This is a chapter of the book I am writing for NaNoWriMo. If you want to read it from the start, click here for the chapter index.
J.W. was still struggling for breath, his eyes painfully swollen shut, when the CO pulled him to his feet. Tears streamed down his face, both from the spray and from the emotion.
“You shoulda let him have your tray. You got a lot to learn, Fish.” The COs words came out of the sightless darkness. “Still, I gotta give it to ya, you’re scrappy.”
J.W. was pushed along. He heard the sound of a metal door being unlocked. He was pushed inside and stumbled, falling forward. With his hands bound behind his back, his face smashed to the concrete. It hurt more than the one punch Harriman was able to land.
The pain overwhelmed him and he could feel the metallic taste of vomit rise in the back of his mouth. Rolling to his side, he wretched on the floor.
He heard the door clam behind him, the clang of the lock being set and the slot in the door open. “Stand up and back to the door so I can uncuff you.”
J.W. still seared with disorienting pain. He did not move.
“Get up, mother fucker, if I have to come back in there, you’ll regret it.”
J.W. struggled first to his knees and then stood, almost falling again as he backed toward what he thought was the door. His eyes were still unavailable. He backed up to a wall.
“Move to your right, shit head.”
Feeling the wall with his fingers, he moved right until he felt the doorframe and then the slot. He placed his hands through.
“I knew you were trouble, you son’a bitch.” said the faceless CO as he uncuffed him.
As soon as the cuffs were removed, J.W. immediately reached for his eyes. The tears had washed some of the spray away and he was able to breath more easily. He fell to his knees, then to the floor in a fetal huddle. His tears were now more emotion than pepper spray.
“Lord, please God help me.” was the only prayer his mind could form, and he kept repeating it under his breath in the darkness as he sobbed. He spent the next hour in an emotional haze, praying, crying.
After an hour he was spent, he lay there, still motionless on the floor, but quiet. Another hour passed in silence. He eyes stung less and the swelling had subsided. He could see some light under the door, but the room was dark. His head hurt. His hands ached.
The fragment of light at least allowed him to see the toilet and sink. He pulled himself up and moved there. He turned on the cold water and realized just how painful and swollen his hands were. He winced as he turned on the water.
He cleaned off the pepper spray by splashing cold water into his face. The coolness allowed his eyes to finally stop burning. Through the tiny light, he could see the bunk. He moved over to it and sat.
He began to think about all that had transpired over the last several days. Tom. Tom was dead? How could Tom be dead. What will happen to Rachel and the girls. How was this possible?
How could they think he would kill anyone? Is Suze OK? How is Claire?
He wondered what Suze had been told, if she were safe. He wondered what the congregation thought. He bowed his head.
Lord, I know you have a plan for me, but I am completely out of hope. Please Lord, help me see your hand. Give me hope. Show me something to help me get through this. Help Suze. Help Mom and Dad. Protect them all. Please, God, protect me.
Lord, I’m scared. I don’t understand. You promised you would always be with us, protect us. You know I have been wholehearted in my ministry. I would do anything you ask, no matter the personal cost. Please God, give me hope. Somehow let me know you’re in control. Somehow give me some hope.
The pain, the grief, the fear left J.W. without courage. It tested his faith in ways nothing ever had before.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why so far from saving me?
The opening words of Psalm 22 were heartfelt today as he spoke them. They were words Jesus also spoke from the cross. A plea for understanding, for help, for hope.
Praying the words, however, reminded J.W. the Psalm doesn’t end there. It goes on. He had memorized it years before and it came back to him now:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
J.W. found this comforting. If Jesus felt this way yet God was still in control, still had a plan, then God still had a plan for him as well. It gave him a tinge of hope as he prayed.
Lord, thank you for bringing this to mind. You are enthroned as the Holy One and I put my trust in you. You have not denied me nor my loved ones. When Moses, David, Paul put their trust in you, they were never put to shame.
I can rely on you. Thank you Lord for being with me.
The prayer brought him comfort, despite the pain and grief.
J.W. spread himself on the bed and collapsed into an exhausted sleep.
This is a chapter of the book I am writing for NaNoWriMo. If you want to read it from the start, click here for the chapter index.
5 Trays, 5 Days
Sunday night lights out were at 10pm. For J.W. it couldn’t come soon enough. It took all of his emotional strength just to keep from becoming a wailing, crying mess. He spread out his matt on the floor, pulled his single blanket over his orange jumpsuit and closed his eyes. Tater could hear him sobbing in the darkness. They all did the first night.
At night, jail is loud. Even without his anxiety and despair, J.W. wouldn’t have been able to sleep. Tonight the White County Jail housed 23 inmates, J.W. was sure all 23 either snored. Or talked and laughed. Most of them played cards or chess all night.
By 4am the talking had stopped and, though the snoring continued, J.W. finally collapsed into a dreamless sleep. The lights came on one hour later, with the sound of an air horn.
J.W. stirred, but wasn’t quick to sit up. He was exhausted and his body hurt from sleeping on the concrete, his matt not withstanding. Tater and the others in his cell sat up on their cots. A corrections officer came by and unlocked the cell.
“Better get your ass up, ‘Preacher’, head count and breakfast in 10 minutes. You miss it, you don’t eat.” His voice was snide.
J.W. willed himself to sit up. He was just again realizing this wasn’t all a dream, he was in jail.
“Come on,” encouraged Tater, pulling on his jumpsuit. “We gots to line up.” Tater appeared to be the only one of the four who even noticed J.W.
J.W. craned himself up from the floor, almost trampled by the other four in the attempt. A line formed at the heavy metal door. He hadn’t noticed last night the wide, three inch tall slot at the bottom where trays of food were pushed through as each inmate bent to retrieve in turn. J.W. was fifth to last in line.
As each tray was dispensed the inmate would then go to one of the metal picnic tables in the common room to eat. There were three, each able to accommodate six.
J.W. still in shock, shuffled forward, head down, as the line moved.
When his turn came, he bent and retrieved his tray, then looked for a table with an empty space to sit. The tables were full and J.W. was a bit relieved. He didn’t want to deal with anyone anyway. He picked a spot against the wall, and sat, “indian-style”, feeling the cold concrete block against his back. He balanced the tray on his lap.
The meal was simple. There were two pieces of bread, glued together with a thin layer of peanut butter and jelly, warm oatmeal and a child-sized carton of milk. It also boasted a tiny plastic spoon.
As J.W. looked at the tray, his shock left him motionless. The confusion of fear and disbelief caused his mind to race while it struggled to even complete the simple task of reaching for the sandwich, opening his milk or even lifting the spoon for his oats. He just stared at the heavy plastic tray.
People often talk about “fight or flight,” but there is another response to being in a position where true, deadly fear grips men’s minds: Freeze. J.W. was frozen in the catatonic grip of his fear.
As he sat there motionless, expressionless, one of the larger inmates, approached. J.W. didn’t notice him until he spoke.
“Five days, five trays, Fish.” Dakota Harriman was a full six-feet three inches tall and his steroid enhanced physique weighed in over 250 pounds. Though J.W. was a full six feet himself, huddled on the floor Dakota loomed over him.
“What?” muttered J.W., looking up at the hulking figure.
“Five trays, five days. You give me five of your trays over the next five days. Damn, Fish, you retarded or somethin’?” Harriman’s frame required far more calories than the jail provided. He “supplemented” his meals by intimidating other inmates.
The threat caused J.W. to break through the haze of his mind. Holding the tray, he stood slowly to his feet.
To Harriman, J.W. didn’t appear too threatening. He had a slim build and Harriman sized him up as someone who didn’t pose a threat. As J.W. stood, Harriman crossed his arms in front of his massive chest. He expected J.W. to simply hand him the tray. They all did.
J.W. said nothing, and held the tray in front of himself with both hands. He looked at Harriman.
Harriman, unfolded his right arm and reached out to take hold of the tray.
J.W. felt a surge of rage and adrenaline. Before Harriman touched the tray, J.W. snatched it back and swung it at the big man’s face, the edge hitting him on the bridge of his nose, breaking both.
The big man stumbled back, dazed by the impact. Before he could react, J.W. tackled him and they both fell to the concrete floor, J.W. landing on top of Harriman.
J.W.’s rage-fueled attack was not strategic, it was embodied anger. He straddled Harriman’s abdomen and kept hitting him in the face, while Harriman alternately struggled to cover his face with one hand while trying to push J.W. off him.
The original strike had opened a significant gash across his nose, and now his eyes were a mess of blood and oats.
The other inmates, always hoping for the entertainment of a fight, rushed over. The COs were less speedy. They also enjoyed watching the fights, at least as long as there wasn’t serious injury. If an inmate had to be transported to the hospital, that meant more paperwork. They did everything they could to avoid paperwork.
Within a minute, which in a fight seems a long time, the guards sounded a siren, and three COs rushed into the common area to break up the fight. The inmates all dropped to the floor, lying face down, fingers threaded behind their heads.
J.W. was still swinging wildly, but Harriman had managed to sit up, parrying the blows and pushing J.W. off him. Harriman returned one punch, an overhand right, that knocked the kneeling J.W. to the floor. It was fortunate for J.W. Harriman was still seated when he swung and not able to hit him properly – Harriman could easily punch a man unconscious.
Harriman climbed on top of J.W. now, “I’m gonna kill you you fuckin’ son of a bitch. You’re a dead man.” He pulled back his massive right fist to deliver another blow.
That’s when both men were hit with the pepper spray from the guards. Harriman had experienced this before. The guards feared him. His size and strength were intimidating, and the COs didn’t carry guns. The plan with Harriman was always to spray him first, then subdue him.
Harriman reached up to rub his burning eyes, compounding his pain. He struggled for breath. While he was disoriented, two of the officers threw him to the concrete and cuffed his massive arms behind his back.
A third officer sprayed J.W. directly in the face before roughly rolling him over on his face, straddling his back as he cuffed him. J.W.’s eyes seared with pain while his lungs struggled to take breaths.
“Guess the new fish was tougher than Biggun thought,” chuckled one of the guards.
This is a chapter of the book I am writing for NaNoWriMo. If you want to read it from the start, click here for the chapter index.
J.W. stayed doubled over for what seemed to Ray White an eternity. Ray was not a particularly empathetic guy, years practicing law had beaten that out of him, but he felt for J.W. He went over and grabbed the trashcan and placed it at J.W.’s feet.
J.W. had stopped retching now and just sat immobile, his torso folded against his thighs, his arms hugging his lower legs. Ray sat back down, also silent. Despite Ray’s newfound empathy, he had no words.
After a few minutes, J.W. sat back up. He didn’t look at Ray, he didn’t seem to be looking at anything, he just stared off into space.
Over the years as a criminal attorney, Ray had seen clients break down, cry, scream their innocence. This was different. J.W.’s mind was just not there. The shock of so much, so quickly, had left him completely stunned. Uncharacteristically, Ray just waited in silence, hoping for J.W. to come back from wherever he was and rejoin him.
When Ray could stand the silence no longer, he said, “J.W.? You OK?”
J.W.’s mind was processing but couldn’t seem to pull all the pieces together. This past week had been unbelievable. He wanted to pray, even in his mind, but he couldn’t mentally form the words. He sat there in shock, not hearing Ray.
Finally, Ray slammed his hand to the metal table. “J.W.! Snap out of it!”
J.W. turned to look at Ray, his eyes blank. “J.W., you gotta snap out of this. Are you OK?”
“No” J.W. replied.
“Look, you have to snap out of this. You don’t want to let them think you’re suicidal, they’ll put you in the hole, and that’s a lot worse than any of this.”
“The Hole” was a single cell in the White County Jail. It was normally used for prisoner discipline and had a toilet/sink combination bolted to the wall, a cot and nothing else. It had a solid metal door with two slots, each with a sliding metal shutter. One was at eye level and one was used to uncuff, cuff prisoners and pass them their food. There was no light so once you were in there and the shutters were closed, you were forced into darkness. Prisoners were placed in there for 23 out of every 24 hours.
When a prisoner was deemed a suicide risk, the law stated they had to be placed into a room where they could not harm themselves. In White County, the hole became that room. The COs would unbolt and remove the cot. The prisoner was stripped down to his underwear and placed in the cell with no blanket he could use to hang himself.
More often than not, when the COs wanted to punish a prisoner they didn’t like but who had not committed an infraction, they would “observe” him engaging in suicidal ideation, note so on his file, then throw him in the hole. “For his protection” they would say.
J.W. appeared broken already, thought Ray, and putting him in the hole would just make it worse.
“J.W. I need to talk to you about this case and what is going to happen. Can you communicate with me?” Ray wasn’t sure he could.
J.W. pulled his mind back from the brink and replied, “yes, I mean, yes, I think I can. I don’t understand any of this.”
“Well it is a shock. I want you to know we’re going to do all we can to make this as easy as possible. I need to talk you through what will be happening to you over the next day.”
“I need you to get me out of here.” J.W.’s eyes were pleading. It took all of his will to not scream.
“We’re going to see about getting that done. Let me tell you what’s going to happen. You’ll be arraigned tomorrow afternoon….”
J.W. interrupted, “You can’t get me out of here tonight?”
“I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Judge White will do arraignments and motions tomorrow at 1pm, that’s the earliest you can get before a judge.” Ray had become used to referring to his brother as “Judge” having done so for many years now.
“So far you’re only being charged with one murder, Officer Canada, but you’ll likely be charged with two more tomorrow. I will be speaking to the Commonwealth Attorney in the morning.”
“They can’t believe I killed anyone.” Replied J.W. flatly. The fight had gone out of him.
“Look, I’m sure you didn’t. But Chief Dalton seems to think you did and we won’t see the evidence until discovery. Tomorrow at the arraignment I will file a motion with the court to show ‘probable cause’ which will, if the Judge grants it, force the police to show they had probable cause to arrest you.”
“So it could get, what, dismissed tomorrow?”
“Technically, yes, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. There is a police officer dead and it’s unlikely you will get out that easily.” Ray failed to mention his brother was facing reelection and that meant more to Judge White than justice.
“It might tell us whether they have any real evidence though. By now they’ve searched your house and turned up anything they can. Is there any reason they would find a weapon or other incriminating evidence in your home?”
“Over the years I’ve shot many guns, but I don’t own any. I can’t imagine anything in the parsonage being a problem.”
“Good. That’s good. Did they swab your hands when they brought you in?”
“No, they didn’t. It all seemed so fast. I was just talking to the chief and the next thing I knew he was arresting me for murder.”
“OK, I will ask the court to check your clothes for gunshot residue. The prosecution will want to explain it away, but it can’t hurt.”
“Now, let me walk you through your arraignment…” Ray then talked through the steps J.W. would go through Monday afternoon.
When he finished, he got up to leave.
“Please, don’t go.” J.W.’s eyes were pleading.
Ray placed his hand on J.W.’s shoulder and leaned down close to his face. “You’ll be okay, we’ll get you through this. Pray, meditate or whatever you can do. The next day will be hard, but you’ll make it.”
Ray walked to the door, called for the guard and he was gone.
I like to think myself as seeing people as they truly are, looking beyond labels. This morning I realized just how shallow I can be.
I first heard about Sam a few months ago. He is one of my neighbor’s brothers and she told me he was getting out of prison just before Christmas. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, just conversation. She was excited she would finally get to see him again. I was happy for her, ’cause I’m such a caring, compassionate guy.
Today she was coming up the stairs while I was on the balcony, Sam was behind her. She introduced us. I remembered the conversation from months ago and realized he had just gotten out after an 18 year stint.
We talked for the next hour or so. About his plans. About how his life had changed in the time he was “away.” He was smart, articulate, positive. He owned his choices and was quick to point out life had been more than fair to him. He paid the price for the choices he had made and he believed he would also pay the price or reap the reward for the choices he is making now.
He’s a guy I could hang out with and have a good time.
But here’s what it showed me about myself I didn’t like. When I went back into Area 51 after our talk, I was surprised by him. Without me even realizing it, I had in my own mind a “picture” of what an 18 year ex-con would be like. Seeing himself as a victim. Unintelligent. Negative. Angry at what the world had thrown at him.
It made me wonder how many other “categories” of people I dismiss without realizing they are “people” not just a category. Political affiliation. Religion or lack thereof. Skin color. Geography. Socioeconomic status. Job.
In 2017 I’m going to attempt to see more “people” and less “category.” That might be the best Christmas gift I could receive. Thanks Sam.
The Most Reverend Harry Reynolds
Bishop Harry Reynolds had grow up in Burlington, Vermont. He attended Asbury in the 70s and had been placed in a key church in Lexington upon his own ordination. His goal had been, from the start, not to be a pastor, but to be Bishop. After 35 years working his way from Associate Pastor, to Pastor, to District Superintendent, he finally achieved his goal.
Rev. Reynolds was a large man with a small heart. He knew how to use people for his own ends and did so deftly. It often took one of his victims years to find they were pawns all along. Being in “ministry” gave him ample opportunity to find the naive who were innocent enough not to question his motives.
“Aggie,” barked Reynolds from the doorway, his 6’2″ 300 pound frame filling the space.
In the United Methodist church, newly ordained ministers in Kentucky are typically assigned to one of two career tracks, though they are never referred to by that term formally. The Bishop and District Superintendents would each take time to meet those to be ordained, supposedly a spiritual examination, but in reality it was more of a personality quiz.
Those initial meetings would give the leaders a good idea of who was fit for the Leadership Track or the Chaplain Track.
If a candidate showed great people skills, spoke well, was intelligent and ambitious, they were selected for the Leadership Track. If a candidate was slower, possibly having poor people skills, he would be subjugated to the Chaplain track.
The chaplain track meant a new minister would be sent to a smaller, rural congregation where he could do baptisms, confirmation classes, weddings, funerals and visit the sick. If one were placed on the chaplain track it meant they put you where you could do the least damage. Chaplains were not “spiritual leaders.”
For those on the “Leadership Track,” there was a different procedure. After seminary, those pastors would be moved into an Associate Pastor position at a larger church. The place the District Superintendent and Bishop agreed new pastors would “learn the ropes” under a successful Senior Pastor.
When it came to J.W., they saw he was an intelligent, driven young man. A man who himself would make a good replacement at a large church for a retiring senior. They had his career all mapped out for him. He was young, good looking, great family, great personal skills and they knew any church he pastored would grow.
They assigned him to Christ United Methodist in Lexington. The Senior Pastor, Walt Campbell, was due to retire in six years. Walt was a dynamic speaker and well known for his humorous stories. Not only had the church swollen during his 20 year tenure, with two large building expansions as well, they had started televising the services and he was now well known all over the state as “Kentucky’s Pastor.”
Replacing him would mean finding the right candidate and giving him several years to become a part of the community, learn to speak well, get to know the congregation. J.W. and his young wife would be welcomed and in just a few years would certainly be a wonderful replacement for Walt.
Once the assignments were made, the group of newly ordained ministers, the District Superintendents and the Bishop would then gather together for a day of prayer and fasting over the assignments. This traditional time was meant to confirm in their own hearts the decisions they made were consistent with the leading for the Holy Spirit.
Reynolds thought the tradition a bit dated and trusted more in his own plans than a “move of the Spirit,” but he paid it lip service nonetheless.
J.W. fasted and prayed over his assignment, as did the other newly ordained pastors. During that 24 hours, he became more and more convinced he wanted to work with the poor, the needy, the people he had seen struggling just to survive in White County. He was reminded of John 14:12 where just before his crucifixion Jesus said:
“…whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…”
Christ UMC was the path for J.W. to become an “executive pastor.” Someone who primarily prepares sermons, leads the church through example as well as administration. A public face for a large church. Executive pastors, J.W. knew, weren’t too involved with the individuals. They weren’t out touching the poor one to one. They weren’t involved in the messy lives of the needy. Those tasks were left to associate pastors and paid staff beneath him.
J.W. wanted to do the things Jesus had done, not run a television ministry. He felt a call, much like he had at the Student Union those years ago, to go to a small church. A church where he could do the things Jesus did.
When the day of fasting and prayer was over, each ordinant had a private meeting with all the district superintendents as well as the Bishop. Typically this was more of a “rubber stamp” where the ordinant simply came in and confirmed the decisions already made.
When it came time for J.W. to meet, he was completely convinced Christ UMC is not where the Holy Spirit was leading him.
His voice trembled a bit as he explained. “I believe God is calling me to a smaller, rural church.”
Reynolds was the first to speak. He had experienced this before, a young pastor, maybe lacking confidence, being fearful of going to a “prime” church.
“Now J.W., we believe you can do incredible ministry at Christ. The Lord needs you there.” It was somewhat interesting how Reynold’s desires and God’s always seemed to be the same.
“With all due respect Bishop Reynolds, I know I ‘can’ do good things for the Lord there, but there are many who are willing and able to go to an established church like that and make a difference. I want to go to a place where I can truly work with the people. Get my hands dirty. Do the things, deal with the people, that Jesus did. The poor, the needy. Not everyone is willing to throw themselves into that kind of work.”
Reynolds didn’t feel respected. Who did this young kid think he was speaking to? The men around this table had over 100 years of combined experience. They were Godly men who made this decision. Who was he to question their judgment?
Before the Bishop could answer, DS Carl Willcox, D.Min. spoke up. “We don’t want to hide you under a bushel, J.W. We believe you have tremendous potential for the Lord and that’s the reason we want to send you to Christ.”
Willcox would be J.W.’s DS.
“I don’t know how much potential I have, or don’t have. But sir, if you’re correct, shouldn’t those with the greatest need receive the best possible care?” J.W. was rapidly painting himself into a corner.
Reynolds had enough of this insolence. He seethed inside, though through years of practice he had learned to hide that fact. He spoke in measured tones. “You believe so strongly you need to be at a small rural church you’re willing to stake your ministry career on it? We only want the best for you and for your wife as well as for the church.”
It was a threat not lost on J.W. nor the other district superintendents. Most of the DSs have experienced Reynolds threats before. They may fear God, but many feared Reynolds more.
“I do, Bishop.”
“Fine,” Reynolds responded, “you’re from Silerville and Silerville First is open. we were going to send Harrington, but we can shuffle things around. Be blessed in your ministry there.”
Reynolds managed to say the last without sounding sarcastic, though he certainly was. Sending J.W. to his home town meant he would likely fail. “No prophet has honor.” He would be seen as the kid who grew up there by the older members and as the kid they went to school with by the younger. They would never treat him as a spiritual leader.
Reynolds decided in that moment he would do whatever he could to see J.W. fail.
He woke a little before 5am Sunday morning.
The weather had finally turned cold and so was his apartment this morning. He lay in bed, refusing to leave the warmth of the covers, wishing Her body was next to him.
They were on a “break.” She is complicated and fragile and wonderful. Her fragile reached its limit at the end of October and they decided to take a break until after the holidays. She needed time to be alone, regroup, read and sleep.
This morning He longed for the feel of Her skin.
They had shared many intimate times. Some of the most intimate had nothing to do with making love. They were travelling, experiencing joys and hardships, joking about Rick the convenience store attendant who called him “Boss” and her “Honey.” Debriefing the day and the week.
But for him the most intimate experiences He had with Her focused on just touching Her, feeling the warmth of Her skin beneath His hands.
When He woke in the mornings, She was usually facing away from him. He would put his arm around Her waist and caress the skin of Her stomach. When they made love, He would caress Her entire body with his palms.
He had told Her “touching your skin nourishes my soul.” This morning, He longed for that nourishment.