A family learns reconciliation in a prison visiting room. A short story.
By Allen Burnett
Father’s Day weekend is always one of the busiest visiting times of the year at a prison. For many prisoners, it’s the only day they get to see their children or their fathers. It’s a reminder that despite their circumstances, no matter what they’ve done, they are loved.
It’s Father’s Day at California’s Corcoran State Prison. The visiting room is crowded with families, men wearing their prison blues and kids playing in the play area, building squares out of Lego, tossing a ball back and forth. Two little boys wrestle and bump into a small girl, who falls and begins to cry. Her mother quickly picks her up and consoles her.
A low humming sound emits from the ten-year-old air conditioner, which is pushing out more warm air than cool. Above that there’s a mixed undertone of talking and laughing, reconciliation and forgiveness. A correctional officer sits behind a podium, his head swiveling as he watches the room and glances down at a video monitor. Safety and security. The CO mantra.
One man sits alone, spinning his wedding band between his left thumb and pinkie as he waits his visit. In his right hand, he massages a sobriety chip for comfort. He’s older, late fifties, but he looks every bit of seventy. He’s dressed in a white, long-sleeve buttoned shirt, black cargo pants and brown work boots. He’s near-sighted with wire-framed glasses. His lips are dry. His once full head of black hair is now thinning and grey. He glances up at the clock as a group of men marches into the visiting room. His heart beats faster. He examines their faces. It’s not him. He’s not coming out. Coward.
A soda appears in front of him. Cactus Cooler. “Here. This okay?” His wife sits down next to him. She’s a small woman, greying black hair pulled back from her face in a tight ponytail, a hint of a scar just below her lip. She wears no jewelry, no makeup. She doesn’t need it. Chris is in her late fifties, like her husband. She’s dressed modestly in a black blouse, black pants and black Chuck Taylor low-top tennis shoes. Her brown eyes are tired from the long drive. “Mitchell, you hear me? You okay?”
He takes a minute to come back from his thoughts and respond. His wife made him come with her. This is her second time at this prison. “We need healing and forgiveness,” she had said. He came for her, because she asked. She needed healing, to forgive.
“I’m fine. What’s taking so long? It’s only been ten minutes.”
“Please, don’t do this. You promised me.”
He cuts her off. “Don’t do what? Sit here like everything is okay? Pretend as if life is great, Chris? It’s not. It hasn’t been for a while.”
She turns and faces forward, adjusting her ponytail. She places both hands in her lap and examines her wedding ring. After a minute, she interlocks her fingers then turns back toward her husband. “I think that when we leave here, maybe we can go to that restaurant you like on the Promenade. You remember, don’t you, Mitchell? The one where we sat outside with the little lights in the trees? You really like that place, remember?
He knows he’s upset his wife. He regrets opening his mouth. “I think they close at nine. We could stop by. It’s been a while since we’ve been there.”
She pats his knee and squeezes his hand, leaving her fingers in his palm as she leans in close enough that her nose brushes his chin. He inhales deeply, taking her in before lowering his chin to rest on her head.
Mitchell sat alone at the kitchen table, nursing his third glass of Neupera, a cheap wine given to him by his colleagues as a joke after a slip and fall. He didn’t see the wet floor sign and spent a week on his back. The wine came with a card that said “Take Care of You.” As a rule, Mitchell didn’t drink cheap wine. He called it “bad influences.” “It tastes good going down, but you always pay the consequences later,” he’d say.
Tonight was the exception. He was tired and frustrated. It was late and his son was late again. The front door rattled, creaked open and closed. Mitchell rose to his feet. Mitchell Jr. stood in the foyer, struggling to maintain his balance. he was drunk, blitzed more like it. He was swaying, clothes wrinkled, untucked and sloppy. He tried to walk past his father toward his room. Bad idea.
“Where you been?”
“Wet…my friends at,” he slurred.
Mitchell cut him off. “Are you crazy? Coming home late, drunk?” He grabbed his son’s arm to steady him. Mitchell Junior leaned, almost fell. Mitchell tightened his grip.
“Dad, lemme go. I wanna go lay down.”
He could smell the booze on his son. His own cheap wine influencing his anger and frustration, the resentment rose between them. His son snatched his arm away.
“Stop it, Mitchell!” Chris’s voice was half a shriek, half begging, but it was too late.
Mitchell hit his son on the mouth. He fell hard, laying still for what seemed like an hour before pulling himself to his knees, his mouth bleeding.
Chris stood in front of her husband, holding him around the waist to keep him from hurting their son. Her baby.
“No, Mitchell. Stop. Please. Let him go to his room.”
Mitchell Junior’s eyes were wide with fear and shock, glassy with tears. He let out a sound from deep inside his body, a low moan like a wounded animal. “Mooom?”
Helpless, she stood there, holding her husband. “Go to your room. I’m coming. Go!”
Mitchell Junior stood, wobbled, fell into the table. He grabbed the Neupera, the car keys and staggered out the door.
“Let him leave, Chris,” Mitchell said. “Just let him go.”
Junior flew through the intersection at Haster and Chapman with the headlights off and windows down. His foot pressed harder on the accelerator of his father’s Lincoln, which swerved as it reached 80 mph. Faster, he thought. Faster. Head pounding and mouth stinging from his father’s punch, he blew past the Crystal Cathedral, replaying the fight they just had.
His resentment grew as he remembered all the times he witnessed his father passed out drunk. And he hits me! Because I had a few drinks! Fighting back tears, he felt betrayed by his mother. She chose his side. After all the times I helped her clean him up and listen to her cry.
Mitchell Junior turned up the music to drown out his thoughts. He raised the Neupera to his mouth, closing his eyes for just a split second. “It taste good going down, but you always pay the consequences later.”
He loosened his grip on the steering wheel. The Lincoln veered hard to the right at the exact moment when a homeless man stepped off the curb, pulling his shopping cart behind him.
Mitchell Junior never knew he hit him. He kept driving.
The men file into the visiting room. This is the first time that Junior has seen father or his parents together in ten years. The last time he’d seen his father was at his trial for vehicular manslaughter. Since then, his father’s refused to speak to him when he’s called home. Neither has he responded to letters or come to see him.
He notices them immediately, sitting closely, his mother’s head under his father’s chin, her eyes closed. He studies them for a minute longer before checking in with the officer at the podium. He walks slowly toward them, oblivious to everyone and everything else in the room. They don’t look up until he’s standing right in front of them.
Chris notices him first. She stands, wrapping her arms around him, kissing him on the cheek, then steps back to examine him. “You look thin. Have you been eating?”
He keeps quiet, his eyes focusing on his father. “I eat too much,” he says with a smile.
“I want to feed you. Let me get you something from the vending machine,” his mother says with a hint of nervousness then quickly heads to the machine.
He is the younger version of his father — the same six-foot-five frame, light blue eyes, stubbornness and inability to deny his mother’s request. His father doesn’t move or acknowledge him. He sits stoic, staring at the table. His mother pushes forward, her arms full of candy and Lays chips.
“Hi Dad.” He doesn’t move. “Dad, so you came all the way out here to ignore me?”
Mitchell Junior sits next to him but his father doesn’t take his eyes off the table. His knees point at his father, he’s looking at the side of his face. “Dad, I’m getting out soon. They took some time off my sentence. I’ve been taking courses that…” He lets his voice trail off and looks at his mother for assurance. She motions with her eyes to keep talking. “Help me…to. These courses helped me change. I’m not the same person. I don’t drink anymore.”
His father nods his head slightly, finally acknowledging his son but he keeps his focus on the table. Junior looks down at his feet, then picks up a bag of chips, turns it over to read the ingredients then sets it down again. He starts again, putting his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Dad…”
His father stiffens and closes his eyes. It has been a long time since he’s felt his son’s touch. His hands tremble. He clutches his fist tighter.
Mitchell Junior starts up again, his voice softer, less nervous. “Dad, I know you’re still mad at me. I get it. I deserve it. I messed up.” He leans in, close to his father’s ear. His voice breaks a bit, filling with emotion. “Dad? I’m sorry I messed up.”
Even in recovery, Mitchell couldn’t bring himself to face his son. Deep down, he knew he was the cause for his son being in prison, for running down an innocent man. He chose not to acknowledge it. It was easier that way. Acknowledgment meant he had to take responsibility for his choices and the effect he had on his family.
Mitchell was an alcoholic, had been for years. Everyone knew it, but he wouldn’t admit it, even to himself. He gave his son his first drink. A father-son bonding over peppermint schnapps. He didn’t see anything wrong with it. A tradition, he rationalized. He sat there, listening to his son remembering his first drink. “Don’t tell your mother, son, and never drink cheap wine. You always pay the consequences later.” His fatherly advice.
Now here he is paying the consequences. His son is in prison for killing someone, and he’s pleading with him for forgiveness. “I’m a fool,” Mitchell thinks.
Regret and remorse build inside him, fighting to get out. He licks his dry lips. His clammy, clenched hands clutch his sobriety chip. “I’m a fool,” he thinks again, shaking his head.
“Dad? Say something. Please.”
Mitchell breaks. He turns to his son, his eyes wet and strained. He grabs Mitchell Junior and pulls him close, his body shaking with emotion. “I know you’re sorry, son. It’s my fault. It’s mine. I messed up, son. It’s my fault.”
He holds him for a long time before pulling away. Mitchell looks over at his wife. Chris holds her hands over her mouth to cover her smile, her fingertips just below her eyes. She’s speechless, overcome with joy. Tears form at the corners of her eyes. Finally, she thinks. Finally.
Mitchell places his hand on his son’s forearm. “I don’t drink anymore, either, son. Maybe when you get home, we can go to a meeting together. Maybe we can help each other out.”
Mitchell Junior smiles. “That sounds like a good idea, Dad. I’d like that.”
Father’s Day weekend in a California state prison is always one of the busiest visiting days of the year. For many prisoners, it’s the only day they get to see their children. It’s a reminder that despite their circumstances, no matter what they’ve done, they are loved.
About the Author
Allen Burnett, a husband and father from Orange County, California, is an aspiring author and a communication studies major at California State University-Los Angeles. His work “Irreparably Good Man,” is featured in the 2017 anthology “Human” from Words Uncaged.