Looking back, he didn’t have the best childhood, but he didn’t have the worst, either. I was just nineteen when he was born and I didn’t know squat about raising a child, although like any nineteen-year-old I thought I did. Yes, I was cavalier about how my lifestyle affected him. I drank too much, did some drugs and put other things ahead of him sometimes, especially men, but I never abused him. He didn’t get hit, not by me or either of his stepfathers. Sure, that first stepfather did throw him down in his crib when he woke up crying in the night, but that was only once and that wouldn’t have made him become a criminal and drug addict, now, would it?
No, I can’t really pin-point a trauma that would have caused his life to spin so wildly out of control so early. It was more a series of wounds, each not amounting to much, but together they must have been a force he couldn’t overcome, because he never has. All told, he has been sentenced to 36 years in prison for crimes ranging from receiving stolen property to burglary to theft to dealing in narcotics. Of course, he hasn’t served all that time, but he has served nearly every day of his last sentence, an eight-year stint imposed in 2009. He has been released three times, but parole violations keep sending him back. He’s in prison now, back in for violating his parole by using drugs, but this will be the last time. The calendar will run out on his eight years, and in July the Indiana Department of Corrections will be done with him. They have kept for themselves every second of his life that justice demands, but it’s done nothing to change anything essential about him. He is still a drug addict, still a thief, still the same institutionalized, anxiety ridden, depressed, traumatized, and I would argue, mentally ill person he was ten years ago. Some would question if he is mentally ill, but seriously, who would choose to spend years in prison, be a slave to drugs, steal other people’s property, and neglect three children if they weren’t crazy? Well, if forced, I may admit he might be simply depraved and selfish as society says drug addicts are. Even now, decades after medicine began to claim that addiction is a disorder, people chalk it up to moral failing. Drunks and drug addicts are the way they want to be. There is only one drug addict I know well enough to not be sure about, and he was born Micheal Brice Townsend on August 13, 1977, one day after he was due, three days before Elvis died, and three days after Son of Sam was arrested. At the time if I’d had even an inkling that things would go so wrong I would have made a different choice. I would have come home alone. I would have given him a chance. Instead, I counted his fingers and toes, marveled at his newborn perfection, and foresaw nothing but joy and success in his future. I immediately realized he was the one person in the world whom I would love, and who would love me, completely and unconditionally. That was the only thing I was right about. Everything else became subject to conditions.
Friday, 2 November 2018
He got stood up by his daughter. She was supposed to pick him up from prison at 8:00 a.m. He then chose to take a prison transport home from Plainfield Correctional Facility, which stopped along the way to drop off other released inmates. Richmond is on the state line with Ohio, so he was the last one to be dropped off. His parole officer, Agent McDonald, had a spot reserved for him at a drug rehab on State Hospital grounds, where the parole office is also located. There was a problem, either by accident or by Micheal’s creation that prevented him from being admitted to the rehab. Instead, I pick him up at the homeless shelter, also on State Hospital grounds. He’s coming out of the building as I pull up, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and state issue shoes. His coat is state issue, at least three sizes too large for his 6’2” frame. He has the sleeves of it rolled up mid forearm. Over his shoulder is an orange mesh bag with all his prison possessions, letters, pictures, legal work. He always looks healthy and clear eyed when he comes out of prison. I take him to my home where he changes clothes. He eats a sandwich and within two hours he asks me for a ride to a friend’s house. He comes home around midnight and I stay up and talk with him for a while before bed. It’s always nice to have a conversation with him before the drugs take over his mind. It’s already happening, though. I can tell he is high. He talks non-stop when he first uses meth, but then things rapidly begin to get weird, and get weird they do in the succeeding days. Agent McDonald is on his ass because he didn’t go to rehab. He doesn’t call her, he doesn’t make an appointment, and by the end of the week he is “on the run,” with his parole violated, and his return to prison an inevitability.
And so, it swallows me up again, that sadness knowing that there will be more pain to endure, by him, by me, by the son and daughter that are still willing to have contact with him. I know the knock on the door will come. Either the police will be at every door of my house in search of him, or they will be coming to tell me he is dead. During the day, I can distract myself while I wait. At night, it’s not that easy. I imagine all sorts of things that could happen, both good and bad. I think of ways I can manipulate the situation. The best thing I can do now is assist parole to capture him. It’s damage control. If he’s in jail at least he’s safer than he is on the street, and he won’t be doing any crime. He won’t be victimizing anyone. His life and his freedom are on the line. My hope is on the line. I feel the urgency. The clock is ticking.
What does a girl do when she’s pregnant and she really doesn’t know who the father is? It’s much different today than it was forty years ago. Today, she would need to confirm with DNA tests what everyone already knows, that she has been a Very Loose Girl. In 1977, I did what most girls in my position did, pick the most likely candidate, or the candidate she most wanted to be “the one.” My least likely candidate was a man who had already funded one abortion, he also made it clear that was this was the preferred solution to such a problem. Since abortion was not an option for me, I felt no responsibility to involve him in any way. My most likely candidate was a young man who did not equivocate. He rejected my claim outright and made it clear he would have nothing further to do with me or my progeny. This was fine with me. I was happy to have a “he said/she said” situation that could not ever be resolved. I could hide my shame behind the uncertainty and raise my child as I saw fit with no interference from the other parent or the other parent’s parents. My love and my family’s love would be sufficient for my son. I would make up for the absence of a father. I couldn’t recognize at that point how profoundly sad it is to not know who your father is, or worse, to live half your childhood not knowing the father you have is not yours. For the first two years of his life, Micheal was loved and cared for by my family. It was only the adults involved who understood what it meant that half of his identity was left blank, leaving both Micheal and me in the dark on the subject.
Friday, 9 November 2018
A phone call comes, but it’s one I would never have expected.
It’s a nurse at the hospital and she’s calling at my son’s request. She says he
wants me to pass along a message to the mother of his youngest son. He’s been
The young woman shares this information dryly, with
apparently no awareness how shocking, and how shockingly selfish the words
sound in my ear.
Yes, she’s tried Brandi’s number a few times and there’s been no answer. He wants Brandi to know he’s been injured, but at this point it appears he will be okay.
I’m assuming this means that the situation isn’t dire, his wounds aren’t considered lethal. How many stab wounds, I wonder. The nurse reports five all together. Micheal’s spleen and kidney have been lacerated, but at this point the doctor doesn’t think surgery will be necessary. If the bleeding stops, his organs will heal on their own. He will stay at the hospital for a couple of days so they can monitor the bleeding in his kidney and he can receive the antibiotics he needs intravenously. Would I pass the message along to Brandi? Sure, I say. I’ll let her know.
Fuck no, I won’t. The last thing I want is for Micheal and
Brandi to reunite.
I’m at the hospital in fifteen minutes. A member of the staff guides me to his cubicle in the Emergency Room. He’s conscious, but he clearly has a drug in his system and it’s making him sleepy and dull-witted. There are two nurses in the room and they confirm he’s had pain medication. He didn’t come into the hospital this way. I can see his wounds. They aren’t actively bleeding, just oozing a bit. The knife must have been narrow, the wounds are not wide. One of the nurses points to a gash on his upper arm. It’s about four inches long and deep enough for the fatty tissue to be exposed. That one will get stitches, the nurses inform me, the others, staples. They begin to clean the wounds before they close them up. The wound on his arm has sliced through a tattoo. I wonder to myself if they will be able to keep the two halves aligned.
I ask Micheal how it happened. He says he doesn’t know.
Someone just jumped him and started stabbing. But, why, I ask. He doesn’t know.
He doesn’t know who it was.
How can this be?
How often does it happen that a man unknown to you suddenly
attacks you with a knife?
Micheal shrugs drunkenly and tells me he doesn’t know how
often it happens, but it just happened to him.
Right. Sure, it did.
The nurses are about to sew him up. I tell him I’ll come back
later, when they have him stapled and sewn and put in a room. At home, my head
whirls in disbelief. What could this possibly be about? Whatever it is, it’s
very bad. It scares me. What scares me most of all is the fact I have no idea
who my son is anymore. I’m afraid for him. I’m afraid for me. I’m afraid of
what I’m thinking and what he might be capable of. I am too afraid to go back
to the hospital to face the possibility he may now be a violent, maybe even a
The phone rings. It’s Micheal’s voice, trembling, like a little boy’s. He
sounds scared. “Mom,” he says, “are you
It was cold that morning, still dark, late in the fall of 1978. There was frost on the windshield of the Willys. Dave went out to make sure it would start. The fuel pump quit occasionally, requiring a tap with a hammer to get it going again. Luckily, the pump was located just under the tank in the rear of the vehicle. You only need reach underneath a little way to give it a slap, but this morning it started right up. My car wasn’t running. We were young and poor and keeping two old vehicles going was a challenge. I had to take Dave to work at 6:00 am so I could have his Jeep to get to work two hours later. As was our habit, we stayed in bed until the last possible minute, leaving just barely enough time to get up and get him to work at 6:00. I was dressing while Dave was outside starting the Jeep and scraping the windshield. He came in the door just as I was about to wrap Micheal up in a blanket.
“Come on,” he said, “we have to
“Let me just wrap the baby up and
I’ll be ready.” There were no real car seats then. I intended to wrap him up
and lay him in the back where he hopefully would not even wake up.
“No! We don’t have time. Leave him
“Dave, I can‘t just leave him here
alone. What if something happens?”
“What’s going to happen? You’ll be
back in fifteen minutes. Just leave him.” Dave’s voice was rising. He was
“It won’t take me but a second to
wrap him up.”
“Goddammit, don’t be a stupid cunt!
I’m going to be late if you don’t come on!” He was yelling now, and I was
cowed. I didn’t want him to think that way about me. I didn’t want to be
responsible for him being late. What could possibly happen in fifteen minutes?
Micheal was sleeping soundly and he didn’t usually wake until after 7:00 a.m.
It was now 5:50, just barely enough time to get the two miles and two traffic
lights between our home and the dishwasher factory. Dave would have a minute or
two to get to the time clock after I dropped him off. With a nervous, uneasy
feeling in my gut, I put on my coat and followed him to the car.
After dropping him off, I was on my way back home, accelerating from a stop light when the headlamps of the Willys went dim and the engine rattled to a halt. I had enough forward momentum to coast into the gas station on the corner. I grabbed the mallet Dave left in the space between the seats and crawled under the rear of the wagon to tap on the fuel pump. Back in the driver’s seat I tried the key. The engine turned but did not fire. I tapped the fuel pump again. And again. Still nothing. I was beginning to feel panic. My baby was home alone. Not knowing what to do, I called my mother from the pay phone on the gas station lot. What could she do to help? I didn’t know. I could run the eight blocks back to my house before she could drive there. She could do nothing but tell me what I already knew. I should never have created the situation in the first place. I hung up the phone, and, with the idea of running home in my mind, used the mallet to give the fuel pump another whack. I hit it several times, hard. I turned the key. The engine cranked a few times, then fired. Five minutes later I was inside the warm and quiet house. Micheal was still sleeping, undisturbed and unaware I had even been gone.
9 November 2018
He’s in intensive care. They want to keep a close eye on his kidney and spleen in case they start bleeding. He has a blood pressure cuff on his arm and an IV pumping antibiotics into his system. He is awake when I get there, talking with two men I don’t know. They are asking him questions. One of them lifts a finger to keep me silent. I understand they are police; they are interrogating him about the stabbing. I leave the room.
I’m standing in the hall when one of them comes out to talk with me. He won’t get any information from me. I don’t know anything. He introduces himself and extends his hand. I realize I know his wife. I know things his wife has said about him. I tell him I know his wife without mentioning I know what she says about him. I might be prejudiced, but I immediately dislike him. I am engaging anyway.
He asks me the questions, I give him my I-don’t-know answers. He asks me if I know who drives a black BMW. Apparently, one brought Micheal to the hospital last night, they have it on video. The information is intriguing, but I can’t go anywhere with it. I share my concerns, about how there are no defensive wounds on Micheal’s arms or hands, which, to me, means his hands must have been on the person who stabbed him. The detective tells me the knife wasn’t big, it wasn’t an attempt to kill, just to even the fight up a bit. Do I know anyone Micheal might have a problem with? No. I do not. Micheal was stabbed just a few yards from the home of a known drug dealer. The detective says a name but I don’t recognize it. They suspect maybe the stabber knew Micheal either had money or drugs and that’s what lead to the attack. It must have been a robbery. I tell the detective the names I know. I tell him some addresses I’ve taken Micheal to. I tell him about Brandi the baby momma and the new boyfriend. Maybe there is a problem there. Micheal is grieving hard over the loss of that relationship.
The other detective comes out, clearly dissatisfied with the answers to his questions. He tells me and the other detective that our conversation was loud enough to be overheard in the room. I’m sorry about this, Micheal has little trust in me to begin with. I can’t help him if he doesn’t trust me at all. Detective Dickhead doesn’t care if we were overheard or not. In fact, he thinks he’ll just question Micheal again with a bit more vigor. He goes back in the room, leaving me in the hall with Detective Goodcop.
Shit…Shit. In quieter tones, I tell Detective Goodcop how sorry I am my conversation was overheard. He says the hallway is like a megaphone, amplifying sound into the room. He tells me what we are saying now can probably be heard even though we are speaking at a near whisper. He asks me again if I know anyone Micheal might have a problem with. I repeat about the baby momma’s new boyfriend. Detective Goodcop writes down the names.
I can hear Detective Dickhead’s voice, aggressive and strident, but I can’t hear the words. It seems the acoustics aren’t as good coming out of the room. Micheal’s voice is louder, defensive. He tells Dickhead he didn’t do anything. He doesn’t know who attacked him. Dickhead leaves the room abruptly, and both detectives stand with me for a minute in the hallway. They give me their cards. They tell me to call if I think of anything or learn anything from Micheal. I say there’s fat chance of that now. He’s already heard me blabbing to them. I know he won’t tell me anything at all.
When they leave, I take a deep breath and go into the room. Micheal says nothing about the detectives. He tells me he is starving. They won’t let him have anything to eat in case his intestines have been punctured. I say something offhand about cooperating with the detectives and it sends him into a rage. He’s yelling things about the police, about me, about how he always gets hassled. He insists he is leaving the hospital. He rips off the blood pressure cuff and tears out the IV’s. He gets out of bed, obviously in pain from his wounds, and tries to dress. Blood runs down his arm and drips onto the floor. It quickly splatters, it begins to puddle in places. He pulls on his pants, muddy from the scuffle with the stabber.
Two nurses come in to investigate. They are calm and professional. They address Micheal with even, concerned voices. They smooth him down, convince him to accept their help. Soothed by their kindness, he relaxes. One tends to his bleeding arm while the other starts to work on discharge papers. Micheal sits, wincing with every move. The splatter of blood on the floor cannot be avoided so I begin to clean it up, gloveless. I am nearly done before I remember he recently tested positive for hepatitis. Oops.
Now, both nurses are in the room helping him. He is pale. He looks faint. I wonder where he is thinking of going. I wonder if his kidney and spleen have stopped bleeding. He’s too weak to leave. I say to him please, please, just stay. The nurses stop helping him dress; they wait for a response, then gently tell him he should stay. They will help him back to bed. He nods, and they help him back to bed.
I see an opening, and I make a move to leave. I gather up his dirty clothes to take with me. I tell him I’ll bring back clean ones later. He will get his clean clothes, but it will be a whole lot later than he thinks. I ask him if there’s anything else he wants. A phone charger. Sure, no problem. Would I call his parole officer and let her know he’s in the hospital?
“Read me! Read me!” Micheal dumped
several books in my lap and scooted into a spot beside me on the couch. At
three years old, reading was a favorite activity. Sorting through the books, he
pulled out his current obsession, “The Little Engine That Could.”
“Okay. I’ll read you, but first, I
want to tell you another story. This one about your daddy.” I wanted Micheal to
know and understand about his father from an early age. I planned to tell the
story over and over, increasing the information as he matured. It was important
to me that my son grow up with an awareness of the facts of his life. I wanted
the truth to seep in slowly as his understanding became more sophisticated,
instead unloading it all in a shocking revelation when he was mature enough to
grasp all the implications.
“When I had you,” I began, “the man
who was your daddy, your real daddy, didn’t want to have a little boy. He
didn’t want to be with us. That made me very sad, so I looked for another man
who wanted to be a daddy and wanted to be with us. He is the dad you have now.”
“Read me now?” My son was more
interested in the stories contained in books than the one I was telling.
“Micheal, the dad you have now
chose me and you to be his family. We love each other, and we love you. Okay?”
“Okay. Read me now.”
Even though my story was all but
ignored, I considered my delivery a success. At least I had begun the dialog. I
would revisit the subject every so often until it became something that was
taken for granted, just like any fact of life. It was a solid plan. I was long
on commitment, but short on execution. I soon became distracted by my own
problems, foremost the drugs and the drama that consumed my marriage to Dave. It
wasn’t very long before the biological dad, forever out of sight, was out of
mind as well. He became a small, insignificant detail in the chaos of our every
day, and our every day was hugely chaotic. I lived with Dave off and on for six
years, three of those years we were married. Amid the drinking and drugging we
moved ten times, twice to other cities in Indiana. One of those moves was
motivated by a warrant for Dave’s arrest. Because of our nomadic lifestyle, Micheal
attended four different schools by the second grade. “Our” son witnessed
numerous domestic battles, including one with extended family. He saw the
infidelities, the destruction of property, he heard the abusive language. After
the father he knew was finally arrested and sent to prison for selling cocaine,
he went with me every Sunday to see him, in the very place he would one day be
incarcerated himself. My son’s psyche suffered a thousand cuts in his most
formative years, and I was too selfish and foolish to see it.
Compounding the injuries, after a
time my intention to inform my son about his father was transformed in my mind to
a truth. I began to take for granted Micheal knew what I knew, and that he
remembered what I had told him about his father, a man who time would reveal to
be my least likely candidate. Looking back on the moment when that candidate
finally appeared, it’s hard for me to judge who was more shocked at Micheal’s
ignorance on the subject…Micheal, or me.
9 November 2018
I make good on my promise to call
the Parole Officer. She is as hard-nosed as most people working for the
Department of Corrections. The offender’s family is often treated with a
brusque suspicion, and Agent McDonald adheres to this pattern. I’ve made it
clear to her that I want to help my son, but I will not help him avoid taking
responsibility for his actions. If he violates his parole I will help her
capture him if I can. I’ve tried to make her understand if my son is
victimizing other people, or putting his own life at risk, I would prefer him
I give her the few details I know about the stabbing. I tell her he will be in the hospital for at least another day while they determine his kidney is no longer bleeding. I give her the name of the detectives. I give her the number of the phone Micheal is using. I tell her it’s unlikely he will call, but I have given him her number. He has a prepaid phone and his time on it is running out. I tell her when his phone no longer works, I will give him an extra phone I don’t use much. I can locate it, and when I have an address for where he is, I’ll let her know. She asks me to impress upon Micheal how important it is he contact her. I assure her I will and later that day when I visit him I follow through.
In his room, he won’t look at me and he isn’t talking beyond greeting. I remind him about his parole officer, I ask if he has called her. He takes issue with the fact she doesn’t believe his story about the rehab. I don’t say it, but I don’t believe him, either. He was dead-set against it from the outset. To him, it seemed the same thing as being in prison. He might as well be locked up as to be there. Then, a sudden change of mind after months of resistance. Right before release his attitude changed and he became willing to go to treatment. It just didn’t add up.
I don’t answer him, and he says nothing further. We sit together in silence for many minutes. I know he’s angry with me about the things I told the detectives. I try to make small talk but he isn’t having it. I put my hand over his and give it a squeeze. He’s a big, strong man, but in the hospital gown with the IV lines and the stitches and staples, he seems vulnerable. He doesn’t want to talk to me, but apparently, no one but me wants to talk to him. None of his drug buddies have been to see him; they haven’t called. No other family save his daughter has been here. It makes me so sad I begin to weep. I recall some weeks earlier he told me he thinks he really doesn’t want to get clean, deep down. Even though he wants a better life, there’s something inside that just won’t stop. I’m still holding his hand and his face is turned away. He won’t look at me as I’m repeating our conversation, but I can see the tears coming. I tell him he lies to himself. He tells himself he really doesn’t want to stop using. I say the reason he doesn’t choose a better life is because he thinks he doesn’t deserve one.
He still won’t answer, but I see his lower lip begin to tremble. He pulls his hand away from mine and pinches the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stop the tears. When he has his emotions under control, he tells me how he doesn’t think he can get over losing Brandi. He can’t stop thinking about it, he can’t stop being sad. It’s hard for me to answer a forty-one-year old’s teenage angst, but I try to explain the steps to rebuilding a life when you’re broken…stay busy, set a new goal, try a new hobby or revisit an old one, meditate, concentrate on the positive. My advice falls flat.
Before I can tell him how much better his prospects are without Brandi, how he can’t possibly handle her mental illness, or her drug addiction, or her neediness, the surgeon comes in with wonderful news. Micheal’s kidney has stopped bleeding. He can go home.
Dave was arrested in the fall of 1983 while on the job at Ford in Connersville. In January of 1984 we moved back home to Richmond from Brookville to await his day in court. Before he went to prison, Dave signed several weeks of unemployment vouchers so I would have money to supplement my paycheck from the liquor store. I didn’t feel comfortable mailing the vouchers in every week, or with forging Dave’s signature when the checks arrived, but the fraud helped me stave off disaster for a while. After the vouchers ran out and the unemployment checks stopped coming I couldn’t keep up with utility bills. My gas was turned off twice that winter for non-payment. The refrigerator quit and I couldn’t replace it. My Mom and stepdad let me borrow their Coleman cooler to keep fresh food in. I managed to keep milk, lunch meat, and government commodity cheese most of the time. Micheal and I lived like that for several months until my mother-in-law bought a refrigerator for us.
I was miserable and afraid, and I was drunk nearly every day. Working in a liquor store made that the easiest part of my life. I don’t remember much about that year except I paid a utility bill or the rent every month, trying to stay one step ahead of being cut off or evicted. Juggling bills allowed me to keep buying food, but I was drowning slowly. I felt alone and isolated, with no anchor, no family. My divorced parents were busy establishing new lives, remarried to other people. Plus, both parents had me at arm’s length because of my lifestyle with Dave. Even though adrift, my business got taken care of somehow. Micheal got a ride to and from school with the neighbor kids. I walked to work. I worked six days a week, so mom, sometimes dad, kept Micheal on Saturdays. After work one Saturday my mother had a proposition for me.
“I know you’ve been struggling for a while,” she began, “I know how hard it is for you. Walt and I have been talking. We’d like to help you out by keeping Micheal for you for a while so you can get on your feet.”
“What do you mean, ‘keep Micheal
for a while?’” I was confused, I didn’t get at first what she was suggesting.
“Well, you have been moving around
a lot. You will have to move again soon because you can’t pay your rent.
Micheal needs stability, and we can take care of him while you get your life
together” As my mother spoke, it became clear to me what she meant. She meant I
was a bad mother. She meant I couldn’t take care of my son and he was better
off without me.
“You think I can’t take care of
him, don’t you?” I couldn’t believe my own mother wanted to take my son away from
me. “No…No, I’m his mother and he will stay with me.”
“Just think about it for a while,
Jane. You need to figure out how to get your life on track. If Micheal is with
us you will have the time and freedom to do that.” She tried hard to make it
sound like an opportunity, but it didn’t. It sounded like a condemnation. It
sounded like a judgment. Aside from the cooler loan, the only help she had
given me for months was babysitting on Saturday. I thought it had been a matter
of principle, or personal economics, but it had really been a manipulation. I
was under siege. She and her husband had been trying to starve me out. Trying
to support myself and my son on a minimum wage job was beyond difficult. Doing
it without help was impossible. Bewildered and feeling more alone than ever, I
went home with my son and did what I did nearly every other night. I drank a fifth
of apple schnapps over ice.
10 November 2018
I pick Micheal up at the hospital
and I bring him to my home. He moves slowly, every step ginger. With both sides
of his torso wounded, there isn’t a motion that’s pain free. He climbs the
stairs to the room I’ve put all his clothing in. I leave him be and he takes a
shower. An hour later he comes down the stairs with his coat on.
“Where are you going?” I ask, incredulous he would be going anywhere.
“I’m just going to a friend’s
house.” he says, “Don’t worry, Ma. It’s a girl. We are kind of in the same
place, not having anybody. We just want to keep each other company.”
A car pulls up and he slowly moves
to the door. “Okay,” I say, “Just send me a text after bit if you want me to
come get you.” He assures me he will.
Just before bedtime I get a text
telling me he won’t be coming back, he’s with the girl for the night.
He’s with the girl every night after that. I hear from him every day or two. He calls me to take him to the doctor. When I give him a ride, I pick him up and drop him off in different places. He sends me a message when he needs more clothes. He always asks me if he’s safe. He wants to know I haven’t asked the police to follow me so they can arrest him. I meet him sometimes to take him food. He tells me he won’t come to Thanksgiving dinner. He’s concerned the police might be there. Because he doesn’t trust me I meet him in an alley to give him leftovers. I take them in storage bags because I don’t trust him with my Snapware. I know I’d never get it back. I cry a little on the way home because his life is so sad. I think I’m thankful he’s alive. I know I’d be thankful if he were safe in jail. I remember my promise to Agent McDonald about the phone I can locate him with. I hate to do it, but I know I must. If I don’t, I might find out just how thankful I am he is alive.
Once upon a time, a philosopher in London designed the first prison to be used as a form of punishment. Before this stroke of genius, prisons had been used to temporarily house criminals until a corporal punishment could be assigned. It was the philosopher’s idea that threat of hard labor, harsh conditions, and loss of freedom would be a deterrent to criminal behavior. Of course, if this were true, there would be few prisons and little crime. The flaw in this thinking did not escape notice. Over time, prisons have tried to rehabilitate offenders with education, mental examinations, even shock therapy, all with little success. To this day, the tools used by U.S. penal institutions remain crude and ineffective. In 2018, the recidivism rate was 76.6% at five years’ post release. That is a significant increase from 1985, when the rate was 62.5%. It was early in that year that my ex-husband asked the state of Indiana to roll the dice on him being among the 37.5% that would not re-offend. His petition involved a legal maneuver called shock probation. Dave and his lawyer thought the judge would look a little kinder on the ploy if he had a wife and child who needed him at home. Although we had been divorced for three years, he asked me to marry him again. The first time he wanted to marry me because he loved me. This time it was because he loved his freedom. So, to help me decide, I made a list. On the negative side, Dave was controlling, verbally abusive to me and “our” son, unfaithful, selfish, and unpredictable. On the positive side, I loved him, the sex was great, and he was unpredictable. While I struggled to force this equation to equal family, stability, and security for me and my son, the judge, in his wisdom, let him out of prison. Naturally, the marriage proposal was withdrawn, but Dave’s presence in our lives was not. He came home to us from prison, and together, Dave and I subjected Micheal to yet another round of manipulation, drunken arguing and tears, and typically, another move.
It didn’t last long, however. Before the last frost that spring, Dave had left us in a home I could afford even less than the apartment we had just moved from. Back to juggling rent, food, and utilities, I was again desperate for money, for hope, for family, and for companionship. I could never have foreseen it then, but my life was about to change. An opportunity presented itself, and while subconsciously I must have known my response to be mercenary, even predatory, consciously it seemed an answer to unspoken prayer, a solution to a multitude of problems not only for myself and my son, but for others as well.
November 24, 2018
I have been meeting him in various
places for two or three weeks. The area encompasses 12th street
through 15th street from west to east, and south ‘A’ to north ‘E’.
I’ve met him on corners and alleys by predetermination. This time, I’m driving
around while he’s sending me texts to turn at this block and that until finally
he says he sees me. I pull over and park in the middle of the block. I see him
walking toward me, his arms folded in his giant coat, the hood obscuring his
face. He stops briefly by the side of my car and he rests his hand on the door
handle. He hesitates, looking up and down the street before he enters my car.
He says, “Hi, mom” as he gets in the back seat. He’s on the right side so I can
turn my head to look at him. “You didn’t bring the police with you, did you?”
He says the word “police” in a hard way, emphasizing the “po.” PO-lice.
“No,” I answer him, “No tricks, I
“Well, how are things?” He asks.
“I’m okay. I’m due to get my pacemaker on Thursday.”
“Are you scared?”
“Not so much. They tell me I’ll be
awake the whole time, so it must not be too bad. I’ll come home the same day. I
hope it works. I’ve felt tired for months. How are you doing? You look tired.
Are you staying clean?”
“I’m not gonna lie. I’ve been using
some, but not terrible. The girl I’ve been staying with is trying to quit. I’m
trying, too. We are trying to help each other. We both want to get some help, go
to treatment.” He still won’t give me the girl’s name, but I ignore the lapse.
“I want to go to treatment whether they send me back to prison or not.”
“You should really call your parole
officer, Micheal. Not being in contact only makes it worse.” I’ve only said
this sixteen times, but I can’t stop myself from repeating it again.
“She called me a liar, Ma. That
bridge has done been burnt. She ain’t gonna hear me or give me some slack no
matter what. I’m gonna turn myself in, but I want to wait till after Christmas.
I haven’t been outside for Christmas in a few years.” I hear what he is saying,
but I don’t see that it makes much difference. Being holed up in an apartment
with “the girl” doing meth doesn’t seem much better than being in jail to me,
but I don’t say that to him.
“Anyway,” I say to him, “I brought you these pastries left over from the market.” I hand him a box over the seat. “And, here is the phone I’ve been telling you about. I have it for business but I don’t get many calls. If I do, just give them my other phone number. This phone has unlimited everything. You can talk, text, and watch as many videos as you want, no problem. Just be careful with it, and please, let me know every day or two that you’re okay.” I hand the phone and its charger over the seat. He puts them in his pocket. My hand is still extended over the back of the seat, open palm. He puts his hand in mine and we both squeeze and hold on. His hand is cold, almost clammy, but I don’t want to let go. My mind drifts back to a time when I held his hand daily. In my mind’s eye, he’s still my little boy, still the tender soul I have always loved with all my heart. My eyes well up from thinking that, and from realizing that soon I will betray his trust. It seems that betrayal has been a constant theme between me and him. I’ve betrayed him both through my own foolishness, and for what I tell myself is his own good, but I don’t think that distinction means very much to him. After all, if you can’t trust your own mother, who can you trust?
It was still early spring in 1985 when my dad dismantled my grandmother’s household. She had died just a few months before and all her goods were being divvied up among the family or sold. Being the neediest among us, I was the happy recipient of not only her large, comfy sofa, but her pantry and freezer as well. Spam, Vienna Sausage and Dinty Moore beef stew filled my cupboard. My freezer became crammed with Green Giant vegetables in boiling bags, creamed spinach, peas and pearl onions, broccoli with cheese sauce, and shoe peg corn in butter sauce. It felt like an incredible bounty. For a few weeks Micheal and I had what seemed like luxurious meals. One evening, I invited my step-brother, Chris, to join us for supper. Recently separated from his wife, he was living with my dad and stepmom. Since we both were coming out of painful relationships, I thought it would be nice for us to have someone to commiserate with. Even though our respective parents had been married for five years and we had been to the same family functions, we really didn’t know each other well. That evening, after Micheal went to bed, our conversation recounted our history, how we met and married our spouses, and how our marriages collapsed.
“So,” I said, after he explained
his current living situation, “what do you do next?”
“Well, I guess I’ll go back to the
house once my wife moves out. If I’m going to be making the payment, I might as
well live there. I’ll have to sell it eventually, though. I can’t afford it by
myself and she will want her part of the down payment back.”
“Would you consider renting it? I
have a girlfriend who wants to find a roommate. We both have kids and neither
of us can afford to live on our own. She and I have been talking about finding
a place together.”
“Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.
The best thing is probably just to sell it.” Chris was dubious about my idea,
but I could see possibility there. What we both saw as possible was the two of
us spending some time together. Over the course of the next few months we dated
and spent time in each other’s homes. Our children already knew each other from
Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They fell in together like everything was normal
and not at all on the creepy side. When the school year was over for Micheal,
we made plans to move in with Chris. I didn’t ask Micheal how he felt about the
prospect of living with another man besides Dave, the father he had known for
most of his life. It seemed obvious to me that this move was a perfect
situation. Micheal would have a ready-made family that was almost a real family.
The connections were there for it to be like a real family. It provided a security
I had been yearning for and I assumed Micheal had been yearning for, too.
One thing was certain, my little
boy was used to moving. He barely paid attention as I brought in boxes from the
liquor store and packed things up. I put several boxes in his room for his
toys, but they sat empty. Each day that week, I would urge him to box up his
things, and each day he would leave the job undone. By the end of the week I
was losing patience so I told him sternly the toys must be packed for the move
over the weekend. Later, when I went to check his work I was shocked to see several
toys destroyed. I was enraged my son had vandalized and disrespected his own
“How could you do this?” I yelled at him, “Most of this stuff you got for Christmas! Your Dad, your Grandmas and Grandpas spent good money for this stuff and you’ve torn it up!”
“I don’t want this stuff anymore.”
He said, “It’s stupid. It’s just a bunch of junk!”
I couldn’t see it then, but looking back he was trying to tell me with action what he didn’t have words to express. What I thought was ideal, even predestined, was evidently a bad idea to him. Had I been able to recognize and decipher this message of his, all the agony that followed might have been avoided. As it happened, the louder his actions spoke to me, the deafer and dumber I became.
December 13, 2018
He stays at an address in the 1200 block of North ‘C’. Occasionally, when I check the phone he is at a 12th street address close by. Rarely can I locate it anywhere else, except for one evening when he appears to be walking somewhere. I check every couple of minutes as I witness his progress from North 12th street to South 7th street. He is a fast walker and it doesn’t take him long to get from one place to the other. The phone appears as a carrot on the map screen. I think to myself this icon is appropriate on more than one level. The South 7th street address is where his drug dealer lives. Meth is evidently one hell of a carrot.
He doesn’t seem to be using much, though. I check the phone several times a day, and only this one time do I see him go to the drug house. I don’t know his dealer isn’t bringing drugs to him, and to the girl, I guess, but the lack of movement comforts me somehow. He is telling me the truth when he texts and says he hasn’t been going anywhere. He is being good, so for a couple of weeks I am complacent, happy just to know my son is not locked up. Suddenly, though, things change and he is at one address, and then another. He bounces around for a couple of days and I begin to worry. He texts me asking for money. He asks for food. He says he and the girl had a fight. She made him leave, but he’s ok.
He doesn’t sound ok. I know when
he’s desperate he does desperate things. I decide to call his Parole Officer to
get him off the street before something bad happens. She tells me she will text
me when she is in a patrol car and can pick him up. Soon, she is driving around
and I am sending her his locations. He is walking, down this street and up that,
changing up blocks by taking side streets, west for one block, north for three,
east for one block, north for four, then east again and south, circling a
block. He is walking as if he suspects
he’s being followed and wants to confuse his pursuer. He is paranoid, but he
isn’t wrong that someone is watching him. He goes to the address of what I know
is a drug dealer for just a few minutes, then leaves and goes to another
address that I’ve never seen him visit. I give this address to the Parole
Officer. I tell her he’s within a few yards of the address I gave her, but I
don’t recognize it. He’s never been there before.
I check his location again, and again. He’s on the move now, fast. He seems to be in a car, except he goes through 10th street park where a car can’t drive. He must be running! Again, I check his location and he is stopped around the alley at south end of the block between 9th and 10th streets. I send a text. No reply. I call the number. No answer. They must have him.
The adrenaline is surging through
my body and my breathing is quick. I take a half hour or so to calm myself
before I check his current location. He’s at the hospital.
Now, I panic in earnest. Did he
resist? Did they shoot him? Has he overdosed or had a meth induced heart
attack? I call the phone. It’s been turned off. I call the hospital; they tell
me nothing. I call the Parole Officer, no answer. I leave a message, pleading
with her to call me as soon as possible. When she returns my call she is
coughing. She can hardly complete a sentence.
“He ran,” she coughed, “he jumped out a second story..” more coughing, “window and ran…” “He jumped out a second story window?” I repeat in amazement. It was astonishing to me that he could do this and still be able to run.
“Yes,” she answered, coughing still, “He ran for five blocks before we caught him.” She stopped talking again to cough. “That’s why I’m coughing. I was completely winded. When we caught him he was barely out of breath, he was so high.”
“Why is he at the hospital?” My main concern was that he was okay.
“He’s not,” she coughed, “He’s at
the jail. We took him to the hospital to get him checked because he was
complaining his foot was hurt from the jump.”
“I can’t say that I’m happy, but I am grateful. Thank you,” When I knew he was safe the tears started. It’s a defeat to have your child put in jail, but it’s a two-sided defeat. It’s the loss of a battle, but it’s also a guarantee the war will at least continue. All is not yet lost.
And so, just like that, I made another
nuclear family for my son, except it was mostly for me. From the very first
night we joined Chris in his home with his two sons Shawn and Brandon, we had
the missing elements in our lives. We were a mother, father, three brothers,
plus, as a bonus, Chris and I had our respective parents. I had found a place
Micheal and I could belong. It seemed easy; we already partially belonged to
begin with, and we wouldn’t be alone anymore. It felt a little awkward and a
bit uncomfortable, but I knew in time familiarity would ease us into normalcy.
I realized our new life would not be
without challenges, and that first evening in the kitchen demonstrated the
pitfalls awaiting. Grandma and I were figuring what we could put together to
feed the children. The cabinets were sparse, but there was plenty of spaghetti,
but not enough sauce.
“I’ll run into town and get some
more.” I offered.
“That will take too long,” Grandma
countered, “these kids are hungry now.”
“I’ll be quick. I’ll be back by the
time the spaghetti is done and it won’t take just a minute to warm the sauce up.”
It made sense to me, but being unused to living 10 minutes from town I had no
comprehension how long running to the store took. Ten minutes to town, ten
minutes in the store, ten minutes back home, it all added up to around a half
hour, plenty of time to have spaghetti on the table for three hungry children,
and that’s the scene I walked into when I got back from the store. Grandma had
extended the spaghetti sauce with a can of tomato sauce and a few dried herbs
and garlic powder. It wasn’t exactly Ragu, but it was edible with enough
I recognized my lack of planning
and preparation led to the children not having a menu and meal time in place. I
knew I’d have to re-evaluate my priorities if I wanted to keep this new-found
security in my life. Adding to my anxiety, the kids were acting up a bit at the
table, being silly, making faces at one another and laughing. Micheal, being
the oldest, was instigating the scene.
“Micheal, stop it.” I wanted him to
be a good example for the other boys, and besides that, I was not in a role
where I could discipline Chris’ children as my own. “Straighten up and stop
making faces.” All was quiet for a minute or two, but then he began his charade
again when I wasn’t looking. I glared at him, but he kept it up.
“I’m not doing anything, Mom.” The
longer it continued, the more uncomfortable I became. It never occurred to me
that my son was dealing with his own discomfort in the way he knew how. However,
it wasn’t long before my frustration reached its limit and I exploded with a
slap to the side my son’s head. The ferocity and suddenness of the blow stunned
everyone in the room. “Stop it! I said, stop IT!!” I half yelled through
Chris looked at me in amazement, “You didn’t need to do that, Jane.” I immediately
knew I shouldn’t have done it, but I was too prideful and too afraid to admit
my meanness and apologize to my son. I also didn’t realize I was setting a tone
for the dynamic between my son and Chris’ sons, and establishing a pattern for
my interactions with all three boys. Of the many incidents that filled the
sixteen years I spent in that house, this was one I would come to regret deeply.
November 28, 2018
The phone rings. It doesn’t jolt me the way it does when Micheal isn’t in lockup, but the usual thrill of fear rises up as it does every time a call comes in. The phone announces it’s my number three son, Brandon. When I moved in with Chris a little more than thirty years ago, Brandon was still in diapers. Over the years, we have become as close as a stepmother and son can be. I’m glad he’s called me. He has been on my mind since he brought his family for dinner on Thanksgiving. He seemed unusually negative about his life, and he made several comments that left me worried for his state of mind. My idea was to write a letter to express my concerns, but having him on the phone is just as good.
“I’ve called because I’ve got
something to tell you.” Immediately, my heart is in my throat. I can tell by
his tone that no one is in danger, but whatever it is it’s weighing heavily on
him, and it scares me. “It’s bad,” he continues, “It’s really bad, but I think
in the end it will work out for the best.”
It’s bad, but it will be resolved eventually. My mind runs through the scenario, no one is sick, wounded, or dying, so my next fear must be realized, he and his wife are getting divorced. I think about his wife, a sweet, practical, loving, and dedicated woman whom I love dearly, and my two grandkids. My eyes begin to well up. He goes on, “Well, you know I’ve had a problem with drugs for a while.” I did know this. Brandon’s drug use has been a topic of family conversation several times in the last few years. Once, his wife asked me for advice, but generally they seemed to be functioning well. I had no idea the problem had progressed to this point. I always assumed they would right themselves eventually. Brandon’s drug use never seemed as desperate as Micheal’s, but now, my biggest fear for them is happening.
“This is hard. You are one of the
first I’ve called to tell and I’m practicing with you, so I might as well just
come out and say it.” As I was listening, I braced myself against the emotion I
knew was coming. I was sad for them, for the children, for me, and for the hope
they represented for all my sons. If Brandon could overcome drug abuse and find
lasting happiness, maybe Micheal would, too. He went on, “I’ve decided I’m
going into treatment.”
My relief was so sudden and
complete I nearly laughed. “Oh, Brandon, I thought you were going to tell me
you were getting a divorce! I know this is difficult for you, but believe me,
this is wonderful news.” I thought how funny it was that a decision so
difficult and so emotionally charged for him would be welcome, even celebrated
news among family members.
I know things will not be easy for my son and his family. Brandon tells me he will quit his job. He works at a company with an entrenched culture of alcohol and drug abuse among the employees. It’s a difficult but good decision, as is his choice of an residential treatment center. He tells me it’s faith based, God centered. I voice my support but not my reservations. Even though my own experience with religion led to disillusionment, I remind myself that my path is not Brandon’s path, and I decide to trust. God is always true even if His servants are not.
As we finish our call, I promise support for him and his family. I’m glad for him. I marvel at the power of faith and how the course of a person’s life can change so abruptly. After years of the continual onslaught of drug abuse and its consequences in my life, here is some hope realized. It occurs to me that the point between being a drug addict and a sober person is a door that hinges on one decision. ‘Do I give up the life I know and feel secure in for this other, unknown life?’ I am happy Brandon chose the sober side of the door.
During the year of ’85/’86 we
settled into our life on Willow Grove and began to feel stable. Micheal got to
complete fourth grade in one school. He joined CYL and played ball that summer.
I continued to work at the liquor store. Together, Chris and I didn’t have much
money, but we could meet our basic bills. I could spend every penny of my $142
a week on groceries if I wanted to, and I often did.
Shawn and Brandon spent every other
weekend with us. We had a routine. We had a family and we were beginning to
have a life. At the end of summer, Chris and his friends decided it would be
great fun to have a hog roast at a nearby pond. We chose a weekend when we
didn’t have Shawn and Brandon. Micheal loved to fish, and eating pork and
fishing sounded like a great time for him, too. During that day we ate, played,
and drained two kegs of beer. It was late in the afternoon when Chris brought
Micheal to me. He was weaving and staggering.
“What’s wrong?” My hand went to my
son’s forehead. No fever.
“What do you think is wrong?” Chris
asked. “We caught him sneaking beer. From the looks of him he’s been doing it
all day” I was flabbergasted. My son was only nine years old. How could I have
been so oblivious? I was so wrapped up in myself I hadn’t even noticed my son
was getting drunk.
“Are you kidding me? How much did
you drink, Micheal?” I was none too sober myself, but how could I have missed
my son sneaking drinks from idle beers all afternoon?
“I don’t know. Just a little bit.”
His words weren’t slurred, but his movements were slow and rubbery, his walk
“You need to take him home. Get him
out of here.” Chris handed me the keys. I put my son in the car and drove the
short distance to the house. I wasn’t in good enough shape to drive, but I
counted on law enforcement being scarce on the country roads. I lectured
Micheal on the way home, berating him for his sneaky behavior. Once inside the
house, he stumbled to the couch and collapsed on it. It was more than disturbing
to see him inebriated so young. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I hoped
it was an experience unpleasant enough that he would not soon repeat it. I don’t
know if he ever snuck alcohol again, but in later years he would explore far
more unpleasant things.
December 18, 2018
I like to wait for a week or two before I visit him in jail. He is usually sick and surly for a while after he’s gone to lockup. Sometimes it’s dope sickness, but this time he has been binging on meth so it’s way different. Before parole got him, he was becoming gaunt, but he didn’t have sores on his face. I’ve never seen him with sores on his face, though he has been on long enough meth runs to start picking himself like that. He doesn’t ever pick, he just becomes paranoid.
I set up my video account in the jail visiting area. It’s a touchscreen, and this screen has been touched far too much. There are fingerprints smeared in snot or slobber or god-knows-what. I don’t want to put my hands on it. When I do, I think to myself that I need to remain conscious about putting my hands to my face until I can get home to wash.
When I get set up, I start typing
his name, ‘t-o-w-n-s…’ and that’s enough to bring his full name up on the
screen. I choose him and wait to see his face. He answers the “call” and his
face comes into focus. I lift the receiver from the hook, wishing I had a handkerchief
with which to hold it. Heaven knows who’s been hacking all over it.
He looks better than when I saw him
last. He has a few days growth of beard, not bad, and the creases in his face
are beginning to fill in. It doesn’t take long for him to put on weight again.
He tells me he’s been ravenous. I say I’ll put money on his commissary so he can
get extra food. I know it isn’t good food, but it will at least put weight on
his starved body.
Remarkably, he is in a good mood.
He seems almost happy. He is smiling, and he tells me he asked to be a trustee
and they let him do it. He is working in the kitchen. He says it makes the time
go faster and it gives him something to do. There is reason to be optimistic,
he says. Even though he didn’t stay clean, he thinks he has a better idea how
to do it now. He hopes the parole board will let him go to treatment instead of
back to prison. He learned that he will get a new parole officer, but he hasn’t
met him yet. The officer is supposed to visit soon after the parolee is
arrested. The board has 30 days to decide whether to send him back or not. He
will know his fate right after Christmas.
We talk a little bit about the girl he was staying with. I’ve learned her name. She contacted me on Facebook to ask if I’d talked to him. He is curious about what we have said to each other. I don’t tell him, but I’ve asked her if he has been violent with her, if he has treated her well. I need to know if he is a good person or not. I don’t know him anymore and I want to be sure I’m not helping a bad person do bad things in the world. The girl tells me he hasn’t been violent, but he has made a point to let her know he could be. She said they used meth together, but there were also stretches of days when they didn’t use at all. She said they were happiest on those days, and he was good and kind to her then.
Fifteen minutes can be either an eternity or a fleeting moment when it comes to prison visits. This visit comes to an end in a flash. We didn’t get to complete the business we needed to attend to. Each inmate can have a visit every six hours, and I promise to coordinate my next visit with the girl. He blows me a kiss and I hang up the receiver. As I leave, I walk past other visitors in front of other dirty touchscreens. I notice the grime along the floor where it meets the wall. I smell the stale cigarette smoke that permeates the space even though no one ever smokes there. The scent mingles with the cheap cologne and the misery in the air. At the metal door, the turnkey buzzes me out into the cold.