Updated: Mar 26
I called out the man’s name, then did a sniff check of the waiting room. The briskness of Fall had softened the ripe smell of body odor which permeated the units during the summer months.
From the far end of the room, a behemoth figure with a Santa Claus beard slowly rose from the institutional plastic chair. He held a paperback in his hand and ambled toward me.
The Correction officer, Boyce, who sat elevated in an ergomatic behind a long counter at room’s end copped a look at a young man with a clover leaf tattoo sitting nearby. ”This ain’t your mother’s place, inmate! “ he bellowed to the kid who was nervously chatting to another young man. “Quiet!”
Silence. A pin dropped. Some 30 men sitting turned their stares to the floor.
The bearded man’s sneakers squeaked as he made his way forward. When he reached me he gave a quick smile. “Doc,” he said, the generic title all mental health counselors were called.
We didn’t shake, knowing the protocol prohibiting such between inmates and staff.
“Mr. P,” I said, motioning him into the small corridor. “You know the way.”
He took the half dozen steps into the small adjoining area where the mental health staff were housed and exited into the first cubicle on his right. With his thick fingers he poked the cushion seat of the steel back chair, then sat with a slight groan.
I scooted around my desk and sat across from him.
He got up, took off the beige work coat, his Department of Correction number stamped across the jacket breast and carefully draped the coat over the back of the chair. “You got the best chair in the camp. Them plastic ones out there will crack on me,” he said, settling in.
I smiled. “Just for you, Mr. P.” He had a gentleness about him despite his crime. Since his arrival in prison he’d made it a weekly practice to send in the request form to talk to me.
He wore a white long john undershirt beneath his green short sleeve scrub top. He pulled it up, exposing psoriasis on his forearms.
I’d pulled up his information on my Dell which had, among other items, demographic information. ”Hey, Happy Birthday!” I said.
He gave a forlorn chuckle, then softly began, “ I turned 54 in prison doing life without parole…. Mama cried, mama cried.”
He nodded to himself, then took off his gray stocking cap and fixed it on his knee. “Didn’t know I could sing, did you Doc.”
“Should have baked you a cake,” I said. “Is your mama still living?”
“No.” Pause. “Just as well. I was her baby boy. Big Baby boy.” Chuckle.
“I’d hate to have her visit me in this place.”
He set down the frayed paperback, The Epictetus Club, he’d carried in with him in front of me and fingered the book’s cover. “Appreciate the read, Doc. How do you pronounce the guy’s name?”
I sounded out, “Ep e tee tus. Think that’s right.”
He stroked his beard. “ Guess, the message in the book is, it’s not where you are, but what you tell yourself bout where you are.”
“I think that’s about it,” I said.
He pushed the book toward me. “Thanks.”
”You can keep it, if you want.”
“Nah. Give it to one of them youngsters who cry themselves to sleep at night. Got one of em in the cell next to me.”
I put the book on the shelf behind me which doubled as my loaner library, adjusted my eyeglasses and said, ”So, what’s going on this week?”
He’d shared a lot of himself since he began his sentence which he knew would end in a prison cell with his end. Decades earlier, he’d been a high school football star, a big footed tackle he’d said, and had worked a while for the state highway department until he took over his father’s pawn shop, a business in which he traded in weaponry, which had made him all too comfortable handling pistols. His sidearm of choice, a 9 mm Glock, which he usually carried holstered. Until he wound up in prison he had no criminal record.
A good part of the talk during our visits related to him replaying the events of that fateful day.
I’d heard the story many times over the last two months. And I always let him tell it, figuring he had a great need to do so. Given my prison was a Receiving Center, the first stop in the inmate journey and the one in which a man was evaluated for his future placement, I guessed his next counselor might not have my sensitive ear.
He filled me in on the chapel service he was attending and that he hoped his son would forgive him someday, then he began his recitation.
He’d arrived home early and found his live-in girlfriend, Wanda, in bed with a ‘young buck’, as he described the blond man with a svelte build. “I stood at the end of the bed,” he’d said. “Seemed like an hour but it was only a second til my girl, who was on her back, saw me. She screamed and pounded on the young buck’s back till he stopped. He rolled over and said,”Shit.” And that’s the last thing I remember, till the cops showed.
“I remember coming out of it hearing the sirens. I was sitting on my porch. A TV man heard the shots from my bedroom and I guess called the “poooo lice. Or so, that’s what I was told.
“Wanda lay dead in my bed with the young buck. They gurnied them out in front of me, while I was still sitting in the cop car. Some youngster cop told me I ’d shot the two with my nine. Used all 12 rounds.”
Listening over the weeks to the same story, I somehow expected he'd have an “Aha moment”. But he never did. The story never changed.
He’d taken a plea of 25 years to be served concurrently for both deaths, to avoid what a public defender said could be a death penalty case. “But I learned later in county,“ he said, “that caus the shooting wasn’t premeditated, I’d never have gotten death. I could have appealed, but no use now.”
The touchy feely mental health part of me thought his sentence was extreme.
For inmates with light sentences, my job was to work out how they can better regulate their emotions once they get out.
For Mr. P, though, my take on what he needed was just listening time and an offer of some readings about how to cope with life in what would be an 8 by 10 cell for the rest of his days. The little book, The Epictetus Club, was a true account of a man serving a life sentence, who started a group to impart the philosophy of the Stoics.
Today, as most days after recounting his story, we sat in silence, listening to the chatter coming from the other cubicles. I knew his time with me was time away from laying in his bunk and thinking. Being an older inmate there were few men his age he could talk to.
I stared at the computer screen which showed he was up for transfer the following day. It wasn’t something I could share with him. But I sensed he knew this would be our last talk.
“Hey, Doc, they got TV’s at the main-line camps?”
“I think they do,“ I said. “Do you have shows you like?”
“I do. Seinfeld. You know it?”
Chuckle. “I do. I watch it, too.”
He nodded, a twinkle in his robin-egg-blue eyes. “Oh. I knew we was alike.”
I smiled. More silence, then talk about prison food and his family, until my telephone jingled a call from Boyce from his post outside in the hallway, “You got other men waiting,” he said.
Mr. P put on his cap. “You got other patients, Doc?”
“And so it goes,” I said.
“I appreciate you,” he said, standing with a slight groan, putting on his jacket.
I swiveled around and took a small book from a stack on the table. “Here, Mr. P, more reading. The same kind of thing as the last one, but a little different.”
He grasped the little blue paperback. “Be Free Where You Are,” he said, nodding. “I like it.” He looked around my small place, as if saying so long to it.
I followed him out of my cubicle, his sneakers squeaking. In the hallway our eyes met. “Thanks, Doc.” His look said goodbye.
“I appreciate you, Mr. P,” I said.
He nodded, then ambled on, and disappeared around the concrete wall. I called my next man. My eyes watered up.