Straight Up to the Stars
Ruth Z. Deming
A search committee, saddled with the usual bureaucracy, finally settled on Albert A. Wolf as the new warden of San Francisco State Penitentiary. The prison was the newest one in the United States. Few people cared. Lock them up and forget about them. The usual trife. They were not humans. They were animals incapable of changing. Most of the inmates were cocoa-brown, like the warden himself. They were the pick of the litter from other prisons, whose census was now somewhat lessened.
When the acceptance letter arrived in the mail, Albert was as excited as if he’d just gotten into college, Brandeis or Stamford, places he’d never go. What was the famous line by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis?
“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”
Albert – never call him Al – was a scholar, self-taught.
He and Diana were finishing their coffees in the breakfast nook of their home in the lovely Pacific Heights section of San Francisco. Huge windows looked out on the drama of the day. Blue sky with a skittering of clouds, further enhanced by passing seagulls from the San Francisco Bay.
The acceptance letter lay on the table with the municipal seal on top.
“You deserve it, baby,” said Diana, who wore a closely cropped Afro.
“Gonna do my damnedest to change the behaviors of the two thousand forty one inmates in my new prison,” he said. A tattoo on his right biceps read, “Read and the world shall be yours.” It was in the shape of a book.
He had ruby stud earrings in both ears. This was the authentic man. If he looked like a rapper, so be it. Thus the hesitation of the search committee. Night-time as he and Diana lay side by side on blue striped sheets, he read one book after another. T. C. Boyle, Ta-Nehisi Coates known as the new James Baldwin, Lee Child about tough guys who fought it out. His god-daughter had given him crime fiction by Peter Abramson. If it hadn’t been a gift, he wouldn’t have finished it. How fortunate he did, grabbed by a paragraph that described a sunset he filed in the back of his mind.
The new warden was expected to make a speech. He, Diana, and the mayor of San Francisco stood on the steps of the new prison.
“Behind these secure walls,” he spoke into the microphone, “are human beings who have gone astray like lost sheep. Who cares about these people? Some, but not all of their family do, the media finds them reprehensible, and I, Albert Wolf, as their new warden find them a challenge and will do my best to – yes! – rehabilitate these gentlemen.”
He shook the mayor’s hand, a woman in a stylized blue suit, and dangling silver earrings.
“Mr. Wolf,” she said, looking at him and then out at the small audience gathered in front of the prison, “We believe in you, more than you know. I have known of your wonderful work with minors, coaching soccer, baseball, and working in a boxing gym to help young men and women learn skills rather than ending up in jail.”
“Jail, yes,” said Albert. “The innocuous word for prison.”
The audience laughed.
The San Francisco Penitentiary was padded with Styrofoam blocks so it wasn’t as noisy as most prisons. It stood seven stories high. Albert appreciated this as it reminded him of the Seven Story Mountain by Brother Thomas Merton. He always shared his thoughts with Diana, either in bed or at breakfast.
“I’m gonna treat these gentlemen like the children we never had. And intend to teach them book knowledge. Make them wanna get up every single morning. No more suicides, though who can blame them?”
Albert sat in the small office he requested at the prison. His wife’s photo was on his desk. Commanding bookshelves lined one wall and drew the visitors’ attention.
A large wooden clock with loud ticking was on another wall. Another gift he’d brought from home. Why waste the tax payer’s money? He’d easily find ways to do that with entertainment he’d hire – though Johnny Cash was not around to sing in Folsom Prison – plenty of other entertainers were.
He would treat his prisoners like men.
As a child, Albert Wolf had tried crack cocaine once or twice.
He and his buddies sat on the steps of an abandoned building.
“This stuff messes with my head,” said Albert. “I’d rather go to Norm’s Pharmacy and get me an ice cream sundae at the counter.”
His friends broke into peals of laughter. “What kind of brother are you?”
They parted ways.
Albert stood up in his office. It still had a new smell: a wood and carpet smell, and concrete from the six stories of cells. He usually kept the door open as a parent might to see what the children were up to. But parents rarely had a loudspeaker.
From his office, he pressed a button on his iPhone and began to speak.
“May I have your attention, Gentlemen, may I have your attention?”
He imagined them grumbling and cursing him. “What does that big shot want now?” he thought.
Two thousand forty one individuals heard his voice. Father’s voice, though they didn’t know it. Yet.
“We’ll meet outside on the football field,” he announced. “You’re about to see a spectacle.”
The inmates were ushered onto the football field with its green grass and were told to sit down. Quite a sight they made in their orange coveralls. Their chorus of grumbles and laughter was like marching music in a Forty-Niners game.
Albert, too, donned the orange coveralls. He stood, legs akimbo, on a high platform. The inmates fell silent. Through a microphone he said, “Magic is in the air.” He raised his arms like a preacher and spread them wide. “It’s called a sunset,” he said.
“Every single night we will bask in the miracle of the sunset. How many miles is the sun from us?”
“Twenty-three million,” said dozens of men.
“You boys is good,” said Albert.
They laughed as a single chorus.
“Now don’t tell a soul,” he continued, “but I intend to set you free.”
Applause flowed from the green grass straight up toward heaven.
“It ain’t gonna be easy,” he said. “But I want you to believe in the sunset and the goodness of man. You were all once tiny little infants rocking on your mama’s knee and we’re gonna summon that part of you again.”
“Can we do it?”
There was a loud roar of Yes.
Every single man, sitting in Indian-style fashion, stared up at the rosy heavens, streaked with blues and violets and purples. Every man, in his orange coveralls, was immersed in his own thoughts, imagining himself sitting at home with his arm around his beloved on the living room couch, munching on pretzels and drinking a cold beer.
And so it began.