Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I spent yesterday morning in a dingy beige government facility, waiting with a friend, E, for his parole hearing. He has been in a halfway house for a year; we won’t know for a day or two if he will be released. If not, he expects it will be many months before he gets another hearing.

E’s isn’t my story to tell, but some parts of our friendship are. We met through one of DH’s laborers, himself a halfway house resident. By the time we met E, the crew had solidified, becoming as much family as employees. They joined us for supper many nights, grateful to avoid eating institutional slop. We traded stories. Our “white picket fence” existence was a source of amused bafflement to them – mom, dad, two kids, dog, sit-down supper every night. Even our food was different. Friend M was shocked when I told him the vegetable he had just enjoyed was broccoli. “I didn’t know broccoli could taste good!” We were as foreign to their experience as someone from an exotic country. Their histories were peppered with abuse and drug use and family cobbled together from whoever stuck around. 

E joined us for supper a few times. He was quiet in the midst of our laughter, and gentle. My children adored him. He was struggling a bit, we were told. No safe place to stay. Any place affordable enough for a con was full of drugs and hookers. Temptation. We helped a little, buying his tools when he needed cash, letting him crash on our floor for a few days, but he slipped, and was sent back to prison. 

We corresponded. E wrote every couple of weeks, signing off each time with gratitude for our continuing friendship. My letters were intermittent, full of cards and drawings by the children. Some were rejected by censors. No stamps, I learned. No colored paper. Rectangular letters only. Books or magazines had to be new and sent directly from approved booksellers. The prison system is a joyless place and privatization has monetized any attempts at kindness.

After six years E earned release to the halfway house. He credits me, our family, with some of his success. I am embarrassed. I have offered nothing exceptional. We are friends. He joins us for supper. His gratitude for the simplest of gestures – food, help understanding health insurance documents, a ten-minute ride so he doesn’t have to spend an hour and a half on the bus – humbles me with awareness of my riches. I have grown up in an abundance of comfort and love.  I have money, and education, and opportunity. My life is full of blessings – one of which is his friendship. We talk, sometimes, about his childhood, or prison, or the other men in the halfway house. He is wise, and shares insights about poverty and class. He takes the shine off my privileged perspective, laughing and laughing when I am sympathetic. I’m told it boils down to stupidity and bad choices. That there are no excuses – not abuse or bad upbringing or rotten circumstances. I excuse his bad decisions anyway. He’s in a different place now, I remind him. A better one.

Which is why we spent more than three hours waiting in that nondescript building, subject to a bureaucracy careless with our time. I was there to support his plea to the state that they grant him parole. Not freedom. My glancing acquaintance with the criminal justice system has shown me that people who have run through that grinder are never free. Even after the ankle bracelets are removed and the weekly parole meetings are ended and regularly peeing in a cup is no longer a condition of their release, “criminals” carry the weight of public perception. Housing, employment, even relationships are tainted with distrust and disgust. 

That was clear in E’s interview with a parole board member. He spoke to E the way I speak to my children. “What were you thinking?” Subtext: be ashamed, be sorrowful, repent. “How can I trust that you will never do it again?” Subtext: you cannot make good choices, you are not trustworthy, the public is not safe. We sat, hands on our laps, as E was subtly chastised. In time I was allowed to speak my support, promising that E has good (read: stable middle class white) friends on his side. We are hoping my good fortune can be leveraged on his behalf. E is grateful. I am, too. It’s nice to have done something actually worth his gratitude.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fight to the End

In a stack of old school work I found this story, written more than 20 years ago. It's not too bad, so I thought I'd share it here, with some editing.

The gunfighter arrived just after the telegram did. Both attracted the attention of the sheriff, who read through the telegram several times before dropping it to the floor and resting his head in his hands.

The gunfighter tied his horse to the hitching post, lingering a moment in its shadow to rest his head against her sturdy neck. Then, breathing deeply and pulling his face into its customary sneer, he sauntered into the saloon. His dusty boots, stitching creased with dirt, creaked with the exhaustion of many miles. His heels thudded on the floorboards. He called for a bottle of whiskey and a room. The barkeep grunted, reaching behind himself and fumbling for a bottle, not wanting to turn his back on the sullen man before him. 

The sheriff knew, even before the boy burst into his office, that it was time. The town had stilled when gunfighter's horse paced down Main street. In his office, the sheriff scrubbed wearily at his face, saddened by the job ahead, then, adjusting his gunbelt, he strode across the street to the saloon.

"Here already?’snarled the gunfighter.’I thought you might take a few minutes to work up your courage.”The barkeep snorted indignantly and then turned to concentrate on wiping the counter when the gunfighter glared at him.

"Yeah, well, not much courage needed. It’s only you. Now finish your whiskey and leave my town.”The sheriff earned several admiring looks from the drunks at the bar as he spoke to the gunfighter.

"I'm just making myself comfortable. I’ll leave later.’With that the gunfighter turned away, grabbing his bottle and heading for the stairs to his room. 

“I say you leave now. You have plenty of time to find a rock to crawl under before sundown.’The sheriff followed the gunfighter to his room and slammed the door behind him. The growing crowd in the saloon heard nothing for nearly an hour. Only their confidence in the sheriff kept them from barging into the room and attacking the gunfighter. Finally they heard vague shouting, and the sheriff stormed out, yelling, “I’ll see you at sundown then, you lousy bastard!“

The town grew increasingly quiet as evening drew on. Wary citizens began finding good vantage points to watch the shoot-out. The sheriff called on the town librarian to say a tentative good- bye.

“I, uh, just wanted to say, ma’am, that if something happens, I, mmm, am glad for the pleasure of the few moments I have had with you. They kinda make the rest of the time go easier.” He turned to leave, awkward at having said so much, but stopped when she confessed that she enjoyed spending time with him as well.

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” she asked, after exchanging more awkward pleasantries. “I will see you again?” He stammered out a positive reply, not quite sure what to say, and then hastily retreated, stopping at the end of her walk to wave.

The adversaries faced each other across the corral, waiting for the sun to set. Someone from the crowd began to count backwards, and gently the rest of the town chimed in, ticking off the moments until sundown, until the two men would draw and shoot.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen.” 

The gunfighter nodded, a half-smile on his face, and loosened his gun in the holster. The sheriff grabbed hastily at his gun, loosening it in turn, caught off guard. He reached for his handkerchief, wiping his eyes, clearing them of dust and tears.

“Five, four, three.”

Suddenly there was movement and noise and the gunfighter lay dying. He didn’t try to move. The sheriff ran forward, crouching over the fallen man, resting his hand gently on the slowly heaving chest. One final rattling breath, and the sheriff called for the undertaker. Slowly standing, he ordered a funeral prepared at his own expense, then went slowly to his office. He sat, elbows on knees, tears falling onto the telegram forgotten on the floorboards.

The sheriff didn’t hear when the librarian came in. She put her hands on his shoulders and began to make gentle consolation noises. He snatched the telegram from the floor and thrust it into her hands, then stood with his back to her. She read it, and laid a gentle hand on his back.

“He used to be a good man, you know.” He sighed. “He had cancer. He was afraid. He asked for my help.” Tears coursed down his face, faster and hotter, digging channels through the dust of the corral. “He wanted to die quickly, with dignity.” He chuckled wryly. “Thought he might help me, too. Make me look good, he said. He choked up, unable to say more. She stepped to his side and rested her head on his shoulder, hoping her sympathy would be enough. 

Finally he spoke. “He was my brother.”