After leaving the correctional facility, Jaio requested another stop along the way back to Manhattan. He directed them back across the Hudson River to a small medical hospice facility next to Roosevelt Hospital on the West side. They got out of the car and entered the building. The immediate smell of human decay caused Greyson to long for the pleasant aroma of the prison or the sweet scent of Aunt Eleanor’s stairwell.
They entered a small lounge at the front of the building and the Administrative staff greeted Jaio with hugs and kisses. A manager emerged from an office to welcome them. The receptionist left her seat and came out from behind her window. A nurse popped around a corner. The employees all appeared to know him well and led him down the hall to a specific room at the end by the back exit.
Greyson and Gina followed looking into some of the windows to the other rooms. The facility appeared to be some sort of refuge for sick, injured and elderly people who couldn’t care for themselves. Greyson thought back to the convalescent home in which his grandmother spent her last couple of years.
Jaio beckoned them to follow him into the last room on the right.
As soon as he rounded the corner, Greyson felt faint. He instantly recognized the contours of the face, even as carved out as they now appeared. And despite the hollow eyes and the expressionless face, Greyson walked across the room toward his former client, Latrell Hawkins.
Mrs. Hawkins clutched Jaio around the neck and kissed him on the cheek and Latrell’s sisters also embraced him.
“Your friend, Mr. Jaio has been so kind to us,” said Mrs. Hawkins as she returned to her seat next to her son. “He prays with us. And he speaks with Latrell. And this man, Mr. Jaio, he helps him. I know he does. You can see him look better every week when this man comes to visit us.”
Greyson stood motionless, taking in the scene.
“Thank you for coming Mr. Holiday,” she continued. “And thank you for sending Mr. Jaio to us. He has been so wonderful.”
Jaio turned and put his hand on Greyson’s shoulder, gently nudging him into the room.
“We thought he’d never wake up,” continued the elder Hawkins. “But now, he moves his eyes. He smiles at us. He twitches his fingers. He even drinks a little water every now and then. It’s like he came alive once Mr. Jaio visited him.”
“How long,” Greyson started. “How long have you been coming here?”
“For the past several weeks, I have come to look in on our good friend Latrell,” replied Jaio.
Jaio bent down, took Latrell’s hand and then moved even closer to whisper something into his ear. He then leaned in and kissed the young man on his sunken cheek.
Greyson took a seat toward the front of the room near the door. He watched Mrs. Hawkins brush her son’s hair. His sisters quietly whispered to each other and nodded politely at Gina who offered her best wishes for their brother’s recovery.
Light piano music played from an unseen source and the smell of sweet flowers filled the room from the bouquet on the night stand. The aroma cut back the foul smell emanating from the hallway just behind him.
Greyson replayed, in his mind, the video of Latrell dancing and rapping on the stage at some local club. His grin filled the small screen of his iPhone. The image seemed like it had been recorded in a different age, almost as if he had found and old black and white film reel.
They stayed for about a half hour. Jaio and Mrs. Hawkins chatted like old friends. Gina made small talk with the sisters. Greyson joined in sporadically. He also stared at Latrell and absorbed the closeness to Latrell’s family that Jaio had so easily and quickly developed.
As he peered into Latrell’s blackish brown eyes, he became acutely aware that Latrell was staring back at him. As if suddenly adjusting the focus of a camera lens to reveal something in the frame that had previously been blurred, Latrell’s eyes looked more alive than they had when he entered the room. Curiously, he leaned closer without stepping out of his seat. And then, with the tiniest twitch of a muscle, Latrell appeared to flash a virtually imperceptible smile. His eye twinkled and may even have flinched as if to wink at him.
Greyson looked about the room for a reaction, but the others had become engrossed in their own conversations. Greyson looked back at Latrell, who had since closed his eyes and dropped back off to sleep.
Jaio whispered to Mrs. Hawkins as he, Gina and Greyson bid their goodbyes. Latrell’s mother clutched Greyson before allowing him to leave.
“You know, after Jaio visited us last time, Latrell spoke for the first time.” she told him, her eyes seeming to formulate the earliest inkling of a tear. “It was just like his first words as a baby. He managed to say ‘Mama’. How about that?”
Greyson looked back at Latrell and thought he caught one last glint of a smile in his half-closed eyes.
“It’s a miracle,” said Latrell’s near joyous mother.
A wave of cool, fresh air hit Greyson and Jaio as they exited the hospice facility. Gina had ducked into the rest room and told them she would catch up to them in a few minutes.
Greyson walked aside Jaio to the car.
“You’ve been to visit them for the past several weeks?” Greyson asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Were you prepared to face that family a month ago?”
Greyson rolled his eyes and smirked in agreement.
“It was impressive how Carlos looked at you at the prison.” Greyson admitted. “It’s like he melted. First, he took you for someone he could push around and intimidate. And then the next minute, he’s bought in that you can help him and that maybe you are an ally.”
Greyson changed gears.
“What you did for Latrell’s family was really great too,” he continued. “You’ve given them so much hope and encouragement. It’s nice to see him make progress. They think you’re responsible for Latrell’s improvements.”
“People will believe what they are ready to believe when they are ready to believe it,” Jaio replied.
They strode a few more steps. Greyson turned to Jaio.
“I just can’t get over how much Gina has changed,” he mused somewhat to himself. “And Mrs. Hawkins, how much more optimistic she has become. And the sisters …”
Jaio nodded and smiled slightly.
“You’ve changed too, my friend.”
“I’m the same screw up I’ve always been.”
Jaio stopped walking altogether. The abrupt stop in momentum almost startled Greyson. Jaio stared intently at him.
“You should see yourself through the eyes of those that love you,” Jaio continued. “They see the changes that you do not see in yourself.”
“You mean I can see the changes in Gina better than she can see them herself.”
“Yes,” said Jaio. “Her passion drives her priorities and her priorities drive her choices.”
“I’m just not like Gina,” Greyson continued. “I see how working with you has inspired her to be a better person. But this isn’t a life-changing experience for me. Sorry. Sure, I’m working more. But I’m still just a lazy slob with some sort of drinking problem and no direction in life. That’s all. Nothing’s changed for me.”
“Sorry - No.”
“Let me ask you,” Jaio looked out over the lush green trees of Central Park across the avenue. “Have you had a drink since I moved in with you?”
Greyson stopped walking. He couldn’t remember.
He had been to rehab numerous times over the past decade and the excruciating experience of trying to dry out and change his behavior never worked for him. After his last stint at a clinic in Westchester that his sister found for him only a couple years earlier, he vowed never to attend rehab again. He viewed it as 30 days of misery, followed by countless weeks of feeling drowned in a lonely sea of temptation and then the inevitable wave of self-loathing with that first, unavoidable bender. He had reached resignation that he could not help himself and that living as a moderate drunk would ultimately make him more contented than trying and failing repeatedly to survive rehab stints.
His last drink, he thought, must have been that night in his apartment when he found the bottle of wine and served it to Jaio, Henry, Gina, Cael and Ruben. But no, he recalled. He hadn’t had a drink that night either. He poured the wine for his guests. He poured seconds and thirds. The wine seemed to flow endlessly. But he never poured himself a glass.
“Hey guys,” Gina called out to them as she emerged from the facility and trotted across the parking lot to catch up to them. “First Carlos and then Latrell … doesn’t it feel great to help someone who’s hit rock bottom?”
Jameis Thomason peered out the six-inch-wide porthole next to his window seat. He gazed at the Statue of Liberty 3,000 feet below him. He figured they were about double the height of the Empire State building and climbing quickly. He leaned back in the leather recliner chair like a baseball in a catcher’s mitt.
Greyson and Gina had escorted him, Henry and Jaio to the airport only an hour previously. Unlike his usual Logan airport in Boston, the Westchester terminal consisted of two ticketing desks, an X-Ray machine and two gates. This allowed them to move through the check-in process, minimize their wait time and take their seats on the plane in literally less than 20 minutes. You could barely board a bus in that short a time.
Henry Lucas typed furiously on his keyboard, pounding so hard that he sounded like a woodpecker at an old Oak tree. Olivia hummed to herself in the seat behind him while coloring all the boxes in the New York Times crossword puzzle alternating each square in pink and purple.
Jameis’ divorce papers had arrived earlier in the week. Rather than dwell on the crumbling home-life around him, he chose to embed himself with Jaio and team and cover their journey from obscurity to wherever their mission would take them. He watched the neat rows of high-rise buildings flash past the plane like dominos and pondered his new direction. He would observe every step that the fledgling organization would take and conduct all the research necessary to tell their story to the world. And his writing partner, Missy Davidson, would help him write the feature series.
Their coverage of the UNI bombing had basically shadowed the quicker, nimbler reporting of the bigger, better connected networks. Jameis barely justified the flight to his Accounting department and his bosses banned him from making further flight arrangements without their approval. Missy found clever angles to take in covering the event and earned high praise from the editorial board.
Because they had flown to Iowa and hustled for the UNI story instead of giving up and focusing on the incident in New York, they were able to scoop the arrest of Jeep Zendawi. The scoop justified their trip and allowed them both to escape the wrath of the CSM executive team.
They both stayed in touch with Melanie Johnson and promised not to break the Jaio story until everyone involved in handling him decided they were ready. In turn, Melanie, Henry and Cael agreed to allow Jameis to spend time with them as they built their support organization around Jaio’s mission. Their joint plan was to ultimately catalog Jaio’s story and publish a documentary when they were ready for his recognition to explode back into the social consciousness.
“I need to go back,” Jaio spoke in clear, crisp baritone, almost singing the words to him in the aisle seat of Henry’s corporate Jet. “I would like to gain as much support in America as possible. There is such pain and misery in places like Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and the countries to the west. I wish to raise awareness of the plight of the poor and oppressed people of these regions and help them achieve their own small happiness.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Jameis asked. “That’s why you came to the United States? You are building a coalition of opinion and support? And you want more involvement from the United States in the Middle East?”
“It is a very big world,” Jaio replied. “And there are many means of communicating with those that would seek counsel. My physical presence matters less than the ability to communicate globally. God is able to speak to us all without making a physical presence and we are able to do the same.”
Late in the evening, well after Jaio had flown out of New York and Gina had returned to New Jersey, with the flashing lights of some bar bouncing off the brick interior, Greyson eyed the crystal-clear bottles that lined the top shelf above the beer taps. He saw himself in the mirror. The rest of the patrons blurred behind him. A woman elbowed him as she walked by and an overweight beer drinker spilled on his jeans as he carted his three pitchers away to his table.
“Whiskey,” Greyson told the bartender. “Straight. No ice.”