When traffic is light, the drive to the Coxsackie Correctional Facility takes two hours and eighteen minutes. In the early spring, the view north as you pull onto the Henry Hudson Bridge can be disorienting. The grey of the city with its still-melting mounds of snow piled high in the corners of municipal parking lots and along street curbs replaced, suddenly, with a seemingly endless landscape of first-bud forests. It will look like the greenest green you have ever seen. You will follow Route 9A to the Saw Mill Parkway, which takes you past Yonkers and Elmsford, before merging onto the Taconic State. At that point you’re into the heart of the Hudson River Valley, and by mid-September the leaves are so vibrant with the full spectrum of oranges and yellows and reds that it will take your breath away.
I know this drive well. I have been doing it at least once a month for more than three years now.
My brother Alex was nine years and two-hundred forty-seven days older than me. He was nearly six feet tall by the time he was fifteen. Not a narrow six feet either. He was already filling out in his shoulders and chest. He could grow a halfway decent mustache. When I stood next to him and looked up, he seemed like a giant. One day, a woman at the grocery store asked Alex whether he was my dad. We had a good laugh about that one.
Just past Lake Taghkanic, you will exit onto Route 82 and then turn down a nondescript, two-lane road that runs past a bulk waste facility before gradually bending to the right. Coming around that bend, you will see the prison walls, which are made of red brick. Those walls were built to be intimidating, and the first few times you see them they will have their intended effect. You will slow to fifteen miles per hour as you approach, as instructed by the signage. At the gates, you must present your state-issued identification card before you are allowed to enter. A guard will then spend a minute or two typing your information into a computer. He is checking to make sure that your name is on the list and that you have passed the requisite security background check. Even if they recognize your face, even when you're a regular, they have to check, just to make sure. They will then raise the mechanical arm and you will drive through. The road will bring you to the visitors' parking lot. From there, it is just a matter of walking down the strip of sidewalk that runs between the two razor-wired outer perimeter fences to the entrance.
Alex was not an easy child. He was born two months premature and spent the first five weeks of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit. When Mom and Dad finally brought him home, they couldn’t get him to stop crying, no matter how much they whispered in his ear and rocked him back and forth. At four, he was diagnosed with a variety of learning disabilities, each with its own jumbled acronym of capital letters. For these, he was prescribed his first medications.
He was moody. He lashed out at teachers. He threw things. There were violent tantrums with screaming and hair pulling and breaking of toys and other things. Sometimes Alex would bash his head against the wall and Dad would have to go into his room and wrap him in a bear hug and hold his arms and legs tight to his body so that Alex couldn’t flail around or hit or kick. When he was eight, Alex held a pair of scissors to Mom and told her that he was going to stab her. Despite being born premature, he was a big kid and threats like that needed to be taken seriously. He was committed to psychiatric inpatient care and diagnosed with bipolar and prescribed additional medications to help with depression and to stabilize his mood. I don’t remember any of that, of course. It was all before I was born.
Upon entering the prison building, you will need to submit to a second security check involving the same process as the first. You will then walk through a metal detector and your body and handbag will be subject to inspection by drug sniffing dog.
Here's what I do remember about Alex: he was my protector, my applier of band-aids to scraped knees, my teammate in UNO and Candyland, my maker of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He would sometimes spin me in our front yard, holding onto my wrists and turning around until I could no longer move my legs fast enough to keep up and my feet would leave the ground and I would fly, the hem of my dress flapping wildly behind me. Around and around, screaming with laughter until we both fell over with dizziness. I can see his face when I close my eyes at night and think of him. The edges and details are fuzzier than they used to be. His features are less defined. He is smiling.
You will then be given a badge, which must be attached to your shirt or jacket with a clip. The linoleum-covered flooring in the Coxsackie Correctional Facility is a sterile beige and light green checkerboard-type pattern. You will walk halfway down the short hallway on your right. The first door you encounter will be the visitors' room. It has ten round tables with attached plastic benches. There are a couple of vending machines against the far wall stocked with Pringles and Snickers bars and cans of Mountain Dew. The windows are high on the wall, giving the visitor a view of little but the sky.
Alex met Eric in sixth grade, which is when the three elementary schools in our small town in northern New Jersey merged into the unified district middle school. They were both outsiders, Alex and Eric. They sat together at lunch every day in the cafeteria, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with a couple of other kids who happened to be into the same fads. Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, POGs, DragonBall Z, Doom, Street Fighter 2, pornography, Alice and Chains, pot. Those other kids were transient. They came and went. Alex and Eric, though, they stuck together, bullshitting and playing video games and learning to drive and coaching each other through crushes and heartaches even though neither one of them knew the first thing about it.
When he was sixteen, Alex fell head over heels in love. And for the first time he was free of his rage and his manic episodes and his sadness. He and Eric split the remnants of an expired bottle of codeine that Eric had stolen from the back of his mom’s medicine cabinet. They took the pills in the woods behind the Safeway, and then they walked until Eric tripped over a buckle in the sidewalk pavement and then just laid down in the grass and smiled and were completely and utterly relieved of whatever trauma or burden had taken place that day with girls in their class or on instant messenger or with one of their moms being a total fucking asshole who couldn’t possibly understand what it was like. Later, there was Percoset. Then there was Oxycontin, which Alex and Eric would crush by tapping gently with a heavy book or hammer or something, and then inhale into their noses.
You will enter the visitors' room. Sometimes it is crowded, but usually there are only one or two other couples or families in there talking in hushed tones. You will select a free table and you will choose a place to sit on the built-in plastic seating. The guard will use a walkie talkie to tell his colleagues the name of the person you are there to see. Then the door at the back of the room will open, and that person will enter the room. He will not be handcuffed or have his feet restrained in any way. At least two guards will keep watch at all times. No touching of any sort is allowed.
Alex got into a good college in Minnesota. Good, not great. Mom and Dad didn’t like the idea of him being that far away. They worried about him. About whether he could manage his medications, about whether he could maintain. But they let him go anyway. We all flew out there, to Minnesota, and we got a rental car and drove him to campus and dropped him off in front of his dorm. We hugged him and told him we loved him. Even then he had to bend down at the knees to give me a kiss on my cheek.
By the middle of his freshman year second semester, the dean "recommended” that Alex would do well to take a year or two to figure out whether college was what he really wanted, as neither his grades nor his disciplinary record – which already included at least three citations for underage drinking and one for punching someone at a frat party – suggested that it was: what he wanted. Mom went to Minnesota to pick him up and he came home and shut himself in his room. He was off his medicine. He was depressed, he said. When I would see him, he would smile a sad sort of smile at me and maybe tousle my hair a little bit, which I was too old for by then but which he did anyway because he still teased me and because he was still such a giant in my life, despite it all. I would laugh about it and he would do his best to laugh with me, but I could tell he was faking. And then he would disappear back into his room.
The inmate will then stop at your table, and you will look up at him or her, and you will smile or scowl or have a completely neutral expression, depending on the nature of the relationship between you and the inmate. You may want to hug the inmate, again, depending on the nature of the relationship, but you cannot do so. It is against the rules of the Coxsackie Correctional Facility.
Rehab was good for Alex. He was meant to go for just a short time, just to get back on his feet, figure out his medications. After a couple weeks, though, the program coordinators recommended extending. He ended up staying nearly two months. When he finally got out he looked healthy. The color had returned to his cheeks. He had put some weight onto what had become an oddly narrow frame.
There was maybe a week or two of that, of happy and healthy Alex. He took me to the movies. I was just-turned ten. I wanted to see some stupid horror movie and Alex told the guy in the ticket booth that he was my legal guardian and the guy in the ticket booth gave Alex sort of a sideways look but sold him the tickets anyway. After the movie, we walked home and there was a place where we could take a shortcut through a little park with a stream with big rocks that form a sort of bridge and it was really dark in there, and because I was already scared from the R-rated movie I didn’t want to walk through there, but I told Alex that it was fine because I didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of him, but then when we were actually in there - in the woods - and because it was even darker than I had thought it would be, I grabbed Alex’s hand and squeezed it tightly and he squeezed back and I let him lead me through.
It was the day after we went to the movies that he and Eric reconnected. They went to the place behind the Safeway where they had first gotten high all those years ago and been finally happy and relieved and free. Eric put a needle into my brother’s arm and pushed down the plunger and a stream of heroin coursed through Alex's veins and Alex's eyes rolled back in his head and his breathing grew shallow. Eric covered Alex with some branches and leaves and walked away. The medical examiner said it was another hour, at least, before Alex died.
Eric, who all those years ago killed my brother Alex, who is now middle-aged and grey-haired and has creases spreading from the corners of his eyes but in most ways looks just the same as he did when he was my brother’s best friend, sits across from me at the table at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility and for a moment I am not able to speak. And then Eric tells me how grateful he is that I visit him and how good it is to see me again.
He tells me again how much he had hesitated to write that apology letter to me three years ago, how he had agonized over every word, trying to make possible the impossible task of expressing his remorse. And I tell him again how painful that letter had been, how I had stuffed it in the back of my kitchen drawer and hidden from it for days before tearing it open and reading the first few lines and then screaming and beating my chest. How I still don't really understand why I decided to come that first time because I hated him so much. He nods understandingly and then looks at his hands, which are folded between us on the table.
He tells me about his month - how he is counseling other inmates and writing poetry - and we reminisce about my brother and his best friend and laugh at some stupid thing Alex had once said. I used to cry during my visits with Eric, but I don’t anymore. We talk until the guard tells us that our time is up.
You will do this once a month for three years straight, driving up Route 9A to the Saw Mill Parkway to the Taconic State to the gates of the Coxsackie Correctional Facility and through the first security check point to the visitors’ parking lot and down the sidewalk between the razor wire fences and through the second checkpoint and eventually to the visitors’ room where you will sit across the table from the man who hurt you more than you could ever imagine being hurt.
You will do this, and, eventually, if you're lucky, and if you work really hard at it, you may come to see not the man who killed your brother, not a man who you hate so much you want to beat your chest and pull your hair, but instead someone who was once a scared boy, carrying his own traumas and self-doubts and self-loathing and fears, who killed his best friend and who regrets it more than anything, who lives every day in regret, in fact, and who wants to make amends. You will come to understand why this man was your brother's best friend and how similar they are in so many ways. Maybe when the guard tells you it is time to go, you will reach across the table and take his hand in yours, even though it is against the rules, and you will squeeze it tightly and lead him through because he is in the middle of a dark woods and he is scared.
And, if you get there, if you get there, you will have forgiven, and you will feel love.