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You Are Free to Go by Sarah Yaw | Word Riot
Novel Excerpts

January 15, 2015      

You Are Free to Go by Sarah Yaw

Moses washes. He has a good piece of soap from Georgy’s cell and he is careful with it. He stands over the small sink, a small man with a slump to his shoulders and a tender set to his face. He is old now. It’s official. When he washes, he begins with his hair. He puts his head under the faucet and lets the cold water wake his cells. When he encounters sensations that stimulate his nerves like this, he’s aware of how his life is like a candle nearing the end of its wick. Sometimes life flickers out; sometimes life flickers on. This cold flickers him on. He scrubs his hair, but gently. The water drains from his scalp in rivulets, making white, baby-fine ribbons of hair that fall heavy into his eyes and soak his face. He runs his hands from his brow over his crown, sending water down his bare back. It drips down his backside and down his legs and pools on the floor. Then he scrubs his face, the places behind his ears. He uses his index fingers to clean inside his ears and he uses Georgy’s soap to lather and scrub himself perfectly clean. His neck is next. He stretches to open the folds of skin that normally hang heavy with years, and he cleans between them. His sharp clavicles and shoulders, his armpits and ribs, the soft sags of his stomach, he attends to all of these. He reaches around to his back, hugging himself to make sure his spine, still strong, still holding him up like the trunk of a dead tree, is clean. He washes his backside, his underside. He stops for a moment when he touches his penis. He feels the low, slow stir of pleasure and it reminds him that life in this body has not been all bad. He cleans places he’s taken for granted, the long slope of his right thigh, the outer edge of his hip, the top of his right knee, the bony cliff of his shin, the sagging meat of his calf. He cleans the skin on his ankle, his phalanges, the space between his toes. He repeats this same ritual on the left leg. Then he gently dries himself, starting at his hair. He rubs softly, and the soap releases its smell and in this way Georgy, the smell of him, mingles with Moses’ smell and this rises up into his nose and he imagines he’s breathing in that boy. He loved him.
      Moses dresses neatly. His pants and shirt are clean and freshly pressed. He tucks his shirt into his trousers flatly. His clothes hang. There’s not much left of him to give the clothes shape. When he’s dressed, he places Georgy’s hat on his head. Today is for him. After the letter arrived from Laughlin, L. telling Georgy she’d be happy to come visit him, and she had a few things she’d like to discuss with him about the Lord, Moses gave in to Don’s constant nags—he’s been full of hope since Gourmet accepted his oxtails—and Moses called her. This visit would have thrilled Georgy.
      Miller comes to get him. The whole block knows where he’s going and there’s a certain awe that he’s pulled this off. Most have feigned illness to skip their day pressing plates just so they can watch him go. Walk the walk of a man who’s got a girl from the outside coming to see him. They’re excited about what might happen, so they’re cheering. Moses walks out of his cell, and Miller frisks him. There is an energy in the block this morning. The sparrows are flying the upper air like trapeze artists. Men are clanging on the bars. Men are screaming and cackling and jumping. Moses doesn’t look at them. He tries to ignore them. He just takes the stairs real carefully. There’s nothing to this, he thinks to himself. He hopes. He takes a cautious step down, aware of all the small movements of his body. He’s acquired a slow shuffle, the walk of a man who’s lived his life in a small space.
      In thirty-six years the only free people he’s seen are staff, like Lila and the guards, the nurses who cared for him at Hardenberg Memorial Hospital twenty-three years ago when he had his appendix removed, and the butcher who took it out of him, Dr. Gandhi something or other, so he’s never seen this visiting room before. The green walls. The green tables. The low stools bolted to the floor that look like they are from an elementary school classroom. They’re small. Other inmates wait like school kids, diminutive in their seats, sure not to step out of line for fear they’ll lose the privilege of being here. The guards hover against the walls; their metal-colored uniforms have them looking like guns.
      He sits on one of those silly stools and adjusts his shirt collar so it looks just so. One of the guards comes to him and says, “What do you think you’re doing? Give me that.”
      Moses looks up at him, confused.
      “The hat, old man,” and the guy flicks the front of Georgy’s Stetson so it falls back on Moses’ small head. Moses grabs it and the guard takes it from him, walks it up to the guards’ desk. He sits down next to an enormously fat guard Moses doesn’t know, and throws the hat on the guy’s fat head. They laugh. The fat one waves his arm like he’s slinging a lasso and he bucks forward and back in his comically weak chair.
      Without the hat, Moses is struck with a sinking exhaustion. The kind that sets in after over-excitement and nerves. He can feel himself becoming smaller. His mouth and eyes are dry. His throat full of broken glass. He sits and observes the room. His body stiff as a corpse. Only his eyes show life as they dart from visitor to visitor.
      And the visitors shock the hell out of him. The only women dressed like ladies are old battle-axes who hobble in on canes. The rest of the women, and they are mostly women, look like hookers. Their dresses hardly covering their repulsively large asses, their nails long as beans, their hair twisted and curled and cemented into place. But then he’s distracted by a girl who walks in alone. He recognizes her immediately. Knows her right away. It’s clear to him even across the room who this is.
      “You have to take a seat, lady,” a guard says to her.
      “Moses?” she asks.
      The guard points her to the end of the room and takes her elbow and walks her to where he sits.
      Moses can tell he’s a much older man than she imagined. “You can touch, but don’t give him anything. And keep your hands where I can see them,” the guard says.
      “I just have this,” she says and holds up a Bible. The guard shrugs. He’s seen this before.
      Moses looks her up and down as she stands in front of him and then he looks away, shakes his head. “You couldn’t even wear a dress?”
      “What?” she asks, sitting down on the stool across from him.
      “You have nice hair,” he says and sucks at his teeth and taps his foot and looks off to the side like he’d rather be someplace else. “I didn’t know you were a blonde,” he says.
      There’s a young prisoner, a greasy hillbilly, at the next table staring at her. He licks his lips. An old guilty woman sits across from him and weeps. He looks at Laughlin, L. and sniffs the air.
      “Don’t pay any attention to him,” Moses says. “Hey, what’s your name?”
      “Laura. Can you read?” she asks, opening the Bible up to a passage she has marked by a crocheted bookmark.
      “You shouldn’t bother with me.”
      “You’re being ungrateful,” she says and sits back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest.
      Moses looks around the room with a twisted look on his face, as if he’s in a conversation with someone else.
      “What are you doing?” she asks.
      Moses is restless. Jittery. He’s batting things away from his face. He moves from side to side, crosses and uncrosses his legs. He looks like he doesn’t even know where he is. “Let me smell your hair,” he says.
      “I will,” she pauses for a moment, unsure of the bargain she’s about to strike, “if you read with me,” she says.
      He stops his fidgeting. “Deal,” he says. “But you have to read to me. My eyes are shit.”
      “Please don’t cuss,” she says and opens the book to a passage and begins to read. She has a beautiful voice and Moses, who doesn’t care about the words or their promises, thinks how pleased Georgy would be that she came here to save him. That anyone would care about what became of him. It would have just been too much for that boy.
      Laughlin, L. finishes the passage about mortal sin and says, “Let’s pray.” She takes his old hands in her warm young hands and Moses catches a whiff of her clean hair as a thick silky rope of it falls forward over her shoulder and over her breast. “Amen,” she says.
      “Amen,” Moses says.
      “Your hair,” he reminds her.
      “OK,” she says and timidly leans forward and lets her hair fall down over her eyes.
      At first he hovers at the edge, light as a bee.
      Then he leans in closer, and a little closer, until he buries his face just above her ear and sniffs. He breathes in again, and this time it’s so deep she pulls away. But he guides her gently back in. Her smell is like apples. Her hair touching his cheeks unlocks him. Each time he inhales her smell, it pulls some bit of an unknown sadness out of him. He leans his head on hers and she kindly doesn’t pull away.
      After a long moment, she pulls back, looks at him, a discrete wipe of her eyes. He is calm. “Your hair smells like apples,” he says.
      “Do you need anything?” she asks. “I could get you something and send it to you.”
      “I don’t need anything,” he says.
      “My dog is in the car. I don’t want him to wait too long.”
      “You can leave,” he says.
      “Do I have to wait until they tell me I can go or do I just leave?”
      “I don’t know,” Moses says.
      “Haven’t you ever had a visitor before?”
      “No,” he says. “Never have.”
      “Oh,” she says looking down. She sees a loose hair on the front of the t-shirt and she pulls it away. Moses reaches for it. “May I?” he asks.
      “The hair,” he says.
      “Oh. Sure,” she shrugs.
      He takes it and runs his fingers the length of the strand. Then he winds it around his finger delicately, as if it were gold or something that precious. He brings the finger to his cheek and gently rubs the fine hair along his skin.
      “I’m going to leave now,” she says.
      “OK,” Moses says, looking at the hair, trying to find its end.

YawAbout the author:

Sarah Yaw’s novel You Are Free To Go (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an associate professor at Cayuga Community College. She lives in Central New York.

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