Debra Nystrom

Observatory at the Prison
June 20, 2019 Nystrom Debra


Federal Minimum Security Facility, Yankton, SD



The day is warm, so we take chips and pop from the visitation-room vending machines to a concrete table outside where Brad and Dad crack open the fresh carton of smokes –the one gift admissible– that Dad bought Brad just down the road.  Dad walks over like everyone else with a cigarette, puts his face up close to the metal box with the tiny red-hot hole you have to puff a light from, if you want one.  No bics or matches here, or real silverware, pens, anything resembling a stick –though the guy with the bum leg who was back in county jail with Brad gets to have his cane again that was confiscated there.  No speaking outside family groups either –the guards watching, making sure– but Brad tells us names and nicknames of guys he knows around us, and guards’ nicknames– Keester, Bumper, Ding.  It’s Sunday, a full visit-list, so odd-numbered cons get no company, can’t even say excuse me passing by us sisters, wives, parents, kids, brothers, girlfriends separated with our even-numbered prisoners, like Brad, or Joseph on the bench behind us, singing gospel songs with his sister, she must be, or Gene playing rummy with his mom, who looks and holds her cards exactly like him.  A new guy whose name Brad doesn’t know rocks his younger daughter on his lap– the closest guard observing from the fence– children the only ones allowed to touch a prisoner before the one hug everybody’s permitted at departure– the father trying to quiet his girl about the stuffed cat or tiger Dad and I saw taken away by another guard, at the front gate.  Across the grass between tables, the little girl’s older sister turns handsprings and walkovers, as if she knows everyone needs something to look at besides each other, needs somethng to talk about.


Brad waves at two guys in the distance who didn’t get company, walking the track that surrounds the yard, looking in– and another, closer, sitting under a tree, writing in a notebook as if we’re subjects he’s studying.  When I ask, Brad gives bits of their stories in a lowered voice, but says it’s not a place for questions, and what guys offer may or may not be correct, since in prison you can be anyone or no one– inventing crimes or new outcomes the same as breathing– like: yeah, when I get out I’m gonna sell real estate– or, yeah, well I’m gonna be an astronaut, alright?  But he says we can talk with his friend Larry, the camera man, only guy who gets to say hello to people he doesn’t know– he’s the one among them allowed to talk to all visitors, since he’s got the plum eighteen-cents-an-hour job of going around group to group to see if families want their picture taken in front of the sky-blue painted backdrop he’s set up against the wall behind us.  Larry’s the guy Brad told me about on the phone a while back, the one he can really talk to– bumped down here on good behavior to finish out his rap, after years in maximum for blowing his meth lab and roommate up by accident.  Larry smiles, walks toward us when Brad raises his hand, and Dad smashes his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe, shakes Larry’s hand, then offers a cigarette.  Thanks– I don’t smoke anymore, not after a cig exploded my house, Larry laughs, then laughs again when Brad mentions the day-work Larry did for years before his months of hospitalization, and then time. Demolition expert, midtown Chicago: flawless at taking buildings down, says Brad.  Dad chuckles, and then asks– just hypothetically, he says making conversation– how you’d handle bringing down these structures around us here.  This place? Larry says, looking around, then gesturing with his camera, This’d be easy to knock apart– everything brick and mortar, plenty of room for whacking it all over, if BOP ever saw fit for better accommodations, he laughs once more.  Was a college to begin with, you know– cashed out to the Feds, so dorm rooms bunk six now instead of the two they were built to house — six guys per cell that never would’ve gotten to college otherwise, mandatory lights on through the night, all of ‘em studying patience.  Yeah, we got a college clock-tower the guys keep ship-shape so it chimes the hours regular –even got an old observatory built for examining the sky– check it out before you drive away tonight– over there on the northwest  corner of campus, he points.  –Yeah, says Brad, I pulled that job on grounds-duty a few weeks back—sent me across to shine up the telescope– all that glass, enormous fittings, giant lenses aimed at the heavens nobody looks out to see.



Debra Nystrom is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Night Sky Frequencies and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow, 2016). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including AGNI, Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Virginia.