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The Moments Between
Helen Zelon

The Theft


Late one balmy June afternoon, in the nondescript gym of the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in rural LaGrange, Kentucky, a scenario that has lived more than a year in my imagination springs at last into vivid life. For fifteen months, I’d followed Shakespeare Behind Bars – Luckett’s all-male, full-drag Shakespeare company. On a magazine assignment, I am in Kentucky again to cover the culmination of a year’s worth of work – weekly rehearsals, impromptu practices on the prison yard – as it crescendos into a short, sweet season: Four performances, three for the prison and one for invited guests. This afternoon’s performance will be their long-awaited opening ‘night.’

Last-minute rehearsals – a fight scene, the curtain call – are underway when I reach the gym. The actors work, oblivious, as the audience gathers. Among the men already on the bleachers, I notice two sharing swigs from the same water jug – one a pumped and buff caricature of the prison bodybuilder, the other languid and cool, with a shoulder-length frosted auburn shag and a precisely groomed mustache. Another, younger man moves closer to the center of the bleachers. This kid has a fabulous haircut, I think to myself. It’s a surfer cut, the kind you’d see on Venice beach in the 70s, bleached blond and bristling up, antigravity, ending at the nape in a fringe of light brown. Where do you get a cut like that in prison, I wonder. What does it take to look that sharp? What do you have to do to look that good in a place like this?

The play begins. As Big G, who shot a cop dead, and Mike Kelly, who took a butcher knife to his ex-girlfriend and her mom, launch into the first scene of Titus Andronicus, my eyes suddenly blur and burn with tears. Wait a minute, I scold myself, spanking-new blue spiral notebook in hand, struggling to tamp down this unanticipated eruption of jumbled emotions. Don’t cry, not here, not now. Cover the story; be a pro. I uncap my pen, and start to write.

A year before, I visited the prison for the first time, to sit in on a morning’s rehearsal in the visiting room. That first visit, I was sheltered from the guts of the prison, kept off the yard, the quarter-mile long "campus" around which Luckett’s world turns, day in and day out. On this visit, my third, I am no longer a "fish," or prison virgin, as Big G thoughtfully explained. I know the drill.
I arrived in Louisville midday, picked up my el cheapo rental car, and swung out onto the highway toward my hotel on the suburban outskirts of Louisville. Craving a familiar jolt of java, I looked in vain for a coffee bar – not a latte in sight. There was, however, a humming Coke machine in the breezeway near my room. Driving again, I chugged an ice-cold diet Coke in the car on the road to Luther Luckett.

Set a good distance back from the road, the prison complex is fronted by the vast asphalt parking lot, as if to say: We who work here can leave, and do. You, gents, who live inside, can watch us come and go. By now, this obvious truth no longer shocks. I follow the drill, enter the prison’s double glass doors and greet the armed guards. I surrender my bag, camera, tape recorder, and notebook for x-ray examination. Walk through the metal detector, pat-down optional. Collect my effects and wait for my escort into the prison, all the while chatting up the good ol’ boy guards who no doubt wonder what on earth this white woman from up North is doing at their prison, again.

After a minute, my escort, Karen Heath, meets me. We shake left hands; her right is a truncated stump, that way since birth – a nimble fragment with a bit of a thumb and indeterminate digits. She grabs her two-way out of her back pocket just as we say hello, answering "We’re comin’ in," to its disembodied squawk.

"Have a nice flight?" she asks, making small talk while the double set of mechanical doors push open and drag shut. In a little vestibule, her radio crackles again and she dials down the volume. The second set of doors deposits us at an inner guard post, where a team of guards in a glassed-in booth hold my ID in escrow, swapped for a prison visitor’s pass until I leave that night, minutes before 9 pm count. While this process once seemed gratuitous, an unnecessary power play by the prison bosses, today, it’s just normal, the way things are. Like a show horse riding posts, you mark the course, make your turns, and in you go. True to form, we’re in, and on our way onto the yard.

The ‘yard’ at Luckett is a turf-and-clay rectangle laced with concrete walkways and surrounded on three sides by structures of varying form and function. Its long sides are lined by seven cellblock ‘dorms’ where Luckett’s 1100 inmates live, each block softened by small patches of grass and redwood picnic tables. Geraniums bob blood-red in the planting beds.

At the near end of the rectangle – where we enter, close to the guards’ watchful presence – is the visiting room, one long wall all glass and the other lined with vend’n’serve snack machines. The far end of the yard, its chain-link perimeter rigged with glittering concertina wire, is anchored by a one-room guard’s shack.

The gym squats in that outer corner, at the extreme end of the yard. Karen and I walk the gauntlet and chat – past the chow hall, past pill call, where meds are distributed four times a day, past the half-built chapel and laundry and classrooms where substance abuse programs alternate with sex-offender therapy groups. Walking the yard, I’m chatting and laughing, but wholly aware of my presence in this foreign country, and of its citizens, the men who line the yard, watching, smoking, and spitting onto the cement. Insulated from verbal assault by Karen’s escort, I still feel eyes on every part of me. I button my jacket over my white shirt and khakis; expose as little as possible but see everything, everything I can.

Onstage, the play, full-throttle, bristles with energy. Titus confronts his enemies; we witness murders, deceptions, rape and dismemberment, see the grinding wheels of revenge set into motion, and all in Act I. Despite the thrall of the drama onstage, I am distracted by an utterly mundane inner conflict: I need a bathroom. Shifting on the unforgiving gym bleachers this need is eminently clear; no leg-folding, ankle-tucking arrangement relieves the building pressure. Shouldn’t have had that Diet Coke in the car. Should’ve gone before you passed security, before you walked the yard and crossed the line into this other world. But I didn’t. Now, I need to go. Bad.

Meanwhile, the play is going gangbusters. The guys are buzzing with enthusiasm, half-drunk on the momentum of performance, and the audience is with the story, cheering the villain, and rooting out loud for the vicious, manipulative queen. Between scenes, I watch the inmate audience, a show in themselves: Men lounge on the bleachers with no regard for decorum, sprawling across two or even three rows of seats like large cats in honeyed sunlight. The kid with the great haircut is picking his teeth but stops when his friend comes onstage; he whistles and stamps when the scene is done. Some aimless men drift around the gym on the perimeter of the performance. Others leave in the ‘boring’ parts; the double doors squeak open and bang shut throughout the second half of Act I.

My bathroom needs grow more urgent with every passing scene. Finally, the act break!

"I gotta go," I say to Karen Heath.

"Ok," she says, half-scolding me as she laughs. "Let’s get you to a staff john. I can’t promise a porcelain bowl, but at least there’ll be a seat." I stash my notebook on a bleacher bench and take off after Karen, off to the loo.

Detouring via the guard’s desk, where a bank of video monitors reveals the gym from every angle, Karen collects the bathroom key. We hustle past a pool table to the staff bathroom and at last, I lock the door behind me – relief! Returning to the gym, I see the mens’ room and quickly avert my eyes. Its walls are glass, the men observable to all.

Backstage, the company is in a state of high excitement. The first act went well: Stuttering Mike sailed through his first scenes without a stumble. Nobody laughed at Leonard and Randy in drag, in the womens’ roles. The audience is getting the jokes and the smutty bits along with the story. The energy is contagious and the men are having a blast. Now, checking their props for Act II, everyone is a little high, kiting along, giddy with the pure fun of performance.

Back at the bleachers, I’m looking to get settled before Act II. I reach for my notebook and it’s gone. My pen, too – vanished. Maybe they fell under the bleachers; I look. I check behind the risers, too, no notebook. Flustered, confused, I can’t figure why someone might take my book. I remind myself, you’re in a prison, there are different rules here. Be professional, cope – but where is my book?

Karen sees me rooting around. "What’s up?" she asks.

"My book’s missing," I say, "Probably just got set backstage or something," trying to downplay the loss. I am, after all, a guest in her institution and it is, after all, only a notebook. It’s one of several I’ve filled for the story and much as I would like to have it, its absence isn’t any serious disaster. Most of all, I don’t want to disrupt the show – the men are ready to begin Act II, the audience is returning in dribs and drabs after a smoke break, and I am a guest, an observer. Karen is having none of this. She shifts instantly from her laid-back genial persona to erect attention, her eyes flashing across the gym to scope out the situation.

"Where’d you leave it?" she demands.

"Right here, on the bleacher – maybe it got moved?"

"I’m goin’ back to check," she says, striding off without waiting for my answer. She moves purposefully to the backstage area, and I can see her asking the guys, looking around – I’m sick, I wish I never lost the book, I don’t want to be a bother or any nuisance, it’s only a book…

"Not back there," she says when she returns, speaking in a low whisper as the act begins. "But the guys are all looking for it."

Backstage, they’re emptying out prop boxes, looking under the chairs and shaking out costume pieces. I feel terrible, responsible for distracting them from their work, like a naïve dunce for leaving my book in the first place. Who would want a book? It just didn’t dawn on me that my cheap little notebook could be an object of desire, I didn’t think of it. Still a fish, after all.

"OK," I say to her, eager to shift the attention back to the show, "It’ll turn up or it won’t. No big deal, I’ve got other notebooks."

She looks me square in the eyes, and it is clear to me. This is indeed a big deal, because of where we are. In a prison, there are rules, and rules make the system move. Break the rules and there are consequences. Take what doesn’t belong to you and there are repercussions. There’s no gray to this landscape; just black and white, wrong and right, actions and consequences. After a minute, she says, "I’m checking the video."

Video surveillance! Every inch of the gym is observable and observed. The guy had to know he could be seen in his light-fingered act. Karen beelines over to the guard’s station and disappears inside it. Meanwhile, the action on stage demands and deserves my attention. I try to focus on the work, the men, the art that’s being made, but feel naked without my book. Empty-handed, I sit and watch.

During a scene change, Karen is at my ear, whispering, "We got him. We got the jerk who took your book. He’s in the hole now, we grabbed him up when he came back to watch Act II." Minutes later, another guard arrives and gives her my notebook, and the show goes on. I scribble my notes, unimpeded.

After the performance, a half-dozen men in the cast come up to apologize for the theft. "He was my friend who done it," says one, "I feel like he did it to me."

"I never been so glad for video surveillance in my life!" says another, shaking my hand and patting the back of my notebook for emphasis.

"You shoulda seen us backstage," laughed Sammie, the Shakespeare group’s leading actor. "We’re s’posed to be getting’ ready for the hangin’ scene, and we’re all goin’, where’s the notebook? Where’s the notebook? Glad you got it back."

"Just don’t let go of it again," cautioned Karen. She was smiling when she said it, but there was steel under her grin. We were not going through this again.


The next afternoon, before the second performance, I hung out backstage with the company as they checked their costumes and preset their props. We kept on joking about the notebook saga. The fellow who took it had stashed it under the mattress of his bunk, then came back to see how Act II turned out when the guards stopped him.

"He should be on America’s Stupidest Criminals," joked Sammie. Commit a theft – in a prison! apprehension guaranteed! – and saunter back, to see the end of the play? No one could figure him out. As we were laughing, Karen came in and pulled me aside.

"He’s here," she said. "The guy who took your book, Peter, he’s here and he wants to apologize."

I stood still, startled to be confronted with the reality of the thief.

"You don’t have to talk to him," Karen continued. "You don’t have to at all. But if you want to, he wants to talk to you, and he’s right over there." She gestured to a young man standing near the guard station; it was the fellow with the ace haircut, the surfer ‘do.

"I’ll talk to him," I said, "I want to hear what he has to say."


Walking the few yards across the gym to meet Peter, my breath went shallow and my cheeks got hot. I was nervous, and I was scared. I had never been scared for my safety in the prison – not during long interviews with men convicted of murders, of brutal sodomies, of grisly sex offenses retold with frigid cool. But now, in the pallid green glow of the gym’s fluorescent lights, I felt vulnerable. Still, the reporter in me wanted to hear what he had to say. Why had he taken my notebook?

Peter looked at me, without looking up or down, and began to speak. "I am sorry for what I did," he said, in a deliberate, methodical recitation. His eyes were unwavering, his face illegible, a blank mask.

"I took your notebook and hid it away. I don’t know why I did it, but I did it." Peter’s eyes were opaque as sea glass, as empty as marbles. He went on, "I should not have taken it, but I did. I can’t say why. I’m sorry."

"I don’t know why you took it, either," I said. "I hope you figure it out, though." We clasped hands, an awkward handshake. No more than 24 or 25 years old, this guy was a goner, completely AWOL behind eyes as blue-white as skim milk.

"Yes, ma’am," he agreed, "I hope so. I hope to do so." Neither of us broke our gaze.

"Takes a big man to apologize like that, Peter," said Karen quietly. "You done the right thing. Takes a big man."

"Yes, ma’am," he said to her. "I’m sorry," he added again, to me.


If life had the symmetric grace of art, this exchange would yield an epiphany, a light-bulb instant, where Peter would see and renounce the error of his ways. But reality is blunt and often bitter, and life stubbornly resists the neat little package. Instead of the cathartic moment, there was nothing. With his sharp haircut and opaline eyes, Peter was just passing through, marking the time that stretched ahead, remote and dead to it all. The theft, being caught, his apology – all hollow.

And what did I think? Did I truly believe, somewhere in the secret depths of my idealistic heart, that this encounter could affect a young man whose remove from life now seemed utterly complete? I thought I knew where I was, thought I knew what I was doing – but it was only a wishful veneer, my own yearning for connection, for that sizzling jolt of recognition. Did I actually imagine that my presence, my work, could affect any life behind these cinderblock walls?

Until that moment, I think I did. Now, I knew different. I would come and I would go; countless other well-intentioned outsiders would venture into the world of the prison, each seeking to learn or to aid, to mend or improve, but the men themselves only stayed – impenetrable, stolid, embedded in Luther Luckett’s compressed universe. I was an outsider who, by my presence, violated the well-oiled precision of the prison routine – a nuisance, probably, or a distraction to be tolerated. To Peter, I was nothing; my notebook a tempting gimcrack waiting for his sticky fingers. I would, it seemed, always be a stranger in this very strange land.

The play went on that evening, with a slightly smaller crowd than on opening
night. I held tight to my notebook. And this time, Peter stayed for the whole


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