- Prison and Justice Writing
- Annual Prison Writing Contest
- Prison Writing Award Winners Archive
- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Word of the Day: Bifurcation
Kevin Schaeffer was awarded an Honorable Mention in Fiction 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.
Knew this guy back in county by the name of Jessup Waskey. We called him Jess. For me, he always epitomized one of Life’s bastards. Slumped in a chair out in the dayroom, musing on all he’d lost, all that’d been taken away. Old. Skin all leathery, gray hair shorn and sloppy. Hands still a bit shaky with the DT’s. Flattened by prison carbs and hours of Maury re-runs. Think of him more and more these days, maybe ‘cause I’m about the age now he was back then.
Remember this time he called me over after he got some legal mail. Everyone there knew I’d done a two-year stint at Languor Area Community College–class of ‘09, Go, Grackles–and so they were always pesting me with their brain busters. ‘Worm’ll know,’ they’d always tell each other. “Worm” was what they called me, short for “Bookworm” I guess, though I don’t recall reading any more than the next guy. Anyway, I loved the attention at the time. This was back when I knew it all…Twenty-one. God, I was a little shit.
So Jess waves me over and hands me this letter. ‘From those bloodsuckers my wife just hired,’ he explains. Seal of Mingus, Mingus & Herbgartner on the envelope. Jess et ux. had their bets down on all varieties of liability suits. Big one at the time was against some beer cozy manufacturer, Jess claims its defective product failed to contain the freezing temps of his brewski as it nestled between bristly thighs, somehow resulting in his tragic sterility. On the outside, his wife was supposed to be leading the charge on this elusive payday, ideally sobbing before a judge and jury re: her want of issue. A match made in…somewhere.
Guy talked about her constantly–Pony was her name, the wife. How the two of them met at this bar called the Dew Drop way up in Feint Gulch, eloped the next morning and settled into a life of modest comfort in his retro twenty-footer Streamslide. Always bragging about their timeless benders and feral forinications. Lost in the feeling of her fingers through his waist-long locks, and ah, that boozy breath in his face as they wod at mid-day.
Anyways, I’m standing over him skimming the thing, and he’s griping away: ‘It’s all that damn lawyer-talk. Like they don’t want you to know what they’re–What’s this one mean right here,’ pointing to the page.
‘Motion for…Hmm, interesting, yes.’ I cleared my throat, trying to stall to save face. ‘Shall henceforth proceed separately,’ scrambling for some context, damn leaglese. ‘Deemed in the best interests of both parties. Motion for, ahem…Bifurcation.’
‘That’s good? What’s it mean?’
‘Um, I…know it, sure. But maybe we should consult the Scrabble gods on this one? Just to be safe’
Now, in my thirty-plus years down, I’ve scoured my share of lexicons. Read straight from “aardvark” to “zyzzyva” and back again more times than I’d care to mention. Pored over etymologies, usage intrigue, you name it. And I can tell you with the utmost confidence that few guides are less useful for one’s denotative needs than the Scrabble dictionary. Not only are its definitions wanting, but it includes pretty much no words longer than seven letters, seeing as how that’s the standard tile allotment for sanctioned gameplay.
I grab the thing from the C.O.’s desk and let Jess flip through himself. Teach a man to fish, and all that. Meanwhile, half the block has gathered around, awaiting my newest revelation. No pressure, right? WEll, Jess is getting all impatient, dollar signs floating to the surface of his med-glazed eyes: ‘Just tell me what it means! It’s not in here!’
I do some noble, SAT-grade word deconstruction and smirk like little turd I was (and likely am): ‘Oh, isn’t it?’
Wish I could say all the eyebrows went up, that I earned a few audible gasps, but I’m not going to glorify any of this. Honestly, I was just hoping to clear my conscience a bit.
‘Furcate,’ I recite. ‘To divide into branches/’
Ah, crud. Try reading Jess’s face next–but there’s no comprehension to be found. Just sincere and unwitting hope.
Could he really not get it? After all those stories of two-sided infidelities, run-ins with the law? That month he spent beneath the overpass after pawning her dog for beer money? All the frying-pan bruisers she gave him? Or that last time he stumbled home and passed out on the lawn chair, and Pny cut off all his hair? (This being the event, as Jess saw it, which led to his Samson-like downfall and present legal woes.)
Start to spell it out for them: ‘Bi, meaning two…so bifurcate, or bifurcation, would mean…’
‘The division into…two branches,’ looking around at all the dumb stares. ‘Anyone with me?’ Knowledge is a curse–don’t let anyone tell you different. Especially in a place like this.
Anyway, they say the cost of any action should be weighed against its intentions, so there’s that. And those guys all know I was the only one in school for a lousy Business Associates. How was I to know, in a strictly legal sense, “bifurcation” really had nothing in particular with divorce? That it just meant the judge had divided his lawsuit against the Cozy Can & Cushion Co. into liability and damages proceedings?
‘Dang, man,’ is all I manage. ‘Your old lady, she’s…leaving you.’
Everyone gets quiet, wanders off. Couldn’t say if I actually did my lasting damage. Got sent upstate soon afterwards. Maybe they made it through. Or maybe the natural strain of his sentence wore them down. But at the time, and I guess this is what gnaws at me most, Jess just sat there with that dead look in his eyes. Picturing all the browned grass and crushed cans of his eighth-acre plot, his old brief abandoned to blow forever in the wind. Pny traded off week by week among Herbgartner and the smarmy Brother Mingus. Finally packing off by Pancoast bus line to some distant and nondescript double-wide, maybe even signed on as some Atlantic trawler hag, who could know? Jess, he wasn’t the brightest, but he could do the mental math, figure what that left him. All those memories, the fond and the screwy, a whole existence together, transmuted by legal mumbo-jumbo (and misinformed bullshitting, okwy) down to an eighteen-point Scrabble play.
Freaking life, man. Or versions of it, I mean.
Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.