Jen Schneider

I’ll Give You Only a Name

Hello, I’m here to visit my friend. My best friend. She’s tall, nearly six feet. Perhaps five, eleven and a half. Majestic, I’d say. Her locks are long, always a tangled mess of frizzy curls that rebel against all attempts at taming.

I’m sure you know her. She has eyes the color of clear blue skies, speckled with birds in flight and twinkles that never cease to shine. One of our brightest stars. I bet she studies the night sky. Even here. Always did. At home we’d lay on our backs in the small patch of green. Spread arms and legs in the shape of near-perfect V’s. Stretch fingertips and toes to touch those of our babies. Our own version of butterfly kisses.

She has a window, right?


Ooh, I hope her cell is nice. As nice as could be. Her house is so fine. Fresh and fragrant. Like her. She smells of lilac and freshly squeezed lemons. A burst of sunshine, I’d say.

M’am. Stop the fuss. I’m not sure what this is all about. Please - What’s her number?

Ooh, easy. But it depends on which one you mean. Her cell - 465-67… Wait, why would I share that with you? How ‘bout her license? Can you guess? MS I AM / INSPIRE / I INSPIRE / FRESH AIR. It was a birthday surprise. Perfect for her, really. Her boys ordered it. She was tickled. We hid behind the yard’s front side shrubbery and waited for her arrival. As soon as her eyes settled on the tin plate she started squealing. Her long lanky arms pumped the air. Her knobby knees buckled and she laughed. Pure and loud. Her laugh — I’m sure you’ve heard it — does it make you smile? A high-pitched tone, weaving melodies that warm hearts — like cashmere on a winter eve — and melted chocolate over shortbread.

M’am. The clock - it’s ticking. You’ve got sixty second to share the number. Otherwise, no visit.

No, Sir. She’ no number. She’s a mama, taken from her babies. Did no wrong. And I’m here to visit. She’s been waiting. I’m sure of it. Please.

Dear, Sir. Dressed in gray
Uniform and eyes of steel.
My friend has a name.


Our prisons are filled — to capacity — with human beings. Many guilty of nothing other than empty bank accounts and no access to those familiar with the system. Individuals with babies, friends, families. Jobs. Our prisons are filled — to capacity — with human beings. Individuals struggling with mental illness. Individuals struggling to pay bills. Individuals in need of Care. Support. Education.

The numbers are overwhelming.

But not telling. Not revealing, either. The numbers tell more about those in charge than those incarcerated.

The numbers are more a reflection of everything wrong with our current system than a report on those whose lives have been stolen as a result of it.

Presently, the number of incarcerated individuals in the United States is enough — far more than enough — to swing — not ring — an election.

You ask for a number. I’ll give you only a name. And I demand you say it.

On the Puzzle of Imprisonment — Compounded Daily

1 Across: 5 letter word for a body’s reaction to a lack of sleep. Perhaps due to interruptions such as blinding lights, false alarms, and overcrowded living conditions.

2 Across: Plural of the word for one’s physical structure, including flesh, bones, and organs. Mental state optional. Six letters.

3 Across: 5 Letter word. Opposite of death. No connotation allowed. Not necessarily positive.

4 Across: five letter word for offense, plural form (repeat, daily)

5 Across: Insert expletive of choice

6 Across: 2 letter word for a prefix used generously — often in overbearing ways constructed by those in power — to indicate (as a practical matter, intentionally impart) negation and descent

8 Across: 9 letter word for the act of dismantling a system (unjust practices and institution, too)

9 Across: 4 letter word for assist or aid.


2 Down: Opposite of happy. Present state.

__1___ __2___
Seek ways to __3__
As __5__ systems
__6__vise ways — commit
__4__ — guilty as charged -
of their own and on
scales far worse than any
for which I have been wrongly
accused — _6_vise ways to _6_moralize,
_6_humanize, and _6_stroy.

Solution: Neither prayers, nor platitudes are sufficient to prompt
the action long overdue. __8__. __9__.

On the Edge

Standing just on the edge the red kitchen tile, feet planted squarely
on two rectangular hardwood planks, hands in the shape of triangles
perched on each hip, he advised me to not leave trash in the garage.

“Draws flies”, he said.

“Really?”, I replied and returned his stare.

Looked him in the eyes. “Good to know.”

I next picked up the monthly copy of Woman’s Day. Rolled it into the shape
of a cylinder and swatted — hard — the fly buzzing just above his right side
shoulder. Almost dusting — perhaps dancing — with the crisp cotton, freshly
laundered. Of course. Lilac and lemons. Freshly mowed grass. No. Stop.

A direct hit. Clean. I’ve had practice.

The fly dropped. A soft ping on the wood floor. He continued to stare.

I shrugged and tossed the Woman’s Day into the trash. Quickly
pulled two red strips — limp until called to action — from the top
of the plastic garbage bag and tied them in a knot. A basic bowline.

Clean. Easy. Bow. I’ve had practice.

“Take this to the garage,” I said.

Still no idea who pays for the magazine subscription. Only know it’s not me.

On Habits, Hellos, and Hidden Regrets

The route home from the office — tucked inside an asbestos-filled downtown high rise — never varied. A right-turn out of the parking lot, a left on Broad. A straight shot north for the next two miles. Traffic never varied, either. Cars often sat idle at the multiple streets light, synchronized though often off, just enough, to cause daily delays. Engines run as exhaust fumes fill the air — puffs of gray clouds. An often-perfect match for my end of the day mood.

I’d often stall at the same intersection, the one where a gentleman — I’d guess of about forty, though I never would know — sat. Soiled khakis, with frayed knees. His broad back rested against the narrow streetlight pole. Also soiled. A heavy down jacket, no matter the season, atop a mix of flannels and t’s. A cardboard sign, handwritten, perched on his angled legs. A stack of dogeared paperbacks always by his side.

“Please. Anythng will help. I have kids. Vet. No job. God Bless America — and You”

I always wondered if he realized the “i” in anything was missing. Some days I thought it might be intentional. I knew the feeling. To be, but not to be. He never rose. Never approached the cars. Most with windows rolled up, anyway. And locked, of course. A small pail rested next to his brown leather loafers.

If he sought funds, he chose a terrible location. The lights were on thirty second timers. Rarely time to dig into pockets or open purses.

Sometimes, I’d see tinted glass roll down. Slowly. An arm would emerge and toss some coins. His eyes would light up at each offering. It was a game, on many levels, with rules unknown.

When coins clinked into the belly of the pot, he’d raise his right arm, form a thumb’s up, and smile. His eyes twinkled as his cheek muscles stretched.

I hesitated too long before I also joined in. Daily. Doing nothing never sat right. I regret waiting as long as I did. My mind always questioning — thinking too much:

What was proper etiquette? Do I toss coins? Fold bills into paper airplanes? Do nothing?

Our eyes would meet. Often. I came to adopt a habit. When my car lingered in arm’s reach, I’d roll down my window and, gently, one after the other, toss quarters. He’d mouth a silent thank you.

Even on days when my car stopped too far back, I’d see him watch for me. His eyes would wander, then focus on my own run-down Chevy. A smile and a nod.

I’d often wonder about the silence. His. And mine.

My habit healed no wounds. Helped no one. Had no impact.

For months I’d collect a stack of quarters before leaving my office. A small fifth floor walk-up in the city. Processing claims for a local insurance company. Sad, solitary work.

Accounting. Counting for what, I’d often wonder. No claim too small to ignore. Take nothing for granted. All bills. Archived bills. A bill. Bill it. All quotes my boss would shout on the daily.

Yet, I took the stranger’s presence for granted. His warm smile. His grey-blue eyes.

I’m sorry we never spoke. I’m sorry I took so much from him. Yet gave so little. I wish he knew what he gave.

My mind plays games of Q&A:

...How old are your children?
...Do you see them often?
...Do you know that on many days you were the only one who saw me? The sole person to acknowledge my presence.

And divulged secrets:

... I see you, still. In my dreams. Your sacrifices. Our failings.

A collective mess.

So easy to be invisible in a sea of sadness.
And a stew of spoken words with no soul.

Grey eyes lock with blue
as warm winds spread exhaust fumes.
Heads nod. Carry on.

I now have a tiny letter. Folded — with wings. Designed to fly,
Though I fear never soar.

Stored in my car’s right-side coffee cup.
Coins — stacked neatly — with a slight tilt — in the left.
Always ready for take-off. Until the day we meet again.

Dear Sir,
Thank you for your service
And your kind eyes. I’m sorry
To have failed you. To have
Found comfort in your
Presence, thinking more of
My own sadness and solitude
than of yours. To have found
Solace in your greeting,
And false comfort in
My response. I’m sorry
We have failed you. This
Country we once loved and
For whom you fought, yet I
Have only taken.
To where you have ventured,
I know nothing. Should we
Meet again, I hope to hold
Your hand. Tight. And embrace
In locks of regret for all
that has been lost.
May you once
Again soar. And may
We all find solace
In solidarity.

On Loving

“Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”
                                             — Chief Justice Warren. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)

She sat ever so gracefully, posture erect, hands folded
gently in lap. Slim fitted blouse adorned with delicately
embroidered butterfly wings. Ready for Flight. He, too,
awaited judgment — Again — with composure and poise.
Freshly laundered, crisp white button-down. Knowing eyes
cast a steady gaze on nearby cameras — eager — Always — to
Click, Snap, Capture — private moments turned public affairs.

Shoulders straight, clothes pressed. Determination
marked of time suspended — for more than nine years
after a couple’s wedding day — as the high court deliberated
and paparazzi probed. Souls waiting a lifetime for a moment
an Uncertain Future — suddenly before them. Again.
Wristwatch minute hands ticked as stale air turned ultimately
sweet — though still bitter — from years of Conviction. And a Cause.

A Cause. Against middle of the night knocks on private doors.
In support of freedom to bake — and breathe — a life of one’s
Choosing. A life of laughter the scent of sweet homemade cobbler,
fresh strawberries, and warm sourdough bread. A lifetime of Living
— country roads, car races, courtship — Loving, and Longing —
ultimately crystallized and perhaps concluded in the work of a weighted
gavel on the other side — Always — of solid wooden doors. Forever
fighting back against the doors of judgment. Finally, Free to Be.

Jen Schneider is an educator, attorney, and writer. She lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Philadelphia. Recent work appears in The Popular Culture Studies Journal, unstamatic, Zingara Poetry Review, Bat City Review, Chaleur Magazine, LSE Review of Books, and other literary and scholarly journals.
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