Jason drove along a Central Valley freeway through vast expanses of farmland and pastures. In the distance he saw the prison, a desolate cluster of rectangular, institutional buildings imposing upon the surrounding open space. He exited off the freeway as he approached and drove to the visitor lot. He parked, got out of his car, and 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 coil of concertina wire. He entered a 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 visitors. He noticed the grim, ominous prisoners behind glass panes out of the corner of his eye and was empathetic. The guard pointed him 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. 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 began. “They got everybody on the same schedule, same old routine, day in, day out. So I do what they tell me to do, stay out of trouble, and count the days until I’m outta here.”
“Yeah, took some getting used to.”
Jason wanted to say something funny but had no heart for joking around. “Things really took a turn for the worse.”
“Yeah they did,” Randy agreed. “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 you 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.”
“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 smiled a little.
Jason wanted to smile along with Randy, but was unable.
“I’ve even been doing some reading,” Randy continued, “if you can 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.”
Jason felt slightly 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 didn’t like,” he added amusedly. “So how’s Gina doing?”
“Don’t know, haven’t seen her around lately.”
“I suppose it don’t matter. I burned that bridge up.”
“Maybe she’ll land on her feet somewhere.”
“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 said.
“Seems like it was only yesterday,” Jason reminisced. “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.”
“Doesn’t your mom or your sister know where to find him?”
“I think my sister does. She said she’d try to find him and tell him.”
“Hope you hear from him.”
“Yeah, maybe he’ll write me a letter or something,” Randy said forlornly. “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. “Seems like only yesterday I was just a kid myself.”
“Ah, 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 said with recalled anger. “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. We’re practically married already,” Jason added.
“Sounds like we’re both set,” Randy said with a laugh.
Jason 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.”
“This isn’t fair,” Jason fumed. “The people at the top do what they want and get away with it no matter who gets hurt, and the people at the bottom pay the price.” 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.”
Jason felt defeated. “Wish there was something I could do.”
“Hey, at least you came to see me,” Randy said gratefully. “That means a lot.”
Jason appreciated the sentiment, then a painful memory rose up to the surface of his conscience. “Sorry for the things I said that night…you know, after that party.”
“Don’t be,” Randy brushed aside. “I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
“I never wanted you out of my life,” Jason swore. “We’ve been through a lot together, a lot of fun times, a lot of great memories…we were like family.” He felt a lump in his throat as he struggled to contain himself. “It’s just that things changed.”
“Yeah they did.”
“This is all fucked up,” Jason lamented. “You don’t deserve to be stuck in here.”
“Yeah, it is fucked up,” Randy repeated. “But here’s always time off for good behavior,” he added with some hope.
Jason was surprised by Randy’s optimism. He was struck how the stark, oppressive, bare concrete and steel surroundings which had been intimidating him the moment he entered the prison grounds had not brought Randy down, and he predicted it never would. He was awed by the strength Randy had to withstand adversity, and as he considered Randy’s durability, his mood lightened. “A choirboy like you,” he said humorously, “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.”
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 saw a long absent clarity in Randy’s eyes as they looked at each other for a long moment. “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.”
“Yeah, Darren most likely,” Randy joked, and they shared a laugh. “Send me some pictures of the wedding.”
“You got it.” Jason wanted to make the moment last. Memories of a disappeared, happier past beckoned him, he sensed Randy was feeling the same way, and they talked of the old days some more. He wanted to keep enjoying the moment, but he felt the pull of the outside world. “Well, I guess I better get going.”
“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