At ten p.m., Betty told her foster children to make oatmeal for their supper again, and then she stumbled back to bed. Monica was only four, but Nick was nine, and he knew they'd have to eat a lot of oatmeal to outrun Betty. So, once he'd untangled his sister's barrettes and fixed her hair, he cooked dinner and encouraged her to eat by singing songs and sharing elaborate escape routes he'd planned. Where Nick learned to write songs and make plans was unclear, but he'd hidden them carefully in stolen notebooks.
"Try to eat," he told Monica. "We have to eat.
"I'll find something better tomorrow, I promise."
Years later, when Nick was thirty, he stood on a dark wet corner. He was waiting for his bus and worrying about Monica's new boyfriend when a dealer approached. "Hey, I have too many hits today," the dealer said. "Help me out, bro."
Nick checked his watch. If his damn bus didn't hurry, he'd risk being late again for his part-time job polishing floors at Mel's Gym. A full-time job was opening soon, Mel promised, and every small promotion helped towards his bigger goal of becoming a personal trainer in a better gym. But certification courses weren't free.
"Come on," the dealer said, not knowing Nick had already decided to seize the opportunity to save for those courses. "Take 'em, bro. Fifty-fifty."
Only a nod, under a broken streetlight, and Nick held a plastic bag. It wasn't the first time he'd dabbled in drug sales so he was long past any moral questions; he only hesitated because he was on parole. Anyway, cocaine was his drug of choice, and he was ready to use or sell when opportunity knocked. Also, Mel would have jerked him around for being late, and he definitely didn't need that.
"Yeah, okay," Nick said, "fifty-fifty."
The dealer sprinted off as Nick pocketed the drugs and headed towards a recently abandoned grade school. There, Nick approached a buyer, but a screeching, throbbing siren came so close suddenly that his feet froze. Too stunned to run, he looked directly into headlights. Did I walk into a set-up? A sting?
Yes, Nick had walked into a sting and he was on his way to prison. He was a three-striker.
Five years later—Nick was not sober. Drugs and alcohol were decent options in prison. Whenever they lifted restrictions on sugar, he made pruno from cafeteria fruit and traded it for other contraband. Still very goal-driven and entrepreneurial, Nick believed he'd run a nightclub when he got out. In fact, on a cold foggy day, while sipping a prison-made cocktail, he leaned against a wall in West Block's janitorial unit editing his extensive nightclub notes. His rule was to never edit or reread his notebooks further back than a month or two because his older goals seemed young and stupid.
He wrote quickly, mop handle jammed in his armpit, watching for a correctional officer. As he concentrated, his ears went dead to human sounds, though he was aware of a foghorn repeating through the afternoon. It sounded mellow, infiltrating cement in a haunting, soothing way and he thought of jazz, saxophones, cocktails, sassy hips, and dozens of songs he'd written while in prison. Famous musicians would pay top dollar for Nick's songs when he got out. Another way he planned to bankroll his nightclub.
The music traveled through razor wire so smoothly he felt like Sonny Rollins, lulling ships from danger. And like a ship, Nick drifted too. In minutes he'd let his guard down, wishing he could share his magical drink, his plans, and his soulful music with the whole world to make it feel better.
Pow! "What the…." Nick spun around; he never saw it coming.
A correctional officer who thought violence was the answer to everything hit him a second time in the face and shouted, "What's in the cup, Anderson?"
Nick had bulked up to survive in prison, but when he swung his mop, he slipped away from himself, tumbled a great distance and he was gone.
After that, Nick had sight in only one eye, but he found Jesus in the infirmary. Where forgiveness was once out of reach and unconvincing, he'd discovered a clear path, a path he couldn't believe he'd ever doubted. His regrets were biting, blinding, but his relief grew palpable as his hopes grew stronger that he, together with Monica, would soon walk a right road. Rejoice!
The extent of his relief surprised him every day, especially in the hole, after another alcohol infraction. The very idea of joining Team Jesus, sharing his burden, talking to a pure spirit in both bright and dark hours and getting answers back, made him sit with his bible sometimes and stare in wonder at the page.
Just six months after joining Team Jesus, on a sunny January morning, he pulled out his neglected notebooks to think constructively about his future again. There was a strong possibility he'd become a minister when he got out, rather than a personal trainer or nightclub owner, and it was important to put it in writing. First, he questioned the weed in his hand. Light it or not? Fight his addictions or not? He hadn't seriously considered sobriety as a goal since juvenile hall when he was caught for stealing food again.
After losing his right eye, Nick questioned everything; it seemed he could see more clearly. Still, sobriety had to wait another day. For one thing, Nick's cellie rarely showered or washed his clothes. So, when it was safe, Nick lit up. Weed deadened the smell of Carlos and helped Nick enjoy old photos of Monica's fourth kid.
Two years later, Pastor Lenny grabbed his shoulder as he left chapel. "Nick, you're smart, I'd like to see you get your GED."
"Come on Lenny, I'm thirty-seven years old. Why now?"
"You're different, you'll do big things. Besides, the world won't adjust to you Nick, it works the other way around. You need to prepare."
Prepare? Nick was well prepared. He'd kept notebooks full of preparation. Besides, he'd been screwed-over since day one and he'd done his time. Shouldn't the world adjust to him? Not that he was bitter or angry; faith in Jesus had tempered his rage, but he'd expected to sit back and let Jesus do the heavy lifting. What an unpleasant surprise.
In truth, Nick's all-seeing, dead-eye knew his faith was flagging. No miracles had come his way and none were on the horizon. Nick's straight penciled lines and carefully organized priorities detailed in his notebooks seemed more reliable than anything Pastor Lenny had to offer, and with a bit of updating, they'd nudge him towards a better life. Get my GED, too?
"Yeah," an inmate assured Nick at chow. "The classes are good. I mean, I sweat the essays, and they always give the books out too late, but it's okay. Look, the parole board is all over that stuff these days, just do it."
True, but Nick was confused, rather ashamed, because he'd avoided his biggest priority for decades. Before school, he had to tackle Narcotics Anonymous.
Nick liked the meetings. He went three times a week because it turned out he enjoyed self-analysis and group discussions. He got lessons he never imagined existed and other inmates actually forgave and supported him! He felt lighter, he smiled more, and in only one year, Nick seriously considered the possibility of becoming a drug counselor and attending those meetings sober.
He'd figured out that using drugs blocked his other goals. And though it was very slow going, his panic attacks and near blackouts finally ended after three weeks. The physical price for sobriety was huge, but it was nothing compared to the emotional cost. Nick's original fascination with self-analysis? Well, digging deep turned out to be a double-edged sword. Knowing who you were, and why, proved to be dark shit.
Continued sobriety meant peeling back more dark dramas with Monica, like watching her throw up oatmeal and beans in Betty's backyard. Dark violent Betty and the dark men who haunted her house--where was Nick then? What the hell did he do to help and protect? He was in and out of jail, where he'd done nothing.
Maintaining sobriety was so discouraging for Nick, he avoided his ridiculous, hopeless notebooks. And on one prison night, when he wasn't active on Team Jesus anymore or stoned or hyperventilating from withdrawal, he simply stopped pretending he'd ever achieve anything in life. Just like that, he gave up every goal. All he wanted, more than any goal he'd ever set, was a sharp knife.
Carlos was in the infirmary with a bleeding ulcer, a mixed blessing, because Nick was left alone to consider his long standing bad habits. After three nights of agonizing regret, he felt hacked. If he kept it up, those self-inflicted, psychic, bloody cuts he'd made would finish him off. If only he had a real knife, he'd plunge right through to the bottom of all his lies in one swift action. Cleanly and surgically, he'd slash his way to freedom.
Such a knife was not available so he was stuck. He had to face the fact that he was a junkie who'd thrown his sister to the wolves, constantly robbed broke, alcoholic Betty, sold drugs to twelve year olds and many, many worse things he periodically got caught for.
With his lies untangled, Nick was nothing but a sleaze and a bum. Like every other inmate, he'd failed in all aspects of his life. How was it possible he'd wear a cap and gown and stand in line to receive his high school equivalency diploma next month? Could a monster earn his GED, leave prison, take college courses, find a real job, get married, and make amends? Family and visitors must have thought so; they'd sit on plastic chairs in the chapel to watch graduation. Monica wrote once that she forgave Nick, though she wouldn't attend his graduation. Thankfully, Nick's teachers and Pastor Lenny promised to cheer him on.
"In thirty years," Pastor Lenny once told Nick, "I've never seen an inmate grow more than you have. Be proud of yourself for getting sober and smarter, empathetic, and prepared for the possibility of early release. What's it been?—four years since your last alcohol infraction. The parole board's going to see that."
A sense of achievement, however, was not what Nick felt because there were so many changes all at once. They'd occurred over years, not months, but the gulf between who he'd been, who he'd become, and who he might be was suddenly frightening. He'd drown, if he kept questioning his future. So he jumped decisively from his bunk to clear his head and stood in his underwear in a chilly, dimly lit cell, where the fundamental lies that brought him to prison cracked wide open. Nick heard them pull apart. The fog had lifted, but his life-long system of lies and self-deception made a racket when they crashed on shore.
He rotated his neck, stretched his arms overhead, bent his knees, and hummed out-loud to silence the sounds of awareness. All the changes, all the possibilities brought back panic he thought he'd tamed months ago.
"What's going on, Anderson?"
Nick turned towards the correctional officer's voice; his fight or flight instincts were so conditioned he almost took a swing. But time in the hole was hardly worth the half-swing he'd get off before more guards came running to subdue him.
"Just taking a piss," he said.
"Well, do it."
He went through the motions and returned to his bunk, where growing doubts that he actually had a chance of living a normal life amplified his anxiety to the highest levels ever. Fortunately, Nick had anticipated this attack. Earlier, at chow, he'd made arrangements. Quietly, he reached for his net bag where he kept photos, a bible, his notebooks, lawyer papers, and so on. At the end of the unit, someone coughed or cried as Nick located a tiny hiding place in his paperback thriller. That's where the pills were.
Lies were a comfortable way of life, and Nick felt off balance without them: a one-eyed, diabetic, balding man who owned no clothes. He swallowed just in time for the pills to halt the progress of that terrifying, swallowing gulf. The extent of his relief surprised him; it was a smooth easy ride back to the old Nick, and he enjoyed the familiar sensation immensely. When he fell asleep, he smiled all night because he'd convinced himself the decision to get high was not the decision of an addict.
It was true. Years of meetings and GED courses had made Nick so self-aware that he was capable of making good decisions based on evidence and understanding, not on impulse or desperate dark needs. He appreciated consequences now, knew how to avoid most anxiety triggers, and he'd been deeply in touch with his lifelong rage. He could do algebra, conjugate verbs, and rattle off the exact height of Mt. Everest. The accomplishments he'd made were endless; math and Jesus had brought him miles, but sometimes he miscalculated how many miles he had yet to go. So, occasionally, no big deal, he drifted in illusions that seemed like goals, only breezier.
The next morning, Nick dragged his discouragement, fear, and shame to the chapel where Pastor Lenny was consoling a pleading inmate. He saw Nick and winked. Nick waited a few seats away for Lenny to join him.
"What's going on, Nick?"
"Nothing, I just..."
"You've earned this, Nick. Come on now, most inmates dream of early release."
Nick studied Lenny's dark weary eyes and questioned his overburdened spirit. By noon, he'd probably say the same thing to ten other losers.
"Don't worry so much, Nick, one spark and you'll be taking strong, certain steps out of here. Your purpose will shine."
Nick's hangover raged.
"Listen, I'll guarantee you that a prayer, a word, a song, even a bird in the yard will light a spark and you'll walk away forever."
Occasionally, yes, Nick still believed in forever. But not that day, not when Lenny's same old prayers-or-bird-speech seemed particularly tired, hollow, scripted, and impersonal.
"Don't you see?" Lenny insisted. "Your willingness to be honest with your worst self brought you full circle; you'll live right this time."
Exasperated, Nick gestured with a sweep of his hand across the altar to razor wire outside. "Lenny, that's bull, I'm not different. We all have the same sad story, the same baggage, and the same shot when we get out—most of us fail. Are you kidding me? Old gangsters are coming and going at such a rate, politicians and journalists can't keep up. I'm not a kid anymore, Lenny, and I understand the odds. I don't even know what's realistic. What can I hope for? Should I get my PhD or drive a racecar? Maybe I'll work in a coalmine or become a movie star. I need real answers."
"I just gave you a real answer. Be your best self."
"But, Lenny, I don't know how. All the odds are against me."
"Who's talking about odds? I've spent decades in this prison, Nick, and years with you. We've questioned everything from why women are angry to how long a criminal justice system can lock up its best young leaders. And this is how far we've come? You're going with the odds?"
"Say the truth, Lenny, every poor slob deserves the truth. How do we get past our fantasies? What are the steps? Who pays the rent, who feeds me while I figure out my best self? Geez, Lenny, thanks for nothing."
"Okay, Nick, one more time. You will figure it out. Just take your best self right on out of here. I know you like goals, Nick, so that's your goal."
Around the baseball field, fog pulled from the coast and barn swallows swooped from nests in cement cracks. Nick headed back towards West Block slumped and worried about his early release. What the heck, he thought, remembering Lenny's words. I'll take a chance and prove him wrong. Sure, until a correctional officer moves me along, I'll listen to the birds.
He felt like a fool, but when he tilted his ear, in a flurry of wings, Nick actually overheard something— the swallows were complaining:
"Those nests again, hell, where does the time go?"
"Me? I'm gonna put my feet up, skip the whole thing.
"Yeah, why bother? Same damn thing next year."
No kidding, Nick thought, utterly defeated. Then a different group of swallows, with no time to waste, swooshed past the grumblers and over Nick's head. They sang, rejoiced, assembled their pieces, and Nick didn't feel so low. Louder, louder, they sang beautifully about their fine intent and other things, worthy things, immediately recognizable because they were the very same things he'd struggled to organize into stolen notebooks. Was this Lenny's idea of a full circle moment?
Music always pulled from Nick's past. Now birdsongs carried him to his earliest notebooks where he'd written songs for Monica when she was four. Weak as he was with early-release blues, memories of those songs should have overwhelmed Nick, but he'd learned to dig deep. So he took stabilizing breaths, stopped in the prison yard, and slowly turned towards places that had made him strong: the chapel, classroom trailers, a baseball field, and the solitary housing unit. He waited, because after all those years of work and change, he expected a flood of something.
"Keep moving," the officer shouted. "Now."
Steadily, Nick pushed past old familiar anxieties to possibilities ahead. He couldn't name them yet, he needed time to find words for what he'd never felt. But not then, the officer's expression was menacing and he had to move on. Ready or not, after so many long, long years, Nick had to move on. So he settled for a quick wave and a silent goodbye to Betty's kitchen.
Carter Schwonke is a graduate of Syracuse University and University College London. Her work has appeared in Blueline, Pif Magazine, Snake Nation, Stirring, Calliope, the Underground Voices 2013 print anthology, Bird's Thumb, and Evening Street Review. She is a literacy volunteer at a California State Prison.