Saturday, December 21, 2013


So it ends... 
...Or maybe with this ending there is another beginning.

So often she has found him fallen, broken, and confused... 

So frequently in fact, that his struggles had become part of how she would make love to him. 

Even in life she could never stop loving this part of the ritual...
The ritual act of picking him up and dusting him off...
...and continually telling him that he would just have to keep trying until he got it right.
He was Her religion 
...and she loved him for it. 
...and felt only love for him when she died because of it.   

He was Her drug... 

...and she craved him for it. 
...and felt only love for him when she died because of it.  

Unlike the worldly things or the earthly potions and poisons he struggled with,
she knew that he would never let her down in this regard.

He would always need her, 
and she only wanted to feel needed by him.

She knew that he would always need to be picked up, dusted off, and reassured...


He would need Her to do it.

And she felt something euphoric about it every time
Never resentful
Never too busy

But this time when our narrator fell... 
...he had been on the verge.

He had finally gotten the message.

He had suddenly realized that the empty hole in his soul...
... it felt like it was just about the same size and shape of his Lil' Step.

He suddenly realized how incomplete his journey had been. 
He suddenly felt that his purpose was to make someone feel loved.
And Lil' Step needed to feel that she was loved by him.
Our narrator had figured it out.

...and he was on the verge

He was almost home.

And then he fell.

Lil' Step was sitting on an old tree stump by the pond when she heard the distant sound of a metallic violent crunching followed by silence.
She stood up on top of the stump and put her hand above her eyebrows... 
which might have actually helped if she had been tall enough to see over the rows of corn.

As she brought her hand down from her forehead a breeze blew gently through her hair.
The breeze gusted and opened the unzipped front of her jacket... 
she felt like the gusty breeze was tickling her before giving her a hug.
She furrowed her brow, sat down on the stump, and thought...
Hmmm... just like Steppy likes to do.

This time when our narrator fell he picked himself up and dusted himself off.
He required no assistance.
He did not expect to be reassured.
And as the car quietly pulled up to where he stood looking confused, but comfortable...
Suddenly, his wife's sweet voice was like a sound as sweet as sugar syrup to his new ears...
and he could hear her singing along with Ani Difranco.

The sound was floating from the car...

"Cause I've got
No illusions about you
And guess what?
I never did
And when I say I'll take it...
I mean,
I mean as is..."

Salvation was suddenly revealed to him in the joyful eyes of his wife.

He felt confident that this time would be the last time that any sense of distance would separate them.

This time it was forever...
And there wasn't a vacant desire, ill-willed person or a useless worldly thing that could take it from them now.

It only took a lifetime of falling down for our narrator to realize that Salvation was as easy as she had made loving him look to the rest of the confused, unfortunate, and forgotten addicts -- the walking dead who were struggling to find their way alone-- 

most of whom haven't ever had the privilege of being picked up at least once or twice...
Never dusted off, given a hug, and encouraged to try it again... 

A lot of those who fall 
--who's family and loved ones turn their backs on them -- 
They just end up...
Lost in Rural America.

This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Getting Home (49)

Every single word written here is an extraordinary exaggeration of events that have played out in my head... based on the stories I have heard from people I have met in jail or while I was dealing with my own stupidity and carelessness, resulting from my own addiction to alcohol and drugs. This is in no way a glamorization of drug use, but a tool to lend some humanity to a subculture that has been demonized and written off as a hopeless and worthless part of our human family. I do not condone or promote any of the behavior or activities herein.

            I heard the first cop approaching minutes before I saw the cloud of dust ballooning into the air around the squad and trailing off behind him like exhaust from the rocket boosters of the space shuttle.  I had originally been waiting at the bottom of the stairs in back, but had since convinced myself that I could still smell the stale, sour, yeasty smell of Rhonda’s piss soaked clothing from there, so I walked out towards the road.  The squad was still in the distance, but now I heard more sirens.  A minute later he slid the sleek, white, county sheriff’s car to a dramatic stop on the gravel road in front of me.

           He reached one hand up to his shoulder and bent his neck to say something into the radio attached there.  He was wearing sunglasses, but I could tell he was looking at me while his mouth barely moved as he delivered what I assumed was the announcement of his arrival on the scene with the expertise of a veteran ventriloquist.  He dropped his hand from the radio on his shoulder and sat in the car for a moment, staring at me before raising his chest and releasing a deep, silent sigh from within the contained comfort of his squad.  He opened the door and stepped out of his car into the afternoon sun.  His head was shaved clean, although I could tell he had a decent hairline.  He removed his sunglasses and poked one metal arm into the front pocket of his uniform.  When he closed the door, finalizing his arrival into the wicked world I had invited him into, he looked at me curiously before a determined seriousness invaded his pale blue eyes.
           “Did you make the call to 911?” he asked.
           “Yes deputy…” I responded while raising the tone of my voice on the final syllable inquisitively.
           “Morden.  Who are you?”
           “Jayson Jameson.”
           “Jameson?  Fuck… I grew up my whole life two doors down from your wife.  I’m real sorry,” he offered, letting a bit of the seriousness ease away under the pressure of what appeared to be genuine sympathy.
             I nodded to him, but in all honesty the memory of my wife’s death was just too much to add to the day’s events.  There was a dead body in the building behind me, for Christ’s sake.
            “Dispatch said you reported finding a dead body?” He asked while seriousness crept back into his eyes.
            “Yeah… upstairs,” I replied softly.
            “Anybody else around?” he asked before adding, “Walk with me a minute.”
            “Not that I’ve seen, no,” I replied as we walked.  The sirens were getting closer.
            “Well, do you know who it is?  Is it the gal who lives here?” he asked.
            “Yeah, Rhonda… This is her place,” I replied.
            “Where’d you find her?”
            “In her chair… In the living room,” I replied.
            “Okay, I’ll go have a look.  Stay put.  You know that there will be some more questions… and I’m pretty sure there’s a missing person’s report been filed on you.” He said vacantly as he ascended the stairs, taking two steps at a time.  He reached up to his shoulder and talked into his radio during his ascent, and then disappeared into the apartment.  Less than a minute later he walked back outside and came down the stairs.  I heard gravel beneath tires and the siren that had been growing louder finally ceased.  I watched an ambulance arrive.
           “Well… what do you think happened up there, Jayson?” he asked while curiosity returned to his eyes.
           “Are you really asking me that question?” I replied.
           “Yes indeed,” he replied.
           “Well, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she OD’d,” I offered brazenly.
           “Kinda looks that way to me too,” he shook his head and continued, “but you weren’t here for that though, right?”
           “No Deputy, I borrowed her car to take my friend up to NewLife this morning,” I quickly responded.  “I have his release paperwork and extradition waiver from Littleton County Jail in Rhonda’s car.  You can call NewLife to verify what time I dropped him off.  I drove straight back here and 20 minutes later… here we are,” I finished.
          “Who’d you take to NewLife?” he asked.
          “Bull Gunville.”
          “Bull Gunville?!?” he exclaimed.  “So, you’re friends with Gunville… and this was what?  A friend of yours upstairs?”  He was knocking on mockery’s door now.
          “Gunville’s cousin,” I replied quietly.
          “You and her weren’t friends?”
          “Sure, we were friends… kinda… but I needed her car to take Gunville to rehab, and that’s the only reason you and I are talking at the moment,” I answered.
          “So none of your DNA is gonna show up in any of those needles on the floor up there?”  He peered at me through squinted eyes.
          I held out my arms while responding, “No Deputy, I’m telling you the truth.”
         A pair of EMT’s walked up to where we were.  Deputy Morden turned his focus to them and held up his pointer finger to display the universal symbol for just one minute.
         “Jameson, go wait by my car, and when the state boys get here I’ve got other business with you,” he instructed me.  “Get that paperwork out of her car.”
          He took the EMT’s upstairs while I did as he asked.  I waited by his car as the scene in front of Rhonda’s apartment turned into a circus.  City and county cops were on hand, as well as the county coroner, and then finally the state police showed up with what looked like a CSI dweeb.
          Finally the deputy reappeared walking towards me.
         “C’mon, you just gave me a pass on all this,” he said while he approached.  “I don’t have to pat you down, do I?”
         “No,” I replied.
         “Good, then you can ride shotgun,” he smiled as he put his sunglasses back on his face.  “Get in.”
          I opened the squad car door and sat down.  He sat down next to me, put the car in drive, and navigated a path leading us away from Rhonda’s.  He fumbled for a pack of smokes and offered me one, which I took, before lighting his own and tossing the lighter into my lap.  We were both smoking when he started talking.
         “Okay Jameson, where the fuck have you been and why doesn’t your wife’s family know where that is?” he inquired bluntly.
         “You mean her sister?” I corrected him.
         “No… I mostly mean that little girl of yours who hasn’t said a word except to ask where you’ve been,” he replied, pausing only to continue, “seems she's the only family besides you’re wife’s sister who’s worth a damn… in my humble opinion anyways.”
         “Lil’ Step?”
         “Sure, I guess... If that's what you call her,” he answered and kept talking. “Listen Jayson, she just lost her fucking mother and now she probably believes she’s lost the only man she ever had the opportunity to watch her mother love,” he dragged on his cigarette and dropped it into an ashtray in the cup holder.  “Whatever you think you’re going through, and regardless of how much it fucking hurts, right now you need to be the man her mother loved.  You need to grieve like a man, and allow her to share it with you.  Daughters inevitably learn how to have relationships with men by watching how their mothers love the men in their life while being loved back.  Does that make sense?”  He stopped at a stop sign, but didn’t give me time to answer him.  The asphalt highway stretched out to our left and right.  “Do you want that child to go through the rest of her life without a solid idea of why her mom loved you so much?”
        “No,” I whispered as I struggled with my emotions.
        “Good.  Because girls without a good idea of what to expect from a real man can spend a lot of years dancing around a pole.”
        “Where is she?” I asked.  A tear rolled down my cheek.
        “With your sister-in-law,” he replied.  “Is that where we’re going?”
        “Please,” I answered.
         He turned out onto the road and accelerated quickly.  I looked over and smiled as the speedometer crept past 70.  He caught me smiling and joined me.
        “Cop cars are cool,” he said.
        “Sure… from in here they are… and only if you’re in the front,” I managed a laugh.  “Have you ever buried the needle?”
        “I’m gonna be a fucking hero when that kid sees you, Jameson... to her anyways,” he said proudly while ignoring my question.
        “S-curves coming up, Deputy Hero,” I nodded out through the windshield.
        “Ain’t a curve in this county that I haven’t taken at this speed, relax… nobody’s gonna pull us over,” he grinned.
        We took the first curve without a hitch.  We were heading into the second when I saw the green monstrosity of a tractor with wheels that must have been twelve feet tall pulling onto the highway from the field on my side of the road.

        There was nothing that could be done.
        Uttering a faint expletive, he turned hard to avoid the tractor and we veered across the double yellow line.  We barely avoided a catastrophic collision with the hapless tractor. Unfortunately, neither of us had time to feel relief.  My mouth opened into a silent scream. In a nano-second it was big... BIGGER... HUGE... twisted screaming metal, tinkling glass, the lift-up of impact, the fall back of momentum stopped for force... grease... gasoline… shards… smoke as the squad car collided head-on with a late model pick-up truck. 
                  The last thing I remembered was feeling a paralyzing fear and hearing the sound of unearthly violence dissipating to a feeling of serenity and a peaceful silence. It felt as though an unendurable chaos had suddenly been tamed by an ethereal symphony of sensations where the conductor’s wand had brought the tranquility of a breeze whispering through tall grass into harmony with the cacophony of vehicles colliding at high speed and the faint ping of shattered glass falling to the ground. 
When I opened my eyes… which seemed an odd struggle, there was nothing but road stretching out to the horizon behind me as well as in front of me.  I quickly checked myself for injuries -- as out of some fleshly habit -- but suddenly I couldn’t remember why in creation I even I felt the need to do a thing like that. I felt fine… just fine. 
Even so I quickly moved from the center of the road and began walking aimlessly on the gravelly shoulder with the sun at my back. Behind me I heard the quiet sound of a car’s engine and the steady hum of tires making contact with the finely-maintained asphalt of the road.  The sound was flawless, crisp, and inexplicably inviting.
I smiled and thought about the ethereal symphony.  
Before I had the chance to turn around, the horn began honking for my attention.  As my body pivoted, my ears heard the sound of tires slowing accompanied by the sweetest sound I would ever know.
                   “Well… hey there!!” she exclaimed. “What brings you to this side of eternity?” The woman who had been my wife was smiling widely and laughing giddily. She was delighted… like we were sharing a really good joke.
          “I… don’t… I don’t remember,” I said through a grin. I was considering her question; it seemed so serendipitous. Regardless, as I approached the vehicle like we'd have once only dreamed about in our wildest imaginings, I could barely contain my joy. I began weeping and laughing simultaneously.
         “Oh Baby, just get in the car,” my wife demanded playfully.  Her hair was braided like it was at our wedding.
         “Okay… but where are we going to go?” I asked still trying to align myself with what felt overwhelmingly like a miraculous and most unexpected reunion.
         “Well… we should probably go visit your Lil’ Step, don’t you think?” she offered coyly.
         “Oh man…” I stopped laughing and wiped tears off of my face. I vaguely remembered, “I was just on my way to do that, I think… yeah. I was going to get Lil’ Step and bring her home...” I trailed off.
         “Hurry up and get in.  We’ll go together,” she reached across the passenger seat and opened the door for me.  She gave another playfully coy glance. "Don’t think so hard. You'll adjust, baby. This spirit living is something that doesn't take much getting used to. You'll like your new capabilities as well… I promise,” she said and patted her hand on the passenger seat beckoning me to sit. “And time?  Time is very different here too," she explained. "But Lil' Step will know it's us… being there for her. Always...."
        “Okay, but then what?” I asked as I sat down next to her.  I recognized the music coming from the speakers in the car.  I felt joy as Ani Difranco sang ‘As Is’. It was our wedding song.
       “Who cares? We’ve got forever to figure it all out,” she replied. I shut the car door as she accelerated smoothly. I looked out at the scenery passing by and suddenly recognized it as my wife’s father’s property. A field of corn stood between the road and his pond. “Look!” my wife pointed through the corn and we both saw Lil’ Step standing on an old tree stump near the pond. She had her hand over her eyebrows to block the sun as she stared in our direction. “Close your eyes and imagine you’re standing over there!” she exclaimed. “Go!” she cried gleefully and laughed as I closed my eyes and thought about that old tree stump.
                When I opened my eyes again, there I was, standing next to Lil’ Step. I reached into her jacket and tickled her ribs lightly. Then I closed my eyes again and thought about sitting in the car next to my wife. I opened them and found myself in the passenger seat of the car. She was laughing. “I did it…” I told her.
                “I know!” she cried. We both laughed.
                “I missed you,” I told her.  
                “I missed you...” she responded.  “And I know how much you’ve missed me too.  But now we’re together again. And time?” she asked and giggled. “I think it’s time to give me… a kiss.”  


This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Revelations, Deliverance, & Death (48)

Every single word written here is an extraordinary exaggeration of events that have played out in my head... based on the stories I have heard from people I have met in jail or while I was dealing with my own stupidity and carelessness, resulting from my own addiction to alcohol and drugs. This is in no way a glamorization of drug use, but a tool to lend some humanity to a subculture that has been demonized and written off as a hopeless and worthless part of our human family. I do not condone or promote any of the behavior or activities herein.

            There is no way for me to determine the amount of time that passed during this particular period of my life.  In hindsight I can only recall the order of significant events that transpired.  I cannot with any reasonable degree of accuracy establish the length of time that passed between when I delivered Bull to the doors of the NewLife facility that he would call home for an indeterminate length of time and my discovery of the unspectacular, final result of Rhonda’s unremarkable life.  The upheaval that both events provided in my already fucked-up life could have occurred within the same, exact moment in time and I wouldn’t be able to tell you any differently.  By the time I discovered Rhonda’s lifeless, purple corpse I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had closed my eyes for longer than an hour.
            Bull’s delivery from the Littleton County Jail to the NewLife facility in an otherwise forgotten town in central Illinois proved challenging enough without disclosing the gruesome discovery I encountered upon returning to Rhonda’s apartment later that day.  Shortly after daybreak on Monday morning I was signing the necessary paperwork provided to me by a sleepy sheriff’s deputy in order to secure Bull’s release from the jail and into my custody for transport to NewLife’s facility.  It was located three hours north of Littleton County.  By signing my name multiple times through a stack of official looking paperwork I became responsible 'under penalty of law' for his delivery to NewLife’s reception coordinator within four hours of his release.  The sleepy sheriff’s deputy reiterated the importance of my responsibility in this matter and the possible penalties if I failed to do so.  He had finally appear to grow tired of trying to come up with different ways to say the same thing shortly before he collected the paperwork through a sliding, metal drawer beneath the bulletproof glass separating us.
            “Alright then… I guess I’ll go get Gunville," he said. "Have a seat.”  He yawned and disappeared around a corner.
            I took a seat in one of the metal folding chairs in the tiny lobby and waited.  A short time later I heard Bull’s voice as he was talking to the sleepy jailer.  He sounded like he was in good spirits.  I stood up when I saw him appear behind the bulletproof glass of the door separating the jail from the lobby.  His hair had grown out into a shaggy crown above his ears and around his head.  It appeared as if he had given up shaving his face altogether.  He carried only a shoebox stuffed with letters and paperwork. The deputy opened the door and Bull walked into the lobby. He looked me over as he walked through and frowned momentarily. Then he turned back to the deputy and extended his hand.
            “Thanks for the hospitality, deputy.”  He smiled widely at the surprised officer, who warily extended his hand in return.
            “You’ll forgive me if I don’t ask you to come back real soon and visit, right?”  The deputy smiled half-heartedly and closed the door behind Bull. Through the glass he met my eyes and pointed to the watch on his wrist.  “Clock is running boys… get moving.  You’ve got four hours to get there.  That doesn’t leave much time for fucking off or flat tires.”
            “C’mon brother, he ain’t kiddin’ around,” Bull said and patted me on the back as we moved through the lobby and out of the jail.  As we walked through the parking lot towards Rhonda’s car he paused and pulled at the shirt he was wearing. 
            “These are the goddamned fucking clothes I was arrested in,” he brushed his hands on his grimy jeans.  “Please tell me I have something clean to wear.”
            “You bet boss,” I replied.  “You’ve got everything I could think of that you might need in the bag in the backseat.”
            “Good… I’ll ride back there until I get changed.”  He opened the passenger door and slid into the back of the car.  “Holy shit!”
            “What?”  I asked.
            “Is this bag big enough?”  He asked sarcastically.  “Never mind… lets fucking go.”
            “You bet.”  I dropped into the driver’s seat, started the car and we were on our way.  Bull rummaged around in the bag for fresh clothes that appealed to him and began changing.
            “You didn’t happen to get me a shaver, did you?”  He asked while he maneuvered his legs into a pair of jeans from my collection.
            “Yeah boss. I boosted a brand new, expensive, grooming kit for you the other day.” I offered a guilty smile in the rear view mirror.  “It’s all charged up at the bottom of the bag.”
            He rolled his eyes at me as his arm dove deep into the bag.  Shoplifting wasn’t high on Bull’s list of respectable skills.  “It’s all the way at the fucking bottom, man?”
            “Yeah… sorry.  It’s in a hard plastic case.”  I smiled to myself as he searched and grumbled under his breath.
            “Figures…”  He pulled his arm out of the bag, wielding the hard, black plastic case with the grooming kit.  “Think Rhonda would mind if I clip myself in her car?”  He watched me shrug in the rear view mirror.  “Probably, huh?” he asked in response to his own question.  I shrugged again, returning my eyes to the road.
            “Boss, I’m gonna stop for gas when we get out of Littleton County.  I’ll help you get the job done if you can wait for a bit.”  I looked at him through the mirror.
            “Alright…” he agreed.  “I’m not riding in this cramped-ass backseat until then though.”  He maneuvered himself awkwardly into the front seat and began to get comfortable.
            “Seatbelt…” I insisted.  “We don’t need to get pulled over for some stupid shit today.”  He obliged my request.
            “Did you bring me some smokes?” he asked.  “This is probably the last opportunity I’ll have to burn a couple…”  I could feel him looking at me.  Hard.
            “Check the glove compartment,” I replied. I kept my eyes on the road.  He opened the glove compartment and retrieved a new pack of cigarettes. I felt his eyes examining me while he packed the box of cigarettes on the dashboard.  I tried to ignore the weight of his stare, but I eventually lost this battle of wills. 
“What are you looking at?” I finally blurted out.
“I dunno… I guess it just looks to me like you’ve been running on empty for awhile.”  He dropped his gaze and opened the pack of smokes.  “Am I wrong?”
“Probably not as wrong as I’d like you to think.” I offered.
“Bring any of that shit with you?”  He asked while fishing a lighter from the center console and lighting his cigarette.
“No,” I replied.  “Hell no.”
“Good.  At least you thought that much about what we were doing today.”  He directed his stare back towards me.  I looked at him quickly and then back to the road ahead of me.  His eyes weren’t half as hard as I had expected.
“They’re probably gonna piss-test you when you walk through the door anyways.”  I fumbled for my own cigarettes and lit one.
“Yeah, but that’s not the reason I’m glad you aren’t holding at the moment.”  An awkward silence filled the car.
I finally responded, “I wouldn’t want to fuck this up for you Bull.  Not me... and definitely not on account of fucking dope.”
He was silent for a long time.  The buzzing sound of the tires connecting with the road was broken only by the occasional sound we made while inhaling and exhaling smoke.  As he took the last drag of his cigarette and cracked the window to dispose of the butt, he finally broke the silence.
“I think I know the answer… but I want you to hear yourself say it, so I’ve gotta ask,” he made room in the seatbelt and turned towards me.  “If you feel that strongly about fucking me up, then why are you in the shape you’re in?”
“Fuck, Bull…”  I was unprepared for this kind of direct inquisition.  “I guess I just can’t think of a reason to quit anymore.”
“Well, apparently you put it down long enough to come do this thing for me today,” he offered.  The inflection in his voice made it sound like a question.
“You told me that I needed to be straight if I was going to help you, so here I am,” I replied.
“Yeah, here you are...”  In a flash he reached up and broke the rearview mirror off of its hinge and held it below my line of sight.  I was startled and snapped immediately to attention.  I avoided looking in the mirror and instead looked in his direction for a moment.  “Look at yourself goddammit!” he yelled and then lowered his voice, “You’re a shade improved from fucking death!  Go ahead… have a fucking look!”  He dropped the mirror into my lap and shook his head.  I ignored the mirror and cracked my window to flick my cigarette out of the car.  My hands were shaking.
“Boss, I don’t know what you want me to say,” I offered quietly.
“I want you to say that you’ll be alive when and if I get through this NewLife bullshit,” he said sharply.  “If you’re intentions are otherwise, then I want you to tell me now.”
We sat in silence.  I suddenly felt exhausted.  My arms and legs began to feel tingly and on the verge of going numb.  I was suddenly afraid that I might fall asleep at any moment.  But then as quickly as the feeling was upon me, it disappeared when I suddenly found myself wide awake and fighting the urge to break down and cry.  There was nothing I wanted less than for Bull to see me cry.
“Okay,” I felt myself becoming animated.  “I’ll tell you what I know about myself, alright?”  I picked the mirror up out of my lap and looked at myself purposefully before dropping it onto the floorboard.  Bull lit another cigarette.  His gaze never left me.  I continued.  “That guy I see in the mirror can’t imagine his life beyond the next moment.”  Tears were building on my eyelashes.  I could do little to stop them.  “I guess my ability to think beyond today died along with her, okay?”  My voice was getting loud and shaky.  “When she died I lost the last person in my life who expected me to be anything more than what I am right now.”  I angrily clawed the damp trail of tears from my face.  “Nobody back there gives a shit about how or even if I exist!  And now you want me to believe that it somehow makes a difference to Bull Motherfucking Gunville whether or not I intend to be alive in eighteen months?  Fuck… I don’t even remember how long eighteen months is…”
Bull continued to stare at me… almost through me, as I alternated using the back of my hands to dry my face.  I looked at him briefly before continuing, “Motherfucker, look at what a mess I am…” I laughed in spite of myself.  “I thought I was happy to see your ass, and look at me now…”

“I am looking at you, asshole.  What I guess I didn’t realize is how well I know what you’re going through.  I’ve never really talked about it before with anyone, but when I was listening to you just now I realized that I might know a little more than I have ever tried to understand about how it feels to lose the last person in your life whose expectations made you try to be a better person than you might otherwise be.  You lost your wife…” he stopped and took a drag off of his cigarette, “I lost my dad…”  He paused for awhile filling the car with silence accompanied only by the drone of tires on the road.  Whatever he was thinking, he was thinking hard about it.  “Fuck…” The word resonated with the sound of revelation.  “Do you know how long it was after my dad died until I went to prison the first time?”
“Do you expect me to answer that?  Because I really don’t know…”  I answered quietly.
Bull was still deep in thought and ignored my reply.  He continued, “It was less than a year.”  He looked at me as if I was suddenly a part of the conversation again.  “I’m sorry.” He shook his head, “I was trying to work out the timeline.  You see, throughout my life… even after the school teachers gave up on me in seventh grade, I guess my dad’s expectations of me kept me out of the bigger trouble I got into after he died.  I got used to disappointing everybody else but I never wanted to disappoint him.   Then he died and I lost my perspective.  I guess I didn’t know how to exist without him constantly reminding me that he expected me to be better than what anybody else thought... 'and fuck ‘em anyways,' he'd say.”  He smiled at the memory and pushed his cigarette butt through the cracked window to his right.  “I was really lost after he died.  Maybe it was grief, but I don’t have anything to compare it with.  I remember feeling bad and confused," he paused and cracked his knuckles. "But only because the one feeling I recognized at the time was…relief.” 
“Relief?” I asked.   
“Yeah, ain’t that some fucked up shit?”  I had brought a few bottles of water along, and he grabbed one from the center console and drank from it.  “I remember mostly feeling bad due to this feeling of relief that settled over me shortly after we put him in the ground.  I guess it was relief… but it was emptier than it should have been if that was the case.  I must’ve chalked those empty feelings up to him being gone.  I just remember feeling like for the first time in my life I didn’t have to worry about disappointing him.  He was gone... so there was nothing to stop me from cooking dope on the farm.  I was confused over how I felt about his death.  I was avoiding the idea, so it didn’t take long for things to get out of hand after that.”  He emptied the water bottle and dropped it near his feet.  “You know how you said that you don’t remember how long eighteen months is?”
“Yeah… I really don’t,” I replied.
“That’s kind of how I felt until I was sentenced.  I guess after my dad died I stopped thinking about what was coming next," he sighed. "At least until they hung that ten-year sentence on me.”
“I guess nothing makes time feel more tangible than when it’s taken away from you, right?”  I offered vacantly.
“Something like that, I guess…” Bull replied.  “But it shouldn’t have to be that way.  I don’t think you should be in such a hurry to pay the same price that I did to learn something that you just as easily could have learned from my experience.” 
He lit another cigarette and smoked for a couple of minutes before he returned to the conversation.  I was just about to light a cigarette of my own when he started talking.
“I’m done,” He stated.
“Done what?  Done talking?” I asked.
“Hell no, it’s too long of a trip to be done talking yet.  I meant that I’m done with dope.”  He was looking intently at me to gauge my response.
I sat silently.
“I mean it,” he began again, “I don’t think that I’ll come away from NewLife born-again like I suspect they intend I will… but if I’m lucky enough to earn my freedom after this, I don’t want dope to be any part of what’s left of my future.”
“Okay,” I offered.  It sounded like a question.
“I think we should still be friends when my time at NewLife is done,” he added.
“Okay…” I hesitated and continued, “I hope that would be a given.”
“Well, it is… but I want you to quit doing dope too,” he replied.  “I’m expecting you to quit while I’m gone... without the assistance of a prison cell... or a funeral director.”
I thought about it for a moment.
“Okay Bull,” I answered.
“Alright then…  Didn’t you say we were stopping for gas?  I need to shave my face and head.  The razors in jail are for shit.  I almost bled out the first time I tried to use one.”
Just like that, the weight of our initial conversation was lifted and we barely revisited the subject again.  The gas station we stopped at was combined with a fast food joint, so I treated Bull to several hamburgers, some fries and a large chocolate milkshake after he used their bathroom to shave the hair from his face and head.  He spent the next few hours of our journey talking about jail, his infrequent cell-mates, and the mischief he caused.  I imagined the jail staff were all high-fiving each other as they changed shifts today and shared the news of his departure.  Our spirits remained high until the GPS announced the approaching city limits signaling an end to Bull’s role in this part of my journey today.  As the highway turned to streets and the expanses of farmland turned to buildings and homes, Bull’s mood became sullen.
“I gotta tell you, brother…” Bull began as he lit a final cigarette, “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked in disbelief.
“This place sounds like it’s gonna be way harder for me than prison,” he replied.
“Okay… listen, motherfucker…”  The car came to rest at a stop sign and I turned towards him, “Keep in mind that I’m all alone out here, okay?  My wife died and I don’t have a single person that I can call a real friend.  The only idea that even remotely keeps me grounded is that sooner rather than later, you’re coming back.  You’re the closest thing to family that I’ve got right now so you can and you will do this… if for no other reason than give me something to look forward to.”
“Alright… shit," he said. "Get going before I’m late.”
Less than ten minutes later we arrived at our destination.  I parked the car and carried his bag to the entrance.  The doors were locked and we had to buzz the intercom to announce Bull’s arrival.  While we waited for a member of the staff to arrive I wished him luck and promised to write after he sent word that he was settled in.  When the stiff-looking staffer arrived to take custody of Bull we shared a handshake and said goodbye.  I walked back to the car and began the trip back to Rhonda’s.
After an uneventful few hours I was finally navigating the familiar gravel roads of rural Ft. Justice.  The sun was trying to burn through the hazy, overcast, afternoon sky as I pulled into Rhonda’s parking spot just outside of her apartment. I climbed the stairs to her door and was a little surprised to find it slightly ajar.  I pushed it open and announced my arrival.
I was greeted by a disappointing silence.  I thought about my agreement with Bull to quit doing dope before his return, but I had no intentions of quitting today.  If Rhonda had gone gallivanting with the Randos then my only satisfaction would come from a small stash I had hidden in a DVD case until she returned.  I called out a few more times as I made my way through the apartment. 
As I entered the living room the sight that greeted me caused me to scream in blind terror for a moment.  Rhonda sat lifelessly in her recliner.  There were used needles scattered on the floor and table.  The visible areas of her flesh were pale shades of purple and her eyes were wide open and glazed.  A crusty, white, froth had oozed from the corners of her open mouth where it has solidified like mortar.  The front of her loose-fitting pants was stained with piss and it smelled like she had shit herself as well. 
I was frozen with fear.  My first instinct was to leave and put as much distance between me and this place as I could.  My abandoned house was more than fifteen miles from here.  I thought that I could probably make it home sometime after dark.  The idea of walking the lonely roads between here and there after dark with the image of Rhonda’s corpse fresh on my brain gave that idea significant pause.  My mind was racing as I tried to figure a way out of this without having to involve myself with the authorities. 
In the end, my conscience got the best of me.  Rhonda’s cell phone was lying next to her body on the arm of the recliner.  I walked slowly towards the chair trying to keep my focus on the phone and not Rhonda’s corpse.  When I was barely within reach of the device I snatched it away quickly as if there was a very clear danger that my movements would somehow reanimate Rhonda’s dead, pale, purple flesh.  With the phone in hand I backed away from her body, but refused to turn my back on it.  My terror was crippling and I heard the sound of my voice murmuring, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God…”
I flipped the phone open and after several failed attempts, my fingers finally dialed 9-1-1.  I pushed the send key…

This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo