When I found out that my little brother was definitely going to prison, and probably for a long time, I started eating. Not immediately, but almost.
When my mother called to tell me the news, I’d been planning a trip to the grocery store, sitting in the shoebox-sized third-floor apartment my husband and I shared in Center City, Philadelphia. It was a two-room unit, the first of which was a living room with a refrigerator and miniature stove in one corner. There was no overhead light and only one small window, which was covered with locked iron bars to keep intruders out, but also prevented us from reaching the fire escape. The landlord said the previous tenant lost the key.
I answered the phone quickly, anxious to hear my mom’s update on how that morning’s meeting between my brother and his lawyers had gone. I was on the scratched leather IKEA couch we’d bought for cheap off Craigslist from a guy I suspected stole it from someone else, and above me, the water-stained ceiling sagged.
After I said hello, my mom asked, “Is David home?”
David is my husband, and this question is my mom’s standard intro to any piece of hard news, her variation of “Are you sitting down?” and way of asking, “Is someone there to help you if you can’t handle what I’m about to tell you?”
David wasn’t home. There wasn’t anyone there to help me if I couldn’t handle what she was going to say. But it didn’t matter, because her question revealed all I needed to know. My brother was definitely going to prison, and probably for a long time.
* * *
When we hung up I put on shoes and some lipstick, grabbed my keys and shopping bags, walked downstairs and pushed through the grungy double doors where UPS had taped a failed delivery notice because our building’s buzzer system was broken.
I cut across Broad and headed toward Philly’s famous South Street, which is lined with funky boutiques, bars, sex shops, salons that specialize in braids and weaves, and, improbably, a Whole Foods. I passed my favorite store, Harry’s Occult Shop, which was founded in 1917 and is now run by a woman named Marcia. I’ve never been inside, but the front window is crowded with mysterious liquid-filled bottles and scented candles, and the motto is printed in bold letters on the brick outside: “We Aim to Help. Light a Torch for the Good and Cross Swords Against Evil.”
By the time I got to Whole Foods I was sweating, and the chilliness of the produce section was a relief. I grabbed a basket and walked a few steps, then stopped. I had no idea what I wanted and no longer felt compelled to move forward, even though I was in the way of harried customers just off work who wanted to get home.
I watched as one athletic-looking woman scooped more kiwis into her basket than I could imagine a human needing at once, and as a blonde guy placed zucchini squash on a scale. A middle-aged man pushed a cart that contained a serene toddler and a dozen cage-free eggs. He stopped to inspect the bell peppers stacked in rows of red, orange, yellow, and green — nearly completing the color spectrum of a rainbow. I thought, suddenly and urgently, “Take care of that baby or it may end up going to prison!”
I may have been experiencing mild shock.
I’m not sure how long I was there, watching people cradle eggplants like vitamin-rich newborns, weighing cantaloupes in their hands like bowling balls. When one woman with impossibly sleek hair slipped a bunch of radishes into one of those translucent plastic bags I thought, “There’s no way that woman’s brother would ever go to prison,” and in that moment I hated the woman so much it uprooted me from where I stood.
I turned around and walked in the opposite direction, and after a few minutes was amazed by the quantity of perfect-looking food in the store. I realized there was no smell in the air, even though almost everything in the place was recently caked in dirt or part of a living animal’s body. Finally I found myself in the vitamin aisle, where I stopped because no one else was there and stayed because I remembered David was coming down with a cold.
The rows of bottles were legion, and promised protection against common ailments. My eyes drifted over the labels: Complex B, Omega 3 and 6, Ground Flax Seed, All Raw, 100% Organic, Gift of Nature, Garden of Life. When I read that last one I thought of the angel God placed at the gates of Eden after banishing Adam and Eve.
“Cross Swords Against Evil,” I thought.
I left the Whole Foods without buying anything and crossed the street to the dingier but cheaper Superfresh. Without thinking much about it I grabbed a cart, headed to the middle of the store and started filling it with junk I never let myself eat: a bag of potato chips, a jar of French onion dip, a box of Frosted Flakes, a box of microwaveable Easy Mac packets, a box of S’mores Pop-Tarts, a six-pack of Boston Cream Pie-flavored Jell-O Pudding Cups, a Meat Lover’s frozen pizza, and more. I only passed up a 2-lb. canister of puffed cheese balls because it would be too unwieldy to carry home.
I wondered if this was what my brother was going to do — binge on his favorite treats before he had no control over what he ate anymore. I even bought some snacks that I don’t like but he does, or at least used to when we were kids.
David got home from school shortly after I returned to the apartment, the food unpacked on the floor but not put away yet. I sat on our rug and repeated what my mom had told me. Then I gestured at what I’d bought and told him I’d gone to the store. He said, “I see that.” Then I put my head down and, for the first time that day, cried.
* * *
All of this happened last summer. My brother was first busted for his crime two summers before that, but he wasn’t sentenced to prison until this summer. That’s three years of waiting. I used to think that when someone committed a crime they were arrested immediately, then tried and sentenced quickly, to separate them from law-abiding citizens as soon as possible. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am, with a gavel slamming down at the end like in a 42-minute episode of Law & Order. But it doesn’t often go down like that.
When I first found out about what had happened, I was in Santa Fe working at a ten-day arts event, a world away from where my family lives in Tennessee. My mom broke the news that day too, and then called a couple days later to say my brother was going to move back in with her. I had already talked to him and asked how he was feeling. I asked him, specifically, if he was experiencing any suicidal thoughts. He said no, but I wasn’t convinced. I was sitting in a private dining room when I told my mom, “Listen to me carefully. You need to gather up all the guns in the house and take them somewhere else. Or, if you can’t, disassemble them and hide the pieces.”
After she said okay and we hung up, I walked into the cafeteria, took a tray, and made myself a salad.
* * *
As I write this, it’s been almost five months since my brother was incarcerated and six weeks since his sentencing, but he still hasn’t reached the prison where he’ll serve his term. Currently he’s in a detention center in south Georgia, where he’s been processed and entered into the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, and is awaiting transfer. As I understand it, he won’t know where he’s going until he’s there.
He spent his first three months in the county jail in my hometown. After we put money into his commissary account so he could call home, he gave us some details about what life was like there. I asked him about the food.
“It’s terrible, and there isn’t enough of it,” he told me. “It’s cold too. There’s hardly ever any meat; it’s mostly starches, I think because they want to keep us sleepy. Breakfast is at five in the morning, lunch is at eleven, and we get two sandwiches for dinner.”
The men could order snacks from the commissary, but they weren’t healthy, and they weren’t cheap. A small bag of Cheetos cost three dollars, and a single pack of Ramen noodles one dollar.
The noodles were popular, my brother told me, but since the microwave in the community room didn’t work, the inmates had no way to heat them. Sometimes, he said, they’d save the plastic Ziploc bags from their dinner sandwiches, put the uncooked noodles in there, and fill them with water from the bathroom tap as hot as they could get it. They’d seal the bags then put them on their bunks and lie on them, hoping their body heat would keep them warm long enough for the noodles to soften. Sometimes they turned a washing machine on the hot cycle and used the water from it.
My brother talked too about boredom; no one was allowed to go outside, there were no activities besides daily visits from motivational speakers, and according to jail rules we weren’t allowed to send him books or even letters — only postcards. I asked if they could at least exercise. “No one wants to,” he told me, and then hesitated. “It uses up too many calories, so you feel hungrier faster.”
My brother was weighed when he arrived at the jail, and again three months later before his transfer to the detention center. He’d lost 34 pounds.
* * *
At the end of last summer David and I moved out of the shoebox apartment in Center City and into a row house in a quieter neighborhood. Now we have two roommates, a real kitchen, and a tiny square front yard lined with two flower beds.
I have always liked to cook and especially like to cook for other people, so when we moved I was delighted to have three graduate students to feed. Preparing dinner became the highlight of my day.
In the fall I made shepherd’s pie, buttery pastas, and stews thick with root vegetables. In the winter I baked loaves of banana bread and roasted citrus-stuffed chickens, the skins
crispy with olive oil and fragrant with rosemary. Then I boiled the carcasses to make stock, which I froze and put away to use later for soups, gravies, or risotto. I spent months trying to perfect my homemade biscuits. I made elaborate layer cakes, and pies with bourbon and chocolate, and little pillows of gnocchi that I fried and tossed with pesto that, of course, I made myself with basil I grew on my porch.
In addition to the basil, I planted thyme, oregano, parsley, lavender, mint, rosemary, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and jalapeños. We joined a CSA that has provided us with pea shoots and squash, beans and beets, leeks and lettuces. I’ve turned berries into jams and okra into pickles. I’ve transformed plants into dishes that keep the people around me alive and make them happy as well. On days when I’ve felt too sad to want to stray far from bed, I’ve been able to make it at least as far as the kitchen.
Before my brother went to jail I used to wonder if I’d be able to eat when he was in there. I expected I’d have trouble with it, that it would be hard for me to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it, when he could only eat what he was given at the times it was given to him.
But so far that hasn’t been the case; if anything, my appetites have sharpened. It’s not stress-eating, or at least it is isn’t only stress-eating, because my hunger isn’t only for food. I also want to be outside, feeling the sun on my shoulders, walking anywhere. I want to have sex and go shopping and visit my grandparents and play with big, rambunctious dogs. And yes, I want to make and eat delicious food, and even more than that I want to feed it to people, and of all people, I most want to feed it to my brother.
In my letters I tell him, “I wish you were here so I could make dinner for you.” I daydream about how when he is released, eight years from now, I’ll have mastered new cooking skills and will prepare him whatever he wants, however much he wants. I imagine I’ll hold a spoon coated in sauce or frosting up to his mouth and say, “Here. Taste this.” And he’ll close his eyes and taste it and then smile, like we were in a movie or something.
* * *
My brother’s court date, the day on which he’d plead guilty and be taken into custody, was in the middle of March. I flew down as soon as he received the notice in the mail, arrived a week before the date, and stayed five weeks past that with my family.
At the end of March, I went to a Maundy Thursday service at the church I attended sometimes when I was in college. I entered the dim sanctuary alone and sat down among elderly strangers, the dark wooden beams and stained glass as dramatic as I remembered.
When the pastor read the gospel account of the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, the story was more real to me than it had ever been before. I could see Mary’s anguish when her son was taken from her because I was with my mother when her son was bound and taken away. I could better imagine Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane because I had heard my brother in his room at night screaming like an animal in pain, had put my hands into the gashes he’d torn into his walls out of anger and fear. I could even see Jesus more vividly on the cross because I had cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken my brother?”
When the final candle on the altar was extinguished and the bell tower rang out once for each year of Jesus’ life, I could feel each of the thirty-three strikes in my bones.
* * *
A few days before we drove my brother to the federal courthouse, everyone in the house stopped eating. Our stomachs couldn’t handle it. I made food as a way to keep busy, but it went untouched, and my mother left it in the refrigerator for three days and three nights before throwing it into the field for the cows or dogs to eat.
On the final night my brother gave his girlfriend some cash and sent her to KFC to buy a family meal of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and cole slaw. I had wondered what he would want for his final dinner, and this was it.
My mom, my little sister, my brother’s friend, and I put the food out and waited in the kitchen. We thought he would come down and we would all eat together, and maybe he would tell us that he would be okay and that we should be strong, that we’d be together again soon.
But that isn’t what happened. We eventually fixed our plates and picked at them, then sat on the couch and put on a movie that we didn’t really watch, and waited, and listened for the sound of his feet on the stairs. But he never came down. So I don’t remember our last supper, and wasn’t aware at the time that that’s what it was.
The next morning on the ride to the courthouse in Chattanooga I sipped Pepto-Bismol out of its small plastic cup, then directly from the bottle. In the courthouse bathroom I gripped the porcelain sink queasily and told my mother I thought I might vomit. She told me to do it, right on the floor. I didn’t vomit, though, so we left and stood with my brother outside the courtroom and waited to be called inside.
* * *
I don’t know if, when my brother is released, I’ll be able to cook for him the way I imagine. I don’t know what he’ll look like or what I’ll look like or what kitchen we’ll be in or what we’ll talk about. But I have to keep imagining it, and in my mind we’re together again and we’re happy. And I carry plate after plate and put them in front of him on the table, and when we finish eating there is nothing left, and we’re completely and perfectly satisfied.
Dyana Herron lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her husband, although she is originally from Tennessee. A graduate of Seattle Pacific University's MFA in Creative Writing, she is the Creative Writing editor for The Other Journal, and teaches writing at Eastern University and online for The King's College in NYC. You can contact her at www.dyanaherron.com.