He sits on the stoop outside the main door of the Walls, the oldest and principal administrative unit of the Texas penal system.
Trembling, he clutches a worn and faded photograph of a small family and an opportunity long vanished. In his pocket a bus voucher to Houston and a check for fifty dollars, both state-issued. “Paroled,” they said, and dressed him out in a pullover shirt and a pair of ill-fitting khaki pants. A plastic onion sack of meager possessions sits at his feet. Toiletries, underwear, and a manila envelope of prison documents and yellowed letters are in the sack. It is not much to show for four decades of preparation for a freedom he no longer recognizes and does not want.
Today the stoop is not that happy first step it usually is for those being released. Not for him it isn’t. Too many years have passed him by inside where routine is comfort and change a terror. For years all of this truths have rested on bureaucratic repetition: His will long ago destroyed, he has nothing left but a number. There is no family left, no friends, nothing outside the red brick walls but fear. It waits patiently as a Black Widow in an alien world he knows will devour him. The place where others grew old, died, and forgot as the ever-changing concepts of their world erected “No Exit” signs in his.
He blames only the mirror’s image for the present. He has no memories of life before, only the photo to suggest there was once something different. That, too, is only vague now, its concreteness eroded by the passing years so that now he is no longer haunted by what might have been.
The guards finally came out to tell him he had to move, that he could not just stay. He made them uncomortable. One old Boss offered to show him where to go to cash the check and redeem the voucher and catch the bus. Instead, the newly released prisoner worked his way around to the back gate of the prison where the prisoner transports and Death Row vans enter and leave. The guard there knew him, as most did, and secreted him back inside to use the bathroom. The old man was given a leftover sack lunch, the first thing he had eaten since his release some fourteen hours earlier. After he had finished the meal the guard had to force him back outside to the “free world.”
Almost half a million men and women had entered the prison system since he was committed in the 1950s. He had never ridden in a car with air conditioning nor used a push-button dial telephone. Truth was he had only used a rotary-dial phone a few times in his life before prison. And except for television, which he had rarely watched in the past twenty years, he had only seen a microwave oven once. That was when a sympathetic teacher showed him how to cook popcorn in the school house lounge back in the ’70s (she gave him some, too, a rare treat he remembers with gratitude). Now they’ve kicked him out of the only real home he can remember. Made him go out there . . .
What could he do? In his late sixties now, in failing health, with an address to some halfway house in the city? How would he support himself; after all, the only vocation he knew was
beating the hell out of the ground with a hoe. Field work, they call it, although he had only been required to pick up cigarette butts and trash from the recreation yard for the last fifteen years or so. Not exactly marketable skills in the 1990s. He was scared all right.
He had killed a man in a fight outside a bar when he was just a pup. Twelve-hour shifts in the oil patch out in far West Texas was the norm in those days. Hard men for hard work and off-time was no different. Money and beer flowed freely in the juke joints frequented by oil field workers. One sultry summer night tempers were hot and some stupid things were said when he mistook another roughneck’s wife for a barfly. They stepped out to the parking lot to settle matters where he hit the victim who fell and busted his head never to recover.
A ninety-nine year sentence was imposed at trial by a jury tired of the oil field workers’ rowdiness in their fair town. The wife of the deceased had protested his release year after year, decade after decade until she, too, died. Mysteriously, he was then deemed a good parole candidate and released. He now found himself outside wanting in.
The old man stayed hidden by day, protected by the anonymity of the trees in the prison town’s municipal park. Each night he returned to the back gate where he was fed and begged to go back inside to his cell, to his home. Each time denied by those that did not, could not, would not understand. Word soon filtered back to the Warden about the old timer’s predicament. On that last fateful night the Warden, with almost as much time in as the old con, met him at the gate. He was escorted in and allowed a hot meal and a shower and told it was the last time he would be permitted inside.
Dejected and panic-stricken, the old man with the system’s last five-digit number returned to the park. He carefully removed the drawstring from the onion sack and tied one end to a bar of the Jungle Gym. The other end was placed in a makeshift noose around his neck.
A prison work crew found him hanging there the next morning. The check and voucher uncashed, the faded picture in his breast pocket. The Trusties cut him down cursing the disruption to their schedule. The Coroner was called and the body was hauled away, the onion sack thrown into the meat wagon as an afterthought. Later, in subdued cellblocks, many would shake their heads thankful they weren’t yet consumed.
There was no one to claim the body so prison authorities agreed to lay him to rest. A brief eulogy was delivered in a simple ceremony at the prison’s Boot Hill by the Warden who had turned him away that final time. In that place where those alone are interred, a simple wooden cross marks the final resting spot of just another recividist.
He is home again, no longer afraid.