The Number 41, excerpt from American Orphan

The Number 41
excerpt from American Orphan
by Jimmy Santiago Baca

It’s hard to say exactly how I love you.
Last night in bed I fed you my heart
bread pieces, thrown high, seagulls catch.
your ocean-wave body swirled
shifting and lifting to my body,
sending ripples over my muscled mounds,
receding slowly with a long hush
your body flowing over sand.

Drink me and drown me in your hidden underwater caves.

At the airport it was a delight to see mothers fussing with kids and fathers embracing sons going off to the military and lovers kissing. Instead of being processed, packaged, numbered, locked in, locked out, I went right through to my gate and a half hour later snuggled in my seat.

I sat in the rear of the plane. We’re all just getting back from some place, some event or some situation that changed us. Everyone of us on the plane coming back from an incident, a situation, a sadness, a betrayal, a despair, a joy, and the best we can hope for is to arrive with fresh eyes, viewing the casual as new. Mine happened to be prison and love.

What started out as a single letter ended up with me on this plane going to live with Lila. When the plane taxi’d and soared off, I looked toward the barrio where my brother Camilo lived and recited a prayer for God to protect him. I could see the orphanage, now turned into a Job Corps, where my uncle dropped my brother and me off that long ago night.

As a kid I dreamed of being somebody else, of changing out my suit of brown skin for white privileged flesh. And I remember a black kid in the orphanage said to me after I got beat so bad by the nuns my legs and butt were bruised purple and I thought I was becoming black, my friend Allen said, “You can’t be beat black,” he laughed, “dummy—gotta be born black.”

And after all these years the best I could expect was I that could start a new life in the same old skin and I was going to give it a go.

I looked out the window at the West Mesa where I used to run at dawn. I closed my eyes and headed for the four dormant volcanoes in the distance. The sun warmed the stones. Sage bushes wafted incense. High-prairie breeze carried cacti and cool sand fragrance, and my chest swelled as I inhaled the morning.

I felt redeemed.

I skirted slow thawing rattlers on the road with a childish catch-me-if-you-can delight. I jogged swiftly up hills and sprinted down, distending my chest to breathe in the whole prairie. I inventoried every cedar and juniper, staring at it as if I would never see it again. Scrub-brush clawed my leg pants, jackrabbits darted across arroyos, the sun whirled its golden scarves across the air in a dervish dance, sketching a beautiful portrait of love on the blue horizon. I loved my sweat soaked t-shirt clinging to my chest, the aches in my knees, sharp pins of pain stabbing at my ankles.  

I opened my eyes.

I looked out of the window from 33,000 feet above the earth, reflecting in dismay that I came out of prison with this kind of mental disjunction and downright what the fuck is going on bewilderment.

Just as in prison, I could create myself in my poetry out here and force society to see me as I wanted to be seen. I was determined that society in the end would treat me with respect. I felt an unwavering conviction to be a poet, and no matter the challenges I would keep writing.

Welcome to my world, society.

When the judge sentenced me to 5-10 years in a maximum-security prison, a cruel magician waved his court gavel and made me imaginary; he was saying, I’m going to make you vanish, you’re gonna be gone bitch! And with the snap of his gavel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz—life as I knew it vanished. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I clicked the heels of my prison brogans together I was never able to return.

I had to write my way back home.

And maybe I’d been missing the point the whole time: maybe I was assuming Albuquerque was my home, when in fact it might just be a stop on this new journey. After all, I had changed and my real home may have changed too.

Perhaps to free me from the anxious ennui and, feeling an urgency to get my life going, I leaped at this opportunity too hastily? I didn’t know how my journey’s blueprints were to be drawn, nor executed once drafted, but I was ready to remake myself again in freedom-land and being welcomed by a beautiful woman in a great place—I mean, the odds were in my favor for once.

The pilot announced we were descending. Once we were under the clouds, I gazed at the green landscape below and panic gripped the back of my neck like a scrawny hand turning over a stone revealing a black scorpion. It could be a natural suspicion of the unknown but I started to question everything I was doing. To calm myself, I inhaled full and deep ten times. My head and my eyes faced east and my heart faced the rising sun and spread its arms wide and welcomed the new day.


Adapted with permission from forthcoming novel American Orphan by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Copyright © 2015 by Jimmy Santiago Baca. §



Jimmy Santiago Baca lives in New Mexico and is of Indio-Mexican descent. He is a poet and the father of five. He served a five-year sentence in a maximum security prison, during which he began to turn his life around, eventually emerging as a poet. He is a winner of the prestigious International Award for his memoir, “A Place to Stand,” the story of which is now also a documentary by the same title. Learn more at

Header image by Atsme // CC BY-SA 3.0