The investigation room reeks of this morning’s leftover coffee and stale chips, like that old restaurant clinging to your clothes kind-of smell.
I am too nervous to do anything but chew on my fingernails though. I know they got me hook, line, and sinker. My mind bounces between whether or not I should just confess or try my hardest to worm my way out.
The redheaded squirrely cop comes in first. He has too much hair at the top of his head and a receding hairline that makes him look older than he is. The hard edge around his mouth gives away that he will not be as easy to distract with my lies as I’d hoped.
He’s from the South. I know it as soon as he opens his mouth. “We got you man, might as well just fess it on up.” He flips the chair around backwards and crouches down slowly in it. “Seems like your girl knew too many details. Seems like our boy Eric at Dominos shares the same exact story.”
I stop looking at him in the eyes. My heart is pounding. I hear extraneous background noise that builds up anxiety in my head. What’s a little jail time if they do find out after all?
Never one to give up easily, I state matter of factly, “she’s just trying to turn me in so she doesn’t get caught with drugs. She’s trying to take the focus off her and onto me. I didn’t have nothing to do with a pizza man.” I can’t believe I only got $34 from that dude.
Little ‘Ole Red stares back with eyes dark as coal, ruddy thin cheeks giving way to a stern, set jaw. “You confess now and you get less time than you know you would. Perjury is a felony and that will just add more and more years to your sentence. Which I’m fine with since you’re wasting my time.”
He leans over, unblinking and looks me square in the eyes. “We found the shirt.”
My stomach began trembling and I heard my heart pounding in my ears. I knew it was bad since I’d been on probation the last 2.5 years and getting caught for the third time. At this point I’d only had misdemeanors, but robbery with a weapon was going to be a serious charge I’d do a lot of time for.
I wasn’t prepared for just how much time I was getting when I admitted to it.
As Red wrote down my confession, I hung my head in despair.
Of the 19 different state prisons I’ve been in, 5 are completely torn down.
I used to think that was just a random fact in my life, but now I believe it has more purpose than I realized.
How often I toiled to build those high walls around me. I wouldn’t let anyone in, just stuffed down anger like it was a balloon squeezed into a bottle.
Being convicted to 20 years caused me to stop and contemplate how in the world this had actually happened. That contemplation was a fleeting moment, but every time it entered my mind it helped seal my drive for getting out.
For most of my life, I’d greatly enjoyed that feeling of being able to do what I wanted. I liked thinking I was being chased even if no one had found me yet. The feeling that someone would find me was always lurking in the back of my mind.
In 1996 I still had a sense of that feeling even while I was imprisoned. Every day I put my head down and worked my sentence in what was supposed to be the prime of my life: age 25.
Overall, I wasn’t one to ruffle feathers. I stayed on my best behavior to do my time so I could get out. Never once did I get in a fight behind those walls and never once did I hide or sell any drugs.
But no matter how good I was, I laid down in my bunk every night feeling depleted of joy.
One afternoon during lunch, Greg Banks sat across the table from me, slurping his soup. “Man why is he always smiling?” He pointed down the hall to Jose Manuelez, who was chatting with another man, a large grin spread across his face.
Gary had never talked to me before this moment. He was an angry man, even more than I was, and not someone I frequently spoke to. Although I couldn’t be sure, I felt confident he was dealing drugs somehow. Someone on the outside always had a treat for him and he always had something to sneakily sell.
“Don’t know,” I answered him half-heartedly, but Jose already had my attention when I saw him days earlier talking to Peter. He’d had his hand on Peter’s shoulder, listening with intent. He seemed too kind for a place like this.
He didn’t look kind, though. Jose was built like a warrior and covered in more tattoos than I was. He had a slash scar high across the left side of his neck. But he was downright soft. Maybe too soft, I hadn’t figured it out yet.
“Makes me want to break his nose.” Gary swallowed the last bite of his food and looked angrily around the corner at Jose.
The next morning, we woke up to news that Gary had been found dead in his bunk. He had swallowed a bag of heroin during his visitation, as he usually did, which would eventually make its way through his system so he could distribute and sell it to other prisoners. Unfortunately, this bag burst a short time after he swallowed it, before it ever reached his small intestine. He overdosed quickly.
The news about Gary traveled fast and didn’t stop some fellow prisoners from continuing the same act, but it really shook me up for a few days. I didn’t know Gary, but one day he was there and the next he was wiped off of this earth. That realization hit me hard.
It started the process of my undoing.
One thing kept me going for awhile, even though I knew I was doing a few things I shouldn’t: my love for money. I liked to gamble. But in my defense, everyone was doing something.
“Bryan, lemme place a bet on #29 in tomorrow’s race.”
“Poker tonight, $20 to play if you’re in.”
“Bryan, listen man, I can’t stand in line like you. I’ll give you $3 to get my uniforms for me.”
There was a pretty tight schedule at the Clothes House when we got our laundry washed. We were entitled to 3 sets of clothes, which you had to turn back in after waiting in a dreadfully long line, in order to get fresh ones. I had a crew of guys who didn’t want to stand in line, so they paid me $3 a piece to get their suits for them. I had to act like these suits were mine, which I did really well, so I averaged around $30 worth of customers.
In those first five years, I was just existing, doing my day in day out routine. My days were spent working out and gambling. I played poker but I was never good at it. I lost a lot of money, but continued gambling since it was something I found fun in that dark hole for awhile.
It wasn’t long after Jose arrived that I found myself drawn to him. I watched him interact with others and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but he acted like somehow, he was thriving.
He seemed to have a mission of sorts, to do more than just exist.
Made no sense to me how a former gang member who had been in San Quentin, one of the toughest prisons in America, could sit there and serve his sentence politely.
We became good friends shortly after. We compared tattoos and he told me many stories about being in a gang back in San Francisco, which he fondly referred to as “the Bay.”
One evening in late winter, while gambling with 4 other guys in our block, I heard myself cussing. For the first time in my life, it sounded stupid. Bryan you sounded so dumb right then, why did you say that? I suddenly hated the way I sounded when cuss words spilled from my mouth. This feeling or idea had never happened to me before and it caught me off guard. Spewing profanities was as natural to me as breathing, and I’d developed a habit of it over the course of my life.
But for some odd reason, it now sounded degenerate. Uncool. I didn’t even sound like myself and I felt a strange inner turmoil about it.
Well, this ain’t something I’ll be sharing around here. And so I began the process of cutting it out.
When the weekend arrived, I left my stash of porn under my bunk as I usually did and had breakfast at the table with Jose. I held a flicker of remorse over my running the race pool the day before, but I let it pass without question. He was already eating as I sat down, and he looked up, giving me a half smile.
“Do you ever think about God, Bryan? Like how we came to be here and all that?” He spoke casually as he chewed his toast.
“Nah, I mean, not really.” I didn’t have a good answer for him. I hadn’t thought about church and God in a long time.
“Yeah, it’s a crazy question. But, I became a Christian before I got here, and man I gotta tell you, God is doing something good with my future.” Jose wiped his mouth and swallowed down the rest of his water. “Do you know God?” He stared, waiting for my answer.
“Yeah, yeah, I know God.”
And I did. I was raised going to church and hearing about the Bible. Mama always made me go as a child and I sang in the choir, was even baptized from what I could remember.
That was a turning point in our conversations. Some of the guys acted offended when Jose would talk about God, but he never offended me. It just became second nature to talk about our pasts, hopes, and dreams in our conversations. He took great care in explaining how God had always worked in his life, weaving it in and out of the stories he shared, and sometimes I felt a spark of hope listening to him.
He invited me to church the next Sunday and I decided to go with him. We sat in the chapel section of our block and listened to an older, white-haired preacher speak the most life-giving words I’d ever heard. Some of what he said was foreign to me, but he captivated all of my attention.
Towards the end of his sermon on the prodigal son, the pastor leaned over his stand and looked every one of us straight in the eyes, taking his time to speak slowly.
“If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” Silence from all corners of the room. I felt my breath hang in the air. “Where would you go?” His eyes were kind, but they were serious and I felt nervous all of a sudden.
Looking back, it’s not lost on me how God works in mysterious ways. How he was always surrounding me although I’d made a mess of things and was so far from Him.
But He was never far from me.
In my mind’s eye, I could see it clearly now: He was on every fringe of every mistake, slowly weaving His plan like the master creator He is, aligning it all together for the story He had for my life.
I couldn’t sleep after we’d left that night. Laying in my bunk, I began to sweat with a huge ball of anxiety forming in my stomach so severe I could nearly taste it. Where would I go if I died? My hands folded over my chest, I stared at the ceiling for nearly an hour.
Then, I couldn’t bear it any longer.
I climbed out of my bunk and stood over the top of a sleeping Jose. “Wake up buddy.” Jose startled and looked up at me, but didn’t show one sign of irritation. “Listen man,” I continued, nervous and emotional at the same time. I was pressed, and felt my heart squeezing with need. “I want to get saved.” In the millisecond of silence that followed, I felt urged to make my point. “Right now.”
“Alright Bryan,” he smiled, running a hand through his hair. “Let’s go talk to Jesus.”
That fire that had started so long ago wasn’t out, but the flames had died to slow embers. Now, something new was taking shape. The process of melding and forging had begun.
This is Part IV of a VI part series. Read V