Jeffery L. Chapman was awarded third place in Fiction in the 2020 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.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


It’s a Thursday afternoon and he’s standing at in line at yet another airport, switching over to yet another flight. But thankfully this is the last one; Los Angeles to Minneapolis; and now he’s boarding the plane that will take him back home to his native state of Georgia.

He glances down at his shoes, a Men’s-Warehouse special buy, and notes the color of white peeking out from beneath his pants cuffs. The business meeting in L.A. had gone over much longer than anyone had anticipated; and while being mindful to pack a couple extra suits, he’d somehow neglected to also bring more socks; and the clothier-shop in the hotel-lobby was out of dress socks when he’d run down to purchase some at the last moment, and so he’d had to buy the normal white cotton type instead.

He thinks about what awaits him back in Georgia: an empty house. A house that he’d bought without needing. A house that he’d bought simply because he’d met a woman at work and her name was Teri and she’d smiled at him one day–and nobody in the office ever smiled at him then talked to him in the break room on the next-and nobody ever talked to him—and she’d commented on how smart he was and that he always said some of the most interesting things that she’d never ever considered before and that maybe they should hang out one day soon and after that he’d become so nervous and shy whenever he saw her and had suddenly found himself looking in the bathroom mirror and every other mirror having conversations with the thought of her and sitting for hours at his desk staring at a Desktop-Screensaver of a forest scene that had to be somewhere like the Yukon or something and he imagined the two of them hiking and camping there and the khaki shorts she was wearing would be clinging to her thighs in “just such a way” and he would allow her to lead the hike and from time to time she would look over her shoulder back at him and smile that same hint of a knowing smile at him that said that the two of them were forever-joined together in a spiritually psychological way that no one else could ever know or achieve and just like that he’d suddenly realized that he needed to start planning for their future and the little boy and little girl that they were sure to have and besides that his dear mother was always telling him that “A grown man needs to have his own house” and she’d been telling him that for quite some time now and besides that he and Teri were also going to need another room for her parents because they were always going to be spending weekends with them and he still was being overcome with unbearable fits of shyness whenever he saw her in the workplace and could never do any more than blurt out a quiet “Hello” but surely she understood because the two of them were “forever-joined in a spiritually psychological way that no one else could ever know or achieve” and so of course she’d understand just why he was so shy around her every time they passed one another and would allow him the time to do what he had to do and thereafter they’d sort out the rest so he went to and found a beautiful two-story Tudor-style home with five-bedrooms sitting on five acres and he made just one visit to the house without the benefit of a realtor and just walked around the outside and peeked in the windows and instantly knew that this was the place and he’d checked his credit rating on and it said that his credit rating was 734 and so he contacted the realtor and the realtor was able to connect him to a bank that was advertised on Lending that got him a pretty decent loan and he signed on the dotted line and then got the keys and walked around inside his new house and imagined all of the happy times that they were going to have and when he went upstairs and looked at what was going to be their bedroom and imagined the two of them lying there on a king-size bed making love passionately the way Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie did in that movie he became so excited that he stood right there and did something that his dear mother had said only “dirty people” would do and afterwards he became so self-conscious and ashamed of how he’d just behaved that it felt as if even the bare walls of the room were looking at him in utter disbelief of what he’d just done and so he ran out of the house and sped out of the driveway before he could even begin to get ahold of himself and that evening he sat and planned it all out how he was going to approach Teri the next day and finally ask her out and take that first step in what was going to be their new life together forever and the next day he sat in his small office and looked out the glass waiting for her to appear but when she did she looked as if she’d been crying or was visibly disturbed about something and her behavior threw him off of his carefully planned scenario so he sat there until lunchtime wondering what to do and just when he’d made up his mind to “Be a Man” and walk over to her desk and propose or something like that in a valiant fashion one of the other women came hurrying over to her desk and began talking to her in an excited manner and then two more women rushed over and they were all pointing and looking towards the front of the building and then Teri stood up and they all walked out of his line of sight and so he got up and walked after them and saw them go outside to the parking lot where this guy who looked really cool and good-looking like Rob Lowe was standing beside a parked car and the car was one of those Porsches that have the flared rear-wheel tire wells and the Whale-Tail spoiler on the back and that cost over $100,000 dollars and the guy seemed unimpressed with how cool his car was in a way that told him that this guy came from what they called “Old Money” down in Georgia and that he’d probably never drove anything cheaper than a Mercedes all his life and then Teri was standing there talking to the guy and they only talked for a moment and then they were hugging and kissing each other and though he didn’t want to he felt his own heart cheering for them at the same time that it was breaking into a million ragged pieces and he was unable to turn away from where he stood inside the building lobby staring thru the revolving door at them and then she actually got into the Porsche with him and they drove off and the other women came back inside and some of them were crying and saying things like “They’re such a beautiful couple; I hope they make it” and all of them went to the office of the manager there on the main-floor and made-up an excuse for Teri and said that she’d had to go home for a medical emergency and would be back tomorrow and so he went back to his office and sat for a moment and tried to think just one lucid thought then reached for the Mouse and deleted the Yukon forest-scene on his Desktop and for the next two days he barely had the appetite for even a glass of water and Teri never came back to work and it was said around the office that “Rob Lowe” had proposed to her and that she’d accepted and he felt so betrayed at the way that she’d played him and carefully strung him along while knowing all the while that she was secretly having an affair with “Rob Lowe” and that’s when he finally felt energized enough by anger to begin moving into the house and that’s when he’d suddenly been picked by management to make the trip out to L.A. and so the move into the new house was going to have to wait until he got back…

Boarding the airbus he sits first-class and the seat next to him is empty. He doesn’t want to look out the window because the sun is shining brightly in the late-afternoon and for some reason it has a loathsome feel to it, so he sits in the aisle-seat and sets his briefcase next to the window. The stewardess offers him refreshments once the plane has settled onto its course, and he surprises himself by asking for a double-Scotch. He reaches for the “Business Week” magazine that he bought in the airport-lobby, opens it up, and at that moment has never felt more alone or dejected in his life, and tries to hide his tears by raising the glass to his lips…

At least… that’s the kind of story that I’ll imagine, that I’ll tell myself, and other similar versions of it, whenever I happen to be outside on the prison yard and notice a jet flying over. And right this moment I’m free to look up into the clear-blue sky without any difficulty because the late-afternoon sun has already begun its descent, and it’s low enough to where I’m now able to gaze up at the various smoke trails left behind by the steady crisscross of airplanes flying overhead without having to use my hand as a visor. I look down and around me for a moment, then notice a man over on the far-side of the Yard who’s walking the track by himself. He’s someone I’ve known for a few years since my arrival at this prison; a very intelligent man; and although we’ve never really had a prolonged conversation the way that people who are friends with one another tend to have, we do still make it a point to speak briefly every now and then because he’s from another country; Kenya, I think; and although I was born here in America, my father is also from another country, and so he and I both know something of the politics of faraway places and can discuss topics that literally none of the other prisoners in here care to/or have the appetite for; and the sound of his accent when we’re talking often serves to arouse within me my own father’s accent that I learned from spending summers in his house speaking Arabic; and this guy likes it when he hears my accent, and I guess it must help to make him feel a little less alone, and a little less far away from home; and so whenever we happen to talk and enter into a debate I never give any more than a token resistance to him with my counterpoint, and then I allow him to win the argument, and I know that he’s now beginning to feel forgotten, and beginning to feel as if he will one day die in here, and the reason that I know this is because one day I was sitting out here at a table just enjoying the fresh air when he walked over and sat beside me with stooped shoulders and hands in his lap, and without so much as a Hello to warm me up he proclaimed in his thickly-accented Kenyan voice, “I have been in this place for over twenty years… and these people are telling me that I must spend the rest of my life in here…” He turned then to look me directly in the eyes; and his face was mere inches from mine when he said, without waiting for my reply, “How am I supposed to do that? What about my children?” And then his chin fell to his chest and he sobbed, and I wanted to reach out and lay a hand on his shoulder to let him know that it was okay for him to be less than strong sometimes. That sometimes we hold our pain deep down inside so long and so well, and for so long and sometimes a little bit too well, and then one day it suddenly erupts at the most unexpected of times, and that that’s why I’d learned to set aside a moment out of each day or week to allow myself to feel sad, to cry, to feel sorry for the person whose life my cousin took, and to feel sorry for my mother, who answers the phone every time I call and after 30 years of my being imprisoned still says, “I’m glad you called; I’ve been sitting here crying, thinking about you” – But I know that he’s a very dignified man, and that a show of empathy on my part would only cause him to feel embarrassed, so instead I simply sat there and mumbled a few unintelligible words in agreement with his feelings.

Now I see him, and he’s walking with his head down, so I call out to him to get his attention, he stops, and I walk over; my mind now racing with an idea that I hope might give him some relief from his depression. “I want to show you something,” I say excitedly as we reach one another. “Look up there.” I point my finger skywards to an Airbus floating by several miles above us, leaving a white path of exhaust trailing in its wake. His chin rises and when I see his eyes locate the jet and fixate on it, I say the following: “Listen: right now there’s a man up there in that jet. He’s sitting in first-class, right? He’s probably having a drink while he reads the latest business report, and maybe he’s feeling just sooo bored, ya’know? Or maybe he’s thinking that his life is a mess, and that he’d rather die than go on living. And what he doesn’t know is that, RIGHT THIS MOMENT—you and I are both standing down here, looking up at him; thinkin’ about him and his life, and how we’d gladly give an arm or a leg just to trade places with him.

And my mother tells me the same thing from time to time… That right now there’s someone who’s actually thinkin’ about me, and wishing that they could be in my shoes right now… Wishing that they had it this good. And it’s hard as hell to accept this statement of hers when she says it, because even though I don’t wanna’, I have to admit that it’s true.