This year, like every year, on the morning after Thanksgiving, I will go to jail. Dad drives. Mom burps up pumpkin soup. I read The New Yorker’s food issue in the backseat.
His name is Juice. At least that’s what everyone calls him. I think it’s a reference to the 1992 film Juice, the one with Tupac and Samuel L. Jackson, but I’m not sure. The film came out while he was in jail, so he probably hasn’t seen it.
In 1974, Juice killed a nineteen-year-old boy during an armed robbery in Philadelphia. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was twenty-two. You can read his unsuccessful petition for release here. His legal name is Larry, but I’ve never heard anyone call him that.
Juice grew up with my dad. They see each other for four hours each year, in the basement of a prison thirty miles from the city, where they eat lemon pies from a vending machine, share straws, and talk about the way they’re both afraid of centipedes.
And since Kindergarten, I’ve loved it: pretty badass to go to jail when you’re six. There’s the stale air; the line of fifteen urinals in the visitors’ bathroom with a puddle of urine under each one; the metal lockers in which I used to store my copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH before walking past three prison guards.
A guy with a gun tells a joke and opens a door. There he is. We hug. We kiss, sometimes. We find a seat, find the vending machines — jails have prodigious vending machines — and buy ourselves Runts and roast beef sandwiches and Skittles. Of course he doesn’t have money, because he is in jail. So we pay.
He tells us what he’s working on: he was a finalist for Yale Law Journal’s Prison Law Writing Contest, and he’s published one listicle. Sometimes we shoot the shit about the merits/demerits of adverbs.
We tell him our complaints: it was hard to get into college; harder to get a job; and, just last week, they bombed the U.S. embassy in Turkey. Harris has this condition where he has to take B12 shots every month, and if he doesn’t take them he’ll go crazy. Mom’s eczema is acute. It hurts most at night, and, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Philadelphia’s public school system is $133 million in debt, which is absolutely crazy, like I don’t even know what happens in these huge bureaucracies, and there was this other statistic I heard recently, that they build jail cells according to kids’ test scores in elementary school, and isn’t that nuts?
We don’t ask for advice, but we get it. We get it when we watch him eat a roast beef sandwich, unwrapping its plastic placenta. We get it when he runs his fingers down four packets of mustard, squeezing out all of each one as he calls my dad “a pistol.” We get it when he asks me how New York is going, and I say “good” and he shakes his head ten times and does that sighing thing men do, that high-pitched sigh, like he’s watching a pitcher hit a ball into the stands.
At the end of two hours, a man with a gun screams at the air, and it’s time to go. There are these small windows on the tops of the walls; by the end of our visit, they’re each solid grey. It’s November, almost December, and time for us to throw our roast beef sandwich wrappers in the trash.
We can’t really see the sun go down as we drive home. There are too many trees in Pennsylvania. All we notice is the ambient light just kind of evaporating, until it’s too dark to read, and I have to close my magazine and just sit there with Runts and croissant sandwiches and Skittles in my belly, looking at grey until we get out.
This post originally appeared on Medium.