18 August, 2007

Par Avion

[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

The card depicts Notre-Dame at dusk, in all its twelfth-century glory, rendered orange by the western sun. In the foreground runs the Seine. The haze of street lamps reflects from the bank. Their light is emerald on the water and dappled, making visible the subtle, intricate machinations of the current. I have stood on those ivied banks — right there, in the presence of antiquity — though it has been years, and the card’s sender had no way of knowing this. She and I have never met, nor, indeed, exchanged any words at all. We are strangers in the truest sense, only now linked, however tenuously, by this simple token of kindness from one human being to another.

I receive these cards from all over the world — Australia, Texas, Germany, South Africa — signed with compassion, solidarity, or sympathy, and always with a little note to keep my head up, to stay strong, to remember the impermanence of all things. They never fail to bring me a sliver of happiness. It is too easy a thing, at times, to forget that kind people are out there — kind enough to write a few lines of encouragement to this pariah, without ulterior motives or expectations. The economies of time and funds make writing them all back impossible. Had I my way, each would receive a simple reply of thanks, detailing how important such things are to a man who has such limited scenery, so few warm words to enrich him and fuel the fires of his hope. To them (though they go on with their faraway lives and will never read this) I am immensely grateful, and forever hopeful that goodness, in its myriad guises, finds them at every opportunity. But for them, the gray that surrounds me would have been that tiny bit more pervasive.

Jamaica, 1987

[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

My father and I entered the warm water of midafternoon from the beach equipped only with his flippers, goggles and snorkel, and an inflatable pool raft with a slender bit of rope knotted to it. He was still in his thirties, still of average build, and wore the green trunks that were old then, yet would make an appearance, ten years later, on our final canoe trip. My trunks were red and, because I was only seven — too young for real adventure stories — devoid of such provenance. Both of us, as well as my mother, bore the darkened skin and sun-bleached hair of Yankees gradually succumbing to the siren song of the Caribbean: glorious scenery, welcoming people, the casual ethos, the culinary pleasures. I still get cravings for authentic jerk pork and an icy bottle of Ting.

Our mission that particular day was primal hunter-gatherer stuff. We would swim out in search of conchs to gather up, return to the beach, beat them from their shells in an exhausting and somewhat foolish-looking procedure involving tossing the shells against the sand over and over again, then present them to a local woman whose restaurant turned them into a hearty, mouthwatering stew. The stew we'd pay for in extra conchs.

The family spent that month in Negril, in a tent, surrounded by a small grove of thin trees at the edge of the beach. The sand, perhaps, had worked its way under our skin as we slept, or too much ocean air had filled our lungs and veins with a yearning to remain — to leave responsibilities and become a family of expat beach bums, browning and crinkling into human handbags.

My parents had gone so far as to ask about schools. Outside of the cities, everywhere you turned was lush and beautifully saturated with color, and the ocean was never more than a few miles away, wide and blue and welcoming. Some may find it unfathomable, but to go and not be so moved would have been the unthinkable thing.

We waded out until the water was deep enough to swim — my father pulling the raft by its rope, and me alternately swimming alongside him and hanging from its edge. After a time, the sandy floor disappeared completely beneath us, rendering the water a mysterious shade of teal. My father swam on. Teal eventually transitioned into darkness, and this was where he chose to stop. It seemed like hours he'd been pulling. Looking back at the island, my field of vision encompassed a wide swath of glistening shoreline; in front of me lay nothing but the undisturbed sea and a horizon of vivid blues. My father pulled himself partially onto the raft. His large mustache drooped with wetness. He looked something like a walrus.

Taking in the surroundings above water, he said, simply, "This is good."

We waited.

When he'd sufficiently regained his strength, he again donned the goggles and, taking with him nothing more than two lungfuls of air, plopped out of sight with the briefest of splashes. Adrift in the Caribbean, my father beyond reach or sight, I should have been frightened. The serenity of the waning sunlight on calm waters, however, was pervasive, and I was too much in awe of my father's aquatic prowess. How he searched at those depths, without light or fear of barracuda (and for so long!), I did not know or think to ask, but each time, without fail, up he would rise with a conch in each hand. Then, several breaths taken, bearings gathered, he would dive again, often without a word of warning, leaving me to mind those large shells and ensure the gentle sway and flex of the raft didn't cause them to tumble away.

As I sat there, corralling those great, horned seashells with my matchstick legs, I looked out to the open sea, at its bold immensity, and contemplated the distance between us and home. It seemed vast — worlds away from our campsite, the friends I'd made, the frigid waterfalls, the misty mountains. How could I return to Kansas City after all this? Certainly I'd visited Jamaica before — twice — and for every day as long, but in that instant on the open water it all seemed different. I was older; experiences like this held more meaning for me.

Literally, then, out of the blue popped my father with three more conchs.

"How many does that give us?" he asked, spitting saltwater away from his lips and breathing deeply.

I counted. "Eleven."

"All right, Kiddo," my father beamed, white teeth, no tusks, but still so lovably walrus-y. "Looks like we've got dinner".

And I forgot all about leaving.

Shedding Light on Pitch Darkness (or, You Dirty Pitch)

[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

On 21 May, at 6:00 AM, a short, crude write-up about my MySpace presence appeared on pitch.com, the online version of a free Kansas City weekly. Of its perhaps five hundred words, slightly more than half are the author's own. The rest are quotes, either from this blog or from the Pitch's original article about my case (a sensationalist front-page piece ominously titled "Cemetery Plot," which appeared in the paper five years ago). The author's half, such as it is, consists of hastily-drawn conclusions and trite observations unbecoming a man who presumably boasts the title "journalist." Still, it raised some eyebrows.

The author, one Peter Rugg, first met my mother at a recent benefit for the Midwestern Innocence Project, where they spoke for a time about my case. Mr. Rugg wanted information too detailed for my mother to outline, so she handed him a flier and directed him to FreeByronCase.com to do his homework. A few days later, he sent her an e-mail requesting she call him. He wanted to discuss a short piece he was planning for the paper. She immediately left a message on his voicemail including her home and mobile telephone numbers. The next week, the piece appeared on the paper's website.

This marks at least the fourth occasion on which the Pitch has in some way referenced me or my case in the last five years. At least the prior three had the benefit of being somewhat researched. Besides falling back on that 2002 story as a source, Mr. Rugg further phoned it in (or, to be more accurate, didn't) by utterly neglecting to contact any of the people he accuses of associating with a sociopath. Evidently, crafting a well-informed piece wasn't high on his list of priorities. He even blatantly mistook the context of two of the three quotes lifted from my blog entries.

Truth be told, there are numerous details of Mr. Rugg's piece with which I take issue. Some are small and petty, such as his reference to "a chicken carcass impaled on the hood of [my] car." Others are far more substantial: I do not identify with a majority of my fellow inmates quite simply because a majority of my fellow inmates are (it may surprise him to know) murderers, child molesters, rapists, kidnappers, and, yes, sociopaths. I'm curious to know how well Mr. Rugg might adjust to the social scene of a maximum-security institution, given similar circumstances. Without knowing the man, or so much as speaking to him (might as well return the disfavor, after all), I am going to guess he wouldn't exactly turn into a social butterfly.

Due to the unexpected criticism that the piece drew, the Pitch's editor, Eric Barton, has asked whether my mother would consent to a podcast interview. She has agreed under the condition she be allowed to bring her own recording device as something of a safeguard against misrepresentation.

The question, then, is this: is the Pitch finally attempting to right its previous journalistic wrongs by presenting another view of the story, or is this just another ruse by a second-rate tabloid? We'll soon know for sure.


[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

I was basking today. Not in the sunlight of an unseasonably warm day, though it has been one, but in the shade of the maintenance building where I work. (The sun and I don't get along; we have an understanding.) There was nearby chatter and the occasional clanking of metal and, every so often, a whiff of smoke on the otherwise healthy breeze. The golf cart in which I sat alone was parked in a row with others outside the garage where, ordinarily, there would be none — everyone normally bustling about with parts for this or that, fetching equipment, answering work orders. The weather had left us impotent, torpid. We had done our work, made our rounds. By shortly after noon we had resigned ourselves to outright laziness.

The smell in the air was that of spring: light and moist with the imminence of rain. It was bright; my eyes, unwilling to cooperate, were strained and began closing involuntarily against the midday light, so I permitted them the briefest of rests between glimpses of the sky's perfect, white cumuli. I thought of nothing, my mind completely at rest for what had to be the first time in a week. It was momentarily glorious.

And then, the scent of memory: an unplaceable, evanescent aroma carried on the wind. As quickly as it registered, it was gone, and I was swept up and borne backwards to that final spring. 2001 had been unquestionably a waste of time — all those hours piled on top of hours, whiled away at the coffeshop, smoking myself bloody, or driving nowhere in that monstrosity of an automobile. At least it had been time wasted on my own terms, unlike now. Associated forever with that smell, there it was once more, after nearly six years, to remind me of the inescapability of the past.

Six years ago, as I sat at a small aluminum table with friends — Brahm, Kristina, Mike, Shira, F.C., and the rest — nursing a mug of Sumatran and laughing at how absurdly depressing the year had begun, I could never have foreseen the anxiety, terror, and abject loneliness that were only a few months away. It would have never occurred to me that there would come a time when, sitting on a golf cart behind a lethal electric fence, staring at clouds over the heap of razor wire that is the back gate of a prison, I could romanticize those seemingly meaningless months with such passion as to put a lump in my throat.

The moment passed, of course, as moments are wont to do, but the mood remained. I cannot shake the emptiness, the queasy feeling that whispers up my spine, "This is not where you're supposed to be." I left work feeling very heavy, almost winded. Now it is evening; I am exhausted. Tomorrow promises to be cooler, with the rain showers that will ensure everyone at work remains indoors and active. Overcast, damp, and chilly, it will not be a day for basking. It will be better.


[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

Fifteen minutes to eat, but who times us and how precise their methods remains undetermined. Some days it seems like only five, others a half hour.

I shuffle with the rest of the herd through the dining hall door, in from a frigid northern wind, and patiently wait as the line winds its way past the tiny hole from which the trays are served. This is by now routine; although, in my initial weeks here, each trip up to this capacious, halogen-lit room was a frightening excursion into foreign territory. Now, I have my own regular seat.

Today's five slots of ostensibly nutritious pap are potato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, five-bean salad, canned corn, and a banana. It is far from the worst meal offered.

Behind me stands Larry, a pale, portly farm boy who lives in my wing. He is fifty, though he looks older, and serving a sentence of life without parole. He is talking — that molasses-slow falsetto of a voice — about comic book characters, and I am only half listening.

"Of course, Tony Stark always knew he'd get more dependent on the suit, you know, as time went on. The other suits — War Machine and that — they were kind of necessary..." and on and on. I like Larry well enough, but there is relief when my turn arrives to grab a tray.

It is lunchtime, so I sit with Mack and Lee, grizzled old-timers with more time under their combined belts than I've been alive. We get the obligatory half-jokes out of the way about who's eating what, then salt the hell out of everything.

"Where's Everett?" asks Mack. "Didn't he come up?"

"He went to the property room. Legal stuff," I answer. Everett usually sits with us, but today there is a legal file to dredge through. I know, from conversations, he has five boxes full of documents in storage. He is also serving life.

Mack snorts. "Don't know why he bothers; motherfucker's never gettin' out. You know he killed his old lady, don't ya?"

"Stabbed her thirty, forty times, I think," adds Lee, looking wide-eyed through those Coke-bottle glasses. He chuckles a little. My stomach turns.

"Well, I heard he shot her," Mack says.

"Yeah, well, he admits to that," I answer, half in his defense, "He was just trying to get it out what she'd been doing to the kids. That and the thing with DFS not lifting a finger to help."

They know the story. Everett's made no secret of his documentation. Being reminded takes their bluster. Salacious gossip is nothing I want a part of, so today I am a wet blanket.

We finish eating without another word. It seems like a half hour.

Morning Nostalgia

[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

White. And there are only trucks down on the interstate as I look to the east, at the murky sun. Between there and here lies an improbable distance — maybe a third of a mile — hyphenated by a fence, electric, razor-wired, and aglitter with ice. Within the prison, the snow is clean and undisturbed, save but four sets of footprints left by the bundled corrections officers during the nightly perimeter checks, and, if I angle my head sufficiently downward, the fence and the prints and even the walls of my cell fade into the periphery, and the drift beneath my narrow window becomes all I can see. Standing there like this, my cellmate silently breathing in his sleep a couple of feet away, I see the crystals at the crest of the drift one facet at a time, as each momentarily casts the morning rays. The perfect ridge is close. I could reach out and grasp a handful, I realize, were it not for this thick Lexan. It is prison's familiar torture: looking with mandatory detachment while never being permitted to touch.

I am twenty-eight and still envisioning snowball fights, sledding, those long, nose chilling winter walks around town I used to cherish as much as anything. Almost. With my calf-length coat and the wool scarf without fringe my mother knitted me years into my adulthood, I would stay out for hours — a tiny, dark mote in a sea of white — walking nowhere in particular amid the muffled tranquility. There were sometimes partners with me on those hushed wanderings, whose intentions started out well enough, but whose hands inevitably numbed or teeth chattered, and one whose whole body often ached and shivered, so I'd enfold her in my coat and we would hasten back to the indoors, her saying over and over, "I hate the cold; I hate the cold," and me, oblivious, never recognizing the implications of that until the night she broke me over her knee like kindling.

I have long since forgiven her, but in these early moments of reflection, before the inexorable din of daily prison life crescendos, there is time enough for memories, however tender or sour, and to look eastward, past that fence and the field, the brown grove of trees and the busy highway, to the slowly ascending promise of day.


[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

In considering what my first blog entry should consist of, I thought long and hard. What sorts of things, I wondered, could I write about that the average person would not consider tedious and uninteresting? After all, I'm writing from prison, where day-to-day life is largely regimented and therefore quite uneventful. Somehow I manage to write several longish letters every week to friends and family, however, and those are universally reported as enjoyable, so I must be doing something right. Perhaps, if I'm able to write those letters, I will be able to find subject matter for an online readership, too. Then again, it's entirely possible no one will ever pay this any mind and it will remain one of the millions of disregarded pages on the web, gradually being cultivated for an audience of none. We'll see.

While I don't intend to use this space to address the various controversies surrounding my conviction (there's already a site, FreeByronCase.com, for that), it is inevitable that certain things come up within the context of an entry, here or there. I try like hell to keep from becoming my case, but it's difficult. When something happens in one's life with such far reaching effects, it is next to impossible for the event not to define them to some extent — this is no different. On many days, I find myself wondering about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Rejean Hinse, Dennis Fritz, Theodore White, and the innumerable others who have lived through being convicted of a crime they did not commit and now lead free lives once more; I wonder if and how they maintained their senses of self when every single day served as a hideous reminder of the injustice they were suffering. That is bound to show through in these entries from time to time. I believe that is all the more reason to write them….