Six knives hang above my butcher’s block but the bread knife is my favorite. I love its heft and the way the black handle marries my hand. Wrist stiff, I saw a two-foot long ciabatta loaf into thick slices to bag and freeze. Back and forth, enjoying the rhythm and the crackle as serrated teeth shatter the bread’s exoskeleton. Watching tiny shards of crust tumble to the scrubbed pine board. The sweet relief when the blade sinks into the dough’s soft meat. The last cut that scars the wood when the slices separate.

Jack rolls orange sleeves over firm biceps. He’s missing a lower molar. “I’m a murderer,” he says after my prison writing workshop, not in a way that might intimidate, but more to provide an explanation.

“Oh, really?” I don’t know what else to say.

He’s done nineteen years locked down for most of each day. But that morning, he’d been pounding armored Arizona dirt with a pick-axe in the garden, knee-deep in lantanas that he’d coaxed to flower red and purple.

“Yes, but that wasn’t why I got thirty-two years. The judge didn’t like that I cut the body into eight pieces.”

I like Jack. He fishes for life. Although he lives in a place where men hoard the scent of weakness to hone into shanks, his smile radiates possibility. Every few weeks, he rips little pieces from the worst list of his life and records them on paper ruled with blue lines as faint as scars.

“The body was dead!” he says. “Why did the judge think that was worse than murder?”

In the windowless corridor where even shadows have shadows, sweat slicks our skins in the sweltering heat. He carries my clear plastic tub of books.

We reach the courtyard and the sun’s glare. Troubled that I don’t know the answer to his question, I tell him to revise his poem. Writers have to examine their motives.

After I’m waved through the gate, Jack spreads his legs. A guard bends low to probe Jack’s groin, he slides two hands down each long thigh as though smearing ointment. I don’t hear the joke Jack shares while fingers explore his armpits but I’ve heard his jokes before. They’re silly. Fit for the Sunday Times comic page.

Outside the final gate, the desert is parched to gristle. Mesquite leaves rustle like old fish scales. It feels good to exit that last prison gate and breathe untainted air. But I’m not cleansed. Jack’s story is stuck beneath my tongue. I hope the murder was quick.  I wonder where the eight cuts fell, I wonder whether they were chosen to facilitate stackable lengths.

My kitchen knives are old and blunt. They need replacing. When I slice a ripe tomato, the soft flesh bulges before it surrenders to the knife. Before the skin splits to reveal soft flesh, the color of gums. Before the sacs of tiny seeds rupture and squirt thin juice to moisten the front of my shirt.

 

Gillian Haines

Gillian Haines is an Australian who lives beside Sonoran saguaros and rufous hummingbirds. She has volunteered in Tucson’s federal and state prisons for eleven years because inmates only know the desert’s thirst. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her narrative nonfiction is published in various magazines including The Santa Clara Review, Bridge Eight, Biostories, The Cherry Tree, and the Tishman Review.

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