map Bruno’s Play

by Carter Schwonke

Published in Issue No. 212 ~ January, 2015


On Wednesday morning, Bruno told Maggie that by the age of eleven he’d been whipped, starved, burned, then abandoned with three young siblings left in his charge. The pain in his voice hit Maggie so hard that for a full minute horror ravished their classroom and stopped the world from breathing. Only by sheer physical force and presence of mind, did she remain in one piece and reach across the metal table to lightly brush his arm.

“I’m proud of you,” she said. “You got through a really bad deal.”

His black eyes filled and so did hers.

“Read to me,” she suggested softly.

And Bruno sat up straighter, opened his book with his good arm, and read to Maggie in a Spanish accent:

When shall we three meet again.

In thunder, lightning or in rain.

When the hurlyburly’s done. When the battle’s lost and won.

Maggie watched his broad shoulders relax as he found his rhythm. She didn’t interrupt him to correct mispronunciations, and she pretended not to notice the arcane idioms he skipped. It was more important to let his pacing hold. For his sake, for her sake, they’d be smart to call upon Shakespeare to erase Bruno’s past and imagine his future.

But today of all days, why share such horrors with Maggie? She ached as she thought of his blood, of her daughter’s blood, and the early damage done. Yet as Bruno read about witches, his ache seemed to vanish. It astonished her how quickly he strutted from the blackest smoke of hell, crossed a Scottish heath and performed so eloquently on the Elizabethan stage!

She wanted to reach out, grab hold of Bruno’s optimism, and never let go. But she remembered the rules—her rules, his rules, tacit and official prison rules that outlawed touching, swearing, favoritism, personal sharing, and howling. Difficult, when the only sensible thing to do was howl.

“Maggie?” Bruno stopped and stared. “Why you trippin’?”

“Me?” Maggie looked away. “I’m not tripping, Bruno. Keep reading.”

She didn’t want to spoil his mood. He enjoyed and understood Macbeth in a way she’d never expected. Maggie’s agenda, her reason for sitting with Bruno and other inmates, was to push social justice through literacy. Nothing personal. When prison gates clanged behind her on Wednesday mornings she, like other reading volunteers, helped inmates improve verbal and comprehension skills. Period.

She well knew that Bruno’s childhood wasn’t atypical and that crime, fueled by anger, revenge, jealousy and greed, often followed. But inmates’ stories were usually revealed over time, after trial balloons, ambiguities, and detours were tried first. Yet on this cold foggy morning, for no apparent reason and without warning shots, something had prompted Bruno to throw the equivalent of a damaged child’s body on an autopsy table for Maggie to claim and identify. A child for her to lament and grieve over. Again.

Then she remembered Narcotics Anonymous. After ten years of incarceration, Bruno had joined up. They’d told him to start asking the right personal inventory questions. He’d tried to include Maggie in his process by showing her the12 steps. But she’d shut him down, barely scanned them, preferred distance and high concept thinking.

Even so, she’d gleaned that with the help of Narcotics Anonymous, Bruno fully intended to replace hate with love. God was involved, and so was the parole board. Not to be cynical, but inmates know parole boards like NA membership. Anyway, however Bruno’s parole hearing went, NA membership would surely keep him out of the hole for the rest of his time and away from contraband.

“I love this part right here.” Bruno pitched his voice higher and read:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;

“You gotta wonder if she’ll do it?” he said. “Even when you already know. I mean, kill the king. Man, that’s not right.”

She wished she could offer him context or perspective. But Lady Macbeth’s steely ambitions proved impotent and lifeless compared to the abhorrent visions Bruno’s early childhood evoked. What madness does a parent suffer to inflict atrocities on a child? Such unfathomable madness made Maggie’s head hurt, and the lingering visions Bruno had set in motion threatened to stick with her for months, nurtured and fed by her own anxieties and fits of depression. If only he’d warned her to ready her defenses!

She’d better get a grip, because their morning had just begun, and weaknesses are not tolerated in prison. Changes, she concluded, are triggered by a series of events, so Narcotics Anonymous was only partially to blame for Bruno’s unwelcomed backstory.

Who else had spurred him on?

Apparently, he’d read the play in his cell in preparation for their meeting. At some point in dark midnight, Shakespeare had challenged Bruno to tell his own ghastly story. Yes, that British bastard obsessed with slain children, encouraged Bruno to find an audience and speak his story plain and true. Well, Maggie never liked the damned play, none of Shakespeare’s plays resonated with her as they so magnificently resonated with Bruno.

Maggie wore black pants as dictated by prison rules. Wiping her wet palms against them, she assured herself that blaming NA and Shakespeare was a normal, justified reaction. Self-satisfied, she watched as Bruno switched voices for each character, half stood to brandish a pencil and laughed with delight at himself.

When Bruno laughed and played, he was the Bruno she’d known for three years: the cut-up, knucklehead, court jester and grown man who dreamed of trout fishing someday. Easily, she recalled a light-hearted conversation they’d shared. Come to think of it, he’d surprised her with tales of his past way back then.

“Where do you go fishing, Bruno?”

“Oh, places east of here. But you’re probably wondering about my arm, huh, whether I can fish with one arm? Sure, I got no problems there.”

She averted her eyes from his “Mobility Impaired” vest. “Good.”

“I ran with a gang and got shot.”

Though his limp arm had always rested on the table between them, the specifics of the gang deed that left him crippled was never discussed. Maggie preferred it that way, so she redirected: “What about after your release? Are there challenges you should prepare for?”

“All I know, Maggie, is I’ll be fine. The spirit never dies.” He’d paused then, and she remembered the way he’d searched her eyes and tried to draw her in. “Know what I’m saying, Maggie? The spirit waits.”

He’d stared accusingly at Maggie which confounded and scared her. She wasn’t the one to hear his sins, nor was she inclined to confess her own. What was Bruno after that day? Adamantly, she’d pointed at his book. “Focus on vocabulary,” she’d said.

Maggie turned a blind eye that day and on many days since, but today was a difficult anniversary for her. “Sorry if I seem distracted, Bruno. Did you ask me something?”

Bruno flashed ultra-white prison dentures. “Look here,” he pointed:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time

“Continue reading,” she said. “And don’t skip around so much, I can’t keep up.”

His reference to her face was a bit intrusive, but Maggie didn’t get mad or defensive; she knew he couldn’t actually read her face. For a full three years she’d successfully edited all her doubts and fears, checked her mood at the gate, and rubbed her nervous hands under the table where no one could see. No way her face had given her away. She’d been nothing if not a cool customer, and exactly what would her face say to Bruno, anyway?

He repeated, “You know how this play ends, right?”

“Sorry, Bruno, I’m not concentrating very well, that story about your childhood pulled the rug out, I gotta tell you.”

Calmly, he laid his black, prison-issue reading glasses on the table. He studied her, and his concern made her want to throw dollar bills at him or gold. She wanted to make somebody’s life right. Maybe bring fine silks to Bruno, trout, or whatever would crown him king of his own life, then she’d book his passage to Bruno Land, a sun-swept kingdom, crawling with princesses.

“I know,” he said. “It’s a lot.”

“Yeah. So I’m not sure we can read today.” She pushed back her chair, threateningly, deciding whether to get up and call in the next inmate. She knew Bruno valued their half hour together, but she had her limits.

“Really?” He cocked his head mischievously and flashed dentures. “Now wait a second, don’t go. What if I made it all up? You know me and my dramas. Maybe I did, right?”

Maggie half smiled. “Nice try. And, anyway, I don’t think we should laugh. I don’t feel like laughing.”

Maggie tried to resume her teacher role, maintain her flat affect, and restore her arms-length position. Admittedly, their roles got confused sometimes. Visit after visit, he’d filled her heart with humanness, yet steadfastly she’d stayed tight-lipped. He had no idea how much he’d helped during her daughter’s slow suicide, then through her divorce and several career pivots over to social justice. Secretly, while her own family had unraveled, she’d relied heavily on Bruno’s small joys, and now she felt profound guilt and ingratitude.

Bruno was indeed her friend, yet she’d behaved like a traitor by not sharing. Did she really believe he’d use personal information against her when he got out, that he’d find her on the internet, stalk her, steal money, or move in? No, it must be that Bruno was a snake, not an innocent flower, who’d decided to play her with over-the-top claims of abuse. She was his next victim, weakened and unable to defend herself. But why?

The possibility that she’d been played suddenly loomed large; prison life hinges on plays. As Maggie worked through the logic, her certainty grew. Games and cons mean everything to an inmate from best jobs and GED classes, to phone calls and extra desserts. It was probable, at the very least, that Bruno embellished his abuse story because he wanted something from Maggie? But what?

This line of thought, for whatever twisted reason, gave Maggie a cold sense of relief. Frist, she realized his story, like most prison stories, was probably half true. Second, she’d much rather be conned by Bruno than exposed by Bruno. So, as long as they stuck to protocol and rules, she was willing to recommit to their remaining time. He mustn’t speak further of his past though, nor would Maggie speak of hers.

He put his glasses back on and repeated the most entertaining lines. Maggie heard nothing over the screech of steady, escalating, self-scolding she so rightly deserved for misleading him into thinking they might share notes someday and discuss each other’s crimes.

Instead, what she should have done these years, was identify constructive ways to help. With some effort she might have prophesized a better life for him or jumped on her broom and soared back in time to the drug-infested Cuban shack where groans, sighs and shrieks went unheeded. Yes, she should have swooped in, pulled Bruno out, and sent him to Yale.

“This, right here, is good.” Bruno read:

Two truths are told,

As happy prologues to the swelling act

She wasn’t listening. She swallowed hard. “Did you actually read something in my face today, Bruno?”

He paused before looking up. He winked. “Come on, now. I won’t hear this talk. Forget it.”

Forget it? While images of a beautiful boy’s gashes cried out for help? Maggie sat rigid, arms crossed. His wink had reminded her how skillfully he was able to float between despair and bravado. Somehow this made his story seem less sincere, his motives even more complex and troubling. Or did he know a survival secret Maggie should learn?

“Bruno–are you playing me? Is this some kind of performance?”

“Yeah, I’m messing with you.”


He looked directly at her, smile gone; his soft eyes tore at her roots. “You think there’s all these secrets you don’t have to tell, Maggie? Who you gonna trust? Who you gonna kick it with?” He waved his good arm to suggest other inmates, guards outside, cafeteria workers in North Block, visitors, miles of fencing and rifles, hundreds of rifles with stories of their own to tell. “But what’s the difference; we all got stuff, right? You know how Shakespeare says:”

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.

Maggie realized what little credit she’d given Bruno. He’d circled her battlements, and proven again that inmates can access deadly weapons. Or was he so clever that he’d conflated Narcotics Anonymous steps with a tragedy in five acts, thrown pre-selected lines into his bubbling pot, and produced his own play? To impress her?

“I had a recent family tragedy,” she may have intimated, but not details, not that her teenaged daughter weighed 60 pounds at the end. There was simply no good reason, on the fourth anniversary of her daughter’s death, the worst day of her year, that he should insist on sharing the black bottom of her relentless guilt for not prioritizing the well-being of her anorexic child over her fancy law career.

Maggie had no idea how to answer these questions, but her defenses raged. She was already behind bars, so where could her guilt and agony go? Bruno didn’t need her drama, really, if she walked in next Wednesday and revealed all her off-stage horrors, how would that be valuable to either one of them? Could she survive the telling?

No, she could not. Thank goodness, earlier, when she’d crossed the exercise yard to get to class, inmate’s playing basketball or guitar or football didn’t know this was another childless anniversary. They might have judged, offered condolences, shrugged, or worse.

Just then Bruno flipped back and selected specific lines with alarming alacrity. He read:

Tis unnatural,

Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last

A falcon towering in her pride of place

Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

He laughed and looked pleased with himself. “What’s that old man going on about, anyway? Must be more hurly-burly stuff, that’s all I can figure.”

Now Maggie smiled; he’d been kidding around. Her guilt felt so swollen and ulcerous that she’d unconsciously shown a tiny bit of sorrow to the world, but only because it was anniversary day. Ha! He’d spun her around and now back; that was how Bruno got through life, and he was trying to teach her his trick. Poor Professor Bruno forced to put up with clueless Maggie, a pimply, lame freshman out to save the world, but blind, deaf, and dumb when it came to the ugly bits. He’d better write his self-preservation lessons on the chalk board, or she’d keep finding ways to avoid them.

Lesson one: Keep laughing

Lesson two: Pat people on the back or give fist pumps

Lesson three: What’s done is done

Lesson four: Be loyal to your friends

And he was right, she’d better get a handle on what she showed the world. Next Wednesday she’d re-establish the natural order of things around here, pronto, and work extra hard to hide her face, especially from Bruno. If necessary, she’d wear a paper bag over her head. When trial balloons went up and inmate’s confessions lurked, Maggie would be unavailable. She’d stop, point at the page, and wink.

She’d give ’em social justice, all right, by the book. That’s all. Maybe Bruno had caught himself up in a suspicious plot to move-on with his life, but his attempt to embroil her in his plot failed.

For the foreseeable future, Maggie fully intended to stay mad at life’s tragedies. What remained was her daughter’s heartbeat. Fragile, delicate beats still came softly to Maggie’s ear in quiet, private moments. The beats came so softly, and were so welcomed and cherished, she dared not expose them to air, wind, or fog. Exposure would surely silence them.

Have your spiritual awakening Bruno, she thought, I’m happy for you. But there will be no further conspiracies between me and sympathetic, tricky actors like you, emboldened and egged on by gasps and claps from the gallery. Never again will I allow a false sense of security to take hold. No more clumsy Maggie, navigating her way through trifling bits of truth. Not my line of work.

As Maggie processed these final thoughts, she hid her intentions, and Bruno kept reading. Finally, her position proved so feasible and rational that her sense of irony returned, and she couldn’t believe what a fool she’d been not to heed Shakespeare in the first place. Mere tales told by idiots signify nothing, and if fiery words such as burned and starved scatter their ashes and lose power once spoken, then damnation to the tongue!

With that, her strategy to suffer silently and indefinitely was back on track, and she re-established her footing with Bruno. “So you’re really okay. Right?”

He flashed dentures. “Nothing happened, forget it.”

Like Bruno said, the spirit never dies it waits, and Maggie agreed. Later, she’d give his consoling perspective further consideration, but laugh and clown around? Not a chance, Maggie was resolute. While her spirit waited, it would do hard time.

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Carter is a graduate of Syracuse University and University College London. Her short stories have appeared in Blueline, Snake Nation, Stirring, Calliope, and the Underground Voices 2013 print anthology. She is a literacy volunteer at a California State Prison.