football on a grass field

Larry Stromberg was awarded Third Prize in Drama in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.

I’m Here for You

On the stage is Old Louey. Old Louey is 85 years old; he is bald, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and facing progressive loss of mental capacity. Old Louey sits in a chair staring into space. He holds a walking cane in his right hand. The cane moves back and forth from Old Louey’s shaking hands.

There is silence on the stage as Old Louey sits there. His lack of facial expression makes him look almost lifeless. Old Louey’s oldest son enters from stage left. His name is Joey and he’s in his early fifties. Joey is visiting his father for the first time in years, and he’s unprepared for the extent of Old Louey’s deterioration. Joey slowly walks over to his father, trying to hold back his tears.

Joey: I’m here for you. (Pause) I’m here. (Beat) I’m gonna stay with you this time. I’m not going away anymore. I’m here, Pop. (Beat) Here to stay . . .

(Joey looks closely at his father, lovingly.)

Joey: I’m sorry for letting you down, Pop. For letting our whole family down. For letting Jenna and the kids down. (Beat) For letting myself down.

(Tears begin to flow from Joey’s eyes.)

Joey: You always had my best interest at heart, Pop. You wanted me to take over the family business. This was a dream you had for me. You built the business from the ground up. With blood, sweat, and a few bucks in your pocket. I admire you for that, Pop. The business was a gift you wanted to give me. I spit in your face! I was so strung out, man. I screwed the hell up. Just like I did with everything else in my life. I’m a piece of total crap! Let’s face the damn truth here. I let you down, Pop. I’m so sorry, Pop. My regret is as deep as the deep blue seas. My sorrow is endless. It’s the cross I must bear, Pop. (Beat) I should have been here for you and the whole family. For Jenna and the kids! I failed you all. You all depended on me.

(Joey takes a step forward in his grief.)

Joey: Hell, I couldn’t even depend on myself. I couldn’t even trust myself. (Beat) I wanted to do the right thing. I swear I did. (Beat) But I always did the opposite.

(Joey turns towards his father. Old Louey just looks on with lifeless eyes.)

Joey: I didn’t want to hurt you, Pop. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. (Pause) I destroyed all of my dreams. They’re all gone, Pop. (Beat) All gone. I had everything handed to me on a golden plate. A full scholarship to Ohio State. It was right there in my grasp.

(Joey looks at his hands and clenches his fists.)

Joey: It was right there and I wasted it.

(Joey lowers his hands in defeat.)

Joey: It made me feel so important to look into your eyes and see how proud you were of me

(Joey steps back and looks into his father’s eyes.)

Joey: What do you see now, Pop? Do you see your son? A junkie? A murderer? (Beat) What do you see? Can you see me at all? (Beat) Can you, Pop?

(Joey looks forward, remembering a grand day long ago.)

Joey: You taught me to be a great running back, from Pop Warner through high school. I wanted to be just like you. You were a running back in your football days. You are my hero, Pop. (Beat) You always pushed me to be the best that I could be. To be tough. Strong with no fear. To run with the fury. (Pause) Nobody could outrun me in wind sprints. I was the fastest. You built me an awesome gym at the house. We worked out hard together, man. Nobody could out-bench press, squat, shoulder press, and deadlift me. Nobody, man. (Pause) All the girls wanted to go out with me. I loved it.

(Joey smiles.)

Joey: You were at every practice, Pop. Remember?

(Old Louey looks on with the eyes of a doll.)

Joey: I miss your encouragement. How you cheered me on at every game.

(Joey paces to the other side of his father.)

Joey: Do you remember that game against Ridley High, Pop? Huh? (Beat) I’ll never forget it. The snow was coming down so thick. I couldn’t see the scoreboard or even my breath. There was no visibility. But I knew there was only five seconds left on the game clock. Ridley was up on us (21-17) and I wanted the ball. Even in the thick snow, your image stood out, standing in the stands. I heard you yell out: “Run with the fury, Joey.” This gave me the inspiration even more, Pop. There was no stopping me. They fed me the ball and I rushed through an open gap and ran it in for the win. That game was for State Champions! It was the greatest day of my life, Pop! You were so proud of me.

(Joey looks at his father.)

Joey: It was an honor to give you the game ball, Pop. It was the greatest day of my life. We shared it together.
Some things we never forget. I hope you didn’t forget, Pop.

(Old Louey stares into space. Sorrow appears back on Joey’s face)

Joey: Don’t worry about nothing, Pop.

(Joey steps back toward Old Louey and places his hand on his father’s shoulder very gently.)

Everything is gonna be okay. I promise you this, Pop. (Pause) I’m clean now and doing good with my recovery. I’m attending a program called “Celebrate Recovery” every week. It’s a good program. I’m drug free and I’m gonna stay that way. (Pause) Jenna and the kids are safe. I’ll never hurt them again. They forgive me, Pop.

(Joey breaks down in tears.)

Joey: They want me back home, Pop. After all these years. They love and forgive me, I’m so grateful. (Beat) Mama is okay, Pop. She loves you so much. Frankie and Tina love you too.

(Suddenly, Old Louey stands up in a frenzy, yelling and screaming. His hands shake out of control.)

Old Louey: (Screaming) The ocean blue!!!!

(The cane shifts back and forth with violent force in Old Louey’s right hand.)

Old Louey: (Screaming) Blue skies and the endless sea of misery!!!

Joey: Take it easy, Pop! Take it easy!

(Old Louey screams louder.)

Old Louey: The wind will fly you away!!! Away you go!!!

Joey: Relax, Pop!!!

Old Louey: UP and away!!!

(Joey slowly sits his father down.)

Joey: Rest, Pop. Don’t worry about nothing. I’m here.

Old Louey: The darkness is coming . . . coming to take us away!

Joey: I’m here, Pop. I’m here for my second chance. The prodigal son is home.

(Old Louey calms down and stares into space.)

Joey: I’m standing by your side, Pop. I’m the man you always wanted me to be now.

(Joey looks at his father with sadness in his eyes.)

Joey: I hope you hear me. (Pause) I’m sorry for not listening to you. You gave me such sound advice. I was so damn prideful. So stupid. I disagreed with you, Mama, and our whole family. When I got Jenna pregnant, I thought my football days were over. You told me to be a man of responsibility. Be a good husband and a good father.

(Joey speaks on to his father. Old Louey’s eyes are motionless.)

Joey: You told me that I could have a family and still go to college and play ball. I could have both. That you would stand by my side.

(Joey starts to break down again.)

Joey: I wanted both, Pop. I truly did. (Beat) I couldn’t take the pressure. Going to school, keeping my grades up, football, and then having a family. A wife and twins. How could I handle all of this, huh? Being a husband and father took away from my dreams, Pop. That’s how crazy was my thinking. (Beat) I love Jenna and the kids. I do. (Beat) Keeping my grades up was killing me, too. Football wasn’t fun anymore. It became work. Demanding. (Beat) Everything in life became demanding, Pop. You were demanding.

(Old Louey stares into the unknown.)

Joey: I needed something to take the edge off. Heroin did that for me. (Pause) I turned to drugs. I became a junkie. A damn addict, who would do anything to get high. (Pause) Then my whole world was turned inside out.

(Joey cries.)

Joey: I hurt Jenna, Pop. You tried to help me. (Beat) I didn’t want anyone’s help. I just needed a fix, man. (Beat) I’m sorry I hurt you, Pop. I went crazy; right in front of our whole family and I hit you. Broke your jaw. (Beat) I’m so damn sorry, Pop. Please forgive me. You’re my hero, Pop. My hero. I can’t take it back. I can’t change that day. (Beat) I’m still your son, Pop. I’m your son.

(Joey wipes the tears from his eyes.)

Joey: I was so ashamed for what I did to you and our family. For what I did to Jenna and the kids. The way I yelled and screamed like a maniac! The violent outbursts! I was in the abyss, Pop. (Beat) My addictions and mental health issues had me in complete darkness. (Beat) I was on the chaotic road of destruction,

(Joey looks forward as sorrow overwhelms him.)

Joey: I killed a man to feed my addiction, Pop. (Pause) I took his life for only 50 freaking bucks.

(Joey breaks down even more.)

Joey: I took his life, Pop. (Beat) This man had a family. There were people who adored him. They depended on him. (Pause) He was loved just like I was loved. I killed this man. He was a good person.

(Tears flow from Joey’s eyes.)

Joey: My sorrow is endless, Pop. I’m so sorry. I was so selfish. So lost, man. (Pause) That day I destroyed many lives. This man’s family and my family. (Beat) You were so ashamed of me. You didn’t even show up for the trial, Pop.

(Joey looks at his father with regret.)

Joey: One day you stood high in the stands cheering me on. (Beat) Then one day I wasn’t your son anymore for what I’d done. You were nowhere to be found. I was a disgrace.

(Joey cries.)

Joey: I heard Mr. Turner’s family speak of the agony that I caused them. The tremendous loss that they suffered. The hate they had for me. (Beat) I hated myself. I told them how sorry I was. (Pause) The jury found me guilty and I ended up with a sentence of 20 to 40 years for what I’d done.

(Joey looks forward again.)

Joey: It was my fall. My fall from grace.

(Joey steps behind his father.)

Joey: When I killed this innocent man, it broke your heart. Coming to prison broke your heart. Destroying my life, my family, my dreams broke your heart. This breaks my heart, Pop.

(Joey is still as he looks at his father, wiping his tears.)

Joey: I’m here now, Pop. I really love you; I need to make this right between us. I’m never gonna let you down again. I promise. (Beat) You never came up with Mama to visit me behind bars. I know you were ashamed of me. I know, Pop. I understand. I do, Pop. (Pause) After all these years in the penitentiary, I’m here now. I’m never gonna let you down again, Pop, I promise you this.

(Joey places his hand on his shoulder again.)

Joey: Forgive me, Pop. I need you to forgive me. (Pause) I want you to be proud of me. I know when I destroyed my dreams, it destroyed your dreams.

Joey: I’m a better man now. I got an education in prison. I learned a few trades and gained faith in the Lord, Pop. I took many drug and alcohol programs to deal with my addictions and mental health issues. I’m attending good programs now every week. I’m on a straight path. Jenna and kids have accepted me back into their lives fully, Pop. I’m trying to make things right. Mr. Turner’s family has forgiven me now; after all these years they have chosen to forgive me, Pop.

(Joey removes his hand from his father’s shoulder.)

Joey: I’m not a failure, Pop. I’m gonna make it. Please forgive me. I need you to forgive me, Pop. (Beat) Please forgive me.

(Old Louey sits, almost lifeless; Joey looks at his father, hoping for a response.)

Joey: I know you can hear me. You’re stronger than this, Pop. I know you can hear me.

(Joey raises his voice.)

Joey: (Aggressively) You’re stronger than this! You were bigger than life, Pop! You pushed me and said I can do anything in this life. I can do anything. Be anything! Anything I wanted to be! You said, “All you need is to work hard and have faith!” Remember telling me that, Pop? Huh? Well, I’m telling you the same! You can beat this, Pop! You’re strong! You are!

(Joey’s sorrow is immense, as he looks at his father’s frozen face with no response. Joey wipes the tears from his eyes.)

Joey: Do you remember this, Pop? This song?

(Joey slowly begins to sing softly to his father.)

Joey: (Sings) I’m here for you / you’re never alone. I’m here for you / you’re never alone. I’m here for you / you’re never alone. You’re never alone / you’re never alone. I’m here for you / you’re never alone.

(Joey sings with heavy emotion.)

Joey: (Sings) You’re never alone / never alone. I’ll encourage you/you’re never alone. I’ll protect you / you’re never alone. I love you / you’re never alone. I’m here for you / I’m here for you. You’re never alone / never alone You’re never-ever-alone.

(Joey stops singing.)

Joey: I’m here for you.

(Old Louey still stares into deep space. Joey wipes the tears from his eyes.)

Joey: I hope you hear me, Pop. I really hope you do. I love you, Pop. I always will. I’m here for you.

(Joey slowly turns away from his father. Old Louey slowly grabs Joey’s hand. Joey turns back to see his father smiling at him with a large happy grin. Old Louey stands and is eye to eye with his son. Joey’s joy is extraordinary.)

Joey: (Overwhelming joy) I knew you could hear me. I knew it.

(Joey hugs his father.)

Joey: You’re back, Pop. You’re back!

(Joey and Old Louey break from the hug.)

Joey: You’re back. Miracles do happen, Pop.

(Old Louey smiles on. Then he begins to sing.)

Old Louey: (Sings) I’m here for you / you’re never alone. I’m here for you / you’re never alone.

Joey: You sing like you used to, Pop.

Old Louey: (Sings on) I love you / you’re never alone.

(Old Louey starts to walk away from Joey.)

Old Louey: You’re never alone / never alone. I’m here for you / you’re never alone.

(Old Louey starts to exit stage left. Joey becomes confused.)

Joey: Where you going, Pop?

Old Louey: (Singing) You’re-never-ever-alone.

(Old Louey exits stage left completely.)

Joey: Come back, Pop! Don’t leave me again! Come back!

(Joey screams out for his father.)

Joey: Come back, Pop! I’m here for you now!!! I’m here now!! I’m sorry, Pop! I’m sorry!

(Joey yells out in desperation.)

Joey: I’m here for you!!!

(A loud voice is heard in the background.)

Male Voice: What the hell is going on in there, Romero? You talking to yourself?

(Joey is silent in his helpless state.)

Male Voice: Keep it down! You’ll wake up the whole damn block!

(Joey remains silent as reality sets in.)

Male Voice: Do you understand me, Romero? Huh?

Joey: I understand, officer. I understand.

(Silence. Joey stands there in total despair, a broken man, lost in regret. He lowers his head. His arms drop to his side.)

(The lights darken on the stage. Joey backs away in the darkness.)


The End.