I open my eyes and look around my prison cell, and then loosen the sheet around my throat. I failed to kill myself—again. I have 10 minutes until a call-out to see the mental health case manager I call Mr. Forgiveness. I don’t want to see him, not because he is always going on and on about forgiveness, but because I don’t want to be alive. The weather outside my cell window is gray and overcast. It was sunny when I passed out. According to the clock, I’ve been out for about 5 minutes. Pretty quick for the weather to change, but what do I know. Just because my father was a meteorologist doesn’t mean I know shit about weather—just betrayal. I get dressed desultorily for my appointment. It’s all pointless.
I shuffle into the mental health office and slouch into the chair across from my case manager. But when I look up it isn’t Mr. Forgiveness. It is Mr. Jay who is looking at me with resigned eyes. He’s a case manager I had several years ago. His name was easy to remember, his last name is the same as my first.
“Uh, didn’t you retire?” I ask him.
“Right in with the jokes? Okay, fine. That’s how you want to do this, then fine.” He tries to look irritated but the effort is just too much, and it slides away to be replaced with the familiar look of resignation I know so well.
“Whatever …” he sighs.
“Do we really have to do this? It’s all so pointless anyway.” He looks at me with pained eyes.
“Do what? I’m on call-out, not the other way around.”
“Okay.” He sits up a little. “Tell me how you are doing.”
Now this is the familiar script. I drop into my role—my useless, pointless role. “How I’m doing? How do you think I am doing? I’m doing the rest of my life here for some stupid three strikes law that shouldn’t even be legal. I’m depressed. I cut on myself with fingernail clippers whenever I need to let some of the torment out, the anti-depression meds I am on dry up my libido but give me a raging hard-on that I can’t do anything with, and you want to know how I am doing?”
“Yes.” Sigh. “Yes, tell me.”
The fire is out of my rant. My energy is used up. “I can’t stand prison, I can’t stand my life.” It is risky. Sometimes they respond in a constructive manner and sometimes they don’t. I remember he used to always agree with me about the pointlessness of life. I guessed that he was just being agreeable. Now he looks how I feel—defeated. I take a chance that he won’t call the goon squad to wrap me in a suicide smock and dump me in a 60 degree cell with no shoes, blanket or warmth.
“I tried to kill myself again.”
Then he surprised me by laughing, “No, you didn’t.”
I can’t believe it. It goes against all that I understand about mental health professionals. All I can say is, “Yes I did.”
“Uh, no. You didn’t.”
“What do you mean I didn’t? I did! I have the sheet bums on my neck from the attempt!” I pull down my collar and show him. Now I am getting angry.
“No, I mean that you didn’t try.”
I stare at him, stunned. I don’t remember him playing jokes.
“Uh, no, I’m not?”
“Yes. Yes, you are. Everyone here is dead.”
I just stare at him. Then I get it; he is being metaphorical. It is the old speech about how people walk through their lives as if they are already dead, about how those that know this are free to change themselves, and that I am such a lucky one that I can change myself while in prison. It is more cognitive therapy bullshit.
“Just a second, let me check something.” He leans over his keyboard and types a few words then spends the next five minutes clicking and twitching his mouse across a screen that I can’t see.
“Mm-hmm. Yep. I see now. This is your first appointment in after-prison. Well, I’m sorry, that would have been good to know going into this. My bad.” There is no sincerity in his voice. He leans back in his chair and stares at me.
“Okay. Here’s the good news. You’re dead. You didn’t try to commit suicide. You succeeded. According to the computer you strangled yourself on a bed sheet in your cell.” He rechecks his screen,” and you were naked. At first they thought that maybe you were trying that autoeroticism strangulation thingy that the kids these days are doing, but you’re 41. Well, no matter, you succeeded in killing yourself. You’re dead and you’ve entered the after-prison for the remainder of your sentence.” He looks at me sideways. “You didn’t think that by killing yourself you could escape a prison sentence, did you?”
Of course I think that, it is the main reason I keep trying. Stupid question.
“You say this is after-prison?”
“Yeah, this isn’t the afterlife. It’s the after-prison.”
“Why are you here?”
“Well, first off, I killed myself just like you, but not naked with a sheet tied wound my neck. No, I just took pills. Then I turn up here and wonder what the hell is going on. Now I find out that the Corrections Union is stronger than I thought. I didn’t retire and so I am still technically a member. The fact that I offed myself means that a special clause in the bylaws became active, and I am now employed in the after-prison … as staff. Ironic isn’t it?”
I stare at him. What else am I supposed to do? It sounds like he is having a breakdown. I need to get out of here, but I am fascinated at the same time. I never thought that other people had problems in their lives. How could mental health staff suffer from depression and commit suicide. It seems like the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard, like a doctor dying from an infected hangnail.
“Well, hey, whatever. You have any questions?”
I open my mouth.
“Uh, forget it. I don’t really care. Now just go away.”
I drift back to my cellblock without really seeing where I am going. I am having trouble taking in what he said. Maybe I should tell someone he is nutso. Or … maybe not.
I get back to my cell and stand in front of the door. Dead? I’m not dead. When the door opens I go in and sit on my bunk. I am still trying to get my mind around why he said I am dead. I don’t feel dead, but for the sake of a very weird argument, I think for a minute about what it would mean if I am actually dead. Well … it would be a relief . Death was what I was trying to accomplish all those times that I attempted suicide. But, I have to admit, if this is death, it is a bit of a let down.
Over the years, chapel volunteers shared their beliefs on life after death with me. I was always curious what to expect. Some said it would be glorious and beautiful. Others said it is free from crime and tears. There were also a few that talked about returning to life again and again so we could perfect ourselves. But I didn’t want any of that. I wanted forgetfulness. I figured death would be the final release, the ultimate answer, and the only way that the pressures of life would back away and stop harassing me. I wanted to be dunked in the River Lethe, to have oblivion overtake me, to be subsumed in a cosmic consciousness and lose all sense of self. I wanted to be gone, released, free, but none of the volunteers spoke about that. They had their beliefs, and I had mine. Mine said that life is torment because those that you love the most will betray you. People never do anything for anyone unless they get something out of it, and death is a release.
I look out the window at the gray sky, the gray plants, and the gray prison. If this is the world of death, then at least the colors are right. My door opens and a shadow comes into my cell. It is an inmate. I blink and rub my eyes because I can see right through him, he is transparent and misty in some places and solid in others.
“Hello, my name is Jay, and this is your official orientation presentation. You are in after-prison. By now you may have worked it out, or been told, that you either successfully killed yourself or were killed in prison. You are here to finish out the rest of your mandatory sentence. Due to a special provision in the mandatory minimum wording of many state constitutions, you still have to complete your sentence before being released to whatever is waiting for you after this.” He pauses to gaze out my window and begins to get mistier. I think he is serious.
“I have a couple questions.”
He turns back towards me. “Sorry about that. I drift away easily. What’s the question?”
“Is your name really Jay?”
“Yeah, it is … why wouldn’t it be?”
“Uh, because that’s my name.”
“Huh, what a coincidence.”
“Yeah, a coincidence. Hmm. Next question: I’m dead?”
“Yep. I killed myself by successfully jumping off the fifth tier. Easy to do. There was fencing to move out of the way on the second tier, and it was a bitch to keep a handhold while climbing high enough that I wouldn’t just paralyze myself with the fall.”
“Everyone who dies in prison is here?”
“Absolutely, or they wouldn’t be here. You know, I’m detecting a common theme.”
“Well … then … where is everyone? This place should be packed, shouldn’t it? And I haven’t seen much of anyone.” It’s odd how that just now registers with me. I saw two people all morning. That is unheard of in prison.
“Oh, that … they’re here … but don’t worry about them. Let me give you the run down on this place.” He motions to my stool as if wanting my permission to sit. I nod and settle back on my bunk. He is talkative and I feel absolutely no threat from him. I usually feel something from other people, some level of anxiety and fear that keeps me away from others. It is weird not feel scared.
“Right. After-prison. Well … at first it is run much like the regular prison: rules, regulations, unauthorized areas, chow, showers, yard, rec, everything. But after awhile you realize that none of it matters. You can’t escape. You don’t get visits. There’s no reason to be good and nothing to do that will get you in trouble. So go where you want and do what you want, but let me tell you, you won’t be wanting to do much of anything soon enough.” He gets up and paces a few times, becoming more solid and defined as he does so.
“The real bitch of this place is that there is no purpose. None. Not even the hint of one. Oh, in the living prison there was always the tiniest hint of a hope that tomorrow could be better or that something good might happen. I was always looking for the next distraction, the next thing to take my mind away from life, and, I’ve got to admit, some of them were good. I did role-playing games, I waited for the newest movies to come out, I had a visitor once or twice a year, I took a few classes, and I had a job. Here, now? Well, I don’t have anything. I do this orientation thingy because it gives me something to do, but really it’s pissing in the wind.
“You probably think that I’m just a whack-job with scrambled gray matter. You probably think you’re still alive. Well, you’d figure it out eventually, and I really don’t do any good by telling you up front, It’s not as if you are going to miraculously come back to life and leave here. No. You’re stuck. I’m stuck. I was such a fucking idiot, but that no longer matters either. After a few days you will start to fade a little at the edges. After a couple months you will be patchy. After a few years you will have trouble picking up solid things. After a couple decades you are nothing but the ghost of a memory and a drifting shadow. If your time runs out before then, well, you just disappear. Where to? No one knows. No one has ever come back to after-prison to tell us what lies beyond. I suspect that you finally truly die, but I have no proof and most of the time I don’t even care.” He paces back and forth as I try to take in what he’s saying.
“Wouldn’t it be a kick,” he says while chuckling, “if you woke up in the coffin that you were buried in? Or came to awareness as a drifting pile of dust inside an urn on someone’s mantle? That would be funny. Or maybe the word I want is ‘ironic.’” He actually uses air quotes before sitting back down.
“Oops, sorry about that. I get carried away at the slightest opportunity. Why not, huh? No one to really talk to in here.” He pats his hand on the table in a tentative way. “It’s been almost a month since I was able to touch anything and not see my fingers slide right through it.” He points to a book that I didn’t notice was laying on my table. “Les Miserables, huh? How appropriate. Too bad it will fade.” I realize that it is my book. The one that I was reading … before I killed myself?
I look around the cell with renewed interest. If I am dead, then why do I still have personal property? I have clothing, bedding, hygiene products, books, and a CD player. I pick up the CD wallet and thumb the selections: The Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and miscellaneous trance albums. Well, at least I have music to listen to. I sit back and wonder why I have anything. I try to make sense of things.
“Yeah, you’re wondering about all this shit. I know. It’s weird. It doesn’t make sense; you’re dead, why read Victor Hugo?” He fidgets a bit before standing up. “Well, I got to go. No … that’s not really true. I don’t have to do anything, but now that I am solid there is this dead spider that I want to clean off the window. Little bastard must have committed suicide somehow to end up here. I really hate spiders, and I am tired of staring at its shriveled body. Haven’t been able to touch anything for a while so I better take advantage of it while I can … while I still give a shit. Uh, well, as to everything. You’ll figure it out.” He starts to leave.
“Hey, Jay.” He turns back. “It is nice to meet you.” I kind of like the guy.
He smiles. “Same to you. If you have any other questions, just ask. I’m across the tier and down four cells.” He walks out and the cell door closes.
I turn back to the window and see someone walking the fence line on the yard. I figure it is an officer checking the integrity of the fencing. I lose myself in the grayness and feel a pulling and drifting sensation. It seems like I stand there for hours before I am brought back by an announcement that there will be yard after chow. I quickly decide that if I am dead then I am going to do something that I rarely did in life; I am going to go to yard. I will find out for certain the truth of things out there. I turn and leave my cell when the door opens.
The grayness of the weather extends to everything on the yard: grass, weeds, tables, playing field, and track are all shades of gray. I never knew there were so many different shades of gray in the world, and maybe there aren’t—this being apart from the world. It is becoming easier and easier to accept that this is after-prison. There is no resistance in my mind anymore, there is only shrugging acceptance, and I don’t wonder why it all suddenly makes sense.
The yard is populated by shadows, and I have my answer as to where everyone is.
Shadowy bodies move in resigned and very unenergetic ways; they drift across the ball field, across the track, and completely stay away from the weight pile. Further inspection shows me that the weight pile is a rusted slagheap. That simple fact tells me that I am no longer in the same prison. The weight pile is the pride and joy of the Lifers, and they would never let the weights become unusable. Guys will give up food before they will give up the weight pile. In contrast to the living prison where the weight pile is the most crowded place on the yard, this weight pile is abandoned. It makes a kind of sense, who is there to impress or get all musclely for when you are dead?
I drift over to the track and start to walk around it. That was what I did on the very few days that I went out to yard. I’d walk the track and watch people rushing to and fro with frenetic energy outside the fence. I felt distant and separated in the living world, but I belong here in the grayness. The familiar cloak of despair and numb despondency that I’d wrap around myself to deal with all the shit in my head, well … that is all around me now. I feel contained and closed in, swathed in despair and depression. The air itself is without purpose and energy. I feel like I am part of everything; I have finally found my place. I begin to think that after-prison is going to be a good fit for me. I smile.
There is one shadowy body that catches my eye. He is walking the fence line, something that would not be allowed in the living world. I keep being drawn to looking at him, and I can’t figure out why. There is nothing about him that is any different than the others. He is solid in places and see through in others, He is just another dead inmate, but there is something about the way he moves that stirs a memory in my mind. It bugs me, but I can’t place him. Maybe he is someone I knew in another prison, there have been at least 45 suicides and about half as many stabbings in the last 10 years. I don’t know how many guys died of natural causes before their sentences were over but the number is probably high considering the way the prison population is aging.
“Hi. You new here?” someone asks behind me.
“Uh yeah.” I edge away cautiously.
He starts to walk beside me. “So am I. My name is Jay. What’s yours?” I stop and stare at him. What the hell? Another Jay? I don’t know if he is messing with me or not, but he doesn’t even wait for me to answer, just keeps on talking.
“And I’m not doing so good because I couldn’t get my meds since they never opened my cell door so I could go to med line before lunch. They told me that it wouldn’t matter if I got them or not. But I said that it would, that Ms. Weaver would be really worried if I didn’t get my pills. She’s the one that runs the group that I go to on Tuesdays. One of the group members told me that if I saved up enough of my pills that I could swallow all of them and get really high. I saved up a lot of meds like he said and I took them and I think he is a liar because I didn’t get high at all. I’ve been looking for him to tell him he is stupid and that it doesn’t work like he said it would.” He pauses and looks around. I think maybe he is done talking—everyone here talks so much—but I am wrong.
“The other night my celly raped me, but I’m okay. It was not too bad. Not like the other times in the other prisons. I don’t mind it too much, but I don’t think I like him anymore. He said I couldn’t tell anyone and that it would be very bad for me if I said anything. That I would be taken to the hole or put in a single cell and that I would be all alone and cold and no one would like me anymore. I don’t think I like him and I think he was telling lies. Ms. Weaver says there is a good touch and bad touch and that what happens to me is usually a bad touch … but I don’t know, sometimes it feels kind of good before it doesn’t, that is … I like being liked. How about you? Do you have a friend? I could be your friend and I wouldn’t say anything if you did something to me. I know how to keep a secret—cross my heart and hope to die.” He looks around again. His whole body twists and turns with frenetic energy, and he moves in the uncoordinated drug haze that I remember from when I took lots of medications.
I am still on pills, but nothing that does that to my muscles. I’m not twitchy and flailing, I just have no lasting libido. It is so bad that I hurt myself trying to jack off—my shoulder is always aflame with pain. I stop walking when I realize that my shoulder doesn’t hurt. In fact, nothing hurts. Not my knee where I slammed it into the edge of the table a couple days ago, not my back from sleeping on the crappy bunks, and not my shoulder. It is rather nice to be pain free.
“I’ve been looking around,” Jay says as he slows down so that I can catch up with him. “And I don’t see anyone from the group. Do you think maybe they shipped everyone out? Maybe that is why I can’t get my meds. Someone knew what I was doing and told on me. I gotta pee.” He heads off across the yard aimlessly.
I watch him go, wondering if I should say anything about what really happened with the pills. But it won’t matter. He’s not really here to begin with, so who am I to tell him he’s dead. Maybe he won’t get picked on so much anymore. I continue walking the track and have no idea what time it is. The gray daylight doesn’t seem to change. It is constant and bland. Shadowy bodies occasionally pass me or go right through me. It is disconcerting the first time it happens, but I don’t think that the shadow knows that I am here.
I let all thoughts drift from my mind, not a very hard thing to do, and simply walk around. The ground is dry and just as patchy as the inmates. There arc clumps of what used to be grass in between wide stretches of gray dirt. It is packed and hard, the same way the dirt on the living yard is packed by the end of the summer.
I walk near the fence to try to get a better look at what is beyond, to see if it will resolve itself any better than I can see from my cell. As I near the fence a feeling of intense revulsion grows in me. In the living world this area between the yard and the fence is called the dead zone. It is 20 feet from the base of the fence, marked off by orange cones and motion detection sensors; step inside it and get shot. Here it is the same dimensions, but when I step closer to it, my mind is filled with the melancholy and depression I used to experience in the depths of my black moods. I jump back before I am overwhelmed, and it eases. I glance over my shoulder towards the shadow that attracted my attention and wonder how he can walk so near that live zone, he is within a foot of it.
Live zone? That seems fitting. It fills me with the pain of life. Maybe it isn’t the same for everyone. Maybe the fence-walker doesn’t feel anything. But what if he does and that is the reason that he walks the fence. The thought actually makes me shiver. Why would someone want to live in the painful memories of life when they are dead?
I turn and walk towards the prison when I hear the yard in call over the speaker system. I have done little but am worn out. I want to go back to my cell and rest. That thought stops me momentarily. What am I going to rest from and for? Why rest when I’m dead? Strange. But I feel tired all the same.
I have a celly when I get back to my cell. He shocks me by stepping out of the deeper shadows of the wall and walking across the cell. He is so much of a shadow that I might as well be in a single cell. If I weren’t looking directly at him I would have sworn that the shadows in the cell merely got deeper for a brief moment. Within a minute he is indistinguishable from the gray paint on the walls. I look around and wonder how many other dead inmates are parts of the walls. I’m not creeped out, just curious.
I leave my cell to find Jay. I go to the cell that he told me he lives in and don’t see him. It is only when I step inside his cell do I realize that my cell door was open and so is his. But, looking back towards my cell, I see that the cells don’t even have doors. I glance down the tier and see very clearly that the cells lack doors, but then looking again I see doors. What is going on?
“Hey, what’s up?”
The voice makes me jump, and I hear laughter behind me.
“Hey, I haven’t made someone jump in years. That’s what I like about you newly dead. You still have a connection with life and react as if your blood were still pumping.”
“Uh. Jay, I have a couple questions for you, if you don’t mind.”
“Mind? Wow, no one has bothered asking me if I minded before, but no, I guess I don’t mind at all.”
“Okay, why do the cells have doors sometimes and no doors other times?”
“Because doors are what you are expecting to see, but when your expectations are dropped you see things closer to how they really are.”
“What’s that mean?”
“This is as much a prison as you make it.”
“All right. How about this? You are seeing echoes of the living world, just like you hear echoes as well. I used to hear announcements for count, chow, yard, and all that other crap that they used to shout over the speakers. But none of that is really happening here.”
“Wait a minute. I heard the yard line and chow called.”
“No, you heard the echoes of the living world. Some things are loud enough in the living world to reach here. Repetitive announcements echo the loudest: chow calls, count, and the like. And that’s also why you will never hear anyone called for a visit. The names are always changing, there is no single name or cell that is repeated with as much regularity as the count or yard call. They fade in the order with which they occur the least in the living world. The last echo that I heard was count, and sometimes if I listen really closely I can still hear it. I kind of miss it actually, but what I really miss is music. I used to listen to The Cure’s “Bloodflowers” a lot. Every day right before the morning count I turned on this one song that really pumped me up. The lyrics were repetitive. ‘There’s nothing left to burn, the fire is almost out, there’s nothing left to burn.’ When I first got here I had my music collection and listened to it, but it faded so soon. I wasn’t actually listening to the music; I was hearing the echoes of when I used to listen to it in the living world. The songs I didn’t listen to much were the first to fade away. I figured there was something wrong with my player, but what could I do? There was no way to fix it. Now all the music has faded, and I’ve forgotten the tune of that song. All I remember are the words.”
“Oh.” I stare at him and a chill creeps over my dead body. He is talking about the song that I always listen to when I cut myself—it’s called ‘39.’ It is my favorite releasing song, I feel the black emotions bleed away with my blood when I listen to it, and it is the song that I had repeating on my CD player when I killed myself. I shiver and try to remember why I came to find Jay in the first place.
“Oh … yeah, I have another question. How many people have been through here?”
“What do you mean?”
“How many inmates have died and come here? I ask because I saw my celly. He came out of the shadows then faded back into the wall.”
“I don’t know, but I suspect that it’s in the tens of thousands, if not the hundreds of thousands.”
“How can it possibly be that high? There haven’t been that many inmates in the state that have died, by suicide or murder, since this place was first brought on line in the 60’s.”
“What state were you doing time in?”
“Oregon huh? Which prison?”
“Uh …” I look at him oddly.
“OSCI. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve met a few guys from Oregon, and even a couple from OSCI, but most of the suicides from Oregon come from a prison called SRCI. I’m not from Oregon. I killed myself in Sing Sing in New York. When I got here this place looked just like Sing Sing.”
I am confused.
“It’s rather simple. Wherever you kill yourself, that’s where you are confined in the after-prison, but this place doesn’t exist in the physical sense. Every prisoner in the US comes here. I don’t know why it is only the US, but that’s what I’ve been able to figure out over the years. Trippy isn’t it.”
I look around me and only see the structure of OSCI, the prison that I’ve been in for the last 10 years.
“How long you been here?” I ask.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. Time is a funny thing here. For example, what year was it when you killed yourself?”
“Hmm. Well, I killed myself in 2023. Go figure that one out.”
“But … that’s …”
“Yeah, I know. Bizarre, but what can you say. Death is that way. There is no cause and effect here, no past, present, or future, no tomorrow or yesterday. It is always today and the only meal that is ever served in the chowhall is lunch—mystery casserole—if you still eat, that is.”
“But desserts are only served at dinner.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a bitch. You’ll get over it, though I wouldn’t mind a chocolate chip cookie right about now. Hmm, well, no point reminiscing, is there?”
“I’m going to go lie down.”
“Yeah, lots to take in all at once. See you around, or maybe I won’t.” He drifts back into his cell and I go to mine.
Now that he’s told me, I can see a few things that are out of place. The stairs are not quite in the right location, the cellblock itself seems to stretch too long, and I can’t tell if there are three or more tiers. I shake my head and go into my cell. Thoughts are rattling around in my head and I can’t get any sleep, but then I wonder if I can even sleep here. Do the dead sleep? Well, they are supposed to sleep the long sleep, not wonder if—while dead—they should get a good night’s sleep because they are exhausted. I lie on my bunk and review everything that has happened since I killed myself but my mind keeps coining back to the shadowy inmate walking the fence line. The way he moved was so familiar … and then I know why.
He moves just like my dad.
A chill goes through me that has nothing to do with being dead, or maybe everything. My father killed himself right before being sent to prison when I was 14 years old.
I flee my cell, dash down the tier, and run right out of the unit. I slow as I pass the chowhall, and, sure enough, they are serving lunch. The way to the yard is out the back dock and through the turnstile. No one stops me or says anything at all, and in no time I am on the yard, scanning the fence line until I see the now familiar shadow. I start towards it.
“Hey, you new here? I am and I can’t seem to find my way to the med line.” Jay falls into step right beside me, rambling away as if we’d never talked at all.
Was I like that on meds? “Hey, Jay,” I say. “Isn’t that one of the guys from your Tuesday group?” I point in the opposite direction I am heading.
“Really? Where? Oh, I’d better go talk to him and see if Ms. Weaver knows that I’m without my pills …”
I keep marching towards my target, but the closer I get the shorter my steps become. Do I really want to know if it is my father? What if it isn’t? What if it is? I stop and stare. What do I want to do? Within minutes my indecision is moot because the fence-walker is heading back towards me along the fence line. As he nears I call out.
“Hey! Got a second? I want to talk with you.” I try to walk towards him but the live zone is just too repulsive to me. The shadow keeps walking, oblivious of me. “Wait a second …” I don’t want to call him Dad and I struggle to remember his first name—ironic because it is the same as mine; I’d only ever called him Dad. “Jay … hey … Jay! Wait a moment, please.” I start to parallel his path but have to stay at least 20 feet away because of that damned live zone. He doesn’t respond, so I jog ahead of him, and once I get a good look at him, I know for certain that he is my father. Even though I suspected as much I am still dumbfounded, he looks the same as the last time I saw him 26 years ago.
It was the day after my 14th birthday when he showed up to give me a present. He wasn’t supposed to come anywhere near me due to a restraining order my mom had filed a year before. I was waiting at the bus stop on my way to the comic book store to spend my birthday money when he showed up.
“Hey, Jay.” I jumped and dropped my book bag. “It’s okay, it’s me … Dad.”
“Uh … hi.” I sidled back a couple steps, uncertain, worried, and glad to see him all at once. It had been a whole year since the day he told me he was leaving. I wanted to hit him, I wanted to hug him, but knew I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near him. I looked around nervously. “Uh, you shouldn’t be here. What if someone sees you?” He took a step forward, and I backed away.
“It’s okay, I’m not going to touch you. I just wanted to give you your birthday present. I couldn’t do it yesterday, and … I won’t be seeing you again for awhile.” He set a wrapped box on the bench a couple feet away from me.
Now all I wanted was to have him hold me, and tell me he was coming home. I wanted to forget all the crap that had happened in the last year, I was tired of not having a dad, and I no longer cared that he walked out to live with his lover—Mark, my uncle and best friend.
“Why? You going away?”
“Uh. Yeah. You could say that. But anyway. Happy Birthday, Jay. Uh, well better … uh … go.” He backed up but didn’t look away.
I walked over and picked up the box. “Thanks, Dad.” I turned it over and looked at every side. It was wrapped with the Sunday funnies just like he used to do when I was a boy.
“Jay …” He paused 10 feet away. There were tears in his eyes. “Jay, I know you’ve heard some pretty bad things about me, and I understand why you said what you said. I know I hurt you when I left with Mark. I should never have done that to you. I should have found a better way.”
I opened my mouth to say, why didn’t you take me with you? But nothing came out.
“And I’m really sorry for everything I put you through. You deserved better from me, but what I want you to remember, no matter what happens, is that it’s not your fault.”
“Dad—” I took a step towards him.
“Jay, I have to go. I shouldn’t even have come, but I had to see you one last time … and tell you that I love you more than life itself. I’m sorry. Maybe someday you can forgive me.” He was crying now, and I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. He turned, and I watched him round the corner.
“—I need to tell you something,” I said, but he was already gone. I sat on the bench and cried. I was supposed to hate him, and when they left I did hate him. Uncle Mark was my closest friend; he was 19 when I was 13, and I worshipped him. He came on camping trips with my dad and I, always played games with me, and helped me with my homework. He was more than a friend, more than an uncle, and more than a babysitter when I was younger. He was the big brother I’d never had, and I felt so betrayed when they abandoned me that I swore I would hurt them. And I did. I knew it was wrong but did it anyway.
Three buses went by, and it was 45 minutes later before I opened the present. It was a wooden cribbage board. The one that the three of us played so many games on. While camping, Uncle Mark and my dad always stayed up late playing cribbage. I asked them to teach me when I was 10. On our next camping trip my dad brought out a three-player board so that we all could play at the same time. He called it a ménage a trois and Uncle Mark laughed. I didn’t get it. While sitting at the bus stop, I held the cribbage board against my chest, and I cried.
The memories I’d avoided for years came rushing back near the live zone. I’d buried them, trying to forget my father and Uncle Mark. I watch my father’s shadowy back recede along the fence line. He is here serving out the remainder of a prison sentence that I’d been instrumental in giving him. After my mom had quizzed me about whether or not “that perverted man” had “touched me” like he’d “touched” her younger brother, I knew how I’d get back at them. I was so angry that I told her that he had touched me in bad ways. When she heard that she became so enraged that she got the restraining order, called the police, and began divorce filings on the same day.
Two weeks after my 14th birthday my mother called me into her bathroom. “Jay, your sisters and I will be going to see the lawyer about contesting the will. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.” My mom picked up a cigarette and lit it off the smoldering stub of the one still in her mouth.
“The will? Who for?”
“Who for?” She locked eyes with me in the bathroom mirror. “Didn’t you have that meeting with your guidance counselor at school today?” She blew out a cloud of smoke. It rose to linger with the other smoke near the ceiling.
“Uh, no. I think she was sick.” I turned on the ceiling fan, hoping it would suck the stench away
“I suppose you didn’t get the good news either.” She was smiling, but it wasn’t a nice smile.
“What good news?”
She spun around and cocked one hand on her hip while the other held the cigarette next to her mouth. She grinned evilly.
“Well … that faggot father of yours finally did the manly thing and killed himself. He should have done it a couple years ago and saved us all the hassle. My queer-ass brother called me at work, crying and blubbering about how he’d found his lover splattered all over the wall.”
“What …?” I couldn’t believe her.
“Yes, how appropriate that it was with a gun stuck in his mouth.” She turned back to the mirror and kept talking. “I should never have stayed married to him. He’d been a pervert for a long time, you know. When we were 25, there was a 17-year-old that mowed our lawn, and I caught them in the tool shed. I called the cops and threatened to walk out on him, but he pleaded and said how sorry he was. How he’d never do anything like that again. Blah, blah, blah. I believed his promises, but this time, no sirree, no apologies, no chance to silver-tongue me into silence—not with my own son! Not to mention that brother of mine. So, he was on his way to prison, and then he goes and kills himself. Ha! Well, I’m certainly thankful. You should be, too. He’s finally out of our lives.”
I stared at her in shock.
“Well, we’re going to the see the lawyer to make sure that his butt-buddy is cut right out of the will. I am going to make sure that what money there is goes to those that deserve it.” She set down the curling iron and grabbed her lipstick.
I shuffled back to my bedroom in a daze. Sitting on my bed, I stared at the cribbage board on my night table. After I heard them leave, I lay on the bed and cried.
The returning memories are very much alive in my dead mind. All the pent up emotions return in a rush. I clutch at my chest and slowly sink to my knees on the hard gray wasteland of the after-prison yard. I look up at the shadowy figure of my father walking towards me. Everything is back. I remember my anger and the stories that I’d made up to hurt him and Uncle Mark for leaving me.
Then I remember the guilt, the shame, and the depression that came over me after his suicide, and I remember all the years that I cut myself to pay for my betrayal. When I couldn’t take my guilt anymore, I told people I’d made up the abuse. I was expecting to get in trouble, but they wouldn’t believe me. When I persisted, they pointed to my dad’s previous record as proof that he’d molested me. They never understood that my mother gave me my revenge with her pointed questions about him maybe touching me. I told them I’d lied, but after a while people stopped listening and began to say I was troubled. I punished myself all the more, acting out and hurting people. Petty crimes built up to felonies, felonies piled on each other, and at 40, addicted to drugs and alcohol, I was looking down the barrel of a life sentence because of the three strikes law. I was a career criminal.
I watch the shadow pass right by me, and there is no hint of recognition in his gray eyes. I feel anger, fear, shame, loneliness, and emptiness. I have to get away from him and the memories, and so I scuttle back from the live zone. I hurry across the yard. I think that the further away from him I get the less the memories and emotions will grip me. The intensity drops some, but the memories stay with me. The closer to the prison I get, the more I begin to hear the echoes of the living world: phantom voices shouting on the yard, announcements for inmates to return to their cells, and the yard-in call. Things I hadn’t been able to hear are much clearer. I want a drink. I need to stop this parade of memories. In the outside world I escaped by using whatever substance I could get, but in prison it was harder to score. I even saved up some of my meds to get high—but it didn’t work.
Once I get back to my cell, the parade still hasn’t drifted back into the hidden places of my dead mind. I sit on my bunk and stare at my hands. Death is supposed to be peaceful, freeing, and uncomplicated—or so I’d thought. That isn’t the case.
Why did I go over to see if that was my father? Why did I want to talk to him? Why bring all that shit back up again? I am not a little boy anymore. I am a man. I don’t need his affirmation or acceptance. Being dead means that I shouldn’t have to deal with this shit, I paid enough in life for my mistakes, hadn’t I? Hadn’t my life been shitty enough that I shouldn’t have to deal with it here also?
As I sit on my after-prison bunk, every single petty crime comes back to visit me. The details of each are sharp and clear, so clear that it feels as if I am back at the scene. There is no joy in it, no pleasure in seeing my destructive rages. Is this the flash of memory when a person dies? The thought parade that shows you the sum total of your life? But that is supposed to happen in the seconds before death, not after. And these are not the good things in my life; it is a deluge of all the crap, all the crimes I committed, and everyone I’d ever betrayed. I sit with my head in my hands, rocking back and forth on my bunk as everything else recedes and one face comes to dominate my thoughts—my father on the last day that I saw him alive.
I gaze out the window of my cell and see the shadow of my father walking the fence line. I want him to recognize me … and I don’t. Why would he want anything to do with me? I am not the boy he loved anymore. I am the man who used a false molestation story to get sympathy in front of sentencing judges. I told myself that it didn’t matter because he was gone, but I didn’t believe it. I never believed it. The only truth in all those years was that I never saw Uncle Mark again, and I hated myself more.
I no longer know what I want. Death is proving to be just as complicated as life. I lift my head from my hands and I am back on the yard. When my father nears I step in front of him, and he stops. He looks irritated, probably wondering why I am blocking his way.
I stare at him and work my jaw to form words I need to say. He turns aside and keeps walking. I spin around and fall into step beside him, matching his pace step for step. I shut my mouth. I match his pace and stay silent. I think he looks at me out of the corner of his eye, but I can’t be sure.
How can I get his undivided attention, and once I have it what am I going to say? Everything seems so pathetic and defensive. How can I sum up everything that I am now feeling in a few words? How can I apologize for my betrayal of him and Uncle Mark? I don’t know, so I keep quiet and walk.
After one circuit of the fence-line my mind slows down and gets quiet. After 10 circuits I am simply beside him step by step. After that I stop counting. I lose myself in the swish and thump of our feet in the thick gray grass that grows near the live zone. I begin to talk about my life after he was gone. I share the depression, the losses, and all the stupid things that I did. I tell him about all of the crimes I committed, the drugs, the alcohol, the knives and self-mutilation. I tell him everything.
He doesn’t respond, and it doesn’t matter. I am not doing this for him; I am doing it for me. I have needed to talk about these things for too long. The more I talk the lighter I feel.
Time slips away and we trudge back and forth along the fence in the gray of the after-prison yard. When I get to my suicide, I stop talking. After a short pause I open my mouth and say the words I’ve never been able to say, “Dad, I forgive you.”
I feel lighter, happier, and calmer than I ever felt before. “I forgive you, Dad. I forgive you.” I repeat it again with more feeling. “I forgive you.” I walk next to him and say the words over and over again. He never responds.
Then the words change to “I forgive you, Jay, I forgive you.” I stop walking, but my father keeps going. I say the words, forgiving myself for all the crap in my life, all the feelings of guilt and shame, all the depression, all the addiction, and all the chaos and pain. But the more I talk, the harder it becomes to speak. I am choking on something. I stagger and lurch.
“I forgive you!” I shout one last time as I fall into the live zone. Choking is excruciatingly painful. I close my eyes and clutch at my neck, trying to get some air. Something is wrapped around me, and I begin to pull at it. I cannot get back to my feet, they are heavy and tingly. I pull at the thing around my neck as I get one unsteady foot under me to ease the pressure. The grayness of the after-prison yard fades away! I gulp a lungful of air and pull at the sheet. It loosens and I fall to the floor, the sheet sliding off my neck in a bum of material.
I lie on the concrete floor of my cell and gasp for air. The all-over-body tingling lessens as I fill my lungs. I am in my cell, and I am alive.
There is a thud against the door of my cell. I turn and see an officer staring at me.
“What are you doing?” He glares at me. “No, never mind, I don’t want to know. Don’t force me to do any paperwork—I’m working a double.” He starts to move away, but hesitates a moment.
“And put some clothes on.”
I hear his boots squeak on the concrete as he walks off down the tier.