Chapter 1 - Nate
Six years later
Six years isn’t that long, is it? In the grand scheme of things, I mean. The average life expectancy of an American man in the 21st century is 79 years. Six years out of 79 is a pittance, especially when you consider how much longer it should have been. I was sentenced to less time than I deserved, and I served less time than I was sentenced. When you pull back and look at in context, it’s nothing.
That’s the problem with prison, though. There is no context. No bigger picture. You’re just a sentient number with the same relentlessly boring schedule and the same rotating crowd of shithead companions, staring at the same ceiling every night, breathing in the same bouquet of mingled body odor and cleaning supplies, asking yourself the same question over and over-- what’s the fucking point?
All told, I only spent six years, two months, sixteen days, and nineteen hours behind bars, but to me it felt different. I didn’t measure it in manageable, year-long increments. It felt like every one of 2,267 days. It felt like 54,427 hours. It felt like 3,265,620 endless, slogging minutes. Even breaks in the routine became routine in themselves, boxes to be checked and counted and annotated. 20 cellmates. 22 stints in solitary. 1,079 books. 3 full-blown riots and 372 fights. 100 minor trips to the infirmary and 4 brushes with death. 34 fractured ribs, 8 concussions, 18 lacerations, 6 stab wounds, 2 collapsed lungs, and 4 compound fractures. 6 lives lost to my wrath, 17 saved by it, and 5 friends who died because the wrath wasn’t enough.
13 letters sent.
1 letter received.
The day I was released, a youthful corrections officer drove me and three other parolees in ill-fitting civilian clothes to the bus station 33 minutes from the prison. I wore jeans that were a size too baggy, a t-shirt that strangled my arms, and off-brand tennis shoes. I carried my ID, my bus-ticket, my PO’s business card, a composition notebook, and a prepaid debit card loaded with $426. Everything I had to my name.
I kept waiting for it to hit me. I thought for sure I’d crack when they unlocked the cuffs for the last time, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would just be a matter of time before I found myself in another pair. I’d long anticipated stepping out the gate, but we were in a van with no windows, so I couldn’t even have known the exact moment we crossed that threshold. Then I was sitting on a bus, driving past open fields and farmhouses and stands of trees. I saw cattle grazing, dogs chasing happy kids through sprinklers, and a thousand cars screaming by in the opposite lane.
The remarkable freedom and variety of it all should have done me in. Three rows ahead and across the aisle, one of the guys I was released with was staring out the window, silent tears streaming down his face, and I didn’t blame him. I’d expected to feel the same way, myself, and I spent that ride trying to convince myself I didn’t know why I didn’t.
The prison was only two and a half hours from home, but the trip took four hours and three minutes with all the stops. Every time we stopped, I got off and stood in the summer heat with the sun on my face and prayed for it to hit me that I was finally out. I felt so little I was starting to fear it was all just some fucked up dream and I’d wake up three days into my sentence with a lifetime left to go.
It was late afternoon and the sky had grown dark with a sudden summer squall when we arrived at my final destination in the center of my hometown. Deb was supposed to pick me up. She had told me she’d wait in the parking lot. “I drive a red Altima,” she said.
I stood in the rain for ten minutes. No Altima.
Twenty minutes. I considered going inside and using a payphone to call her before remembering that she hadn’t paid her phone bill in two months.
Thirty minutes. I thought about calling Red, but he’d already done so much for me and the thought of adding even that small favor to my mountain of debt made my skin crawl.
You know what you can’t do in prison?
After forty minutes I just started walking and nobody stopped me.
It was only three miles from the bus stop to Deb’s rundown apartment complex, but my route took me by too many memories.
The theater where I took Alex on our one and only date. The parking lot where we had our first fight. The ice cream shop where she worked during the summer. I passed her street, too, but I didn’t dare turn down it. Some memories weren’t worth revisiting.
There was a hole-in-the-wall bar two blocks from Deb’s apartment building. I stopped there, presented my ID, and had my first legal beer. The waitress was pretty, in a plasticy kind of way, and I was attracted to her in an “I’ve been monogamous with my right hand for six years” kind of way. Her name was Amanda. She flirted and tossed her hair and pushed her chest out. I grunted and shrugged and counted on the dangerous brooding hero archetype to do the heavy lifting.
I took her up against the wall in the men’s bathroom and she had the good grace to fake an orgasm around the same time I came-- twenty seven seconds after penetration. I paid for my beer and she wrote her number on the receipt. I balled it up and tossed it in a dumpster one block over.
Deb’s apartment was a six story, crumbling brick building that should have been condemned before we were born. The plastic-coated stairs creaked beneath my feet as I climbed to the second floor, and the hallway smelled like stale piss and cigarette smoke.
She didn’t answer the door. I knocked three times, and stood in the hallway for seventy two seconds, listening to her across-the-hall neighbor’s blaring television and her next-door neighbor’s screaming children. I was raising my hand to knock a fourth time when the door knob turned halfway, then snapped back. Turned halfway. Snapped back. I was about to just open it myself when the knob finally rotated all the way around and the door swung open.
I looked down.
“Hey, Matt,” I said to the little boy with the shaggy dark hair and soulful brown eyes. I’d seen him every month for the past five and a half years. I’d watched him grow from a splotchy, scrunch-faced bundle to a wide-eyed baby to a nervous toddler to a tiny, precocious little man. That day, we were strangers.
“Hi, daddy,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, hiding half his body behind the door as he stared up at me.
“Is your mama home?” I tried to see past him into the house, but couldn’t make anything out in the dimly lit interior. All I got was a waft of unwashed body and rotting trash.
Matt nodded, but didn’t move to open the door further.
“You think I could come in, buddy?” I asked.
He stared up at me, and I knew this was as strange for him as it was for me. He knew who I was. I knew who he was. We’d talked. I’d made him laugh and he’d drawn some truly horrendous crayon masterpieces to brighten up my cell. We were bound up in eachothers’ lives, I loved him fiercely, and we both knew it.
The problem was we’d never, in his whole life, seen each other without three inches of bulletproof plexiglass between us.
I crouched down to his level and held out my hand, palm up in front of me.
“You owe me a high five,” I said, raising my eyebrows. His little brow furrowed in a frown and he shook his head.
“No I don’t.”
“Yeah you do,” I argued, feigning indignance. “Your mom told me you got the reading prize at kindergarten. Is that true?”
His face brightened and he grinned, displaying yellowing baby teeth. “Yeah,” he said sheepishly. “Mr. P let me pick a book from the shelf to take home.”
“Wow, that’s awesome!” I said. “Which one did you choose?”
“Goosebumps!” he exclaimed, before a look of defeat wiped the triumph from his face. “But I’m not good enough to read it, yet. Mama was gonna read it to me, but she fell asleep.”
“Well,” I said thoughtfully, “how ’bout you give me the high five you owe me and then we go wake your mama up, okay? Maybe she’ll read to us both.”
The shy smile came back and he smacked his palm on mine before backing up, pulling the door open with him.
The first thing that hit me was that smell. I’d spent the last six years of my life in a fetid cloud of male BO, bodily fluids, and mingled farts. I’d long since grown immune to stink. Or, rather, I thought I had.
Deb’s apartment was something else. It was acrid like ammonia, sour like spoiled milk, overpowering like fresh shit, and earthy like moldy food. I fought the urge to pull my shirt up over my mouth and nose as I stepped in and shut the door behind me.
Deb’s front door opened into her living room. There were no windows and the room was lit only by her television which was tuned to Maury Povich and muted. Deb herself sprawled on a ratty blue suede couch, wearing jean shorts and a sports bra, snoring heavily. Her right arm hung down to the floor and, despite the poor lighting, I could see the bruised outline of track marks near the crook of her elbow.
I’d known she was using again. It was the reason I’d actually put some effort into my last parole hearing. If I’d known how bad it was, though...
“Why don’t you show me your room,” I said to Matt, pulling my eyes away from Deb. “Lemme see that lego collection you were telling me about.”
Matt’s bedroom was filthy. The mattress didn’t have any sheets, the walls were covered in crayon, boogers, and oily handprints. There were dirty dishes growing mold on his play table, a line of ants crawling up the wall by his toy box, and a dead cockroach lying belly up between two haphazard piles of children’s books.
There was a story in Matt’s room. A sad one, full of contradictions and letdown, about a mother who loved her son with all her heart but couldn’t save either of them from the crushing weight of her demons. For a second I stared at the framed picture on his bedside table-- Deb and a two-year-old Matt. I’d had the same picture taped to to the wall by my bed for the past four years. Deb was wearing a sundress and her hair was trimmed and neat, her face bright, her smile genuine. She was crouched down, her arms wrapped around Matt from behind, her chin on his shoulder. When that picture was taken she had a job, a nice apartment, and a support group she was attending religiously every week.
What the hell happened, Deb?
Matt proudly showed me about his biohazard of a room and I followed along, forcing myself to smile and nod and whistle in amazement at all his cool toys. I had vague memories of cops in my room the day CPS finally took Jakey and I from our mom. In retrospect, our room looked a lot like this one. To me at the time, though, it was heaven on earth. It was mine. So when those cops made sounds of disgust and talked to each other in loud whispers about the stench I had felt a deep and powerful shame.
That was my mission with Matt, see? To take every shitty memory I had, reverse it, and give him the opposite. I’d make him think his room was the coolest place I’d ever seen instead of an object of humiliation. I’d give him a steady home instead of a revolving door of apathy. He’d believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny. He’d eat healthy food. He’d get time outs instead of kidney shots. He’d go to college instead of prison.
Matt might not technically be my son, but I sure as shit was going to be his father.
* * *
I decided to call it a vacation. It was June, so Matt was on summer break. The sun had risen in the east, so Deb was unemployed. None of us had anywhere to be.
So Matt and I packed his little Hotwheels backpack full of clothes and tossed his favorite toys and books into a plastic bin. Deb snored on the couch while I dropped a worn, leopard-print suitcase on her bed and grabbed enough clothes from her closet to last her three days. Her bathroom made me gag, so I decided to just forego toiletries and buy them after we checked into the hotel.
There was a Day’s Inn five minutes away that had an outdoor pool, so I called and booked us a room for three days. It cost $153.73 which left me with $269.70 on the debit card. Deb’s Altima was running on fumes so we had to stop for gas. $259.70. None of us had eaten all day so we stopped at a fast food joint and got a bag full of burgers and fries. $249.36.
Deb had barely roused enough to stumble after us to the car, and she passed out on one of the beds the second we entered the motel room. I dropped her bag and Matt’s, and looked down at the little boy standing by my side, one sticky hand wrapped around mine. He gazed intently at his mother, a small frown drawing lines in his forehead.
“Let’s eat,” I said, jostling his arm to bring his attention back to me. He wasn’t tall enough to reach the sink in the bathroom, so I had to hold him up while he washed his hands. Once he was no longer a stomach bug waiting to happen, he climbed up onto a chair and sat patiently while I unwrapped a burger and shook some fries out onto the wrapper.
Matt picked up a fry and nibbled at it tentatively while I dropped into the second chair and grabbed a burger out of the bag for myself.
“Is there ketchup?” he asked, and I looked inside the bag.
“No, buddy, I’m sorry.”
He shrugged wordlessly and ate another french fry. The smell of the burgers made my mouth water, but the first bite was as underwhelming as the rest of my day. It tasted fine. Just fine. For six years I’d told everyone who asked that what I wanted most from the outside world was a cheeseburger. Of course that was a lie. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe she was my problem.
I shook the thought out of my head and devoured the rest of my burger. I was halfway through the second before I realized Matt had taken two bites before abandoning his burger to pick at his fries with a wan expression on his face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “I thought you wanted a cheeseburger.”
His head hung, and his response was so quiet I could barely make it out.
“It has icky stuff on it,” he mumbled, his voice verging on tears. “I just wanted cheese.”
My first instinct was shock. Every kid I’d ever dealt with devoured everything I put in front of them. Of course, I reminded myself, those kids were raised in different circumstances. Until recently, Deb had been a good mom and keeping her child safe and fed was her top priority. So my second reaction was annoyance. Be grateful you’re not starving and just eat the damn thing, I wanted to say. But that wasn’t right either. I’d read a hundred books on parenting and not one of them would have endorsed guilting your kid into doing something, least of all within two hours of inserting yourself-- a virtual stranger-- into his life.
“Sorry about that,” I said, pulling his unfolded wrapper toward me and peeling the top off his burger. I used a french fry to scrape the pickles, onions, ketchup, and mustard off the burger and bun onto my wrapper. Then I reassembled it and pushed it back to him. “It’ll still taste a little funny, but we’ll get it right next time, okay?”
He nodded, rewarding me with a small smile before taking a tentative bite of his revamped burger. His nose wrinkled a little bit, but he finished it.
Deb was still passed out when Matt and I finished our dinner. Trying not to broadcast my displeasure, I pushed her up onto her side as a precautionary measure and grabbed my ID, debit card, Deb’s keys, and the room key. Time to go shopping.
* * *
As the evening progressed, Matt grew more and more comfortable with my presence and I grew more and more comfortable with the fact that he was the only part of freedom that was going to affect me at all.
Driving was awkward but unremarkable. The supermarket greeter calling me “sir” instead of “hey, shithead,” was unexpected but not particularly momentus. The vast assortment of options and colors in the store was more annoying than overwhelming. The only thing that elicited any kind of emotional response from me was my son’s increased chattiness as we relaxed in each other’s company.
Totaled up, Matt and I spent $189.23 of my remaining $249.36. We bought toiletries for all three of us. A belt and off-brand packs of underwear, socks, and t-shirts for me. A couple books and a new Matchbox car for Matt. Then we raided the cleaning supply aisle. Bleach, laundry detergent, sponges, rags, heavy duty trash bags, air fresheners, bug killer, bathroom cleaner, dishsoap, rubber gloves, and two large plastic buckets. Matt stood on the end of the cart as I pushed it down the aisle, retrieving items I pointed him to and tossing them in as we passed.
“What are we cleanin’?” he asked curiously, and something about the way he grouped us into a ‘we’ for the question made me smile.
“Well...” I hesitated, trying to come up with a soft way to say what I was thinking-- because if I have to spend one night in that nasty ass apartment of your mom’s I’m going to lose my shit. “I was just thinking your mom seems a little tired. So it might be nice to get your place really nice and clean. You think she’d like that?”
Matt wrapped his hands around the edge of the cart and leaned over the basket, chewing his lip.
“Yeah,” he said, finally, after long deliberation. “Mama likes pasta, too. Can we make her some pasta when we’re done?”
“Sure,” I answered, shrugging. “You gotta help me, though. I’m not a very good cook.”
Matt grinned widely. “I am! Mama lets me stir sometimes if I promise to be careful.”
A spontaneous trip to the chips and cookies aisle wrapped up our shopping adventure, and I turned my cart toward the registers. Matt was telling me a disjointed but delightfully animated story about school, and I was so distracted by his sound effects and voices that I wasn’t paying any attention when I rounded the end of the aisle.
A woman’s startled squeak brought my attention back to my surroundings, and I looked up just as she jumped back out of the way to avoid being run over by my laden cart.
“Shit, I’m sorr--” I broke off as our eyes met.
My almost-vehicular-manslaughter victim was a young woman, 5′6", with reddish brown hair and bright blue eyes. She was wearing a sleeveless athletic shirt, running shorts, and neon yellow sneakers. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and tucked beneath a worn blue baseball cap. She had a shopping basket in her hand and a messenger bag over her shoulder.
Standing before me was the object of every lewd fantasy, every peaceful dream, every blissful reverie, and every aching delusion that had occupied my mind over the past six years. I was rooted to the ground, staring, as all the emotions that had alluded me during the day reared up and hit me so hard I took a physical step back.
All at once, I felt relief at the fact that my hands weren’t cuffed, elation that I was walking free, and amazement at the color, variety, and spontaneity of the world around me. In that instant, it hit me that I was no longer a number. I was a man again, and subject to all the burdens and gifts that came attached to my humanity. I blinked at her beautiful face, my eyes lingering on the silvery scar near her hairline, and realized that when the sun went down I didn’t have to stare at the ceiling listening to cursing and crying and night terrors. For the first time in 2,267 nights, I was going to walk outside, look up, and see the stars.