31 Days of Stories, Day 11: “Solitary” by John Edgar Wideman

From You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories, 1981–2018

You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories, 1981–2018 by John Edgar Wideman

“Since the late 1970s, [John Edgar] Wideman has been making fiction from the real-life plight of his youngest brother, Robert Wideman,” writes Walton Muyumba in the introduction to Scribner’s newly released volume of Wideman’s selected short fiction. “After Robby was arrested and locked up for his participation in an armed robbery and murder, Wideman began an effort to tailor a prose style that might make effectuate the tonalities of his brother’s voice (in fiction and nonfiction).” The opening page of Wideman’s 1981 collection, Damballah, which contains the story “Solitary,” is styled as a note “To Robby.” “Stories are letters. Letters sent to anybody or everybody,” Wideman writes. “But the best kind are meant to be read by a specific somebody.” It is clear that Wideman’s brother, and his difficult circumstances, were never far from the author’s mind in the pieces that follow.

“Solitary” features a character who is incarcerated in a Pittsburgh prison, although the story is not about him per se. Instead, it focuses on the convicted man’s mother before, during, and after a trip by bus to visit her son.

In the story, Robby is fictionalized as Tommy; his mother, significantly, goes unnamed in her own story. (A family tree at the beginning of the story sequence identifies her as Lizabeth Lawson, though not once is she referred to by her given name in “Solitary.”) Tommy, by contrast, has changed his name to Salim while on the inside; his association with the group of Muslim prisoners incarcerated alongside him offers some measure of protection. But, early in the story, Tommy’s mother points out that neither name is adequate to identify him in the prison-industrial complex, where he is known only by his prisoner number, P3694.

Tommy’s ontological status – he exists at the confluence of three separate identities – is emblematic of the way the story operates in liminal spaces between two or more different things or conditions. This is evident from the story’s very first sentence, which situates the prison in “the other world”; to get there, “you changed buses twice.” The world the mother departs from – the Pittsburgh neighbourhood of Homewood, where Wideman grew up – is removed both spatially and imaginatively from the walled building that holds Tommy. Approaching the prison, the woman feels as if she “had slipped into an empty place between worlds, a place unknown, undreamed of till that moment, a tiny crack between two worlds that was somehow in its emptiness and stillness vaster than both.” The world of the prison is one “you must die a little to enter,” and it is separated by an invisible, impermeable membrane from the mother’s life on the outside: “To enter [the prison] you must be prepared to leave everything behind and be prepared when you begin the journey home to lose everything again.”

The land around the prison has an “asphalt and gravel margin“ between the outer wall and the surrounding fence and the river is edged by “a border of green.” Returning from her visit, Tommy’s mother disembarks the bus before reaching her stop, intending to cross a bridge leading to a park, but she is able to make it only midway across the bridge. After meeting up with her brother, Carl, the two go back to the bridge, where she is once again unable to cross over to the other side. The insistence on margins and midpoints is indicative of the contingency at the heart of “Solitary,” a narrative in which the centre cannot hold, if it even exists at all.

The imposing walls of the prison form the literal divide between inside and outside; in the story, the mother explicitly references the biblical walls of Jericho as a reference to her belief that God himself is unable to breach the ramparts. Tommy, his mother posits, is in “a world behind stone walls higher than God’s mercy.” This presents a problem for the mother, because “if He is not there, if His Grace does not touch her son then she too is dwelling in the shadow of unlove.”

On the bridge, the mother confesses to Carl that she is losing her internal sense of God in her life. “It happened in the middle of the bridge,” she says, underscoring yet again the significance of paralysis in the interstices.

I saw Mama the way she got after her stroke, the way she was when she stopped talking and walking after Daddy died. You remember the evil look she turned on anybody when they mentioned church or praying. I saw her crippled the way she was in that chair and I couldn’t take another step. I knew why she cursed Him and put God out of her life when she started talking again. I know if I took another step I’d be like her.

If the woman’s mother decided to renounce God in the wake of her husband’s death, how easy would it be for the woman herself to do likewise if God refuses to help her son, if he refuses even to let his grace be known inside the walls of the prison?

What undergirds these questions is implied in the story’s title. The mother is frightened of being left alone – without her son and without God to comfort her. Tommy has experienced this in a literal sense, having been placed in solitary confinement – the Hole – for six months. The prison administration does not refer to solitary as the Hole, of course, opting instead for the more anodyne Behaviour Modification Unit. His mother has another classification for it: “A prison within a prison. A way of telling him and telling her never to relax, never to complain because things could always get worse.”

Appropriately for a story that traffics in the lacunae between physical locations and states of being, “Solitary” ends on a contingent note, with Tommy’s mother and Carl stopped in the middle of the bridge listening to the sound of a train in the distance. “She had never liked standing on the skimpy bridge with a train thundering under her feet,” we are told. “Caught like that on the bridge, she wouldn’t know whether to run across or leap under the churning wheels.” The verb “thundering” is germane, as the next paragraph begins by informing us that the mother’s “God rode thunder and lightning” and ends with a slight emendation: “He could strike you dead in the twinkling of an eye. He killed with thunder and lightning.”

If the mother has turned her back on a capricious God, or if she has determined that God has abandoned her and her son, will she be more or less inclined to throw herself on the mercy of the “black bullet” that is approaching at speed along the tracks? Is her sense of paralysis, of aloneness, something that will save her or damn her? The story ends, naturally, in the liminal moments before a definitive answer to these questions presents itself.

31 Days of Stories, Day 11: “Solitary” by John Edgar Wideman