Captive Audience

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When the judge handed down the sentence I thought, this it it. But it wasn’t. That was nothing, just a little deafening combustion, just a freight train warming up its engine. After all, I still believed in things; I still believed in my savior, in the appeal, in the last minute witness, in the long-suffering nature of justice. Until the day he visited me in prison and brought my kids and his smiling head – until that moment I believed.

But when I took in the sum total of their little faces – their wheat-colored hair, their scent, their clear eyes against the square dirty grids of  cage upon cage upon cage –  I could feel what five years meant. Five years in an iron box was the end of us, it was the end of me, it was all lines converging into a tunnel. It was a sentence of slow suffocation, stretched out for two thousand days. I froze in the oncoming light and the steel beast took me out.

I buckled to a knee on the visiting room floor. I was a girder laced with explosives or worse, maybe just one faulty piece of steel that collapses the whole bridge. I was making awful sounds too, like the life inside me was being squeezed out.  I tried to resist that shrill tea kettle sound, I knew what waited on the other side if I gave in and let it all empty out.  There would be nothing left of me except a trembling molten shell, too hot to survive.

So I struggled up off the cement and found a chair, so the watchers would think I’d tripped.  I rested my guts against my elbows, kept my head bowed. Still the whining in my throat kept coming, a coward begging help from helpless children, from a godless God.

“I’m going to leave if you don’t stop,” my daughter scolded in my ear, sitting thigh to thigh with me. But in her solid flank I could feel the opposite was true, that she would stay no matter what I did, no matter how I embarrassed her or myself.  She would join me in here if she could, make due with life in a cell if it meant we could be together.

Don’t believe your eyes,  I wanted to tell her. Don’t believe this costume they’ve put me in, just try and feel what’s true if you can. 

Behind us I could hear him joking with a fellow visitor about a chair.  Maybe they’d sat in the wrong one, or taken his, something so forgettable and so stupid but enough for him to boom with laughter like life was just the funniest gosh darn thing.  He was the consummate game player,  he knew how to size up a room and sniff out a weak link, he knew how to nudge it onto center stage so no one would suspect it was him. After waiting so long to see me take a knee, to have a peek at me in shackles, he could barely contain his jangling keys, his metallic chuckle, his tourist joy. He had the best seat in the house after all, and two thousand in cash, and my kids on his arm like three sacks of souvenirs.

K. Dawn Goodwin’s new book, Crash Bang Burn is available now

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