October 17, 2017
COME WHAT MAY
The day this story takes place was no ordinary day, nor a day for painterly description of sun and cloud; no, this day was special because it was the first time in a long, long time that I stood face-to-face with my father. I was in prison on the east side of Detroit, in a joint named without imagination for the street on which it stands — Mound Road Correctional Facility. Resembling the institutional lines of a minor college campus no bigger than a paragraph, Mound Road was a squat and sturdy collection of four housing units bursting at the seams with nearly a thousand inmates, constructed with Mob-sourced materials — red brick, concrete, piping, wiring, etc. — that probably cost the State of Michigan five times what it should’ve. Ostensibly built to provide jobs for economic good faith in a depressed part of the city, some greedy councilman or state legislator hungry for votes nevertheless thought it prudent to put it in an old Chrysler plan’s dumping ground, proving yet again that there ain’t a politician alive who can’t turn shit into shit pie. But, after more than two decades behind bars, I had, at long last, reached the sharp end of my bit, so I couldn’t have cared less about the DayGlo orange rain puddles in the dead grass; the constant, noxious-though-sweet smell of radiator fluid; or the odd car frame or brake line bubbling up through the softball field on the prison yard. I was ogling the tender beauty of Freedom up close, but I needed to jump through one final hoop that was my parole hearing before the unsmiling people on the other side of the law would let me rush to her enfolding bosom. I’d written my father, my last living relative, asking him if he would appear on my behalf. His wife, my mousy, never-to-be-appreciated stepmother, surprised me with a quick response in her blunt block lettering that Yes, he would make the drive through four states to be at the prison to see me prior to my hearing. Like that. Straight, no chaser. Nothing about Good luck, son … or, Glad you’re finally getting out, boy … or even something so cursory as, See you when you come home. The letter felt as ice cold as it looked and read, but it was warm enough for hope.
I suppose I shouldn’t have expected more, because in no way was I assured that he would even show. All through my incarceration we had maintained an uneasy and sporadic relationship by Christmas and birthday card, an annual pity letter every anniversary of cancer’s hard-fought victory over my mother, or the occasional phone call, which required quite the substantial bite from my meager monthly stipend for services rendered as an inmate laundryman to Michigan’s Department of Corrections. Promptly at eight-thirty on the Saturday morning before my Monday afternoon’s session of beggin’-ya-please to the stiff-lipped suits, I watched as a confident vision of myself — tall, a dusting of gray in beard, trim and knotty, except he sported the wrinkled tan of too much sun and a paunchy torso of 20-years’ better eating — strode toward me with outstretched hand. No doubt he was my father, and I was his son — flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, our divided pasts and presents our own, but our futures intermingled, come what may.
Other than our general appearance I was nothing like him. We were virtual strangers to one another, especially since my mother’s early departure when I was twelve. It was as if our individual griefs, instead of uniting and strengthening our particular parent–child bond, somehow drove a wedge between us. We forked in different directions. He disappeared into his varied business interests. I hit the streets, running, as it were, from every new demon — those usual pathologies inherent to Adolescent Despair versus Untimely Death of a Loved One — which popped up to stab me with horn and pitchfork at every new intersection of Life and Conflict, Self-Awareness and Maturity. Still, I was happy to see him, taking his broad, toothy grin as a sign that he felt something similar, at least. I grasped his meaty hand in mine, then pulled him to me in a bear hug, the hug of a grown son to his aging father, the very masculine hug which relies on its machismo to mask insecurity and trepidation. He clapped me on the back, a real thumper that resonated through my chest like an echo chamber, and said in his Ozark Mountain drawl,
“Heya, boy. How’s it goin’? Been a long time, yeah?”
“Yep,” I returned, my vision blurring against a brim of tears. I armed him across his hard, round shoulders, warming and conforming to his presence like a heliotrope to the sun. This close, odors of Old Spice cologne, the burnt remains of blended Turkish tobaccos and the musty stuff of wool flannel mixed in my nose. Heady aromas of memory, and so very much different than the ever-present stale smells of institutional antiseptic, instant coffee, and the collected rankness of a thousand men in two-at-a-time, closet-sized confines. I wished for a memento of this rare moment, but, as the prison’s Visiting Room had only just opened, there was no inmate photographer present to capture it. Given our bifurcated histories, and the reasons for them, it figured.
We sat down to a pair of cheap, injection molded-plastic chairs and a low, circular table with chipped edging at the perfect height to bark the shins, among two dozen sets of the same, and looked around, getting the feel of the place, which was mostly empty, except for the lone guard and a newly arrived inmate waiting to see his family. By the manner in which they were beginning to gesture at one another, and in different directions, they were at loggerheads over where the guard wanted the inmate to sit. They grew quite loud prompting my father to shout,
“Hey, fellas, please! I haven’t seen my boy in years. Can we git a bit o’ peace here?”
I blanched, and wilted in my seat like week-old lettuce. My father’s voice boomed and echoed about the room. To me, his initiative, though bold, seemed rude and inappropriate, like an insolent challenge to a begrudged status quo. As the representative of the prison’s wider authority, the guard could terminate our visit for any reason. The penitentiary is the province of the incredibly petty and the purely selfish who claim nothing better to do. The guards are just as much a part of that aphorism as any inmate. Instant retaliation by a guard against an upstart inmate or his family would be reason plenty.
“Dad, shhhh,” I counseled, pleading mightily in a whisper as with my eyes. “You can’t say shit like that to any one of these punk-ass COs.”
His response simply was to ignore me and clap his hands at the increasingly feuding pair, who continued as if they hadn’t heard him. The sharpness of this noise, normally foreign to these environs, caught the guard’s attention. He ambled over, black patent leather kit belt creaking like old knees and heavy keyring ching-chinging like Bobtail’s jingle bells. Almost in Pavlovian recoil, I averted my eyes and ducked my head. I feared it was all over before it'd even begun. I might’ve said, Thanks for coming, Dad, but the words died a dog’s death in my tightening throat.
“Sir … you dere, you clappid’ yer hadds ad me?” The guard scowled, jabbing a thick, crooked finger over us rather than at us. “Dat’s wardid’ dumber wuhd, sir. Dod’t do id agaid, or I’ll edd yer visid, boda yous.” A gangster in gray blouse and black slacks, this guy, like he was a transplant from New Yawk, or somewheres. Certainly looked the part — ears boxed to cauliflower, nose dented and bent to the right (which no doubt contributed to his inability to enunciate the letter N), flunkie-style, eyebrows more scar tissue than hair. I was warned, though, by his furrowed brow and icy glare. My father? Yeah, not so much.
“Calm down, buddy, calm down. No ‘fense meant.” He hoisted his hands in mock surrender. “Just here to see my kid, that’s all. Been more’n twenty years, ya know.” Evidently, only I could hear the chuckle below his throat.
Turning back to his podium to renew his duel with the other inmate, the guard spat out the side of his neck — about as disrespectful an act in prison as there is — “Yea, well, yous beed ward.” Guard’s name was Hackney, and it fit him to a T. Inmates bitched about him all the time, swearing to every god that they weren’t going to cut him to shreds for disrespecting them in front of their families, or for terminating their visits for seemingly bullshit excuses. What made it worse was the prison’s administration always sided with him; an inmate never had a chance. It was my first half-assed run-in with him, but I knew him by reputation, as any inmate would know any foul guard, and vice versa. It’s the way of life on the inside: know as much or more about your enemy than he does you. The spy agencies of the world, with all their laser-based super snoopers and Bond-movie gadgetry, ain’t got nothing on Corrections Officers or inmates when it comes to human intelligence gathering. It’s said in the joint that “even a roach don’t pass no ass without somebody hearin’ it, smellin’ it, and waitin’ to tell another somebody about it.” It don’t take a penal philosopher to understand why.
I could see in my father’s coloring that some sort of fighting hick remark was fixing to jump from his tongue. I knuckled his right knee and pressed a finger to my lips. He nodded, and the redness in his face and neck subsided, dropping like a cooling thermometer. It was my Sentencing Day the last time I saw in him such a bright hue. Biting his tongue was never his strong suit, nor mine, but prison has its way of forcing upon you a degree of submission to authority. It will not be cowed, but you will, or you’ll die kicking and screaming before it’ll ever even think of letting you go home, and prison is nothing if not a repository for men simply waiting to go home. Seen these bars and walls do crazy things to better men than me, and plenty worse.
Happily, we sat next to an array of vending machines that stood like a neon-lighted phalanx against an entire wall of the Visiting Room. For what seemed to me a usurious fee, one could purchase in coin all manner of sandwiches, slices, candy, ice cream, even salads, or soda, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. One could get drunk, or poisoned, on sugar and fat. Considering my regular diet of bland starches and flavorless proteins, I meant to. I suggested we breakfast on burgers, Twinkies, and Pepsi for openers, if for nothing else than to change the subject and lighten the mood. The tension seemed to drip from the walls and ceiling like gathered condensation, as more inmates and their respective families had arrived over the ensuing minutes, spurring Hackney to a frenzy, to the point that he went on break as a means of escape. Lucky him. His relief, CO Britt, was only marginally better at handling the rapid influx of riotous and unruly people chafing at surly, often militant authority. Raised voices, hand slaps on the podium’s faux woodgrain finish for emphasis, and toddlers and tots banging primary-colored toys as they bounced over and in-between the seats created a need to speak ever louder in order to be heard. It brought to mind an unholy amalgamation of the DMV, a hospital emergency ward, and a daycare center. Among the thousand and two others, it was yet one more reason to wish I’d stayed home that night I decided twenty years in prison was worth more than that store clerk’s life, or mine. Calloused though I was by so many years behind bars, I was not prepared for what came next.
Blood rising once again in my father, as gumption in an old pissed-off hermit, he leapt to his boots. I just missed catching his right shoulder to stop him and prevent I didn’t know what. He began to yell, “Hey, hey, HEY!”
Each syllable rose in volume and intensity until the entire room fell silent as a holy rollin’ church after a rousing stomp and the preacher’s out back sippin’ honeyed whiskey. I drained white a second time as he thrust forward a rigid finger and, ranting and raving, directed everyone to heed the guard’s instructions and take to their assigned seats without further ado; demanded that indolent mothers scoop up their wayward children climbing the walls like little monkeys (this being said amongst an intimidating number of black inmates and their families saw me no end of stared daggers and a horror of imagined retributions to be dealt with on the prison yard; the gasps it drew quite literally sucked the air from the room); insisted with the asceticism of a martinet that all of them shut the hell up so he could have a peaceful visit with his only son, whom he hadn’t seen in twenty years.
Satisfied, as the distraction and noise dropped off to a deafening silence, my father plopped back down in his chair with such force that its plastic feet scraped several inches across the heavily waxed linoleum, producing a raspberry of flatulence that would have embarrassed an elephant. Ignoring it (and my ashen face of grave concern), my father folded his arms over his chest and glared right back at the astonished crowd, almost daring someone, anyone, to challenge him. I think that if he had to, he meant to have it out with any or all, come what may.
I sat quiet and still, as granite as the lump in my throat. It’s said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but do you believe He might have forgiven my asking for a sinkhole just then? I passed only because I was stunned, gone numb to all but the most visceral experience, and expected all hell to break loose any moment. It was as if my father had slapped the collective faces of every person in the room at the same time, not meaning, I don’t think, to be disrespectful, but unable or unwilling to prevent his small-town values of harmony for harmony’s sake and neighborly cooperation from clashing with the urban race for immediate gratification and what’s-mine-ain’t-never-gonna-be-yours mindset. Where had such command and authority come from? I certainly never saw it growing up, nor did I ever hear of this inclination in him. Later, naturally, I would wonder that if I had, would I have ended up in prison? I would lie awake in the wee hours of the next several nights speculating on a number of likely outcomes The Fates might have crafted for me. My eventual realization was that The Fates are tricky witches, carding and spinning an infinite number of infinite destinies, plying their trade for every one of us, and it’s in the uniqueness of the weave where each of us finds the only one that will ever matter. Apparently, part of my destiny was to grow up with a distant father and witness him crystallize in a single moment of bother all the love he had ever shown me, even if it was ill timed and out of place. He was a force, and everyone present took notice; and for a moment it worked, until a girl of four, silly as a giggle and a chocolate explosion of dimpled cute in a patched denim jumper and symmetrical braided pigtails, pointed a sticky finger at him and screamed with laughter through her missing front teeth. It was as if the floodgates opened. Hoot and howls, scads and snorts burst forth from every nose and mouth, including CO Britt’s. Like air escaping from a ruptured balloon, the tension broke and fell flat.
To my everlasting surprise, far from finding offense (aside from muffled grumbling at my father’s unintended racism), the crowd followed his commands with little to no fuss. Several, led by the guard, winked at him or sprang a thumbs-up. People, especially prisoners, respect guts, and my father has always had them, I only then realized. He may not have been there to tell me he loved me, or hug me, or encourage me, but he gave me food, clothing, and shelter when the streets needed a break from me. He was patient with me, and that took guts, because I couldn’t grow up fast enough, a particularly strident fact I pointed out to him every chance I got.
Of course, this story made the rounds as fast as Rumor could spread it, and in the telling and retelling back in my housing unit and on the prison yard, I found a pride for my father I never knew I had. He loved me in his own way, and had achieved for me a notoriety and celebrity among my fellow inmates which I had never sought nor desired. Prison is not the place to pop your head above the clouds, so to speak. In a strange way, this even gained for me another layer of armor upon a sort of shield that protected me from the penitentiary’s more sordid evils, the dangers of which were never, ever far enough away, even for someone of my stature and standing as an “old head,” someone for whom “doing time” to such length has become a badge of honor, earning for me a certain respect and admiration for having done it the “right” way, like rewarding a gold watch to the office’s retiring janitor.
That following Monday, visiting again with my father prior to my parole hearing, I explained to him what had happened after our first encounter the other day. A half-grin and the twinkle in the depth of his hazel eyes nearly convinced me he’d known what he was doing all along, as if he wished to continue watching over me from afar, come what may.
// Seven Scott is a contributor to The Periphery.