Alice and her Ex

The minister had moved on to his fourth example, seemingly unaware that he was losing the attention of his audience. Perhaps he didn’t care; perhaps the inattention was something he counted on. Even Alice found her mind wandering, found herself a hundred miles away; she only realized why when the minister and his fourth young man had finished. The character portrayed by this young man was — her ex-husband. A big-hearted man, not too intelligent, but also not so docile as to think that his lot in life was quite enough, thank you. He kept his eye out for opportunity, and considered breaking the law nothing more than an expediency. When he was captured, tried and convicted for another man’s crime, an irony that he had never expected to experience in his own life, it tied his tongue, as if he was afraid he would start to laugh.

Alice was both religious and impulsive in visiting him. She would tell Andrew one day when he got home from school: “We’re going to visit your father this weekend.” He would look at her with a mix of shock and submission. “Okay.” Most of the time, he would sit in the hotel and wait for her to come back. Sometimes, with a change in the wind at the prison, he would be allowed to visit his father as well. All found those moments awkward, but Alice and Andrew would talk about it on the way home and by the time they stepped out of the car they would be convinced — Andrew would be — that the visit had helped his father.

Shortly after the minister’s visit that Alice went to visit her ex. She made it a single day trip and left Andrew with Gary. She was nervous because he was so obviously ill trained to be with a child, but on the other hand they shared so much in their innate abstraction from human contact and their fascination with technology that she felt it was therapeutic for her child. She found that their conversations about computers were driving a distance — newly expressed but already latent — between her and Andrew. For Andrew, this distance had always been a reality; for her, her love had made her believe that they could daily overcome their differences in disposition and interest, as if her peace of mind depended on the enactment of this reconciliation. But when Gary was there, it was nearly impossible to get Andrew to rise to her level of engagement. They would mumble in the corner with the computer, laugh at something that both considered lame, whistle at some technological marvel, without recognizing at all how they were acting out their own ritual exchange of seashells.

Not long after she was congratulated all around at work for her engagement, she decided she had to visit her ex-husband again. I suppose it’s obvious that she intended to tell him the news, but I don’t think that was the impetus; there was therapy in the visits, but they were not something she owed him, or even owed Andrew. She found a meaning, a strand of the monumentality of life, in her ex- husband’s plight. When she rode the bus to the entrance, walked under the razor wire and gates, waited in the dank, noxious visitor room, and strode through three buzzer doors: at each step intensity of gazes grew, until you stood in the visitation room and saw the predominantly white guards, the disproportionate black and Hispanic inmate populations, and you saw how this was a social moment, a cultural reality that would one day have a name, in its own way a Warsaw ghetto of modern America, the nearly invisible result of fear and anger.

“Barry,” she said to him with her hands visible on the table: “I’m getting remarried.”

He looked at her as he did several times during each visit, as if by his expression he was mouthing, “I don’t know why you bother coming if you don’t care how what you say makes me feel.” But then he would smile at something that reminded him of a life on the outside, a life that he was just sitting out on but that he still felt was his life. She knew that the math always came out in favor of her coming: even pain was better than the mental privation and eternal sameness of this communal life.

“So,” he said. “Who is it? Anybody I know?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “We met at church.”

“That whitebread church you go to? Alice…”

“He’s black, if that’s what you mean.”

He looked at her but didn’t say anything. Of course he wanted to make a claim about his interest in the subject because of Andrew, but she would shut him up and probably walk out if he dared to suggest… So he just looked. She looked back, saw something very different: a man still unable to accept his responsibility as an individual, who would remain silent at trial but tell anyone here in prison that it wasn’t his stuff, you see, it was just someone else’s stuff he was holding — as if saying that now would make all the difference in who he was. But in fact he was often beset by the guards to provide information about other inmates, guards who mistook this loquaciousness for a snitch’s mentality, when he was just trying to express the irony, so alien to him, that had gripped his life.