Father, Forgive Me.
MY FATHER is unequivocally retro 70s. He is situated between Mexico City, 1968 and the hype surrounding two turntables, spinning and back-spinning in a row house on 7th and S streets "in northwest Washington, D.C. I will forever remember him in cotton teardrop shirts, like the ones he wore at Parker High School where he taught Industrial Cooperative Training, Monday through Friday, molding young boys and girls into something better than wheat they had come from. His v pants were bell-bottomed, sometimes with a hard cuff breaking over a pair of Stacy. Adams or Florsheims. He wore that old-time determination in his face, the hardness of his leathered skin telling of how a boy climbed out of the barrel of poverty, despite all odds in Attalla, Alabama. And there were so many, from not being able to cast a ballot to not being able to enter a restroom because he didn't fit thee prescribed conditions tacked to the wall.
Nope. Dad transcended it all while keeping that easy, sometime hard-bop stride, as if he were carrying the weight for all those who could not. The uncomplicated sway in his arms, the cool hip-talk of his speech--all of these things, I admired.
I could not help but think of these traits of my father from behind the defendant's table in Montgomery County, Maryland. I was inside an official-looking structure erected for the good of the people. The courthouse gallery contained a sparse number of citizens, mostly those waiting for loved ones to be brought from holding cells of iron and cement to meet fate in front of the heavy-handed female judge who was known for laying down the gavel, swift and relentless. The people at the table immediately to my right were, in my mind, literally the bad guys. The prosecution had just delivered a twenty-minute elocution as to why I, the evil monster who was serving crimes against the state, should not be given redemption: Mr. Horton has had thirty-two years to get his life together, to prove that he can be a productive member of society, and he has failed that burden Your Honor. We cannot just simply allow him to roam free in our society. He deserves no second chance at freedom, no chance at a modification of his sentence.
How to feel so small when the mechanism of justice wants to lay the knockout right hook to your jaw? You're already punch-drunk from the vicious jabs of society and its well-oiled machine. There's always one foot up your behind and so the rebellions you initiate only bring more grief, and somewhere in the middle of meditating in a six-by-nine-foot cell, seven days a week, three sixty-five a year, the smell of men and their woes inescapable, there is a revelation.
Each night you interlock your fingers, place right palm over left palm, hands clasped in prayer, and you pray to a God. Although the origin of God is not clear, nor its gender or ethnic makeup, you just know there is something else out there, greater than yourself--has to be. And now, in this specific moment, the redemption you have prayed for is being seriously debated by that which you have loathed all your life: authority. You are before its mercy.
Before the ungracious prosecutor had proven his worthiness to the state and justified his monthly salary, my attorney--the one the state gives as decoration--had failed miserably in her feeble attempt to convince the judge, or for that matter even me, as to why I should be let out of prison today. But Dad was there for his boy: made the two-hour flight from Birmingham to National Airport, spent the thirty-five dollars for a cab to take him up Georgia Avenue to Rockville, and plopped another eighty dollars on a hotel room the night before. That night he probably was thinking to himself: Anything for my boy. I got to believe in my own seed. I mean he come from me, hands like me, feet like me, face like me. He, me, and we Hortons never say die. Can't leave him to rot in jail if there is something I can do or say. All a man's got is his family, and we family through and through. How can I look at his momma knowing that I didn't give my all for her child, our child?
He rose from the gallery of onlookers and passed through the swinging gate to take his place in front of the judge. Dad presented the last line of defense before, surely, I would be escorted back to Roxbury Correctional Institute.
They would expect me to return to what most inmates do to rehabilitate themselves. I could do pull-ups from the stairs that descended from Level 2, where each pull-up, against gravity, could be the difference between the hole and lock-in: the biceps bulging against all odds, inhaling and exhaling, looking for a balance from the insanity that looms like a jaundiced wolf eye over the prison complex. Make no mistake, there is no rehabilitation of the mind. Time is merely a tourniquet, squeezing and squeezing a man's brain until he's nothing but a hum. To escape this madness, I read books to condition myself from slipping into fragments, to reemerge whole if ever given the chance. When a man goes to prison he becomes a child when he sleeps, every night a dream into the past. It was through this portal that I was able to rediscover my father's constant message that words are the ultimate power. I re-educated myself, instilling logic into my demented way of thinking.
My father was my lone character witness. This was not a trial. That was done and over with. The boom laid down three and a half years ago. This was a response to a motion for reconsideration that I had filed. Although the judge seemed indifferent to my lawyer's presentation for rehabilitation, my father was not deterred as he began to methodically outline the structure of my upbringing as a child. With stoicism, he spoke of the nurture and love I had received, even the presence of the leather strap and peach-tree braid switches. His speech was in the third person, describing someone I had known a long time ago but had been lost to the dimly lit street corners, intoxicated by the smell of the evil that men do. From what my father said, in an almost pleading voice, I had been respectful to others. I had had proper manners. I went to church every Sunday as a kid and had professed my life to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I was even a steward and sat in the pulpit every third Sunday at Bryant Chapel AME. In school I was a good student who never quite measured up to my potential, but nonetheless made good grades. I had a mother and sister who loved and supported me, even now in my darkest hour. I was five classes short of a college degree. I had a foundation, a place to start from.
The voice began to crack under the enormity of the situation. The stance was no longer as sure as it once was. His concentration looked deep into the past, as if the words he wanted to say were hidden in magical compartments, which only he could see. Daddy began to waver, and I tried to find saliva in my palate to swallow down my throat. I tried to erase my arms and legs, my body, and finally my face and eyes. It almost worked too, except my ears could still hear the crack in his voice. My ears were ringing. He continued to break down and my eyes opened back up, my body reappeared. I could see the moisture on his lids. He was talking about me, that third-person person whom I did not know anymore. The judge raised her face to my father's voice, her body leaning towards his plea, the ruggedness in her features relaxed. With everything his sixty-seven years told him about people, my father searched for the compassion in her eyes. I wasn't me anymore. I was this reconfiguration of who he knew I could be. And finally he did it. My father placed his dignity before the court, and with rivulets of pain coming steady now, and his voice trying to stay proud, he begged the judge to give me another chance. Please, please give me my boy back. His is a life worth saving.
To feel smaller than nothing is probably not an accurate description of how I felt, but after nothing, what is there? Whatever it is, that's where my gut was. Suddenly the persona I had orchestrated over many years was exposed for who he really was. This person I'm talking about walked with a swagger of discontent and anger. He loved to breathe the smell of humans who wallowed in the fragrance of wrongdoing, because they had not bought into the machine of man. He had seen his friends die and the Reaper knocked on his door more than once, trying to assure him that it was time to meet the maker. But he cheated the Reaper too, because he was young and invincible. Except he/I was nothing but a fool who threw away love and didn't know how to get it back. The people on the streets whom I had called family were not there right now. My family was begging a stranger to let me be reborn.
In front of a room full of strangers, my father cried. I looked around the room and the people in the gallery were wiping their eyes and sniffling. Women were opening their purses for tissue. The men were holding steadfast, afraid of doing the one thing in life they were taught not to do. My throat could not find any more spit. I wanted to choke myself and be done with it. Even my lawyer had removed her glasses to clear the mist fogging them. The courtroom turned somber. The machine was human after all.
My father was quiet now, nothing left in his body to give. He'd held sway inside the courtroom, given his all for his flesh and blood, the firstborn. He receded back through the swinging gate and took his place among the citizens in the gallery. In that moment I put the palm of my hands in my face. If I could have drowned myself in guilt, I would have.
I rose to meet destiny in front of the judge who now looked taller than the pine trees back in Alabama when I was a little boy. I went from third person periphery back to first person me. I would have to be the one to receive this ruling. No persona could take my place.
She tells me that I am the only one who put myself in this situation. Life is full of choices and decisions that can have an everlasting effect on the rest of our lives. There had to be order in a civilized society with consequences for the most egregious offenses. She had been moved she said, by the passionate plea from my father. There is something here not to be taken lightly by the court. The fact that my father was in a courtroom where fathers are notoriously absent spoke a lot as to what kind of family I came from and the possibility of a support system. I had served nearly three years of an eight-year prison sentence. Think of what I had caused those closest to me to endure. I not only went to jail, but I took my family with me. What I had erased from my face appeared again at the reaffirming spectacle of my own tragedy. When she paused, I paused. My eyes followed her right hand. And then she swung the gavel down and said my motion was granted. She collected herself, black robe and all, rose from the bench, and exited out the back door.
The holding cell is set up much like the one in Housing Unit III, C Tier in Roxbury: the shabby mattress thinly covered in green plastic spread out on a slab of concrete, the color of grey cinder block permeating a depression, the stainless steel toilet and sink emitting a dull shine that distorts your face when you stare into it.
Going home. The bailiff said going home. He had escorted me out of the courtroom back to the holding cell. Thirty years he'd been with the judge, watched her throw the book at people, refusing to grant an inch or any type of emphatic mercy. It never happened, mercy that is. That judge don't give out favors, he said before he left. What happened today was something special, he knew it and I knew it. I would not be going back to prison. I would never see my cellmate again. Processing would call my name soon--Horton, bag and baggage--the one phrase every inmate who sits behind a cage wants to hear. Sweet music it is, sweeter than a soft note blown through the curvature of a saxophone. I would smell fresh air soon. Everything from this point forward would be through the eyes of a newborn baby embracing all that is yes. But freedom came with a price. My father had to Let go of his pride so that I might have a chance. My boy, my boy--please save him.
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|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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