There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone…Robert Hunter
Sleet pellets, driven sideways by a stiff wind, pierce his cheeks like tiny needles as he steps outside to greet the day. A wall of grey mist shields the morning sky, offering scant hope for any sunshine today. Early March in Virginia can be as unpredictable as life itself. Ushered through a small side entrance adjacent to the main gate of the facility, a small duffel in tow, he walks through a corridor of chain link, intent on the space in front of him. He is startled by the loud buzz signalling his exit. The gate behind him snaps shut and he is instinctively aware of being trapped in the steel enclosure. Relief comes with a second electrical hum, followed by the clack of the lock on the outer delivery gate. He glances up at the black lens hanging above the exit gate and shutters at the image of a Correctional Officer watching him… judging him… sneering perhaps. A final rude note from the buzzer behind him signals freedom. James Cassidy is once again a free man. Shivering, he steps tentatively toward a circular drive in front of the administration building. Per the instruction of the Discharge Officer he is to wait there for a cab ride home.
Standing on the sidewalk, the building behind him looks innocent enough, bearing an odd resemblance to a post office. An imposing State seal and gold stenciled letters on the spotless glass storefront belie the true nature of the enterprise inside. Even the sanitizing title “Work Center” is a boasting shout to passers by that the Commonwealth is protecting and rehabilitating it’s wayward and damaged citizenry. He glances right to an employee parking lot and gives fleeting thought to those earning their daily wage tending to the unsavory lot housed behind those spit shined walls. A faint shadow of a smile escapes his tightly clenched jaw: At least I get to leave.
Thanks to a rare case of administrative and judicial mercy, the Commonwealth Work Center marks the final stop before transitioning to a nearly unconditional release from the Virginia Correctional System. The nearly part, unsupervised probation, requires little more than infrequent contact with a P.O. and avoiding any further arrests or criminal charges. This is the crowning victory in orchestrating freedom on his terms. The cost was a mere fifteen additional months in this minimum security joint more closely resembling a prep school compared to his previous exile.
Green Valley Correctional Facility, a Gothic-inspired stone fortress in the western part of the State served as his initiation to prison existence. Two years earlier, he flatly declined supervised probation as a condition of release from Green Valley. While officials and inmates alike thought him completely nuts, James stood his ground on the issue. Having earned his release through credits for conformity, good behavior, and a willingness to teach fellow inmates how to read, the thought of being harassed by a P.O. and pissing in a cup for two years was repulsive. Choosing to ride out the full eighty-five percent of his sentence, James won transfer to a relatively comfortable and safe accommodation close to his home in Richmond. Here, in the absence of constant screaming and a prevailing wind of human waste, James finally pays off the balance of his debt. Forty-six months, five days, and nine hours is the cost exacted for justice. Never in all of the months of incarceration has he felt remorse or regret for the actions that led to sentencing. The State calls it Manslaughter. He calls it revenge. James took a man’s life for that of his wife’s. It is simply the way of his world, even if nothing could be accomplished by it. His wife is gone; therefore, action and consequence are merely curves and bumps along a much longer road to nothing.
Turning for a final glance at the reinforced chain link fence surrounding the perimeter of the campus, he notes the neatly woven coils of razor-wire spiraling along the fence top looks less menacing from the outside. Thoughts flash to the countless hours he spent staring at this gleaming silver barrier built to segregate him from a world he was ill equipped to live in. Now, on the other side, he shakes off a fleeting pang of dread, tugs at his jacket collar and adjusts his attention to the low rumble of an approaching automobile slowing down to makes its way along the frost glazed blacktop driveway. James focuses on the faded blue Chevrolet with the words SAFETY FIRST TAXI SERVICE crudely stenciled on the side door panel.Behind the wheel sits a round shouldered driver hunching slightly forward, one arm resting on the steering wheel. Lowering the fog covered window, the old driver peers from under his cap bill and nonchalantly acknowledges his fare with a slight raise of an index finger. How appropriate, James thinks.So much for unwelcome fanfare.
Clutching his release papers and discharge plan in an official envelope addressed to his newly assigned probation officer, Dean shoulders his few belongings and plunges into the icy winds of freedom. As he walks the stretch of asphalt driveway toward the parked cab, he imagines himself sliding into a limousine. This flight of fancy abruptly halts as he yanks the sedan’s heavy door closed and the stale smell of cigarettes and spilled coffee rush through the open plexiglas divider that separates driver and passenger. The driver, decidedly un-chauffer like in a sweat soiled baseball cap with a week old growth of white whiskers, gazes at him through the rear view mirror.
“Where to?”, the driver inquires with a nicotine coated voice that reminds him of Popeye the Sailor.
“8330 Wiltonshire, in Richmond”, handing the cabbie a piece of yellow, lined paper with an address scribbled on it. It is his home address; the home he and his wife so proudly purchased six years ago. It sits empty now, no doubt overtaken by the vines that his wife once diligently pruned with care. He aches with the memory of her hair, her touch, her smile. He wishes it would have been him that died that night. He wishes.
As they cautiously pull away, he peers eagerly over the driver’s shoulder looking ahead at the narrow road and the distant foothills to the west, barely visible through the wintry mix of fog, sleet, and rain. Then, one final look over his shoulder and a silent resolve before heading east to the city he, for lack a better term, calls home. A wave of dizziness and nausea ushers in the realization that he needs to formulate a plan for the day ahead. Instead, he absently stares in glorious silence at the droplets of freezing rain sliding across the vehicle’s passenger side window until Popeye’s chatter can no longer be ignored, “Wha…? Sorry, didn’t hear you. What was that?”
“Said where you from? Most boys I haul from the Camp is headin’ for the bus station.”
“From all over but got some family living in South Richmond. Guess that’s where I’ll be living now”, he lies.
Apart from the last four years of incarceration he has in fact, lived in the Richmond area for all of his thirty-seven years. Much to his chagrin, he faces the possibility of remaining there for the next thirty-seven in the absence of some divine inspiration. James winces at the sudden thought of a father who lived and died in Mechanicsville (a neighboring town of Richmond) maintaining a landscaping business of sorts, working when the need for more Pabst Blue Ribbon demanded he do so. It was there in a tin roofed shack on the north end of a city more commonly known for its wealth and gentility that James would spend his first eighteen years. He becomes lost in the images of rusted out tractors, abandoned where they died, idle for years, grass and weeds bursting from the wheel wells. He flushes at the memory as he locks eyes with the crimson faced the old codger staring at him through the rear view mirror.
“For a boy just got outa jail you don’t look too happy. Guess you kinda scared ain’t cha?”
Go fuck yourself Popeye, he bites his lip and concedes a faint grin of acknowledgement, “Yeah I guess so…I guess so.”
They travel in silence. The knot in the pit of his empty stomach tightens with each mile as they approach the city heading east on I-64. Passing under newly constructed overpasses he marvels over the urban sprawl that continues to creep west from the city. Newly constructed shopping centers and middle class housing developments cover the once rolling pastures like spilled paint on a carpet. Further east, the once four lane highway explodes into eight to accommodate the vast number of cave dwellers that commute daily from the city to their safe, predominately white, sterile communities that feature good schools and familiar chain stores. He despises the “West-End” suburban lifestyle so disparagingly referred to by the Richmond city- dwellers. He once embraced the city life warts and all. Richmond is a city uniquely notable for its schizophrenic mix of old south aristocrats, bohemian liberals, staunch conservatives, yankee carpetbaggers, and questionably bred mongrels to which the term redneck so aptly applies. James’s cultural lineage would, for the most part, fall into the latter category.
“Guess you’ll be glad to kick your heels up” the old guy glances over his shoulder as points in the direction of the approaching town. “Damn town’s growin’ like hell. All them corporations movin’ here, now everybody else is comin’ in. Yankees, foreigners, hell might as well give em the damn place. Hell, I gots to live on a little disability check and a little under the table drivin’ this here cab. Now rent so expensive I can’t even afford to by no groceries.”
“Huh, that doesn’t sound good”.
“Ain’t good a bit. You lookin for work?”
“Don’t know. If the right thing comes up I guess so”, Dean stifles a sigh with puffed cheeks exhaling slowly. He stares out the window, lost in time, seeing nothing but the image of an unfamiliar face staring back.
Exiting the expressway, congested with daily commuters, James is suddenly aware of familiar surroundings. The sleet has given way to a fine wet snow glazing the blacktop along Boulevard as it winds through Byrd Park heading south to the “Nickel Bridge”, as it is still referred to by long time Richmonders. As they cross the bridge, his attention is drawn to a young boy on a too small bike attempting to climb the steep grade leading up to his Westover Hills Boulevard neighborhood. Back tire spinning out as he stands to pedal, the boy is forced to walk the bike, surrendering to the swirling snowflakes that cling to his bare head, breath trailing clouds behind him.
Bracing himself, James reaches for his pocket as he is suddenly aware he is only blocks away from the house he once knew as home. Once across the bridge, he glances at the digital read out from the black box on the dash.
“Pull over up here” he says, suddenly aware that he is back in the world where actual currency is used.
“Ain’t that far from your street now boy” Popeye whines. “Nasty day for walkin.”
“Not when you’ve been cooped up as long as I have dude.”
James declines change from three ragged twenties as he slides out to a chilly blast of new air. His nerves tingle from the crunching sound of boots on snow as he stands curbside watching the old hack negotiate his way back in the slow moving line of traffic, a light film of snow obscuring the red tail lights and a steady stream of brown exhaust fouling the clunker’s wake. He is suddenly aware of the lightness of his jacket as he fumbles with the worn out zipper. Hitching the state issued duffel on his shoulder; he and his earthly belongings begin their ascent up the hill to the quiet tree lined street he once called home. As in his childhood, he is again on the streets…alone.