We would laugh so hard in a place not meant for laughter, feel family in a place not meant for home. We had built a brotherhood in a place meant only to be punitive.

By Demetrius Buckley 

In the small prison yard, I give Gil a powerful embrace.

“Damn, bro, I ain’t get no hug?” Raphael says. “All this favoritism…”

“Here he go, acting like a baby,” I joke.

We are back together at Baraga, friends reuniting, discussing what made history in a system that raised men. Lake Superior is down the street, its maritime scent mocking the yard.

“Meech, you crazy as hell,” Raphael says, laughing. “How you hear dude say he ’bout to do something to you when you was in your cell, and dude downstairs in his cell?”

“You irritating already. I told you what I heard.”

“You need to get your ears checked,” Raphael jokes.

“Meech got PTSD,” Gil responds. “Prison tore us all up into confetti. But what you finna do when you get home?”

“I’ve been working on rapping, writing songs,” Raphael says, “but if not, I’ll get a job, be legit.”

“You’re going to have to fix yourself, lil bro. The world will wear on you—the women, the freedom, the drugs.”

Out the group Gil had a life without parole, but acted as if going home nestled in every tomorrow. My twenty-year sentence was down to eight. Raphael had two months before release, before feeling the solid ground away from this seashore of prison.

“You’re done drowning. Don’t test the waters no more,” Gil says.

“Imma show y’all I can do it. Watch.”

Arrested at eighteen, Raphael did thirteen years inside a system full of angry, manipulative men and made it through unscathed. I’d taken a liking to Raphael seven years ago, a slow buildup from when we first met at Baraga, where he was too playful, goofy. I was guarded from any camaraderie, serious about taking control of my life, realizing my wrong decision-making. I’d left my family for friends, for an honor that got lost as soon as I was caught.

Raphael had made himself the little brother in the group. He wasn’t aiming to impress like other guys his age, thinking violence was a quick remedy to everything. Raphael was spirited, and I scolded him for keeping a smile on his face, trying to put one on mine. We’d argue over who had better songs on our MP3 players. I was the old-school R&B king, and he’d sneak songs off my player, bounce at his cell door to the smooth jazz in his headphones, a song that came out when he was two years old, swearing he knew about the artist.

“I know about The Whispers— ‘This is what I do to get you in the mood,’” he’d sing out the crack of his door.

“Niggah, you got that from me!” I’d say.

“Okay. Okay. What about”—he picked another song from his catalogue, my catalogue—“Al Hudson and Oneway, that uhh, uhh—”

“Cutie Pie!” I’d reclaim.

Gil would come to his door, flatfoot, no socks, because the state didn’t issue socks for his big feet. “Meech stole that from me, and Raphael, you stole that from Meech—both y’all some copycats.”

We would laugh so hard in a place not meant for laughter, feel family in a place not meant for home. We had built a brotherhood in a place meant only to be punitive.

Thirty-three days before Raphael’s release, the prison counselor calls his name over the P.A. He misses yard, oddly quiet the rest of day. We learn in sign language through the glass slit that his grandfather died. Now, that happy home will be met with grief, a cringing heartache—enough to derail a fresh mind back to crime. A loved one dying while we are imprisoned, months away from home, is like seeing the family member on shore and having to swim to them with our unit on our backs. I see his grandfather waving in the night. The unit bobs in some dark ocean, Raphael kicking his legs, coming up for air. Almost home.

Day thirty on the yard, Raphael turns away from the other prisoners, faces the fence to where the water curls against the land. He cries. Gil and I stand in front of him; it’s the lake four blocks away, the unfreezing surface releasing what we left behind. It’s the building he holds, the system digging into his aching shoulders. I too turn toward the fence, add to the ocean, to the sorrow.

Day twenty, they are packing Raphael up to be transferred closer to Detroit. He’s making it to shore. Raphael yells up the hall, “Gil. Meech, I love y’all. Imma keep in touch!”

“Stay focused,” I yell.

And just like that he’s gone. Life feels duller, harder. After Gil transfers to a different facility, I stay to myself, wondering if Raphael made it out in the world with his courage, his joyfulness. I don’t care if he keeps in contact; I prefer him not to relive this place. Most don’t reach back and that doesn’t mean the bond isn’t genuine. It isn’t any different than a relative; they always forget to reach out.

At the emailing kiosk, a couple months after Raphael left, I click on the flashing icon: (20) messages. Here’s my number, one says. Call me. I open the picture and it’s Raphael, dreads hanging over his face, looking clean. Energy bolts through me, then a fear I can’t quite explain. I become impatient to call him, thinking he’s fallen into a life of crime, testing those waters. The shoes, clothes, and money fanned in a half circle set it off. When I finally make it outside to call, I dial the wrong number. Start over. The small paper inked with numbers blows in the breeze. The second dial my fingers hit the right numbers. A long wait.

“What’s up, bro!”

“Remember this place—don’t come back—don’t…” My voice vibrates from my kicking legs, from readjusting the building on my shoulder.

“I’m not doing anything illegal. I gotta record deal!”

“Get da fuck outta here!”

“For real. I gotta take care of Grams, honor my grandpop, and look out for y’all… family.”

The building on my back chips off a section in the water, a splash beside me. I see Raphael at shore, waving, waiting.

My mouth stretches across my face. “That’s good to hear.” My worries seem smaller than before. After our talk, my mind spins on how big he’d get, putting Detroit on the map; Raphael has a promising future now. Splash.

Two months elapse without hearing from him, a busy man with a record deal, but like clockwork on the yard I show the pictures Raphael sent me to a few guys. I show off his success, what any friend does to feel connected, important.

“Lil bro out there getting it.”

The sun is shining on this ocean, the brick buildings drying as we hold them above our heads.

“I know Raphael,” someone says. “He got that song with Icewear Vezzo.”

“Yeah, that’s my little bro. I’m ’bout to call him in a minute.”

“You know he dead, right? For a month now.”

I gaze up. “He ain’t dead. Look.” I surf through the pictures where he’s alive. We dispute over Raphael’s life, his wellbeing, same as I did when he was inside. He is so far on shore, making something of himself, and them, us, in prison with buildings on our backs, swimming, drowning, screaming out a mouthful of water. My lil bro ain’t dead.

I call several times the next day, but I get no answer. I try his grandmother. Water in my mouth, legs kicking.

“Hello, this is Demetrius, a friend of Raphael.” I hear seagulls circle. “Is he okay?”

Her voice rasps. “Baby, Raphael dead. He took a pill with fentanyl in it, maybe didn’t know it was in there. Went to sleep, never woke up.”

I listen with everything in me, hope to hear him in the background, some grand joke of his.

“They wanted him dead, was jealous. We weren’t all slaves and pitiful black folks they show on TV. Don’t take that vision into your mind, that’s how they get you.” She goes on as if I am Raphael, back somewhere she knew he’d be. “When you wake up, if you wake up…you better be careful.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She’s my grandmother now, teaching me what not to do. I am Raphael.
“We’re putting his music on YouTube. ATM Simba his rap name. You check back with me, OK?”

After a few more words we hang up. What his grandmother said about the jealousy of people who’d pull him back in that life is true. I never anticipated him dying while making something of himself. I had been too worried he would come back to prison, but entering into a new world is like learning to walk again with sea legs. I’ll drown tonight, wake tomorrow, and see Raphael’s grandmother waving me to keep swimming…if I wake.

Demetrius A. Buckley is a poet and creative writer. His work has been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, RHINO, Mangoprism, Filter, The Arkana Journal and Apogee. He’s working on a memoir: First 48: The Fall of Winter Kings and is the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize winner for his poetry collection Here is Home. He is serving a 20- to 32-year sentence for a second degree murder at Michigan Reformatory (RMI).