My Favorite Felon
Ruth Z. Deming
"There are 600,000 Americans leaving prison in the next few years, and those guys are all coming to an apartment complex near you." - Howard H. Hendricks of the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Oklahoma, explaining the effort to teach felons to be good spouses. – New York Times
When my children and I lived in the roach-infested Village Green Apartments in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a family of three across the hall were joined by Al, the dad, who had just gotten out of prison.
Without proof, I always thought of him as a sociopath. The word excited me and I knew there were several types. You have the killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. And the nice ones, like my brother-in-law, Warren, who did unconscionable things like luring a neighbor’s incessantly barking dog into his car with a piece of sausage and then driving him five miles from home across a bridge and leaving him stranded there. The dog eventually found his way home.
I fancied Al was the nice kind of sociopath. Many of them, by the way, are on drugs – they hate themselves – and end up killing themselves. They feel hollow inside. I don’t think Al will do this. He seemed like a positive, devil-may-care kind of guy. A family man.
I worked with a lot of nice sociopaths as a psychotherapist at Bristol-Bensalem Human Services Center. As long as they’re in treatment or under the thumb of a probation officer – boy, do they need boundaries! – they should be okay.
But you’re never going to change them, unless they become born-again Christians.
Clop! Clop! Clop! No rugs on the steps at Village Green Apartments and a hallway that echoed with the spoken word. Keep your secrets inside your doors.
Here comes Sherry up the stairs, the woman across the hall. She has bad teeth and sad eyes and two defeated-looking children whose dad has just come home from Graterford, a maximum security prison in the same town as the Ursinus College, where my twelve-year-old daughter Sarah took a top prize in their annual science fair.
One day I’m carrying up my groceries from the car and Al runs down the steps to help me carry them up. He must’ve been looking out the window and saw me drive up in my battered brown LTD, a family cast-off. He plops my bags on my glass-top dining room table and takes a look at my apartment. The dining room doubled as my office and my shiny red Selectric typewriter sat atop an ebony black desk my mom bought me on sale from Bloomingdale’s.
Since my two kids didn’t have a father – he lived in Houston – I had a wall poster of a manly man – Marlon Brando on a motorcycle.
“I seen that movie,” said Al. “The Wild Ones. Gonna get me another bike as soon as I get a job.”
He looked out my living room window and got a good view of the Pennsylvania Turnpike with its cars and trucks flashing like diamonds in the sunshine.
He invited me over.
Lots of people, especially psychiatrists, have a sixth sense that tells them that this or that individual has been in prison. I have no such sixth sense. I’m naďve as a raccoon heading for a trap. But I do have what I call “feeling a sense of danger.”
Al is a gentleman. He holds the door open for me and tells me to follow him into the dining room. He leaves the door open behind him. He’s a short man, balding, and wearing a pair of jeans, a striped shirt and beige slippers that shuffle along the floor. I’ll bet they don’t wear slippers in prison. How good it must feel to wear them at home.
Then I see it. On the dining room table is a huge ship – the size of three Thanksgiving turkeys - made of thousands of toothpicks. Regular beige-colored toothpicks like you stab olives with at a party.
“Took me two years to make it,” he said proudly, arms outstretched revealing a blue and white tattoo proclaiming, “He died for my sins.” Another one was hidden under his sleeve. I’d never heard of the words “He came – He died – He arose….”
“So? What’s the verdict?” he asked.
Truthfully, I was so impressed I could barely speak. In fact, I was tongue-tied, finally mumbling, “This is really something, really something,” while moving all around the dining room table.
“Go ahead, touch it,” he said. “It ain’t gonna bite.”
I extended both of my hands and patted the toothpick ship as if I were petting a cat or, uh, Al himself.
The ship was surprisingly sturdy and filled with details. When I squatted down and peeked inside the portholes, miniature toothpick berths awaited sleepy passengers.
All I could do was smile and nod my head. I wanted to get out there fast, before his wife came home and thought I was having an affair with her ex-con.
The eviction notice arrived a couple months later and was placed prominently on the front door so that the three other households of our second-story apartment could bear witness to their shame. I examined it closely. Their last name was O’Brien and they had two weeks to get out.
They had a last name. Realizing this made it all the sadder. They were a family. They probably had wedding photos, baby photos, maybe even bronzed baby shoes. Now they had nowhere to put them.
Just before they left, I was coming home from work and climbing up the stairs with my red leather pocketbook slung over my shoulder. Sherry, who always had a nice shy smile for me and worked as a cashier at the Acme supermarket, looked down the stairs at me and began to yell.
“It’s all your fault!” she screamed. “It’s all your fault! You done this to us. You bitch! You reported us!”
Her words echoed in the hallway. I hoped my kids couldn’t hear.
I stood at the top of the stairs and looked at her. What could I say? Reported her? For what?
On the day they left I was at work seeing clients in my huge office with its many windows, spider plants and philodendron sitting on the windowsills, and calendars of birds and mountains decorating the walls. I was the only group therapist at the agency – people were afraid to run groups – but I had my groups for sociopaths, for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, chronic pain and borderline personality disorder.
I loved every single client: Mandy the prostitute; Danny, who lives off his wife and refuses to work; Sandy, who gets used by men because she’s naďve and has schizophrenia and Stephen, the loving sociopathic husband who, as a teenager, pushed his wicked stepmother down the stairs.
Yes, I loved every single one of them. If you don’t, you can’t fix them.
Climbing up the stairs of my apartment, I noticed that the door to the O’Briens’ apartment was wide open. I peeked inside. Most of the furniture was gone. The apartment looked huge with its scuffed hardwood floors. The maintenance man was in the back shuffling around with a mop and pail of water.
“Jerry!” I said, walking inside for only the second time. He was an old man, one of those old guys who love telling people their age. Eighty-two. He lived rent-free in “J” Building, just across the courtyard. His much younger wife, Ella, was locked inside their apartment, he had told me, jingling his house keys. He had taken all the knobs off the stove, bolted the refrigerator shut, kept soft music on the radio for her, and bathed her every night, while she was dying of Alzheimer’s.
“You should hear the lullabies I sing to her before she goes to sleep,” he had told me.
I walked into the empty apartment.
“Come on in, dear,” Jerry said, a short man with a head of thick white hair.
I, too, had white hair, with carefully permed ringlets.
“It’ll take a good three days to clean up the mess. Filth and bugs,” he said.
It smelled of cooking grease and unwashed bodies. Believe me, I knew about unwashed bodies. Some of my clients stunk and I had to tell them to bathe and use deodorant.
The apartment was the same as mine. An old-fashioned dial phone hung on the wall with a dangling Rapunzel-like cord in the dark kitchen.
Some of their furniture was still there. Unappealing. Threadbare. Early American, a favorite of the apartment dwellers at Village Green.
Sherry and Al must have liked it, though, must have gotten used to sitting on an early American rocker with a hole in the cushion where white stuffing spilled out. The couch was gone. I remembered looking at it and thinking “How hideous!” I felt ashamed of myself now.
“Didn’t even have the courtesy of flushing the toilet,” Jerry yelled in from the bathroom.
“Jerry,” I said, “these people never had a chance.”
I didn’t want to sully their name by saying Al had been locked up in Graterford, where Johnny Cash performed a time or two.
I walked into the dining room and stood where the table used to be. On the floor were remnants of their last supper. A crumpled blue paper napkin and some bread crumbs. I stirred them with my shoe. A scattering of a few toothpicks lay in a shapeless heap on the hardwood floor.
Without thinking, I bent down, my red leather pocketbook wobbling over my shoulder, and scooped up the toothpicks to take home. I thought of the toothpick ship now as an ark, a huge beautiful vessel rocking the four of them to their new home by the only one who could save them, their almighty Jesus Christ.
I walked into my apartment, where the kids were in the back bedroom watching The Incredible Hulk. Kicking off my shoes, I went into the dark kitchen, stood over the trash can and scattered the toothpicks inside, listening with satisfaction as they made a clicking sound as they fell to the bottom.