A bungling and remorseless career criminal challenges the faith of the prison Chaplain, who finds he can never be free of him
The phone rang nine times before George finally reached it. He had tossed out his answering machine a few years ago, being tired of it always picking up before he could get to the phone. Caller ID kept track of who called, anyway, and he could always call back if he felt like it. What he really needed was a cell phone he could carry around with him. But after losing four of them he gave up on that idea. Can't lose a phone mounted on the wall.
This caller stayed on the line long enough for George to pick up.
"Hello, George, it's Warden Crenshaw. How are you?"
"Hello, Tom. It's good to hear your voice. It's been a long time."
"Yes, it has. Five years or thereabouts, right? Anyway, I'm calling because I thought you might like to know that Willie Lunkers passed away in his sleep last night."
Suddenly the air was sucked out of the room as old feelings George thought were long gone began to reappear. More troubling, though, were the new feelings he didn't know he had. Conflicting feelings, and he wasn't sure just what to make of them. He struggled to say something, anything.
"I want to see the body. Can I do that?"
"Now, George, that's a little unorthodox, you know. You're not family, after all."
"Willie didn't have any family, remember? Besides, I have to. For Mary."
"Alright, sure. For you. But you have to get down here today before we call the morgue. Do you need a ride?"
"I'll try to get Junior to bring me. I'll call you back if I need to. Thanks."
Thirty-five years, almost half his life, George had spent as a Chaplain in that prison. He was surprised that Tom Crenshaw was still the Warden there. He had to be close to retirement himself by now. Lucky for George he was still on the job, or he might not have gotten that phone call.
George Junior had himself retired early only the previous year. George quickly dialed his number and calmly explained the situation to him.
"Pop, are you sure you want to do this?"
"I have to, for your mother. Are you gonna come get me or not?"
"Of course I will. I'll be there in half an hour. Just don't do anything rash until I get there."
"What's that supposed to mean? Just get over here. I'll be okay."
Junior knew better than to press his father too much. It didn't matter if what he said didn't make any sense. If it made sense to him that was good enough. And even if it didn't, who would know, anyway? Saying he had to do this for Mary was all the answer anyone needed, whether anyone understood that or not.
Twenty-five years earlier
"I'm innocent, I tell ya. It ain't my fault. He shot at me first. I didn't even have a gun! Okay, so I managed to shoot him with his own gun. Four times. Hey, was it my fault his gun had a hair trigger? All he had to do was stay upstairs and I woulda just robbed the downstairs and left. Probably. But no, he's gotta start shooting. What was I supposed to do, anyway? Let him shoot me?"
Guys like Willie Lunkers increasingly made George sick. That's not good for a prison Chaplain. In the old days, especially on death row, most of the inmates were remorseful and fearful, and they were open to and even grateful for anything George could do for them spiritually. They knew they were at the end of the road and didn't want to face it alone. But that was a long time ago.
Today too many are like "Tattoo Willie," who looked like he was wearing a shirt when he wasn't. Nothing was ever his fault. Everything that ever happened to him was because of somebody else. He was a victim of circumstance. Society was to blame, and Chaplain George, old dinosaur that he was, was part of society, so it was even partly his fault. Willie's clueless arrogance was just too much, more than George could bear.
"I just can't help him," George finally told his friend, Warden Tom Crenshaw. "And you know what? I don't want to. And I don't want to walk through these cell blocks anymore and hear all the horrible things these animals spew out. I just can't take another day! It's time for me to retire while I still have some life left in me."
So that's what George did. The guards held a small retirement party for him, and the warden presented him with a plaque commemorating thirty-five years of faithful service. There were refreshments and hugs and handshakes all around. Memories and laughs were shared, and then it was over.
George walked out with mixed emotions, happy - no, relieved - to be finally out of there, but also a little sad. In the end he felt like he had failed. The task of being a prison Chaplain ultimately became too much for him, and eventually the inhumanity of it all overwhelmed him. He just couldn't do it anymore. That's why he retired, right?
"No, dear," Mary, his wife of almost forty years, reminded him. "There are lots of things we want to do while we still can. You gave most of your life to that prison. Now it's time for us to have some fun. Let's travel, see the country, do whatever we want. You've earned it. You deserve it."
Her loving response persuaded him, so they sold their brownstone for a tidy profit, bought a brand new Winnebago and hit the road. They spent five years just traveling wherever the road led them, seeing all the sights, staying at campgrounds at night, and meeting all kinds of wonderful people doing the very same thing.
They didn't notice when their home state abolished the death penalty, commuting everyone on death row to life in prison. And even if they had noticed, so what? Parole would be out of the question, wouldn't it? Besides, it wasn't their problem anymore. "The world's tallest lollipop is just an hour away! Let's go see it!"
Eventually even all that fun became less exciting, and George and Mary grew weary of living in the Winnebago. They missed seeing their kids and grandkids, and now that they were both pushing sixty-five it was time to slow down, settle down and maybe do something else. So they moved back to the outskirts of their hometown and bought an old two-story farmhouse on five acres, really too much land for George to take care of. Most of it he left for nature to take its course. Mary had her garden and he had a few chickens. They always had eggs but George just couldn't bring himself to kill one of those chickens for supper. He'd much rather go to the KFC down the road.
Life was good, this one, anyway. They had their health, and it now seemed like George's former life as a prison Chaplain was someone else's, a million years ago.
Nine years later
"George, wake up. Did you hear that?" Mary pushed on his shoulder a couple of times, trying to rouse him out of a deep sleep. He slept so soundly these days! "George," she whispered, "there's a noise coming from downstairs. I think we might have a prowler!"
"Okay, I'm up." George sat up, swung his feet around to the floor and took a deep breath, trying to wake up enough to shake away the cobwebs as he groped in the dark for the flashlight in the nightstand drawer.
"Be careful, George."
"I will, don't worry." Their old farmhouse always creaked at night, especially if the wind was blowing. Some folks in town hinted that the old place might even be haunted. Was that why they got such a good deal on it? Anyway, for what seemed like the thousandth time George dutifully got up to look for nothing, just to ease Mary's fears.
As he trudged down the hallway towards the top of the stairs he now thought he heard something, too. What was that? He shined his flashlight down the stairs. "Who's there?" He saw a shape move in the shadows, and then a quick glimpse of someone's face. Wait a minute, I know that face, George thought. "Willie? Willie Lunkers, is that you? What are you..."
One year later
The horrible events of that fateful night were still crystal clear in George's mind, as if they had happened yesterday. The only light that night came from the flashlight he was holding, and Willie must have pointed his .38 up the stairs at it when he fired off everything he had. Luckily only one bullet grazed George's shoulder but blood splattered everywhere, or so it must have seemed to Mary. And the volume of the blasts! They sounded like cannons going off, the shock waves rattling the whole house!
Mary had leapt out of bed and in the reflected, ambient glow from the flashlight had seen George lying on the floor bleeding. He couldn't hear her scream since the gunshots had rendered him temporarily deaf. He couldn't hear himself scream, either, as he saw her clutch her chest and fall to the floor, dead of an apparent heart attack.
Willie, on the other hand, didn't even bother to check upstairs to make sure he was in the clear. He just bolted out the back door with nothing but the gun he came in with. It only took a couple of days before he was caught and back in jail, and this time he wasn't getting out. Maybe. But how can you really be convicted of murder if you never even touched the one who's dead?
It had been a difficult year for George, waiting for Willie's trial. Memories of his life with Mary only made him miss her all the more. Most of what they did together was her idea. The old gal had always been so full of life! With so much energy! Now he slept downstairs mostly to avoid seeing the bullet holes in the wall. But he couldn't get past the guilt of watching her collapse dead before his eyes. And his rage against Willie knew no bounds.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but for George it was still boiling in the bowl. And he had so many unanswered questions that kept it piping hot. How could Willie have been released from prison in the first place? What if he's found not guilty of Mary's death since he only shot me? What if jury nullification gets him off scot-free? How can I go on if Willie's free while Mary is dead? These questions and more had been festering within him all year long.
Three days were set aside for Willie's trial. If it looked to George like justice wasn't going to prevail, well, he'd just have to see about that! He started thinking about what options he might have, what things he might be able to do to make sure Willie paid for his crime. The courthouse was pretty old but way too small for him to smuggle in a gun unnoticed. Besides, he didn't even own a gun, and where was he going to get one now? Willie's holding cell was in the courthouse basement, but extra guards had been hired just for him. This murder trial was the biggest news to ever hit this little town, and the police were not taking any chances.
How am I going to get to Willie if I have to? George pondered. But the real question was, would a guilty verdict even be enough for him? Again, as when he retired, he found his faith unable to withstand the evil confronting him.
As it turned out, the question of Willie's guilt never was an issue. Ballistics and fingerprints made sure of that. Before George had his chance to testify, even before the first day of the trial was over, Willie confessed. Stupid criminals make stupid mistakes, and this time a bureaucratic penal system would not release him again.
But it all seemed to come to a close much too quickly. The testimony George had prepared would now be heard by no one. It was as if Willie's confession had robbed George of his chance to prove Willie's guilt. In a way he felt as if he'd failed Mary again.
Five years later
George was now closing in on eighty, and these last five years had really taken their toll on his health. So also had the unchecked bitterness that had been growing within him. The scar on his now arthritic shoulder, the resulting pain when shaving, his many ulcers and increasingly high blood pressure kept his doctors busy and his anger fresh.
Mary had been good for his sanity and peace of mind, but since her death he felt all alone and rudderless. No matter how often the kids, grandkids, and now great-grandkids visited there was still an emptiness, a hole, a lack of closure and peace that somehow needed to be rectified. But how? He finally decided that there was only one way. He had to go see Willie at the prison.
The ancient, drab, gray, cinder block walls and heavy iron doors seemed more foreboding than ever before, much more than he remembered. The dank, stale yet putrid smells, the dimness of the lights, the startlingly loud buzzers every time a guard opened any door, and the incessant yammering of young thugs vying for their own little kingdoms. Surely being caged up here was a fate worse than any death penalty! George made the trip to that hell hole six weeks in a row before Willie finally agreed to meet with him.
These last five years had not been kind to Willie, either. His tattoos were fading, and some were sagging while others were stretching out. What hair he had left had turned almost completely white. Looking much older than his sixty years, he walked with a slight limp, and George barely recognized him as a guard led him into the Inmate Visitation Room.
"Willie, you're probably wondering why I keep coming here to see you. To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure myself, or of what I want to say to you. So let's start out this way. Do you remember me? I mean, from when I used to be a Chaplain here?"
"Yeah, I remember you. I thought you were a foolish old man. Now I'm older than you were then." There was a difference, a resignation, almost a sadness in Willie's voice that had never been there before. "What do you want?"
"Well, at your trial you said you didn't know whose house you were robbing. Why did you shoot at me?"
"Because you called me by my name, why do you think? Look, man, I just panicked and reacted. I didn't place your voice until later. If I'd known someone was there who knew me I woulda gone somewhere else..."
George's blood quickly began to boil and he was about to erupt when Willie paused, raising the palm of his hand as if wanting to start over. Then, rubbing his forehead he forged ahead, apparently intent on getting something off his chest.
"Look, I've been talking to the Chaplain here, the one who took your place when you quit. He's the reason I finally agreed to meet with you. Anyway, I know I ruined your life, and mine is as good as over. I know I'm never getting out of here again. If I could go back and change things I would, I really would. But we both know I can't. And I'm sorry about your wife, too. I know what I did killed her as much as if I'd shot her. I didn't intend for any of that to happen, it just did, but I know I brought it all on myself and you."
George was stunned! This couldn't be happening! What could this mean?
Willie's gaze drifted off and he paused again as if deep in thought, trying to choose his words carefully. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm asking if you can forgive me."
That was the last thing George expected or wanted to hear, but it began to awaken something inside him that had long been dormant. He looked into Willie's eyes and saw that they were welling up. Or was he looking through his own misty eyes? Was the former Chaplain deep within him finally in conflict with his embittered heart?
For the first time he realized that Willie was suffering in a way that had nothing to do with being in prison, and everything to do with why he was there. He saw that the prison in Willie's mind was similar to the one in his own mind, and that he too was a prisoner. And he further saw that he held the key to both cell doors. Maybe if he could absolve Willie of his guilt he could vanquish his own self-destructive hate at the same time. He wanted closure but how could he possibly forgive Willie? Was that really the only way?
"Yes." Startled by his own response, George couldn't believe what he had just said. He came looking for closure, satisfaction, and yes, maybe even a little revenge. He certainly did not not come to forgive anybody, that's for sure, especially Tattoo Willie! But he was not the same man who had consumed so much of George's time, energy, and emotions. And suddenly George was no longer the same, either.
It's hard to say who was more surprised that day, Willie or George. From that moment on they both felt a bond unlike any they had ever felt before. No longer linked only by crippling violence, they now shared a newly recognized vulnerability, a common fallenness that suddenly basked in the freedom and peace that only forgiveness brings. It was as if a tremendous weight had been lifted off both their shoulders. Although Willie would remain in prison and George would remain alone, neither would ever be the same again.
Even so, the passage of time continued to take a heavy toll on both of them.
Five years later; present day
So, Tattoo Willie had died in his sleep, apparently of natural causes, the warden had explained. No visible reason for an autopsy. The young gangs in prison ignored him as if he'd been dead for years, anyway. He was just marking time when suddenly time ran out.
Much like what George was still doing as almost a prisoner in his own house. At eighty-five he could barely get around anymore. The state had taken his driver's license away a couple of years before after his foot slipped off the brake and hit the gas, causing him to wipe out a couple of rows of shopping carts at Mendelsohn's Market, just missing a young mother and her baby. His protests of it being an honest mistake fell on deaf ears, of course, much to his dismay. Since then he had to be driven everywhere usually by either Junior or his wife, including, right now, the prison, which was over an hour away.
As the town had slowly encroached upon him, and also in a half-hearted and somewhat misguided attempt to downsize, he had sold off all but half an acre of the land their house sat on. He didn't much care for the new neighborhood that grew up around him, with its increased traffic and all the noisy little kids running around and cutting through his yard all the time, but he refused to move.
The world beyond George's front door seemed to be in a state of perpetual fast forward while his world inside was in slow motion, if it moved at all. His hips wouldn't even let him go upstairs anymore, which was just as well. It was still the same, including the bullet holes in the wall. There was nothing up there he needed, but the fact he couldn't get up there on his own constantly ate at him. At least he was still able to live alone, independently. For now, anyway.
George was at some kind of peace after that final, tearful meeting with Willie five years before, although his neighbors didn't know it. To them he was just that grumpy old man who lived alone in that big old house. The kids on the block had learned to steer clear of him whenever he was out puttering around in his yard.
But now something unexpected was stirring within him. Not revenge, really, but he again felt like he owed Mary something. But what? Since Willie's conviction, his death was an epilogue George hadn't consciously considered. Maybe I really should see Willie's dead body for Mary's sake. Maybe through me she might somehow see it, too. What other possible good could come from it?
Junior finally arrived and helped his father into his Lincoln Town Car. George liked that car. So comfortable he often fell asleep in it while Junior rattled on about his grandkids. Today, however, he remained wide awake and deep in thought the whole trip.
When they pulled up to the prison's front gate a guard directed them toward the employees' side parking lot. They walked through two sets of double-doors near the rear marked PRISON PERSONNEL ONLY and then were escorted by another guard toward the infirmary a little further in. Warden Crenshaw had made sure they would have no trouble going where they really weren't supposed to go.
The drab old prison still looked the same, but the halls seemed so much longer now. George was offered a wheelchair, but he declined. His failing hearing rendered the buzzers and clanging doors more muted, but he didn't notice. He was determined to make it to the infirmary under his own power.
Slowly, and with great effort, George finally reached the infirmary door, where he knew Willie lay just on the other side. He felt his heart start to race as his breathing became shallow and quick. Dizzy and tired, he became unsteady as the guard gently pushed the infirmary door open. George stood there, unable to move. Junior held him steady, and with a slight nudge they entered the room.
The infirmary seemed smaller than he remembered. Even though it had partitions with cots for only fifteen sick inmates, it was almost never full. Prisoners who died rarely stayed in the infirmary very long before the morgue picked them up, so the smell of death never overwhelmed the sterile, antiseptic, hospital-like atmosphere of the room. As a Chaplain George had been in there many times during his thirty-five year career, but this time was different, more personal. And he could almost feel Mary's presence there with him.
The guard whispered something to the doctor on duty who then led them to a refrigerated drawer designed for temporarily storing cadavers. He unlatched and pulled open the drawer, and then slowly unzipped a black, plastic body bag enough to reveal the head and shoulders of an old, heavily tattooed dead body. Even so, it didn't really look all that much like Willie. Of course, George had barely recognized him the last time he had seen him, and that was five years ago. And he hadn't been dead then.
There was something else, though, something surprising about him that bothered George. Was it the painlessness he saw in him that eluded his own increasingly frail body? Did he actually feel resentment toward Willie? Jealousy, even? No, that's crazy. What could he possibly be envious about? Not the life Willie had led, nor the evil he had committed, certainly not the many years he had spent behind bars.
What about the peaceful serenity Willie's face now seemed to express? Was that a slight smile George detected? Okay, there's nothing more I can do for Mary now. Must I continue to suffer? Or is this some kind of crossroad? A turning point?
As George stared intently at him, he took a deep breath, slowly sighed, and simply said, "So this is what has become of Tattoo Willie Lunkers, the man who tried to rob us, shot me, caused your mother's fatal heart attack, and spent most of his miserable life in this very prison. Now he's finally free. At least physically. I guess whatever God decides to do with him now is okay by me."
Junior didn't know what to say and so wisely said nothing. After a couple of minutes George was ready to go. He thanked the doctor, whom he didn't know, and the guard, and all the other prison personnel he didn't know on his way back to the exit. When he got there Warden Crenshaw was waiting for him. The two old friends went alone into a small side room for a private chat.
If the five years since Willie's confession had been unkind to both of them, the five years since then had been almost infinitely more so. Willie was dead, and at twenty years his senior George was like the barely walking dead. It pained Tom to see his old friend so frail and feeble. It was a cruel reminder that he too was getting old.
They spoke of old times and shared memories, and then of Willie and how he was found peacefully in his bunk during morning bed check. Apparently satisfied, George no longer seemed to have any more questions. Rising from their chairs, there were tears as they both knew they would never see each other again. But the closure felt good, felt right.
Warden Crenshaw stayed with George while Junior brought the car around and then assisted his old friend onto the front seat. One last handshake and wave, and they were on their way home.
They stopped at that old KFC just down the road from George's house, where they went inside and ate their fill. Even though the building had been remodeled and the menu updated a couple of times over the years, this was still George's favorite place to eat. It was still our place, he thought, even after Mary was gone.
The chicken seemed especially tasty that day, and George really packed it in. They didn't talk much, but there was a subtle yet unmistakable change in George's demeanor Junior couldn't quite put his finger on. Not peace, exactly, or contentment. A certain calmness? Resignation, even? All he knew was it made him feel a little uneasy. Maybe it was the way his father smiled at nothing in particular, as if recalling an inside joke he wasn't sharing. Maybe it was the way he said "Nothing," when asked. Something was different, or missing, released and gone from George's psyche.
Whatever it was, Junior didn't like it, but he couldn't be sure it wasn't just his own imagination, so he tried his best to ignore it as they drove on to George's house.
"What a pretty day, isn't it?"
"Uh, yeah, Pop, it sure is. Well, we're almost at your house. Anything else you'd like to do before I drop you off? Need me to do anything inside before I go home?"
"No, thanks, Junior. Hey, I really appreciate you taking me to the prison today, especially last minute and all. It really means a lot to me."
"No problem, Pop. I just hope you got out of it whatever you were looking for." There was that curious, unsettling smile on his father's face again.
As Junior drove away, George entered his front door. The sun was setting, casting a soft, diffused, golden glow within his house through windows that needed cleaning. He checked his caller ID for any calls he might have missed. Only one he had no intention of returning. He then sat back in his favorite old recliner, clicked on his TV to nothing in particular, and in minutes fell fast asleep.
He dreamt of happier times, of days long ago. Images blended together, flashing from everywhere. Times when Mary and he were young, she nubile and he virile. How they first met in college. Their wedding. Their kids, his work, their ministry together. Their struggles, and their refuge in each other. Here is Mary gently nudging him in the right direction when he doesn't quite know what to do. There he is thinking he's in charge. She lets him think that. He marvels at how beautiful she remains no matter how old she gets. And he knows how lucky he is that she is waiting for him still.
He slept soundly and peacefully, with a slight smile on his face. He never woke up.