When The Time Comes to Love

From time to time, I’d driven past those men walking down County 519. They’d been carrying clear plastic bags filled with things, not completely filled, maybe one-third, and not big like a garbage bag, but smaller. Always alone, they’d been heading toward town, wide cornfields on both sides of the road, farmhouses and silos along the way. They seemed small against the land, like one of those paintings of a wheat field or the ocean where the artist wants to make nature look even bigger than it is. Actually, they kind of reminded me of kids walking home from school, that run-down, sagging look they have when it’s really hot out. It was only after my third or fourth sighting I put it all together that these folks were coming from the county lock-up and that the bags held their personal effects. That explained the look each of them had, not happy at release, but more forlorn at re-entering this free world, concerned about a future that had suddenly become a lot harder to predict.

These parts have a thing for punishment. Of course, this is rooted in tradition. Let the rest of the world change, we’ll be content to stay the same and watch you fall. And maybe that’s not a bad thing considering the strange path progress has way of sometimes cutting. When the subject of crime comes up, punishment and justice and humanity all sort of come to mind, fine lines between each of them. Repentance, too. Ultimately, I’m sure repentance is what the higher mind of society is after from any inmate, even if their preferred method of atonement is predictable: That’s fine, son, very well, just make sure you do it from behind razor wire at your jail Bible study, is all.

When I was found stone drunk in a stolen car by one Deputy Zane Willis, most people probably thought I had tumbled to a place where becoming unwedged was near impossible. They weren’t even close. Truth was, the tumbling had started before, and that kind causes a man to almost want to keep his legs folded underneath, let gravity do its thing, allowing whatever is going to happen just happen when the bottom finally arrives.

So, as I walked down 519 carrying a clear plastic bag, I had to remind myself I wasn’t on the road crew, picking up trash, clearing brush out of drainage ditches. I half expected people - teenagers mostly - to shout things from their cars as they did when I was on the crew. Of course, saying something like that ten yards away while doing sixty is a lot different than being three feet away and standing face to face. Inmates quickly learn to ignore the insults as any sort of shout or gesture would be grounds for a CO in a ripe mood to pull you from the crew. Sunlight would change to fluorescent light and you’d find that roadside tan disappearing in favor of a jailhouse pallor.

No doubt the system could have come a lot heavier at me. Charges for resisting arrest and assaulting a peace officer would have pushed it past four years for starters, and that would have had me up to Clacksville to the state prison and into a world I knew I didn’t want. This Deputy Willis also had a nine-year-old boy, and although his is still alive, he must have imagined for a moment what it would have been like to lose him, and as a result, arrangements were made to drop the other charges. They couldn’t do much about the stolen car - I was in it and it wasn’t mine. I don’t remember stealing it, just remember some keys left on a bar top, and some talk. After that, I was waking up, Deputy Willis’ flashlight in my eyes, and both my hands on his chest, shoving him backwards.

And how exactly does that happen? How does a nine-year-old boy who loves collecting frogs and fishing for bluegills end up at his favorite swimming hole, under the shade of an oak tree, dead? His friends said Tyler swung out over the water on the rope swing, dropped down into the river, and swam back. They said he stretched out under the oak, put his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. They thought he was resting. The coroner said it was an undiagnosed heart problem, something that could have been corrected when he was younger. Nine year olds are supposed to have strong, clean hearts, the corruption of bad habits still decades away. Nine year olds deserve parents who don’t fail them. They need to become ten. That’s the only thing we should ask, that they become ten.

Missy lasted four months before moving out, going back to live with her mother. Right after Tyler’s death, for those first weeks, we came together, held each other, the only two people on earth who knew each other’s thoughts, and pain. But the coming together part was just the preparation for us going our separate ways.

Pops said he was willing to take off work to drive out to county to pick me up, but I said no. I needed the walk to clear my head, needed to feel free slowly, if that made any sense. People on the outside don’t realize that their ability to move any measure of distance is freedom. They might get into a car and drive to the store a mile or two away. They don’t think about it, but they’ve moved themselves a mile, to a different place, with different surroundings. That never happens inside, except on a road crew or work release. Inside, a person walks the length of a dormitory or the width of the yard, turns around, and does it again. The view’s always the same. Max security doesn’t even get that. They walk nine feet, turn around, and walk back. Then again, the way some of them behave, they probably earned it. It would be around dusk when I reached my parent’s house, past eight on account of it being summer. Ma said she’d fix a late supper and the three of us would eat together. I told them I didn’t want any kind of a party. Be happy I was back, but no party. There was no celebrating something like this.

Smooth like an orange marble, the sun had become large and cool and easy to look at directly, as it will in the summer when it’s dropping and evening comes on. The clouds had colored purple and indigo, traces of pink and gold underneath. Grasshoppers no longer hopped from the fields onto the shoulder of the road where I walked; the crickets had come on with the evening. Home wasn’t far off.

When I arrived, I stood outside the short fence that surrounded the front yard, my hand on the gate. I looked at the house. There were no changes to it, and I hadn’t expected any either. My eyes drifted to the second floor, to the windows, where my room had been as a kid. After some time, I unlatched the gate.

Pops opened the front door and reached me halfway down the walk. He must have seen me standing out there and waited a bit, realizing I needed to think about something. He hugged me and kept his arm around my shoulders as we walked back to the house. Ma let out a small yelp when she saw me appear in the kitchen and rushed forward with her arms wide, her face alight. The house smelled of good cooking, the air rich with the fragrance of sauces and spices, bringing me back to childhood memories of holidays and special occasions. I could tell she had cooked a turkey.

“Ma, you didn’t need to go and cook any turkey,” I said quietly.

“Never you mind that,” she said. “You said you didn’t want a party. This isn’t a party. But you didn’t say nothing about not wanting to have a nice meal.”

“He knew better than to say that,” Pops said, laughing.

“Would have been useless to stop it anyway,” Ma said.

“They’re not much about cooking full turkey meals for us up to county,” I said.

Ma and Pops chuckled, then sort of looked toward the floor, not sure where the joke ended and the truth began.

“Well, thanks, I truly do appreciate it. Thanks to both of you.”

An hour after sitting to eat, we had quieted, the excitement of the meal having worn off, dirty plates and bowls and platters all across the table. The meal had dulled us, softened us, creating a mood for thinking, with each of us surely considering ways to bring up the topics no one wanted to hazard. Pops started with the easiest.

“I guess I told you this before. I talked with Red, you know, my boss down at the lumberyard. He said just come on in, see him direct, and he’d get something for you. Just fill out the application - nothing on it about no past this or that - and he’d deal with it.”

“Thanks, Pops, thanks a lot.”

“It’s not an easy job. Probably loading wood, something like that, but it’s work. I know some boys been around inquiring. As a favor to me, Red keeps telling them nothing’s open.”

“I’ll see him Monday, early.”

My father nodded absently then looked down toward my mother.

“I saw Missy’s mom in town the other day,” Ma offered. “We talked a little.”

“What did she have to say?” I asked, flatly.

“Well, you know, nothing really new. Missy’s now working at Wythe’s Roadside Market out to Delroy. Been there almost three months. She likes it enough I guess.”

Missy wrote when I first got to county. Must have felt sorry for me, probably a little scared for me too. I wanted to call her, hear her voice, but she said she could express her feelings more proper in a letter than over the phone. Of course, this was to keep a distance. A letter is planned, thought out; a conversation can go anywhere, drawing out feelings in unexpected ways.

I examined every one of her letters, reading and re-reading, interpreting every uncertain word in my favor. Everyone did it when they got one. Any sentence not completely clear or understandable was discussed with a friend or cellie - if the cellie happened to be a friend. What does she mean by this? What’s this about ‘feelings’ and ‘future’? We were careful with our interpretations of other’s letters, more likely to say things like, I’m not sure, it’s hard to say; rather than coming out with, I think she’s leaving, better get on that. At the lock-up, a guy with two weeks to go got a letter from his wife telling him that when he got out, she’d be gone. He went for the fence. They didn’t shoot him, but they sure enough plucked him off that fence, gave him a transfer upstate and another two years to think about that missing wife of his.

Missy’s letter writing gradually tapered off, then stopped completely. That might have been fine if she had visited once in a while. Of course, she never did. That would have been a big step, one she wouldn’t have been strong enough to take, I’m sure. I could never forget, she was the one who quit the relationship, not me.

Ma must have sensed I didn’t feel much like talking and began to clear off the table, going about it in a gentle way, almost silently, without the loud clinking of plates and utensils. The quietness of it unsettled me some, as chow time at county was always a noisy event. In fact, when meal time was quiet, it meant something was going to happen to someone, and the happening was never something good. Pops said he would be in the cellar for a little while, then would be back up. I guess they figured I needed some more thinking time, just like out at the front gate. I walked through the dining room, flicked the porch light on, and pulled the door closed behind me.

I settled into one of the rocking chairs. The night air was sticky and unmoving, and a half-moon hung tilted onto its back, blurry in a halo of clouds that looked like steam. Overhead was a yellow light bulb housed in an old Ball jar my father had wired up years ago that now seemed brighter than I remembered. I opened the door again, reached around the frame, and flipped the switch off. I wanted to sit in darkness.

This porch was the center of most family activities while I was growing up; picnics, barbecues, birthdays, anything that brought people together. Simple things like burnt hotdogs, ears of steaming corn, and bowls of chilled potato salad excited us then.

Even at dark, I knew this backyard without needing to see any of it. Ma’s garden had been off to the right where she grew tomatoes, bell peppers, and scallions, back in the years when everyone seemed to have one. I knew how the yard sloped gently, with the slight rise in the middle, until finally dipping again before reaching the treeline where the woods began. We had fun there, playing our games.

Tyler and I had unrolled the plastic, setting it up on the most slanted part of the slope, not overly steep, but enough to keep the hose water on it running downhill fast enough. Pure luck had allowed me to get my hands on it, and had I walked past fifteen seconds later, I never would’ve seen the forklift about to drop the whole roll of it - good, heavy gauge stuff - into the recycling yard at work. Of course, it didn’t look much like the store-bought ones, but at nearly four feet across and maybe seventy feet long, our slider allowed for longer rides.

And in the heat of that July afternoon, we acted like kids. Running, then sliding, as if going into second base headfirst, both of us in our cut-offs, water spraying everywhere, banging into each other, shaking the water out of our hair at each other like dogs, laughing. Under a cloudless sky and hot sun, Ty rested on his back at the end of the slide, exhausted, chest up and down, ribs showing, delirious with laughter, just a kid having fun. I stood up and looked toward the porch. Missy smiled and shook her head, happy at our clowning. You two are crazy, she shouted. You two are crazy! And we were.