Sunday, November 10, 2013

(Book chapter from : House on Fire: A Cautionary Tale)



     Hunter and I had just sat down to dinner when his cell phone rang.  My son knew calls weren’t allowed during family time but he couldn’t resist stealing a glance at his phone. Hunter looked up at me with panic in his eyes and said, “Mom, dad’s calling”. We had been expecting to hear from Tom but when the call came it caught us both off guard.  I told Hunter calmly, “If you feel like you can handle it then take the call”.    He was scared but my brave son switched his phone on to speaker. Instead of hearing his father’s voice there was a woman’s prerecorded voice saying, “You are receiving a call from an inmate at the Worcester County Jail. This call is being recorded”. The recorded message went on to relay the fact that anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  Hunter wasn’t sure how to react to that and I could tell it made him very uncomfortable. I was livid and heartbroken at the same time. Never in my wildest dreams did I think my young son would be accepting a call from his father from jail.  Outwardly I tried to appear calm to signal to Hunter that it was going to be okay,(I was becoming an expert at feigning being calm), and listened as Tom began to speak.  Tom always spoke louder than was necessary and there was plenty of background noise so he was shouting into the phone.
“Hey, it’s dad. Sorry, it’s really loud in here.  How‘ya doing buddy?”  We could hear the other inmates carousing in the background. It was good to hear his voice. 
Hunter responded, “I’m okay dad. How is it there?” 
Trying to sound upbeat Tom replied, “Well it's not the Ritz but it's better than I though it'd be. Hey, guess what kind of shoes I’m wearing? “
“I dunno dad.” Hunter was in no mood for a guessing game.
“I’m wearing white Converse sneakers!”  Tom was laughing. He had always teased Hunter about the enormous Herman Munster tennis shoes he and his friends wore for skateboarding so it was supposed to be funny that his dad now had to wear them in jail.
“Yeah, that’s funny dad”, Hunter responded. But it wasn’t really funny to Hunter. There was a moment of silence and wanting to avoid the reality of the situation Tom tried to keep his son engaged. But Hunter didn’t know what to say next. Thankfully Tom sensed this and carried most of the conversation.
“How’s the football team doing?” Even though our son was no longer playing he had agreed to keep Tom up to date on his school’s football team status as they had been number one in the state four years in a row.  High school football is extremely competitive in Texas and four wins in a row was rare. Now they were trying for their fifth consecutive win so it really was a big deal. Hunter had always been active in team sports since he was five years old playing tee ball, then little league, lacrosse and football. It was playoff time at Hunter’s high school and a few days earlier the football team had left for Cowboy Stadium in three luxury buses that my son had once described to me as “beyond awesome!” There were dozens of supporters lining the road for miles waving banners and signs wishing the boys and their family’s good luck.  I was so accustomed to supporting my son’s teams that after dropping Hunter at school I joined the long car parade. It was exhilarating to participate once again and I began waving back with full on enthusiasm to the parade pedestrians. I was bursting with joy for the boys, the coaches and their families. As I drove a bit further down the road it hit me that what I was doing was ridiculous. It felt so good to be happy about SOMETHING but I was alone and didn’t have a son on the team. What the hell was I doing? Then the tears came.  Hunter should be on that bus but he had lost all interest in sports after his father went to jail. I didn't belong in that line or in that life any longer. I ducked out of the parade, turned my car around and headed home.
“The team’s doing well dad. They played up in Dallas last Friday at Cowboy Stadium. It looks like they have a great shot at winning again.”  Hunter replied.
“Wow. Cowboy Stadium. That’s pretty cool. I wish we could have gone to the game together.”   
“Yeah, me too dad.”   The conversation quickly became strained but Hunter tried his best to be supportive. After a few more minutes of banal banter the conversation tapered off into silence.
“You know I love you”. Tom said.
Hunter replied, “I know. I love you too dad. Take care of yourself in there.”
“I’ll do my best. Get my address from mom and send me a letter, okay? I mean it. I want to keep in touch. At least a letter a week. Okay buddy?”
“Sure dad.”
“Can I please talk to your mom?” Hunter handed me his cell phone and I clicked off the speaker for some privacy. I got up from the table and as I walked into the living room toward the sofa I stole a quick glance back at my son to check for any signs of breakage but Hunter had already left the table and gone to his room.  I took a deep breath to try to stave off the shakiness of my voice because I was literally all choked up after watching Hunter experience the first call from his dad from jail.  I was torn between my anger at having my son experience and endure his father’s incarceration and my compassion toward Tom. Tom certainly deserved to be in jail but I also had known him as the man who would give a stranger the shirt off his back. The irony being that he would give a stranger the shirt off his back but he would put his own family in harm’s way.
“Hi, are you okay?” I asked. The levity that Tom had shared with his son only moments earlier had vanished. In the most indignant tone he could muster, Tom said, “They’ve got me in the wrong place!” I had to move the phone away from my ear not only to relieve myself of the sheer volume of Tom’s voice but because I was stunned at the very idea that he could even have such a thought. I took a deep breath and shaking my head responded calmly.
“Where do you think you should be Tom?” I had to remind myself that the man was ill.
“Not in this hell hole.” He went on to tell me how awful it was there and that “the place was filled with nothing but “thugs”. I took another deep breath. He said there were also a lot of “kids” there for possession of marijuana. Tom felt strongly about the fact that marijuana should be legalized. Locking up a third of the teenage population for possession was simply ridiculous.

    So they had him in the wrong place. My heart sank. We weren’t off to a good start here. After all we had been through, AFTER ALL THAT HE HAD PUT HIS FAMILY THROUGH, instead of being humble and contrite, even in jail he was still entitled.  Tom had never missed an opportunity to tell our camping friends that his idea of camping was a Best Western Motel.  I’ll bet camping didn’t sound so bad to him now. For the remainder of our conversation Tom rambled on and on about the bad food and the REAL criminal types he had to deal with.  I listened to him rant for a few more minutes, mindful that his irrational attitude was not only a result of his illness but more likely was coming from a place of extreme fear.  
“Tom, you need to remember that this call is being recorded. You need to know that anything you say over the phone can be used against you. It's best if you try to be contrite instead of so angry. I'm sure your attorney must have explained all of this to you.” 
Tom said, “Yeah, he told me. But I really don’t belong here”.  As much as I wanted to stand by Tom and continue to help him through, he wasn’t making it easy.
Tom continued. “You need to set up a phone account with a credit card so I can make regular calls through the system.” He told me the name of the company to call and explained that the fee was nine dollars per twenty minute call.
“Tom, money is really tight so please understand that you can only make a few calls per month”.
“I know. But I can’t not talk to my son”. All I could think of was “well you should have thought about that before you decided to become a criminal, you asshole!”
“The house money isn’t going to last forever and who knows how long you’ll be gone and how long it will take me to find a job”. And on that note, true to my compassionate nature, I asked him if there was anything I could send him and he said he wanted books and pencils and paper so he could write letters.
“You can’t just send me things directly. You have to order them from Amazon and have them shipped here to the jail”.  Again, Tom sounded indignant.
“Okay. I’ll order a couple of books and writing tablets. Anything else?” The one minute warning voice interrupted us and Tom said, “You know I’m really sorry I put you guys through this”. I said, “We know.”  And then the phone went dead. I would come to learn that the one minute warning wasn’t always a full minute. 

     I got up off the sofa and stood in the middle of my living room with the dead phone dangling from my hand and cried, overwhelmed once again by what our lives had come to. The very fact that I was speaking with Tom in jail was surreal.  And instead of wanting to know how WE were doing he spent the entirety of the conversation talking about how miserable HE was. Some things never change.  I took a deep cleansing breath and then called Hunter back to the table to finish dinner. Both of us agreed that although the call was indeed bizarre, we were glad Tom was at least hanging on. We passed a knowing glance and then I smiled at my son and said, “well that was really weird but we’re going to be okay”. I felt like throwing the phone through the window but instead I winked at my son as we sat back down for dinner. Hunter smiled back at me and we talked about his
Mythology report that was due the next day. One day at a time