At Sing Sing, once classes are over in the school building at night, we are allowed to use the phones in the yard. Chaos usually erupts as inmates race to the phones like stampeding bulls. It’s enough to make me avoid the trouble on most nights. But there are times when I fiend for the voice of a loved one and am forced to join the herd.
One late summer night in 2014, I get in line and hand my I.D. to the officer. When I hear my name called, I squeeze past the other inmates and dial my mother’s number. I listen to the automated message and anticipate the melody that is her voice. As soon as she speaks, I know something is wrong. I could always sense her pain, even when I was a child. It runs down my flesh like the chills. My heart pauses, like that first big drop on a rollercoaster.
“What’s wrong, Ma?” I ask.
Her words are calm and precise. “I want you to listen,” she begins. “Daddy is gone, he passed away this morning.”
There is a long silence. She continues, probably about the funeral arrangements, but I am lost in my own thoughts. I still feel dazed when I hang up. I walk around the yard until it is time to return to my cell. I don’t bother to undress. I just lay on my bunk, stare up at the paint-chipped ceiling and have a conversation with my grandfather.
“You couldn’t wait just a little while longer?” I ask. “I know I let you down. But if you had given me more time, I believe I would’ve made you proud. Every virtue I have, I inherited from you. You taught me how to forgive, how to love. You taught me that a real man puts family first.
“Thank you for waking me up every four hours to give me cough medicine when I was sick. Thank you for allowing me to make mistakes and never turning your back on me.
“Oh, I never apologized for the time I made your nose bleed when we were playing W.W.F.! Remember, I was the Ultimate Warrior, and you were Hulk Hogan?
“I’m sorry for not being by your side when you took your last breath. Please forgive me.”
He never says a word.
The funeral is a few days later. I won't know until the last minute if I am allowed to go. On that day I stay in my cell, not wanting to be hard to locate if I am called to take the trip. By noon I am getting nervous. At quarter to one, I hear my name being called over the loudspeaker to report up front to the O.I.C., the officer-in-charge for the housing unit.
The two officers who will escort me to the funeral home lead me to the processing area. I am strip-searched and shackled from waist to ankles. One officer reads off a bunch of rules to follow, or else. I nod, half listening.
The two officers are wearing suits. I am dressed in my state greens, a matching button-up shirt and pants that resemble the pajama sets my grandfather used to wear around the house. I am not allowed to wear anything appropriate to his funeral. I am made to put my incarceration on full display.
When we get off the highway, it’s the first time in 13 years that I see the South Bronx. It has the same look and feel as it always did. Street vendors, bodegas and Chinese restaurants sprinkle every block. Merengue and reggaetón blast from speakers, occasionally drowned out by rap from a moving car. People of all shades hurry to their destinations. It’s like I straightened up my room before I left and no one set foot in it since.