Wormwood
N. Marc Mullin

Dear Ms. Jackson,

Let's go back to "Are you bitter?" With everyone in a rush to beat that snowstorm home, the press conference in Joe Paetz's law library was no place to answer in full. I hope you don't mind me adding a few things before you finish your article for The Journal.

Naomi, Joe's daughter at Princeton, is typing this email even though she's beat from helping dig his Jeep out of a snowbank. She calls me the King of the Double Negative and promises to clean up my Staten Island English as we go. (And she's begging me not to say such things in a letter to a reporter, but after thirty-two years being told when to wake and when to sleep, I think I can say what's on my mind—you'll give me that.) Joe would be adding to this if he hadn't left us for work. Despite the blizzard, he's at the office helping the hopeless.

I know you took it wrong when I answered you with a question—"Bitter like the taste of ashes?" And then, wiseass that I am, I snuffed out my lit Camel on my tongue. I meant no disrespect, Ms. Jackson, and I'm sorry others laughed like they were dissing you. I remember the way you pulled your turtleneck up over your chin like you wanted to hide. No doubt the boys in the press have asked the same damned question many times before, so who were they to laugh? Truth is, I saw caring in your eyes, which is why I'm bothering to write you and why I hope to meet you again one day.

I had my reasons for not giving a simple answer. And please keep in mind the stress I faced yesterday. Joe had told me that if I ever got out it would happen many months from now. Then, some judge must've got visited by Saint Christopher, woke up scared for his eternal soul, and signed a release order. The press conference came only three hours after they walked me out of Rahway Prison with my envelope of possessions, including a driver's license they took from me in 1982 when I wore those dopey pilot glasses and had all my hair and teeth. In a manner of speaking, when you saw me I had come from a dark place, Ms. Jackson, and my eyes had not yet adjusted to the light.

It will take a while to get my balance. Last night I slept here at Joe's Hoboken apartment because after all this time I have no home and my people—including my only daughter, Camille—are dead and gone. This morning, Joe asked why I kept my comb, toothbrush, pants, shirt, glasses, and baseball cap piled on the foot of the bed instead of using the dresser. I explained that in a six-by-eight cell everything sits within reach. To put it mildly, people in the joint will take what you don't keep close, so you get in the habit of pulling yourself in like a turtle.

You'd think that freedom would end that habit. Imagine my feelings this morning when I looked outside as a free man and saw a couple girls making a snowman. In prison, they wouldn't let us out in the snow except to freeze on the work detail that shoveled the yard. For a second I thought of running downstairs and being a kid again, plugging in a stone eye or a pencil nose. I pictured lying on my back and making a six-foot-five angel. But the idea of so much open space and light scared the hell out of me. Even the bedroom seemed too big, like I woke up floating in space. Prison held me tight, Ms. Jackson, and I can't yet picture another way to be. I'm not going to throw open the window, suck in the air, and catch flakes on my tongue. It don't end that way for me. (I asked Naomi to type that sentence the way I said it—don't blame her.)

In my opinion, the bitterness question is a mistake when interviewing a man locked up for thirty-two years by cops who hid DNA and prosecutors who went along. It's like asking a guy with tire tracks on his face and crushed legs, "Are you hurt?" Yet, whenever someone like me gets released and has his fifteen seconds under the lights, the reporters raise their hands like kids ooh-oohing in a classroom and ask that question. I've given a lot of thought, Ms. Jackson, not only to the proper answer but also the mystery of why people on the outside need to ask that question.

During my years on the inside, the guys I hung with followed the appeals and victories of the guilty and innocent. Many had done time right here among us. In past years it was primetime news when an innocent man or woman got out. Now it's fallen into the back pages, Ms. Jackson. The public has gotten tired of the injustice reality show.

When George Ballerini and Jimmy Cotters got out for cop killings they never did, there was the press: "Are you bitter?" They each gave a simple no and talked about moving on with their lives and doing good. Jim wanted to build a shelter like Boys Town in that Spencer Tracy movie. He never got to do that. You remember Hurricane Carter, who just passed away? Here, thanks to Naomi's computer skills, is what John Artis—Carter's innocent codefendant— said in a New Jersey newspaper: "Rubin was not bitter, and I am not bitter. It doesn't do any good to be bitter. You've heard the saying, 'Bitterness consumes the vessel that holds it.'"

After serving ten years for a Newark killing he never did, Chiefy Ramerez answered The Question differently. The newspapers didn't quote it, Ms. Jackson, but we in the lifer's section heard it loud and clear on our clunky TV: "Before I went in," he said, "if you cut me open, there were beautiful colors inside. Now it looks like burnt wood." Six months later they found him dead in the Bronx with a needle in his arm. I knew Chiefy, Ms. Jackson. I shared many a smoke with him and admired the tats he inked up and down his arms and legs. I watched him nod out on smack in the yard and held him steady when they took a count on our cell block.

So because of all who came before me, I expected the bitterness question, and you might say I counted on it to set the score straight. Long before my release, I took my mother's Bible—she gave it to me at a visit twenty-five years ago, when I saw her last—and many a night looked for "bitter" and "bitterness." I found quite a few passages, but one from Revelations spoke loudest, good Italian Catholic boy that I am.

Seven trumpets are sounded, Ms. Jackson, by seven angels, and with each blast the world comes closer to its end. Hail and fire pour from the sky, forests burn, the light of suns and stars goes out, all this with a big "woe, woe, woe to all who dwell on earth." And so on, Ms. Jackson.

As you can see, if God didn't whisper Revelations into the ear of a disciple, one angry man wrote it.

The third trumpet is what caught my eye. When it blasts, a star falls out of the sky into the waters of the earth. "And the name of the star is Wormwood; and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

Bitter, the Book says. Wormwood is a poisonous plant, Ms. Jackson. Naomi, who's got corkscrew curls and brown eyes like my Camille once had, has confirmed this for me. When one of us poor bastards gets out after doing time, are we loaded with bitterness like the star by that name? Killing a man is one thing. But locking him in a cage for thirty-two years while loved ones vanish from the earth is another. Will our bitterness poison the waters of your world like that fallen star? Because we're chewed up and spit out, will we be dangerous when they finally let us go? Not to worry, Ms. Jackson. Ask The Question and we'll give you The Answer that lets you sleep at night. That's why you ask it—because you know what we'll say.

Am I bitter? Print that I am not, Ms. Jackson.

Do I feel that the system worked? Tell your readers it did.

Do I wish the cops and prosecutors who did this to me were punished in a terrible way? Write that I choose to focus on the future.

Best Regards,

Pete Longo

Lock Box No. R52638471

N. Marc Mullin drove a taxi and was a sheet metal worker before he became an attorney specializing in civil rights and employment. He currently has his own firm and has successfully argued cases for the United States Supreme Court and the New Jersey Supreme Court. He makes time for playing jazz piano and blues guitar, Tai Chi, and reading himself into a stupor. N. Marc Mullin's short story "Milkweed" was a finalist in Middlesex University London's international fiction contest. He has published non-fiction in the New York Times and elsewhere.