Never Look Back

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Chapter 17

Writing came hard and slow. The flashing cursor counted idle minutes between keystrokes. Creating something each day had once brought contentment, had instilled purpose when hope had waned and injected meaning into an otherwise aborted life. Neither iron bars nor man-slicing razor wire, neither gang leaders nor prison packs, blocked that daily dose of sanity. Now, fat snowflakes sliding down a frosted window melting and merging into the snowflake community mocked my desire for isolation. Unable to decipher the root of my unease I pulled my gaze inside and looked around. One day I planned to strip the paint off baseboards and crown moulding. Reached via a door off the kitchen, a small patio backed onto a 10- by 15-foot grass patch. I had optimistically bought a five-horsepower lawnmower. One day I planned to own more lawn. Planning for the future helped me to forget the past.

In the 1940s, the building began as a thirty-five-thousand-square-foot, twenty-four-bedroom red-brick mansion. After a stint as a bed and breakfast, it went back on the market. The new owners converted it into studios, suites and apartments. Suites were one-bedroom spaces with a kitchen, dining- and living room and full bath. Anything larger was an apartment. Anything smaller, a studio. Decades of vehicle exhaust had blackened the red bricks to a deep dark blood red.

When Ms. Wilson, my landlady, learned that I was home, she began recruiting me to shovel snow. A piping-hot mug of hot chocolate opened negotiations. Miniature marshmallows capped the deal. Both the Brownstone and Ms. Wilson shared unusual personalities. Wooden joists and hardwood floors creaked. Ms. Wilson’s joints cracked and her arthritis flared when rain was imminent. Cast iron radiators tinked and prinked as they warmed up. The crowded key ring clipped to Ms. Wilson’s waist jingle-jangled as she walked the building doing checks. The first time I heard their metallic chime, I dreamt I was in prison and the guards were doing rounds.

When summer’s humidity arrived, the hardwood floors creaked and groaned as they swelled. After Harold Wilson’s death, Ms. Wilson groaned a lot too. She often sat in the laundry room facing his workshop talking to his shade. The last time I had found her there, she spoke my name as I turned to leave and recounted the time Harold forgot to glue wooden shelves he had repaired. They fell apart when she restocked them. Memory lapses were common to his form of cancer. She reminded me of my grandmother who, like all of my grandparents, had died while I was imprisoned. I walked her upstairs and stayed for a cup of coffee. By the time we finished our first cup, she had offered me the use of the workshop with the understanding that she would occasionally call upon me for carpentry assistance.

Neighbourly generosity triggered guilty feelings. She was unaware that she housed a parolee. Repeated acts of kindness nearly propelled a confession from me. Before I committed that blunder, a sensational and violent crime hit the airwaves. News stations reported death and tragedy at the top of the hour for two days. Tenants talked of little else. Door- and window locks were double-checked. What I felt were sensible reasons for keeping my silence failed to soothe my conscience. Friendship turned what I had once considered as personal privacy into secrecy.

Ms. Tucker, an older divorcé, stalked the hallways carrying casseroles. On moving day, before I had finished hand bombing the U-Haul truck’s contents into my suite, she welcomed me with a Mac & Cheese casserole. A little something until I had unpacked the kitchen, she told me patting my hand. She has fed me ever since and I have tried to evade her ever since. I dodged her because she talked non-stop ― has been known to stand in the hallway finishing her thoughts outside a closed door. Prior to developing mansion survival skills, I politely waited for her to finish speaking before moving on. Tenants who walked passed us shared sympathetic smiles but quickly ducked their heads lest they earn Tucker scrutiny.

Mansion survival rule one: no loitering in hallways or in the laundry room. Survival rule two: establish random times to arrive home. Failure to abide rules one and two possibly resulted in tactical Tucker appearances, armed with tasty Tucker take-outs, followed by long Tucker talks. A cooling casserole was valid reason to part company. Having twice excused my self this way, the next dish came with a wrap-around warmer. There was no need to tune into city news with Ms. Tucker monitoring the hallways. I reconciled my casserole guilt by telling myself it would be rude to say no, and by doing odd jobs like cutting her grass, digging her car out of snowbanks in winter and carrying her groceries in from her car. I was tuckered out, held in a feedback loop from which there was no polite retreat.

Seven months earlier I bought an old executive’s desk. One of the drawer panels needed replacingand a front leg was missing but the use of the Mansion’s workshop allowed me to fabricate replacements. Hours of burnishing rejuvenated the desk’s lost lustre until it was difficult to reconcile its scarred and dented past. The second-hand kitchen table and chairs I bought needed repairs as well. Originally a set of six, two of the chairs provided parts to replace missing spindles and legs on the remaining four. My matching oak kitchen table required additional effort to restore. When I considered the many hours I had worked and the material costs, the savings were minimal. Renovating and refurbishing revitalized my creative juices, but that was not why I remained home.

A heavy knock sounded.

Pale-blue eyes parked above a pitted and blue-veined nose, centred between splotchy red cheeks whose sagging jowls were covered by the earflaps of an Elmer Fud hunting hat, greeted me when I opened the front door. Mike Beck. Tufts of grey hair sprouted from his open collar. If not for stooped shoulders that seemed to press him down, as if he had borne a heavy burden for too long, he would stand taller than my six-foot-two-inch height. Forty pounds overweight, Beck’s middle ran to fat. Eternally damp circles marked his underarms. On some days he sweated alcohol; most days he splashed on too much Brute aftershave.

“Did I catch you at an inconvenient time?” he asked, removing his gloves and hat to reveal a tangle of grey hair pressed flat to his scalp. “I’m not too early?”

“No, sir. Can I take your coat?”

“I don’t intend to stay long.”

He stepped off the mat dripping water and road salt onto stained hardwood floors.

“Leave your boots by the door.” Heading to the kitchen, I asked, “Can I offer you something to drink, sir?” Baiting him wouldn’t improve matters. “Coffee or tea?”

“Coffee’s fine,” he called out from my study.

I looked around the corner to discover him nosing through my desk tray. The good-standing of my parole laid at his discretion. Beck looked up wearing a narrowed expression proclaiming he had every right to check-up on a criminal. An old-school Marshal’s scowl had permanently engraved doubt into his jawline while heavy forehead wrinkles carved creases between his brows. Heavy squinting had scratched crow’s feet into the corners of his eyes.

“Sugar and cream?”

“Double. Double. How’s your novel coming?”

“Just fine, sir. I finished the first. My publisher won’t do a print run until the second in the series nears completion.”

Drawn by new furniture since his last visit, Beck walked into the leisure room. New items attracted him like a moth to a light. Major purchases required his approval. He blew a gasket when I spontaneously bought an entertainment system. This condition was added at our first meeting, but he refused to say how much money constituted a major purchase. Finances were a major stressor; it was a well-known statistic, he told me. Parole Board Canada and Correctional Services Canada rely heavily on statistics.

Correctional Services Canada uses historical information to foretell recidivism rates, such as how old a person was when they broke the law; if they were married and how many children they had. But if the past can never change, how can a model that uses that information predict a future different than the past? No matter what gains I made while incarcerated, models that incorporated historical behaviours negated those positive efforts. It is nothing other than mathematical job security, powered by politicians who play on public fears and insecurities for political gain. Bigger prisons and larger populations must be the outcome, I decided. Historical models were better off predicting stock market trends, though, they seldom performed well in that role and people were far more complicated than stock futures.

“I expect photocopies of your royalty cheques.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll make a photocopy as soon as one arrives.”

“The desk came along nicely,” he complimented on the way into the kitchen.

As Beck lowered his bulk into a refurbished chair, I enjoyed wondering if I had remembered to glue the legs.

“Is that new furniture?”

I curbed an urge to light up. Smoke irritated his asthma. Stress triggered my nicotine addiction. Stopping smoking was on my bad habit quit list, but I was resisting. No one respects a quitter.

“No, sir. Re-upholstered.”

“How’s your job going?”

“Fine. Mansbridge gave me a raise and now pays OT.”

“I spoke to him yesterday. He’s satisfied with your work and reports no major concerns. I also reviewed Dr. Whitenhall’s final report.”

Standard procedure dictated long-term parolees underwent reintegration counselling, which was generally a thirty-minute monthly risk assessment by the parole office’s shrink and not counselling at all. This pseudo counselling by Dr. Whitenhall was my second counsellor. Beck disagreed with Dr. Collins, my first counsellor, who recommended we halt sessions. Dr. Whitenhall and I developed a good rapport. By the fourth month, I was trying to interest him in kendo. An hour spent whacking someone with a shinai attained maximum stress reduction. Pitched as Visualised Impact Therapy, I claimed it to be the perfect battered woman’s sport. Dr. Whitenhall’s major criticism cited that I needed additional months to unlearn institutionalized behaviourisms.

Odera’s name never came up. All discussions in his office found their way back to Beck. Parolees must sign a waiver relinquishing confidentiality. Failure to waive confidentiality normally resulted in parole termination because a parolee’s community risk could no longer be judged manageable. After reading psychological reports, parole officers place them on file for future reference by any Correctional Service’s employee who can justify the need. Garden-variety curiosity was often enough justification, although prison staff must claim differently or get their wrists slapped for improper file access practices.

“Whitenhall recommends we end treatment. I’ll take it under advisement. Is there anything you wanted to tell me?”

“No, sir. Nothing that jumps out.”

“Robert Mansbridge told me that you agreed to speak at his church. Said his Pastor recruited your assistance in a restorative justice venture. I’m disappointed, Bruce. You know my feelings about association. Put a group of crooks in the same room and it won’t be long before one or more steps off the straight and narrow.”

What’s that say about the Senate or the House of Commons? I thought to myself.

Until a judge found a person guilty, restorative justice participants had not been convicted and were still regular people. Given the hierarchy of our relationship, I could not voice that argument. Beck could imprison me if I displayed a deteriorating attitude, if I became an unmanageable risk and for a handful of other discretionary reasons. I needed to reassure his fears and suspicions before they firmed up. Real or imagined.

“I agreed to speak to a select group on the effects of long-term incarceration. Nothing more. At no time did I agree to become directly involved with program participants or the program itself. If I decide to take a deeper interest, I’ll check with you first,” I orated succinctly, cursing under my breath for missing the connection Beck had drawn.

“Glad to hear it. Drop by the office tomorrow morning at 7:30 for urinalysis. You may feel that I’m being hard on you, but it’s for your own good that you constantly evaluate the potential of being drawn into illegal activity.” Beck pushed his feet into his boots. “Make certain that you keep me apprised of anything of consequence. I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s happening.”

Urinalysis tested for the presence of drugs and alcohol. I decided to do what was smart, to make a renewed effort at getting along. Perhaps if I invited Beck to speak alongside me at the church, he could judge my motives firsthand. Too much power resided in Beck’s hands for me to take anything he said lightly. With that in mind, I decided to call Pastor Don and ask if I might bring someone from the other side of the proverbial fence. No doubt, Beck would jump at the chance to be part of the process to reach out to kids before they landed on his caseload. His agenda had never been in question, just his methods. Seeing Beck in action might even scare a few kids straight if they understood what awaited them.
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