Jason drove along a San Joaquin Valley freeway through vast expanses of monocultured farmland and enclosed pastures. In the distance he saw the prison, a desolate cluster of rectangular, institutional buildings imposing upon the surrounding open space. He arrived at the compound and exited off the freeway. He stopped at a gate, was checked in by a guard in a booth, and continued on to the visitors lot. He parked and remained in his car as he took in the unfamiliar surroundings and acclimated himself to the repressive landscape.
He finally got out and walked to the entrance. He felt uneasy as he passed under a guard tower and entered an outer gate into the stark compound. He walked down a concrete path lined with high cyclone fencing topped with a long coils of concertina wire. He entered a gray building, went through a metal detector, signed a visitor log, and a guard led him to a drab room with a row of chairs lined up in front of glass partitions. He followed the guard and walked behind the other seated visitors. He noticed the grim, serious prisoners behind glass panes out of the corner of his eye. He was daunted by their severity and sympathetic for their plight. The guard pointed Jason to a chair and he sat down.
Jason looked through the glass pane, then saw Randy approach. His heart sank a little when he saw him in his prison uniform. Randy sat down across him. Jason picked up the receiver, and Randy did the same. He was unsure of what to say.
“So how you been?” Randy finally asked.
“Doing all right,” Jason answered. “How about you?”
“Could be better,” Randy said from the other side of the glass, “but I’m settling in, getting to know the rest of the guys. What choice do I have anyways, right?” he shrugged.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “I suppose so.” He struggled with the sight of Randy in prison.
“Some of the guys here,” Randy continued, “you should hear their stories.” He shook his head. “Damn, and I thought I had it bad.”
“I bet,” Jason remarked. “Seems like no matter how bad it is, somebody always has it worse.”
“Guess I had to learn that the hard way,” Randy said half kiddingly.
Jason smiled involuntarily as he took in the enormity of the new reality. “So what’s it like in here?” he finally asked.
“It ain’t complicated,” Randy said. “They got everybody on the same schedule, same old routine, day in, day out. So I do what they tell me to do, try to stay out of trouble, and count the days until I’m outta here.”
“It took some getting used to.”
Jason wanted to say something funny but had no heart for joking around. “Still can’t believe how things took a turn for the worse.”
“Yeah, seems like it just came out of nowhere,” Randy commented. “You know, as bad as the outside world is, I didn’t think I was going to miss it so much, even boring stuff like going to the mall or just hanging out,” he said. “What I really miss is being able to bullshit people, can’t do that here. But I’m making the best of it.”
“I suppose that’s all anyone can do,” Jason said resignedly.
Randy appeared concerned. “Why so down?”
Jason remembered how Randy could always read his mood. “I hate seeing you like this, locked up i na cage like a zoo animal. You don’t deserve to be stuck inside here.”
“I know, it’s all fucked up. But this is what it is now, and I have to deal with it,” Randy explained. “At least I know where my next meal is coming from, and you can’t beat the rent,” he added humorously.
Jason smiled involuntarily, but it faded away.
“I’ve even been doing some reading lately,” Randy continued. “Can you imagine that? Nothing too difficult, but it’s a change.”
“Used to be I was too busy for school, but I’ve got plenty of time now. Nothing but time.”
Jason felt a little jealous over of his own lack of free time, and was surprised by his envy.
“So how are things on the outside?” Randy asked.
“Everyone’s doing all right,” Jason answered. “They sure do miss you.”
“Not as much as I miss them,” Randy said longingly. “I even miss the people I don’t like,” he added amusedly. “So how’s Gina doing?”
Jason tried to recall the last time he heard anything about Gina. “Not sure, I haven’t seen her around lately.”
“I remember that night,” Jason said, “Todd’s birthday party.”
“Yeah, that was some party.” Randy smiled at the happy memory.
“It was, except for our quarters game interrupted.”
“But I got it going again,” Randy said with a laugh, and they basked in the shared nostalgia.
“Seemed like that was the last time we were all together,” Jason reflected. “And now, doesn’t feel like those days are ever going to come back.”
“But it was sure fun while it lasted.”
“It sure was.”
Jason and Randy smiled to each other in a shared moment of past happiness.
“Hey, you remember Terry’s little brother?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, the one who joined the Navy.”
“Looks like he might be headed to the Persian Gulf.”
“It’s not for certain yet, but if things keep on going the way they’re going…” Jason trailed off.
“I can remember when he was was just crawling around,” Randy reminisced.
“Seems like it was only yesterday,” Jason said. “You know, he only signed up for the college money. Didn’t think he was going to see any action.”
“Yeah, that’s how they get ya,” Randy concluded. “Hope he’s going to be all right.”
“I’m thinking he will be,” Jason assured. “I don’t think this thing will drag on for too long. I’m sure they learned from all the mistakes in the last war.”
“We’ll see,” Randy said skeptically. “I wonder if my dad knows I’m here.”
“Does your mom or your sister know where to find him?”
“My sister does. Last time we talked she said she’d try to find him and tell him.”
“Hope you hear from him.”
“I’m sure he’ll be proud of how I ended up,” Randy said sarcastically. “So how’s Christine doing?”
“Doing well,” Jason said. “She isn’t showing yet, but she will be soon.”
“Wow, you’re going to be a dad!” Randy said happily. “That’s got to be tripping you out.”
“I’m still trying to get used to it.”
“I can’t wait to get out of here so I can see him, or her.”
“I just hope I’m up to it,” Jason admitted. “Wasn’t too long ago I was just a kid myself.”
“Aw, don’t worry, you’ll make a great dad,” Randy reassured. “At least you’re making more money now. How is the new job?”
“It’s more work,” Jason said. “No more sitting in front of a computer, but it’s a whole lot better than my last job.”
“Good. You were really hating that other place.”
“Yeah, it was getting on my last nerve,” Jason recalled angrily. “But I have to say, this was not how I planned on changing jobs.”
“Hey, so what if your old lady had to help find a job for you. It’s all about who you know.”
“I do get to be outdoors at least,” Jason said positively, “working with my hands. If nothing else it’ll keep me in shape.”
“Yeah, you don’t want to be stuck indoors chained to a desk. How’s the pay?”
“Five bucks more an hour than the last job.”
“Yeah, and I’m going to need every penny of it raising a kid.”
“And then you’ll need a raise if you two have any more kids,” Randy added encouragingly.
“One challenge at a time,” Jason resisted.
“So are you and Chris going to tie the knot?” Randy asked.
“Looks like it,” Jason said. “We’re practically married already.”
“Sounds like we’re both set,” Randy joked.
Jason smiled along with Randy, then leaned toward the glass partition. “You know, it didn’t have to be this way,” he began. “All you’re doing is protecting the wrong people.”
Randy didn’t respond.
“You think they’d do the same for you?” Jason tried to persuade.
“They caught me red handed,” Randy reminded. “They were going to put me away no matter what, why drag other people down.”
“What about an appeal?”
“Can’t afford it, and the public defender said I needed more grounds.”
Jason leaned back onto his chair. “You know what the fucked up part is? It’s the people at the bottom pay the price. The people at the top do what they want and get away with it no matter who gets hurt.” He shook his head. “Seems like it’s that way everywhere.”
“Just the way it is. There’s the people that make the rules, and then there’s the rest of us.”
“Wish there was something more I could do,” Jason said with defeat.
“Hey, at least you came to see me,” Randy said gratefully. “That means a lot.”
Jason was momentarily buoyed. “Suppose it was the least I could do.” A painful memory then rose up to the surface of his conscience. “Sorry for the things I said that night…you know, after that other party.”
“Don’t be,” Randy brushed aside. “I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
“I never wanted things to get like that,” Jason swore. “We’ve been through a lot together, we’re like family, and I would never throw any of it away.” His throat tightened as he struggled to contain himself and find the right words. “It’s just that everything changed.”
“It sure did.”
“This is all fucked up,” Jason lamented. “You don’t deserve this.”
“Yeah, it is fucked up,” Randy repeated. “But there’s always time off for good behavior,” he added with some hope.
Jason was struck by Randy’s optimism. He thought of how the stark, oppressive, bare concrete and steel surroundings which had intimidated him the moment he entered the prison grounds had not brought Randy down, and he predicted it never would. He considered the strength and durability Randy had to withstand adversity, and he began to feel some hope as well. “Good behavior,” he finally said, “a choirboy like you should be able to swing that.”
“Thanks for the support,” Randy joked.
“At least you’re going to be paroled someday,” Jason pointed out. “Parenthood is a life sentence.”
“That’s what happens when a woman gets under your skin,” Randy said smiling.
Jason leaned in confidentially. “I have to admit, you may be right about Chris taking over my life. Can’t do all the fun things I used to do, now I got my own routine to follow.”
Randy’s smile went away. “You know, if I had a girl like Christine in my life, I wouldn’t be locked up in here right now.”
Jason was stunned by the long absent clarity in Randy’s eyes and he momentarily forgot everything else. “Yeah,” he finally said, “I guess I’m the lucky one.”
“Sorry I couldn’t take care of the bachelor party.”
“It’s all right,” Jason said, “probably would’ve lead to more arrests anyhow.”
“Yeah, Darren most likely,” Randy joked, and they shared a laugh. “Send me some pictures of the wedding, and the newborn.”
“You got it.” Jason wanted to make the moment last. Memories of a disappeared, happier past beckoned him, he knew Randy was feeling the same way, and they talked some more of the old days. He wanted to keep the moment going, but he felt the pull of the outside world. “Well, hate to cut this short, but I have to head out. Need to pick up some stuff for our new place.”
“Tell everybody I said hi.”
“I’ll do that.” Jason looked to Randy one last time. “Good to see you again.”
“Good to see you too, Jason. Don’t be a stranger.”
“I won’t.” Jason fought back tears. “Bye, Randy.”
“See you later, brother.”
Jason slowly hung up the receiver, got up, and left the stark room. He saw Randy in his periphery still seated behind the glass partition as he was departing.
©2018 Robert Kirkendall