Jason drove along a Central Valley freeway through large expanses of agriculture. 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 and felt a little 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 looking prisoners behind glass panes out of the corner of his eye. 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.
“Not bad,” Jason answered. “How about you?”
“I’m settling in, getting to know the rest of the guys,” Randy said from the other side of the glass. “What choice do I have anyways, right?” he said jokingly. Jason involuntarily smiled along with him.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed. He struggled with the sight of Randy in prison.
“Some of the guys here,” Randy continued, “you should hear their stories.”
“And I thought I had it bad.”
“Seems like no matter how bad it is,” Jason realized, “somebody always has it worse.”
“Guess I had to learn that the hard way,” Randy said half kiddingly.
Jason remained serious. “So what’s it like in here?”
“It ain’t complicated. 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. I’ll be out of here someday.”
“Yeah, took some getting used to.”
“I guess it could be worse,” Jason said.
“Yeah, but it could also be a whole lot better,” Randy replied. “Bad as it is, I didn’t think I was going to miss the outside world so much. 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. “But I can’t get used to seeing you like this.”
“At least I know where my next meal is coming from, and you can’t beat the rent,” Randy said with a smile.
Jason wanted to smile along with Randy, but couldn’t.
“I’ve also been doing some reading,” Randy continued. “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 was surprised that he was feeling slightly envious over of his own lack of free time.
“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.
“How about Gina?”
Randy laughed. “I burned that bridge to a crisp.”
“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 a toddler,” Randy reminisced.
“You know, he only signed up was for the college money,” Jason said. “Didn’t think he was going to see any action.”
“Yeah, he got tricked,” Randy concluded. “Hope he’s going to be all right.”
“I’m thinking he will be.” Jason said. “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 suspiciously. “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,” Randy said forlornly. “Maybe he’ll write me a letter or something. 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 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, “but it is a whole lot better than the last job.”
“Good. You were really hating that other place.”
“Yeah, it was getting on my last nerve,” Jason said with recalled anger. “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 remembered, “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 forward toward the glass. “You know, it didn’t have to be this way. All you’re doing is protecting the wrong people,” he implored. “You think they’d do the same for you?” he 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 felt defeated. “Wish there was something I could do.”
“Hey, at least you came to see me,” Randy said gratefully. “That means a lot.”
A regretful memory rose to the surface of Jason 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 asserted. “It’s just that things changed.”
“Yeah they did.”
“This is all fucked up,” Jason said moodily. “You don’t deserve to be stuck in here.”
“There’s always time off for good behavior,” Randy pointed out.
Jason was struck by the Randy’s optimism. He saw no reason for it, but his gloom lightened. “You should be able to swing that,” he said humorously as he finally relaxed. “At least you’re going to be paroled someday, not me. Parenthood is a life sentence.” He leaned in confidentially. “I have to admit, you may be right about Chris taking over my life.”
“You know,” Randy began completely serious, “if I had a girl like Christine in my life, I wouldn’t be stuck 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 predicted, 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, and he sensed Randy was feeling the same way. He wanted to enjoy the moment some more, but he felt the pull of the outside world. “Well, 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.”
“Likewise. 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