It’s All Clear

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 Naturally, the marriage proposal was withdrawn, but Dave’s presence in our lives was not.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 promise.”

“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?

What’s Done Is Done

During Micheal’s adolescence, I learned many things I never wanted to know, like throwing a bit of ceramic from a spark plug against a car window would immediately obliterate it, or an even better bit, homeowner’s insurance will cover damage caused by your minor child. Homeowner’s insurance will also cover theft by your minor child. I never learned how many incidents like this the insurance company would pay for, because the incidents were increasing and I had to make something happen again.

Problems involving police were increasing. Disruption in the household was increasing. Pressure from Chris was increasing. Pressure from juvenile court was increasing. Micheal was running out of chances everywhere. He’d already been to Henry County Juvenile Detention. Soon, there would be nothing left but Boy’s School, where I figured the lessons would focus on how to be a more successful criminal.

I was being catapulted from one catastrophe to the next, before one ended another one would begin. Nothing I did was working. I was trying to control a tornado and it was pounding my spirit and draining my resources.

Counselors didn’t help. Micheal wasn’t the least bit interested in therapy. Beyond that, there wasn’t much help to be had, that is, help that didn’t cost more money than I could dream of having at one time. So, with few choices at hand, I made a bad one.

Walt and mom had found, through a friend of a friend, a farm in Jennings County, Indiana that took in troubled boys. It was a religious organization I was told, and the boys were required to go to church and study the Bible. They also attended school and were required to do chores. The farm was in a very rural, heavily wooded area, with the Muscatatuck wildlife refuge and several parks and recreation opportunities close by. It sounded like a place Micheal would love. Except he didn’t.

He had good reasons. He hadn’t been there more than three days when he was calling me, begging for me to come get him. I wanted to. I just couldn’t, but I promised to come see him as soon as I could.

Days later, I pulled up next to an old brick farmhouse set in the middle of a wooded, hilly area. The house had been painted white at one time, but that was many years ago. There were huge swaths along the chimney and at various places where the guttering had given way and moisture had lifted all the paint from the surface, exposing the red brick underneath. The back-storm door opened onto a porch that functioned as a hallway. It was a room reduced to a hallway by the boxes filled with books and miscellaneous junk stacked head high. This walkway continued into the next room and then the next. Unfamiliar with what hoarding was, I was shocked, not the least by the intense scent of mildew that was nearly overpowering. I was comforted to know that Micheal didn’t stay there. The boys only came to the main house at mealtimes and for church. They had a bunkhouse a few yards from the main house. My hope of a better condition was quickly diminished by the discovery that what the bunkhouse lacked in mildew, it made up for in filth. The day was very warm, early fall, and the doors and windows were wide open, allowing a multitude of flies into the building. I stepped inside, my shoes crunching on the dried mud that had been deposited on the cement floor. The main room was long and narrow, maybe 15’x 30’. Along one wall was a woodstove, and next to it was a pile of wood at the ready for the cool nights and mornings that came with the change of season. Bits of bark and wood were scattered along with the clumps of dried mud on the floor. Off this room was a bathroom that had a stained toilet and a sink whose faucet had been leaking so long the ceramic was eroded underneath. The shower was a cement floored, mildewed stall that had been painted over. Specks of peeled paint littered the cement, which sloped down sharply toward a narrow drain. It was so sharp and deep a person would need to straddle the drain to take a shower. The two sets of bunkbeds in the main room were made from 2×4 and plywood, used at the time by three boys ranging in age from fifteen to eighteen, with Micheal being the youngest and newest resident. The beds were unmade with soiled sheets and pillowcases. Micheal lay on the bottom bunk of one of the beds, sick with a fever. I sat on the edge of the bed beside him. Crying, he begged me to take him home.

I could give a million excuses for why I didn’t take him home that day, beginning with there was no other place to send him; there was no other “help” available, but the truth is I wanted peace in my household more than I wanted to take care of my son, more than I wanted him to have a clean environment to live in. I wanted peace in my relationship with Chris, I wanted a home for the other three boys that wasn’t constantly disrupted and influenced by the behavior of the one boy. The truth is it was easier to bear the guilt and grief of leaving my sick child in those deplorable conditions than it was to bear the disapproval of my husband and the friction from my stepfather for bringing him home.

So, I got in my car and left.

January 12, 2019, cont.

After instructing Mac to call the police, I walk as slowly and casually as I can to the car. I want them to have plenty of time to find me and pull me over. Micheal is waiting for me in the car, knifeless. I hope he has nothing else that could be used as a weapon. I am far more afraid law enforcement will shoot him unnecessarily than I am he will attack me. My hope is they will pull me over and arrest him after I explain the situation. Strangely, the paranoid spell has all but dissolved. Micheal’s conversation and demeanor is rational and sane. It’s as if the continual movement of the car has shifted the focus of his mind. I follow the exact route I told Mac to give to the police, but I have still seen no sign of them as we reach our destination. I park in a lot a few doors from the friend’s house as Micheal instructs me to do. As soon as he gets out I call Agent Graham, his parole officer. I leave a message describing the situation, and as I hang up the phone a police car pulls up beside me. I think Micheal surely must have seen this happen and my plan is fucked. I imagine he won’t come out of the apartment.    

The officer comes over to my window and asks me questions. Where is Micheal? Has he been threatening me? Has he been threatening to harm himself or anyone else? Does he have a weapon? I answer his questions, saying Micheal is at a friend’s apartment on the corner, and no, no, no, no to the others. I explain about his parole and the drugs and how his parole officer will likely violate him. As three other cruisers pull up, Agent Graham returns my call. He tells me unless Micheal has committed a crime he can’t violate his parole for his drug use. The jail is full and the system is overburdened with hundreds of other Micheals. He throws me a bone by telling me he will require Micheal to go to treatment. He will have to get help or go back to prison. I’m disheartened my plan is a bust, but at least there’s that.  I hand the phone to the officer when Agent Graham asks to speak to him.

Meanwhile, the other officers have Micheal stopped in the alley between the friend’s apartment and the parking lot. I marvel that he could see several men hiding and signaling to each other outside my house, but was unable to see four police cruisers outside his friend’s apartment. The police lecture, they search his backpack, they treat Micheal and me with the usual suspicion and contempt I’ve come to expect, but in the end, they cannot arrest him. One of the officers, a woman, gives me a quick, sympathetic hug and sincerely wishes me the best. Out of earshot of the others, she tells me sincerely that all policemen aren’t like the ones she’s with. Some understand how the drug problem is for families. She knows firsthand herself, her own brother is a drug addict. I thank her sincerely.

The police leave the scene. Micheal is angry, no surprise there, and I have failed in my intentions. I drive for a while and try to explain my motivations, but he doesn’t understand. He can’t comprehend how a paranoid person with a knife would make someone nervous. I stop at a drug store to get supplies for his leg. While inside I call Mac to update him. He says I can’t bring Micheal home. I tell him I’ll drive around for a while to figure something out. Micheal says he has nowhere to go. I don’t either. I’ve been in this place before and there’s no escape.

I bring Micheal home anyway. He goes into the den where it is dark. There are two windows and a door to the outside. He can monitor the hiding men and he can escape if he needs to. It’s okay with him if I draw the blinds, so I do. I leave him sitting in the dark.

Micheal took this selfie in my car

He stays in there for more than an hour before I check on him. When I do, I find him sleeping. Beside him on the end table I find a pocket knife, open, blade exposed. I leave the room with it and place it with the others we have hidden.

Mac and I have a conversation about what should happen next. We don’t want to wake him. We don’t want to go to bed and leave him there. What if he wakes up, paranoid and hallucinating again? If he hears us in the house, but can’t see us in the dark, will he think we are intruders? Will he find something to attack us with? It’s not likely we will sleep anyway, so we decide to stay up in the living room with all the lights on and the tv going. That way he will see us and know we aren’t the ones who intend him harm. We stay up all night. It isn’t hard. Mac and I are both imagining what could happen and that awful scenario is enough to keep us wide awake. As for Micheal, he doesn’t come out of the den all night. He doesn’t come out for fourteen solid hours. When he finally does emerge, he can barely walk. The leg with the tiny wound is inflamed much more than before, hot and tender from the bottom of the knee to mid-shin. It’s obvious this problem will not be solved with a little bit of peroxide and ointment.

The catapult is drawn back and I am in it, ready to be thrown into the next crisis.

No Recall

The mind is an amazingly resilient thing. As a means of protecting itself, it can take memories beyond accurate recall, or any recall for that matter. This is the way it is with my memory of how Micheal left the farm. I think I got a phone call from the farmer saying he had been arrested. I know something happened that made him no longer welcome. I don’t remember who went to get him or where he went, but I have no memory of him ever living in my home after that. The next memory I have of his life he is in Boy’s School, a now defunct institution and once last resort of the juvenile justice system. He was at the Boy’s School for a few months before he was transferred to a juvenile facility close to where the *least likely candidate lived. It was agreed that Micheal would live with him after his release from the juvenile facility.

The least likely candidate’s home was in a remote area, yet close to one of the bigger cities in Indiana. Micheal always loved the outdoors, with hunting and fishing two of his favorite activities. I was hopeful that he and his father could finally develop a healthy relationship in that environment. It seemed to me having his dad was a crucial element in setting his life right. Things went well initially. Micheal got a job. His dad taught him how to drive and helped him get his driver’s license. All reports seemed to indicate a change, except the relationship between father and son wasn’t improving. They functioned more as landlord/tenant than as family members. The stubborn and deeply suspicious nature they both share could not be overcome, and after little more than a year, his father threw him out. Micheal stayed in the city for a few weeks, but after his father’s home was burglarized and threats were exchanged, I went to get him.

He had turned eighteen during his time away from Richmond. His life now completely his own, there was no thought of him returning to live with me. He got a job at Shoney’s and tried sharing an apartment with a friend for a time, but no living arrangement lasted long. The job didn’t either. There was just too much drugging to do. He began a relationship with a young woman who had an infant son. She lived with her mother and sister. It wasn’t long before Micheal was staying with them.   Soon after, I got a phone call from his girlfriend. She needed to talk to me. I agreed to meet her for coffee, but I already knew what the topic of conversation would be. I became a grandmother on April 25, 1998, when Micheal Brice Townsend II was born. I was almost forty, Micheal was nineteen, the same age I was when he was born, and my mother turned sixty on the very same day.

January 13, 2019

He’s asleep again. The hallucinations seem to have passed, but I’m concerned he will not agree to see a doctor. The infection in his leg is spreading and walking is becoming more painful. I allow him to sleep for a few more hours in hopes his mental state will improve and he will agree to let me take him to the hospital.

I knock lightly on the door mid-afternoon. He’s awake but drowsy, his forehead warm. There’s a fever starting. I impress upon him the importance of medical care for his infection. This won’t get better on its own. I’m surprised when he agrees to a trip to the emergency room. I figure this will be the best place for him to be if he starts hallucinating again. Perhaps they will admit him if he is delusional.

I’m surprised when he is reasonable and responds helpfully to the doctor as she examines him. He explains the small cut he received when his bicycle slid on the ice, causing him to wreck and fall on his knee. The doctor diagnoses cellulitis and prescribes antibiotics. She tells him to take the medication exactly as prescribed and to report back to the emergency room if the infection doesn’t respond to treatment in three days.

I think perhaps this time he will stay with me and rest, but it doesn’t surprise me he wants to be dropped off at a friend’s house. I drop him off, but I’m hopeful he will stay put given the amount of pain walking causes him. I don’t hear from him until after the three days pass. He sends me a text message that includes a picture of the infected leg. He drew a line around the edge of it at some point, and now it’s spread well beyond that, extending from his knee down the entirety of his leg, including his calf and half of his foot. The area is swollen twice normal size, leaving the skin taut and slightly dimpled.  He doesn’t need to be persuaded a return to the emergency room is necessary.

When I pick him up at the friend’s house, he hobbles to the car on a homemade crutch. He has a narrow board cut to length with a rag-stuffed work glove taped to the end that fits under his arm. He tells me he needs to go by the girl’s garage so that he can drop off something that belongs to her. I already know she is angry with him and wants her phone back. She has been blowing my phone up, informing me that not only has he stolen from her, he has been physically abusive as well. The greatest insult, she tells me, is that he has been using her phone to hook up with other girls. Despite his misbehavior, in a voice message she declares, “Oh, GAWD! I love that man!

“Oh, GAWD!” I echo back.

I drive down her alley and stop at the garage. I honk, and moments later she comes out. Micheal rolls down the window and extends his arm out, phone in hand. I watch her walk to the car; her expression is one of unabashed contempt and pure rage. She grabs the phone with her left hand as her right fist enters the window. Bam! Bam! Bam! She hits Micheal three times, fast, right in the face. As she retreats Micheal begins to open the door to pursue her. I grab the shoulder of his coat and pull him back into the car.

“No, No! Don’t you do it! You shut that door!” I yell at him. He gets back in and before the door is completely closed my foot is on the gas, causing the tires to spew gravel and mud behind me as I drive away.

I am completely stunned at the audacity, the utter lack of respect, and, of course, the demonstration of gawd-awful love. I decide the incident warrants no discussion so I say nothing, but I determine within myself that absolutely nothing will persuade me to come near the girl again.

At the hospital this time, Micheal sees a different doctor. This one says that some IV antibiotics are in order. Micheal’s been out of prison less than three months and this is the second time he’s been admitted to the hospital. He doesn’t argue with the doctor. I can see that he is worried about the infection. He is concerned about losing his leg. Over the course of next day, they give him several bags of antibiotics, then try another round of a different drug when those have no impact. His worry increases. He asks the doctor if he will lose his leg. The doctor assures him he will not, but the infection doesn’t look to be getting any better. At least it doesn’t seem to be getting worse.

I do what I can to make him comfortable. I bring candy, a suspense novel, and some puzzle books to ward off boredom. On the third morning of his stay I knock on his door, then wait a few seconds for a response. When none comes, I figure he is sleeping so I draw the curtain aside and enter the darkened room. The swift movement of someone away from the bed startles me. I recognize the girl.


Apparently, my choice of reading material wasn’t enough to alleviate boredom. I murmur something about coming back later and quickly leave the room.

No sooner than I arrive home, Micheal calls me back. He’s been released. The doctor thinks the infection will not spread further and oral antibiotics will be sufficient treatment going forward.  When I pick him up I flatly refuse to take him to the girl’s garage. He wants to go to a friend’s house, but he asks me to pick him up the next day. He has an appointment with his parole officer and a nurse to help him find an inpatient drug rehab. He says the months since his release from prison have been the worst of his life and there needs to be a change.

No kidding.

I hold back on being happy. This is welcome news but it could mean different things. He could genuinely want to stop using. He could want to manipulate his parole officer. He may want to impress me so I’ll keep helping him.

Time will tell.

*When I began writing this blog, I asked all persons mentioned for permission to use their name. All agreed except for Micheal’s biological father. Instead of using a pseudonym, I chose to not name him at all.