Redemption Aint Here
by Melinda C Bullen
Their voices invaded Jake’s ears, scraping at his brain and punching at his skull, like fists. He hated them. He hated all of them for what they had done and for what they were, trash and no-gooders. He felt like the blackest sheep in a coal-black herd. Prison was uglier than he had ever imagined. He knew he was from a history of poor white trash and kin that had been put away for moonshining, and one for armed robbery of a restaurant down in South Carolina, but as he bent over to pick up an empty cigarette pack on the side of Highway 19/23, he believed that his misery was darker than any his people had ever known.
He looked into the sun and could tell by its place over the mountains that there were still two hours of road clean-up ahead. The day was crisp. Pulling the heavy cool air into his lungs he let its autumn chill seep into him, squelching the heat of his hatred into a wet steam. He exhaled and watched his white breath collate with the hazy fog that was beginning to settle over the valley around him.
“Stop lazin’ around, ya stupid bastard. Move, move, MOVE!” yelled Deputy Reynolds.
Jake lurched forward, scanning the ground for trash, his orange garbage bag dragging behind him. Stings of hot pain ran up his back from the constant bending and retrieving bits of lives – bits of leisure thrown from cars. He bent, grabbed, and dropped these little pieces of someone’s day, someone’s freedom, into his heavy fluorescent ball and chain. A Doritos bag, a Pepsi can, a condom wrapper, a dirty diaper, a Crayola marker. When he began to let his mind wander to where all of this stuff had come from, the pangs of bitterness distracted him from the pain in his muscles.
“You are the slowest Goddamn man on the planet! We ain’t goin’ to hold up the gang ‘cause of you. I’ll make you stay to midnight cleanin’ this highway by yerself if you don’t hurry up. You can freeze to death for all I care. MOVE,” Reynolds shouted at the back of his head.
“Sorry, sir,” Jake muffled.
“I don’t give a shit for yer sorries! Keep moving!”
The other prisoners looked back at Jake, snickering to each other. Jake knew how much the other men despised him, saw him as weak and pathetic. They were hardened and most had served time before. Jake was green. He was arrested early in his senior year and incarcerated by the time girls were buying prom dresses and boys were being fitted for tuxes. He had turned eighteen just two weeks before his sentencing, earning him the punishment of a man, not a boy. Everyone in the county had heard about what he had done and the prison was no different. On his first day, Mick Johnson asked him in the yard, “S’it true what you did to the Lowry girl?”
Jake’s eyes hadn’t moved from his shoes since the moment he stepped through the electric fence of Yancey County Correctional Center, but at the mention of her name, his eyes sprang up into Mick’s.
“You know Molly Lowry?”
“Y’stupid, boy? Everybody here knows everybody,” Mick answered. “We’re all family in these parts. We’re just a branch of th’tree nobody likes to talk about.” He chuckled to a few guys that had gathered around. “So, why’d you do it, boy?”
“I loved her.”
“From what I hear, what you did ain’t love, boy,” Mick answered while turning away, knowing this kid wasn’t going to last long in the joint.
He lined up behind Mick, Stratton, and Billy. He always tried to stay close to the three, not because they were friendly but because they barely acknowledged him, and that was better than a punch in the ribs or a slap to the back of the head. The men shuffled toward the steel door of the mini-bus they were boarding. It was shorter than a school bus but had the shape of one. And the smell, bodies and vinyl and brake powder. Instead of the school buses that were covered in bright-yellow paint, this one was cream with big block letters that read Yancey County Correction Center on the side. Even the free spots were covered with cage. The windows, which only opened a few inches from the top, were covered by a thick metal grate, giving the illusion from the inside that the outside world was broken and pixilated. The bus reminded him of those old Barnum & Bailey railcars that blew through his small town when he was a kid. A train moving cages, holding lions and tigers, heading to some faraway place. But he was sure that his cage held twenty-five animals far more ferocious than any jungle creature. Jake let his eyes wander to his left and follow the long line of the highway that the crew had spent the day cleaning. The trees were dropping leaves, and the sun was lowering itself behind the mountain ridge just beyond town. A hazy blue made out the mountain line, darker and deeper than the falling night sky. Bright orange bags dotted each side of the highway for miles. They looked like deflated pumpkins, marking a path to autumn – one that held cider, his mama, fall festivals, and the opportunity to disguise himself. He liked dressing up. Being anonymous. A vampire, a ghost, a pirate. He had learned early on how to be invisible so that he could watch her.
The minibus creaked down the highway, its steel groaning against every rise and fall through the mountains. Most of the men were quiet – tired from the long day of bending and grabbing garbage. Jake felt his slender body slide back into the cracked vinyl seat of the bus as it crested the steep road and, then moments later, let his knees collide with the back of the seat in front of him, as it descended the other side. The swaying, silent, rhythmic ride back to prison comforted him. As they began their last mile before the turnoff to the prison, the sea of men all slid forward by the sudden braking of the bus. Jake stretched his back and neck tall, glimpsing through the windshield flashing blue and red lights. An accident had occurred at the stoplight in town, and the bus took a left turn into a neighborhood, detoured by a county police officer directing traffic.
Jake’s heart fell in his chest as he watched the familiar landscape unfold through the tiny cream holes of cage. He tried to look ahead of the bus through his window but his vision was blocked by the steel grate covering it. Sitting straight in his seat, he prepared himself. The Samuels’ house, the Winters’ house, the empty lot – he counted off the familiar lots on the wealthy block. Molly’s came into his holey view, illuminated by what seemed like every light in the house. It looked warm and inviting to Jake. Her parents’ car was parked in the driveway, and their black cat, Shadow, was walking out of the garage when the Yancey County prisoners rode by. With the noise of the old prison bus lurching up the tiny residential road, the cat tightened its muscles, and its back became rigid. Jake locked eyes with Shadow, whose round black head followed him until the steel grate blocked his view again. The bus braked, its turn signal clicking loudly in Jake’s ears. The cage turned right and continued on its detour.
Jake stared down at his knees. There was nothing left of interest out the window of the bus. He let his index finger trace the letter F on the knee of his mud-colored jumpsuit. Next he tried the letter S, then D. He found pleasure in his own writing, even if it was invisible to the eye. Pens and pencils still felt awkward in his hand, but the feeling of soft cotton beneath his calloused forefinger was thrilling. The rounded letters were his favorite. The sweeping of his hand as he rounded the curves of a B. The letters, when pushed together, were meaningless, since they could never say how sorry he was for what he had done to the young, beautiful girl that he had once loved.
He could hear the clanging of the chain against the gears of the mechanical fence as it opened to let the minibus into the prison driveway. Twenty-eight percussive clangs and the bus would jerk forward through the gate. Twenty-eight clangs every day out and every day in. Twenty-eight clangs of metal on metal marking the line between his cement life and the liberated world. As he counted each metal hit of the chain, Jake knew that he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
Jake’s shoes scuffed the moon-colored linoleum floor, leaving black flecks on its surface, like deep, silent craters. The walk to Dr. Hanson’s office had always felt long, though it was only through a set of double doors beyond the cell block. To get to the Doc’s office he had to walk past the men that ruled the prison. The predators. Quiet, angry men who watched for the weakest to be alone and vulnerable. He could feel their cold eyes on him. As he passed the group, shame cloaked his low shoulders, and he used all of his energy to stop the brimming tears from spilling down his face. He forced his eyes to find his shoes and watched as he put one in front of the other.
Dr. Hanson made Jake nervous, since he couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to say to him. But today, Jake would talk. He had to talk.
“How are you today, Jake?” Dr. Hanson asked, without looking up from his desk.
“’Kay, I guess.”
“You gonna talk to me today?”
“Um…. Yeah,” answered Jake.
Dr. Hanson perked, slowly rising from his desk and the stack of files he thought he’d be catching up on that hour. He pushed his hand toward the leather chair for Jake to sit. Jake’s willingness to talk was momentous as he had been virtually silent since his sentence had begun. Hanson took a moment to let the excitement of the breakthrough drain out of him as he settled himself into the opposite chair. The mica lamps lent an amber glow to both of their faces, deepening their shadows. He believed that Jake had never looked so old – too old for a boy.
“So, what’s on your mind, Jake?”
“I need your help,” Jake answered. He looked directly into the doctor’s eyes.
“Okay, what do you need?”
“D’ja ever know Preacher Will? Down at Firs’ Baptist?”
“Well, sure,” Hanson answered.
“I’ve bin thinkin’ about somthin’ the preacher used to talk about a lot. Redemption of our sins and all that, ya know?”
Jake was quiet for a long time. He looked back down into his lap and whispered to it.
“I need that redemption, Doc.”
He continued to stare into his knees. The doctor was sure that he had said all he was going to say. Just as he was about to break the silence, Jake muttered, “Well, I guess I understand how she felt.”
“Y’know. To be held down. Someone pushin’ on ya,” Jake whispered.