This morning, 5:30 came on time. Sometimes it seemed to come too early or too late. But today, it was just as it should be.

When his feet hit the cold floor he felt the shock of knowing the pure, unadulterated, and irrefutable certainty that today was his last day to feel that miserable coldness. The unforgiving concrete had always bothered him, and he swore to himself that he would never again feel that apathetic hardness. Then he laughed. A low, mirthless chuckle for his ears only. His humor was dry and cynical; the thought that brought the smile to his wrinkled face and the guttural huff of a laugh that bled out of his throat like a wad of phlegm, was not meant for anyone else. No one was supposed to hear. Few would appreciate the joke, much less understand it.

He had beaten them. He had survived the system that was designed to drain the will, then the humanity, and finally the life out of a man. 18 years, 10 months, 19 days. He had died a little bit each year, but there had been just enough left for this day, to get through it and . . . maybe beyond. It didn’t matter, he thought, as he packed the last of his gear and then headed for the showers for one last wet down in this place.

When he had finished his toilet—shit, shower and shave—he packed only the toiletries he thought he might need for a day or so. He didn’t need much. Through the years, by force and by habit, he had learned to be truly sufficient and satisfied, with very little. Living a sparse existence was not a bad thing, he decided. So few things I have, he thought, and the thought pleased him, for then I have less to worry about leaving. He had given his TV and radio to his only friends. He had known them all for such a short period of time. But they were the only friends he had. He supposed they were good friends though, after a moment’s reckoning, for they meant more to him than his flesh brothers. Mac, an old man like himself, he had known for almost 10 years, hanging around together pretty much all the time. Bogart and James he had known for about four or five years. Hard to keep track. So many faces and names had come and gone over the years.

The three had reluctantly divvied up his sheets, his blankets, pillow, extra clothes. Anything that they might get some use out of. Their expressions ranged from sadness at his leaving, to a gladness at his going, and a roving mixture of envy, joy, jealousy, chagrin, and relief played upon countenances, like dappling shadows skipping across the concrete yard. There was little talking now. They had pretty much said all their good-byes, and told all the inane, stupid and boyish jokes the night before. They exchanged glances this morning as they joined their friend, small smiles of regret for the visions of a future they would never see in their squinted eyes.

James tried another lame attempt at a joke about dating and needing Viagra, but Mac silenced him with a small, sad shake of his head, a slight grin on his face even as he did so. Nah, he said, adding his own twist, Ol’ Dean ain’t interested in that anymore. Only fishin’ and campin’ up in those big trees he’s always talking about. Ain’t that right, Dean? He asked. Yeah, that and havin’ a good dog for company, Bogart added.

He just glanced at his comrades and smiled a sad enigmatic smile that flowed into them like old wine, warming its way into their guts. For reasons they could not understand, nor were articulate enough to explain if they had been made to admit it, they all loved him. They loved him the way that men do who are forced to live together in such extreme, close proximity. Soldiers, sailors, or prisoners experience this, bound as they are by commonalities that defined their extreme existence and limited conditions. They had all listened and understood intimately, as he had spoken one day many months ago, about the pragmatism and the practicalities common to men who lived such Spartan lives in sparse and critical conditions, and cruel environments.

He had told them, patiently, and yet without a certain rancor, and not with any air of superiority but as one of those of the same ilk and likeness, that he knew why the caged animal paced and often roared with defiance. He spoke with certitude and familiarity.

That lion or tiger or bear, he had said, paces because of three things—hunger, impatience, and boredom—and those three things are inextricably linked to their very surroundings and captivity itself. They are trained to obey commands, fed at a certain time, and are also limited in their personal space and freedom. They will always defend that space and yearn for that freedom. They are completely dependent on their captor’s schedule, and they become easily distraught by any deviation to that schedule. They become immune to the whips and chains, but not to any changes in their program. That is the one thing that they can claim as their own—that and their favorite spot to lie down, the place they choose to defecate, how many paces in their walk from one end of their cage to the other, how they turn, what corner they stop at to stare outward, what point at which they know they cannot cross, and how they jump at the opening of the door. James, who had never been to a zoo, later asked for a clarification.

Look James, he had explained, we are just like these beasts. Think about it. We live and exist at the whim of those who control our movements: the feeding, the opening of doors, the call to yard or day room, lights out, even being educated for medical or library or a job change. We pace our cells or dorm rooms, grow impatient when our program is disrupted by some real or whimsical reason of the guards, and complain about the quantity, quality, or dispensation of our food. And we jump when they pop our doors.

Ahh, James said, I get it. We’re like those animals too in that our hearts and spirits and longings are always out there, beyond the wire. Bogart stopped and looked at James. Damn, Jamesy, he said, that was pretty profound. He’s been hangin’ around Dean so much I guess some of those smarts rubbed off on him, added Mac, who also glanced at James with a respectful appraisal.

He looked at his three companions and was moved beyond words. The camaraderie he felt at that moment was such that he choked on it and found it hard to swallow. He felt his chest constrict, and a pain like hot wax being poured on his left arm. Damn it, he thought, as he fought through the agony with gritted teeth, not now!

You okay, Dean? asked James, as he reached and touched his shoulder—friendly and concerned grip.

Yeah, he replied, as the pain subsided and he was able to breathe, just gonna miss you boneheads more than I thought. He put out his own hand, covering his momentary weakness and tousled Mac’s thin hair. What a buncha clowns I hooked up with, he joked. Bogart then smiled and hitched up his pants. He said, Yeah, that’s right. The biggest and bestus clowns on the whole yard and we had to lower our standards to let you into our clique. Ain’t you the lucky one? he added, smiling. The others joined in, laughing, lightly pushing him.

The banter continued for another minute, slight jabs and verbal hooks. Then he pulled out a piece of paper from a folder and told them, I wrote this down last night while you were all getting your beauty sleep. I’d like to share it with you before I leave.

Yeah, sure . . . Go for it . . . Read it then, his friends said. They had listened to him read his poems for years, sharing his thoughts and feelings in ways they mostly understood, but sometimes only vaguely. Some of his writing amused them, for he was an accomplished satirist, cynical and humorous, able to capture the insanity and sadness of prison life in a lucid and oft times ribald manner. Sometimes he read to them sad pieces of broken hearts, haunted dreams, and dark shatterings of the soul. They would trouble them regardless of the fact that they could relate to the pain and loneliness his poems intoned. He was their friend, and in many ways their mentor, a patient and helpful teacher who assisted them all in writing writs, appeals, love poems, and letters to home and loved ones. So when he asked them if he could share this one last poem, they were happy to be his attentive audience. They stood silent as he lifted the paper and read:

There is a house where darkness dwells, and
Light becomes a welcome but infrequent guest.
Those that live within those shadowed walls are
Rare and ambiguous residents whose totality of
Existence is spent searching for that moment of mirth,
That instant of gratification, an hour or two of
Ephemeral being apart from the bitterness
That swells their empty souls.
I came to this house a stranger myself,
Full of trepidation and fear and remorse, and
Though I was welcomed as just another daft
Spirit condemned by an enlightened society to
Wander these not-so-sacred halls, until my
Old age became my favorite topic of conversation,
I never felt the acceptance that even the dust feels
When it is swept beneath the rug.
And when the time comes, if it ever should,
Unless I perish first and meld into the walls and
Bars and greyness that is so obsequious, and
My breath and thoughts and screams and tears
Blend with all the pain that existed before me,
Then I shall know at least one sweet day
Where sunshine is found to really, freely exist, and
Memories and laughter are found on every corner, in
Every café where people sip their cappuccinos, far
Removed and far distant from
This House of Bitter Men.

Yep, Mac said. Wow, I get it, James added. You don’t get nuthin’, Bogart grumbled—but it is good, Dean. I like it, he said, then paused before adding, I think.

He laughed then and handed the poem to Bogart. Keep it Bo, he said. This one I’m not sending in. Bogart took the paper, folded it without a word, nodding in acceptance.

The three walked with him then, when the guard called his name, as far as they were allowed. Beyond the fence they could not go, even though the gate stood open before them. The four old men—old friends and comrades in a struggle not unlike thousands of similar struggles in the past where hearts, spirits, and lives joined in a longing for freedom—shook hands and hugged, silent and compressed. Their faces, their eyes, spoke volumes of the struggles taking place within, and the handshakes were firm and strong, the thumps on the backs causing small exhalations. Then the three remaining gently pushed their departing friend on through the gate, as a guard stood quietly by, displaying a modicum of respect for this special moment. The guard, whom Dean knew, muttered a quiet “Good Luck” to the old con leaving his purview.

The three men watched their friend step hesitatingly, looking out there where no fences or walls or wire or guns kept a man from going where he wanted to. Out there, where the skies were un-marred by towers with dark glass eyes, and no tall steel poles where lights hung that glared all day and night, casting shadows as lonely as the men.

He walked half-way across the street towards where a car was parked, a man standing by the driver’s door. He stopped, turned, and looking back at them he pointed to the yellow line painted in the middle of the road. Look guys, he said, I’m stepping past the yellow line, and he smiled. From that distance they could not see the sheen of sweat on his face or hear the thrumming of his heart. They all laughed, waved, Mac making a “Go on and Git” sign with his hands, his eyes filling with tears even as a smile slipped and slid on his face. They watched until he got in the passenger side of the car, a small wave of his hand over the tip of the car a last goodbye.

Mac suddenly remembered something that Dean had told him awhile back. Something about the word “goodbye.” That it was derived from an Old English phrase “God Be With Ye,” and when it was said quickly sounded more like goodbye. Goodbye. Mac said the silent “God Be With Ye” in his heart as the gate slid closed. Still the three stood, just seeing a dark shadow now, just a form of a man, almost a ghost. The car started and pulled away. Damn, said James. Shit, said Bogart. Good luck you ol’ Fart, whispered Mac.

In the car he sat looking out the windshield, watching the highway come at him, the fences, telephone poles, and wires go by. He sat silently mostly, finding comfort in the lack of conversation. The pain still burned in his arm and chest, causing his muscles to quiver, but he fought through it and made no complaint. Occasionally he would shudder and gasp a little, wiping the beads of moisture from his brow.

Are you okay? his son-in-law asked. You’ve hardly said a word since you got in the car. Just drive, son, he managed to reply, far away from here. Out of this Valley. Having said that, as if by doing so he had expelled something choking him, he began to breathe easier.

You want to go someplace special, Pops, before we head home? Ray asked. Shh, he replied, shh. Away, he said, motioning his right hand in an “Out There” gesture. Away, he whispered. Away. His son-in-law nodded, said, Alrighty then, and accepted the preferred quietude of the old man beside him.

He leaned his head back against the seat, watching sky, clouds and shadows, flashes of reflected light, hearing the hum of the tires, the growl of the engine, the whoosh of passing traffic. The window was slightly open and the wind teased his face, tousled his thin, gray hair. It felt, for a moment, like his mother’s soft hand reaching out to caress him from so many years ago. The pain was gone, he breathed easier, and so he slept. When he awoke he did not remember the pain, and the valley seemed like a million miles and a thousand years away.

The sky was hot bright with only a few striated clouds and jet contrails. On the horizon, fuzzed by a dusty haze, were the purple mountains of his memory. Trees, he said aloud. What’s that, Dean? his son-in-law asked. You’re awake! Good! Feeling better? Ray added. Dean nodded, said, Yeah, not too bad. Kinda thirsty. The wind riffled his hair again and whispered of far away places in his ear. Trees, he said again. Trees, Pops? What about ‘em? Ray asked. Sure would like to see some trees, he replied. Touch ‘em. Smell ‘em. Be around some, he added.

Ray looked at his father-in-law quizzically. Well Pops, we got trees at the house, he said hopefully. Dean knew what Ray meant: “Can’t you wait until I get you home, old man?” But it was his freedom, his moment, and he knew his moments were waning. He could choose now, and he did.

Take me up there son, he said, pointing to the far blue mountains beyond the foothills. Up there, he said again, mostly to himself, into the high forest and pure air. He said it quietly but with such a firm and sincere voice that the request had the force of a wishful command, like that of a king towards a subject, and Ray felt within himself the need to grant what the old man asked. Okay, Dean, Ray said. To the mountains it is.

At the next off ramp Ray took a road east into the foothills, past Merced and on the purple-green and blue that was the Sierras. Before they reached the turn-off that led to Yosemite, they stopped at a small gas station/convenience store. While the old man wandered into the store, looking in wonderment and confusion at all the things he had lived without for almost twenty years, Ray called home to tell his wife of the change in plans. It was only a detour of a few hours, he explained to her, and they should be home by nightfall. Yeah, he said, don’t worry; I’ll take care of him. She wasn’t worried, she told him, just drive careful.

The restroom was filthy, but Dean didn’t mind. It was the first piss of freedom and it felt wonderful. He came out just as Ray was saying goodbye. Had to check in, Ray explained. Linz said to say hi. How much farther do you wanna go, Pops? Ray asked. I don’t know, son, he replied. I guess I’ll know it when I see it. Ray thought, ‘See what?’ but didn’t ask.

The sun was very warm and the air piney smelling, sweet and tangy. Dean took deep breaths, enjoying the taste and smell of everything: the odor of gas and oil, used tires, exhaust, along with the resins of pine and spruce. He felt a couple of twinges in his side, like someone tugging on the strings of a marionette, and he thought, maybe just a few more miles is all I’ve got. He set his shoulders, gritted his teeth, and clutching the bag with the beer and bottled water, walked to the car.

The road curved and seemed to slide uphill, and the constant swaying motion made him a little queasy. He had flashbacks to his first time at sea in the Navy, but they were hazy with time. He decided not to wait and opened one of the beers. Want one, son? he asked Ray. No thanks, Pops, Ray laughed. Not while I’m driving.

How about a bottled-water then? Dean asked. Ray laughed and said, You spent your money on water? Hey, he replied, sipping his first beer in twenty years, I’ve been drinkin’ that crappy valley water for so long I began to miss good, clean water as much as a cold beer. So, I bought both. He smiled then, and they both laughed out loud.

Suddenly they came upon a sign that said “Panorama Outlook – ½ mile.” Take that turn, Ray, he said. They were surrounded by deep forest now and the air was so full, so redolent with the scent of pine and spruce, with freshness and purity, that he felt he could scoop it up and swallow it like honey. He imagined that it could fill his lungs and stomach and blood and mind and cleanse him of the twenty agonizing years of apathy and despair. He actually wept a little. Ray didn’t notice, which was good. Still, he turned his face to look at all the green and brown and patches of blue, the splashes of red rock and pink sandstone. Even the greyness of the granite was pleasant, for it was a soft, natural grey and it pleased him. Little flashes of rust and orange went by, and there, the exquisite bluish-purple of lupines dancing with golden poppies.

The road ended in a gravel parking lot in a large clearing on the edge of the mountain. Thanks, Ray, he said, reaching over and patting his son-in-law’s arm. This looks like a real good spot. He opened the door, got out, and stretched, filling his being with the wide open vista before him. He felt a few tremors, but just ignored them. This is as good a place as any, he said, and privately felt privileged, and grabbing the bag of water and beer, he walked toward an ancient pine that stood clinging to the solidity of the mountain, yet leaned wantonly and precariously out into the void of the canyon below. Birds and squirrels chattered somewhere off to the right.

Where you goin’, Pops? Ray asked, a little mystified by the old man’s statement and attitude. What did he mean by ‘This was as good a place as any’? The old man replied, just over to that big pine tree, son, where I can sit and drink my beer. Well, all right, Ray said, and came around the car to walk with him.

As the two men sat beneath the huge old pine and drank their beers, the old man began to tell the younger man many things. Mostly because the elder felt a need to expunge the baggage he’d carried for so long. Also, he just wanted to talk and breathe free for awhile. So Ray sat quietly while his father-in-law spoke of years past, of marriages and jobs, of sons and daughter, of dreams dreamed and those mostly unfulfilled, of joys and fears and mistakes made and learned from but always with regret because now there was no time to make up for these mistakes. The day waned and the beers warmed, for there was an underlying hurrying to the old man’s voice, as if the beers had lost their importance to the telling of places seen and the men and women he’d known and loved. It was as if the old man was absolved of all his sins in the words he spoke, emptying himself into the great vastness that stretched out before them, as if it would take all that openness to absorb his words.

Ray did notice from time to time that it appeared the old man would tense up, would grit his teeth and grimace as though in pain. When he questioned him, Dean just waved him off, told him not to worry about it. As the story slowed and the words became fewer, Ray’s attention began to drift. He looked at his watch, thought about calling home, and thus missed what the old man said.

What was that Dean? I’m sorry . . . I, uh . . . It’s ok, son, Dean said, don’t worry about it. Just remember this. Love is the most important thing, Ray. Love of God, love of family, love of friends, love of self—in that order. I never loved enough, the old man admitted, or strong enough, when it came to God and family. If I had, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be sitting at home with my grandkids at my side listening to my stories, not bone tired sitting on a rock with a warm beer in my hand, hearing myself prattle on. Then the old man smiled a sad, tight smile and looked away, out towards the distant horizon.

Suddenly he gripped Ray’s arm with a strength born of desperation and fading hope, and looking him straight in the eyes with a fierce yet pleading look, said, You take good care of my Lindsay son. That girl is the best of me by far, and I was supremely and graciously blessed on the day of her birth.

I will, Dean… Sure, Ray replied, a little bit frightened by the intensity in the old man’s hazel eyes. There was a strange light there, like a camp fire in the darkness. Then Dean said, I’m going to take you at your word Ray, and have faith in the rest.

He let go of Ray’s arm as a grip of pain tightened down on him and he could not contain the gasp that escaped his lips. Hey Pops! You okay? Ray asked, concerned. The old man could only nod, his eyes clamped shut. Short hard breaths were all he could manage. Ray stood up. I’m going to call Lindsay, he said, his thumb already tapping out the number. The signal was weak, so Ray walked back toward the car, re-dialing. As he walked away Dean said something that in its harshness sounded like, ‘Tell her hi.’ Yeah, sure Dean. Of course I will, Ray replied. You just rest easy. But the old man had not said to tell her hi.

As Ray spoke into the phone, he looked to where his father-in-law sat, leaning against that old pine tree and staring out, unmoving, into the panorama before him. He told his wife that her father wasn’t feeling well and that he was going to take him to the nearest hospital and . . .  Oh yeah, babe, I’m sure he’ll be fine . . . Yeah, he’s just tired, kinda talked himself out. Oh yeah, he said to tell you hello and that he loves you…Yeah, I’ll tell him. Okay, I’m gonna go now and . . . Yeah, I’ll call you from the hospital . . . Just as soon as I know Linz . . . Yeah, me too.

Ray walked back to where Dean sat. Hey, Pops, he said, let’s get goin’ okay? I called Lindsay and told her that I was taking you to the . . . Hey, Pops? Dean? Ray asked, frightened now.

The old man’s eyes were open to the grand vista before him, the sky ready to take on a violet-orange hue from the setting sun. Waves of tree tops receded away into the distance like waves of an emerald sea. But his vision was gone.

For almost 20 years he had dreamed dreams of mountains and trees, and fresh air and peace and solitude, and freedom.

Sometimes, dreams do come true. But far away from the dark and bitter house where they are born.