There’s little joy around here. It’s not like the guards put up greenery along the hallways and wind garland around the bars. There aren’t any Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. It’s just the same dull, dim overhead lights, the kind that make a guy look even more like death than he already does in here. It’s a week before Christmas, give or take.
So, when I’m told I have a visitor, my heart leaps with the first joy I’ve felt in a long time. A guard brings me into the meeting room, where I’m seated on one side of a long table with bars separating the prisoners from the visitors. I sit and stare into Ma’s concerned hazel eyes.
“Hi, Ma,” I say, although it sounds more like a croak.
Ma’s mouth moves, but nothing comes out. Instead, she starts sobbing. She keeps wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief, sniffling, and shaking her head, looking for all the world like she wants to speak but can’t. Finally, she sets the handkerchief in her lap and pulls something outta her purse. It’s bright red. She shoves it toward me through the bars.
“I made it for you,” she says.
Picking the item up, it’s soft. I realize it’s a hat. I glance toward the guard, who’s got his eyes on me, and pull the hat down over my ears, hiding my messy hair. Heart-gutting gratitude stabs at me. God, Ma, why’d you have to make me something?
“I don’t have anything for you, but thanks, Ma.”
She shakes her head. “Nonsense, Harry. Why would I expect you to have something for me? The best gift I can ask for this Christmas is to see you. I just w-wish–”
My eyes drop to my hands. The hat feels warm on my head, a piece of home. “I know, Ma. So do I. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry we haven’t come sooner. I just– I just couldn’t bear that thought of seeing you here.”
“I’m sorry.” I don’t know what else to say. It’s pathetic but true. Somehow, two little words do next to nothing to explain how much I wish I could undo the past and make right. I wanna tell Ma that she’ll one day be proud of me, that when I get outta here, I won’t let her down ever again. But it’s a lie. It’s not a promise I can make.
Ma starts sobbing all over again, and before I can say another wretched “I’m sorry,” the guard says our time’s up and ushers her out. I’m about to stand and leave, because if I need to blubber like a little kid, at least let it be in my cell instead of here, but the guard tells me I have another visitor. I plant myself back in the seat, but I’m on the edge, my legs shaking.
Pa comes in and sits. He tries to smile, but the pained grimace doesn’t reach his dull eyes. “Hi, son.”
“Hi, Pa. How’re things at home?”
Pa shrugs. “Quiet. It’s just us, Hannah, and Irma now.”
“I manage. Not as much business as I used to get, but I’m holding it together fine. Hannah’s been helping out with paying the bills when her money.”
“That’s Hannah for you. Always lookin’ out for others.” I try to smile.
“So, uh… Any plans for Christmas?” I wanna kick myself for speaking to my father like I’m making small talk with a stranger in a food line.
“Amy, Jack, and Jean will be there. Don’t know about Erik and Lily yet. We don’t really hear much from your brother anymore.”
My insides churn as my thoughts darken. What’s Erik’s problem? He’s got all the freedom in the world, yet he can’t pick up the phone or be bothered to visit his family? “He’s lucky he’s not in my shoes. You know what I’d give to be there?”
Pa sighs. “Don’t be too hard on Erik, Harry. We all have our own battles to fight.”
I cross my arms over my chest. “Yeah, well…”
“It won’t be forever, son. I hate seeing you in here, but just give it time.”
“Time’s all I’ve got, Pa. I’m losin’ my mind here.”
Again, Pa tries to smile. It’s who he is, what he’s always done: give that smile to fill us with hope, to cheer us on, to make us believe in ourselves when we couldn’t on our own.
“I wish I’d have known you had that problem, Harry.”
His words are soft, but the firm undertone is holding them up. He won’t even acknowledge what “that problem” is in words. Go ahead, Pa. Say it. Tell me I’m an alcoholic. Instead, I nod and am man enough to look my old man in the eyes when I reply, “I know. Truth is, Pa, I never thought it was a problem.”
“Until it was too late.”
“Yeah, until then.” You must be ashamed of me. That’s the real reason why you and Ma haven’t come to this hell-hole till now. I don’t blame you, Pa. If I were you, I’d stay away from me, too, but I’m kinda stuck with myself.
“Time’s up,” the guard says without feeling, and he waits for Pa to join him at the door to see him out.
As Pa stands, he says, “Ma and I will be back soon, son. I promise.”
“Yeah, see you around, Pa.”
And then he’s gone. Just like that. I stand and walk toward the door on my side, looking through the bars one last time, maybe expecting to see the other side without that barrier that tells me exactly where my place is.