Of Ash and Bone
My secrets cannot be kept much longer, especially now, with questions being asked. This is one of the secrets I’ve kept: At the United States Penitentiary in Ravelmont, Kentucky, the dead outnumbered the living. I saw the dead. I counted their numbers. I formed each man’s name on my lips and said each name aloud, sometimes whispered, sometimes screamed. I held each man in my arms and in my hands, and I felt as the weight of his life passed through my fingers like dry sand.
Some seven years ago I arrived at Ravelmont to resume serving the remainder of a thirty-year sentence, a third of which I had pieced together at nine other institutions. I came in on the D.T.B. (disciplinary transfer bus—diesel therapy, as it’s wryly called by B.0.P. personnel), my wrists black-boxed and my ankles shackled. Exhausted to the point of being numb, I stared passively as my new home came into view.
U.S.P. Ravelmont opened in 1902 to imprison America’s most notorious criminals. Its construction began sometime during the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a time imbued with governmental optimism, when federal buildings were designed with character and none-too-subtly built to impose a sense of power over the beholder. In a grim fit of morbid whimsy, U.S.P. Ravelmont had been built to resemble a medieval fortress, a monumental blockhouse of weather-darkened stone and machine- sharpened metal, enclosed by an unassailable wall and a half dozen gun towers.
Seeing U.S.P. Ravelmont for the first time, through the iron-lattice windows of the transfer bus, two words drifted in and out of my consciousness abstractly, like Jungian archetypes from a dark dream. The first: evil. The second: haunted. I’ve since come to accept Ravelmont as being a monstrous behemoth that exists solely to devour men. It eats them alive, pushes them through its dark entrails and digests their souls.
But some souls survive.
The cell assigned to me, #52 in D Block, had a reputation for being possessed by evil and haunted by a ghost. Several men had committed suicide there—two by strangling themselves with makeshift ropes looped over the upper bunk, one by slicing himself open with a razor blade and severing his deep femoral artery, and another by cooking himself slowly with a live electrical wire wrapped tight around his waist. There were rumors of others, the true details of which were lost in the turbid depths of prison lore. Even the legend of the two self-garroters varied according to the storyteller. In some versions the men were star-crossed lovers who died tragically, side by side. In others the men were merely cellmates who died weeks apart. In another version the men had never met and their deaths were separated by years. One prisoner offered me a disconcerting explanation for these disparities: dozens of hangings and self-garrotings had occurred in D-52, and the stories had become confused and blended.
I took D-52, the haunted cell, because no one else wanted it and because I didn’t believe in the afterlife or ghosts. It was the last cell on the far end of the uppermost tier, affording me a greater sense of privacy, if there can be such a thing in prison. It must have been this increased privacy, I reasoned, that contributed to the high number of successful suicides in the cell. Suicide is oftentimes slow work and requires privacy. One needs the ability to dangle, slice, or fry undiscovered and undisturbed for the time it takes to complete the task at hand. I had no desire to kill myself. I had only the desire to read and sleep, and I gradually fell into a routine that included both.
A month later, while in the middle of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I heard my name being blared over the block’s P.A. system—the D Block counselor summoning me to his office. The counselor’s name was R. Brown, but he did not take the time to introduce himself. He seemed to think he was one of those rare individuals who needed no introduction, his name ubiquitously represented in his domain in virtually every direction one looked: R. Brown stenciled in black on the door of his cramped, windowless office: R. Brown engraved into the many meaningless plaques and awards routinely given by the Justice Department to low-level lackeys; R. Brown etched into the faux-gold nameplate positioned at a careful forty-five degree angle on his faux-walnut desk; and R. Brown imprinted onto the plastic name tag pinned to the threadbare lapel of his blue polyester jacket.
I immediately pitied him. While R. Brown’s name loomed prominent and bold, a thing nurtured and grotesquely exaggerated by hubris, the man himself was conversely reduced to a shadowy remnant, emaciated and eviscerated, sucked dry by his parasitic occupation and in desperate need of retirement. He did not offer me a seat, so I stood while he spoke, my hands clasped behind my back.
“I’ve been looking over your file,” R. Brown said flatly. His voice exuded apathy but did not strike me as being deliberately unkind, only hollow and empty. He opened the thick file folder on his desk; his attention hovered over one page while a shaky hand guided his darting eyes. “I notice you’ve had some adjustment issues,” he continued. “I trust that’s all behind you now.”
Since he hadn’t asked a direct question, I remained silent, responding only with a noncommittal nod that he could interpret any way he wished.
“I also see that you’re college educated,” he said, turning to another section of my file and stopping on an ear-marked page.
He peered over the tops of his bifocals and regarded me wearily. His yellow-tinged eyes were as empty as his voice, his soul just as hollow. Against my better judgment, I allowed myself to sympathize with his emptiness.
“Yes,” I answered.
“It says here that you got a B.M.S. from AIMS,” he continued. “That’s a Bachelor of Marine Science?”
“No,” I said. “Not in my case.”
Although I sensed he might be testing me, that he already knew what B.M.S. stood for, I told him the degree I had earned. His eyebrows went up in a way that denoted surprise; then he pursed his lips, perhaps indicating that he was genuinely impressed.
For a second time he had pronounced the abbreviation as if it were an acronym, “AIMS,” a common but mistaken affectation that I had heard throughout my college days. As politely as possible, I corrected him and said that A.I.M.S. is pronounced A.-I.-M.-S.
“I’m not familiar with that school,” he said.
He furrowed his brow as I told him what A.I.M.S. stood for.
“I would’ve never guessed,” he said. “I’m presuming that your college didn’t have much of a football program.”
“No,” I said. “No football.”
R. Brown laughed—a feigned response that told me he had known my degree and my college the whole time, and that he was about to reveal the true reason for calling me into his office.
“Well, well, well—almost all inmates here begin as part of the work cadre in Food Service,” he said. “All those who can work, that is. Now nobody likes working in Food Service, but there’s no way out of it. You’re there for the first year—at least. However—”
He repeated the word however several times, his voice trailing off slightly each time he said it, as if he were falling in slow motion down a deep, dark hole.
“However, given your unique educational background, I think we can make an exception. We’ve got something else that might be right for you, in the basement of the infirmary unit.’
He wrote my job assignment on a piece of paper—when, where, and to whom to report—and handed the slip to me. Then he scrawled his signature in a clumsy cursive, taking up the bottom third of a form in my file—a huge, looping R. Brown, which he seemed to admire greatly. Satisfied, he closed the file folder and again turned his attention to me.
“By the way, I saw that you’ve been put in the haunted cell,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to ask you—any problems I should know about?”
“Nope,” I answered, shaking my head. “None.”
That was seven years ago. Yes, I felt isolated, but in my isolation I also felt safely insolated from whatever evil may have existed within the walls and hallways of U.S.P. Ravelmont. For seven years I lived and rested in relative peace in D-52, and I saw no ghost. In my experience the dead had never caused problems, only the living.
This is how the ghost first made himself known to me: ashes, three tiny piles of ashes, light gray and dime-size, on the floor of my cell. I quickly dismissed their appearance with the simplest explanation: Someone had been smoking in my cell, thoughtlessly flicking his ashes to the floor as he snooped through my meager possessions. What else should I have thought? All the years I had slept and read in D-52, mostly undisturbed, and suddenly ashes.
Since tobacco was contraband, I did not think to blame another inmate. True, cigarettes were sometimes available on the prison black market at a premium price; but I could count on five fingers the number of inmates at Ravelmont who could afford that premium price, and all five were kept in Segregated Housing for their “protection.” So adhering to the basic premise of Ockham’s razor (i.e., all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the correct one), a concept I had learned from reading the novels of Umberto Eco, I saw in my mind’s eye a C.O. proudly chomping and puffing on a cigar as he rummaged around.
As that image dissolved into oblivion, I swept up the ashes and tried to not worry further about the intrusion. Despite any illusion of privacy I might have had as the lone occupant of the haunted cell, shakedowns and searches were commonplace. Any form of protest toward staff—written or spoken, formal or informal-only brought me unwanted attention and made my situation worse. I found it best to not dwell on these things—only to accept, forget, and move on.
I lay on my bunk and read my book until lights out. I slept. In the morning I went to my job assignment.
But that evening, soon after returning from chow, I found three more mounds of ash, each the exact size and shape of the ones from the night before. A simple explanation was that I had somehow missed them when I swept, but that explanation was hardly simple because I knew I had swept the entire floor—and mopped. A simpler explanation: These ashes were new. On my knees I examined them, holding my breath to look more closely. They were a delicate shade of gray, almost white, perfectly round and precisely formed. There existed no possibility that they had been flicked from the end of a cigar or cigarette. I pinched some ash between my fingers. It felt grainy and coarse, substantive but weightless, like stardust. I marveled at it. Then I brushed off my hands. I re-swept and re-mopped my floor, reaching into all four corners of my cell and all the space in between. Once the floor dried, I mopped again. Then I tried to not think about it. And I slept.
Sometime during the night my skin broke out in welts across my shoulders and all over my back. Although the welts were painless, only mildly irritating, I decided to go to Sick Call to have them documented. A week later I was seen by the prison’s primary physician, Dr. Kay Brornmer.
Dr. Brommer has always impressed me as having the qualities of an excellent physician, knowledgeable, attentive, caring (if too compassionate at times)—a rarity in the prison system. The first time I met her, I briefly wondered why such a good-natured and clearly accomplished woman would choose to make her livelihood in a prison rather than private practice. After a few visits with Dr. Brommer, however, her professional quirks became evident, particularly her paranormal approach to medicine. For example, during my inmate-intake exam, she asked when I last had my chakras aligned. And when I found myself battling the flu, she noted that I had a “low-grade fever and muddled aura.”
Not that it mattered. I knew that Ravelmont was lucky to have her, and I remained grateful that she was my doctor.
Examining the welts, she said, “They look almost like scratches.”
“I can’t even reach them,” I said defensively. I felt accused—a visceral, institutionalized response; in actuality, I had no reason to think she had accused me of injuring myself.
“Almost like claw marks,” she continued. Then she laughed uneasily. “You don’t have a lion in your room, do you.”
“Are they insect bites? Bedbugs, maybe?”
Dr. Brommer shook her head. This quick action made her blonde hair look like spun silk. “More like stigmata,” she said.
Stigmata. Dr. Brommer did not explain what the word meant to me; she did not define it. Unlike most prison staff, Dr. Brommer respected the potential intelligence of an inmate, never automatically assuming that he was an ignorant animal who’s incapable of asking questions if something’s not understood. She treated us like human beings and did not condescend, which I appreciated. As it happened, I was familiar with the basic concept of stigmata, having recently read The Stigmatic Monk, by Margaret Fox, which was based on the life of Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order. Before that, I had read The Secret Journals of Padre Pio, translated by Jaunita Vasquez. Both Saint Francis and Padre Pio had suffered the supernatural phenomenon known as stigmata, presenting the wounds similar to those on the crucified body of Christ, most evidently on their hands and feet.
Unlike Saint Francis and Padre Pio, though, I am not holy; and I’m certainly not devout, nowhere near it, so I asked, “Like a holy man?” Which was more of a statement than a question.
Dr. Brommer shrugged. “I think someone’s trying to contact you.”
“Has anyone near to you died recently?”
I considered the question. “I’ve never had anyone near to me.”
“A family member?”
I shook my head. “I have a sister, but I don’t know where she is.”
“One of your parents?”
“I never knew my father,” I said. “My mother might still be alive, but I don’t know where.”
“An aunt, uncle—”
“No,” I said.
“No one? Think about it—”
I had thought about it, and the thought nearly moved me to tears. I shook my head, shrugged.
“Have you noticed anything unusual around you?” Dr. Brommer asked.
Unusual—around me? I thought the question itself unusual. Since when was anything associated with my life unusual.
I shook my head and then asked, “Like what?”
“Well…” Dr. Brommer paused presently while she gathered her thoughts. “Like pennies,” she said. “Pennies in strange places. Like somewhere you didn’t put them.”
A penny found anywhere within a federal prison would be an unusual occurrence. Federal prisoners do not use pennies—nor coins of any denomination. Ours is a mackerel- and stamp-based economy. Federal inmates utilize packs of mackerel as dollars, and uncanceled postage stamps of varying denominations are used as coins. I’d not seen a penny in seventeen years.
“I don’t even remember what a penny looks like,” I said. “I’m surprised to hear that the real world still uses them.”
Then I told Dr. Brommer about the ashes.
Dr. Brommer listened to me, actually listened, which was another thing I appreciated about her. “Ashes are out of the ordinary, but I’ve heard of them being used,” she said. “Usually the departed use something they can maneuver with their frequencies—small things made of highly conductive metal. Pins. Pennies.” She paused, then added, “I’m sure that someone’s trying to contact you. You can’t think of anyone?”
“No,” I said. “Well, there’s maybe one person—my grandma. She took care of me when I was a boy.”
I told Dr. Brommer about my grandmother, how she took me and my sister into her home when no one else wanted us, how she tried to protect me from my grandfather’s belt when he felt the need to beat somebody, how she begged him to stop hitting me, and how she shed tears for me and my sister, even when she was on her deathbed, dying from cancer. And I told Dr. Brommer how I believed that my grandmother must have been the only person to ever love me. Then I cried, which had been something I swore that I’d never do in front of another person.
“Oh, Bubelab,” Dr. Brommer said. And then she gently placed her hand on my back, whispered a prayer in a language I couldn’t understand; and she cried with me—which was another thing I appreciated about Dr. Brommer.
But her crying for me caused me to cry harder.
I’ve often heard it said, usually with a strong degree of cynicism, that no inmate dies on the grounds of a U.S. prison unless he or she is sentenced to do so. Otherwise, it’s said, inmates are authorized to die only en route to the hospital. This was one of the recurring jokes we told one another, the punchline being: Any inmate dying in an unauthorized manner (i.e., within the confines of a U.S. prison) risks disciplinary action and a possible escape charge. A small joke, just something to ease the tension of prison life, yet something about it rang true. One could witness a man drop dead of a heart attack on the yard, watch while the man’s lips turned blue, watch while his coloring grew as gray as the stone and metal that surrounded him, but the official word invariably would be that the man died “en route.” The truth was, men died in prison; and Terminal Row, on the third floor of the infirmary unit, was where men at Ravelmont went to die.
Leaving Dr. Brommer’s office in Health Services, I decided to stop by Terminal Row. The only inmates granted access to T-Row, other than myself and the dying, were Medical Orderlies and Inmate Companions. Medical Orderlies were charged with such duties as emptying catheter bags, changing out soiled sheets and blankets, wiping and sanitizing the plastic-sheathed mattresses, and cleaning up the various accidents that occurred in the Row, whether the accident involved blood, urine, feces, food, or any combination thereof. Inmate Companions were supposed to offer non-medical assistance to the terminally ill, such as helping the men write letters to their families, or helping the men span the vertiginous space between a bed and wheelchair, between a wheelchair and toilet seat. At least that’s how it was supposed to work. But at the prison pay of nineteen cents an hour for Orderlies and fifteen cents an hour for the Companions, the Orderlies and Companions preferred supplementing their incomes by stealing from the infirm, preying on the weak, and taking full advantage of the Row’s transient nature. This was prison, after all.
My access to Terminal Row had been granted by the warden on Dr. Brommer’s premise that my visits somehow helped the dying cope with the inevitable. Not that the warden cared about the occupants of T-Row; to him my visits represented a Program (with a capital P) that looked impressive on paper and pleased the higher-ups. I visited inasmuch as Dr. Brommer requested it, and I remained welcomed by the Orderlies and Companions—with grudging neutrality—as long as I did not interfere with their wheelings and dealings and ongoing hustles.
In the bed closest to T-Row’s lone window lay Mr. Romano, a silver-haired former mobster and the most recent arrival to the yard.. Several books had been written about Mr. Romano’s life in the free world, none of which had ever gotten past the mail room’s screeners. Forty-three years ago, Mr. Romano had come into the federal prison system a robust man, an infamous crime boss, a true American gangster. He now resembled a weather-torn scarecrow with Corinthian leather skin and bloodshot black-button eyes.
Mr. Romano coughed, caught his breath, coughed again. “Hey, reach into my locker and pull me out a Pepsi, will ya?”
“Now you know Pepsi’s bad for you,” I said.
“Bad for me,” he cackled dryly. “Hell, get me a Pepsi.”
I bent down to look in Mr. Romano’s locker. “I don’t see any Pepsi,” I said. “Not a single can. Looks like someone’s cleaned you out.”
“That’s the problem with these old prisons—rats.”
“Want some water?”
“Just a little. Pitcher’s on the table.”
“It’s empty. Hold on a sec—”
I went to the sink, filled Mr. Romano’s pitcher, then poured half a cup and handed it to him.
“Tell me again the procedure,” he said. “Ya know—what happens. So I know what to expect.”
I repeated, with polite ambiguity, what I had told him twice before.
He gulped his water, then said, “The box sounds unnecessary.”
I agreed with him but said that the box was required by law.
“Law!” he said. “Well, how about that—in the end I’ll finally be in compliance.” He took another sip of water. “Wood or cardboard?”
I told him that it would be a box made out of comply-wood, also known as cardboard—a bad pun, but Mr. Romano appreciated it nonetheless.
“Cardboard!” he said. “Those cheap sons of bitches.”
“A nice cardboard box,” I embellished. “A dignified shade of brown—some might even say ‘tasteful’ or ‘elegant’—with bold, black letters on the box’s four sides, reading ‘THIS END UP’ in all capital letters, and arrows that point straight to heaven.”
“Maw,” he said. “Point me the other way. I got no use for heaven. Not now. I already know where I’m headed. I don’t need no damn arrows, and I don’t need no damn box.”
The small metallic case attached to Mr. Romano’s I.V. pole chirped twice, its L.E.D. readout changed from an 11 to a 10 as the pump mechanism hidden within clicked soft as a sigh. A moment later, Mr. Romano’s face took on a dreamy, far-away, and uncharacteristically goofy expression.”
“Ahhh,” he said. “Oh wow. I wish I could share this feeling with ya, kid. But like they say, youth is wasted on the young—and morphine on the decrepit.”
Counselor R. Brown never retired. Soon after our initial meeting seven years ago, he succumbed to a “long, brave battle” (as his obituary put it) against some unnamed illness. I’ve often wondered if R. Brown’s interest in my higher education, as memorialized in my Central File, wasn’t personal on some level. A.I.M.S.—or “AIMS,” as R. Brown twice mispronounced it—stood for Atlanta Institute of Mortuary Science, my alma mater, where I received my B.M.S., also known as a Bachelor of Mortuary Science.
When I first reported to the prison crematory to begin training under my predecessor, a wiry man in his sixties who was transferring to a medium-security facility, the C.O. took one look at my credentials and said, “01’ Brown must’ve creamed in his pants when you dropped in his lap.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, we didn’t do so well on the last A.C.A. inspection. Harrell, tell him what A.C.A. stands for.”
“American Correctional Association, sir,” said my predecessor, Mr. Harrell, who preferred the nickname “Raw Dog.”
“The A.C.A. oversees the C.AC.,” the C.0. said. “Harrell, tell him what C.A.C. stands for.”
“The Commission on Accreditation for Corrections, sir.
“Yup,” said the C.O. “The C.A.C. audited us last June, and we sucked. They hit us for several violations, and it brought the prison’s overall score down, big time. Of course, the A.C.A. won’t shut down a federal prison, never has, but it will shut down a prison crematory.”
The C.O. then instructed Mr. Harrell to bring me up to speed, to show me “the ropes,” and out the door he went.
“That’s probably the last you’ll see of him,” said Mr. Harrell. “They hate coming down here.”
“Why don’t they just shut this place down?” I asked.
“This place probably saves the prison a hundred thousand dollars a year, for one. And the warden’s bonus is based on how much money the prison saves, for two. Three, it’s also a source of pride.”
“Pride?” The place looked like a serial killer’s sanctum sanctorum, like something out of The Silence of the Lambs.
“Only three federal prisons still have operating crematories, and Lexington’s doesn’t really count ‘cause they only use theirs to incinerate animal carcasses. So that leaves two, and we’re one of ‘em. The crematory at U.S.P. Ravelmont is a bona fide institution, son.”
“Cool,” I said.
“Now, I’ve managed to right most of the deficiencies, like the unlabeled cremains in storage and the retort’s automatic shut-off switch, but I’m leavin’ in a few weeks—and that’s where you’ll come in. Hell, you could run this place—and you’ll practically have to.”
“Cool,” I said.
“The name’s Raw Dog,” he said.
I introduced myself, and we shook hands.
“This is the easiest job on the compound,” Raw Dog said. “For the most part you read a book or magazine—kick back, ya know? Once a month or so, you push this button to call up the flames. Then you back to your magazine and kick back.”
Actually there’s more to the cremation process than pushing a button, but I felt relieved to know that Ravelmont didn’t have an actual mortuary and therefore had no need for an embalmer. Compared to cremating, embalming is hard work. Embalming involves a good deal of puncturing and prodding, cutting and draining, stuffing and suturing. Gases have to be trapped; orifices have to be plugged. One has to contend with biohazards and caustic chemicals—to say nothing of the everchanging array of state and federal regulations. So compared to embalming, cremation is—well, the push of a button.
“You’re lucky as hell to have this job,” Raw Dog had said.
Lucky as hell. Thinking back on Raw Dog’s words and pondering their irony caused me to smile. Luck is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways, good and bad. The same with providence. I thought on these things as I left the infirmary and headed back to D Block. Amazing how a man could be so completely confident in the direction he’s headed in life but become stranded in a place he couldn’t have imagined and cannot recognize, how there are perhaps a billion paths a man’s life might take, but he’s able to blindly choose only one. Even when it might seem that every step makes sense, that divine providence is in control and he presses forward with the purest of faith, he can still become totally lost.
When I had left my grandparents’ house at age fifteen and made my way south, I met a generous couple in Atlanta who opened their hearts to me. I lived over their garage in a comfortable apartment. Inside the garage were parked two Cadillac hearses, one white, one black. The couple’s family business, of which I became a part, was the Byrnes, Conroy, and Mitchell Funeral Home. I swept floors, polished woodwork, helped tend to the lawn—all the odd jobs at first. I finished high school. I was soon promoted to the position of Funeral Attendant and Driver. I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Mortuary Science, passed the state exams, and at age twenty-one I became the youngest licensed Embalmer/Crematory Operator in the state of Georgia. I had my whole life ahead of me. But it was the life I had left in Ohio that still gnawed at my inner being like unfinished business.
Back in my cell, I discovered a penny had been placed on my windowsill, next to three more mounds of ash. I picked it up and held it between my thumb and index finger, stared at it solidly for several minutes, transfixed and amazed as how much I had forgotten about something as simple as a coin: the tactile sensation of cool, smooth metal; the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s profile faced the viewer’s right; the way one has to flip a penny vertically to see the reverse design right-side-up; that the phrase ONE CENT was on the back and IN COD WE TRUST was on the front. I looked at the date: 1972—the year of my birth.
For a brief moment I suspected Dr. Brommer of putting the penny in my cell, a simple explanation but a suspicion I quickly dismissed. It was absurd to think that she would do such a thing, that she would even bother. The penny worried me greatly, however. I couldn’t explain its presence rationally.
So I wrapped the penny in a wad of toilet paper and flushed it down the toilet. I took more toilet paper and dusted the ash off my windowsill, wetting the paper and carefully wiping the sill clean.
Then I tried speaking to the ghost. I said to it: Please leave me alone. If you are my grandmother, I want you to know that I’m okay. The past is past, and it can’t hurt me anymore. I’m alone but I’m okay, and that’s the way I want it. Please move on.
With nothing more to say, I went to sleep.
The cremation process is a simple one. The body, washed and naked, is placed in a cardboard box. The box is placed upon a conveyor and manually guided into the furnace or “retort.” The temperature of the retort climbs quickly, leveling off at about Fahrenheit 1750, plus or minus fifty degrees. Gas-hot flames first burn away the cardboard box and lick at the flesh of the deceased. The skin quickly peels away, revealing layers of bubbling fat and blackening meat. This part of the cremation process is gruesome. A fire-cooked cadaver is not a pleasant sight, but it can be oddly satisfying. Hours pass. Eventually all that’s left of a grown man is a white-gray residue of ash and bone.
Not everything is reduced to ash, however. Remaining chunks of bone and tooth must be collected for further reduction in a blender-like device called a cremulator. Some things contained within the bodies of the departed—though blackened, melted, and rendered unrecognizable to the untrained eye (dental implants, artificial joints, orthopedic screws, et cetera)—cannot be reduced further and must be disposed of properly. A titanium hip replacement, improperly disposed of, can come back to kick a man in the ass, so to speak.
When I arose the next morning, the sheets stuck to my back. They peeled off without much pain, so I didn’t think too much about it—at first. When I looked down at the sheets, I saw streaks of blood, fresh and red. The welts had gotten worse overnight and had opened. I took a clean t-shirt, put it on, and put another t-shirt over the first.
On my pillow was another penny. I resisted the impulse to throw it.
“You put it there,” I whispered, somehow knowing the ghost was listening. “Now take it away.”
The welts on my back stung. I could feel the warm wetness of blood and sweat creep down my back.
“You can’t hurt me anymore,” I said. “What’s done is done. The past is past.”
I felt another welt rise and split, this one across my shoulders. I felt a new one form across the small of my back. I removed the t-shirts and sat naked.
“Do your worst,” I said.
The pain stopped.
I gazed at the penny, wishing it gone. The coin was facedown. I contemplated an old singsong from childhood: Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck. But if the penny’s found face-down, leave it there on the ground. I tried and failed to remember the rest of the rhyme, but its message had been clear: A penny is good luck only if you find it face-up, bad luck if you find it face-down.
Tempting fate, I picked it up.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” I said.
The penny had been scorched black, as if retrieved from a fire. Its date read 1996, the year of my grandfather’s murder, the year I last saw my sister, and the year of my arrest. I turned the coin over several times. Against the back’s blackened background, the phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM gleamed in coppery brilliance.
“Is this what you want me to do?”
I took the ghost’s stillness for yes.
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one—the motto of the United States of America.
Eleven days after my finding that scorched penny, Mr. Romano was returned to Ravelmont from his “en route to the hospital.” His box was plain brown—no letters reading THIS END UP, no arrows pointing toward heaven, hell, or any destination in between. He might have liked it, I thought; and my remembrance of him drifted to one of our first conversations.
“Tell me, kid,” he had asked. “What’re you here for?”
Privately I objected to the question, but I understood his asking it. One of the things that keeps us separated in prison—along with the walls and fences, the blocks and cells, the various race distinctions and gang affiliations, and the prison hierarchy itself—is the charge that brought you to prison.
E unis pluribum. Out of one, many—the motto of the U.S. prison system. The many separated. The many isolated. The many.
“Murder,” I answered. “Among other things.”
“What other things?” he asked.
“Obstruction of justice,” I said. “Unlawful interstate transport of a corpse. Unlawful disposal of aforesaid corpse.”
Mr. Romano smiled. “Child’s play. How’d they catch you?”
“Four things,” I said. “A long-distance phone call placed from the victim’s house to mine. The amount of blood at the crime scene. The mileage recorded on the odometer of the 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood four-door hearse that I drove, nine hundred and twenty- four miles that couldn’t be explained, which happened. to be the distance between my house and his, round trip.”
Mr. Rornano winced lightheartedly.
“Not to mention a set of melted dentures and a blackened titanium hip prosthesis with a ceramic head and partially melted polyethylene acetubular cup, stupidly disposed of in a dumpster behind the crematorium where I worked.”
“Been there, done that,” Mr. Romano said. “Were you guilty?”
“That’s a long story.”
“Long story—that’s what people say when they don’t want to answer a question.”
“Let’s just say, guilty or not, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Mr. Romano asked.
“That is not a long story,” I said. “But it’s one I’ll take with me to my grave.”
Mr. Romano’s cremation process, including the emulsification of various pieces of bone and one tooth in the cremulator, took the better part of a morning. I gathered his cremains, the ash and bone that was once Mr. Romano. This was the sum total of a man, his life from beginning to end, now reduced to a few pounds of dust.
Stardust. That’s what my predecessor Mr. Harrell, Raw Dog, had called it. “We’re carbon-based life forms,” Raw Dog had said. Carbon comes from just one place in the universe, from inside exploding stars. We’re all made of stardust. All come from dust, and to dust all return.”
I said Mr. Rornano’s full name as etched into the side of the cremation cylinder, and then I tossed Mr. Romano’s ashes into the air in an explosion of stardust.
“E pluribus unum,” I said.
As Mr. Romano’s ashes settled over the crematory like a light dusting of snow, I went to the first storage room and took several of the containers from the top-left shelf. Those were the oldest cremains, their containers dignified as tin cans and possessing the dull-gray drabness of pewter. Over a century old, their original labels had deteriorated away, so each had been re-labeled “John Doe” and given the number slip designation U.U.U.—”Unknown, Unidentifiable, Unclaimed.” But somehow the true names of the men came to my lips as I opened their containers and threw their ashes upward. Some cylinders were difficult to open, and some had to be smashed open with the heavy door of the retort. My arms tired but I pressed on, opening every cylinder, from 1902 to present. Within an hour I had emptied the first storage room, and the air of the crematory, usually somber and still, swirled like the inside of a snowglobe.
The materials used in the cylinders changed as I progressed through the decades: pewter, tin, zinc, aluminum, plastic—”The Evolution of Can,” Raw Dog had called it. My lungs burned and my eyes stung. I tightened my mask and goggles, but I didn’t stop. Each man’s name was said, every soul freed in a flurry of white. Finally, with the storage rooms vacated and their shelves cleared, I jammed as many empty containers into the retort as I could. I slammed the retort’s door and latched it shut. Then I pressed the start button and called forth the flames, recalling the melting points of the various metals: pewter, Fahrenheit 440; tin, Fahrenheit 450; zinc, Fahrenheit 788….
The C.0. who escorted me back to my cell didn’t say a word. He didn’t look at me, not so much as a glance. To him I was invisible, which is the way things are in prison. My hair powdered with the ashes of 1,733 dead men and an untold number of stars, I sat on my bunk until the lights went out.
I undressed, went to the sink, braced myself on its edges, and looked into the mirror. There, for the first time, I saw him, the ghost, with his weary face and dark-dead eyes. We glared at each other. Hours passed. And I knew without question what still needed to be accomplished.
I confessed to him, told him the worst thing I had ever done.
I began my confession with the phone call I had received seventeen years ago. The call had come from my grandfather’s house, but it wasn’t his voice on the other end. “I finally did it,” she said; and then she told me what she had done. “You shouldn’t have called me,” I said; and soon I was heading north on 1-75 to Cincinnati, stopping only as necessary. When I reached my grandfather’s house, she opened the door and took me into his bedroom. I saw the blood, checked him for signs of rigor mortis. His skin was cold to my touch. “They’ll be able to tell when he died,” I said. She began to cry. “You’ve got to help me,” she said. Then she said something that’s haunted me ever since: “You should have never left me.” That night I drove restlessly back to Atlanta. The next morning I reduced our tormentor to ashes.
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever done,” I told the ghost. “I ran away at age fifteen and left my twelve-year-old sister in the care of my abuser.” I confessed how my stupidity, my selfishness, and my inaction turned my little sister into a murderer. And I added:
“Her secret’s safe with me.”
The ghost nodded once, but otherwise he returned only silence. I think he understood.