â€œThis was his first memory, he said. He said he was watching TV, at home, with his mother and I donâ€™t remember the way he told it exactly, but he was sitting on her lap and his Dad was angry about something, you know, I think it was cooking, but I donâ€™t honestly remember. I think it was that he wanted her to cook and she wasnâ€™t cooking or wouldnâ€™t cook what he wanted, but I canâ€™t remember exactly. And his father was an explosive guy and went into the other room, got a gun, and told her to put him down. But she wouldnâ€™t because she realized he was going to shoot her, so she kept him between the two of them, holding him to her, and he said his father stepped forward and shot, hitting her in the shoulder and he broke away and ran into the other room and his father shot again and this time killed her. Then his father came into the room with the gun and he realized his father was going to shoot him next, so he jumped out of a window and ran. That was the story he wrote. Except it was so much better than this, you know, than what Iâ€™m saying. It had misspellings and I loved it. It was raw. This prisoner who was just writing the worst fluff, the worst, just empty stuff. He wasnâ€™t telling the truth and then I tell him to write what his greatest fear was and this comes out. Telling him he canâ€™t use the word â€˜fear,â€™ but had to show fear. I just thought it was really effective, frightening. I felt like I understood him better as a person and thatâ€˜s what good writing does, donâ€˜t you think?â€
â€œI donâ€™t believe it,â€ he says. Heâ€™s got a beard, white guy, maybe fifty, looks like a woodsman. Heâ€™s not entertained by the story. â€œYou believe that?â€ he asks me.
â€œYeah, I doâ€ I say.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter,â€ the woman next to him says. Thereâ€™s three of them, all white. Theyâ€™re from Minnesota. They donâ€™t have Minnesota accents. They have no accent. They talk like news reporters. They have jobs. I donâ€™t. Theyâ€™re going to decide if I get a job. â€œIt could be fiction.â€
â€œBut he told them to write about their lives, non-fiction.â€
â€œYes, but the point is to get them writing.â€
â€œI believe it though,â€ I say, â€œThese are prisoners. Doing double-life, triple-life, quadruple-life. Theyâ€™ve had hard lives. One guyâ€˜s entire head was completely done in tattoos. A dragon across the top of his head, all orange and black. His face covered in tats.â€
He really doesnâ€™t believe it now. His skin looks like itâ€™s seen a lot of winters. Heâ€™s always lived in Minnesota, started as an adjunct, taught at the college for years, then got in as a professor, got tenure, and now is in a fancy expensive barren hotel room, its few chairs drawn up.
Heâ€™s judging the prisonerâ€™s story, from the hotel room chair, touching his beard. And heâ€™s judging my story of the prisonerâ€™s story, to see if it showcases my ability to break through to a student and get them to write the truth. And out there somewhere is a murdered woman. Or maybe she doesnâ€™t exist. Somewhere there is a father in prison. Or maybe he doesnâ€™t exist. But Tony exists. Tony is in prison. Iâ€™ve met Tony. I worked with Tony. For a full semester. His Denzel Washington grin. His Napoleon Dynamite shyness. The pocket on his shirt ripped on purpose, so that it was useless, to â€œrepresent the struggle.â€ Or maybe now heâ€™s becoming fiction even though Iâ€™m trying to keep him non-fiction. But Iâ€™m non-fiction, the author, me. I exist. And so does my averaging $7,000 a year for my entire adult life. My fear of more poverty is non-fiction. Not able to afford heat is non-fiction. Baking a potato for warmth, sleeping with the laundry piled on the bed, alone at 40. How do people find girlfriends who are poor? Itâ€™s like magic. Sometimes I feel like I donâ€™t exist. But the judge does. The warden does. The creative writing hiring faculty does. The editor, you exist. Itâ€™s a new story now, convoluted, removed, desperate in its own way. The editor reads it, wondering, what does this accomplish? Itâ€™s a flash of lives, but what is that worth? The writer hopes to get out of poverty. The prisoner hopes to have his story continue on. Heâ€™s been heard. Heâ€™s haunted somebody with words, somebody who has more power than him, is able to use a computer, is able to submit to magazines, but is also on the edge of a future being in prison or being on a campus. Itâ€™s razor sharp, the edge, the way things unravel, the way stories unravel. The Minnesota creative writing professors take me out that night and recommend the pecan crusted halibut. $17.99. I order water. Iâ€™m used to ordering water, have a rule that Iâ€™m not allowed to order anything to drink except water, am used to eating appetizers as full meals. Iâ€™m skinny. Tony isnâ€™t though. Heâ€™s muscular. Itâ€™s like magic. How does he eat the prison food? Thereâ€™s a way you eat when you have ten more years to go. Thereâ€™s a way you eat when you have a long-term job. Thereâ€™s a way you write when you have a full-time job. Thereâ€™s a way you think when you have a full-time job. Thereâ€™s a struggle to learn how to write when you are in prison. Thereâ€™s a survival to writing when you have the dream of teaching but your reality is finding the cheapest apartment in the city, even if that means gunshots that wake you up at night, and they will wake you. And when it gets really bad the humiliation of moving in with your parents. And this is after the Navy years. After the Air Force years. The back failing. Hoping for the creative writing position where I have to look into my biggest fears to survive, tap the horrors of my past, and they keep continuing as long as I donâ€™t have a job, but itâ€™s not the sexiness of the alcohol addiction, itâ€™s the nights with nothing, the inability to go out and do the simplest of things. If your stories are good enough, you can be loved I sometimes think. I see the creative writing professor with his wife, with his kids. If your stories are good enough, you can convince a judge. If a story is good enough you can convince a creative writing hiring team. You can convince an editor. You can convince yourself. Tony is real. The gun to him is real. The gun to me is real. Tonyâ€™s desperate. Iâ€™m desperate. Some stories commit suicide. Some are murdered.
Ron Riekki’s writing includes the novel U.P. (Ghost Road Press), the poetry chapbooks Leave Me Alone I’m Bleeding and I Wish I Could Date a Girl Who’s a Rage Against the Machine Fan (Gypsy Daughter Poetry Chapbooks), and the plays All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater) and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson). He organized THE U.P. BOOK TOUR 2011, including more than sixty writers, http://rariekki.webs.com/apps/blog/.