It was rather anticlimactic, getting out of prison. There was no banner offering congratulations or luck. There was no brass band waiting in the parking lot for a send-off. Afterall, men get out of prison every day, and every day men return. My bunk wouldn’t have had time to cool before another body came to fill it. The sallyport separating captivity from freedom might as well have been a revolving door for all the comings and goings. Before passing through its locked doors, remotely operated from behind reinforced glass, a lieutenant interrogated me troll-bridge style with questions meant to verify my identity—What is your social security number? What is your date of birth? What is your middle name? Where are you going?
“To the halfway house in Hutchins,” I said.
He flicked through the paperwork looking bored. “Alright,” he said finally. “Don’t fuck up.”
Officer Krannich escorted me out of the prison into the parking lot. It was like seeing the world through new prescription glasses; the perspective was distorted, the ground seemed to slope toward my feet making every step feel tentative. I’d believed my chaperone would release me then, that there in the parking lot my father and I would be reunited. But as hard as I scanned the rows of cars, I did not see my father. And Krannich never slowed but continued walking with the expectation that I should follow, so I did.
The weather was very gray and very windy. Walking through the parking lot past the ticking metallic husks I tilted my head straight back to gaze at the sky. Without fences and razor wire framing my peripheral, it seemed as voluminous as a cathedral ceiling, the gray light thick, imbued with its own pulsing inner-light.
We left the parking lot behind and crossed a minor road into a smaller, emptier lot which I took to be reserved for visitors.
“Do you see your dad?” Krannich asked.
Parked beside a toll-booth like structure I saw a new dark Nissan with a figure sitting hunched behind the wheel. He’d called it his “last car” when he bought it two months ago, implying that at his age—seventy six years old—the vehicle would almost certainly outlive him.
The reunion wasn’t what I’d imagined. Dad and I were spared no opportunity to embrace. My arms were occupied by a cardboard box filled with books and other possessions. And while I negotiated the box into the back seat, Krannich remained at my backside issuing orders that my father should follow behind us in the car while we walked ahead to the admin building to tie up loose ends. I was flustered and discombobulated, and the only impression I was able to absorb of my father was of a man smaller and more frail than I last remembered, leaning heavily on the driver-side door for support.
And then Krannich and I were walking again down another road toward an ugly prefab building lined with drab little offices. In one such office a CO pushed an envelope at me containing a debit card loaded with the remaining balance of my inmate account—$67.64
Back outside Krannich turned to me. “That’s it,” he said.
Whether he’d offered me luck or some other such token statement, or whether like the lieutenant he’d told me not to fuck up, I can’t remember. I was already walking toward the car, which was parked at the curb, motioning for my father to get out. Seeing him struggle to extricate himself from the seat made my throat ache.
For a half minute I held him, my chin in his shoulder, my teeth gnashed together. Finally I slipped into the passenger seat and only after I’d shut the car door did Krannich turn from the admin building and start back down the road toward the prison.
The last time I was in a moving vehicle was almost seven years ago on a bus to the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center. My peers and I had each been bound at the feet and shackled at the wrists by a chain that looped around our waists. The lengths of the chains had allowed us just enough slack to shuffle single-file on board and to bring the bologna sandwiches to our mouths.
Now I sat unrestrained beside my father speeding east down I–20. The freedom of movement made me uneasy. I kept my knees together and held my hands in my lap. I felt we were moving at a speed far greater than the car’s speedometer suggested, and I had the odd sensation of being pulled rather than propelled across the highway.
“You can change it if you’d like,” my father said, meaning the radio station. Mary Chapin Carpenter singing “Passionate Kisses.”
I eyed the touch-screen apprehensively. Like those flashing pseudo-buttons, the whole world seemed to lack depth. Or rather the world had its depths but I was incapable of distinguishing them. Every stimulus—touch, sight, smell, sound—slid clean from my skin, unabsorbed.
“This station’s fine,” I said.
In the drive-thru of a Starbucks Dad reached behind his seat and pulled something from a bag, my old leather wallet, flat and soft and worn around the edges. It was empty except for my social security card and my old driver’s license, now five years expired. He also produced from the backseat a phone, the only “dumb” phone he could find that would satisfy the halfway house’s and probation office’s requirement that sex offenders not have Internet access. Even then with all the trouble he’d gone through to find it, the phone still had a camera, also prohibited, which would need to be destroyed with a screwdriver as soon as I arrived in Hutchins. I flipped the phone open. Dad had already programmed his and Mom’s numbers in its memory.
There was some confusion with our drink order and I wound up with an iced latte instead of a chai latte. Not that it mattered; my brain was hardly capable of registering the difference between coffee and tea.
About an hour into the drive, just outside of Sweet Water, we stopped at a rest stop so I could change clothes. I’d left the prison wearing my commissary sweats. In the trunk of the car Mom had packed a suitcase with new jeans and dress slacks, tees and long-sleeved shirts, button-ups, belts, socks, underwear, and a jacket. Also in the trunk were six pairs of sneakers and boots still in their boxes.
In the line outside the men’s room I was the only person wearing a face mask, which I suspected from the looks I got made me something of a pariah. Friends had warned me that the world had changed. Trump’s legacy was to prove that even something as coldly factual as a virus could be bent to the will of political ideology. My face mask marked me not for someone concerned with his well-being and that of his community but for a sheep duped into selling out his liberties for liberal hysteria.
In prisons and jails across the nation, COVID infection rates are up to five times greater than in surrounding communities. Social distancing is impossible in an environment where people are forced to eat, sleep, and shit within four feet of one another. In my last institution nearly 900 men contracted the virus and at least three died, one of whom lived but twelve bunks from my own. None of us was afforded the liberty to protect our health. So it was strange to see people, free civilians, waiving their rights to wear masks and to socially distance and to stay healthy in the belief that they were protecting their freedom.
Both stalls in the bathroom were occupied, so I changed at a sink. I’d been told by my mother that clothing styles too have changed. “Slim fit is in,” she’d said. The jeans she’d bought me hugged my thighs and calves. The zipper’s teeth were sharp enough to slice a tomato. I pulled on a gray long-sleeved shirt, pushed up the sleeves and unbuttoned the top buttons. The fabric held the cosmeticy smell of a department store and was the softest thing I’d touched in a decade.
And here is the closest I came that day to losing my grip, there in a rest stop bathroom, my throat closing and eyes burning to think of the care, expense, and trouble my mother had gone through to pick out those clothes, which were far nicer than the clothes I usually bought for myself. I felt pride for my mother’s good taste, but also withering shame. I remembered as a small boy being embarrassed by the clothes she’d laid out for school, which had been of a fine quality but were decidedly “uncool.”
What a thankless brat that boy had been.
Before transferring my wallet to my jeans, I looked again at my old driver’s license. The photo was taken when I was eighteen, when I still had hair. My smile was that of someone who is self-assured, who knows the direction his life is going and has every expectation for success.
I washed my face and stared hard at my reflection in the mirror. At the sink beside me a civilian washed his hands, and I fought a giddy urge to turn to him and disclose everything. I just got out of prison. I have been locked up for ten years. You are the first free person I’ve spoken to.
“So what are your plans?” Dad asked when we were back on the road.
The enormity of the question, couched in such simple terms, made me grin. So what are your plans? So what are you going to do with the rest of your life? These were questions I’d answered as a teenager in high school. The plans had been laid nearly twenty years ago, and they had been good plans. Dad maintains that my Internet privileges will be restored soon and that I’ll be able to return to a career in computers. But I’ve known several offenders, men who like me were incarcerated for looking at child pornography online, men who’d had careers in computer engineering and coding, whose judges and probation officers barred them from ever using computers and returning to their professions.
“It’s absurd,” Dad was saying now, “that they should ban anyone from computers. Everything is done on computers—shopping, banking, job hunting … We’ll get it fixed though, even if we have to hire you a lawyer, we’ll get that changed.”
A great gust of wind pulled the car onto the shoulder making the tires hum.
“Whatever happens just promise me, please, promise me you’ll stay away from that stuff. I can’t see you go back to prison. It would kill me.”
“I know,” I said, eyes to the road. “I will.”
In Mineral Wells we pulled off the interstate to have lunch. Fast-food and casual dining restaurants bubbled up around the highway crowding out the natural world. Garish food emblems sat stacked atop one another like pop-up ads—golden arches atop cheeky chili peppers atop freckled redheads.
“What do you want to eat?”
The truth is I wasn’t hungry at all. The choices were overwhelming, the traffic discombobulating, and I was nervous about making it to Hutchins on time. And frankly I was afraid of what street food might do to my stomach after ten years of prison fare.
We wound up at a Whataburger only because it was closest. I ordered a jalapeno burger with fries, and we sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant behind an old stony-faced couple like something out of American Gothic. At the window an employee on her lunch break sat scrolling mindlessly through her phone while her fries turned cold. Like the coffee I’d drank earlier, my burger tasted of nothing. Not even the spicy tang of the jalapenos left an impression on my senses.
As numb and unmoored as I was, my sense for conflict and potential catastrophe was still very much on guard and perhaps even more heightened than usual given the foreign surroundings. Earlier when we’d stopped at a gas station I noticed a man coming towards the car and had decided yards before he’d reached the driver-side window that I didn’t like him, didn’t like the hardness of his eyes, didn’t like the aggressive way he walked as if marching into a stiff breeze. I knew before he’d approached the window to ask my father for eight cents what car he’d run with if he were in prison, the kinds of people he’d associate with, the sorts of hustles he’d have his hands in. “Can you believe that shit?” he told my father. “Damned cashier in there is tripping over eight cents!” I had done time with men like him. He was one of those angry peckerwoods who refers to his wife or girlfriend as his “old lady,” and who, when his buddies go to the hole, robs their lockers of all their dope and stamps.
Walking out of the Whataburger after we’d finished our lunch my senses were alerted by the approach of another strange figure, another potential threat. This man had a lumberjack beard, shaved head, and his features were obscured behind a dark bandana. This man didn’t ask for eight cents. This man demanded all our money.
“This is a stick-up.”
Then my brother unmasked himself and hugged me there in the parking lot, hard. I could feel every tendon in his arms, every rib and muscle, all more solid and real than the burger I’d just eaten. Paul had called earlier in the drive to see that I’d gotten out okay and again while we were eating. He’d planned the reunion covertly. Not even my father knew he’d been following us.
“I can see it in your eyes,” he said, his arm still hung around my shoulder. “You’ve got that deer-in-the-headlights look. You’re overwhelmed, aren’t you? I know how you feel.”
Paul got out of prison last May.
Back on the highway while I fumbled to pull up directions on my father’s iPhone, Dad nudged my elbow.
Paul sped ahead of us laying on the horn. On the back window of his Jeep he’d painted a message in thick white script: Congratulations! Welcome home!
It was the fan fare I’d missed earlier in the day.
Then the driver-side window slid down and confetti like multi-colored shotgun blast sprayed the air, smacked against our windshield, and skittered down the highway.