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It was considered that schooling in letters was an essential factor in reformative work in that it aided in preventing the inmates from degenerating in mental power, during confinement; and aside from this, was of great value because it aided them to take a more elevated station in life, upon their release.

—Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira. 1916.
Fred C. Allen


Pax Berelman met with a regrettable incident involving a hotel room in Elmira, New York, a piece of exhaust pipe, and his trachea. Whether it was an accident or suicide, or a simple misassessment of the laws of biology, is a total crapshoot, owing to Pax’s rumored general dizziness and his habits regarding hallucinatory drugs. He was known to be a garbagehead, that is, someone who will get high using anything he can get his hands on—grass, meth, cleaning products— but while his chemical habits may have contributed indirectly to his early death, they had little to do with the exhaust pipe itself. Investigators at the site considered but dismissed theories that he may have been employing said pipe to create a more direct route for intoxicants to travel to his stomach or lungs. Moreover, his drug use proved unrelated to the loss of his vehicle, a jet black Buick LeSabre with racing trim, to the hands of a driver not known to him, barrelling down Highway 15 in a southerly direction toward the Pennsylvania border. The loss of the vehicle in question occurred several days subsequent to Pax’s demise, and was therefore unlikely to create the heartbreak which might cause him to fall or thrust himself upon the rusty 18-inch fragment of exhaust pipe, now lodged longitudinally in his gullet.

What makes this a subject of further inquiry is how Pax’s unfortunate accident resulted in a chain of occurrences leading to me, four days later and two thousand miles away, pinned in the front seat of my cool blue Chevy Caprice, which faced north on the six-lane Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, Texas, at four AM as a big black Lincoln rammed into its driver’s side door. The blow thrust my Caprice sideways and tore its tires as my vehicle skidded on its rims, up the curb and onto the walkway, while Mora, who had been standing by the passenger door, ran for cover. As I tried to break loose, the Lincoln backed up in a screeching curve across the six lanes, pulled forward and then backed up hard, again pummelling my driver’s side. It crushed the door inward as far as the steering wheel and rammed my Chevy against the guardrail, barricading the passenger door and me inside. I struggled to roll down the passenger window and jump, when the Lincoln burned rubber and rolled ass-first, hitting the Chevy a third time, now decimating the driver’s side and pushing it up into the air so the two-foot guardrail, instead of protecting me from a fall, served as the fulcrum I’d be tipped over when the Lincoln made the inevitable final strike and knocked me over the rail, trapped between the battered doors, toppling into the cold, dark water below.

One could argue this event was only one part of the inevitable cascade of events set off days earlier by Pax Berelman’s untimely death, or even decades earlier with my family’s first involvement in certain circles. But considering the issues at hand, the story really began when it walked in on my otherwise manageable life just two nights before.


December 21, 1995

The first thump jarred me from the most peaceful sleep I’d had in months. The second made me open my eyes, blink, scan the unfamiliar room in the light from the clock radio, and zero in on the bedroom door. I pinned the third thump as the sound of Josh’s small hand on the door. The red digits on the clock told me it wasn’t 11:30 PM yet, on our first night in the new house. We’d been asleep less than an hour.

Rachel groaned, “Oh, God.”

“I’ll get it.”

“Good luck.”

I slipped my shorts on and opened the door. Josh stood on the carpet in his dinosaur pajamas, rubbing his nose and eyes. “Mommy?” Standing just over three and a half feet, Josh bore the same brown hair his mother did (a shade or two lighter than mine), to go with his mother’s low forehead and dark blue eyes, turned up slightly at the outer corners. His nose hadn’t yet developed in bulk but measured Mediterranean length, just what my nose looked like before puberty and multiple breaks gave it its “character.” Josh’s prominent proboscis seemed to be a dominant trait, inherited from his one Jewish grandparent.

I closed the door behind me. “She’s asleep. What’s up?”

“I want Mommy.”

“You’ll outgrow it.”

The door opened on Rachel in a black silk robe which, like Rachel, had seen better days. “It’s okay,” she said without commitment, and reached down to hoist him up with a groan. As he clamped his limbs around her, she managed to pull a Bic lighter and a pack of Marlboro Light 100s from her robe’s pocket and light one, completing the maneuver one-handed before she’d taken three full steps toward the living room, all the while dodging the cardboard boxes positioned around the floor.

“Ow! God damn it!” she yelled. She untangled his hand from the hair at the nape of her neck.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m sorry, Mommy.”

“It’s okay,” she said, eyes on me and trying to reverse the sudden Jekyll and Hyde change, the type I’d asked her to avoid in front of Josh. “It’s okay. It’s Mommy’s fault.”

Josh had turned four in August and in spite of the recent development of a regular income, a full refrigerator and a house to live in, he hadn’t loosed his grip on his mother any. If anything he tightened it in the face of a new threat, another man. That the man was his father, so people said, was of no interest to Josh.


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