By Chase D. Cartwright
A man was stabbed in front of me. It happened before breakfast, in the showers. He was in the stall next to me. I heard him whistling before it happened. Probably had no idea what was happening until it was over, maybe not even then. Maybe his last thought was enjoying the warm shower and singing a song in his head. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go. You could envy him in a way. But, the last I saw of him was his blood circling the slow drain and his eyes stuck in time, completely still, unnaturally still. And all I could think was, “I hope they use real eggs at breakfast.”
My request for furlough was granted on account of my mother. She died last week, and the funeral was today. Funerals were just about the only thing the warden ever approved furlough for. A lot of the other guys were jealous of me. Imagine that. I’ve been in this place for 42 years. Sitting in the same gray boxes most of my life, and then my mom dies, and I was the lucky one. There was a joke there somewhere.
My old pastor was picking me up. Before lunch, I’d be on the road for the first time since I was a teenager. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. Part of me wanted to stay in my gray cell and pretend none of this was happening. If I could say anything about prison, it was this, it was less complicated. In a weird way, even the bleeding corpse in the shower felt more natural than getting into a car with my old pastor.
Some of the other guys inside wanted to know what I would do while I was out. You only got a day. It was an odd question. Sort of like dreaming of what you’d do if you won the lottery. What would anyone do if they had only one day of freedom? I guess I was going to a funeral.
The pastor met me in the processing office of the prison. “Earonne,” he exclaimed like we were old friends. He embraced me and told me, “Long time no see.” I grunted in agreement. I almost couldn’t recognize him. His hair was so thin and white. He walked in a crouched stumble assisted by an aluminum cane. He was a shell of the man I grew up with.
“Thanks for doing this,” I told him.
“It’s an honor to do it. I just wish it were under happier circumstances.” He placed his hand on my shoulder in the same way a parent would to comfort a child.
I was grateful for him. I hadn’t seen him since I was arrested and even then I wasn’t a devout member of the church or anything. I only went because my mom dragged me. Maybe that was why he came, maybe it was some kind of gift for her. Whatever the reason, part of me knew he wouldn’t say no, and I couldn’t say that about anyone else.
I filled out my paperwork agreeing to return at a designated time. The pastor signed beneath my name claiming responsibility for me. He walked me to the door of the prison and I paused before talking my first step off the prison grounds.
“Are you okay?” the pastor asked.
“I’m not sure.”
I took a step forward and moved in front of the pastor without saying anything more. He followed a few steps behind me and directed me towards his car.
“I brought you a suit.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did. I can’t say how good it’ll fit, but…” he trailed off. “You’ve grown a lot since I last saw you.”
“I was just a boy then.”
The locks of the car popped open. The pastor walked ahead of me and opened the door. I caught a glimpse of the suit hanging in the back. It was black and had a Goodwill tag hanging off it.
“I appreciate the suit,” I told him again.
“Yeah, well your mom would have wanted you looking your best.”
“Why don’t we get in and leave this horrid place?”
I gave a scared laugh and took a seat. The car was small. I was nearly 6’5 and 300lbs and it felt like every bit of me was pushing into the old pastor’s space. I put my knees against the dash and felt the engine roar to life. I started sweating and my breath got heavy. The pastor pulled forward and I saw the brick walls of the prison shrink and shrink until the only world I had known for forty years disappeared and left me alone.
It was December. I remembered the snow falling and the windshield wipers pushing the powder back and forth.
“How are you doing, Earonne?” the pastor asked.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
“They say, ‘I don’t know’. No one knows. It’s a hard thing to lose someone we love.”
I grunt unable to articulate anything more. The pastor continued, “I’d love to tell you something that might make you feel better, but I’m still not sure what that might be.”
He coughed and choked on his phlegm.
“There’s a million clichés I could give, but you don’t strike me as a man that has time for clichés.”
He waits for me to say something. It was an impossibly long pause. But, we were both silent, listening to the low hum of the heater and the infinite space of empty fields around us.
“The only thing I can tell you is that I’m here for you. I don’t care what you did or who you are. I’m here for you. If you don’t want to say anything now, that’s fine. If we don’t speak for another forty years that’s fine too. But, as long as I’m alive, I’ll be here for you.”
“I saw a man die today,” I responded. “He was stabbed in the showers. He was probably in his 20s. Just a young kid.”
“Were you okay?”
“I was fine. But, I didn’t feel anything when it happened. I’ve seen so much shit in that place, that it seemed so…”
“Yes. Honestly, I was just thinking about breakfast. What I’d get to eat you know? When they use real eggs, it’s something else. They have this Mexican cook running the kitchen and he puts milk and Cheyanne pepper into the eggs, and it’s just indescribable.
But when they use the fake eggs –you know the stuff that comes out of a carton– you just can’t get the texture right and the seasonings are out of balance and… Anyway, I’m passing this body and I’m not thinking of his family coming to his funeral or what kind of life he lead or would lead. Nothing like that, I’m only thinking of what’s for breakfast.”
“So what was it?”
“Did they have the real eggs or the fake ones?”
I smiled through my eyes.
We didn’t say much more than that. There wasn’t much more that needed to be said. I enjoyed sitting with him. In prison, you could never relax. There was an atmosphere of tension. Everywhere you went you something terrible could happen. Every step involved a complicated system of rules and a misstep could mean getting stabbed in the showers before breakfast. I almost forgot how to relax. But sitting in that warm Buick next to this old man, felt… It felt comfortable.
At the church, I changed into my suit. It was too small, but I pretended to like it for the pastor. The funeral started, and I sat in the first row as people marched inside. Most people didn’t know who I was. They stared at me and made whispers to themselves. No one sat next to me. I could only imagine the thoughts that everyone must have had. Part of me felt guilty for being here. It became more like a zoo for people to watch me and, in turn, they all seemed to forget my mother.
My mom laid still in her casket. She almost looked like the man from the showers with that unnatural stillness. Pictures of my family surrounded her with flowers and cards. All I could think of was how badly I wanted her to move, how I never wanted to see something so still again. I returned to my seat and waited.
“And now I’d like to invite anyone up who would like to say a few words,” the pastor invited.
I got up from my seat towering above everyone else. I walked up to the podium and began.
“For those that don’t know me, my name is Earonne, and I am Norma’s son.” I paused feeling something in my throat. “You know it’s hard to know what to say at a time like this. Some of you may know that I’ve been in prison for a while now. In prison, you’d think I’d have time to pick my words carefully and say the right thing, but… I guess life doesn’t work that way.
“I’d love to talk about some memory of my mom, something nice about when she consoled me after I scraped my knee or gave me advice on how to talk to girls, but… I just can’t. I don’t know this woman here. I was hoping when I got here, she’d look just like she used to, but she just doesn’t. I haven’t seen my mom in forty years. We’d write on holidays and everything, but how well can you know someone like that?
“I remember when I was a kid, my dad drove trucks. He’d be gone for weeks at a time and when he’d come back, he’d be somehow different. He’d be a little older. Just a little though, but enough that you could tell something was different. Maybe his beard would be a little thicker or there’d be a new stain on his shirt, or whatever. He’d be different than he used to be. After forty years though, a person changes so much I don’t know if you can even say they’re the same person you used to know.
“My mom was the last person I loved. I’m sure you’re all wonderful people, but I don’t know you. I went to prison when I was 19. I never had kids, never got married, my dad left a long time ago. My brothers have all died in dumb fights. Every friend I had has gone on with their lives. My mom was the last person who loved me, and she was the last person I loved. Now that she’s gone, I’m all alone. I’m going to go back to prison tomorrow and that’s where I’ll stay until I’m in a box just like that.
It’s hard to know what to do with that knowledge. If someone knows, please tell me. Because…”
I noticed a tear forming in my eye. I wiped it away.
“Because I don’t want to die alone. Time freezes in prison. You want everything to just be like it was when you went in; pick up where you left off when it’s over. The world doesn’t have that mercy for us though. Everything just keeps moving without you.
“One memory I do have of my mom was her reading to me as a boy. She would read these coming of age stories about young boys like me learning how to grow up and be men. I liked those stories. But standing here over my mom, I just wish I could go back to when I was a boy. There aren’t enough stories like that, stories where you go back. We’re always in such a hurry to grow up, and then you get what you want, and you realize you’ve given up everything that mattered.
“I can’t even remember how I ended up in prison to tell you the truth. Someone called me a name so I pushed him. He punched me, so I pulled a knife, and then I’m staring at cement walls for the rest of my life… I was just so dumb. It was all so senseless. It’s senseless that my mom is sitting in that box. It’s senseless that I’m in prison. The whole damn thing is senseless.
“I don’t know what else to say, other than, I’m sorry mom. I’m sorry for the things I did, and that we didn’t have any more time together. I hope you didn’t feel alone when you died.”
I wiped another tear from my cheek.
“Thank you all for coming.”
I took my seat again. At the cemetery, they closed the casket and lowered her body into the dirt. And that would be the last time I’d see my mom.
The pastor told me I could leave as long as I was back in time to return to the prison tomorrow morning. I agreed. He gave me his phone and told me to call his wife if I needed anything. I told him thanks, and that I wouldn’t be out long.
I walked along the city streets, and the snow fell and blanketed the sidewalks. Cars rushed by splashing brown slush into the ditches. Neon lights glowed in the soft white haze of winter. The air was heavy and quiet. My nose hurt and my cheeks felt stiff, but I just kept walking. I hadn’t walked that much since I could remember. Cold or not, it felt nice and I wasn’t sure the next time I would feel something like this.
I found my way to a place called Phil’s Toys and Candies. A small package of candy cigarettes caught my eye. I pushed the old wood door open and stepped inside.
The room was warm. There were walls of colors; clear buckets of candy advertised at low prices. There were toys and comics in the back and an old man behind the register next to a well of “100% real ice cream”.
“Howdy!” the cashier shouted.
“Hello,” I replied. There was a family looking through a pile of Tootsie Rolls and bubblegum. The mom gripped her purse tight at the sight of me. I filled the door with wild hair and glowing eyes like a monster coming from a closet. The mom pushed the boys ahead and walked passed me without making eye contact. “Sorry, about that,” I told the cashier. The wood floor creaked as I stepped forward grabbing the box of cigarettes.
“No Sweatsville, Idaho, my friend. What can I getcha?”
I took a seat on a green vinyl stool that spun around.
I put a pack of the candy cigarettes on the table.
“Good choice,” the cashier said. “You know, when I was a kid, in weather like this, I’d get a pack of these candy cigarettes and breathe the cold air just like smoke. I’d really sell it too. They could have given me an Oscar.”
“I used to do the same thing.”
I ripped into the package and pulled one of chalky sticks out. I put it into my mouth and breathed in.
“That’s pretty good. We could have teamed up started a biker gang.”
I laughed tasting the sweetness of the candy.
“What kind of bike did you have?”
“Hooee, that’s a sweet ride. We could have stirred up some real trouble.”
“Maybe in another life.”
“Where’d you come from? I haven’t seen you around before.”
“You want to know the truth?”
“And nothing but it.”
“Prison. Been there for 42 years.”
“Get out. Upstanding gentleman like you. I don’t believe it.”
“So what happened, you do your time or breakout?”
“Little of both. I’m on furlough. I get out for a day and go back tomorrow morning.”
“Well ain’t that a gosh darn thing. How does one get the motivation to go back to prison after all this?”
“I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“At least I know ya’ won’t kill me then.”
“I in no hurry to get more time, pal.”
“The name’s Phil.”
He put out his hand to shake.
I did the same. His skin was coarser than I expected, and the grip tighter.
“So what blessing from the Lord lets you get out for this humble day?”
“My mom died. I just got back from her funeral.”
The cashier’s face went sober. “I’m so sorry. I…”
“Don’t worry about it. To be honest I came here looking for something a little lighter.”
“Well, I hope I got I’ve got what ails ya’. No one leaves my store without a smile on their face.”
“Does anyone ever come in here after getting out of prison and going to their mom’s funeral?”
“Hard to say, I don’t get to talk with everyone so much.”
“Well, the truth is I came here because my mom always used to hate these candy cigarettes. She’d see me and yank my shirt collar. ‘Earonne Michael Houston, spit that out right now’ she say.”
“Middle name and everything?” Phil asked. “She must have been sore.”
“She said if I ever started a habit as disgusting as smoking she’d whoop me till I didn’t know what a cigarette was. The funny part was that on Christmas she’d always put a pack in my stocking. I always looked forward to those candy cigarettes more than anything else I got.
Man, I loved these things growing up. You know what else I loved? What were they called? Rock candy, crystal… Christ, what were they called? You couldn’t eat them with soda.”
“Yes! I loved that stuff so much.” Phil cut me off.
“Hold on right there.”
He walked off to one of the displays and pulled out a handle of bags. They looked just like they used to.
“What’s your favorite flavor?” I grabbed a green one. “Sour apple, a man after my own heart.”
The candy crackled in my mouth. It was almost too sweet, but I could remember getting this when I used to go to the circus. Phil got a playful look and asked, “You want to do something crazy?”
He poured a glass of orange soda and slid it over.
“What have you got to lose?”
I took a gulp. The candy popped somewhat louder, but otherwise had no effect.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Phil announced. “We’ve just witnessed a miracle. Mr. Earonne Houston has survived the unsurviable.”
He started clapping to himself.
“Care to test your luck?” I asked.
“I’m no madman. I won’t take fate into my hands like that.”
“You mind if I look around?”
“Be my guest.”
I moved from the vinyl seat and looked at the walls of childhood joy. There was fresh fudge, taffy, bubblegum, gummy bears, and lollipops. Every sweet thing you could think of was here.
“When was the last time you tasted candy?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Well, you’ve got some catching up to do then. Try whatever you like.”
“I don’t have much money.”
“I wouldn’t accept it anyway. You’ve got a lifetime of suffering that only candy can cover up. Go on. Have a seat. I’ll make you a root beer float.”
I grabbed a red stick of rock candy took a seat at a child’s sized table. There was a pile of tops and small wind-up robots in the center. My enormous body hunched over the table as I spun a top and watched the colors blur. My fingers were almost too fat to grip the plastic and I could only imagine what I looked like sitting there in a playful ball. I wound up one of the robots and with a loud hissing it wobbled across the table. I smiled in awe amazed how something simple could be as spectacular as this toy walking on its own.
Phil took a seat next to me and grabbed another robot. We both wound up the aluminum toys again and raced them. Again and again, we raced them until we found another marvel to play with. We jumped up and ran to a bucket of bouncy balls that we tried bouncing off the ceiling.
The pastor’s phone rang and he asked me where I was.
“I’ll be back soon,” I said almost annoyed. I told the pastor where I was, and he told me to have fun. He seemed to understand.
“Come with me,” Phil said.
He walked me over to the Slinkys. I immediately grabbed the metallic spring and bounced it back and forth. The metal pulsed back in a mesmerizing wave.
“You ever get these things to go down stairs?”
I said it with a giddiness I hadn’t felt in ages.
We walked to the top of a set of stairs that presumably lead to Phil’s home. We lined up the Slinky and pushed. It stopped after a few steps and we just went to reset it. After a few tries it went further. A few more tries went by and it went further. A few more tries and it made it to the bottom step.
We laughed at those toys until it was dark and Phil closed the store. He still let me stay though. Every few hours I called the pastor to let him know I was okay and would be home in time. We ate candy until my stomach hurt. We made Lego towers and read comic books. We colored cartoons and played with Playdough. Phil and I taught each other cards games that we’d learned long ago.
I didn’t really notice the time until an antique clown clock whistled that it was midnight and I knew I had to leave. I thanked Phil for this and tried to give him what little money I had. He refused to accept it so I just thanked him again we both went our separate ways down the snow-covered sidewalk.
The next day I returned to prison. I told the pastor that I would keep in touch. He told me he’d like that. I didn’t tell anyone in prison about the candy store. I could only imagine what they would think. I simply told them that I had a few drinks and spent the night with a friend.
Things went back to the way they had been. Once again I was surrounded by gray, listening to the cold clinging metal of iron bars, feeling the tense air of fear and regret. And again, I felt that sense of loneliness that followed me my whole life.
A few days later, I received a package from Phillip. Inside was a note that read, “There’s nothing wrong with being a child. No matter who you are.”
And along with the letter was a small box of candy cigarettes.
They were always my favorite.
Chase D. Cartwright lives in Milwaukee with his wife Sarah and their angel, Georgia (a cat). He works at a psychiatric hospital fighting with insurance every day. In his spare time, he likes cooking, listening to punk rock, and catching every episode of Jeopardy he can. Occasionally, he will find time to pursue his dreams and will write stories. He has been published a handful of times in The Far West Popular Culture Review, The Ashford Review, Stillpoint Literary Review, and Foliate Oak.