THE BREATHING LESSON
The pock-marked Formica,
the gouged and graffitied table,
the walls the color of piss,
into the cell, comes Nakia.
I catch my breath—not at the sight
of the gaunt young black woman
in her gleaming shackles and maroon jumpsuit—
but at her smell. It is a biting
stench of sweat and shit and urine.
A sirocco that fills the room
with a primordial odor of life and death.
Nakia tells me that while she was
in the back seat, the other girl
was in the front giving head to the john.
The drip of cocaine fell
from Nakia's nasal passage to the back
of her throat. She swallowed hard
and pulled the trigger.
One shot to the back of his skull.
Gary Gilmore told Mailer that the reason
he wanted to die was because of the noise.
Now, as I ask Nakia about her life,
we are drowning in electronic door slams,
shouted expletives, scraping footsteps,
and the white noise of transistor radios.
She draws me in with her history
of mother's beatings and
uncles' molestations and her abortion
at fourteen. I ask her something I never ask:
why did you do it?
She was killing to bring back her lost
children, clean her poisoned blood,
clear her drug-addled mind. She was
gasping for one last breath of air
and now I would be her final accomplice.
Tom reads "The Breathing Lesson":
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Tom confesses: 'The Breathing Lesson' began as a dramatic monologue in the voice of the prostitute and eventually was written from the lawyer's perspective. It was inspired by an amalgam of prostitutes and murderers (alleged and otherwise) I have represented over many years. I was trying to portray through measured empathy how abject desperation can lead inexorably to violent crimes.
THOMAS J. ERICKSON has been a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, since 1985. He has had poems published in numerous publications and his chapbook, "The Lawyer Who Died in the Courthouse Bathroom", is to be published by Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin in May 2013.