by David Brollier
The doors were locked now. Most lights were out. Only the sounds of the C.O.'s keys ringing through the night like the sounds of shots fired could be heard. I was truly alone ... again or still ... for another night. One darkness displaced another or the two converged upon each other making night all that much darker. Alone!!! Is there any other word as horrible or terrifying as that word? I reached up and took down a letter I got in the mail the other day. Quite a simple letter really. Cynthia said she'd wait for me and that all was fine. Our two boys, Terry and Paul were doing well. Terry had just started the first grade and was excited. Paul was enjoying their room while his brother was at school. Inside the letter Terry and Paul had each drawn a picture for me. Crayoned lines squiggled around on each into what they determined was a picture of something, but try as I would I couldn't tell of what. Man how I missed them. Would I ever see them on the outside again? Would I ever get to them so I could head them off from going down the path I'd taken? There was a slight chance, but I didn't even dare hope in it. Guidelines were supposed to be changing and that could mean a shorter sentence for me, but I couldn't trust in that. I had to be straight with myself ... for once. I screwed up. No let me change that. Screwing up means you make a mistake. I didn't make a mistake, I made a choice I knew was wrong, lots of wrong choices in fact. It was a miracle that I had gotten this far without getting arrested earlier.
"Hey Jim," came the gruff voice of my celly, a black guy named "Supreme" , "ya gonna turn that light out?"
"In a bit. I'm reading," I answered.
"Reading what?" he asked as he leaned over and peered at me from the top bunk. "Man, you're gonna drive youself nuts you keep reading that."
"It's the only way I can feel close to them."
"You ain't never close to them Jimmy. You's locked up like me and long's that is they be locked up too."
"What do you mean?"
"You don't get it do ya. Listen man. You be locked in here for selling drugs and they be locked AWAY from you."
"Guess you're right."
"Better believe it. We ain't got nothing comin' my man. So put that joint up let's both try to get some sleep."
"Supreme?" I asked. "How do you keep holding on?"
"I finds something and focus on it. One thing a day. I keep concentratin' on it 'til I get through. Then I does it all over again."
"How can you live like that man?"
"Wrong question.'How can I NOT live like that?' is more like it."
"Man, eight years. I don't think I can do it."
"Then don't. Just do one day ... then another ... then another. Soon they be addin' up and you be seeing how much time you put behind you."
"Don't it hurt?"
To this Supreme didn't answer. I guessed the conversation was over. What I didn't know was that Supreme was hurt far beyond what I could imagine. He had a wife who divorced him as soon as he got locked up three years ago. He had three girls and the oldest was out hooking already. He was pretty sure the other two had at least tried drugs. He stared blankly at the ceiling as letting tears flow down the sides of his black cheeks, soaking his pillow. Yeah he knew how to get through the days. He just didn't have a clue how to get through the nights. Yet all of this I didn' t realize. I placed my letter back and went to switch off the light. As I did I saw the miriade of tattoos on my arm, knowing I had covered my other arm with skin scrawl too. I was a lot younger when I got them and now I wished I could cut the skin off and just get rid of them. They reminded me of all the wrong choices I'd made. Even in the dark I could see them. Flashy styled writing, some white supremacist stuff, a snake, a naked girl. They were like living demons that tortured me night and day.
The following day began as they all do. The blast of the P.A. telling us it was time to wake up. The jangle of the guard's keys as he came by to unlock the door. The rush to get ready so you didn't miss what they tried to passed off as breakfast and then the wait for the unit door to open so you could finally go to the dining hall. I was putting on my shoes when this guy Paul came to the door. He was a skinny, blonde kid who was into the religious junk around here. Lots of guys try to do their time by scamming the guards with religion, but Paul wasn't one of those. He was sincere. Problem was he was always smiling. Don't get me wrong. I think smiling is good, but it seems to me that there are times, especially in here, where smiling is definitely out of place. That's how it seemed, but instead of him being out of place he made me feel out of place. There was just something about him that really irked me. Still, I tried to be polite with him.
"Morning guys," he began, "Wanna check out the services in the chapel today?"
"I don't think so," I replied.
"That chaplain ain't nothing but a cop with a Bible," Supreme answered.
"You have to listen to the message and not get screwed up by the messenger."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, it's like some of these hacks. It's their job to do what they do."
"Don't remind me."
"No, I mean it's their job to keep things safe for us as well as keep us from escaping. Now some of them are really the pits, I'll give you that."
"You ain't joking there."
"Yeah, but some of them got heart. They really care, or at least care more than most people. Does that make them bad?"
"Sure it does."
"Cause he's the man who wants to toss me in the can."
"Like I said, I'm not talking about all of them. What about Smitty? Ever notice how he tries to keep things calm around here?"
"Yeah I noticed."
"And you still consider him bad?"
"Jimmy, what if someone were in here trying to hurt you. You know most of the other cons would just turn their heads. Most C.O.s too, but then there's guys like Smitty. You know he would't turn his head. He'd protect you even if it put his own life in jeopardy."
"I don't know if I'd go that far."
"But you see my point right? He has a job to do, but that doesn't mean he has to be cruel about it. And Smitty's not. He cares. Now what about the other cops that don't care? You know Smitty'd hit his alarm to get backup if something happened to you. And you know they'd respond."
"That's their job."
"Right and some of them are bad, but would you want only the good cops to come to Smitty's aide or would you want every available cop to respond?"
"Man, I'd want them all to pile in here."
"Right. Their message to you in that moment is to help you. No you can dislike the messenger all you want, but you wouldn't stop them from getting that message to you. It's the same with the chaplain. Now I ain't saying he's God's gift to man or that he's the scum of the earth. He's got to take that up with God. I'm not going to judge him, but as long as his message is true I'll take the message regardless of the messenger."
I had to admit the kid had a point, but I wasn't going to give in that easy. "Well, maybe, but I just don't know about this stuff."
"You read the Bible Jimmy?"
"Every question you need an answer to is in there. Not all the ones you want answered, just the ones you need answered."
"I heard this dude saying you can't understand the Bible unless you're religious."
"Well, let's just say for the time being that you can't understand the Bible without God's help."
"Right so what's the point?"
"You ever pray?"
"Every day I pray I'll get outta here?"
"So you could pray that God would help you understand His Word, right?"
He got me again. What was it with him anyway. "Listen Paul, I'm trying to be nice here, but I just don't want to go. Is that simple enough?"
"I think there's more to it than that or you wouldn't have let me get this far, but I get the hint. I'll be praying for you ... and you too Supreme."
He flashed another big smile and walked away.
"Bro? Since when is Paul your 'bro' ?"
"Yo man, we all got the same beginnin' right? Ma Eve and Pa Adam or some such thing. That makes us all bros."
"What gives with you anyway?" Supreme continued. "You's all messed up s'mornin' ."
"Just thinking about my wife and kids too much I guess. Didn't sleep that well."
"What'd I tell you. You be reading that letter over an over 'til it tears ya apart. Paul's lucky you didn't take him out."
"I'd never hurt him, not that I don't think he don't deserve a good crack on the head every once in a while. I just don't think it's worth going to the bucket. Besides he's harmless."
"Yeah I can tell," Supreme answered cynically.
The day passed slowly. After a couple hours of Gin Rummy with Supreme and about 15 games of chess with another inmate named Davey, I decided to go for a walk. That, of course, is a limited occupation here. I did about 3 miles on the track up at the gym and was coming back when I ran into Sal. Sal was a guy who'd been around. He'd seen more prisons than most people knew existed. He wasn't really that dangerous or anything, but was what they call a career criminal. I think someone said he owned a trucking company and transported stolen merchandise for a living. He also had tattoos on his arms, neck and back. Some looked really wild, like the spider's web at his elbow. But he had other tattoos that I didn't know anything about except that they had some kind of dark meaning behind him. I wondered if he felt like getting rid of them, same as me."
"Hey Jimmy, what's up?" he asked.
"Same thing different day. You know."
"You missed one great service," he stated and it was only then that I realized that he'd just come out of the chapel.
"You went to one of them things?"
"Every once and awhile I check it out. This one was great. They had this ex-con come in and speak."
"No. He got saved in '88 in Atlanta. Said he's been working for Jesus ever since."
"Yeah, sure. What's he do for income?"
"Does some autobody work or something like that, but actually he says it's God who makes the money stretch and multiply."
"God's got an ATM now?"
"No, not like that. He says as long as he's doing what God wants and stays in 'The Word' God has met every financial need he's had."
"You think he's on the level?"
"Yeah I do. I mean I didn't at first, but as he went on to talk about other stuff it all fell into place. Sure wish you were there cause I don't remember it the way he said everything."
"What struck you most?"
"See these tattoos?" he asked.
"I've hated these things for years. Actually used to think there was some connection between the stuff I did and these tattoos. They've always seemed so evil. Guess that was what I liked about them at first. Well this guy said that when we do things that are opposed to God's will it's like cutting at your heart leaving marks. What caught me was when he said they left marks 'sort of like tattoos' ."
"That'd get my attention too"
"He said that the heart he was talking about was the real inner man, but like the natural heart if you keep abusing it, it will finally stop beating."
"You mean he was saying that if we do enough bad stuff we'll eventually die inside?"
"Close. You see we start out dead. That's why we do the things we do. But Jesus can make us alive again."
"How's he do that?"
"He's got a special tattoo that he puts on a person's heart that keeps him living instead of killing him off."
"That don't make sense."
"Let's see if I can remember the way he put it. It was something like Jesus sees us in our pain, sees our tattooed heart and says, 'If you'll give me that dead and dying heart I'll give you a new heart. And if you'll let me do that I'll write my law and my name on your new heart."
"A new heart?"
"A new beginning."
"What did you think about that?"
"I dropped to my knees right there and asked Jesus to give me a new heart and take away this stinking tattooed heart."
"Sure did and haven't felt so good in decades."
"I'm happy for you Sal."
"Thanks. God bless you Jimmy," he said and we parted to go to our different units.
Hearing Sal say "God bless you" for anything other than someone sneezing was a shock. This wasn't the same guy I knew yesterday. There was something different about him. I thought about what he'd said. Could it be his 'new heart' I was seeing? Naw! That was just too far out. Still I couldn't get the conversation out of my head. A new heart was something I could really use. Later that evening after chow, Paul caught up with me again in my room. That dreaded smile was still on his face like somebody molded it into place ... and it was still irritating.
"Hi Jimmy. Missed a great service today."
"I already heard."
This took him by surprise and seeing him shocked like that was a good feeling. I didn't want to hurt the kid or anything, but I really thought he needed to be put in his place.
"Yeah, Sal told me this afternoon."
"You should have seen Sal. Man in all my days I' ve never seen a man change so completely."
"You do know there are 'make-believers' mixed in with you guys don't you?"
"Yeah, but not Sal."
"How can you be so sure?"
"God's Word says that 'The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.' And since I can know about myself by the witness of the Holy Spirit I also find that He helps me discern those who are truly my brothers and who are not. Didn't Sal seem different to you?"
"Yeah he did," I admitted. "It's got me bugged too."
"He told me about the service, you know the ex-con who spoke ..."
"Well, Sal and me got these tattoos and we both hate them. So when Sal told me what the ex-con said it hit me."
"Just like it hit Sal?"
"Yeah I guess, but I don't know about this 'new heart' thing he was talking about."
"I can understand that."
"You? Of all the people on the Compound I thought you'd be the most skeptical."
"Naw. You think I popped out of my mamma's belly all dressed up to go to church or something?"
"No, but pretty close."
"Shoot, Jimmy I was an enforcer for a major drug gang. I'm doing triple life Jimmy. Did you know that?"
"No!" I asked sincerely shocked.
"Yeah and that's only three murders they were able to prove."
"But how'd you ..."
"I got a new heart ... from Jesus, just like Sal did today."
"If that's for real I need it."
"Want me to pray with you?"
"You going someplace?"
I had to smile at his prison joke. "No I ain't going no where, at least not right away."
"Well, we got a bit of privacy here. I'll pray with you if you want."
"I don't know. What'll I say?"
"Just say what you told me, that you need a new heart."
Reluctantly I finally conceded and sat down on the bed. Paul joined me and said, "I'll start and then I'll let you pray. Remember. Prayer is just talking to God. Don't try to make it into something it ain't. Just let the words flow naturally." Then he started his prayer, "Jesus I know you've been wanting to get a hold on Jimmy for sometime now and I think he's ready. Help him Lord. Give him the faith and courage to believe in you and trust you. Give him the words you need to hear. Thank you God."
Sensing it was my turn I just blurted it out. "Jesus these tattoos on my arms remind me of all kinds of different stuff I was doing. Those memories make me ashamed. It's got nothing to do with getting caught or anything like that. But God I can't get rid of these things. I'm stuck with them. Now I've heard how I've been doing the same thing with my heart, but you can give me a new heart. If you can. If you really want this old, dead, tattooed heart, then take it Jesus and give me a new heart, one like Sal said will only have your name and your law tattooed on it. Whatever you do, one way or the other, thanks for listening."
"That was great brother!" Paul remarked.
"I don't feel any different."
"Give it some time. God works in each of us differently."
"Shouldn't I at least feel something?"
"You aren't used to letting yourself feel in certain areas, but you'll soon find that those areas are now soft and you will feel again. You will feel alive and free. Best of all you will know that beyond a shadow of a doubt that from this day on no one can take your freedom away."
"Free in prison?"
"Yep! Growing and doing God's will here."
Later, after lockdown, I again took my letter down again and re-read it. Then I looked at the crayon drawings my sons sent me. I tried again to make out the pictures and this time something amazing happened. In childish squiggles each had drawn a heart with a man inside. That's when I realized that they were telling me that they held me in their hearts ... just like I now held Jesus in my heart. I knew then that I could use my past to stop them from repeating the same mistakes if I told them properly. I would be able to get to them before they made all those bad choices that had gotten me locked up and where I'd fail Jesus would help take up the slack. He was more concerned about them than me. Yeah I could point them to the One who could give them all they'd ever need, real freedom and real joy and if they would only accept him they wouldn't have to worry about living in a place like this. I realized, just as Paul said, that it took a new heart within me to see the beautiful gift of the love my boys had sent me. In that instant I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was free, truly free.