Friday, March 9, 2018

Last Chance by Edward Lee

Vernon leaves prison after twelve long years and wonders if he really has a choice about his future; by Edward Lee.

They tried to goad him by spitting on him, talking about his mom, his wife, his daughter. They were trying to get him to fight, lose control, so his incarceration would be extended another ninety days for disorderly conduct in a government owned building. When the guards finally came to escort him out of the prison cell block and down the hallway, all he could do was laugh at his former cellmates. And that set their voices and curses at a pandemonium.

Walking past the security checkpoints, Vernon was taken to the prison outtake area; he was given his things sealed in plastic wrap. Inside the wrap were his clothes, his keys, and fifty two dollars, still there in a money clip in his back pocket. He went inside a room, changed his prison clothes for civilian, and he came out of the room a free man.

Outside, by the shoulder of the road, past the fence, his mother and sister waited by the car, jumping up and down when they saw him. He came up to them and gave his sister a big bear hug, lifting her up off her feet. She weighed something over two hundred pounds. His mother who was bigger was raised off her feet and kissed. They all told each other how much they loved one another, and how happy they were.

They got in the car on the graveled lane, Vernon in the backseat, the car a beat up Toyota, and Vernon's sister started the car, then turned on the radio to a hip hop station. Vernon hardly ever heard music inside the penitentiary. If he did, it was country music like Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, which the guards listened to. He danced waist up to the music playing in the car, shimmying, raising his arms, jutting them out, and bringing his arms back in. He hadn't smiled so much in twelve years, since he was imprisoned for stealing a car.

Twelve years ago, Vernon left a house party, and when he got to his car five blocks away, he found the car had a flat tire. He tried his car jack, but it wouldn't lift the car, no matter how hard he pushed or pulled. He went back to the house that held the party, everyone had left except the ones who gave the party, and they were too drunk to drive him home, and they didn't have a car jack. Vernon wasn't paying for a cab. So, he walked to a bus stop and waited an hour and a half for a bus that never came. The bus stop was across from the light. He watched the cars go by one after the other. Vernon got fed up waiting, and a Chevy pickup stopped at the light. He got up off the bus bench and went around behind the truck to the driver's side of the door. He asked the driver if he could catch a ride to Inglewood Knolls. The driver didn't look at him. Vernon smashed the driver's side window with his fist and reached for the driver's hair, pulling it and telling him, "Listen to me. Get out the car, nice and quiet, or bad shit is going to happen."

Right after Vernon left the scene, the owner of the car called the police on his flip-open cellphone. There was a patrol car in the area, and the sirens went on when they spotted the vehicle. The police pulled Vernon over. He was patted down. Vernon was carrying a concealed weapon. Vernon swore to the officers that he didn't use the gun during the robbery. But, that's not what the victim testified. He said a gun was pulled out, pointed, and then used to smash the window. Utter bullshit. Just a coward trying to save face, prodded by the police, Vernon thought. But who was the jury going to believe? So, Vernon was sentenced to twelve long sobering years for armed robbery, but now he was here, out of the car and home from prison, in his mother's house with his nieces and nephews, some of whom he never met. Soda, potato chips, plastic cups, and paper plates were on the dining table. Vernon asked where was his brother, Chip. His mother told him he was in prison. For what? Selling drugs. Vernon was about to lose his cool, but he knew better than to lose his temper around his mother and her grandchildren. Vernon didn't say anything about his daughter not being there. The family could feel the tension in the room, but it was released when Vernon said, "Let's eat, damn it. I'm hungry, and I haven't had anything to eat but gruel in prison: morning, noon, night." Vernon's sister, Candace, ordered pizza, and when the pizza came, they all sat down and ate, sitting on or by the sofa. The family watched a movie, Madea's Big Happy Family. Everyone was laughing except for Vernon.



When the house was quiet and everyone was asleep, Vernon got up from his bed and went outside to the local bodega. He bought a forty ounce of cheap liquor, and he was going to buy a pack of cigarettes, but they cost too much. When did a pack of cigarettes start costing nearly nine dollars?

Vernon walked from the bodega to the house, a few people outside talking, smoking blunts. Vernon sat on the stoop to the door of his house, and he popped open the forty. He took a few swigs, then he poured out liquor on the ground for his incarcerated brother. Vernon had wondered why his brother wasn't there to greet him when he was released from prison. Lil' Vern, they used to call his brother to tease him a bit. He did everything Vernon did, joined the same gang, wore the same clothes, talked like Vernon; he had the same hair cut and the same barber. Now Chip was in prison just like he had been. Vernon slammed the forty ounce glass bottle on the floor. It shattered into hundreds of little pieces, the liquor splashing the sidewalk. The dogs next door ran to the window and barked hysterically. The kids a block away looked in his direction. A light went on in the house. Vernon went in, looking at a small cut on his elbow. His mother asked him where he went and was there some trouble outside. "No, momma, nothing like that."



Vernon was back home, but he avoided all his old haunts. He didn't want to see those people. He didn't want to be a gang banger anymore. When he was young, he used to scoff at the O.G.'s who had done bids that warned him there were only two ways a gang banger could go: the old home, where the O.G.'s had been, or a morgue. At the time, he wasn't trying to hear that, didn't want to hear that; although, some part of him must have known they were speaking from cold hard experience. What they had prophesied had come true. It was up to him to change or to end up in and out of prison or die on these streets.

Vernon as hard as he might try couldn't help but run into a few of his old friends. After some catching up and reminiscing, they told him if he needed any money to come by; they would hook him up with some money and a job: a job robbing people or selling drugs. Vernon knew what they meant. He told them thanks, but he was too old to be hanging out on these streets. It was time for him to leave the life if he could. They said they understood and wished him good luck.

Finding an honest job wasn't easy though for an ex-con. When he picked up his first job application form, it felt like an interrogation. His past became an open book relegated to a few pages, without any room for him to plead his case. The most damning part of his life, his prison history, condensed into one question. "Have you ever been convicted of or pleaded no contest to a felony?" No one was interested in hiring a worker convicted of armed robbery, with no prior job experience, and without a high school diploma. Vernon couldn't find work as a gas attendant, or a dishwasher, or a bathroom cleaner. No one wanted him for anything.



Vernon waited a month before seeing his daughter, Trisha, and her mother at the single family house where Trisha and her mother, Loraine, lived with Trisha's grandparents. He wanted to stand in front of that door an employed, turned around man bearing gifts for his daughter, but he stood there with nothing.

Loraine opened the door, a door chain serving as a barrier. She didn't look pleased.

"When did you get out?" she asked.

"About a month ago."

"So, what you doing here now?"

"I want to see my daughter."

"No."

"Why the hell not?"

"Do you have a job, Vernon?"

"No, I'm looking for one. What does that have to do with anything? I just want to see my daughter."

"So, you think your sorry ass can come here twelve, thirteen years later, stand in front of my door and see your daughter? No job. No future. In jail or shot dead anytime from now. And you got the nerve to say you want to see your daughter? She's my daughter. I raised her, and I do not want my daughter to know you. You're just going to break her heart like my father did to me. No, Vernon. No."

"Look, I'm not going back to prison. I'm not going to die out on these streets. I'm going to get a job, a legit job, and I'm going to be a father to Trisha."

"Vernon, you're not going to do anything but hurt us like you've been doing. Trisha don't want to see you. Nobody does. Go home."

"I want to see Trisha."

"If you're not off this porch after I've closed the door. I'm calling the police," Loraine closed the door, which had been open as far as the door chain would allow it. Vernon wanted to smash the door open, wanted to smash it into pieces, but he heard Loraine's voice from behind the door saying, "An ex-boyfriend is outside. He won't leave. Can you send the police over?"

Vernon stepped off the porch; he yelled, "I'm going to be back. I'm going to have a job. And I'm going to take you, Trisha, wherever you want to go, because I'm your father, Trisha," and he left like a thief in the night.



Vernon's nephew Richie knew Vernon was looking for a job, was desperate for a job. So, the shy little man built up the courage to make the child-like suggestion that Vernon try the internet. "All right, little man. I'll try that." Since there was no computer at home, and Vernon's mother and sister were out at work with their smartphones, Vernon started off for the public library; it was a thirty minute walk, and through a better part of Inglewood. The aesthetics of the neighborhood changed: unfettered lawns, siding discoloration, junk that sanitation wouldn't take away morphing into German cars in the driveways, flower gardens, American flags hanging by front doors. Vernon left this quieter and stiller version of Inglewood, and made his way out on to Crenshaw Boulevard. He saw the library. He went inside, saw books displayed or lined on shelves. Vernon asked a librarian at the front desk if he could use a computer. The librarian told him to sign in for a computer and wait. Vernon signed a sheet attached to a clipboard, and he stood around. Twenty minutes later his turn came, and he sat down in front of a screen with a key board and mouse. Not sure what to do, Vernon asked for help, and the librarian came over and clicked on something called Internet Explorer, and told him to type what he wanted in the search bar. Vernon typed job search. He found a job post website that asked him what he would like to be doing. Anything, he typed. And a list of jobs appeared on the screen. The most promising jobs for his skill-set were in warehouse and delivery. One job paid by the day and not on a weekly basis. Helpers were paid seventy dollars a day. The ability to lift 100 lbs or more, be reliable, work seven days a week, and have phone etiquette were the only work requirements. He wrote down the the address of Tim's Lumber and Wood Warehouse on a piece of paper. He searched online for a bus map, and wrote down which buses to take and where to get off and transfer. He got up, thanked the librarian, and went to apply for the job in person.



Vernon got off the L12 bus an hour and a half later, and walked two blocks down to the lumber and wood warehouse. He asked someone that was working a fork lift, "Where is the front office?"

"Go in there," the fork lift driver said, pointing with his finger.

Vernon raised the brim of his cap and said thanks.

Vernon went in and waited by the reception desk. A man came up to him.

"Hello, how can I help you?"

"I saw you had a job opening."

"Sure, wait here."

The man went into a room, which had a window looking in, and opened a file cabinet and took out two sheets from a folder. He came back to the desk and picked up a pen, clicking the button on top.

"First and last name?"

"Vernon Isley."

"Do you spell the last name with an e-y?"

"Yes, sir."

"Phone number?"

"Area code 555, 342-7352."

"Can you lift 100 lbs throughout a day?"

"Yes, sir. That's no problem."

"Are you available to work seven days a week, Monday through Sunday?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have you been convicted of a crime within the last five years?"

Vernon exhaled. "I've spent the last twelve years in prison. I was released a month ago."

"So the past twelve years you've been in prison," the man said writing it down. "Do you have a high school diploma?"

"No."

"Okay, Mr. Isley, we'll contact you if we decide to hire you."

Vernon was about to turn around, quit, but, he said, "Look, I know what my history sounds like. But, all I need is a chance. The job description says you pay by the day, not by the week. If you don't like the job I'm doing, you can fire me the same day. Sir, I don't know if you've got any children or not, but I've got a daughter that I left for prison when she was two, and I can't be a real part of her life unless I have a job. Please, all I need is a chance. I'm not going to let you down. I can't for her sake."

The man gave Vernon a good, long look, taking all of him in. "All right, I'm going to give you a shot. There's a big shipment coming in tomorrow, and we could use more men. But if you're late for work, disrespect me or my customers, or if you're difficult in any way, you're gone."

"You're not going to have any problem from me," Vernon stuck out his hand. His grip was firm.



A few weeks later, Vernon went to see Trisha. Loraine opened the door, the door chain still in the way. The first thing Vernon did was show Loraine his paychecks, one for each day of the week. He said he was going to deposit the checks and take Trisha to the movies, and then take her to meet her relatives on her father's side. Loraine looked at the paychecks. Looked at who signed them, held one up against the light of the sun. She dropped her shoulders and gave Vernon back his paychecks. Loraine slid open the door chain.

"Trisha," she called out.

Vernon waited, then the sun shone on his daughter's beautiful face.

8 comments:

  1. I have worked with offenders (including in prison settings) and I was massively impressed by your realisation of Vernon and the problems that he faced upon release. I was close to tears when he succeeded in working and accessing his daughter - so many don't manage this. Excellent storytelling: craft, plot and empathy. Very many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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    1. Thank you for your comments. They're much appreciated, especially as you're someone who has been close to this type of situation.

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  2. Try this again - the first time my comments were lost to the maze of cyberland. As Ceinwen notes, many - in fact, I would say most - never make it back to real work, or get the chance to see their families. So it's uplifting to see Vernon get a chance. This story is well-written, hopeful, and realistic, and made for a good read. Enjoyed it!

    Keep 'um coming.
    Jim

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    1. Thank you for your personal feedback.

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  3. I started not liking Vernon so much and ended up rooting for him— the mark of good writing and effective storytelling. Well done.

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    1. I'm glad Vernon won you over. Thanks for the feedback.

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