Your fellow prisoners refer to their arrest-year and incarceration as the year they “fell.” So when asked, you say, “I fell in 1990.” Using the term suggests you’d simply tripped from freedom, and it was this fluke accident, not the rock bottom from your PTSD problems, and the ten tragic choices you made afterwards that inevitably landed you in here.
Like clockwork: during your first two years in prison your family visited you twice a month. They were poor folks, so each trip to see you was a triumph. You were incapable then of appreciating the warm equity of caring safed in their hearts. That this caring was your family’s most valuable resource, and, their fortune. And how at the time, the bulk of this wealth was being expended on helping you.
Ignorant of this blessing, you would go to the visiting room to see your family, as though their five-hour  winding drive through the ruins of this Old Dominion’s rural counties to endure a guard’s questioning, pat-downs, and partial strip searches (removing earrings, shoes, and socks) was part of their obligation to family’s first prodigal member.

Even worse, sometimes during that second September, 1992, if a good football game was on TV, you’d reluctantly tear yourself from the numbing screen to go sit with them.

Leaving for your visit from wherever you were—the dayroom/TV area. Loitering in the passageways. Playing basketball, or bitterly circling the grass-scabbed dustbowl of a recreation yard, you’d pass “Old-timers” who rarely got a visit—unless it was to receive bad news, usually the death of someone they loved.

Hiding in your crevasse of denial about all the years your long sentence for armed robbery had claimed, you walled yourself in even farther behind TV, basketball, and poker to maintain your sanity in here. You then crawled even deeper into this shelter, huddling with naiveté, making thoughts incomprehensible that one day you’d be an old-timer, too, enviously watching the younger inmates, not running but dragging themselves to the visiting room.

These coping strategies worked for years until an old-timer named Robert Earl confided in you, saying, “We lose everyone in here…” Then, 30 thoughtful seconds later adding, “Some of us even lose ourselves.” His was a prophetic statement made at a volatile time for you, having just been released from Solitary Confinement for fighting in the passageway. Your third such infraction.

That day, after unpacking your small box of belongings in the cell, you returned to the open pod area. Robert Earl was waiting by an octagonal steel table, carefully clutching a shifting bundle of slick pictures atop two photo albums. But he was always carrying around his pictures, so you assumed he just wanted to recount the fight, or brag on how you’d handled yourself, like some of the other seasoned convicts who’d fallen decades ago had done. He coolly nodded for you to come over.

Robert Earl was 64 years old, whip thin and frail-looking, though he was still in pretty decent shape. He wasn’t stooped, but he had a weighed-down way of standing that bowed his legs. On this day, unshaven, salt-white stubble sprouted like a Caesar’s crown around his scalp. Word was, Robert Earl fell in 1976.

Standing at the steel table, Robert Earl handed you his photo album, anxiously gesturing that you look through it. Other than the 12,460 yesterdays he’d calculated he had thrown-away languishing in here, his memories and the pictures you held were the only proof of his past life. He toted those pictures around like credentials, with images documenting his past as a former bank robber, and once formidable young man (vainly flexing his brown physique), and as testimonies, from all the women who once were willing to break down the prison’s doors to visit him.

His pictures were also his only evidence of children who once adored him, even while he was incarcerated. “My kids loved visiting me,” bragged Robert Earl. “Soon as I’d bust through the door they’d come running to me, an’ commence to losing they damn minds.”

He said this through a crumpling smile, recalling how the kids ran amok in the v-room, assuming that this was where their daddy was in charge, because they were allowed all the Snickers, Mr. Pibbs and Doritos their tummies could hold. He said they never questioned why he’d always pick them up to drop the quarters into the coin slots of the vending machines. But we both know that if he’d violated the rule and touched even a dropped nickel on the floor, his kid’s visit would’ve been abruptly terminated and he’d be cast out of the visiting room.

While turning a picture-packed page in one of the taped-up photo albums, a folded newspaper clipping fell out. The clipping enveloped a 15 year-old, 8th grade school picture of Ron, Robert Earl’s youngest son.

“He in jail now, waitin’ to come here. Or be sent to some other spread,” he said of this son, who was still running to him.

After leafing through the last battered photo albums, you started removing the loose photos from parchment-colored envelopes, as supple as chamois from years of handling. Some of the pictures stuffed inside were yellowed Polaroid, stiff, brown-stained, and brittle with age.

Others were the newer, glossy 5x7s. All of them had that musty, acidic smell that old pictures tend to acquire. Each photo was dated and had people’s names jotted down inside the white borders. Some had notations about the weather, who the people were, or the news he’d gotten during that particular visit: “Ronny’s in trouble, ” “This Cynthia’s baby girl, Aeisha,” “They left me 25 dollars!” “Momma’s sick,” “Momma died.”

There were also five or six photos of Robert Earl, wearing a blue cap and gown and proudly holding up a G.E.D. diploma between both hands. Later, he stood in the same pose holding Brick masonry and Janitor School certificates, the shiny gold tassel dangling by his smile in each picture.
Placing one picture beneath the stack of others, you noted Robert Earl’s hair erode from a huge, eclipsing afro, to a closer hairstyle, flecked with gray strands. Then to a shock of white and balding, until finally he had no hair at all.

Through these photos, you also tracked the impact of “doing time” had on his teeth. At first they appeared slightly crooked, stained, chipped, and then missing—before, miraculously reappearing, gleaming white, horsey, perfectly aligned, His new teeth had nothing in common with those they replaced, subtly palliating parts of the old-timer’s past, with this veneer of conformity.

As you continued through the photos, Robert Earl would occasionally ease a picture from your hand and study its faces wistfully, while murmuring to himself, “I lost everybody in here,” before placing it under the bottom of the shifting stack you held. If you and he were in an art gallery, this photo essay of his life would have been accompanied by music—something orchestral and melancholy, interspersed with happily bounding and fervent phrases from the string and oboe sections—then maybe a cello, bowing a sad coda. But because you both were in prison, you slid one photo beneath another amidst howls of laughter, strings of expletives, and some convicts making noise in the lulls, just for noises’ sake.

“See this one right here?” he asked, pointing at the top picture you held. “Four days after taking this picture, three dudes jumped me coming from the commissary. Took my whole bag; they ain’t have to do that.”

He was an old man now in this section of photos dated five years ago. Unaware of what the coming days would bring, he stood smiling, arms draped across the shoulders of his two ancient aunts, with a grinning brother and sister (who looked just like him), leaning their gray heads into the photo, near his. You slid that photo to the bottom of the stack, revealing the next picture dated one year later.

“That’s my first weekend out the hole for stabbing one of those suckas,” said Robert Earl. His expression in the photo with his family? A gaunt but beaming smile. He then looked at you, saying, with 12,000 yesterdays full of regrets, “Ships don’t sail on yesterday’s winds.”
You forget to whom he attributed the quotation, but recalling his capable physique in the earlier photos, you understood the senescent lesson he was schooling you on, and that nothing lasts. Exercise daily and eat as healthy as you can; time relishes in grinding down these painstakingly lain layers, to the marrow and into dust. Even in here. Especially in here.

And so it went. You and Robert Earl talked like this for another hour; you slowly shuffling through the stacks of photos, as Robert Earl vividly narrated the months of highs and sorrows before and after each image.

At one point, you looked up from a photo and questioned his smile, “Is this for real?” Before he nodded you knew the answer. That those visits were what he lived for, and was the happiest he’d been in months, since the last time his family had come. That he was just holding on long enough to see them again, counting the long days, surviving for months at a time, to live for two or three heartening hours with them in the visiting room.

You were familiar with such photos. Similar expressions graced your fellow Marines’ ouzo-flushed faces in Greece, on R&R from Beirut, Lebanon. That same genuineness also graced your friend’s smile, who suffered from post partum, though whose face glowed with happiness in her “girl’s night out” photo. Her relief was a carbon copy of a Death Row inmate who’d been reprieved, re-sentenced to Life and transferred here, to live on one of life’s lowest rungs, but what must have seemed to him a lush green isle.

After making sure you’d looked at every photo and put it back in order, Robert Earl stood quietly in his weighted way, letting what you’d just viewed sink in, before telling you that if you were as fortunate, or as unlucky as him, that someday you would have a life like this.

Not long after that second September and the journey through Robert Earl’s stilled life, you started waiting outside your cell on the weekends your family said they would be visiting. Nowadays though, with all your trips and stumbles behind you, you fast-walk over to the visiting room and even scamper when no guards aren’t looking. Once inside, you embrace everyone who has come and sit catching your breath, smiling, with one ear cocked and listening for the officer’s picture call.

Over these past 20 years…20 years in prison. The number rolls off your tongue too easily, glides across your thoughts too silkily, as if its days were negligible, or one precious moment within all that lost time could be salvaged, and not at 12:01 a.m., officially another day, and 7,310 yesterdays gone forever.

But in this 20-year span you have met other sage old-timers like Robert Earl. Men like Carter Baron, who miraculously made parole at age 59, and who by then suffered from diabetes and heart disease.
He’d wait outside of the medical department, bumming cigarettes from the younger inmates walking by, and then smoke, while cussing up a storm and launching long, horizontal blue streams against medical’s wall, until an officer sent word outside that he was next.

Carter had nowhere to go, and no one to go to, so he waited here, as a free man, for six months until a bed became available at a halfway house. The morning he left, you and nine other cons took turns hugging him between your two clutched fists separating your chest, telling the nervous, mean old man to take care of himself, that he’d be alright.

A few hours later word spread that Carter had suffered a heart attack in the back of the D.O.C. van. When you asked the transporting officer if Carter was still handcuffed in the back cage when he died, he replied with an annoyed, “Yeah.” This news, more than Carter’s death coldly pierced the same spot on your chest his bony fist had just bumped during your goodbyes. All he wanted was to go home. But Carter’s home was long gone, so he’d have never made it back there—running to nowhere like a fugitive with his wrists still bound.

And then there was your old cellie, Luther, a tall white guy from West Virginia. He had a weirdly wandering glass eye. Whenever you and Luther talked and he saw you looking confused, he’d point to the left side of his smiling face and say, “Look in this eye Greg, this, the good one, right here.”

One Saturday at lunch in the dining hall you mentioned that Luther was expecting a visit from his wife. “Luther killed his wife,” said Sweeny, without looking up from slurping his soup. When you returned to the cell, Luther was still sitting on the bottom bunk, patiently waiting to be notified of his visit. He’d wait like this for his wife every six or seven months.

During some of those mournful days he’d even talk to himself, whispering, “I hope she shows this time.” It’d be too sad in the cell then, so you would leave, nodding, implying you hoped she showed this time, too.

Luther died several years back, finally succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver, stemming from his hand-tied battle against Hepatitis C. He was a good dude—as cellies go—whose legs would later swell so badly the purple-black skin on them looked poised to burst open, like two rotting eggplants.

By then Luther could barely walk. He would thank you a hundred times throughout the day, whenever you’d bring him his food tray the mess hall inmate walked over to B-building. At night, though, while he was in pain and whimpering himself to sleep, you’d lie on the top bunk, squeezing your ear plugs together again before stuffing them deeper inside your ears, then listen to them expanding, dampening out Luther’s penitential cries, while you prayed for him … and that your own end not be like his.

You’ve often wondered about Carter Baron, Luther, and Robert Earl. And whether a man’s worst choice justifies every cruelty and harshness he experiences in here. Or if the harsh experiences you suffer are justified. Most days, you think they are.

You’re glad, though; you listened to those three men, and to the other old-timers, as Robert Earl had encouraged you to do years ago. And though they weren’t sages by any stretch, each man had learned one or two crucial jewels in their lives which could often be summed up in one profound sentence. You call these jewels “a good piece,” and you collect them. Sometimes you think this is why you’re still here: to pass along their wisdom, or to impart to others the hard lessons you’ve learned.
After a while, each man here has to make some deeper sense of why he’s still imprisoned—and this so happens to be yours.

As for your own stack of photos—your most cherished possessions, they have acquired a soft patina now. You often finger the faces on them, feeling the smile-raised cheeks, small chins, foreheads, and slim shoulders, like cameos embossed with life. Captured within this treasure are snapshots of you and the new beautiful baby girls. And your parents whom you remember sighing in later years, their trembling aims pushing themselves out of the chairs, after you beckoned them to come stand with everyone in the photograph. Your stack of photos contains images of your daughter and nieces in the April of their adolescence, growing into young women efflorescent. Standing behind them in most snapshots is your autumnal sister and you, hugging your withering parents, suddenly leaning on aluminum canes. Delving deeper and missing first is your niece, Erica, and then your father, Jesse; both of them achingly absent from your family’s loving throng.

Up next is a short batch of pictures sent from home. Bittersweet are three close-ups of your grieving mother, with ginger-brown skin and her white icing of hair.

The sequences of images shuffled through in Robert Earl’s photos, his maturation, breakthroughs, accomplishments, and personal losses are nearly identical to those held in your own. Except you don’t have as many photos as he did, having not been in prison as long. You’re also not as old as he was, and not yet nearly as gray.

You wonder now, though—if you do acquire as many photos as Robert Earl, will you consider yourself as fortunate, or as unlucky as he had been? Upon living to become another felled, old gray man, soliciting looks at pictures containing the only evidence of a prior life, and proof that once you, too, were loved.