Visiting Hours by Amy Butcher

Amy Butcher reads from her debut memoir, Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, published in April by Blue Rider Press.

As my car cuts across the countryside toward Kevin's prison, the sun like yolk across the fields, I try to tell myself that he is lucky. Dawn has broken wet above the valley, and the light bends iridescent over wheat and sweet corn, frayed cobs decomposing in the tilled, dull dirt. I roll the windows down and decide that it is nice. It’s nice, I think, he’s here. Thirty years in quiet America, a place where fields stretch outward, where he can breathe and clear his head.

I flip on the radio, and a man is singing about a country town he wants desperately to escape. Gotta get out of here, he sings, get it all off my mind, while in mine, I’m imagining Albion, realizing how—in just mere minutes—I will see it for the first time. In the many months leading up to Kevin’s relocation, I’ve tried to imagine Albion as a place with movie-rental stores and hair salons, banks and car washes and Dairy Queens. I've imagined fathers leading daughters through aisles of small-town grocery stores, and mothers pushing strollers, babies strapped to their backs or fronts.

A place similar, in ways, to Gettysburg, because that much once seemed important.

What I wanted, more than anything, was to imagine Kevin’s view—to know that he could look from his small cell window to see something beautiful along its edge: a blinking downtown in the distance, a well-lit corner on his horizon. It wouldn’t be New York City or even Boston, but maybe at night he could pretend.

And yet I never wanted to know—not really, anyway. I spent my evenings instead zooming in and out on Google Earth, recognizing Kevin’s facility first as an orange dot surrounded by plots of undeveloped land—all of them green or gold and empty—but then, with just a click, I could zoom in to make out more: first the prison wing where I knew he was kept, then the chain-link fence, and finally the two running tracks on the property’s northern side.

Another click and I could see people, and I’d always pretend that one was Kevin.

He’s playing basketball today, I’d think, or There he is, at the picnic table. I live inside the fantasy because it’s better than the alternative. I cannot imagine my friend sitting in a cell, solitary and alone. Some nights, I imagine him holding a plastic knife, the kind they give him at every meal. It is a knife meant for frozen pizza or a baked potato, and it is dull, but still I imagine him carving it somehow, flicking the plastic against the cinder block of his cell until it is clean and sharp and smooth. I see him pressing it into his skin, so thin and white as paper, and I imagine him scraping, digging, carving.

I think, By the time I finally visit my friend, he will no longer be alive.

I have no way of knowing, of course, whether my concerns about his safety or health are legitimate. We never talk about what happened; we never talk about that night or how he felt as it unfolded. During his initial incarceration in Gettysburg, Kevin was forced to see a therapist—someone to coach him through the process, this strange and new lifestyle—and she was supposed to make it easier, but it seemed she only ever made him angry. In the only letter he ever sent that acknowledged an ongoing situation, he noted that she’d diagnosed
him with depression, and feared he might be suicidal.

Do you believe her? he wrote. Of course I’m depressed, living in a place like this.

But I have no way of knowing if he is seeing anyone now in Albion, or if he’s provided with the “support as needed,” as it states in his prison intake file. He doesn’t talk to me about what matters—certainly not about mental health and never what happened, only Scrabble and the words he plays.

“Placate,” he writes. It used up all my tiles!

So he is playing basketball, I tell myself, or lying on a picnic table—something familiar to him, if somehow new. He is surrounded by open fields, casting his gaze upward, drawing animals from the swollen sky, imagining not brutality at all but a rhinoceros, a hippopotamus.

I’ve explored Kevin's lonely corner of Pennsylvania, as well, making note of the highway exits he’ll likely see on the morning of his release, twenty-six years from this autumn sunrise. The towns have names that I think sound pleasant: North Springfield and Avonia, Harborcreek and Lake City.

Lake City, I think, sounds nice.

I picture gray slate and white crystals, rocks the color of gemstones dredged from the bottom of Lake Erie. I imagine sifting fistfuls of that sand, running my fingers over the edge to reveal colored glass rubbed smooth. I’ve pictured lily pads, for whatever reason, and tiny green and brown speckled frogs.

So Albion will be like Lake City, I think, or exactly like Harborcreek—these places that sound like postcards or the covers of retail calendars. And yet when finally I arrive, it is nothing like what I’ve wanted. It is smaller and quieter than Oley. It is smaller, even, than Gettysburg.

The only movement I can spot is contained within a barber’s pole.

A sign outside a gas station reads 2‑for‑1 red and green slurpees!, and there are two pumps, though one is broken, a plastic bag tied clumsily around its handle.

But the Slurpees are Christmas-themed, I think, and in some small way, I guess that’s nice. But here is what I find myself thinking: Did Kevin like Slurpees, whatever color? Will he buy one the day of his release? I imagine him on a bus, if indeed a bus arrives to shepherd inmates from that prison to their place in rest of the world, the rest of their lives. Because in the movies, there are buses. I picture Kevin leaning against the glass as the bus startles into motion, traversing the very road I find myself on this autumn morning. It’s a ridiculous line of questioning—to crave or not crave a Slurpee—but feels important for me to know.

That I cannot recall even the simplest things about Kevin, about what he likes, about what he dislikes—even despite my many letters, how they span many months—feels, in ways, pejorative. I prefer to think that Kevin and I were always close, but in truth, I use that term loosely; there are several people, in fact, who to this day might argue that Kevin and I were not close friends at all, and it could be argued that they are right. In Gettysburg, ours was a social circle of nine or ten people, always with an array of rotating boyfriends and girlfriends orbiting our periphery, and Kevin was simply one of nine whose faces remained consistent over the years. Those years as college students, he was no closer to me than Eric. No closer than Sam or Tiffany or Cass, Andrew, Ben, or James.

And yet I knew Kevin. I trusted him.

Once, in a bedroom filled with oriental throw rugs, we blew bubbles using an oversized wand, the kind sold in dollar stores. “Watch this,” Kevin said lightly, inserting his cigarette into the film. He blew shallow, quiet breaths and, together, we watched the gray and shining gases rise slowly within glossy rainbows.

“Beautiful,” I said.

On another occasion, Kevin baked me Bagel Bites at three a.m. because I was drunk—too drunk, he claimed, for bed. He said, “You’ll feel awful in the morning.” And he waited beside me at the kitchen table until every single one was gone.

So I was not Kevin’s best friend, no, but a friend, a person who cared for him, and in the days and weeks following what he did, it seems that care somehow compounded. But now, however, on this drive to his prison, I’m suddenly aware of that disconnect: how, in truth, I grew closer to him only after his violent crime. And what I fear most about this visit is not how I anticipate he will make me feel, but how it feels when I realize—for the first time—that, in person, we’re nearly strangers. After all, the person Kevin remembers is not a person I can even pretend to be. Kevin remembers me at twenty-two—a twig of a girl who tied her shoes with neon laces and painted her nails to look like rainbows. I used a series of wooden toothpicks, dipping each one in a different polish. I wore cheap jewelry from mall boutiques—pearls painted pink, bronze and silver chandeliers—and cooked my eggs in flower molds.

"I don’t eat anything with a face,” I said often, and I made my father use a different spatula to flip my Boca Burger patty.

Now I eat nearly anything. Because I’ve been in what Kevin refers to as the “real world” for three years, I now look and dress and sound—and, of course, of course I think—differently from my college self, and much of this, I know, is a result of what he did. I don’t care, anymore, about trapping and releasing a spider. I don’t have the energy to illustrate my nails. I eat steak because of its strength, the way I imagine its power rushes back into my flesh.

But for the many ways I’ve changed, Kevin, it seems, remains the same; in nearly every letter he writes, he includes illustrations of tiny kittens, bouquets of flowers, a sun in sunglasses—the same sketches he used to doodle in my margins in our college classrooms. I love you beary much, two hugging bears told me last winter, and it was all I could think to do to pin them to my fridge with a Red Lobster magnet. Now they’re the first thing I see each morning as I pour my coffee or slice an orange. I love you beary much.


Excerpted from Visiting Hours by Amy Butcher, reprinted with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) 2015 by Amy Butcher.