in New York instead of delivering a few keys of weed to Allentown, where I got busted, I wouldn’t be here shooting the shit with you.

SEAN (in a jocular tone)
God moves in mysterious ways, sayeth Stoneman.

TOM (stretching and yawning)
Do you think there is a God, a creator? Or do you believe that Mozart and Einstein evolved through a shit-load of fortutitous coincidences and accidents?

SEAN (staring thoughtfully out the window)
I believe in God, but not preachers; in religion, but not the organized kind. As far as “coincidences” and “accidents,” there aren’t any, in my book, only karmic sychronicities. (Stands up and paces the cell.). Tom, you weren’t raised on a farm, never helped a ewe give birth, never saw your and its intermingled breath rise like smoke in the yellow corona of a lantern as it baaed and strained until a perfect replica of itself emerged steamin’ on the straw. Tom, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all the proof of God I’ll ever need.

Yeah, well, I missed that scene. When I was a kid, our cat threw a litter of kittens, but my old man took them to the shelter, or so he claimed. I suspect that they wound up in the Hudson, and I don’t recall God showing up, neither.

SEAN (pointing at the window)
Well, well, well! Guess who just did show up?

You don’t need to tell me—I can hear them: The fucking geese.

Yep, our feathered Canadian friends, come to mow the lawns and fertilize the grass.

TOM (cynically)
Yeah, and the goddamn sidewalks too. Hopscotch time again, folks.

Aw, don’t put them down, man, they’re our friends, and their casual joie de vivre reminds the rest of us sentient beings that happiness is our birthright, too.

Jeez, enough already with the Latin! I…

SEAN (interrupting Tom’s reply)
French, cellie. You need it translated?

Ah, vaffanculo to your fifty cent words! You need that translated?

No thanks, pal, and lay off the geese! I told you they’re my buddies.

TOM (shaking his head in disbelief)
What’s up with you country boys anyway? All the time yapping about a bunch of stupid beasts like they were the best friends you ever had. Where’s all the people in your memories?

SEAN (grinning)
Tendin’ to the critters.

TOM (jumping down to urinate)
Well, you’re shit outta luck now, aren’t you? The only critters up here are those diarrhetic honkers and the sparrows and crows mooching for handouts outside the chow hall.

SEAN (talking to Tom’s back)
You forgot the assistance dogs trained by the lifers on A-Block. Most of them are Labs, but the other year they had an English setter. One day, I saw it frozen in a point. Since there’s damn few pheasants runnin’ loose inside the fence, I’m wonderin’ just what the hell its pointin’ at. Then I happen to look up at the roof of B-Block, and there sits a damned old crow! A week later, I saw it runnin’ across the yard, jumpin’ in the air, tryin’ to catch an airplane!

TOM (wiping off the seat)
Oh, wow, just picture some poor old lady trying to schlep across a busy street when the goofy mutt stops to point a pigeon! Wham! Instant taxi roadkill! (Flushes toilet.)

SEAN (after noise subsides)
Or maybe she’s waitin’ for the light to change, and her pooch decides to chase a seagull to the East River and drags her under a bus! Oops, instant traffic jam!

TOM (sitting on the toilet)
And the end of the doggie training program, for sure.

We’re makin’ funny, but do you see now how the existence of all these animals enlivens our lives? Give them a chance, man, they’ll give you enough good memories to last a lifetime.

TOM (yawning)
I’ll take your word for it, Sean. Me, I’d rather remember the chicks.

Yeah, but do they remember you?

Probably more than your damn livestock does you, but then I didn’t have to water and feed them every day, just take them to Chinatown now and then for a 25¢ cha shu bao and a twenty cent cup of green tea, plus a nickel tip if I was flush.

Last of the big spenders, huh? A real Don Juan, eh? What… they didn’t even rate a 75¢ breakfast special at some barrio eat ‘n’ groan?

C’mon, man, cut me a little slack! All this memory crap is just a trick to stave off the dreaded late-night blues.

SEAN (turning to the window again)
Whoo-hoo! That was fast! Those noisy ole geese musta disturbed the night cap tain’s sleep. Here comes the riot squad.

The border collies, huh?

SEAN (glances at his watch)
Yep, here they come with their handlers, up for a spot of fun to start the day.

Yeah, it’s gotta be going on five, the sky’s beginning to lighten up a hair.

Well, there’s still another hour until count if you wanna grab a few zzz’s.

TOM (standing up)
Think I’ll do just that, cellie. This damn trip down Memory Lane has just about plumb tuckered me out. Ain’t that how you redneck hillbillies put it?

SEAN (with irritation)
Look, damn it, the term “redneck” originally referred to hard-workin’ farmers with sunburned necks, not a bunch of racist louts! And “hillbilly” is just another pejorative term for those who read Field and Stream instead of the New Yorker. I happen to read both, but prefer to roam my Pennsylvania hills than feet-beat the flat streets of the Wormy Apple!

Woo-hoo! Touchy-touchy! OK, pal, have it your way. Wake me up at count. (Climbs into the top bunk and pulls the sheet over his head.)

SEAN (chuckling)
Abandonin’ me, are you? That’s all right–I’ll talk to the geese.

Keep it to a whisper, OK? There’s enough weirdos in here muttering to themselves, I don’t need another one for a cellie.

(Sean does not reply, watches the men unleash their dogs.)

SEAN (quietly)
Yeah, they’re fixin’ to run you off, all right. The bureaucratic martinets in charge of this pitiful show don’t need your kind runnin’ free. You might give us undesirable notions, inspire an Icarus stunt that’ll bring a shitload of heat down on the warden. You know, all of my life before I wound up here, your ancestors’ mournful dirges warned me of the upcomin’ winter, then several months later proclaimed the arrival of spring, a pair of favors I forget if I ever thanked you for. Each April, while the spring peepers and matin’ frogs furnished the soprano and basso voices for the annual spring opera, your great-great-great grandparents sang the two-note baritone theme. And when you and your happy family finally departed your cozy summer home for the nether ends of the continent, a part of my soul went with you, soarin’ away into the risin’ sun.

(With raucous honks, the startled geese take off. Flitting shadows speckle Sean’s face.)

SEAN (a little louder)
Take this with you, old friends, as a sentimental offerin’ from a nostalgic old coot, one of my favorite tankas no doubt inspired by a bunch of your Japanese cousins more than four hundred years ago:

When the wild goose
has flown far off
beyond the mountain,
its companion, left behind,
will surely cry.


(Watches through the window at the frantic melee.)

Promise me this, you noisy rascals, if by chance you ever fly over any of my grandchildren’s homes, and happen to notice them lookin’ up at you, how ’bout honkin’ a greetin’ from a faraway old man who often cries for them?

(Diminishing sound of departing geese. Sean stares out the window for a moment, then shakes his head and returns to bed.)