On shaky knees Carson takes the first step onto the front walk. For six long years the address before him had been only numbers and letters. Now, in the gray falling of dusk, the address rises up as a small half-stone house with a left-hand garage balanced by a large bay window on the right, and a gently sloping lawn fringed by petunias. Separating the drive from the next yard, a low hedge continues to the back.
Every day at the prison Carson had imagined standing here just as he now does. Although every imagining played out a little differently according to his mood, the same basic story was there and now all those variations no longer matter. He is here, and the reality of it stuns him into immobility.
From a large maple that shades the house on the right, a crow squawks as though announcing his arrival. Feeling trapped, Carson looks up towards the big bay window. No one comes to look out with wonder and joy as he had so often imagined. Nor is there any violin music pouring out of the studio situated behind the bay window—another of his favorite variations falls like an autumn leaf on a still day. Rachel is not home composing an impromptu piece expressing her longing for him. Perhaps she no longer even plays the violin. It would be enough if she thinks of him at other times: as she moves about cleaning house, as she sets the breakfast table just for herself, or when she sighs after laughing because he is not there to share it.
Surely, he thinks, it is too early for her to have gone to bed. But he’s not sure. They have grown apart as the river of time carried her past where his halted. She continued with school, then graduated while he sat idle, numbered and warehoused for an uncertain future.
A neatly weeded bed of marigolds along the front entry makes him wonder if he should have brought flowers. Flowers are always a nice surprise, especially since he never sent the card he wrote out to tell her the date of his release. Why? Why hadn’t he sent it? That he no longer wanted to be held to a schedule, that he wanted to find his way north at his own pace, unhurried and without the stress of promises, was only a partial answer.
Carson was never convinced that he should come at all. It was wrenching to finally walk through the gate that had for so long been forbidden ground. He needed to breathe, to recover, to clear himself of the toxins of imprisonment. He needed to relearn how to open doors for himself. He would have to go slow; he understood this. But coming here, to the one address he knew by heart, gave him a focus to help block out some of the overwhelming newness. Outside the familiar microcosm of uniforms and regimented days where his necessities were provided for him, and little else remained, all the colors, sounds, and disturbing lack of walls had unnerved him. For so long he’d been told he wasn’t worthy, that he wasn’t like other people, and then those few friends who had stayed in touch wrote less and less until he was convinced it was he who had done something wrong, and that his company had become unbearable to them. In a way, Carson felt as though he had died to the world. His release was as startling as a rebirth from the cocoon of incarceration.
But none of this explained why he hadn’t brought flowers. Flowers, for him, were not to be trusted. His last two years he worked at a greenhouse as part of a rehabilitation program and there he discovered that he has never liked flowers. They are too impermanent. Treasured at first, in part because they don’t last, they are always fated to wilt just has his relationship with Rachel wilted without a common ground of shared activities. He knew too how impermanence could lead to impulsive acts or even desperation. He did not want their relationship represented by flowers so often plucked before their short-lived beauty was lost forever.
He wanted her waiting for him forever, like a tree, though he knows how unfair that is. After all, they hadn’t been married. She had written how she forgave him and to him those words were like the leaves on the tree, so full and necessary, yet given one after another to the long winter. Her forgiveness became the opening for her to say goodbye.
As Carson fills himself with the heavy darkening air, he spots a large rock planted beneath the maple spread across the right front yard. He settles himself on its hard surface and lets the fresh smell of mown grass and dark tilled earth replace the dust of confinement in his lungs. His legs stretch stiffly with unaccustomed exertion. The eight-hour bus ride followed by a walk from the station had made for a long day. Needing time to think, he pulls off his state-issued boots and lets his feet cool on the springy grass. He hadn’t been allowed to walk barefoot on the yard and his feet are tender to the touch. Soon he will relish throwing the boots away, along with everything else issued by the prison, as the last concrete reminders of where he has been are removed. Piece by piece he will cast off the cocoon.
He stretches his arms like wings drying under the first stars. For a moment he doesn’t have to worry about deciding anything. When the moon rises, it will not care that he was once reduced to a number. No one is expecting him to be anywhere: no count times, no restricted movement, no needing a pass to go to the restroom.
His dream has solidified into a half-stone house under a vast sky. Yet where the dream was there exists a vague emptiness. In his own fantasy, he was in control of the outcome. Now his powers of imagination have soaked into the earth and abandoned him to the naked reality of his situation and he realizes his shortfall. There has never been a clear thought as to what his life will be after this day. He has thought only of getting here. So long as he has fought for victory against the mundane and predictable, and now it leaves him with no idea what lays on the other side.
He couldn’t afford to believe this would happen until it did. He has been disappointed by the judicial process so many times that he has lost the ability to hope. Then the journey out began with a simple command at 6 a.m. He packed up what little he wanted to keep in a plastic bag and then he had sat beside the gate until the bus arrived to take him north. Breakfast was forgotten. From long experience they knew he wouldn’t be able to eat.
By eight he had found himself crammed in with other poor travelers who had friends and families to visit. The hot Colorado sun chased them all that day, first looking in on the right, then onto the left seats as the day wore on. A light virga fell to cool the evening some, and the bus had been air conditioned, but his nerves had kept him sweating in the tan polyester pullover and navy blue slacks they’d dressed him out in.
Now under the maple he is glad for its deeper darkness, giving him time to reconsider his next move. He has actually been here only once before. When out on bond, he had helped Rachel move out of their shared apartment two weeks before his sentencing hearing. To Carson it feels more like a previous life than just a few years ago. Rachel had little furniture then. How much of his stuff she had kept he didn’t know. She didn’t seem to want a lot of reminders in those first weeks of grieving.
Around the outside of the house, the size and arrangement of the flower beds seems a bit off from how he remembers them. The tree is certainly larger. The hedge has replaced a low paneled fence. He finds himself almost resenting how well kept the yard appears. The overall effect is welcoming—not suggestive of someone who is mourning. Has Rachel been seeing someone who has been helping with the yard? Jealousy and worry tingle down his spine.
He wonders what lays inside the house. He has never seen it furnished. Everything had been in boxes then, and he had been too busy with his own drama to visit again. He knows so few details of her life; he feels pulled as though by a relentless river away from the shore. His insides churn again with the storm that had torn them apart. So much is locked behind a dam that has been fatally weakened by his sudden release. He swoons with all the feelings he had not had to face as they now threaten to break through as tears.
He flattens his face against the rock and finds its steady weight comforting. Looking up through the thinning maple, he sees the stars blinking at him. He can fall into the night sky forever. More stars appear with the growing dark without his seeing how.
An evening breeze has dried his socks. He decides to pull them on along with the heavy boots. He has survived loneliness, riots, and bone-wrenching fear by mentally removing himself from his surroundings, but he doesn’t want to do that anymore. He’ll need new strength to deal with this less familiar kind of emptiness.
Looking over his few belongings, he takes assessment of what he has: a plastic bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, and shampoo; some old letters rubber-banded together; a pocket-sized address book; a notebook that has served as his journal; a pen; the ticket stub from the bus; and in his pants pocket the ninety-seven dollars remaining from his inmate account and release check. The pay toilet and vending machine at the bus station had gotten all his change. He fingers the roll of bills for assurance. With cash, he won’t starve for at least a week or two. He has grown accustomed to not eating very much. His first big hot and juicy steak will have to wait a little longer. In the inside pocket of the light jacket they had given him, the card he had written for Rachel still waits to be sent.
Coming here was going to be the major event that defined his future. Without help, he doesn’t expect to make it long out here. He has no parole to worry about, but this also means not having that help provided by the system to get his life started. When he had finished high school, there had been a similar sudden break in his life. To attend college, he had left everything he knew behind. This is like that, but more akin to arriving from a foreign country.
He looks for things to be grateful for and decides he is glad for the money he has, being free of debt, and that it won’t rain. The light jacket will get him through the night if he has to stay outside . . . as long as he stays dry. Pushing aside a longing for his old camping gear, he appreciates the hours he has spent in the gym trying to stay fit. His first big camping trip will have to wait also, but the next few days may be very much like camping out. He creates the phrase “urban backpacker” and chuckles to himself.
Still, his stomach churns with indecision. Questions fly at him and each is laced with worry. His independence has forced on him a self-reliance beyond what the past six years have prepared him for. Life is not knowing what will happen next, someone once told him. Little comfort, that. Not having a sentence to define his life, he feels ungrounded with possibilities and unknowable eventualities. His next days are a blank page waiting for him to fill them. The dream he had of coming here actually intersects the dreams of others into a picture he can’t resolve. His “rights” have expanded into a freedom that has cost him the comfortable low standard of prison life. With more rights comes more responsibility . . .
If he knocks on the door anyone could answer. Or maybe no one will. Carson knows that he can’t sit on the rock forever. Reluctantly, he admits he is not here because he has earned his way to being here. Time alone provided his release. The same chunk of time has also changed everything and everyone else, including the people Carson may now have to depend on. Because friends don’t have to provide for him the way the state did, he feels even more vulnerable and dependent than ever.
A new cold sweat breaks out on his skin. There are more questions in his head than answers. Is life any more than just needing what you don’t have? Need got him this far, but it always leaves a void in its wake. He knows he’ll have to connect with someone. At first he imagines them like a lighthouse. Later, the connection will have to be more personal. His chest tightens at the thought of intimacy. No one has really known him for a long time.
He tries to laugh at what a lousy job he has done so far. No one even knows about his release. Even worse, he has come here without ever asking Rachel what she wants.
Carson pictures her inside the house alone, her tender body tucked between soft sheets painted over a futon set directly on the hardwood floor. She is weary from sorting out closets, folding clothes, and cooking dinner for herself as she attempts a zen-like laconic order in a life whose pieces no longer fit together. Even her doing what was right has led to upheaval and conflict. She had had to turn him in. The weariness has soaked deeply into her. She is tired of balancing how she feels with how everyone else expects her to feel. They want her strong and independent, and she may even believe that she is if not for the nights she cries herself to sleep. No one, no matter how well meaning, has been able to tell her how to be happy. She hasn’t wanted to be alone, yet when she’s not, she feels guilty because she is not in love. No one she has met has made her feel safe. She doubts herself in so many ways. Her hands feel thin from giving in too much. Her hair, once her greatest pride, has thinned and lost its luster. Life itself is no longer the shiny adventure she’d hoped it would be.
Despite what he did to violate her trust, can he still be the only one who will see her for who she is? He has so changed how she saw herself. Could he have loved her some other way so that his leaving would have been a clean break? What had felt magical is now stained. It has frayed her edges. She does not like to think about what it would be like to be with him again. She would not be comforted to learn that he is outside the house not at all certain of anything in his own life besides that it won’t rain.
Carson is a hurried two blocks away before he realizes he has gotten up and started walking. He needs to get a place of his own and to be clear about what he is doing. He has to consider who he is doing it for. He wants to find stability on his own—no putting others in the role of being his parent. If chance brings he and Rachel back together . . . when it’s time, always when it’s time. He has been released, but he doesn’t know if she has. He breathes the fresh night air and for the first time in a long time his eyes burn with something other than fear. He smiles with the challenge before him; this time he’ll face it for no one but himself.