“Tomás,” my mother used to tell me, “Tu tienes que hablar por mi.”

So I would go with her down to the welfare or some other place, the post office, the bank, the school, and I would be her voice.

I could always talk real good, and come to think of it, I could conversate with just about anybody. I knew how to break the ice, knew what to say. Knew how to stir things up, too, how to get at someone right where they lived, like a stun gun. I was always good with words.

At my trials I didn’t get to use no words at all, seeing as my lawyers thought it best I decline to testify. I wanted to talk for myself, to say what I was thinking, or to be more accurate, how I was too doped up and twisted around and clouded to do much thinking at all, just too caught up in the wanting and needing that was my whole life from waking to sleeping, to do anything but beg and con and sell and steal my way there. At the sentencing I got to say sorry, but who believes you then?

Sí, I always was good with words. Palabras that you say out loud, that is. Who had time for school? There was too much other stuff to do. Watching los niños, making rice and gándules, and perníl on special occasions, hustling up the money for the rent, fakin’ all the things I missed by being gone. Slippin’ out to see what was shakin’ on the street. I dodged detention, and the corner was my school; that’s just where I wanted to be, and I got to tell you, I had the finest teachers and I got straight A’s.

But now I can do more than talk out loud, and this pen feels good in my hands, almost like a weapon, which it can become, easy, with some masking tape and some concrete, and there’s plenty of that to sharpen it on in here. They give us these little limp ones, thinking we can’t hurt nobody with these, but everyone should know that anything, anything at all can be turned to hurting.

You can barely use these floppy pens, though, which is purely a new issue of mine’s, since it’s been mi secreto, for every day of mi thirty-eight-year vida, ’til three years ago last April, that I never learned to read or write.

I know how to put my words down now. I know how to spell them and I study where they come from, how they’re put together, how they came to be. And I love me some words. I survived the shame, Mama’s and my own, for not knowing what even little niños know. I was second generation what you call illiterate, ’til I owned that fact, and mostly I didn’t get no grief. They know who I am in here, and that’s not the kind of thing that makes a punk. That’s way too close to home.

I know words are not the same as la vida, though, even the wrote-down kind. They give you somewhere to lean, though, and something to choose. They give a way to name it all.

One day I’ma write a letter to m’hija. She’s a woman now, I’ll have to find her first.

I can’t get enough of reading and writing down what I could only talk before, and no one has to do it for me, pa’yo. I’ma stay with this book until the lights go out, and start again at six when they come on again. And soon I’ma start working on my GED. Las letras, las palabras, they’re all the way mine.

My first sentence? “I am Tomás.” That’s it. I exist. This is my own name. Tomás, or Boo to you.

And now that it really belongs to me, I’m redoing the alphabet. This here’s my own version, and I fought hard for each letter, so we not having no “A is for Apple, B is for Ball . . .” I’ll be deciding on what stands for what. I’ma tell you in a minute how it goes, and it won’t begin at the beginning, ’cause what does? It’ll begin in the middle, it’ll begin anywhere, it’ll begin at the end. And that seems just about right, since everything inside here is turned around, pushed inside out, backward, and jumbled up.

You’re a child instead of a man.
Wrong before you open your mouth.
Sickened before you’re hungry.
Finished before you begin.

You live your life on rewind here, and the bottom’s where you start.

That’s why I’m starting with Z. Z is for catching some Zs, zzzzzzz, and that’s one way to go, ’cause you can sleep away your time, and still never get rested. Sweet, unbothered sleep? Damn near impossible in here.

In the learn-to-read books, Z is always for Zebra, and as a mat¬ter of fact, that works for me, too, ’cause the light coming in the cell at just about 2:00 stripes me, with the bars. White on black? Black on white? Who knows, I’m a zebra, caged.

What’s next? Y is for Yes and N is for No. Yes, No. Yes, No. Can I change? Do I want to? Will it last? Can I change? Will life let me? Can I change? What for? Yes, No, Maybe So. Yes, No, Maybe So. Yes.

W? W is for Wanting, or you can change one letter and it’s for Waiting. They’re part of the same damn thing. They’re the way we live now.

V is for Vergüenza. La vergüenza de mi madre, her own junkie shame. Then mine. My own inheritance.

U. Under. Underground. Understand. Undermine. Underesti¬mate.

And that brings me to T, which is for Tiempo, Time. “Don’t let time do you. Do time,” they say, like a broken record. Yeah? Fuck you. Which, as you’ll see, is mostly what F is for.

S is most definitely for Stank, or Stench, a word I just got. The three smells in here being the smells of shit, which is out in the open and everywhere, of food you would only eat if you had to, which is mostly the case, except for the canteen ramen noodles and flip-top tuna, crackers with peanut butter and Velveeta cheese . . . and body funk. Sweat. Fear. Sex. Anger. And when those smells all happen together, which is every day, watch out. Stench.

R is for two things, and don’t tell me I can only have one thing for every letter. I’ll have as many as I damn well please. R is for Respect, Respeto, which is all any man wants and the thing none of us can do without.

And it’s for Remorse, arrrrrrrrrrepentimiento, which is what you’re supposed to show the Review Board, even if you didn’t do the crime. I got remorse, all right. For damn near everything about the way I lived. For leaving out of school and making my way through without knowing a goddam thing before I did drop out. For the stick-ups and the let-downs and the dope I put inside my veins. For Layla Johnson, and the way I smiled when she peed her pants in fear.

For keeping in motion, motion, motion, so I wouldn’t have to stop and see what all I was doing, what all I was. I got remorse for all the things I missed, for not living the life I had, letting good dreams and daylilies and being a father pass me by. For being a no-show. For not just going back to the island, where I could make a different start, and for never saying “Te quiero. Bendición,” to mi abuelita and meaning it, before she died. For leaving mi Mamita without no one to speak for her, even if she couldn’t mostly speak for nobody except herself, and for nothing besides her dope. Those are my remorses, and those are my Rs.

Q. Qué, qué, q’onda? Q words are harder in English. Quilt. Q is for a Quilt mi abuelita made me, from all our faded and second¬hand, but washed-clean clothes. And I wonder where that quilt is. When did I see it last? Quarrel. Qualm. Quandary. Question. Quest.

P is for Pen or Pencil. And it’s always been for Pussy, too, though I try not to use that word no more, and I try my best not to dwell on what I’ve not got.

O is for OG, which is what I wanted to be when I grew up. Far back as I can remember, which ain’t too far, Big Cruz, The Original Gangster, and Mack, too, would come riding down the block in his Beamer with the strobe lights to fuck up anyone fool enough to chase him, handing out tube socks and jerseys and scattering Jolly Ranchers like parade confetti, rolling instead of walking, Big Cruz, who was crazy as hell, and sure, and brave, who had no slave past, no past at all, but was pure present, everything ripe and sweet and waiting to be plucked. And we’d all flock to the car and wonder, while we peeked inside and talked to him, and were proud that he remembered our names, whether the stories we heard about his trigger-happy, ruthless acts were true, whether we could make the shiny, candy ladies in there look our way some day and become Big Tomás, Big Boo, Big Whoever, whether we might be legends and roll instead of walking one day.

We already been through N along with Y, so that’s all taken care of. N for No. Two letters. The shortest word with the longest meaning of all.

M is for Man, which I am trying hard to be in this here zoo.

And oh, I know a world of L’s. L has always been for Love. Too easy to say and too hard to do. Love, the contraband word. The reason for la vida for some folks, and a prison for others. Some get they ass kicked in the name of love. Some, they try to have it, do it, but they just can’t get it right. And L is for Laughing, ’cause if you stop doing that, you die. And it’s for Leaving, the art I mastered but can’t no longer practice, except inside my head. In any case, I’m trying to stick around this time, see what can I find out, seeing as I’m locked inside this muthafucka for five years. And now L is also for Loud, which it always is in here, voices raised, bars and doors buzzing and slamming shut, music and tvs playing, hacks shouting, COUNT, COUNT,COUNT.

And L is for LIFE. Life Sentence. Life Without. Life story. What happened to my Life?

K. Mmn mmn mmn. I don’t talk about it, and I try not to think about it, but this one’s my daughter’s name. Before, before I had el alfabeto, and las palabras, I couldn’t have wrote her a letter, even if I hadda wanted to. She was nine when I started my bid here, and I haven’t seen her in near eleven years.

And J. J is for Jamás. How can I ever add up all the nevers? I’ll just use this single word.

I is just for I, me, I am. That’s all.

We can take G and H together. They stand for Ghost, because that’s what we are here, mostly, especially those who’s doing letters ‘stead of numbers. And that’s who we talk to in the nighttime, who be visiting from the past. All the men who been through here, and some who never made it out. We can hear their voices sometimes, singin’ O Lordy, or about workin’ from can to can’t, singin’ about home or Rosie this or Rosie that, about some woman or other, someone who stood by you, someone who done you wrong. G, for Ghosts, living and dead.

And G is also for tell me something Good. Anything. Anything Good At All.

In here it’s always loud, and then there’s the empty quiet inside the loud. And it’s tight, with what all might jump off, and no space at all for any single one of us. There’s nowhere to lean and we are starved for good.

I focus on something good to eat, something that you can really taste in your mouth. Caramels. Red and white peppermint wheels. Something from the commissary. Some of that Neapolitan ice cream, looking like a pastel flag from some kiddie country. I go for that. Or I focus on that thin slice of sky I can see from my window if I lie down at the bottom edge of my bunk, or those geese you can see if you strain, in the distance, just past the razor wire. Try to see them and ignore the trail of green shit they leave behind. Do they live here or visit? Can they? Live here? Can’t choose a letter or a visit, so I focus on a magazine or a book, a message from the free world.

Some days I try to make a list of whatall I got. I used to call it off inside my head, but now I write it down. I got new words. And I got what might could happen in the future, what might be part¬way good. I got what I remember, but the bad memories, they’re no kind of gift, and the good ones hurt too much sometimes. Knowing and remembering, those are mixed.

I got what all I avoided and walked away from: a fight or dis, a trip into smoking, red-ash anger, a hack’s hateful tone. I got a day without trouble. And then I put on my list the little things that eased the tightness up. Wind. Dominoes. Good dreams. A new word I learnt and could write with my flaccid pen. Flaccid, that’s a F word I just now claimed.

So F is for Flaccid and it’s for Fuck You, most of the time, and when it’s not, it’s for Forgetting. And like I said, since my list of what I got is made of the bad I dodged, that means keeping to yourself, and that also means the Fuck You’s mostly got to be silent, between you and you.

E is for Elmwood Street, and sometimes we are back there, Mama out there leaving and leaving again to get her high on, leaving me behind. And me running for Big Cruz and then slangin’ for myself. I am six and Mama’s disappearing. I go back. I go back. I am six and seventeen and now. Back on Elmwood Street, all over again.

D is for Denied. That’s what the Parole Board says, and no doubt will again. Denied. It’s for Determination, too.

And D is for those Daylilies I’ve always loved. Tia Clara grew a patch beside that house of hers that seemed to shrug and say, “Whatever.” And I’ll never forget their bright orange up against the brown, asphalt shingles of that tired, shrugging house. I would look down into those daylilies from the kitchen window, leaning, like this, on the sill. Down into their sword leaves, waiting for one to open and make a flower that would only live one day. “Qué es lo que tanto miras? Vente p’aca, niño!” Tia Clara would say, nudg-ing my arm, come away from that window and wash your hands or set the table or do your lessons or brush your teeth. But I’d sneak back to that ventana, afraid I’d miss that flower’s quick, starburst life.

C. C is for coquí, the sound from home I can’t forget, though I barely remember except for the telling, especially with winter right around the bend. Coqui . . . coqui . . . I try to hear it in the night, that frog making its Puerto Rico sound. And C is for Clean. I got three clean years next month.

B is for Boo, and that’s how most folks know me, even though mi madre named me Tomás. Boo! For the scaredy cat they said I was, crying in the dark, and if they teased me, and crying when¬ever she left. Boo Boo for Yogi Bear’s sidekick, I used to say. Boo boo, I suspected, for mi madre’s mistake.

And here we are, back at the beginning, here in Oak Ridge, Cellblock A. A? A is for Absence. Ausencia. Mine and yours, and all I might’ve had. And now that words are mine, I can name whatall is missing. I can name everything I’ve lost.