You can lose yourself in increments: this-many- and that-many-month stretches at a time. One morning you roll out of a tiny bunk in some decrepit asbestos-filled building bordered by razor wire, and your 20s, where’d they go? A few sets later, half your 30s vamoosed, left your heretofore near no-account self in a nasty communal bathroom plucking stubborn gray hairs out your chin while mourning the immutable fact that your once-superior hairline has begun a full-fledged recession.
What’s worse is you lost all of this and what’s left of what’s left to covet is reaching a few days till last wake-up.
Here’s how it goes when you touch down. There’s the festivities and visits from folks you ain’t seen since the last time you were home or maybe a time or two for a distracted weekend visit during the first few months (try to get somebody to see you after that) of your set. How it goes if you come home to short scratch is — if you’re blessed — you get kicks from your woman or fam or patnas, the ones that not only say they want to see you back on your feet, but confirm they’re beyond fatmouthing by tossing impecunious you a few bucks. Those first hours, days, weeks on the bricks, you see all of mankind’s progress in a blink. When you fell, we’d just invented the wheel, but now, now, we’re flying hovercrafts, spaceships. Most times, home sweet home equals a handful of folks paying homage to your new (but, let’s keep it funky, most times ephemeral) swollen biceps. But sooner or later, inevitably sooner rather than later, you inhale those early emancipated breaths, and end up gaping into the maw of the real, live, indifferent, show-me-what-you-gone-do-this-time cosmos. A place to clarify options for even a super fool of fools.
Be who you were.
Be who you thought you could be.
Be somebody brand-new altogether.
You’d think my fam were just-came-home novices with the turnout: my sis and baby bro, my twins (first-graders now), a few patnas, all convened on my mama’s porch when I mount her rickety front steps, state-issued trash bag in hand. Then a trillion pats on shoulders built from a season on the weight pile and, after they yanked the weights, a steady push- and pullup regimen. So many “welcome homes” that what I hear is a hella-long drone.
Uncle Sip is in the backyard stooped over a billowing grill, wielding a long spatula, a semi-empty 40-ounce sitting on a table beside the cooked meat. Somebody — no doubt one of my young geek cousins — has rigged our giant home speakers so they reach the patchy, hillocked lawn. There’s an old soulful voice wailing across them, telltale that one of the grown folks has gangstered DJing duties. My oldest unc two-steps and nods his unkempt salt-and-pepper natural, more salt now than pepper, and keeps right on warbling along to the chorus till he peeps me in the yard.
“Hey now, Neph. What it do?” he says.
“Unc,” I say. “You know.”
And I mean that most literally. Unc’s the only one in the whole fam who’s logged more calendars in the system than me. One of those old heads who — when you’re facing new charges — can quote your prospective sentence under the new and old guidelines, who’s spent most of his adult life (probation, parole, house arrest, judge-ordered community service, mandatory outpatient drug programming, city-funded intervention: Clean Slate, Second Chance, Mercy Corps ...) on some form of paper. But Unc’s illustrious lawbreaking/rehab history is another story. Shoot, I got more than enough trouble keeping up with my own.
See: fold-up tables scattered around the yard. See: bushes trimmed to neat shapes. See: here and there adults (and a few sly youngsters), plastic cups of bright jungle juice in hand, dodging dips in the grass. See: a game of bones at a shaded corner table where another slick-tongued uncle harangues some dudes who don’t at all look familiar, except they favor in dress and bearing the old heads who parley in the neighborhood, preaching advice they ain’t had the good sense to follow themselves.
While I eye the scene, my woman saunters into the yard and up to me, wearing a T-shirt and short shorts, her hair stroked into a neat ponytail. “Welcome back,” she says, her brown eyes, as ever, marveling me. “How you feeling?”
“Where you been?” I say.
“You look good,” she says, but smiles agnostic.
Baby girl way back, she was dean’s list till she had to quit and knows just what to say when I get to talking too morbid.
Yeah, ask any old head and he’ll warn against bestowing an abundance of faith in a woman, any woman, while you’re down, which might be sage advice, but the luckiest of us find one who’ll do at least a few calendars with us, by which I mean will drop scratch on our books, visit week after week, and turn mail call into a triumph with a cache of naked forget-me-nots. And if there’s something special about a woman who does that once, imagine how rare one is that manages any more than that?
“You mind if we talk alone for second,” she says, and tugs my arm. With the hope that she’s luring me downstairs for the welcome-home of my recent dreams, I march behind her. She leads us through the side door into the basement, past Mom’s work shirts drying on clotheslines strung across the ceiling, and into my baby bro’s old room. She stops in the square light of a low window, and I grab her wrist and pull her to me.
“Please don’t,” she says.
“Yeah, you’re right. Later,” I say. “But you know how much I missed you. Baby, I can’t tell you how much I missed you.”
“Not later,” she says. “Look, I came ’cause I owed you a face-to-face. ’Cause I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.”
“Hear what?” I say, and feel a muscle seize in my face.
“Just how long did you think I could do it?” she says, and retreats a step, another step.
“Baby, baby, baby. This the last time,” I say. “I swear fo God this the last time we gone end up here.”
“No,” she says. “We’re way past promises. And I mean it.” She turns and heads for the steps, legs taunting out her low-cut shorts, and though I could chase her and plead myself breathless, I instead guilt still, and watch her until I can’t anymore.
On her way out for a swing shift, Mom calls me into the living room. And ain’t this about a ... my suckafied PO’s squeezed in what was Pop’s (RIP) favorite recliner, with his legs crossed and a notebook in his lap. My PO’s a Native, a Umatilla from down in eastern Oregon, and you’d think with what the man has done them, he’d commiserate, but hell nah, in the damn near decade I’ve been on his load, he treats me like a direct descendant of Lewis and Clark. “Thought I’d drop by,” he says, flashes that supercilious I-own-your-discount-life smirk, and hulks to his feet.
“Drop by on my second day home?” I say, a question and complaint all in one. “What happened to reporting within 72 hours?”
“Seventy-two, 48, 24,” he says. “I just so happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I’d show you how invested I am in seeing you off my load.”
“Well, that’s the plan,” I say.
“Great, make sure your plan includes a job with pay stubs. Plus, the certificate of completion for your program,” he says. He takes a rag out his back pocket and drags it across his pocked forehead. “Say, you don’t mind if I have a look-see, do you? It’s the same bedroom, no?” he says, and marches for the stairs, a mountain-sized sweat patch printed in the back of his shirt.
He’s gone long enough to have done more than a cursory search. He stomps back into the living room, scribbling in his notebook. He stops and scans the room, approaches Mom’s favorite painting, a velvet portrait of Afro’d black folks kissing. He straightens the frame, steps back, admires his work. He humps past me for the front door, reeking of something woody, the soles of his brogues worn to an avalanche. He stops on the porch, and swings around, his thick neck first, then the rest of him. “Best lay off the weed and drink,” he says. “Would hate to have to violate you for another dirty UA.”
Rose City Reentry: Cap lopes in the conference room dressed in a pressed cream shirt buttoned to his throat, a pair of Army green cargo pants that look half as old as anybody I know, and boots tied tight enough to make the average fool’s foot fall right off. He takes his seat by the portable board, empties a duffel of books and notes, and sifts through them a moment without a word or eye for any of us. With all the grand stories I’ve heard, I was half-expecting a real live in-the-flesh giant, but he ain’t all that physically big. Matterfact, he’s stooped to what’s likely an inch or so shy of his apex.
He lurches to his feet, shifts what must be fossilized bones, and begins inching along our rows of metal fold-up chairs, jacking arms and asking our names. For who knows why, I give him the name that no one hears out my mouth unless I’m under oath. Plus, the hope is that the man feels my strength, faith, resolve, feels the pledge in my chest, and he must have a handshake message in mind hisself, ’cause there ain’t sign the first of him letting me loose. “You,” he says. “You serious or wasting time? I’m gonna die. And you’re gonna die. And tell me who has a moment to waste?”
Hovering, he slaps a callused hand over mine and eyes me, a yellow half crescent specking the white of an eye. Word is he can see right through our diaphanous curtain to our guarded lockbox, see what’s in that lockbox, then tell us not only that he spied it, but, minus any hype whatsoever, how it might yield what we need.
Which might account for why I’m overcome with the urge to confess that it’s one thing to be an ex-con, but another thing entire to feel convicted. That every calendar down has felt less of time away and more of time at home. That out here in the world, what I see most are emblems of what I could’ve been.
He releases me, at last, doles more greetings, and shambles back to the front of the room. He grabs a branch of chalk, scrawls the word “QUIET” on the board in tall script, and waits what feels like the longest stretch I ever spent in the hole.
“My friends, all around us is the noise,” he says. “There’s the babble of today’s news, the clatter of all acts prior, the clamor of expectations. You are here because you were once ignorant former subjects of the world’s boom, boom, boom, boom, have now determined that, as it is for us all, the only way to be free is to position one’s self as discrete from the din of phenomena.” He slugs from one side of the room to the other. “It is only then can one forge a life governed not by what’s prior, but what’s at hand. Only then can one truly live anew.” Cap raises a wrinkled hand, whoops up what might be a chunk of lung, recomposes. “The freedom you seek exists as a form of quiet,” he says. “And I will help you find it. You have my word.”
You don’t have to be no psychic to know the most jaded of us will, no matter the wisdom, refuse to treat this man with the utmost gravitas — a.k.a. a silly mistake that most days I’d be content to sit and watch them pursue. But for only God might know why, I’m struck with the urge to warn us handful of ne’er-do-wells how we can never, ever be sure when we’ve laid eyes on the bearer of our last — not penultimate or semifinal, but last, as in absolute — chance of rescue.
Sunday, I hit the mall with my kick-start funds — scratch the old me might’ve used to cop a sack — stuffed in a pocket, and buy white and blue button-downs and a pair of khakis and a pair of black slacks and a tie and some hard-soled shoes, and the next day scour the city in search of “HELP WANTED” signs and, with worry I hope is at least semi-veiled, try corner stores and gas stations and grocery stores and liquor stores and car lots and carwashes and warehouses and pawnshops and restaurants and burger joints and blood banks and dry cleaners to fill out application after application — anguishing every time on whether to check the box — then tramp home, and wait-hope all evening and the next morning for somebody, anybody to ring my mama’s ancient rotary phone. They don’t. So I dress and slug out to catch the light rail or the bus or bum a ride or foot infinite blocks to ask security guards, stock boys, salesmen, managers, anybody with a name tag or uniform if they’re hiring, a question that reaps a cataract of “NOs.”
And when, at last, I land an interview at a warehouse, the white man asking me questions notices I left the box blank and offers a hella-limp handshake and a thank-you-for-your-time damn near the second I answer him why.
And because I can stand but so many face-to-face setbacks, for the next umpteen days I spend hours at the employment office scribbling job log entries from listings so far outside my realm of possibilities as to be science fiction, reading the sci-fi descriptions till I’m good and debased, then trudging home to eat, wash my interview gear, stare at the TV, count the last of my last few bucks and, on the bleakest nights, lie on the flattened twin mattress in the room above my mama’s head and hope my eyes stay closed eternal. Given that my wishes actualize about never, next daybreak, I labor out of bed and post by a phone that, if it rings at all, is a telemarketer or bill collector or prank caller, and since it sometimes requires more heart to give up than it does to go on, with gloom I pray is cloaked, I totter out of the house and into the jagged teeth of another day.
One night, after picking over a dinner that, as my mama reminded me, I hadn’t anted so much as a dollar for, I march to my room, hunt my shoe box full of cards, forms and scrap paper, find Cap’s home number and dial him.
He takes long enough to answer for me to think he won’t. He calls my last name, says, “Missed you this week,” and informs me he can’t chat long. He offers a few “um hums” and “I sees” before ceasing the convo, but takes care to recite his address, and add the best time to stop by tomorrow. And on everything I love, my relief won’t translate to words.
The address Cap gave me is in a neighborhood me and my patnas used to burglarize on the regular, which is to say, it’s easy to find. The porch of his huge Victorian is stacked with books, bloated trash bags and rows of soggy fire logs. His doorbell makes the sound of a gong.
He twists several bolt locks, swings open a door that sounds long overdue for oil. “Well, don’t just stand there,” he says, and ambles into a shabby front room. He points to an upholstered couch and tells me to have a seat.
“What’s the trouble?” he says, and reminds me he needs to leave soon.
“It’s all bad,” I say. “Between that and worse.”
“So it seems,” he says. “Well, here’s my advice: a woman.”
“Huh? A woman. Are you serious?” I say.
“Let me tell you. The right woman’s a salve for almost any wound,” he says. He fastens the last button on his shirt, cuffs his sleeves. “You’ve got the felled look of a lonely man.”
“Sir, with all due respect, that can’t be it,” I say.
“Jesus H. Christ, son. C’mon,” he says. He strains to his feet. “Listen, I’d love to keep chatting, but as I said. ...” He motions at me.
“Wait,” I say. “What about what you told us? The freedom, the quiet, the noise?”
“Son, you didn’t really fall for that?” he says. “Please don’t tell me you really bought all that crap. Sheesh, can’t a man make a living these days?”
“But sir,” I say.
Cap pushes the door wide, stands awash in what might be the brightest light I’ve ever seen. “Listen, son, don’t be a punk. We’re all up to our eyes in it. Not just you. There’s no big secret. Just decide.”
“Decide what?” I say.
“Why hell, the choice of most consequence,” Cap says. “Whether to save your soul or save yourself.”
Uncle Sip’s posted by the bar, a half-guzzled brew beside him, yapping to some dude who, by the face, could’ve been an apostle. When I tap his shoulder, Unc swivels hella slow. Judging by his glassy, rose-tinted sclera and the fact he smells as if he’s bathed in his drink of choice, he’s faded beyond his average percentile. “Nephew,” he slurs. “What is it, a blizzard?”
“Unc, try a snowstorm,” I say.
“Well, pull up a seat and let me get you somethin’ to set your mind right,” he says. “Hold up. When they got you reportin’ next?”
The most I can manage is tossing my head side to side.
“Well, I’ll be damned, Nephew. You might ought to go virgin. Can’t play it too safe these days.”
“Man oh man, Unc, I’m about whatever right now. I mean whatever.”
Unc warns against going any such route “just yet” and claims, as luck would have it, he’s got an old patna that might could help us hustle up a couple coins.
The bartender shuffles over, and Unc orders a pair of stiff ones. The next second, a bulb dies and the jukebox begins to moan.
“Unc, I hope to God this ain’t no drag,” I say.
“Aw naw, Nephew,” he says. “Trust and believe, this here’s a bona fide come-up. Real live ways and means.”
The drinks arrive and they’re iceless and clear and filled to the lip. Unc pinky-stirs his double shot, flaunts a grand gold-capped smile, lifts his lowball toward the lights, and suggests we toast, “to the future.” But me, I look beyond him, down my drink in a gulp, bang the glass on the counter, and with the last of my kick-start funds, order another round.
Mitchell S. Jackson teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago and is the author of “The Residue Years: A Novel” and the memoir “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family.” He served 16 months in Oregon state prisons for selling drugs.
Illustrator Renee Peterson says her greatest hobbies “are art and creating things, which have kept me sane, grounded and true to myself.” She served five years at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., for second-degree manslaughter and risk of injury to a child.
Design by Emma Kumer.