I never knew why they called him Philly — his name wasn’t Phillip, and he wasn’t from Philadelphia. To look at him, you would never guess why he was in prison. You know the saying “The eyes are the windows to the soul”? Well, when you looked into Philly’s eyes, there were shower curtains over the windows; you could see in, but you weren’t sure what you were looking at.
The truth was he had raped a ten-year-old girl. He had been in Coxsackie, a maximum-security prison, but when the other inmates found out his crime it became too dangerous for him there. He was shipped here to Beacon, because he was near enough to parole to qualify for medium-security clearance. I first met him in the prison psychiatrist’s waiting room one morning in August. He was trying to be nonchalant, and failing. He crossed his legs, watched the hallway traffic, picked his nose. We had at least two obvious things in common: we were both white, and we were both waiting for the shrink. So I caught his eye and said, “Hurry up and wait, huh? They always tell you to be early, then make you wait forever at this place.”
He sized me up, looking at my biceps, my chest. Then he gave me the max stare-down, no fear, no weakness. I smiled to put him at ease. At first he was confused, but then he smiled back.
“You ever see this shrink before?” he asked me, watching a nurse walk down the hall, following the sound of her footsteps even after she passed out of sight.
“Yeah, he’s OK. You can’t bullshit him. Don’t try to get drugs to make you sleep or nothing. I see him because of what happened: I got in a car wreck when I was drunk and killed my girlfriend. Some guys just tell him how they’re going to go off, and complain about the food and shit; he doesn’t put them back on call-out to see him for six weeks or so. Me, I see him every two weeks. He’s OK.”
I had gotten over being secretive about my crime, but I knew most guys were secretive, so I was surprised when Philly said, “I got a body, too. Shot my best friend in bed with my wife. Boom,boom.” He mimed pump-loading a shotgun. It looked rehearsed. I could tell he was lying, which meant he had something to lie about, and therefore was probably a sex offender. Beacon’s population is 22 percent sex offenders. It’s the prison’s dirty little secret. A guy who worked in Administrative Records gave me the 22 percent figure. Of course, he could have been lying, too.
The shrink called my name, and I went in for my twenty-minute session. When I came out I said to Philly, “My name’s Kelly. See ya,” and shook his hand. As I left, he entered the cocoon of the shrink’s office, where the shades were drawn to fend off the heat.
I didn’t run into Philly much for about a year. I heard guys say they hung out with him a little — prisoners hesitate to call another guy a “friend,” even though they might behave like friends. Then Philly was transferred to the Honor Dorm, where I lived. He wound up in a double room adjoining my single. We both attended Mass on Saturday nights; Philly also made it to the Protestant services on Sunday morning. He liked the chapel. He seemed to loosen up there. After Mass, his roommate would go to watch TV, and Philly would gravitate toward my room to talk.
The story about killing his best friend with a shotgun fell by the wayside around Christmas, and Philly started to tell me other stories, ones so vivid they couldn’t have been made up. He told me his stepdad, a big, hulking auto mechanic, raped him when he was seven years old. He described how the old man came in drunk, smelling like whiskey and gasoline, how he held Philly down with his big hands covered with grime. Philly would pee in his bed whenever he heard his stepfather come in the door, and his mattress always smelled of urine. He told me about his own first “transgression”: fondling a seven-year-old girl; how one thing led to another (he was mostly vague about his crimes) until he finally got caught. How his greatest fear was that he would someday molest his own children, though he didn’t have any yet. The other inmates at Coxsackie had pinned a label on him: “tree-jumper,” a guy who stalks children and hides in bushes or behind trees.
It was unusual for an inmate to share such intimate information with another inmate, and there were times I didn’t really want to hear it, but I guess I’m just a good listener, and he knew I didn’t gossip. Philly had a younger brother who was killed at seventeen in a drunk-driving accident. I told him my girlfriend had been molested as a kid. Rather than driving us apart, this served to draw Philly and me together. We started sharing food in the dorm: he’d have some extra rice; I’d have some leftover sauce. I’d do him favors, like waking him up in the morning, always remembering to shake his bed, not him — if you touched him while he was asleep, he’d jump up and start swinging. I ate with him at the mess hall, too, and would pick him up a bar of soap or some stamps at the commissary if he forgot. He’d do the same for me. Yeah, I guess we were friends.
Every prisoner is assigned to a counselor, who advises him. When Philly’s counselor told him he had to take part in the sex-offender program if he was to have any hope of making parole, Philly flew into a panic. Two years earlier, the stupid administration had called out a list of names for the program; afterward they had to put three guys in protective custody, and made the astute observation that perhaps a call-out wasn’t such a good idea. So Philly and the seven other guys were just supposed to know where to go on Wednesday nights. Philly looked like an all-American kid compared to the others in the program: guys with goatees, scarred foreheads, and intimidating stares; one had a horrible stammer, and his head was always off kilter. They all looked like sex offenders, except for Philly; or maybe it just seemed that way to me. I tried to imagine a background for each of them, tried to overcome my hatred and loathing for what they were: rapos, tree-jumpers.
Philly told me about the class. The civilian group leader would go around the room asking them, “How are you feeling today?” Most would say they were fine, or maybe talk about a problem brewing at home. Then the civilian would start a “game” to encourage them to talk about their pasts. One time, they stood in a circle holding hands and imagined their fathers standing in a circle surrounding them. “What would you say to him?” the group leader asked. Most said things like, “I hate you” — but, curiously, never, “Fuck you.” Another time, they had to imagine their victims in the larger outer circle. Then things got really uncomfortable, according to Philly. Some said, “You know you wanted it, bitch,” or, “You lied to put me in here.” Philly said all he could come up with was “I’m sorry.” The others snickered.
He said most of the class was bullshit advice about what to do with your sexual frustrations, how to channel them, how to stay out of trouble. He felt lost. “Hell, Philly,” the others would tell him, “we’re just here for the parole board.”
The Honor Dorm began to get a reputation as a child-molester haven. I remember someone saying to me, “You’re in the Honor Dorm, aren’t you, Kelly? I hear you guys got rakes up there instead of brooms.” It took me a while to get what he was driving at: rakes — leaves — tree-jumpers. Others who lived in the dorm would yell down the hall, trying to sound like a police bullhorn: “Put the candy down and let the little boy go.” They were probably child molesters themselves.
As time went by, some guys left the dorm and new ones arrived. We never knew positively who was or wasn’t a sex offender. Most were quiet and kept to themselves. Then two new guys showed up who stood out from the rest. One, named Carlos, was a real wise guy. He’d staple people’s bedsheets to their mattresses or toss a guy’s room like it had been searched by a corrections officer on the warpath, or erase names from the sign-out board. In the gym, he would swish an incredibly long shot with the basketball, then run around waving to a make-believe crowd as if he had just broken a world’s record. He could really get on your nerves. Carlos’s buddy, Benji, was a big black guy from Panama. Benji was Carlos’s fall guy and partner, sometimes bearing the brunt of his pranks, sometimes a co-conspirator. Soon after they arrived, the dorm fell into two camps: those who liked them and their fooling around, and those who didn’t. I figured it was only a matter of time before somebody lost his temper and decked one of those guys.
Philly got along OK with Carlos at first. They both watched a lot of baseball, and Carlos’s pranks broke the tension and cheered Philly up. But then Philly lost it in a big way.
He had been more depressed than usual all summer. His favorite team, the Red Sox, wasn’t doing too well, and he was becoming sullen and moody, his eyes cloudier and harder to read. One day, in the middle of October, Philly and I were gone to our afternoon programs. The grounds crew had been raking leaves for days, and huge bags of them lined the walkways. Somehow, Carlos and Benji snuck one of the bags up to the dorm. I figure Carlos probably spread the leaves while Benj i stood lookout. Philly’s room got more leaves than mine, but both looked like department-store window displays, with red and gold leaves covering lockers and beds and floors. When I think back on it, it was kind of beautiful. Philly found it before I did. Those leaves in his room must have really pushed his buttons. “Tree-jumper,” they said to him.
Carlos made a big mistake coming back while Philly was cleaning up. Who knows, maybe Carlos was planning to help him, to smooth it over a little — they were pretty friendly. Philly slashed Carlos with a razor blade on a toothbrush, cutting him across the face and neck. I didn’t actually see it happen. I was on my way up the stairs to the dorm when I was bowled over by a squad of corrections officers, who instructed me to go to the kitchen. I peeked down the hall and watched Philly being led away in handcuffs, blood on his pants and shoes. Carlos was carried out on a stretcher.
I was left to clean up. I swept Philly’s bloody boot prints, and the leaves mixed with blood where Carlos had gone down. The broom became like a giant paintbrush, streaking blood across the floor. I took it down the hall to the shower to rinse it. Benji was there in the bathroom and started to laugh a little when he saw me with the broom. “Go fuck yourself,” I told him.
Ten days later I was back in the prison psychiatrist’s office, talking about what had happened. He asked me how I felt about it. “Practical jokes can get out of hand,” I said sensibly. I wanted to be the picture of mental health. I wanted out, bad.
“You know, it would be only natural for you to feel it was frightening, or upsetting. You’ve lost someone you knew and hung out with a little.” He was watching my face closely. A poster on his wall showed a kitten hanging from a thin branch, with the caption “Hang On!”
“Where’d Philly go?” I asked, not expecting an answer. Prison personnel don’t usually tell you where guys have gone.
“Across the street,” he said, trying to make it sound less ominous than it was; instead, he made it sound like a pitifully short distance from here to the psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. I imagined Philly’s eyes glassed over with Thorazine and hate, curtains closed for good.
I think about Philly every time the leaves start to fall, or whenever I read about incest, a kid wetting his bed and growing up to hurt other kids. I eat by myself now, and only see the shrink every six weeks. He says I’ll be OK.