The Marvelous Curve
by Andrew David MacDonald
Uritz was shelving some tattered hard covers when the gunshots went off. He didn’t bother stopping. Whenever someone tried to escape, they were shot. Uritz liked the smell of the old books and focused on that instead of the noise.
An alarm bell ringing followed the gunshots, and the guard in the library, behind the desk, saw Uritz watching and pointed his baton and said, “Keep shelving,” and so Uritz kept shelving.
Some time passed. Eventually the lights shut off, then turned back on with a hum that sounded like a cloud of insects. The guard walked to the phone and dialed the main communication center in the tower that overlooked the exercise yard. Uritz tried not to look. He kept trying not to look until a set of inmates who hadn’t been cleared to visit the library walked in.
There were two prisoners, the largest of which, The Peruvian Death Star, had a shotgun. Uritz didn’t know his real name. Nobody did. Similarly, nobody knew how he’d acquired his sobriquet, since he wasn’t Peruvian. The Death Star part was inspired partly by his love of the Star Wars franchise, which had premiered a few years ago, and partly by the fact that he’d unofficially murdered eleven other inmates with the ruthless apathy one might expect from the Evil Empire’s planet-destroying creation. He had connections with organized crime outside of the prison which made him one of the prison’s very important people.
The other prisoner was Kirril. He was Uritz’s cellmate and had also worked with him in the library for one week before he’d decided it was an affront to his masculinity and got himself transferred into light labor duties in the laundry room. For the past three years, Uritz and Kirril met once a week, in secret, to discuss poetry.
When Kirril and the Death Star burst into the library, the guard behind the desk had been reading a magazine.
With very little fanfare, the Peruvian Death Star shot the guard in the leg. Kirril removed the guard’s handgun and held it out to Uritz. When Uritz didn’t take it right away, Kirril leaned in and said, “If you don’t take it, you’re going to be in a world of shit,” and so Uritz took the gun and held it out in front of him, wondering which knob was the safety mechanism and whether it had been turned on or off.
The Jilava prison outside of Bucharest was a converted fort originally built by King Carol I, recently made famous in part for housing one of Romania’s famous serial killers, Ion Rimaru, in 1971. Uritz walked daily past the spot where Rimaru had been executed by a firing squad, the experience serving as inspiration for a recent poem he showed to no one and subsequently burned.
Before becoming a prisoner, Uritz had been a doctor and a poet, though the latter wasn’t known to many people, outside of his family. He wrote his poetry under pseudonyms, not telling anyone. He specialized in abortions and poems about his boyhood and the fickle interplay between birth and death, themes he could shape to an extent that had at least some appeal to people. For a time, you could buy his books in stores, take them out at libraries. In fact, the prison had one of them, though to date nobody had taken it out. Which was probably for the best. As for abortions, he performed them after spending so much time trying to save the lives of women who’d had them performed by inexperienced hands in back-alleys and basements, many dying from blood poisoning and terminal infections.
This was before 1989, when the law changed and abortionists went to a different penitentiary. When Uritz was caught giving abortions, they sent him straight to Jilava with murderers, rapists, and political dissidents, all molded together like clay.
He was thirty-one when he was arrested; his wife divorced him the following year. Now, eight years later, he had trouble remembering a time when he wasn’t a prisoner. He couldn’t remember a time when his life wasn’t governed by the prison’s routine.
His first few months had been horrific. The plumbing backed up, and there wasn’t enough heat. Prisoners often stood for hours for head counts, and once a trio of guards had made Uritz and another prisoner walk around like robots that were in love with each other.
He contemplated suicide. The only thing that kept him from being more explicitly abused or outright murdered was his skill at abortions.
In a twist of fate that was so absurd he had to laugh, Uritz was often rounded up by guards or their friends to perform abortions on their girlfriends or mistresses. As a consequence, he was never granted parole.
During this time, Uritz wrote more poems about his childhood, about his wife; in his third year in the prison, he learned that his wife had remarried.
His cellmate, Kirril, was in his early thirties and had been convicted of arson and murder. He had a tattoo of a tear near his eye and a very crude reaper swaddling a baby on his back. He was paired with Uritz because he wanted a cellmate who wouldn’t give him shit. Uritz played this part perfectly. When he didn’t have access to paper, he wiped a thin layer of soap on the bottom of his shoes and, using his fingernail, wrote verse into the soap, wiping away redactions and rubbing the soap off entirely once he’d memorized the poem and before inspections. From there, he would meditate on the poem and ascertain its merit; if he deemed it worth posterity, he would take out his stack of contraband paper, along with a pen he’d fashioned out of a small length of wood and a bottle of ink he earned after half a year of favors, and transfer the poem onto the pages.
Most of the time he destroyed those pages, too.
One evening Kirril held up a scrap of paper that Uritz had tried to flush down the toilet. They were in the recreation room, Uritz doing his stretches, Kirril in a muscle shirt, lifting weights, his muscles engorged with blood, stretching the seams.
Practically shoving the paper into Uritz’s face, he said, “Is this you?”
It was a poem Uritz had written about the last time he’d been intimate with his wife, a rewriting of a moment that had been tremendously unsatisfying at the time, but one Uritz occasionally returned to, shaping the details in such a way that he could be proud both of his performance and of the love his wife had clearly had for him.
“No,” Uritz said, handing the poem back to Kirril. “Never seen it before.”
“Don’t bullshit. I saw you writing it.” Kirril read the poem out loud and said, “Not bad.”
Later that week, when several other inmates had cornered Uritz, Kirril strolled in and told them to piss off. One refused to piss off; Kirril rammed his heel into the inmate’s shin, inciting a stress fracture that snapped a swath of his fibula.
After his time in solitary confinement passed, Kirril returned to their shared cell and asked Uritz if he could teach him how to write poetry.
“You want me to teach you how to write poetry,” Uritz said.
“Why’s that so hard to believe?”
Uritz wanted to say, Because I watched you crush glass and feed it to another inmate who looked at you the wrong way.
The alarm bells stopped running, which meant that someone had either cut the power to the mechanism or that the central control room had been possessed. Uritz overheard various details about the riot. Sixteen guards and thirty prisoners had been shot; the Death Star considered this number ideal, since most of the prisoners who’d been shot would have just got in the way anyway. “Social Darwinism,” the Death Star said, and all agreed that if you were stupid enough to be shot, you shouldn’t be allowed to have a gun in the first place.
One third of the prison had now been co-opted by various units, led by the Death Star’s right hand men, a small group who ran the drug trade, the whoring trade, and the bribes in the prison.
Periodically inmates would come into the library, which seemed to have been designated a kind of strategic headquarters. The Death Star often left and came back. For a time there was silence, then gunshots, then more silence. The guard who had been shot in the leg sat whimpering in the corner. Kirril had suggested they keep him alive to possibly use as a hostage later.
“What’s the plan?” Uritz asked when the Death Star was out of hearing range.
Kirril looked at him with suspicion. “What do you mean, what’s the plan?”
“If he’s already killed the new director, what comes next?”
“Nothing.” Kirril shrugged. “Everything. I don’t know.”
With other prominent fixtures in the prison community, Uritz sat in on the Death Star meeting to draw up a list of demands. Most started with the atrocious sanitation.
“Better toilets,” was a common one. Others wanted the heat to be turned up. “Or at least on.”
The police force sent in a mediator, a man in his early twenties who looked as though he’d just graduated from university. He kept taking his glasses off and rubbing the lenses on his shirt.
After he was beaten for a while, they let him go back to the outside world to report on the happenings in the riot. All communication with the world outside of the prison stopped. By now all the electricity had been shut off in the parts of the prison that the inmates occupied, and everyone seemed to be suffering from the same collective shiver. The guard the Death Star shot in the library had gone into shock, his skin turning an off-white, his blue veins discoloring the skin around them.
Uritz learned several things about Kirril. His uncle had been a small-time criminal, and his father had left when he was very young. Kirril’s mother eventually married his uncle—He was his father’s brother and somehow that made everything okay—and his uncle routinely cheated on her and enlisted Kirril to run errands for him.
The first poem Kirril brought for Uritz to read had been written on the back of another inmate, a recent addition to the group of underlings Kirril commanded for the Death Star.
“Take off your shirt,” Kirril told the inmate, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen. He’d been given a black eye earlier, and when he took off his shirt, Uritz could see the outline of Darth Vader on his chest, the Death Star’s signature tattoo. “Now turn around.” The inmate complied. On his back, Kirril had written out his poem.
While Uritz read the poem, Kirril lit a cigarette and took a walk around the library, flipping through magazines and trying to be nonchalant, though Uritz could see him looking out of the corner of his eye.
When he came back, he asked, “What do you think?”
“You wrote this?”
“Put your shirt back on,” Kirril said, “but don’t wash yourself until I come find you.” He flicked the butt of his cigarette at the inmate’s back. “Anyway, you were saying?”
“It’s good. Better than a lot of what I see published.”
That had been a half-lie. It was true that most of the poetry published in Romania had been censored by the government.
In that sense, Kirril’s poem was good. In the sense of the poem actually being good, it wasn’t.
“You might want to try not rhyming,” Uritz said.
“Don’t poems rhyme? Isn’t that what makes them poems?”
“Not necessarily,” Uritz said and recited a poem by Rilke he knew by heart: “‘and I in flames, and no one here knows me.’”
A milkiness overtook the hostility that was native to Kirril’s eyes.
From that point on, Kirril would borrow a book from the library and come back a week later with the book and a poem. Because most of the books in the library came from a government approved list informed by the same censoring ideologies that crushed the literary journals, Uritz often wrote out poems that he’d taught in university and used them as examples of rhythm, diction, tone and to show Kirril the way structure and theme can be happily married to the benefit of both.
Once, Uritz made the mistake of bringing up poetry outside of the library. “I have something for you to read. It will help with your cadence.”
Without saying anything, Kirril pushed him up against the wall and held an improvised knife to his cheek, slicing a neat, dental-floss thin line from just under Uritz’s eye to his chin.
A few of the other prisoners looked over, and Kirril, wiping the blade of the shiv on the ass of Uritz’s pants, said, “My bitch was getting out of line.”
Back in the library, only after Uritz’s face had been stitched up in the infirmary, did Kirril ask him about cadence. “What is that, like sound?”
Uritz nodded. Kirril leaned on his mop. “Who is it? It’s not Rilke, is it?” He reached out and held Uritz’s face. “Should leave just the right kind of scar. I did you a favor.”
In a matter of ten minutes, the library was filled with other inmates. They piled in, about thirty of them in total. Many of them had guns. Others had weapons fashioned out of various items. There were more than a few knives from the kitchen being brandished.
A young, very enthusiastic man had been appointed the new Director of the Prison six months ago and in that time had regrettably done a good job of doing his job. According to rumor, he’d been educated in the United States and had returned to get some experience in the prison system before running for political office.
In the first week, he’d spoiled several drug deals in the prison and had instituted mandatory testing for HIV and hepatitis. He’d even approached Uritz about running a literacy program, an offer Uritz refused on principle, since teaching convicts how to read would mean becoming somebody other people knew, and there was no surer way to be made dead than that.
Once it became clear that the new director would require new bribes, the Peruvian Death Star arranged a meeting with him to hash out a new set of terms. Things went poorly.
Back when the Peruvian Death Star was transferred to Jilava, the hierarchy changed. Where Kirril had governed previously, now he acquiesced to the Death Star. This was mostly due to the severe beating Kirril had suffered from the Death Star and several guards who had been paid to oversee Kirril’s supplanting. Kirril appeared to take it in stride.
“This is how things work. When I first came here, I killed the previous big shot. It was thoughtful of him not to have me murdered.”
Uritz had few run-ins with the Death Star, since the Death Star was illiterate. Sometimes he came to the library to look at pictures of naked women in the anatomy books, and Uritz would look away while he masturbated in between the rows of books.
One day Kirril came back to the cell with a new tattoo on his hand. It was the face of Darth Vader, crudely etched into swollen bright pink flesh. When Uritz asked him about it, he shrugged. “It was either this or take it up the ass for a few weeks.”
In a bar Uritz frequented in his twenties, they had a gong they rang whenever someone left a big tip. They should have had something similar for every time they tested the prisoners for HIV and a new one was discovered. Kirril had been diagnosed as HIV positive two years ago, which hadn’t come as a surprise to him.
When Uritz asked if he wanted to talk about what it meant, Kirril shrugged and said, “Everyone here has HIV.”
Rumor had it he got the disease from the needle the Death Star used to tattoo Darth Vader into his hand. People thought that Kirril and Uritz were lovers; while they weren’t, when the heat in the prison failed, they often held each other under the covers.
The shooting continued. Uritz didn’t have to do any shooting, though the Death Star occasionally berated him for being a pussy. Other inmates who were taking part in the riot came in and out to talk to either Kirril or the Death Star. They walked by Uritz as if he didn’t exist.
While Kirril stood watch and conversed with the Death Star on matters pertaining to riot strategy, Uritz was responsible for changing the bandages and dressing the injured guard’s wounds.
“I think I’m going to die,” the guard said. “How bad is it?”
He was propped in the corner of the library, by the poetry books. Uritz lifted up the tattered, blood-soaked fabric of his uniform and took a look at where the buckshot from the shotgun had torn the flesh. It didn’t look all that bad.
“I’ve seen worse. It’s like Rilke says–”
“What did I say about talking?” Kirril shouted. “There’s war going on, and you’re talking about poetry.” He slapped Uritz in the face and pointed to the gun. “If you’re not going to use it, give it here.”
Uritz handed the gun over. The Death Star turned to Kirril. “Are you sure we wouldn’t be better off just shooting him?”
An hour later, the Death Star had been shot in the arm. A silence filled the air, as if the entire prison, the building itself and everyone and everything in it, knew that the Death Star being injured would precipitate dire things.
He made Uritz bandage him and announced to the room: “There’s about thirty of them.” With a series of complicated hand gestures, he sent everyone in the room to various posts for what he considered the grand finale.
Kirril and Uritz exchanged glances before Kirril ran out of the room, leaving Uritz with the injured guard and the Death Star, whose bandage needed changing. He turned to Uritz and told him fuck hostages, he wanted some degree of vengeance, and instructed him to shoot the wounded guard, who it turned out was also a poet, though he had only published a simple rhyming thing that Uritz found twee.
“Let me explain how this works. By shooting this guard, you do two things. One, you prove your loyalty. Second, shooting this guard tells me that you know how to operate a firearm to the extent that you’ll be of some use. This is also important to me. If you don’t,” he said, shrugging, “I’m going to shoot you and then shoot the guard, so to me, the proper course of action is clear.”
He handed Uritz the gun and brought him to the guard, who was faintly conscious and sniveling. He raised the gun to the guard, not really anywhere specific, and felt the hot breath of the Death Star on his neck. Uritz closed his eyes, the cool of the trigger against the pad of his finger.
The shot preceded his pulling the trigger. In fact, when he opened his eyes, Uritz realized that he hadn’t even fired a shot.
The Death Star went down in stages. His arms went first, strangely becoming slack. A rose of blood formed on his chest, spreading in petals until he was completely drenched in himself. His legs went last and all at once with a buckle.
Kirril stood behind him, sporting an unpleasant wound on his arm, which sort of twitched at his side.
There was more gunfire, screams, a terrifying darkness. The navy-blue uniforms of the tactical police filled the hallway with the speed of shadows taking over a space after a light had been shut off. Without looking back, Kirril said, “Get down, Uritz, behind the desk.”
He picked up the Death Star’s shotgun, stepped into the hallway, and waited. Uritz closed his eyes, thought about plugging his ears and hiding his senses from the inevitable sound of Kirril being shot and killed.
Instead, he tried to cut time open the way you’d slice open the membrane of an egg with a scalpel. He watched from behind the desk and felt his memory merge with the scene unfolding in front of him: the tactical team bursting in, Kirril raising his gun.
It was strange that Uritz found the right memory, right away, parsing through six years of minutes in the time it took him to close his eye lids. The memory took place minutes after the doctor in the infirmary had told Kirril he’d tested positive for HIV.
“It was bound to happen,” Kirril said, shrugging, and told Uritz, who had gotten special permission to wait outside the infirmary, he wanted to lift some weights.
They made their way to the courtyard for recreation hour, walking under a sun that shone in a way Uritz found to be unbearably cruel. Not scalding, just parading its gentle perfection across a sky that was also cruel, stretching blue beyond the sharp metal wires curling on top of the prison’s concrete walls.
They went straight to the benches to do some weightlifting. A few inmates were using the benches to perform bench presses. When they saw Kirril, and that he was in a bad mood, they got up and left.
The two of them stopped in front of the bench and Kirril turned to Uritz and grabbed his shirt. At first Uritz thought he was going to hit him and had already made up his mind to move his face as hard into Kirril’s fist as he could. That would be his gift. Instead, Kirril pulled his face to his and with his body asked Uritz to hold him.
In that moment, Uritz opened his eyes and saw how some nerve under the skin, right underneath the tear tattoo on Kirril’s cheek had flared up, getting a spasm of messages from his brain. The tear looked like real water, moving according to a strange physics on the parched skin of Kirril’s face.
“Arms off each other,” the guards in the panopticon tower shouted through a megaphone, since inmates weren’t allowed to touch each other on the recreation yard since the Death Star had stabbed someone.
That day, Uritz had watched as Kirril fell and the boots of the tactical officers fanned out into the library. Uritz wished more than anything for Kirril to have fallen in such a way that their eyes could meet and share the final moment before death, what Rilke had called the “unbroken, marvelous curve.”
Now, as they did what they were told in the weight room, letting their arms drop, they found that their lips were touching, warm under the unflinching sun.
You must be logged in to post a comment.