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I’m an old man, no menace to anybody, too ill and impotent to act on my antisocial impulses. Still at age 60 I sit in prison, waiting for someone to see that. I’ve talked to the doctor, the counselor, the warden, all from my bed in the infirmary, appealing for compassionate release, but the parole board has denied me five times. Said my crime made me undeserving.

Probably, they’re right. Thinking back on it, I didn’t give much compassion, so I can’t expect any in return.

Except this is my last chance to set things straight. I won’t live long enough to appeal again. A lifetime of abusing myself and others has built up like body shots to a boxer, swelling my joints, slowing my reflexes, softening my intestines. I can hardly stand or sit up without help, and I’m lucky to make it to the toilet in time. I smell like damp gauze and damp diapers.

So I lie here, hoping six will be my lucky number. Hoping the parole board finally shows me some sympathy. Isn’t that what compassionate release is for?

That weren’t what I expected the night I broke into that store. I just wanted a safe score. No violence, no car chase, no mayhem. But I stole everything in the place that couldn’t be traced — all the cigarettes and liquor. Sold them out of my car trunk for ten cents on the dollar.

I figured insurance would pay for it. Give it a couple weeks, the owner’d be back in business. Only he didn’t have insurance. Couldn’t afford it because of all the crime in our part of town. Plus, he’d been hit before. Three times. My theft put him out of business. Told the judge so.

He wanted me to suffer. Judge agreed. Struck me out and gave me an indeterminate sentence: 25 to life. In proportion with my history. A career in crime. On top of that, he ordered me to repay $65,007.

How could I earn that locked up? Not mopping floors. Not chopping vegetables. Not at 40 cents an hour. Not when good time credits didn’t count for me. No matter how good I was, I’d do 25 years minimum.

So I refused to work. Why labor for another man? If I wanted that, I would’ve got a job on the outs. Inside, I could get by without the snacks and whatnot they sell on commissary, trade for what I needed. But I wouldn’t work for free.

I thought that’d be the end of it until he started writing me. Faizal. Telling me what was going on with him. Really, hassling me. Guilt tripping me.

After he lost his business, he couldn’t find a good job. It were during one of those hard times that swell up every now and again like tumors. He ended up delivering things: pizzas and the like. After gas and maintenance, said he only made minimum wage. Asked when I was going to repay him?

Never. What happened to him were his own fault, I told myself, not none of mine. In Oakland, where I grew up, a man does what he has to to survive. Compassion is weakness. So I ignored his letters.

Next note said his car broke down from all the overuse. Since he didn’t have cash to fix it, he were out of a job again. Only he couldn’t find another nearby—not on our blighted side of town—so he bussed an hour each way to his new one, washing rich people’s cars. Still only made minimum wage, but with tips he could just make do.

I didn’t write back. Whatd he expect? Me to console him? To subsidize him? Me repaying $3 a day wasn’t going to settle the score.

A couple months passed without any letters. Then he told me about his debts. He’d been going to one of them pay day loan places, only he couldn’t keep up with the vig, so they cut him off. Without that, he couldn’t feed his family.

Still guilt tripping me. Everybody knows what bed bugs those places are, feeding off you till there’s no blood left. Worse than loan sharks. They’ll take ten times what you borrowed—even steal your paycheck—and claim you still owe them. Ought to be in prison with the other thieves.

I never expected him to do the dutch. Nothing in his letters said as much. But reading back over them later, I could smell it. The wasting away of a life. In here, I smell it every day.

I hardly noticed the letters had stopped until I got another from someone with the same name. His sister. Telling me she found him hanging from a rafter. I didn’t remember her from my trial, but she remembered me. Blamed me. Said I put the rope in his hands. If it hadn’t been for my B&E, he’d still have his business, his life.

I ignored her. Told myself his death came at his own hand. Nobody forces another man to give up. Thought that’d be the end of it.

Long time passed without another note—years. Then I hit my 100 percent and come up for parole. Figured I deserved it after 25 years. Clean disciplinary. Even took a job once the restitution order expired with him.

Only she showed up at my hearing. Drove hundreds of miles, to the most forlorn part of the state. Only one who’d visited me in years. Came dressed all in black like his funeral was yesterday. Said this weren’t any regular burglary. Said I took away a man’s life.

Not true. I never pulled a trigger. Never even laid hands on him. But I may as well have, she said. What I did killed him as sure as if I had.

I could say the same about my sentence. What did his sister know about that? She could go to the movies, the park, the bar. I got two hours a day of yard and chapel on Sundays. Until your world has shrunk to an 8 x10, you can’t know how small that is.

What she couldn’t do was see her brother, she told the parole board.

They agreed, denied me, even with my full time served. Said try again next year.

That’s some injustice, I thought. Back before the judge condemned me, I expected to do ten, twelve years, then get sprung. That’s how it rolls out for most guys. You wait long enough, everyone forgets you. When no one protests at your hearing, they flush you into the world like sewage.

Only his family didn’t forget me.

It’s been like that ever since. Every year his sister reminds the board what I done, how I hurt her in ways that can’t heal. Each time, she shows two pictures: one of Faizal and one of me, both of us as youngsters. Looking at those wrinkled photos, you wouldn’t even recognize me. Not because of how my looks have changed—ashy skin, soft body, watery eyes—because my whole being has. I act different, talk different, think different.

But he doesn’t. Faizal will always be that 28-year-old dad I put out of business.

At first I hated her for it—for keeping me here long past my expiration date. I watched other guys—younger, more violent guys—go free while I wasted away. Then I clocked her suffering, her bitterness. I couldn’t hate her as long as she could hate me.

Still, my old habits persisted. I thought: how could I get around her, get out from under this, get over on these people. Act as if I was sorry. Plead for mercy. Say I was sick. Appeal for sympathy.

Didn’t work. Like convicts, the board knew I was trying to hustle them. Denied me again.

Then I started feeling sick for real. Losing weight. Throwing up. Stomach always in an uproar. I blamed the food except I’d eaten the same bad food since I got here.

The doc checked my pancreas. Didn’t even know I had one, but he said it’s for digesting fruits. “What do I need that for?” I said. “We never get any real fruit in here anyways. Just dry oranges and mealy apples.”

“Even those pass through your pancreas,” the doc said.

“What’s the cure?”

“There is none.”

“No treatment?”

“Not in here.”

For a time, I felt sorry for myself. I’d never escape the smell of bleach and vomit, the sound of metal against metal. Before, a calendar couldn't measure my time. Now a clock could do it. Time never felt so determinate.

That’s why I changed my thinking. Change or die, we say in here. I came to understand why his family hated me. It breaks down to compassion. I never showed any to them, so why would I expect any back?

In prison, they tell you dont expect any favors from anyone. Here we work by bartering: you do this, Ill do that. Compassion was never part of it.

Till I got sick, I never needed any. Now, I need help for everything: eating, bathing, walking. Surprise is, inmates show me more compassion than the staff. Another inmate empties my bed pan, changes my sheets, even washes me with baby shampoo to save my thin skin.

Now I understand. I brought this on myself. Not her. Not the judge. Not the parole board. Only me. I accept it, live it. But I also wonder what can I do to set things right?

A lot of guys find religion in prison. Start singing the gospel in hopes they can fool the Lord. That’s not what I mean. If there’s a heaven, I don’t expect to see beyond the barred gates. I mean making some amends for my life before it ends.

I had to convince his sister and the parole board of that, that I wanted what’s right for everybody. But how? When they won’t listen, won’t even look at me, talk like I’m not in the room. So I stopped trying. When your breath is short, you have to bogart words. Instead, I told them I’m no threat to anybody. Past the age of sinning. Not just the desire but the ability. I’m an expense to the system. Why should the state pay for me to die on their dime?

That they understood. After denying me five times before, they give me my release. When the letter come today, I’d’ve leapt up and danced, if I still could. For the first time in thirty years, I’ll walk somewhere without the clank of chains slowing me. True, I can’t walk without someone to hold me up, but I can keep walking.

What will I do on the outs when I smell untainted air for the first time in 30 years? Most guys think about three things: getting high, getting laid, getting paid. Usually in that order.

But I’m already on so many meds I can’t hardly keep awake. My flagpole can’t support a flag any more. And I’ve barely got the strength to sit much less work.

What I want is to visit an old acquaintance, one I wronged way back when. I plan to go to his grave—before I have one of my own—and give him what recompense I can.

I understand now how he felt, having everything taken away from him, every joy, every option. I understand what I did. So I plan to lay the few cold coins I have atop his headstone, my first payment on an old debt.

In prison, they tell you to get respect you have to give it. Maybe compassion works the same way. I couldn’t expect any until I learned to feel it.


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