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  • Back in the Day
  • Helen Elaine Lee (bio)

"Life Without" is a novel in the form of interdependent stories about the lives of eleven characters who are incarcerated in two neighboring American prisons. These stories are told against the framework of daily events of the course of six months. The characters are connected by common experience and proximity, daily routine and interactions, and rolling domino and bid whist games through which they gather to socialize. They are serving various sentences for different kinds of crimes, and each one has his or her own story of loss, despair, imagination and survival.

Each character struggles with violence and memory, and seeks a way to keep alive. Some try to conform both hurting and being hurt, and some, achieve healing and momentary grace. And although they do not begin to comprise an exhaustive portrait of the men and women who fill our American prisons, all are part of the whole of prison life.

Two characters, Vernon and Ranita, whose stories are heard many times throughout the novel, are most central to the narrative. Vernon, whose story, "Four Take Away One" has appeared in Callaloo, is just beginning his sentence, and searches for a means to own his past and imagine himself differently. Ranita, a recovering addict who gets released, strives to re-enter the world outside of prison and begins a journey to find her children, who have been taken into foster care. In the pages of the novel, you will come to know Vernon and Ranita, and many others.

There is Kelvin, haunted by generations of imprisoned and enslaved African Americans. And there is Avis, who is serving a life sentence for killing the husband who battered and humiliated her daily. You will meet Keisha, who is doing time for serving as her boyfriend Quake's drug mule, and you will hear Quake's story of rage and pride, as well. There is Maxine, Ranita's lover on the inside, whose crime, at least in part, is political action, and Travis, a DNA exoneree who tries, in his first seven days of freedom, to reclaim his life after twenty-three years in prison. Boo, who has only recently learned to read, tells you about the power of words as he masters the alphabet and makes it his, and Marcus rants from solitary confinement about being both predator and prey. Eldora acts as mother for the women prisoners who make up a family inside.

And in this story, "Back in the Day," you meet Monroe, who is so aged and out of touch that although he lives in the shifting moments of his past, he is unable to remember the crime for which he is imprisoned.

Monroe wheels himself into the day room for rec. The C.O.'s give him a little extra time to get where he is going. Maybe they even nod or greet him, if they notice him at all. He's an old-timer, a threat to no one anymore. Those who have been around long enough to hear the stories know about what a fighter he was, the badass nobody would mess with, back in the day, a man who could get respect by the way he entered the room, seeming to rearrange space, owning any territory he chose. [End Page 363]

To the young ones he is Pops, too detached and feeble to notice, let alone fear.

He sits by the window looking out, looking back. Watching the young ones from a distance as they braid each other's hair and trade war stories, rocking to that rap music he can make no sense of, talking of bitches and ho's, bragging about their drugs and guns. "In my day," he wants to interrupt and shake them, "we didn't call our women names unless they crossed us, and we knew how to fight. We hid behind no gun." Some of these young ones, like this one in the corner, name of Quake, they say they've never worked a job. He wants to suck his teeth and tell them how things were, but they would only laugh, or worse. Unless Travis was around.



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pp. 363-369
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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