Friday, July 3, 2015

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          I looked at Andrea Monroe, my supervisor at the restaurant where I worked. She was sitting in a recliner with her bandaged right leg propped in front of her on a pillow. She'd hired me to come over and do some housework for her so that she could follow doctor's orders and stay off her badly sprained ankle.
          "Nice-looking guy," I said to Andrea, pointing to the man in the blue shirt as I dusted the frame and the glass that covered his image. "He resembles your son, Stephen".
          Andrea looked at the photograph. "Yes, he is handsome," she said with love in her voice. "That's my older son, Samuel."
          "Andrea, I didn't know you had two children".
          Where are you hiding this gorgeous hunk, and is he single? I felt like asking. Fortunately, I didn't ask.
          She looked at me very directly. "Samuel is in prison. He's been in Chesterfield Correctional for the past four years".
          "Oh," I said, blushing and confused. I hoped I hadn't hurt her feelings. I stopped my dusting and just stood there.
          "It's okay, Brianna. It's not a secret or anything. I mean, I don't always tell people about Samuel because I don't know how to work it into the conversation. But I don't mind you knowing about him". She pointed toward a small box on the mantle. "Look, bring me that box, would you?"
           I went over to the mantle. Up close, I noticed that the box was very beautiful. It was covered entirely in matchsticks, which had been cut to various lengths and arranged into exquisite patterns.
           "That's prison art," said Andrea. "Samuel sent it to me a few years ago, for a Christmas present. She said, pointing to the sofa near her chair. "Come and sit down for a few minutes."
          I sat down near Andrea. She opened the box and took out a few dozen photographs. "These are the only pictures I can get of Samuel, while he is in prison. They were all taken during visits with him." She looked through the photos and picked one out. "Here's the one I had enlarged and framed." She put it on top, and then handed me the stack of photos.
          Every photograph had the same painted trees and waterfall in the background, and Samuel was always wearing the same light blue shirt and dark blue pants. In many of the photos he was standing with his arm around his mother. In just one photo he was standing with both of his parents, but I knew that Andrea Monroe was a widow. In one photo he was standing with his brother, Stephen. Then there was a group photo of Andrea with Samuel, Stephen, And apparently Stephen's wife and children. Samuel was holding a new born baby and smiling. Stephen had a little girl in his arms. I held the photo up for Andrea to see.
         "That was taken when Stephen's son, Kevin, was three weeks old. Stephen's daughter, Tammy, was a year old at the time."
         I looked at all the photos twice and then carefully put them back into the box. I had been looking at a family history as it unfolded during a prison sentence. I looked at Andrea, and the question Why? must've been all over my face.
         She sighed. "Samuel was driving drunk and he had an accident. His best friend, who was in the passenger seat, was killed.
         "At Samuel's trial, it could have gone either way. It was one of those cases where it's not clear-cut whether what happened should be considered a crime. Samuel didn't intend to kill his best friend. But he had two prior drunk driving arrests. And, when he and his friend, Alex March, were in a bar drinking that night, the bartender offered to call them a cab. Alex wasn't really drunk, and the bartender agreed they could drive home if Alex did the driving.
         "But it was Samuel who got behind the wheel. He's never been able to remember how or why he was the one driving." Andrea started picking absently at the bandage around her ankle, but then after an awkward silence, she continued talking.
         "The judge gave Samuel ten years. About a year from now, when he will have been in prison for five years, he will get a parole hearing. Maybe then he will come home.
           Now I could remember seeing this controversial case all over the news, but I didn't know what to say about the case or about Andrea's son getting paroled. I asked her,  "Do you see him often?"
           "As often as I can," she said, smiling. "I'm allowed to visit him twice a month. And he calls me every day, too."
           "Well, I'm glad you get to see him and talk to him". I looked again at the portrait of Samuel on the wall. "How old is he?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
             Andrea grinned at me. "He's twenty-six years old, not so much older than you. And I'll tell him you think he's handsome. Prison inmates can use something to boost their spirits, believe me".
            About a week later, while I was at work waiting tables at the Java Joint, Andrea's son, Stephen, came in for lunch. He sat down in a booth and as usual, his eyes were all over me while I walked over to take his order.
           "Hey, Brianna, I'll like the lunch special with coffee". He gave me a look that was supposed to get me all aroused. "You know, I'll be at the Upstairs Lounge tonight. I wouldn't mind it if you were there, too".
            I ignored Stephen's comment as usual. I kept trying to like him because I was so fond of his mother, but he was a married man. I felt sorry for his wife. I couldn't possibly be the only girl he propositioned and some of the undoubtedly said yes to him.
            Andrea called out from behind the counter. "Hi Stephen! Brianna, would you come here a minute?"
           I was glad to get away from Stephen. I walked up to the counter, called his order back to the grill cook, and went to see what Andrea needed.
           "Honey, this ankle is still just killing me", she said. "You're off work tomorrow and I was wondering if you'd like to come over and do some housework for me again. I'll pay you the same as last time."
            "Sure," I told her. "No problem."

       The Next afternoon, while I was vacuuming at Andrea's apartment, we almost didn't hear the phone ring over the sound of  the vacuum. Suddenly, Andrea jumped up from her chair, hurt ankle and all, and grabbed the phone before it could stop ringing. I shut off the vacuum cleaner so it wouldn't interfere with her conversation.
          "It's Samuel," she said to me as she accepted a collect call. I went to the kitchen to see what needed straightening there so she could talk to her son in private. But in a few minutes she called out to me. "Brianna, Samuel wants to say hello to you, if you don't mind."
           "Okay", I said, intrigued.  I came into the living room and took the phone from her. "Hello?" I said.
           "Hello, Brianna". Samuel's voice was warm and strong. "Mom has told me so much about you. I want you to know I really appreciate you taking some of your days off to work for her".
           "Oh, that's no problem", I answered. "Your mom is such a good friend to me".
           " Well", he said, "why don't you ask her to bring you here to see me?"
            I was so nervous I giggled. "Uh, you can ask her"' I said to him, handing the phone back to Andrea. That remark must've sounded lame, but at least he couldn't see how flustered I was.
            I went back to the kitchen so Andrea could finish talking to her son. When I heard her hanging up the phone I was right back in the living room, unable to hide my curiosity.
            "Would you like to meet him?" Andrea asked.
            "Yes, I guess I would".
             She laughed. "You really don't know what you're getting into, but maybe this will be a good thing". She looked at me, shook her head, and smiled. "Life is always full of surprises", she said.
             Samuel sent his mother a paper for me to fill out to be a one-time visitor at the Chesterfield Correctional Institution. I wondered what it would be like to meet him, and what it would be like in the prison.
            Almost a month later, when I'd just about given up on ever hearing from the prison, I got a letter in the mail saying that I had been approved for a visit with Samuel Monroe. Andrea and I both had a day off on the following Tuesday, and early that morning we drove together in Andrea's car to the Chesterfield Correctional institution.
            The prison is right outside of town. I grew up in Chesterfield and I don't know how many times I've driven past the drab, forbidding prison buildings, but I never had a reason to go in there before.
           After Andrea parked her car in a large parking lot, we walked up to the prison's front entrance. Once inside the door, Andrea went up to the desk marked Visits and took a number. We walked over to a long wooden bench. There were several other people there sitting on benches, waiting to get in to visit somebody in the prison.
           Andrea sat down next to a tired looking woman. "How's it going, Terri?" she asked.
           "The parole board just gave my son five more years," Terri answered. "I'm here today to try to cheer him up because he's feeling so bad about it all". Her head was lowered and I saw a teardrop fall onto her blouse.
            Andrea took her friend's hand. "How about you?" she asked.
            "Oh, I'll be all right. I have to be, for my son's sake. You know how it is".
            When the officer in charge of visits called out our number, we showed him our driver's licences and my one-time visit permission, and we were allowed to get in line to be checked out through a metal detector.
             In front of us was a very pretty young woman. She was wearing designer jeans and a tight pink T-shirt with a low-cut scoop neck.
             "Do you have a sweater you can wear over that T-shirt?" asked the guard.
             "No", she said, swishing her hair at him. "Is there a problem?"
             "You can't enter the institution dressed like that". He pointed to a sign on the wall nearby. "Read the dress code for visitors. no low-cut or revealing clothing".
             "What am I supposed to do?" she asked him in an irritated voice.
             "There's a shopping centre two miles down the road from here. Take a left at the end of the driveway".
             The girl seemed to realize she couldn't win in that situation. She turned and left. I was grateful that Andrea had warned me about the dress code and various other visiting rules. I was wearing a peasant skirt and my favourite white blouse with puffed sleeves. All very proper, yet this outfit had a willowy, flattering effect on my figure.
             We were searched very briefly and we went through the metal detector. Then we went through a series of two heavy doors that clanked open and shut automatically with a mournful sound. Andrea didn't seem to notice the terrible sound of those doors. We crossed a small courtyard and arrived at the visiting building. We signed in at a desk inside the door there and went to find some seats.
             There were rows of chairs grouped around tiny wooden tables. Andrea picked out a table for us with three chairs grouped around it. She bought three cups of coffee from a vending machine and we set them on the little table along with paper napkins, plastic spoons, and little packets of sugar and creamer. Morning sunlight was streaming into the visiting room through the barred windows. We sat and waited until Samuel appeared through a door at the far end of the room. He waved at us.
             Andrea stood up and waved back. "We are allowed to kiss and hug at the beginning and end of each visit", she told me, keeping her eyes on her son.
             I stayed back while Andrea and Samuel embraced. But his eyes met mine before the embrace was over, and soon he extended his hand to me. Like his voice, his handshake was warm and strong.
            "Thanks for coming", he said, grinning at me. I didn't know what to answer, so I smiled back.
            "Well, mom, how's your ankle?' Samuel asked his mother once we were all seated. I listened as they discussed family matters, and I studied Samuel's face. He didn't have hard features like I'd expected, but whenever he wasn't smiling, a resigned and weary look came over his face that seemed to be his usual expression.
             Both mother and son made an effort to bring me into the conversation, and before long all three of us were talking together and laughing. I could hardly believe it but I was enjoying myself, right there in the Chesterfield penitentiary.
             "Mom, I'm getting kind of hungry," said Samuel. There was a large clock on the wall near the officer's desk, and I was surprised to see that it was already almost noon.
             "I'll get the food," said Andrea. "Brianna doesn't know what's fit to eat out of those machines."
             Andrea wouldn't let me chip in on the food. "Don't ask. It's my treat today. Now, you two sit there and talk," she said as she made her way to the row of vending machines against one wall of the visiting room.
             Samuel and I looked at each other. "You sure are a sight for sore eyes," he told me. "I don't get to see many women, let alone pretty ones." He inclined his head in the direction of a female prison guard, and I took a good look at her. She was probably about sixty years old and rather stern looking. We both started laughing.
             Andrea waved at us from the vending machines. "You'll have to help her,'' said Samuel. "She's got too much to carry. I'm not allowed to handle money or go over to the machines."

                                                   be continued

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