I was 39 years old, living in a small town in New Hampshire with my three children, writing a syndicate weekly newspaper column about my life.
It was a really bad time in my life. My mother had just died of a brain tumor. My husband had told me he didn’t want to be married to me anymore, and our marriage had ended the week that my mother died.
She left me a small amount of money in her will. I was spending most of that money on a lawyer, trying to defend myself against a suit for the custody of our three children. I was under scrutiny by a guardian ad litem to see if I was, in fact, a fit mother, and the legal bills were mounting with horrifying speed.
The winter was cold, Christmas was coming, and I was an orphan. And then one day, a letter dropped in the mail slot. The address was written in pencil, and the return address was followed by a long series of numbers. Even if I’d never bought a single Johnny Cash album, I would have known it came from a man in prison.
So I opened the letter. It began,
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“Dear Lady Joyce,
Many of the guys on my cell block wait excitedly for the day that Penthouse or Biker Chick Magazine is delivered. But the big day in my week is Tuesday afternoon, when I get to read your newspaper columns about your life with your children.”
He knew them well, from my columns. He knew that my daughter had just been cast in Annie and got braces. He knew that my son Charlie played the trumpet and that my son Willy was a would-be baseball pitcher. He knew that I drove a 1966 Plymouth Valiant that was frequently having problems. He signed his letter, “For real, Grizzly.”
So I wrote back. “Dear Grizzly, thank you very much for your note.” And I enclosed in the envelope the annual Christmas card photograph that I always took of my kids and me — them in their red-and-green holiday sweaters and me in this kind of ridiculous golden dress. And very swiftly I got another letter back.
Now, I should tell you another thing about men in prison. You know all that time that you and I spend on things like going to our jobs, taking care of our children, our houses, our cars, cooking meals, maybe having a relationship (maybe even having sex)? Men in prison don’t have to spend time on any of those things, which means they have a lot of time for writing letters. A man in prison who cannot touch a woman often develops a particular kind of brilliance at letter writing.
So when I wrote Grizzly a two-sentence letter, I got back a five-page letter. And when I wrote Grizzly a one-paragraph letter, I got back a ten-page letter. And when I wrote Grizzly a one-page letter, I got back a fifty-page letter.
He was writing back more and more. You’re probably thinking — and I won’t pretend that this isn’t an issue here — that I might be a woman of questionable judgment, and you’re right, without a doubt. But one thing I will attest to, and I will stand on this to my last breath, is that I know good writing. And Grizzly knew how to do it.
He never wrote about life in prison. He always wrote about what had happened before, and he’d had a very tragic life. He grew up in the orange groves of Southern California, and he described how his family had very little money, but his mother used to make these little figures for him out of orange peels, and that’s what he would play with. Later in life his parents died tragically.
He wrote about the woman that he had loved. And he loved hard, Grizzly. Then his wife died in childbirth. He raised his daughter on his own.
I’m reading all this in his letters, you know, just enthralled. And sometimes actually weeping, he told the story so beautifully.
He fell in love again, but that woman was with him in a terrible motorcycle accident— she was on the back of his Harley—and she was so horribly disfigured that she forbid him to ever see her again. And then one day he sent me a photograph of his daughter in an open casket after she had died.
He’s sending me advice for my son Will, how to throw a knuckleball. He’s drawing diagrams of the inner workings of my Valiant to show me how I can check the plugs and points and change the oil. I could pretend that all of this correspondence was in the name of making a lonely prisoner feel happy, and maybe finding out about the lives of men in prison. But I will admit to you that more and more I was being drawn into this relationship myself.
I guess I have to tell you that I was falling in love with Grizzly.
I have to say in my own defense here that at the point Grizzly came into my life, I had been single and out in the world of dating a little bit. And I know there are women who will understand this: if you have been a single woman out in the world of dating, the fact that somebody’s a senior partner in a law firm, or they work for Charles Schwab, or they have tenure at NYU, is absolutely no guarantee that the person won’t be a true sociopath.
So I actually came to believe that maybe I had found the one good man. I really believed that I had found the one good heart, just like he signed his letters: “For real, Grizzly.” There was something so real about this man. About his language, his stories. His spelling.
He sent me a photograph of himself, and maybe you’re picturing a kind of gruffly handsome Tommy Lee Jones kind of person. I’ve got to tell you, no. This photograph was especially taken for me, and he was standing in front of this cinder-block wall with a guard. He had a bandage over his head — I’m not exactly sure why that was — and he had a big long beard. And he said that he had actually put on his best shirt for this occasion. It was misbuttoned.
And to be honest, I’d have to say that he was an ugly man. But I had been married to a very handsome man, and so I knew the lie of that one too.
And he continued to write these letters and to talk about all of the ways that he would have treated me if he had been with me instead of my husband. He didn’t think much of my $125-an-hour lawyer either. He told me very clearly in his rustically authentic language what he would do to my husband if he were around. Which was to make him eat his underwear.
I guess I have to tell you that I was falling in love with Grizzly. I have seldom read stories more powerful than the ones that he spun out in the growing stack of pages that were accumulating on my bedside table. I had started saving these letters till I went to bed on those long, cold, New Hampshire winter nights when I felt so alone in the world, and it seemed like my one friend and protector was this man three thousand miles away in prison.
There were a couple of moments when I recognized that this really didn’t make sense, and I’d try to cut it off. Every time that I would send him a letter saying, “You know what? Really, Grizzly, I don’t see a future here,” he would send back another story that would just break my heart.
Around that time, he wrote back with astonishing news— he was getting out! And in fact his bus could probably make it to New Hampshire by the start of Little League season.
My friend said, “You’ve got to find out what he was in for.”
This seemed like a really rude thing to ask a person. It showed a lack of trust, as if I didn’t have the kind of good heart that he did. But when I knew he was coming out, and he was coming to play catch with my sons, I thought I’d better place a call to prison.
I went through a whole series of social workers to get to the one who was in charge of Grizzly’s case.
I said, “I’ve got to know what he’s in for.”
She said, “We don’t do that. There are many procedures. Why do you ask?”
I said, “Well, I’m in a relationship with this person, and now that he’s getting out on parole, he’s coming to visit.”
She said, “You know what? I’m gonna break the rules. Sit down, honey.
“Your friend will not be getting out any time in the next three hundred years,” she said. “Do you know why they call him Grizzly? He’s in prison for the grisly murder of his parents. They were beheaded.
“And I’m going to ask you to please never let him know that I told you this because even in prison he is known as a very violent and dangerous man.”
I did not write back to Grizzly. But the letters continued to come to me, of course, dropping through the mail slot. At first he just sounded baffled, then increasingly pleading, and then the tone of the letters changed, and they became angry and fierce, and putrid and violent. If any words I’ve ever read could have drawn blood, these would have been the ones.
The letters kept showing up for a full year. I stopped reading them.
That was the year that my divorce concluded. The guardian ad litem determined that I was fit to maintain custody of my children. Clearly she had not spoken to the social worker at the prison.
I never could throw Grizzly’s letters away, so I put them in a box, and I put the box in the back of my closet. And I’m going to break Moth tradition by sharing a short passage from one of those letters:
Now listen up, baby. I don’t have much to give you in the way of trinkets and such. I’m betting there’s guys out there lining up to take you out to fancy restaurants, and put a ring on your finger— 24 karat, who knows? Guys that’ll buy you a car, buy you a house, fly you to Gay Paree. Me I can’t even plant a kiss on those sweet lips of yours, not that I wouldn’t CHEW OFF MY RIGHT ARM TO DO IT.
All I can give you when the day is done is one goddamn thing, and that’s my heart. I see who you are. I know you like I know my blood. I read what you wrote and I read between the lines too, baby.
I’d die for you. I’d kill for you. There isn’t words to say it, but if you close your eyes and take a breath, you’ll feel it. Someplace in California, there’s a man locked up in a concrete box that’s got you in his brain right now. Put your hand on your heart, baby, and feel it beating, imagine me inside you. I’m with you now. I’ll be with you forever.
And I guess I’m with him too, because even many years later I am haunted by this knowledge: that somewhere in a maximum security prison in California, there is a Christmas photograph of me and my three children taped to a cinder-block wall.
This story is cross-posted from The Moth for Love Less Ordinary, a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Joyce tell her story live here.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email email@example.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.