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A soul feels its worth

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 39 from Sticks & Stones:
They moved like thieves in the pre-dawn hours. Silent. Efficient. She helped him lug the enormous boxes from his garage to her living room. He helped her wrap a supply line of unrecognizable twenty-first-century toys and other digitalia.

After the last gift was taped, tagged, and tied with a ribbon, they retired to her couch, sipping coffee that was more cream and sugar than caffeine.

Sunrise came in shafts of iridescence, blending with the Christmas lights, caressing her face. She sat with her knees tucked beneath her.

The work had been a distraction. But now that the presents were stockpiled beneath the tree, yesterday’s revelation emerged from the stillness and settled between them on the couch like an awkward guest. Though uncomfortable and unreciprocated, he did not regret telling her the truth of his feelings for her. If anything, he felt invigorated. Set free. Like he’d just faced down some bully on the yard.

She took a sip from her mug. “Thanks for helping. I should’ve wrapped them weeks ago.”

“Are you kidding? This is the most fun I’ve had in the last thirty years. Except for that blind date with what’s-her-face.”

Her tired eyes sparkled. “Stop.”

He glanced at the staircase. “Do they still believe in Santa Claus?”

She shook her head. “Evan hasn’t since he was eight. Maddy found out last year. Ooh, you wanna talk about one angry little girl? So insulted. I think she felt betrayed for not being in on the secret.”

A Maddy montage paraded across his mind: wiping out on her bicycle, laughing in the back of his truck, practicing cosmetology on his porch, shredding in the music store, scooping the loaded gun, running for her life.

A few short months ago he wondered about adjusting to society after so many years in a cage. How would he fit in? Where did he belong? Sitting next to her on the couch, Christmas morning, he knew the answer.

There was a thump upstairs, followed by muffled voices and the squeaky hinge of a door. Evan yawned on the landing then Maddy appeared next to him. They paused for a moment, soaking it in, then raced down the stairs and collapsed in front of the tree.

Evan picked up a present and read the tag. “This one’s yours, Maddy.”

She tore off the wrapper. It was a telescope. “Mom!” she squealed, her voice hitting an octave of Mariah Carey proportions. “You said I wasn’t old enough!”

Brooke smiled at her daughter.

“Cool!” said Evan upon discovering the Hoverboard. “Thanks, Mom!”

The living room quickly filled with wrapping paper as they ripped into gift after gift. Video games, a mini kitchen, camo pajamas, Hello Kitty pajamas, Legos, roller blades.

“Hey Mason, this one’s for you.”

He opened it carefully, some sort of high-tech coffee maker from Brooke. “Thanks. Now you’ll have to teach me how to use it.”

She smiled without meeting his eyes.

“Whoa,” said Maddy. “What are these big ones?”

Two large boxes were set back from the tree, flush with the wall.

Brooke raised an eyebrow. “I think those are from Mason.”

Evan pushed past his sister.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

Brooke seconded the motion. “Evan…”

“Sorry,” he said, ripping the paper from the box. Then he gasped. “It’s the same one … from the mall!”

Mason nodded. “We’ll have to assemble it. All the weights are in my garage. I’ll bring them down in the truck later.”

He stared at the picture on the box, a buff military type was pumping iron. Evan looked back at him with a smile that could have shattered his glasses. “Thanks man!”

Maddy’s box was taller than she was. By the time she got it open she was almost hyperventilating. She removed the pink Fender like a holy sacrament. “Mason,” she swallowed. “Is it mine?”

He laughed. “Yeah.”

“But how did you afford it? You’re ‘posed to be poor.”

“Madison…” scolded Brooke.

The little girl came flying across the coffee table and landed in his lap. Her hug was worth a thousand guitars. “This is the best Christmas ever!”

Brooke smiled at him from the other end of the couch.

He patted Maddy’s back. “There’s more presents under the tree.”

She struggled to her feet and rejoined her brother on the living room floor. Evan held up a shrink-wrapped box. “Is this for my drone? Awesome!”

A knock on the front door made them pause.

Brooke stood, smoothing her sweatpants. “I’ll get it.”

He watched her disappear down the hall. Moments later she returned with Blane.

“Well well,” the attorney sneered over a stack of gifts. “Something told me you might be here. Had I known for certain, I would have bought you a gift. Some deodorant perhaps.”

“Likewise,” Mason shot back. “I could have gotten you some teeth whitener.”

“Guys, please,” Brooke urged him with her eyes. “It’s Christmas.”

“Indeed it is,” Blane selected a gift from his stack and passed it to Evan. “So without further ado … young man? I believe this is yours.”

Evan unwrapped the package and held up a Guitar Hero video game.

Blane winked and nudged him. “Huh? Huh?”

Maddy smirked and hugged her Fender. “I got a real guitar.”

“And so you do,” Blane handed her a gift. “But do you have this?”

She tore off the wrapping paper, frowned at the box and cast it aside. “I don’t like dolls.”

With a pinched facial expression he presented Brooke with a flat box in elegantly wrapped paper. She sat on the couch and arranged the gift on her knees.

“Open it,” he urged, his face smug again.

She worked a fingernail beneath the tape and slid the box free. Maddy nuzzled up next to her as she lifted the lid and folded back the tissue paper.

“Ooohh,” said the little girl. “It’s a beautiful robe.”

Blane sat on the armrest. “Actually, it’s a kimono, one hundred percent silk. A partner at the firm traveled to Tokyo last month and I had him pick it up for me.”

Brooke pressed it against her face. “It’s lovely … thank you.”

“I wanna feel,” said Maddy.

“Hey Mom,” Evan called from under the tree. “Here’s another one from Mason.”

“Well open it up.”

“It’s to you.”

He had slipped it in with the children’s presents before dawn. Though it was not his intention for her to open it in front of her boyfriend, there was little he could do about that now. Blane stared infrared lasers at him from the other side of the couch, unhappy that the focus had shifted so quickly.

Brooke wavered before opening it.

Maddy was practically in her lap. “See what it is Mom! Come on!”

She peeled the paper from the black velvet box and glanced over at him. He feigned indifference. She flipped the top. Her breath caught. The gems shone brighter than the Christmas lights.

“It’s diamonds,” said Maddy, her voice hushed and reverent. “Green ones too.”

“Second rate costume jewelry,” Blane sniffed. “I’ve seen better at the flea market.”

Brooke’s smile was nervous, unsure. “It’s still very nice, Mason. Thank you.”

He looked straight at Blane. “It’s real. I would never insult her with anything artificial. She has enough fakes in her life as it is.”

“Yeah? What’d you do? Rob another bank?”

He glanced at Evan, who was watching from a sea of wrapping paper on the living room floor, then at Maddy, still staring transfixed at the jewel-encrusted bracelet. Finally he looked at Brooke who quickly looked away.

Up until the knock on the door, he was experiencing what may have been the best day of his life. The quiet conversation in the early morning hours while wrapping the gifts, the accidental brushes and electric touches that sent shock waves throughout his body, the wide-eyed wonder of Evan and Maddy as they stood on the landing and surveyed the vast expanse of presents beneath the tree, their unbridled joy as they waded and ripped into them. For the first time in forty-eight years, he got a taste of what fathers must feel on Christmas morning. Then Blane came over.

He could tolerate the slick mouth and overlook his snobby attitude and even deal with his threats at the restaurant, but he drew the line when it came to diminishing him in front of Evan and Maddy.

He stood and nodded toward the door. “Why don’t we finish this conversation outside.” He didn’t wait for an answer.

As he walked down the hallway, he was aware of the attorney’s footsteps behind him. Maddy’s voice carried from the living room. “Is Blane mad ‘cuz Mason’s present is prettier?” He smiled as he turned the knob.

The air was crisp. He could see his breath. The door slammed behind him.

“I’ll have you know,” said Blane, “I was Greco-Roman wrestling champ at Southhaven. I studied under the tutelage of Zach Glover.”

Mason had to restrain himself from laughing in his face.

Sensing that physical violence was not in the cards, Blane poked out his chest and his voice took on a menacing edge. “I thought I told you to stay away.”

“No, you told me not to snitch about your little fling with your paralegal. And I didn’t. I don’t need to resort to gossip to take Brooke from you. She was taken the moment we met.”

“I doubt that very seriously.”

He took a step closer. “Doubt what you want, do what you want, but I promise you this — if you ever insult me in front of those kids again, I will crush you like a child molester on the yard.”

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.

Scotty

I just assumed Scotty was a diaper sniper when he moved into my dorm. He fit the mold; 5 foot 5, big bifocals, quiet and never far from his bunk. Operating under this assumption, I dealt with him accordingly. Which is to say I didn’t deal with him at all. Different prisoners have different approaches to child predators. Abuse, extortion, exploitation… Karmic law can sometimes be a violent force. My approach is to let it do its thing. So I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that Scotty was, in fact, not a cho-mo. He was doing life for murder.

Back in 1985, when Reagan was just beginning his second term, when breakdancing was still in style and artificial intelligence was only a plot point in a sci-fi novel, Scotty found out his old lady was cheating. The arrest report says he shot her lover six times after leaving a Lakeland bar. He doesn’t remember any of it, but he was pretty drunk. While he was telling me his story, I kept doing the math in my head. Thirty-three years. I’ve been gone for 14 and it already feels like an eternity. When Scotty fell, I was only 11 years old. My life was really just beginning as his was coming to an end. (Although I’m sure the victim’s family would argue that the only life that actually came to an end that day was their loved one’s.) Sad situation, all the way around. If life is really just this flow of atoms through time and space, this endless waterfall of moments, each fading into the next, it’s amazing to fathom how a single drop — a solitary frame in an infinite sea of pixels — could have such far-reaching effects.

At age 20, Scotty was found guilty and sentenced to life with a mandatory quarter. Back in those days, Florida still had a parole system and this sentence ensured that he would serve at least 25 years, day for day, before being considered for release. This is what both the legislature and the court intended. Then came the 90s when the measure of politicians on both sides of the aisle came down to how tough they were on crime. Humane ideas such as empathy, forgiveness and second chances were viewed as weaknesses and quickly pounced on by political opponents. The parole system was abolished, the prison-building craze began, and life sentences suddenly meant exactly that… life.

But there was one problem: people like Scotty who were sentenced according to a different set of laws. This is why there is still a parole commission in the Sunshine State despite the fact that it’s been almost three decades since the parole system was axed. But to many of these dinosaurs, the system is a cruel joke.

Scotty limped to the finish line of his mandatory 25 years in 2010, legally blind from retinopathy (hence the enormous bifocals) along with a host of other medical complications that come with being a type 1 diabetic at the mercy of a starch-laden prison diet. When he met with the parole examiner that year, he presented a stack of certificates; everything from vocational classes like cabinet making to small appliance repair to residential wiring (which he took and taught), to the Christian program “Kairos,” to various anger and stress management programs, to the state-mandated Compass reentry course, along with both parenting pilot programs, from which he was the first in the state to graduate.

In addition to all these accomplishments, he also arrived at the quarter-century mark without a single disciplinary report. Just to add some perspective here, I’ve been incarcerated since March of 2005 and I’ve had eight DRs. Eight. And I consider myself a model inmate. Florida prisons are rife with drugs and gangs and undiagnosed mental illness. Even when one is committed to living righteously in these places, shit happens. Your bunkie hides something in the cell that you’re not aware of, you’re attacked and forced to defend yourself, you talk during count, you miss a call-out… Or you somehow manage to sidestep all of the above, but you have the misfortune of crossing paths with the wrong guard on the wrong day. Bogus DRs are almost a cliché in here. This was especially true during the last two decades when institutional abuse was at its height. The fact that Scotty was able to avoid every pitfall and keep his nose pristine is a minor miracle. Even now, on the doorstep of his 34th year in the joint, he still has a clean disciplinary record.

And yet…

The parole commission set his presumptive release date for 2030. And every few years when some formality of a rubber-stamped kangaroo-court hearing pops up, they pretend to consider all the facts before banging the gavel and denying his release. Again. This despite overwhelming evidence of his rehabilitation, exemplary conduct and deteriorating health. The parole examiner who conducted that initial 2010 interview even recommended to the board that he be released. Didn’t matter. Denied.

This begs the question: Why? Scotty is not the first person I’ve met in this situation. There are a handful at every institution (though I’ve never known anyone with 33 years DR-free). It almost seems that the state is bitter that there was once a time when sentencing laws were fair and provided a mechanism where men and women could earn their way out of prison with good behavior. So even though the parole commission is required by law to have these hearings, for the most part, people like Scotty are just set off until they die. The few that do make it out are those who are lucky enough to have friends and family to make phone calls and show support. This is more an exception than a rule. The reality is that people serving long prison sentences usually serve them alone.

Like I said, sad situation all the way around.