Part 2 of 2: A Prison Drowning & Death in Two Parts
The Townsels came during a rare winter downpour and Warden Biggie Biggin’s secretary ushered them to the Warden’s conference room handing them paper towels to dry off. They were accompanied by a wiry guy with a chicken neck and thinning hair they said was a “friend’, but whom Warden Biggy Biggins recognized from a recent Rotary luncheon on criminal justice as a local long-time ambulance chaser; stupid, but insufficiently corrupt to gain elected office.
A muffled roll of thunder and Warden Biggins slid a cardboard file folder box labeled ‘Townsend 188909’ to their side of the long table and introduced himself.
“You have my condolences,” Warden Biggins said. “The box contains Robbie’s property. Have you contacted the Medical Examiner?”
Mr. Townsels nodded ‘yes’ while Mrs. Townsend stared at the box.
He was bald with a grey cookie-duster mustache and big chafed hands and dirty fingernails. A thin horseshoe of white hair crowned his scalp, though his eyebrows and beard stubble were brown like his eyes. All his color variation was enhanced by the spider angioma his face bore. A frayed blue shirt with a Teamster union logo: a likely driver or mechanic, warehouse worker, or union guy. A faint scent of diesel from his plump body. He nodded after Warden Biggy Biggins spoke but otherwise said nothing. Warden Biggins couldn’t tell if he was in mourning or indifferent to this meeting, but assumed he was no longer in the shock stage of grief since much time has lapsed since the drowning, but one can never tell for sure; he’d broken lots on bad news to many families and delayed reactions were common.
It was an anomaly, this winter thunder storm sending sheets of water down the windows, casting aqueous light patterns across the walls.
Mrs. Townsel was blond with black roots and wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Evolve or Die”. Warden Biggy Biggins couldn’t be sure, but thought she didn’t have teeth. Her glistening arms were like a knotted wet towel, the taunt cords of her neck sinewy. She stared at the box, which sat on the table like a monument. She possessed a hard-won dignity born of grit, suffering, and tenacity, and looked tired of being worn out.
Warden Biggy Biggins met countless women like her, ravaged by their menfolk’s imprisonment; women whose small flashes of optimism (an elementary school graduation, a new job soon lost) had no basis in anything but itself. No doubt her life was in service to her family. But no more? No, “no more” is what they hear from their inner-dialog; the argument for more. To give more. To continue to give has won too many times without reward…reward hell, simple acknowledgement. And when the dialog swings, it swings far.
Nobody looked into the box. Nobody touched it.
The “Friend” opened with, “We were sure looking forward to Robbie’s impending release. As you can imagine, the past few months of not knowing what happened to their beloved son has taken an emotional toll on my…er…the Townsends.”
“I think you meant to say your clients. How about we cut through the charade. What’s this really about?”
Mrs. Townsel looked at her lawyer and flashed a wry grin. Of the three of them, Warden Biggins thought her likely the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and wondered if she really wanted to be here. She coughed tetchily; the first break in her mask. What did she hide, a series of life events that had no rational connection, no logical reason? Marriage, motherhood, and what next…the freedom of widowhood? All singular events, some not planned or welcomed.
The lawyer continued: “My clients are on disability and were counting on their son’s release and anticipated employment to help support them. That of course is negated by the negligence of your staff in allowing Robbie to swim in dangerous conditions. We will be seeking unspecified damages.”
“Aren’t you interested in seeing what’s in the box?” Warden Biggy Biggins countered. “My experience is that families find some small solace…measure of comfort…in going through their loved one’s property. Sometimes it’s the only thing they have left.”
The lawyer looked at his clients, his expression begging a response.
Mr. Townsel pushed the box closer to Mrs. Townsel. She sat wounded, waiting for the inevitable pain to come. Her eyes on the box but far away. Far away.
“I think my clients will go through Robbie’s property in private when they return home. Now, however, I want to return to the complaint we will file.”
“Yes, of course,” Warden Biggy Biggins said. “I understand your clients were counting on their son’s return to help support them…”
“…and I take it he was to live with them?”
“Yes, they have a home that would afford Robbie a private bedroom and bath. The Townsel have incurred some expense remodeling and redecorating in anticipation of his return.”
“I see,” Warden Biggy Biggins said looking at Mrs. Townsel. “But I’m confused about somethings. For instance, this letter.”
Warden Biggy Biggins opened a folder and removed the document.
“Understand, that when Robbie first disappeared, we couldn’t be sure he wasn’t an escapee, so we were obligated to search his property and read all correspondence to determine if he had outside help to escape.”
The lawyer, now with a smug frown, immediately interrupted. “He was very close to parole. Why would he escape?”
“I don’t know” Warden Biggy Biggins. “But what I do know, and I can give you the study results or produce them in court, is that in Michigan it is not unusual for white prisoners in minimum security to escape within months of their parole. It’s anybody’s guess why. Now if he had been black, that would indeed be unusual. Blacks rarely attempt escape from minimum custody. In fact, the study said that if we wanted to reduce minimum custody escapes, don’t place whites there. Of course, we can’t discriminate like that, but it is what the study concluded. Now about this letter we found in Robbie’s property. It is from Mrs. Townsel to Robbie, and it is dated just two days before his drowning. Let me read it to you.”
We are sick of you. You have done nothing good with your life. You have brought us nothing but pain. We had so much hope. You are a hope smasher, not a hope giver. Well here’s what I hope. No, here’s what I pray. That we never see or hear from you again. You got that? You understand? It’s what Pa wants too, though he doesn’t have the guts to say it. But I’m saying it. When the parole agent calls, we will tell him you can’t live here. If you try to come here, I will get a court restraining order. Go to hell. Stay in prison ’cause it’s where you belong.
The ambulance chaser cradled his brow in his hands, thumbs rubbing his temples.
Mr. Townsel licked the corners of his mouth and looked at Mrs. Townsel like a man unexpectedly shot.
What dreadful god let her stumble in to this life? Love flared a moment and gone, replaced by what? What to call it? When has she last seen the sun, felt its caressing warmth? Or the support of a trusted wind that held her upright and gave her strength. When?
She had dreams…first for herself…her partner…then her son; each level a disappointing step down, a loss of hope. You stay true to your spawn until true means nothing but a box. That box on the table.
From erection to resurrection, as they say.
When she is with women talking about their children’s accomplishments, what does she say? The missed graduations and birthdays. Watching your son restrained in belly chains, cuffs, and leg irons. Waddling down a funeral home corridor to see a dead grandma.
Every new insult more painful than the last until…what? numbness? quiet rebellion?
A flash of lightening cut through the conference room window and splashed across her face illuminating haggard disgust.
Mrs. Townsel stood, turned, and left the box in the room.
Released from this martyrdom without majesty.