“Hello, this is a call from Whitehurst Penitentiary. All calls are monitored. Will you accept the charges? Press ‘one’ to accept, ‘two’ to decline.”
“Thank you. You will be connected shortly.”
“Thanks for answering.”
“I’m, ahh, calling to see how you and the girls are doing.”
“We’re good. Sarah just got her last report card for the year. All ‘A’s. And Hannah’s swim team just won their third straight meet.”
“And Kim, how’s she doing?”
“She’s good.” I looked up at the ceiling. The fan spun slow circles. “How are you doing in there?”
“I’m surviving. When're you coming to visit?”
“I’m not sure, it might be a while. Maybe for your birthday.”
“I just had a birthday. Aren’t you going to be in Litchfield in August?”
“Yeah, but, you know I don’t like to bring the girls up there.”
“They’ll be out of college by the time I get out.”
“In fact…uh…I wanted to ask you a favor.”
“What is it?”
Another pause. “I'd like to borrow some money.”
“Borrow? What for? How much?”
“I found a lawyer who would file an appeal. He thinks he might be able to get my sentence reduced...by a lot, maybe ten years. That could get me out next year. He thinks maybe appeal the weapons possession and get the penalty reduced to just false imprisonment and possession with intent. The state could still hold me for ten, but not twenty-five. I met him in the wait, and he represented a guy that just got bounced. He’ll get to see his kids graduate. I could get to see my grandkids graduate… I… I think, I just… look… I know you think I’ve fucked up. I know you think I deserve to be in here… I just…”
We sat in silence, hundreds of miles apart. A thin crackle on the line and voices in the background on his end. The hum of the ceiling fan on mine.
“Call is ending.”
The silence continued.
He was next to speak, “No one deserves to spend their life in here. The worst fucking people in here don’t deserve it.”
The silence returned.
“I don’t think I can give you money.”
“You don’t even know how much—“
“What I mean is, why do you deserve it more than anyone else? Why should it go to you? People have less than you’ve thrown away and wasted.“
The line died with a click.
“Call has ended.”
The lady behind bulletproof lucite studied me as I approached. I wrote my name and his on a clipboard and she looked at them.
“Wait here. Someone'll be with you shortly,” the woman said as she pointed to a handful of seats behind me.
I glanced at the wall clock and sat two seats away from a young woman and two children. The oldest couldn’t have been more than five. I wondered who they were visiting and thought of my own girls, eight and ten. I stared at nothing in particular.
Fifteen minutes passed and they called my name. I stood and saw a guard approaching through the small square window in a door to my right.
He looked at me and I puffed up my chest to show him my name tag sticker. I heard the heavy clang of the bar lock being released and walked through the door. The guard and I nodded at one another at the bar clanged shut.
We paused at a room of traditional barred doors at either end. He chattered into a walkie on his shoulder and we were buzzed through the first. It was locked behind us. We repeated the process and were buzzed through the second. We made a right turn in the hallway and came to a door much like the one where we first met. He released the lock and he stood behind as I walked through, then he it locked behind me.
It was a modest visitor room. There was a guard in each corner of the room which was a simple rectangle with ground mounted tables and chairs. There was one more guard strolling through the room. There were high tiny windows that allowed a touch of natural light to supplement the fluorescents.
I found an empty table and sat down, facing toward the door in the room that I hadn’t entered through. I tried to study the people around me without staring.
None of the inmates had any type of shackle on hands or feet. They were young and old, as were their visitors. There were families, lawyers, and friends.
I thought about the bright smiles I saw. The night would be darker when the convicts were back in cells and the visitors were back in their homes. Just as the time between their meetings had made those smiles brighter.
The door opposite me clanged and opened.
My father shuffled into the room, the familiar green jumpsuit hanging on him. He glanced around and quickly identified me. A smile rose on his face and he stepped toward me.
I stood above my chair and held out my hand. His smile dropped a little as I did. “Hi Dad.”
He took my hand and shook it, “I’m glad you came to visit.”
“I got the pictures you sent me, and the book, thank you.”
“It’s been forever since I’ve seen you in person. What, eighteen months?”
“Something like that. Jack visits regularly, right?”
“Yeah, he’s here about once a month, more or less. Brings his kids every three months or so. I wish you’d brought the girls.”
“I know. I’m just not comfortable with it. They’ve been here twice, and that’s enough. They don’t ask to visit you.”
“But I’m their grandfather, and they’re just kids.”
“I’m not going to tell them they should want to visit you.”
He tilted his head toward the table.
I continued, “Look, I just think they are old enough to decide. The age they’re at, they don’t understand how people end up in prison. Maybe later on they’ll be more curious than scared, as they learn about more of the realities of life. Not all kids get to stay kids. I try to make sure mine will.”
“But, I— .”
“So, anyway, I’m here to talk to you about what you asked before. About the money for a lawyer. I’m not excited about this conversation, but I thought you deserved—that we could look each other in the eye.”
“I appreciate it. So, here’s the deal. Jack already gave me five grand, and I’ve reached out to Tony, who still won’t take my calls. But that still leaves me five short. I don’t know what you’re money situation is like, but I know you’re doing ok. You take care of your family, I’ve always been proud of that.”
I sat quietly and waited for him to start again.
“It’s just that this could make such a difference in my life. This place… I can see my future. I’m only 58 now, but another twenty years, I don’t know if I can make it...with this lawyer I could be out at 65, it just gives me a chance to have a little life before I die… a chance.”
He joined me in silence.
“Dad… I… I don’t know. I don’t know why I should do this. Five grand won’t kill me. It’s not like I have it to burn, but I have money in savings. I just don’t know why I should. What have you done to deserve it?”
“I’m your father. What about family?”
“I know you’re my father. I can see it when I look in the mirror, but blood doesn’t mean family to me, and I learned that from you as well. There are people I would give my life for are not my blood, but they’re still family.”
I could see his jaw clench as I continued, “Why do you deserve this money more than anyone else. Why do you deserve it more than Jack? More than Tony? And why should it make any difference at all for anyone.”
I paused and he opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped. His teeth were slightly apart, and I stared at them. They were stained from years of cigarettes and black coffee. His pause continued, so I restarted.
“I know you’re my father when I face every decision I make. The times I shut down. The times I let my kids have whatever they want just because they’ve asked for it. The times I treat them like adults instead of the children they are. The relationships I’ve blown up because they might be good. The fucking sarcastic dismissive jokes I make when people say something stupid. The—“
I could feel the heat rising, my ears burning and my forehead flushing. His face softened as well. He clenched his teeth and dropped his eyes toward the table between us.
“I apologize for getting upset.”
“You’re my son. You don’t have to apologize to me. You never have to say you’re sorry.”
“That’s wrong. I do have to apologize. I’m not apologizing for you. I’m apologizing for me. I recognize that I don’t have to let the anger and pain and frustration control me. It controlled me for years. I don’t want the anger to be in charge.”
For a brief moment, I thought I could see recognition land in his eyes.
“The anger doesn’t make decisions for me anymore. I still fuck it up here and there—actually every day I still fuck it up, but at least I can see my fuck-ups.”
“When you called last month, my first thought, right after you got off the phone, was ‘Fuck that guy.’ It took me a day to even acknowledge the rage I’ve felt for decades. But behind all that anger was just a pile of pain. Just kid who didn’t understand. Who would put his who family at risk?
"The anger didn’t mean shit. The important part was this hurt kid who had to figure this shit out. I turned it on everyone around me.”
His eyes were back on me, and there was a genuine sadness in them. It wasn’t his fake frown to gather sympathy. Just in his eyes. His jaw clenched again to keep his mouth shut, as though he were literally biting his tongue. He released it and spoke softly.
“I’m sorry. I did the best I could.”
I felt the heat rise, but kept it in check, “I know.”
“You don’t know what your grandpa was like. How he treated Tony and me. At least I didn’t do that.”
He stopped and the sadness in his eyes was replaced by the pain of those memories. His look grew distant, as though he were staring, not just though me, but through the walls behind me, and the fences past them, and the trees past them, into the past and present and future all at once.
I knew what my next words would be, but I let him sit in those memories. I kept contact with his eyes, even as they stared through and past me, through and past all my experiences, all our experiences together.
A full minute later the loud clang of a door brought him back to the room. He spread his palms onto the table and his eyes brought me back into focus. The soft voices around us murmured back into the peripheral world, graciously drowning out the voices in my head, and his.
“You have no idea.”
“I know. And that’s why I came here to talk to you in person. To tell you face to face that I can’t give you the money.”
“Why not? Because you’re still pissed that I fucked up? Because you think I was a shitty dad? Or because you think I deserve to be in here? This is your revenge?”
“No. None of that.”
“Because it’s not right. It’s not right to deny you out of anger, or out of pain, or out of selfishness. It’s not right to get revenge. But it’s not right to do it out of pity, or righteousness, some fucked up notion of family that I don’t believe in. I’m not going to give you the money because it’s not the right thing to do. Are you here because you deserve to be? I don’t know, but it’s not for me to decide. I have no doubt you did the things you did to get here, but who the hell knows if this is the answer. I have no doubt that few people deserve to be in here, but that’s not between you an me.”
“But you could make a difference, right here and now. You could help me get out of this place that so many of us don’t deserve to be in.”
“But I don’t know these other people, and I can’t afford to get them all out. And more importantly, I don’t know if they should be out. I’m sure some of them deserve to be here and some don’t. Some of them had every opportunity and some had no opportunity whatsoever. Some of them have been getting the short end of the stick their whole lives and this place is just one more place they get hit by it.”
“But you. You know, you never once said to me today, or any other time, that you didn’t do it. Probably because you know I wouldn’t believe you anyway, but you earned that, too. You gave me so much bullshit over the years that you destroyed your credibility. And that’s why I’m not going to give you the money. I don’t believe you’re going to use it any better than I will.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like I’m going to convince you otherwise.”
“I didn’t come here to be convinced, I came here to tell you in person. I came to tell you why. I came here to give you the respect you deserve as a human. But not to give you the money.”
“So, I’m just stuck in here? So I…”
He let it trail off.
We sat in silence. I could feel the turmoil of guilt and sympathy in my gut. But I kept silent.
After a moment he stood up and turned around.
I stood and faced him, and waited.
After another moment he walked to the guard by the door. He said something and the guard nodded. The door clanged open. He walked through. It clanged shut behind him.
“Hello, this is a call from Whitehurst Penitentiary. All calls are monitored. Will you accept the charges? Press ‘one’ to accept, ‘two’ to decline.”
“You will be connected shortly.”
“Hello. Is Hannah there? I’d like to talk to her please.”
I carried the phone upstairs and found Hannah on her bed, headphones in, computer on her lap. She saw the door open and was staring at me.
“It’s your granddad.”
She dropped the headphones and stood up, took the phone from my hand, and turned back around, dropping onto her bed.
I backed out of the room, but stopped in the hallway and leaned against the wall.
“Yeah, we learned about family trees in history class, so I wrote you the letter.”
“No, she’s swimming at her friend’s house.”
“Yeah, it’s good. I got all As and I’ve already got a four and a five on two AP tests.”
“Yeah, that’s good.”
“Calculus, that one’s the hardest.”
I moved back toward the door of her room. When I stood in the door frame, she looked at me, then back at the ceiling.
“Ok, do you want me to get dad?”
“Ok. Bye, grandad.”
She set down the phone and looked at me.
“He didn’t want to talk to you.”
“That’s ok, I understand.”
“I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he’s mad at me. And if you heard the story, you might understand why as well.”
“It’s a long one.”
She sat up and I sat on her bed. She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. Forty minutes later, I finished by explaining how he’d walked away that day, and that we hadn’t really spoken since. And that when I read the letter she sent, I hoped that this phone call and this conversation would occur.
“Do you ever feel bad? Don’t you think you should’ve helped him?”
“I do feel bad sometimes. But I think I did the right thing. I did the best I could.”
She leaned over and hugged me, and I smoothed her hair and kissed the crown of her head. Then I went downstairs and started dinner.
The sun was falling into clouds on the horizon as we approached Jack's house. The street was crowded with cars, and humidity was weighing down the paper “welcome home” banner. Noise came from in the house and the backyard. Hannah and Kim stepped in front of me and opened the front door. I followed and closed it behind me.
I turned right to the living room as Kim and Hannah hugged my dad at the same time. I stood frozen just outside the room.
After their embrace, he reached back down and took his cane and shambled toward me. The voices in the room fell back as my vision focused on my dad’s face.
When he got in front of me, he leaned heavier on the cane and reached out to me with his right hand. I shook it.