Across the street and several blocks up is a towering cuboid of grey concrete, steel reinforced beams and tiny slitted windows. There is a single figure hanging over the railing at what must be ten, fifteen stories from ground level. The side facing me in the evening sunlight gives off a glow which is almost attractive but for the knowledge that somewhere within that vaulted monstrosity Denver is staring back at me. He might be behind one of the serpentine slits, I tell myself, examining this little man on his balcony.
The jetstreams behind the prison have finally crossed and, though one is faded, they do form a broken tic tac toe in the sky. The sound of a low-flying propeller plane breaks my train of thought and I glance up, wincing at the cod notion that my proximity to the airport is somehow fitting; that Denver’s incarceration and these passenger planes make a perfect counterpoint.
If you ask me, and of course you do not, his sentence was rather unfair. Twelve months—one whole year without any possibility of parole—for what the judge had admitted was self-defense. He was drunk, of course, but so was this man Carrigan, and had my cousin been a law-abiding citizen that November evening he would now also be a citizen with a slit throat and god knows how many stitches.
The sidewalk beneath the balcony is quiet. Since I got home I’ve counted the hours. I know every point on the Reitz Prison’s inmate schedule. Six p.m. is dinner, seven they can be seen strolling in groups of five or less around the solitary open level just below the administrative floors, by eight p.m. this ritual is over and they retire to their cells for “personal time”. Before he left I gave Denver a calendar; in doing so I felt every bit the asshole and at the same time wanted to cry for the pointlessness of it all, the idiocy and necessity of his having punched Andrew Carrigan to the ground and proceeded to stamp out his drunken stupor on the bastard’s face.
His sentence began on December 17th, 1999. Luckily the miniature calendar included a couple of weeks grace for the end of the millennium, and we all hoped—romantically, as it turned out—that we would see Denver released calendar in hand before the following Christmas. I prayed he was counting down the days on that wretched thing. Or maybe that he wasn’t. No one could know quite what was running through his mind and I did not presume to guess.
The trails of smoke have dissipated, leaving small puffs of white behind the grey stone. As the light fades out one can make out the red emergency lighting on the open storey of the prison and below that the few illuminated cells. Denver told me that his cell (his room, he had called it) was on the seventh floor, but the trees, houses and electricity cables—now as ever—make it difficult to count up the monochrome stories.
Denver had moved in with my father and me when he was 12 years old, what my mother would have called a “troubled youth”. My dad called him Denny, considered him a good kid but had little time for him or for me as we hit puberty and he old age. Dad, with his puffed out white hair and bulbous nose, used to scold Denny for his persistently bad behaviour at school and Denver would spit some sarcastic reply laced with just enough intelligence to prevent any response from the old man. This continued until my father had become too sick to do anything more than lie on a creaky metal-framed bed and stare vacantly at the television.
I imagine Denver lying glassy-eyed on his bunk with only a strip of sky to gaze at until the sun sets. I picture him growing older, lined and wrinkled, imagine leathery skin and see cancerous cells multiplying within his lungs before catching my own thought-processes at work and shutting them off. The sky has become a deeper blue as I lean on the edge of the deck. The red lights suddenly form an outline of the prison, an inverted L-shape.
Whilst I was at college Denver managed to hold down a job with a local bank, drinking at the weekends and—when he wasn’t drinking—smoking copious amounts of pot. It was during a semester break that I heard about Carla, lovely Carla from California. Obvious to me if not to my cousin, Denver was in love with lovely Carla. Though to him this involving mostly fucking and then smoking a joint, his belle—a blue-eyed hipster who had moved east in search of sex or simply somewhere new—felt after several months that it was time to pack her bags and move on.
Denver’s response to this fact of nature was to buy a $700 bottle of brandy and drink all of it (all in this case amounting to several litres) over a twenty four hour period. I berated him for a drunken self-comparison to Hunter Thompson but at the time I both despised and envied this self-destructive tendency. The fire I saw burning behind his eyes, wherever it had originated, was something that I could never hope to capture for myself.
Over the next decade we saw little of each other barring family events and circumstantial meetings. My father’s funeral, a single Christmas, and a post-college year spent aimlessly navel-gazing whilst Denver amassed some savings and settled into a perfectly average existence was all the time that we spent together. But in being deprived of his company I realise that some elemental force—for want of a better expression—has kept our friendship close though physically separate for the intervening years.
It is nine p.m. and all trace of natural light has disappeared. In the concrete cube yellow bulbs shine on old paperbacks and the prisoners go about the finite procrastination with which we are all, for much of our lives, occupied. Twelve months is such an arbitrary number, I think. But then so is the choice between a year incarcerated in Reitz Prison or a throat slit from ear to ear.
One of the only things I remember Denver telling me is sticking with me tonight. It was seven—no, eight—years ago at dad’s funeral. He said: Uncle Harry, man, he knew how it would end. That’s a luxury I don’t think I’m gonna have.
At ten p.m. the lights go out. I go back inside and leave the monolithic prison outlined in a red L-shape, just blocks away and yet totally foreign to me. I imagine Denver slowly tearing strips from his state-issued uniform or snatching a belt from a warden’s locker, see him glassy-eyed tying knots under the strip light of his cell and climbing up on his bed for one last glimpse of the jetstream through the slats in the concrete wall. But in the end all I can do is draw an exaggerated cross over May 21st on my fridge calendar and lock the balcony door. [ends]