Home Stories Born of the Storm by Don McLellan

Born of the Storm by Don McLellan


Don McLellan tells the story of sixteen-year-old Sean Cooper’s time in St. Joe’s juvenile detention facility.

Image generated with OpenAI

St. Joe’s pops into view at the summit of an arid prairie mound, three brick and climbing-ivy stories boxed in by hectares of alfalfa in purple bloom. Beyond is pine forest, a scattering of ramshackle farmhouses on either side of a sleepy, country road. A flash of silver where an ancient river courses lazily. Coop had spent the weekend in lockup, sharing a drum with Goodwin, who’s appointed himself tour guide for the dozen new arrivals squeezed into the sheriff’s box van.

“Bible-thumpers built the place more than a hundred years ago as a residential school for Chubs,” says a crooked mouth missing half its teeth. “It got closed down because the priests were buggering the kids. A new swarm of zealots converted the dump into a holding pen for fuckups like us.”

The iron gates when the bus settles in the yard slam behind them, and off in noisy heaps slide the shackles. A snowy-haired Brother Jeffrey, the resident muckety-muck, addresses the “trainees” through a megaphone: “Keep to the straight and narrow and your time here will go smoothly. Don’t, and you’ll feel the switch.”

“The holy holding the unholy,” ventriloquizes Goodwin. He’s on his third bit at St. Joe’s, a rehabbing crackhead and factotum for a crew cranking out fake IDs. “What would we know of the straight and narrow, eh?”

Staff garbed in the black, floor-length cassock of the Order – Druids, to the boys – garrison both exits. A ceramic cross swings from every white-collared neck. Novices are identified by a sash cinched loosely at the waist.

The boys are instructed to strip “down to the vanilla” and left shivering while their clothes are bagged and labelled. A line forms for the express scalping. Cuttings are swept onto a tarp and whisked away, stuffing for pillows. Next comes the division into age groups for the distribution of coveralls, T-shirts, and pullovers. The ill-fitting uniforms are stitched in the joint’s tailor shop and dyed white, green, or orange. Socks are mismatched. Most require mending.

The workboots are also made inside. “If yours are too big, stuff ’em with rags until a better fit comes your way. If too small, or if they leak, suck it up; Jeffrey doesn’t like whiners. Get someone in Shop to yank the nails.”

The welcome includes two pairs of one-size-fits-all underwear; a toothbrush with baking powder; one bar of soap and hand towel; a pouch of loose-leaf rolling tobacco with papers; and a four-pack of single-ply toilet tissue. “Sleep with the ass wipe, and guard the tobacco with your life: It’s currency.”

Seventeen-year-olds, The Whites, have the top floor to themselves. To avoid squabbles, bedding is assigned alphabetically and lined up against facing walls. A lockbox sits at the foot of each cot. “Don’t bother with the lock. It’ll be picked before breakfast.” Thirteen- and fourteen-years-olds are the Orange. Coop and Goodwin are sixteen, Green. The two colours are housed in separate dorms on the second floor. They share a bog and showers.

Every delinquent sent to the institution has been deemed incorrigible, meaning the strategies of criminologists, parents, teachers, social workers, and police have been unpersuasive. Coop is an orphan. He’d been warehoused in state-run group facilities and halfway homes or fostered out since being abandoned as an infant at a hospital emergency ward. Hired help taught him how to brush his teeth. Hired help showed him how to lace his sneakers. The term “tucked in” had to be explained.

The state sets dependent foundlings loose at eighteen, but many, like Coop, slip oversight prematurely and make for the streets. While most youngsters are playing video games and watching Disney movies, they’re sleeping in doorways, lining up outside churches in the rain for mouldy sandwiches, smashing car windows for pocket change. The only respite is dope, any elixir will do, its promise of a dreamy few hours before the return to purgatory. Detention by comparison is a vacation. “Three squares,” Goodwin reminds, “a warm place to shit.”

Benny, a White trustee, leads the half-dozen new Greens through heavy oak doors and along a maze of gloomy hallways, pointing out in a whiny officialese the infirmary and Brother Jeffrey’s office. A rank musk lurks, having seeped over the years into every beam and column, in every wall and dank passageway, indelible witness to the horrors committed there.

The red kerchief worn by trustees conveys their elevated status in the pecking order of juvie incarceration. Benny is streetwise cocky, a lump of dough on stubby pegs. Coop heard he’d been involved in a swindle, bilking seniors. “Dangerous,” is Goodwin’s opinion of him. “A Mussolini in search of a balcony.”

A length of two-by-four hangs from Benny’s left hip, a gob of chiming keys swings from the other. “If Jeff asks to see you, it means trouble,” he warns. “The nurse visits Thursdays and Fridays, so don’t get into a scrap on the weekend; Tylenol doesn’t do much for a beating.” Discolouring along Benny’s jawline suggests he’s recently received one.

Delinquents learn to distrust trustees. In return for their collaboration they’re given first dibs on leftover desserts and liberties with the house phone. Off shift, they can wear civies, and the three at St. Joe’s share a cottage, separate from the rabble. A positive performance review sweetens motions for reduced sentences. “The way to the top in here,” says Goodwin, “is the way to the top at a Fortune 500 company. Kiss some bottom.”

Politics are as self-serving as civic wrangling, and the intrigue similarly Byzantine. Personal security is fortified by alliances. Befriending a trustee makes one suspect, and being suspect makes enemies in a place where a miscue can birth dangerous adversaries. Yet a trustee can also be a valuable acquaintance. A signature from one is required for most privileges. “Angering a Benny is a poor career move, but so is being seen sucking up to one.”

From the hard wooden pews and stale air of the chapel it’s on to the dorms, empty at this hour but for a few malingerers and the truly unwell. In the classrooms they’re greeted with the compulsory derision saved for newcomers: “See ya in the shower, girls.”

Through a hallway window, Benny indicates a row of cabins at the rear of the main building.

“Druid quarters. Outta bounds.”

“I hear there’s a gym,” Coop says.

They’re led into the yard out back where a few barbells and rusty free weights are scattered like stones in the mud. A bench press lies on its side; a leg has given way. A mangy crow grips the chin-up bar. “Our spa and fitness centre,” says Benny.

The Crypt, in the cellar, is saved for last. It’s dark, with the fecal pong of a kennel. “Fighting, thieving, or being caught with a cellphone gets you a week. Refusing to work or attend classes, two. Runners remain until they repent.”

“What’s that mean?” someone asks.

“Kiss the ring, bend a knee,” says Cochise, an Indian kid with a facial tic. First Nations boys are given handles from American TV Westerns like Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull; Two Dogs Fucking is also popular. The centre’s lone dark-skinned boy is Sambo. Orientals, most of them gang members from the city, are Ho or something rhyming with Wong.

“Doesn’t sound fair,” says Buko, for Bukovitch, a firebug Coop recognizes from a youth work camp some years earlier.

“This ain’t no church, sonny,” Benny says.

“Oh, yeah, sonny?” says Buko. “There are more crosses in this place than a fucking graveyard.”

They’re left a moment to consider the subterranean quarters. To let the reality of a “correction” sink in. A boy slips from the darkness and leans against the fencing, two Popsicle blue eyes screwed into a smudged face. His orange trousers are torn at the knees.

“Got anything to eat? A smoke?”

“Why you in there?” he’s asked.

“We’re both locked up, ain’t we?”

Benny reaches for his club, and the kid slinks away.

“What’d he do?” Coop asks.

“What Gumdrop always does: he runs. The bulls bring him in, but away he goes again. Not right in the head, that one.”

The tour concludes at the dining hall, where the kitchen crew serves up a bathwater soup, a single slice of white bread each and a smear of margarine. The cup of lukewarm tea is flavoured with skim milk. It’s their first meal since the Nescaf√© and muffin at breakfast.

“Is the slop always this good?”

“Who said that?” Benny says.

Lights out, candles flare. Beams from contraband flashlights strafe the darkness. Greens squat in the aisle playing poker for commissary candy bars; a chit; an IOU blowjob. Others talk quietly or peruse comics. A boy strums a guitar, another writes to his girl. Pot fumes drift in from the showers at the end of the hall. “Novices bring in most of the merch, but it ain’t cheap,” says Goodwin. “You want it, they can get it. Don’t let the crosses fool ya. Some of those guys are worse than us.”

Coop huddles at the far end of the dorm with the other newbies, including the first timers, the fish, Durban and Moran. Durban’s a brawny slab with Elvis hair who’d been party to a scheme duping international students. Moran is a know-nothing know-it-all, a street corner pill peddler who’d put a girlfriend in hospital. He struts about like a bantam rooster, cursing and talking tough. Not twenty-four hours locked up and he’s already committed a cardinal sin: He insists he doesn’t belong here, that he’s the victim of some injustice. I’m not one of you losers. Most fellow-residents are boastful of their scores, and some will no doubt graduate to gangland affiliations and grisly slayings. Moran wasn’t paying attention when Goodwin advised them to “keep your heads down and mouths shut. Those who stand out get picked off.”

In adult penitentiaries, the Big House, status is bestowed on those who’ve committed the most serious offences, who’ve taken a life or attempted daring heists, the criminal world’s version of ‘A’ for effort. It’s the same in youth facilities. Peer respect is earned by newsworthy car chases, imaginative hoaxes, profitable deceits. Provoking police to deliver a sound thumping and having the wounds to prove it earns bonus points. Unlawful potential is heralded like promising athletic skill. Junior killers are royalty.

The longest-serving boys value their prominence in the jailhouse hierarchy as keenly as ruling class Brits cherish membership in their posh clubs. The institutions imprisoning them breed rules, and detention institutions more than most. No cellphones, no facial hair, no visitors outside the hours of. Penalties for the following infractions are. Fighting is punishable, no exceptions. The list is long. Yet once inside, incorrigibles – scofflaws who’ve crossed every line, offended all norms – are ardent defenders of longstanding penal observances. One doesn’t snitch. One doesn’t back down from aggression or cheat at cards. On release, one doesn’t become a “Jody,” someone who visits a still-serving inmate’s lonely girlfriend. “The only laws we obey,” remarks Buko, “are our own.”

Coop learns that Brother Jeffrey ordered the release into gen-pop of Gumdrop. Over Cocoa Puffs and burnt toast the next morning, the news vaults from table to table that he’s absconded once again. “The little shit,” says a Brother, “was last seen hightailing it into the woods, but he won’t get far: The dogs know his scent.”

St. Joe’s – The St. Joseph Training Centre for Juveniles – is a misnomer, because the boys aren’t trained for anything, just as delinquents weren’t rehabilitated when youth stalags were known as reformatories. Provincial regulations require underage offenders to attend school for three hours, five mornings a week, an hour each of English, Math, and the choice of either Social Studies or Shop. The jobs start after lunch, and the workday for everyone but the kitchen crew ends at five-thirty. Supper’s at six.

As often as newcomers arrive, a similar number are released or transferred, so there are always job vacancies. Maintenance is responsible for cleanup and minor repairs. Farm-raised detainees mind the vegetable plots and care for the joint’s pigs and chickens. All tasks are supervised by a Druid.

First Nations kids can take up a cultural activity. Geronimo – Billy, a Musqueam from the coast – is carving a tribal pole from a rot-resistant red cedar. The irony of his assignment, signed off by centre brass as well as provincial bigwigs, is not lost on the others. He’s doing time for carving up a couple of farm boys, a brouhaha after a hoedown.

Cochise (Edgar, an Ojibwa) is building a birchbark canoe, the principal means of inland travel by the indigenous and coureur de bois during the fur trade of previous centuries. Edgar had been a heavy drinker who appreciated a tussle, the reason for his current residency. Yet when talking about the canoe there’s no sign of the facial tic or his usual reticence. He fields questions with the self-assurance of a tenured professor. “The bark of the birch tree is smooth, hard, light, and waterproof,” he tells those who visit his worksite on the riverbank, the ground around him splashed with wood shavings. “The joints are sewn with spruce roots, and the seams are sealed with pine resin.”

Because of his previous stays, Goodwin snags the first opening on the Outside gang, but new applicants like Coop must sit for interviews. The job entails shovelling snow, clearing culverts, and helping turn the fields – any task requiring a strong back. In spring and summer, the lawn fronting the main building is mowed every few days, and the ornamental shrubs lining the entrance road are pruned. If, by shift’s end, the bed of the boss’s pickup isn’t filled with firewood, St. Joe’s heating fuel, supper for the gang is put off until it is. “It’s hard labour,” says Goodwin, “but you’re outside, away from the stink.”

A second-floor activity room furnished with thrift shop sofas and cigarette-singed lounge chairs is shared by the Orange and the Green. First Nations and Metis boys gather in a corner, laughing and jostling; one of them is always tapping a handmade drum or playing a mouth organ. They generally get along with the pale skins, the spawn of their invading forefathers, but it’s an arms-length co-existence. Living on the same land for generations breeds a tolerance in some, a tenacious sense of grievance in others. They work together largely without incident, and friendships do form, yet in the dining hall self-segregation is the rule.

The only exception to the unwritten rule is Goodwin, who sits wherever he wants, a social gadfly accepted by both sides. Coop recalls an afternoon at the woodpile one afternoon, the boys hurrying to make the quota, when Goodwin began having stomach trouble again. An Indian boy notices and takes the axe from his hand, sitting him down on a chopping block. The others, red and white alike, pick up the slack. It was a simple gesture, remembers Coop, but telling.

Evenings, the activity room converts to a career college. Burglars present a checklist for a successful break-in. A credit card fraudster answers frequently asked questions, car thieves diagram hotwiring. There are chat groups on every scam, grift, and sting. On rackets, shell games, and trending dodges. Goodwin, in his capacity as jailhouse sage, encourages attendance. “If you didn’t have an occupation when you arrived, you’ll have one by the time you leave.”

Tattoo artists also showcase their talents here. Designs ape those popular in the senior circuit, and are etched in ballpoint blue, as coloured ink is denied. Results are rudimentary, often botched, and infections due to dirty needles frequent. Most boys don’t give a hoot about the significance of the artwork they’re having permanently inserted into a sub-layer of their skin. Tats are cool, and cool rules.

There is not a subject under the hot sun for which Goodwin does not hold an opinion. Although he doesn’t have much formal education, his head is always in a book or magazine, and if he’s not reading a book or magazine, he’s listening to people of every age and station, so when he talks, as he does this night about tattoos – and though he doesn’t have one, others take heed: “The number eight burned into a cheek represents the eighth letter of the alphabet, as in Adolf Hitler.”

He points to an Orange across the room, to the teardrop below one eye. “Originally it meant the guy offed someone. If the tear isn’t filled in, it means he tried, but failed. It can also mean his friend was bumped off, and that he’s plotting revenge.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” someone asks.

“Someone should,” Goodwin replies.

A Green asks the meaning of three dots around the eye.

“They symbolize three Spanish words, Mi Vida Loca, My Crazy Life. In prisons housing plenty of believers, they’re the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Four dots represent the walls of a cell.”

The on-duty novice pulls up a chair.

“A tattoo of one of the four suit symbols in a deck of playing cards is fashionable in the Russian gulag. It’s placed below the knuckle, most visible as a fist. A spade identifies the man as a thief; the club, a multi-talented criminal; the diamond, a dope dealer. A heart tat might mean he’s advertising for a lover.”

“In a prison?” An Orange.

“Where have you been?” someone mumbles.

“In North American jails, a popular knuckle stamp is the letters EWMN. It refers to the inmate’s disposition. In this case, evil, wicked, mean, and nasty.”

“My uncle had the letters ACAB on his knuckles,” a boy says.

“All cops are bastards,” says Goodwin.

The boys are not permitted tailor-made cigarettes, though the Druids have been unsuccessful stifling the trade. Officially, it’s craft your own, or forfeit the habit. Moran has been practising rolling since supper, and laughter erupts every time another one falls apart in his hands. Lassiter, a Newfie dealer who insists on the term “pharmaceutical sales,” suggests putting a hand here, the fingers likes this. Moran gives it a try, and he’s soon holding up for display his first smokeable handmade.

Someone asks if he’s decided where he’d like to work, but Moran has something else on his mind.

“Am I gonna get it?” he says.

“Get what?” Lassiter.

“Somebody gonna put one in my bum?”

“You want someone to put one in your bum?” says Kalinsky. He’s a sketch artist. Cartoonish portraits, female erotica.

“Does it hurt?” says Moran.

“Pretty boy like you might like it.” Hambone, the guitar player.

“Did you get it?” Moran asks Goodwin.

“Everybody does eventually.”

“You?” says Moran, turning to Coop. “All them muscles?”

He smiles mildly.

“Like it?”

“Not especially.”

Brother Bernard motions him to sit, offers a lozenge, and returns to the file lying open on his desk. He might be the oldest Druid. Walks with a stoop. Holds the pages close to his face. Autumn has arrived. The winds have picked up, shaking trees and rattling windowpanes. Loose leaves sweep like starlings over the wounded fields.

“Well, Sean Cooper,” the Brother, closing the file, says, “You’ve been a busy lad.”

He’d been a wild one, it’s true. Learned how to drive in stolen Mercedes and BMWs. Shoplifted jewelry, CDs, and leather jackets; and sold, swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected anything delivering a buzz. There were a few breaking and entering charges. Yachts and vacant summer cottages mostly.

“You’ve applied for the Outside gang. You’re a strapping fellow alright.”

“I started pumping iron a few years ago. A foster dad got me started.”

“It says here you’ve had a few of those.”

“I don’t remember most of them. A social worker named me.”

Brother Bernard leans back in his chair, props his dusty shoes on the edge of the desk. “Help me understand why a common shit-disturber gets arrested for being a peeping Tom. Developing new interests, are you?”

“I’m not guilty of that one.”

“Son, these places are full of innocents.”

They both know the villainy a boy has been convicted of is not an accurate scoring of his accomplishments. A rap sheet tallies only indiscretions foiled. Some beefs stick, some don’t.

“I climbed a tree. If I knew that was illegal, I wouldn’t have.”

“Says here the tree was on private property. Outside a couple’s bedroom window, and late at night. Do you know where the term ‘peeping Tom’ comes from?”

“Why would I?”

“Many years ago in England a woman named Lady Godiva stripped and rode her horse through the streets. The only cover was her long hair.” Father Bernard stops to wipe grime from his eyeglasses. “She was the wife of the Earl of Mercia, and she was protesting the taxes he’d imposed.”

“I wasn’t naked, and I wasn’t protesting anything.”

“Lady Godiva asked the people to stay inside their homes during her ride and to close their shutters, as she didn’t want to be seen nude. However a man wanted very much to see her, she was said to be of full figure, so he bore a hole in his door. According to legend, he peeked, and was immediately struck blind. His name was Tom.”

“If she didn’t want to be seen, why’d she take off her clothes?”

It’s apparent Brother Bernard thinks him just another ne’er-do-well, so he doesn’t bother explaining himself. He was living with Burt and Gida when it happened. Like many foster folks, they’d taken him on to help retire a mortgage. Gida was a nurse, worked long hours. She was bagged by the time she came home from the hospital, but not too tired to make Coop dinner and sit with him a while. Burt was a bodybuilder, he had a home gym. He bounced at a strip club called Lusty’s.

From the screaming he heard through the wall, Gida had been cleaning out his pockets and found phone numbers scribbled on bar coasters. Sniffed unfamiliar perfumes. During a truce, the three of them digging into a pizza pie, a condom fell out of Burt’s pocket. Apparently Gida was trying to get pregnant. They didn’t use condoms.

The fights upset him, so he’d go for a walk, hoping they’d make up. One night it began to snow, and snow often made him think of Beverly. He’d been living with a different family then, in a different town. Beverly was a few years older, a neighbour, and she’d been with grown men. She invited him over one weekend when her parents were away, and taught him what those grown men had taught her. Afterwards, the two of them out for a late-night stroll, it began to snow. He felt wonderful, his skin tingled. He forgot Beverly’s last name, but not her anatomy lessons.

Nights Burt and Gida were at war, he’d pass a house where from the sidewalk he could see into the living room. It was like a movie screen: he, in the dark, the audience; the family, all lit up, the stars. It got so that he could recognize the father and mother, the two daughters. Mom made popcorn. They assembled puzzles, played board games, and watched a lot of black-and-white reruns on TV. Dad liked Perry Mason; the girls, Laverne and Shirley.

One night after another row, Burt packed a sports bag and sped off in his jeep. Gida couldn’t stop bawling, so a girlfriend came over, and he went for his walk. The drapes in the family’s living room that night were partly closed, he needed a better angle. A dog walker noticed him up the tree and called the cops.

Gida visited him in lockup; left some cash. “Burt left me for a teenager who dances with a snake.” She gave him a hug, but he never saw her again. The juvie judge reduced the peeping Tom complaint to simple trespassing, but slapped him with a stiff sentence for the meth found in the strip search.

Brother Bernard has one more question: Where did Coop see himself in ten years? He’d been forewarned about the interview, but he doesn’t think of his life in terms of years, and certainly not ten of them. The only time concerning him are the days remaining on his stretch.

“I plan to have my own business,” he answers, but it’s more daydream than plan, and more jive than daydream.

“Good for you.”


“Amen, son. Clever name for a candy shop.”

“A strip club. I’ll start as a bouncer, learn the ropes.”

“Why Lollipops?”

“Think about it.”

“Yes, well…” Brother Bernard blushes. He seems lost for words, so he wipes his glasses again until he can think of some.

“I’d be surrounded by Lady Godivas. I was thinking franchise, like Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Brother Bernard sighs audibly, wags his wrinkled head, but he does sign the requisition slip assigning him to the Outside gang. “Go with God,” he says – standard Druid leave-taking – “and sin no more.”

A few months into his sentence, the night-duty novices having passed out from drinking confiscated hooch, he and a few of the boys sneak into Brother Bernard’s office and look through their files. Scrawled across the first page of his are the words “Born of the Storm.” It’s underlined twice.

Gumdrop is back. He’d jimmied the rear door of a grocery in Halverston; a passerby heard whistling. One of the novices said it looked as though he’d been roughed up. Apparently he marched without being told down the stairs and into his cage. “He even shut the door on himself, like he was glad to be home.”

Most of the boys seem to think the Brothers are all queer. After several months in their detention, Coop reckons some are, some might be, but that some aren’t, just as he believes the boys of St. Joe’s include those who are essentially good but did something foolish, those who are 24-carat evil, and those who might lean either way. “I’ve met people on the outside,” says Goodwin, “who scare me more than anyone in here.”

Coop had been witness to circumstantial evidence and privy to plenty of talk, but he hasn’t been bothered. There’s a Druid in admin known for holding a stare whenever underwear drops or a shirt is shucked, and a couple of novices lurk like towel distributors outside the showers. Brother Angus, the Shop teacher, is always touching the boys, finding cause to rub up against them. “In the good old days,” he’s known to say, “we believed the best way to straighten out a bad boy was to bend him over.”

News reports about residential schools trouble him. From what he’s read and heard from others, the schools might have been well-intentioned, to prepare Indian kids for the challenges awaiting them beyond the reservations, but it was known early on that the forced experiment was a failure, that most would never accept assimilation, and yet the schools remained open. A lot of kids were sexually abused and mistreated by clergy and staff, with many of the offenders discretely reassigned to unwitting jurisdictions. The kids were punished if heard speaking their native tongue. Government officials, police, even some press were suspected in the cover-up – the queasy silence of the compromised. In many cases, children in residence who passed away were disposed of like trash, in unmarked graves. “Even family pets,” Goodwin says, “are given a respectful sendoff. It’s our original sin.” Punishment for the boys is swift, yet decades after the school closings, the church is still spending millions denying or deflecting the accusations.

Edgar told the others one night that some of his relatives never recovered from their experience at the schools. Coop believed him, but he didn’t think it timely to mention that in his years in government care and detention, a child was more likely to be abused not by warders, many of whom over the years had shown him great kindness, but at the hands of older boys. Boys that may have been victims themselves, and possibly mentally ill, but abusers nonetheless. It’s how it happened to him. He was nine, the first time.

The English teacher Brother Michael is a good guy. He’s young, and he listens to them; he keeps his sexual preference to himself. In class they talk about things that interest them: sports, celebs, wars, crime. He’s got Coop reading community newspapers, giving oral reports on topics classmates might enjoy. He likes Brother George as well, who works in admin. After supper most nights he goes for a five-kilometre run along the country roads. Of the fifty or so incorrigibles at St. Joe’s, Coop is one of six who join him.

The math teacher Brother Matthew is old, almost as old as Brother Bernard, but he’s a good one, too. He’s a birder, and can identify anything lucky enough to have wings. With the help of Goodwin, who’s become his assistant, they fill the feeders out back every morning, and he’s often seen in the fields aiming his binoculars at the sky, teaching the only pupil who’s shown an interest. Coop was always changing schools or truant, so he quickly fell behind, but Brother Matthew has a faculty for explaining numbers. He’s passed all the Brother’s quizzes, and has scored top marks on several.

As the weekly test is being handed out, Stillwell, an Orange, raises his hand.

“Speak,” says Brother Matthew.

“Just a few simple fractions, Mr. Stillwell. Some long division. You’ve been doing well.”

“But I was told no math today,” Stillwell says. He’s off his meds again.

“There’s a four-letter word in the upper right-hand corner of your paper,” says the Brother. “Read it aloud, please.”

The others pound the table, but Stillwell has shut down.


A White volunteers.


Brother Jeffrey allows Coop to start an exercise program in the yard. “We tried getting a softball team together a couple of years ago,” he says, “but a brawl broke out at our first practice. We needed two ambulances.” The boys in Shop replace the broken leg on the bench press and build a second. A layer of gravel takes care of the mud, and a square of concrete ensures stable footing. They have four barbells, six dumbbells, and several hundred pounds of free weights. Maintenance sands every plate of rust and slaps on a coat of black paint. Space is found in the utility shed to store the equipment overnight. When the weather is inclement, a room is made available.

Coop lifts before breakfast. If he’s finished work in time and isn’t bushed, he joins Brother George and the others for the evening run. Burt always stressed the importance of eating mixed fruits and vegetables. Promoted giving up white bread, processed sugar, and fried foods. As for the weights, he had him begin with one set of an exercise for each muscle group. “A lot of guys just work the pecs and biceps because they impress the ladies,” he’d said. “Uneven development leads to injury.”

Many of the boys come from unstable homes where it’s difficult to commit to community sports or concentrate on school work. Almost all are heavy smokers and had abused drugs. Goodwin doesn’t lift or run. He does his part at work, but he’s bagged by the end of the shift, and he takes the most sick days. Years of doping kills something inside. Ages users prematurely and messes with the mind. Goodwin has partial dentures, and he’s already showing white hair. Acne scars have vandalized his pallid teenage mug.

As the weeks pass, more kids give the barbells a try. Coop takes on the role of instructor, offering encouragement and teaching safe form, as Burt had done with him. He notices Brother Jeffrey one evening watching from his office window, which looks out over the yard. He’s giving him the thumbs up.

The toughest boy at St. Joe’s is called the pasha; no one knows why. Unrest can break out at any time, for any reason, so the Brothers look the other way when the position is in dispute, as a pliable goon respected by the others can serve as a useful go-between when negotiating with ringleaders. The reigning pasha retains the crown until his sentence expires, or until he’s overthrown. He can also pass it to another, although no one remembers that happening.

Fisk – The Fist, a White – is the current title holder. Given the preponderance of sobriquets, the boys often don’t know each other’s full name, but they do know who did what and how long they’ll be paying for it. Fisk had been an enforcer for a loan shark, a position reaping much respect inside. The rising popularity of weight training has attracted a few of his allies. “He feels threatened,” Goodwin says.

Lights out, candle flames flutter. The boys form a circle. Fisk is taller, with long arms. Heavier, too. A fag droops from his smirking lips.

They meet in the middle. Benny, officiating, explains the only rule: as many two-minute rounds as it takes. Fisk tries staring him down, which pleases him. Showboating, Burt had said, is fear, and fear, weakness. “Bare knuckle or taped?” Benny says. Coop shrugs, and their hands are bound.

Benny steps aside and drops his red kerchief, but before it settles on the floor, Fisk charges, unloading a haymaker that misses. A second doesn’t, opening a cut above his eye. Fisk retreats, sizes him up, then rushes forward with more. Coop covers up, a hand on either side of his head.

Burt made his living fighting guys that thanks to drugs or alcohol believed they were invincible. He said a lot of them aim for the quick knockout, but that smart fighters attack the body first; it weakens the opponent and frustrates an attack. Coop pounds Fisk’s unprotected kidneys. Work the body and the head will fall. He can sense impatience in the room. The boys want a rumble, a toe-to-toe. Blood in the water.

He’s no pugilist, but he’s stronger than most because of the weights, and the running has amplified his endurance. If the scrap is stopped now, he’d lose on points, body shots not being seen as money blows, but the bout won’t be stopped.

Smokers fade quickly. Only a few minutes into the clash and Fisk is breathing hard, his T-shirt soggy with sweat. Coop forces a clinch and hangs on. It might appear as desperation, but wriggling out of one further saps a fighter’s strength.

Fisk continues with the haymakers in the second, but he’s slowing down, and Coop sees them coming: always the right, and from the same angle. He’s waiting for the fear to show in Fisk’s eyes, that nanosecond a palooka realizes he’s been bettered. When Fisk’s noggin slumps forward, he moves in and unleashes an uppercut, his only meaningful head shot of the contest. Fisk falls hard. Cheers ring out. Benny raises his hand.

At breakfast the next morning, the boys applaud, he’s lifted onto a table and urged to say a few words. He’d been awake most of the night thinking things over. Traditions have to start somewhere, he reckons. “The pasha identifies the winner of a single match, but to what end?” he tells them. “I’m passing the title to someone more deserving: the wisest boy, and we all know who that is.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then the deafening approval of food trays.

Brother Jeffrey divines that he’ll serve his week in The Crypt first because Fisk has a broken jaw, which has been wired, and he’s sucking a straw. Gumdrop is in the adjoining cage. The others are empty.

“How’s the food down here?”

They can’t see each other. They aim their conversation at a brick wall. When a toilet is flushed upstairs, water sloshing through the pipes makes it difficult to hear each other.

“You won’t wanna leave.”

Gumdrop is fourteen, but he has the smarts of someone years older. His given name is Mark. “When I’m not in here, or someplace like it, I live with my mom.”

He became known to police when he stole a Boy Scout uniform from a clothesline, hitchhiked to a nearby town, and went door-to-door soliciting donations. “I told people we were building a summer camp for the disadvantaged. My pockets were bulging with bills, but a lady got suspicious.” He received a first-offender’s slap on the wrist and had to return what was left of the cash, but the job gave him a taste for the life. Assorted wrongdoings followed. He was sentenced to St. Joe’s for shooting his mother’s boyfriend through the hand with a twenty-two.

“He’d get drunk and slap us around. I was aiming for his head.”

“Moving targets are always more difficult.”

“He has to sleep some time.”

“Good plan.”

His first of six escape attempts came via the ivy outside the second-floor bathroom. It gave way, he twisted an ankle in the fall. Hobbled off into the brush, but the joint swelled. “Bugs got me good.”

St. Joe’s donates excess produce to local food banks. “I was helping with the harvest and snuck into the back of the truck while the driver was taking a whiz. At the loading dock in town, the cops were waiting. They had a good laugh, the assholes.”

Another time he joined St. Joe’s Christmas choir, and they put on a concert at a local church. He made his dash in the middle of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” swiped a bicycle. “I broke into a place that looked empty, made myself a sandwich, watched some TV. Guy who lived there came home from work and saw a light on. He delivered me to the police station like Chinese food, but not before kicking the living shit out of me.”

The morning bell sounds, the boys sally forth, the clop of scurrying boots outside the dining hall. First the Whites, then the Greens and the Orange. It’s the first day of summer, the sun is rising in the east as red and round as a party balloon, and out for the first time are the blackflies. He’s setting the equipment up in the yard when he crosses paths with Brother Matthew and Goodwin on their way to the feeders. Field glasses swing from Goodwin’s skinny neck.

“The kestrels are pigs,” says the Brother. “I have to fill the feeders twice a day for them.”

It was Matthew who encouraged Coop to consider school upgrading after release, and a fitness centre rather than a titty bar. “A boy with brains who doesn’t use them,” he’d said, “has no more advantage over a boy without any.”

He informs Coop that Gumdrop has run off again. “The laundry door was left unlocked.” Coop has news as well, but decides against sharing. He’d heard Moran, the boy who worried about getting one, got one. A White’s. It was being said in the dining hall that he was prancing about with “a gleam in his eye and a spring to his step.”

They meet up with Edgar. He seems out of sorts, and asks Coop and Goodwin to accompany him to his worksite on the river, to the canoe stand, now empty. But for the painting of a tribal symbol on the prow, the vessel was set for its ceremonial launch.

They roll up their pant legs and wade into the slow-moving river, shading their eyes against the glare. Goodwin hands Coop the binocs. On the opposite side are rolling grasslands and isolated farmhouses, stands of mixed forest. A trail of chimney smoke breaks apart in a powder blue sky.

“There!” says Edgar. He points to a spot downriver, on the far shore. Coop follows his finger, adjusts the lens. The canoe has been hauled up onto dry ground. He’s sitting in the shade of a white spruce, rolling a cigarette.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here