When it had happened, the blade slid between the ribs, once, twice—red mist. Erasmo blinked the image away. Where in the hell did they get off asking this shit of him, anyway? Always him. Erasmo, get the smokes. Erasmo, stab this dude. Erasmo, get the white t-shirts. No, whiter. Erasmo, there’s a new whipping kid in the M13s who intercepted a pick-up point and we gotta respond; here’s a knife, carve our initials in his baby face, do it by night so he don’t see who it is and when they come they have to come for all of us. Do it tonight or you ain’t gettin’ high and we ain’t gettin’ what’s ours.
“Is that kid okay?”
“Yeah, Padre, he’s alive.”
“Is he okay?”
“I mean, dude got lit up like a Christmas tree, but, you know, he was able to crawl back to the M13s at least.”
“Will they protect him?”
“They might but they get bloody, that’s truth. He messes up, they could off him. And you bet we Los Tibs got it out for his ass.”
The priest sighed like Pilate. “Do you understand your culpability here?”
“Man, fuck culpability. That kid knew—he knew what he was signing up for when he started intercepting, you know, business transactions. All I did was my job. I ain’t culpable for nothin’.”
“You cannot wash your hands of this; you’re telling me about it in the confessional.”
“Lay off, Padre.” But Erasmo respected him for it. The priest was a new kid. A Jesuit, with the invariability of a Greco-Roman bust.
“Your penance is ten Hail Marys for Church scandals and refugees. And you have to join an arts activity instead of running in the yard. You understand? One of the arts activities. I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Your sins are forgiven, go in peace. Stay away from the yard. Join an activity.”
All right, no gang shit these days. Sometimes Erasmo howled at the moon. Sometimes he showed up to rehearsal lifted. Sometimes he spent yard time in the chapel wheezy with tears. Sometimes he tried to scrape the ink teardrop from his eye bag until blood streaked the porcelain. And sometimes he spent himself in the rec theatre thumping on the Lansford Corrections Jazzers’ snare while he chanted something that wasn’t part of his heritage but felt right. During rec time he stayed clear of the warring yard, and the cellblocks where he looked at the same mugs for eighteen hours a day. But he missed the Los Tiburones. Not the shit they made him keister or the dudes they made him stab, but the way someone gave a shit where he was at any given moment.
A few weeks after he started avoiding the Los Tibs, Erasmo was losing his cool. He had to hide from them during rec time, or they’d remind him why he needed their protection. He had to find a yard-time refuge. He could either hide in the cellblock where he already spent nineteen hours a day, or Activities. So he wandered into the medium security theatre, next to the kennel. When the eccentric director type lady, Mama Jones, handed Erasmo the script, she had the lines highlighted in pink.
And Erasmo read in front of the crew assembled for auditions; unaffiliated guys he didn’t recognize. Maybe a cop killer, and one or two lady-dudes.
He liked to read aloud. He read psalms aloud and his bunkmate hollered, “No one hears you, bitch,” every morning. He wished that that one English teacher who failed him could hear him now; he finished his GED and he was fluent as shit.
He read the lines slowly, hit the consonants hard, heeded the punctuation.
“Uh … ‘When thou camest first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.’”
He paused, relaxed, let his amygdala feed on carefully kept memories. Then he agonized, “Cursed be I that did so! All the charms / Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!”—he pounded his chest here—“For I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king”—the veins in his temples pulsed, tears—“And here you—sty—me / In this hard rock, whiles you do—keeps—from—me / The rest o’ th’ island … uh, keep going?”
And the bespectacled ol’ lady let her jaw drop. “You’re brilliant!”
“I ain’t even know what this shit means, man,” Erasmo crooned.
And she straight up cast him as Prospero.
Erasmo started running with a new crew. They called themselves an ensemble.
Mama Jones was their glue. Sometimes she showed up hungover and sometimes she didn’t show up at all, but she never carried a civilian volunteer panic button and she never shirked a guy direct eye contact. She demanded they trust each other; made them stare into each other’s eyes and tell the truth when they were running lines. Erasmo resisted at first, but eating home-cooked lasagna and doing a little speed at The Tempest cast party, he melted into the safety net of the ensemble and committed his bones there. And the Los Tibs knew not to ask about him; he was an Activities guy now, and volunteers gave a shit about his well-being.
The oldest guy, Preach, used his life sentence to go through Baptist seminary and learn Greek. Lenny was an XXXL and they never asked what he was in for, but Erasmo heard his name came from the Steinbeck character. Tamberland was huge too, but he wouldn’t perform. His job was to police the door; keep out the guys who were interested in Mama Jones’ hips and breasts or who wanted to jump an ensemble member (Erasmo particularly appreciated the protection). Tamberland and Mama Jones were in love in another life, so she called for his bouncer services in all rehearsals. Bryant was covered in tattoos and had complicated cornrows. He was on the Arts in Prison pamphlet cover, and the civilians came bi-yearly mainly to watch this ex-rapper deliver lines of perfect iambic pentameter in his booming rasp. Cici tested their patience by demanding that they call her by a name not on her inmate ID card, and tested their commitment when Cici’s performance of Goneril decked in her bodacious Renaissance dress had a skinhead in the audience yelling “whore” the whole time. Erasmo may or may not have been involved in the sending of a message. The skinhead’s “pure race’ tattoo was replaced by a bandaged wound that bled for a week, and his people made no noise other than polite clapping at performances from then on. Kane was their best dancer, but he had trouble with lines.
“Damn, son, you sight-memorized all the words you know,” Bryant pointed out when Kane read the word ‘determine’ as ‘detrimental’ on the page. So Kane added phonetics to his agenda of self-betterment while in the pen. “It’s not you, Kane, it’s the public school system,” Cici consoled. The rest of the guys murmured agreement. The ensemble always had a common enemy in systems.
They were running scenes from Godot when Jereme joined them.
Erasmo recognized the kid immediately. And something in him started to break, so he swallowed some spit and paced. The kid looked older now. Tougher.
He drooped in and pulled up his blues before he sat down, his boots untied. Face branded by the Los Tiburones. Infected cartilage piercings. Light skin and green eyes, one with healed remnants of a shiner. Black rag tied around his head. Cut lip. He chin-nodded to Mama Jones, who looked up at Tamberland.
“He’s cool,” Tamberland announced from the booth.
Mama Jones motioned for Lenny and Kane to continue the scene they were reading. They hadn’t put in the work to deserve her attention yet anyway. “Who are you?” she asked the kid already slumped in the audience chair.
“Jereme the Dream,” the kid answered. Bryant laughed out loud.
“Y’all doing some Shakespeare shit?”
“We’re doing Samuel Beckett this year. We couldn’t get enough actors for Shakespeare. All this gang horseshit has our numbers low.” Jereme was silent. Mama Jones cracked her neck and continued, “Waiting for Godot—Beckett’s play made famous by the San Quentin prison. That was its first successful production. The prisoners just got it.”
“Boy, it’s absurd,” Cici chirped. “It’s about running on the wheel but never gettin’ no cheese, okay.”
“You in?” Mama Jones asked.
Jereme sucked his teeth. “Mm, naah, man.”
“Uh uh! We had a deal. You play or you out, heard?”
Tamberland thumbed toward the door to the yard.
Jereme’s stare was blank. “‘Ight, what will you have me do, ya ladyship?”
“Erasmo, run a scene with Mr. Jereme. I want him reading for … hmm.”
“Lucky?” Lenny threw out. Kane rolled his eyes; everyone knew Kane had been practicing his hunch for a week.
“How about The Boy,” Bryant smirked. “That way he don’t haveta know how to read.”
“He’s got an Estragon vibe. Erasmo, you read for Vladimir.”
With that, Mama Jones went back to blocking her Pozzo and Lucky for their audition scene. Erasmo stopped white-knuckling the script when he realized the kid didn’t recognize him.
Jereme sauntered over to Erasmo and stared at the ground.
“You know how to read?” Erasmo asked.
“Yeah, asshole, I can read. Gimme that script.”
“Uh, let’s start at the top of Act Two. I was working this with
Bryant earlier. Here,” Erasmo pointed to Estragon’s line at the top of page fifty-seven. “I start first. With … Well, we’ll skip ahead to your part because Didi solos this whole song about a dog—,”
“Tha hell is Didi?”
“Vladimir. You’re Gogo.”
“Why’d she say I have a ‘estrogen vibe?’”
“Es-tra-gon,” Erasmo emphasized. “Gogo. He’s a character. A dude.” Erasmo waited. “Well if you can read, bro, read!”
Jereme glanced up at an arm-crossed Tamberland, then cleared his throat. “I’m, uh—,”
“Right, right. Okay.”
Erasmo pantomimed the stage directions of feverish movement and being startled by Estragon’s entrance. He jumped up and screamed, “You again?”
Jereme inhaled through his nose and read the line, “Don’t touch me.”
“No,” Erasmo shook his head. “You jumped me. I mean you jumped my line. I wasn’t—,”
“Oh, my bad—,”
“—it was still my line. Okay. Try again.” He shook off Erasmo and put on Vladimir. Startled, “You again? Come here till I embrace you!” holding out both arms.
“Don’t—touch—me!” Jereme stepped back. “Do you want me to go away?”
“Gogo!” As per the stage directions, Erasmo observed him attentively. “Did they beat you?”
Jereme looked at the floor.
Jereme glanced at the stage directions, then kept his head bowed.
Erasmo continued, “Where did you spend the night?” “The, uh—,” Jereme fumbled with his script.
“Let’s try again. From your last line. Be ready.”
Jereme read, “Don’t touch me!”
“Do you want me to go away? Gogo! Did they beat you? Gogo! Where did you spend the night?”
Jereme screamed, “Don’t touch me! Don’t question me!
Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!” His voice cracked. There was a vacuum silence and the blurred background figures were watching now. Jereme quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his inked hand. “Ah, man.”
Erasmo smiled, “You good, bro?”
“Man, that Gogo guy gets real, man.”
“Yeah, bro, I told you!” Erasmo was beaming. Jereme grinned back. “Did I ever leave you?” Vladimir asked. “You let me go,” Estragon replied.
Vladimir: “Look at me. Will you look at me!?”
Estragon: “What a day!”
Vladimir: “Who beat you? Tell me.”
“Wait, so,” —Jereme dropped the character— “so this Estragon guy gets beat? Who beats him?”
“That’s the point! They don’t know.”
“I bet it’s the man.”
“Yeah, bro. Like, Gogo is like, he’s the brooding poet type, you know. Things hurt him worse than other people. He’s like … like, sad all the time but because he understands some things deeply.”
“I wanna do that scene—where’s that in the play?”
“I mean, nah. It’s implied by the dialogue, ya dig? It’s absurdism. So like. You gotta read it vague and then apply it all specific to your experience, man. ” Jereme blinked. Erasmo readjusted his point of attack. “Mama Jones says this Beckett dude was trying to show the world that there’s no, like, meaning. Like post-World War II shit. I mean after the Holocaust and atom bomb and shit, you know. And he was in the, the French, like, Resistance and had to hide from the Germans for two years in a tiny attic with one other dude who he couldn’t stand.”
“Yeah, and people think that’s why he wrote this. That’s the central relationship in this play, bro. Two dudes who have to be together who don’t want to be. But I dunno. I think . . . It’s a lot of things.” Erasmo motioned to Jereme’s script. “Let’s finish up the scene—start at the top of the page.” Erasmo cleared his throat. “Did I ever leave you?” Vladimir asked.
“You let me go,” Estragon replied.
Erasmo spoke it softly. “Look at me. Will you look at me.” “What a day.”
“Who beat you? Tell me.”
Erasmo looked right into Jereme’s eyes in time to see them dilate in when Tamberland yelled, “Jereme, some fellas at the door for you!”
Jereme tripped on his way to a seat out of sight of the door. “Uh-uh. I ain’t available. Mandatory activity hours.”
“So, you’re in the troupe for real then, eh?” Erasmo was pleased. The kid was a natural.
Jereme rubbed the exhaustion from his eyes. And he just started spilling and couldn’t stop. “Man, they had me picked to do a killing tonight. Got me a knife and everything. And I ain’t tryna kill no dude while I’m in here, you know what I’m sayin’? I can’t afford that shit, man. I can’t … it was just running errands starting out, and goddamn, man, now it’s … shoot, man.”
“You don’t gotta explain.” Erasmo put a hand on Jereme’s denim shoulder. “Sanctuary, bro. This is your new weeknight yard time. And we do church on Sundays. And I do speed on Fridays.”
Mama Jones called, “You’re up, Erasmo and Jereme. Break your legs.”
And the two killed the audition.
Later, at chow, after Erasmo reached over Jereme for some beans in line, and Jereme said, “Excuse you, Didi,” and the rosary around Erasmo’s neck fell out of his shirt, Jereme’s smile faltered. “You run with the Los Tiburones? I feeled like I recognized you.”
“Nah, man. That ain’t me.” Erasmo dry swallowed his cornbread. But he could bar the memory no longer: the kid laying on the concrete next to the bench press ragged breath, bleeding from his mouth, ‘LT’ carved into his cheek—who Erasmo had followed into a corner of the moonlit yard. The image would always make him queasy and slow him down in his later years.
Jereme didn’t blink. His eyes pinned Erasmo’s, the red vein wisps pulsed against the white, his throat muscles contracted, the scar on his cheek showed up electric against his purpling complexion, and Erasmo was aware of just how much time this kid had been spending on the pull-up bar. Jereme took Erasmo’s milk and left the table. And he didn’t come back to rehearsal again. Word on the yard was he joined night school callout to get his degree.
And later, when Padre went on about redemption in the homily, it stung bad as ever, and Erasmo kind of wished his side had been pierced too—he kind of wished he was bleeding.