Thursday, April 30, 2020

Night in Jail

By Wesley I. Purkey

“It is just as well that justice is blind; she might not like some of the
things done in her name if she could see them”

Not long after turning 18 in 1970, I was booked into the Sedgwick County Jail, Wichita, Kansas. I had just been convicted of burglary by a jury not of my peers. The jail was packed beyond capacity and, because of such, I was housed in one of the segregation cells on the fifth floor. The cell had a piece of plywood and a waffle-sized mattress for a bunk on the floor, and a hole in the floor for a toilet that required flushing from outside the cell. I later learned that this was called a ‘Chinese toilet’, and has, since that time, been found to be constitutionally proscribed (and, if you have ever had the not so good fortune to use one, you will know why). Within a few days, I was moved to a regular cell on the fifth floor with two other inmates, and the stage was being set for yet another not so fond memory to take place…

One of the guys in my cell was Larry Kroff. He was in his mid-thirties, and he told me he was a farmer from Western Kansas. He had been charged with killing three people, and the attempted murder of a fourth person. Later on, he said that he had “shot ‘em down, like the dogs they were”. He pretty much bragged about killing his estranged ex-wife, her boyfriend, and shooting another couple who was with them at a trailer park in Southwest Wichita; severely wounding the girl, and killing her boyfriend. He said that he emptied a .22 caliber rifle shooting these people, and then reloaded and emptied it again. I took him at his word, particularly because the Wichita Eagle had basically attested to these facts in several different articles written on these murders. The other guy in my cell was named Shorty King. He was a midget about Kroff’s same age, and was a pretty nice guy. He liked to play cards, sit around and talk b.s! He supposedly killed his girlfriend, a prostitute, for ripping him off some drugs; although he didn’t really have much to say about it. Another guy I got to know pretty well during my time celling with these two, was a man living in the cell adjacent to ours. His name was Frank Sweeny, and he was also about Kroff’s and Shorty’s age. He had killed two people in Wichita, and another five in Indiana. He told me one night, that a song had been written about him titled, “Indiana Wants You”. He went on, humorously, saying that, “they may want me, but they might not get me!” Needless to say, my little burglary conviction kind of paled in comparison to my new acquaintances, who had killed eleven people between them.

One night, I was jarred out of a sound sleep by a deep grunting sound and commotion at the foot of my bunk. Just a foot off my bunk, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, Kroff was hanging by a sheet wrapped around his neck, which was tied to the cell bars. He was frantically kicking and grunting, with his hands pulling at the sheet around his neck. Jumping up, I tried lifting him by his legs to take the tension off the sheet, but he continued kicking and twisting, making it extremely difficult. He must have weighed every bit of 260-270 pounds – eating 20 to 30 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups every week, at ten cents a pop, he could easily afford them (and did), and now they were taking their toll. Shorty was trying to get the knot untied, but it had twisted to the backside of the bars. I could hear Sweeny and a couple of other guys down the range screaming at the top of their lungs to get the jailer’s attention in the Booking Area on the third floor. People in the courthouse parking lot could have heard them, if it had not been 3am and empty. Even with Shorty trying to help me lift Kroff up, which he really could not manage to do, I was sweating profusely and my arms were giving out. Kroff’s complexion was turning mauve in color, and he had stopped kicking and was now hanging without resistance. Finally, a jailer, Rocky, came around the corner of the walkway and started to ask: “What is all this screaming about?” However, he stopped in his tracks upon seeing Kroff hanging from the bars. Shorty hollered at him that the knot on the sheet was on the backside of the bars and he needed to untie it, which Rocky immediately started trying to do, but to no avail. He took out a pocket knife and started cutting the sheet down. It finally snapped, with Kroff coming down on top of me, and both of us falling on top of Shorty, who landed with a loud moan. About this same time, another jailer was opening our cell door. He lifted Kroff off of me and began doing CPR on him. Rocky entered the cell shortly thereafter and helped Shorty up, who was obviously in pain with a broken arm which was twisted backwards at the elbow. The paramedics arrived, continued CPR, and then took Kroff to St. Francis Hospital, a few blocks away. The next night, Rocky told me and Shorty that, initially, they thought Kroff had fractured the second vertebra in his neck, known as a ‘hangman’s break’, but they later found out that he had suffered paralysis to the left side of his face and arm, as well as severe bruising. Rocky also told us that Kroff wouldn’t be coming back to the jail; he was being transferred by the court to the State Hospital for a mental evaluation first. Not long after this incident, I was transferred to the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory (KSIR) at Hutchinson, to begin my burglary sentence.

Almost a year later, Shorty showed up at KSIR, and told me that he, pleading guilty to a manslaughter charge, had taken a plea bargain for seven to fifteen years. He told me that just a couple of weeks after I left the jail, that Kroff had been brought back from the State Hospital because of an attempted escape. Further than that – which was unbelievable – despite Kroff testifying during his trial – telling the jury just what he had told us about shooting those people “like the dogs they were” – he was still found not guilty of all three murders and the attempted murder by reason of insanity. Shorty said that his family, who had money, had hired a psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, of the renowned Menninger Foundation in Topkea. He testified that Kroff was temporarily insane when he shot and killed those people, and severely wounded the fourth person. So, in combination, Shorty said that by hiring the best criminal defense attorneys money can buy, and this renowned psychiatrist, Kroff walked on all of those murders – although the jury convicted him of the attempted escape from the State Hospital. The court gave him time served. “Unbelievable!”, I told Shorty, “and here I sit serving more time than you and Kroff combined, and I haven’t killed anyone.” Like they say, justice is for those with money, not those who face the justice system with court appointed lawyers (which is synonymous with pro forma representation). As the old adage goes, “Money talks, and b.s. walks”!

Wesley I. Purkey 14679-045
United States Penitentiary
P.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808

Thursday, April 23, 2020

A Real Life

By Terry Daniel McDonald

Over the years I’ve gotten into many debates, not because I am particularly good at winning arguments, but rather as a way to pass the time. To challenge what I perceived as wrong, or opposing views when bold opinions were given. 

There have been “I listened to the whole game” sports debates, when plays and stats were contested. “Mathematics is the only absolute” was a proclamation that I had a really good time with, because I spun a web of absolute nonsense out of something that should have been absolutely serious. “You don’t know what you are talking about” political rants could never be avoided, especially when MAGA became a thing. Then religion found its way in, ethics and morality. Alas, we are poor bastards of Socratic methodology, yet our thoughts and actions have evolved to meet the demands of this environment. 

But do we live a real life?

It is usually at night when the eyes are weary and the mind wanders into the realm of speculation that the deeper longings come to the surface. Call it story time, if you will, where men who’ve bonded will share insight into their past, or more deterministic views of the present. 

Enter a friend whose name I will shorten to J. I had met him years before, during those week long stays on various pods. When our paths crossed we were cordial and respectful, learning to trust slowly. Our relationship found new depth in 2015 when I was notified that my aunt died. A late night foray into remembrance is how we shared the grief. He listened to me describe her trials with her daughter before returning to Taft, Texas. How the final letter from my aunt stressed a desire to come visit me, then she overdosed on a mixture of pain and psychotropic drugs a mere fifteen days later. J talked about his uncle’s untimely death, how mysterious it was that he up and disappeared away from his life in northern Texas, to be found dead in another state. The common theme, of course, was that we both lost supporters, friends, and loved ones. In a way it was a tavern scene, where ale, a toast, and ribald banter provided a sort of closure. 

Understand that J is a big man, both in stature and presence, with a brash personality often bold and “in your face”. He never minces words, nor suffers fools lightly. He can also be kind, attentive, and caring, though I imagine he’d say something like, “don’t tell anyone or I’ll have to kill ya.” With that in mind, it was mid-week late in 2017, well past midnight, and damage control was on -- a hip-hop show that broadcasts out of Houston, Texas. J liked his rap which I usually tolerated. When I did not want to listen to it, and said as much, he would go on to challenge “how cultured” I really was. As if I lacked layers of awareness into the depth and complexity of what life is…. 

Anyhow, I didn’t immediately respond.  Hmm, I thought to myself, he can’t be serious, but the statement kept echoing in my mind like a well struck gong. “Not a real life…,” is all I heard, over and over, as if I were back in the 3rd grade writing lines on a chalkboard. Of course there was a certain truth to the words, but I didn’t feel they told the whole story. 

Even now when I look back on the moment, I realize that J was not expecting a reply. He had been telling a story about how his brother would call a radio show and request a song, then wait by the radio for it to come on so he could record it. It was after we laughed about his brother pressing a hand-held recorder to the radio speaker that J suggested we don’t live a real life. There was an abrupt change in his mood.  The sadness in his voice, edged with bitterness and regret, indicated to me that it was unlikely J would change his mind. Still, it ate at me and ate at me, until I couldn’t help but interrupt J’s story with a comment of my own. 

“What…what did you say?” He diced the air with his query as he turned his radio down. 

 “Yes we do,” I said.

*                                        *                                        *

 There were times when I thought I knew what living was. In a general way, life is supposed to follow some sort of order, right? It should flow along towards specific goals. Events strung together among the relationships that bind us. 

When I was a little boy, mom and dad were my world. They were together and that made me feel complete. We travelled and lived as a family, and that felt so very real, right up until the fabric of that reality was ripped to shreds. Dad’s anger got the best of him. Unable to withstand his abuse any longer my mother left. She took my baby brother with her; I stayed behind. 

The life I thought to be real ceased in an instant. I was forced to change and adapt to, then suffer the new arrangement which was a nearly four-year-long custody battle. I was kidnapped by my mother and the court made her take me back. One night in a grocery store, dad grabbed one of my arms, mom took the other, and they played tug-o-war with my body. Had they managed to tear me in half that would have perfectly matched how I felt.

Life then for me was about being the “Danny” each side wanted me to be. In my father’s presence, fearing his anger, I was timid, weak willed, and withdrawn, trying to be so very perfect to avoid punishment. With mother I was freer, but a peculiar shyness made me clumsy to that notion. I did the best I could to meet the expectations in each environment, to please the family members on each side who hated each other, because I didn’t want them to hate me. 

Those divisions became greater complications as I got older. I wanted to resolve them, but I did not know how. Dad went to jail. Mom got custody of me. 

Many moves followed, putting me in different schools where I was forced to meet new people. It could have been a grand adventure had I been predisposed to seek out the positive aspects of those situations. Unfortunately, though, I struggled because I felt like it was a betrayal to get to know people only to leave them behind. Betrayal was an acute aspect of my reality. I felt betrayed by my father’s abandonment and by the tension in my family. I really did not want to replicate that in other parts of my life. It was impossible to avoid getting too attached to people, though. Which means the suffering I endured was unavoidable. 

My teenage years were very frustrating because my grandfather died and dad was a shadow. I was a victim of abuse due to being naïve. Those losses and hard lessons made me retreat even more, again because it was too hard for me to find positive lights in those dark, negative experiences. 

Life for me kept evolving, constantly changing but it was never less than real. I felt it every day, navigated every circumstance, and faced the consequences of my actions, good or bad. 

When I entered high school I had a well-established identity crisis and not a clue as to what I wanted to do. If life is about the relationships that bind us, I also failed because I found it hard to connect with people. But let me be very clear: I had a wonderful family. Both sides were kind to me in their own ways, it is just that I internalized things in a way that prevented me from truly appreciating that.

I also had yet to develop the ability to really consider another’s perspective through their eyes, all that might be complicating their life as a means to understand behavior. My narrow-minded focus led to selfishness, and all of the inexplicable, self-destructive behaviors I would eventually exhibit. 

*                                        *                                        *

“Stop being a jackass,” J said. “You know what I mean.”

And I did. Of course I did. But J also knew that I had a way of looking into things deeper, fleshing them out. For nearly thirty minutes we had gone back and forth on the subject of life. He kept up a steady stream of belittling phrases, while I openly explored the idea of what life is or could be in various places. 

From my prison recliner- a rolled up mattress I leaned against, the folded up towel I sat on, and the table I propped my feet on -- I contemplated the images of my life that flashed through my mind. How I had lived at each stage and how it all kept changing, forcing me to do the same. Right up until the point when I entered prison. 

“We live within the expectations of this environment,” I said after a long break, to let him cool off a bit. “All of what we do is real, the choices we make, the consequences we endure, and the relationships we have.”

“What expectations?” he asked in a snide tone. 

“The rules, what we do….”

“But we don’t have to do anything.”

“You could look at it like that if you want to, but part of living is also about ordering things for yourself, right?”

Heavy breathing came through our mic system. We could recline in our respective cells and have civilized conversations that did not require yelling out our doors. 

J however was done with the conversation. “You are being an idiot.”

Well, maybe so from his perspective. I could only sigh and let it go. I fully understood how he longed to be out in the world with his brother, enjoying what life out there could offer. It was a sort of shell he had packed his mind into, I guess, where the seed of hope for release kept emerging as bitterness. 

Was I a total jackass to challenge his views concerning why he didn’t want to do anything in this place by the rules? He had already sacrificed 20 years to the “system” as punishment for being an accomplice to a crime, a crime in which the actual shooter received less time. Other accomplices were already in the world. The unfairness of why he was being kept in a cell weighed heavily on him, it saddened me. But that, too, was a part of what a real life is. It is the pleasure, longing, expectations, and pain. If we are keeping a tally arguing fairness then every man or woman in prison should be in a constant rage. 

One of these days, I do hope the Law of Parties is repealed. Under the Law of Parties an accomplice to a crime can receive a comparable sentence to that of the actual offender. J, at 18 years old, was sentenced under the Law of Parties and received a capital life sentence, for which he will have to serve 40 flat years before he becomes eligible for parole. During the time my friend has served already, his mother died and an uncle. His brother became a high school teacher, married, and his kids are all grown up. The beautiful thing is that they keep in contact with J, support him the best they can, but still it is as he would stress, “not a real life.”

*                                        *                                        *

Both Matthieu Ricard (a Tibetan Buddhist) and Wolf Singer (a neurologist) would tell you that we relate to the world through what is, to us, a series of subjective experiences. Through our two-dimensional eyes the outer world is formed as a construction of the brain. We ultimately decide what an object is, the dimensions of the world we inhabit, and how we relate to it all.

Through the notion of bounded reality, we simply cannot know everything so we only perceive a small amount of the various signals the outer world provides. At the same time, many of those signals may in fact, be wholly unique to us, in such a way that certain signals will be deemed more “real” than others. 

The ultimate conundrum then is how, over the course of our lives, we constantly superimpose the processes of the mind on the outer world we are called to relate to. We determine what is real. The constructions of our mind could, in a very deterministic way, be false, but conditioned beliefs often blind a person to the need to change. 

Intrinsically, both advanced neuroscience and ancient philosophy (notably Buddhism) makes it clear that we possess the ability to affect the processes of the mind, to then alter how our perception of the outer world engages our emotions. 

And yet, there have been movements or general ideas throughout antiquity that would challenge that premise. Human beings can only be improved through selective breeding, or so Plato’s Republic (c.378 BCE) suggested. Tommaso Campanella, an Italian philosopher and poet, imagined utopia in City of the Sun (1623), where the socially elite are only allowed to procreate. Then consider how ruling families bred among themselves, and how other caste systems in various cultures operated, including the brutal caste system in India that still exists today. 

In more modern times Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin was influenced by the theory of natural selection and wrote in his Hereditary Genius (1896) that proposed marriages between men of distinction and women of wealth would eventually produce a gifted race. Galton then influenced Darwin with scientific evidence on hereditary genes, which led to Darwin’s argument relevant to evolution that the greatest steps humans could make would be to realize they are not completely guided by instinct. Instead, humans had the ability to control their own future evolution through selective breeding. 

The field of Eugenics or “Social Darwinism” pervaded cultural thought in Scandinavian countries, North America, Latin America, Japan, China, and Russia. In the United States, the rise of Eugenics coincided with the Progressive Era, and remained influential up until 1940. In that time however, it achieved support from luminaries such as zoologist Charles Davenport, plant geneticist Edward M. East, Nobel Prize laureate Hermann J. Muller, then President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State Elihu Roon, and Associate Justice to the Supreme Court John Marshall Harlan. And of course, the Nazis made Eugenics quite infamous. 

As you can imagine, the different ways to determine what a real life could be were often determined as nothing more than accidents of birth. The class you were born into was the only life you could know. Here, in the United States, our “American Dream” is based on meritocracy, but the shadow of Eugenics still exists in racist propaganda. It also lingers, to some degree, as the foundations for criminal justice policies and the prison system. Because we are considered negatives, the degenerates that Eugenics supporters wanted to remove from the breeding pool. 

Mind training is an effective tool that strongly defies the nonsensical belief in superior breeding. Do genetics play a role in human design? Absolutely! But each man or woman has the opportunity to make choices to strengthen their minds and bodies throughout their lives. Age is not a limiting factor in that process either. Granted, a young mind is not biologically considered fully developed until the age of twenty-five, but even an older mind can be neutrally activated to learn and change. 

*                                        *                                        *

So what is the answer? Do we live real lives in prison? 

I asked another friend, RT, and he said, “If you are asking me to give an answer right now, I would have to say no, based on activities. And yet, that is a question to sit and ponder. If I do that, I imagine my answer will evolve because I do believe a part of living is in how we react to our environment.”
I didn’t let that initial debate with J die either. On another day, again late at night as we listened to the radio, I asked him, “Did you change your mind about our lives being real?”

“No,” he replied calmly, “and when I talked to my brother about it at visit, he agreed with me so there is nothing more to discuss.”

J continues to desire the world beyond these walls, and it is hard to fault him for that. My family is out there too, and they are getting old. My aunt died in 2015, then both grandmothers in 2018. Time stands still for no one, and I am locked in here watching it pass by. But then we are all doing time, as Bo Lozoff suggested. We do the time we are given in the environments we live in. As the events of each day blend in with the relationships that bind us, we should strive to be more aware of positive experiences, how they are mentally enriching, enhancing us in various ways, carrying us forward. Otherwise, no matter where we are, what would be the point of living at all?

Terry Daniel McDonald 1497519
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886

Thursday, April 16, 2020

I’m Here for You

An original short play written by Larry N. Stromberg

On the stage is Old Louey.  Old Louey is 85 years-old; he is bald, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and facing progressive loss of mental capacity.

Old Louey sits in a chair staring into deep space.  He has a walking cane in his right hand.  The cane moves back and forth from Old Louey’s shaky hands.  His body movements are slowly going out of control due to his disease.

There is silence on stage as Old Louey just sits there.  His lack of facial expression makes him look almost lifeless.

Old Louey’s oldest son enters from stage left.  His name is Joey and he’s a middle-aged man in his early fifties.  Joey is visiting his father for the first time in years, and he’s unprepared for the extent of Old Louey’s deterioration.  Joey slowly walks over to his father with regret in his eyes.  Joey tries to hold back his tears of sorrow.  He looks at his father and begins to speak softly.

Joey:                I’m here for you.  (Pause) I’m here.  (Beat) I’m gonna stay with you this time.  
                        I’m not going away anymore.  I’m here.  Pop.  (Beat) Here to stay.

(Joey looks closely at his father, lovingly.)

Joey:                I’m sorry for letting you down.  Pop.  For letting our whole family down.  For letting Jenna and the kids down.  (Beat) For letting myself down.

(The tears begin to flow from Joey’s eyes.)

Joey:                You always had my best interests at heart, Pop.  You wanted me to take over the family business. This was a dream you had for me. You built the business from the ground up. With blood, sweat and a few bucks in your pocket.  I admire you for that, Pop.  The business was a gift you wanted to give me. I spit in your face!  I was so strung out, man.  I screwed the hell up!  Just like I did with everything else in my life!  I’m a piece of total crap!  I am. Let’s face the damn truth here!  I let you down, Pop.  I’m so damn sorry, Pop.  My regret is as deep as the deep blue seas. My sorrow is endless.  I carry it everywhere. It’s the cross I must bear, Pop. (Beat) I should have been here for you and the whole family.  For Jenna and the kids!  I failed you all. You all depended on me. 

(Joey takes a step forward in his grief.)

Joey:                Hell, I couldn’t even depend on myself. I couldn’t even trust myself. (Beat) I wanted to do the right thing. I swear I did. (Beat) I always did the opposite.

(Joey turns towards his father, Old Louey just looks on with lifeless eyes.)

Joey:                I didn’t want to hurt you, Pop.  I didn’t want to hurt anybody. (Pause) I didn’t want to hurt myself. (Beat) I destroyed all of my dreams. They’re all gone, Pop.  (Beat) All gone.  I had everything handed to me on a golden plate. A full scholarship to Ohio State to play college ball. It was right there in my grasp.

(Joey looks into his hands and clenches his fist with dread in his eyes.)

Joey:                it was right there and, I wasted it.

(Joey lowers his hands in defeat.)

Joey:                I always wanted you to be proud of me, Pop.  It made me feel so important to look into your eyes, and to see how proud you were of me. 

(Joey steps back and looks into his father’s lifeless eyes.)

Joey:                What do you see now, Pop?  Do you see your son?  A junkie?  A murderer?  (Beat) What do you see?  Can you see me at all?  (Beat) Can you, Pop?

(Joey looks forward in remembrance of a grand day so long ago.)

Joey:                You always taught me to be a great running back, from Pop Warner through high school.  It was you, Pop.  I wanted to be just like you. You were a running back in your football days. You are my hero, Pop.  (Beat) You always pushed me to be the best I could be. To be tough. Strong with no fear. To run with the fury. (Pause) Nobody could outrun me in wind sprints. I was the fastest. You built me an awesome gym at the house. We worked out hard together, man. Nobody could out-bench press, squat, shoulder press and deadlift me. Nobody, man. (Pause) All the girls wanted to go out with me. I loved it.

(Joey smiles with a large grin.)

Joey:                You were at every practice, Pop.  Remember?

(Old Louey looks on with the eyes of a doll.)

Joey:                I miss your encouragement. How you cheered me on at every game.

(Joey paces to the other side of his father in the chair.)

Joey:                Do you remember that fame against Ridley High, Pop?  Huh?  (Beat) I’ll never forget it. It was snowing heavy that day. The snow was coming down so thick. I couldn’t see the score board or even my breath. There was no visibility. But I knew there was only five seconds left on the game clock, Ridley was up on us (21-17) and I wanted the ball. Even in the thick snow, your image stood out standing in the stands.  I heard you yell out; “Run with the fury, Joey”.  This gave me the inspiration even more, Pop.  There was no stopping me. They fed me the ball and I rushed through an open gap and ran it in for the win.  That game was for State Champions!  It was the greatest day of my life, Pop!  You were so proud of me. 

(Joey looks at his father in the chair.)

Joey:                It was an honor to give you the game ball, Pop. 

(Enthusiasm is seen on Joey’s facial expressions as he things about the great day.)

Joey:                It was the greatest day of my life. We shared it together. Some things we never forget. I hope you didn’t forget, Pop.

(Old Louey just stares into deep space. Sorrow appears back on Joey’s face even more.)

Joey:                Don’t worry about nothing, Pop.

(Joey steps back towards Old Louey; he places his hand on his father’s shoulder very gently.)

Joey:                Everything is gonna be okay.  I promise you this, Pop.  I give you my vow. (Pause) I’m clean now and doing good with my recovery. I’m attending a program called “Celebrate Recovery” every week, Pop. It’s a good program. I’m drug free and I’m gonna stay that way. (Pause) Jenna and the kids are safe, Pop.  I’ll never hurt them again. They forgive me, Pop.

(Joey breaks down in tears.)

Joey:                They want me back home, Pop. After all these years. They love and forgive me, I’m so grateful. (Beat) Mama is okay, Pop.  She is. She loves you so much. Frankie and Tina love you too. We all love. Everybody is good. Good to go. 

(Suddenly, Old Louey stands up in a frenzy, yelling and screaming. His hands shaking out of control.)

Old Louey:       (Screaming) The ocean blue!!!!

(The walking cane is shifting back and forth with violent force in Old Louey’s right hand.)

Old Louey:       (Screaming) Blue skies and the endless sea of misery!!!

                        (Joey tries to calm his father down.)

Joey:                Take it easy, Pop! Take it easy!

                        (Old Louey screams out even louder.)

Old Louey:       The wind will fly you away!!! Away you go!!!

Joey:                Relax, Pop!!!

Old Louey:       UP and away!!!

                        (Joey slowly sits down his father.)

Joey:                Rest, Pop.  Don’t worry about nothing. I’m here.

Old Louey:       The darkness is coming…coming to take us away!

Joey:                I’m here, Pop.  I’m here for my second chance. The prodigal son is home.

                        (Old Louey calms down and he stares into the endless space once again.)

Joey:                I’m standing by your side, Pop.  I’m the man you always wanted me to be now.                I am.

                        (Joey looks at his father with extreme sadness in his eyes.)

Joey:                I hope you hear me.  (Pause) I’m sorry for not listening to you.  You gave such sound advice and wisdom.  I was so damn prideful. So stupid.  I disagreed with you, Mama, and our whole family.  When I got Jenna pregnant, I thought my football days were over. You told me to be the man of responsibility. To be a man. Be a good husband and a good father. 

                        (Joey speaks on to his father, as Louey’s eyes are motionless.)

Joey:                You said to me this:  That I could have both. A family and still go to college and play ball. I could have both. That you would stand by my side. 

                        (Joey starts to break down again)

Joey:                I wanted both, Pop. I truly did. (Beat) I couldn’t take the pressure. Going to school; keeping my grades up; football, and then having a family. A wife and twins. How could I handle all this, huh?  Being a husband and father took away from me dreams Pop.  That’s how crazy was my thinking, Pop. (Beat) I love Jenna and the kids.  I do.  (Beat) Keeping my grades up was killing me too.  Football wasn’t fun anymore. It became work. Demanding.  (Beat) Everything in life became demanding, Pop.  You were demanding. 

                        (Old Louey just stares on into the unknown.)

Joey:                I needed something to take the edge off.  Heroin did that for me.  (Pause) I turned to drugs. I became a junkie. A damn addict; who would do anything to get high. (Pause) Then my whole world was turned inside out.

                        (Joey cries on in his shame.)

Joey:                I hurt Jenna, Pop. You tried to help me.  (Beat) I didn’t want anyone’s help. I just needed a fix, man.  (Beat) I’m sorry I hurt you, Pop.  I went crazy; right in front of our whole family and I hit you.  Broke your jaw. (Beat) I’m so damn sorry, Pop.  Please forgive me.  You’re my hero, Pop. I can’t take it back.  I can’t change that day. (Beat) I’m still your son, Pop.  I’m your son.

                        (Joey wipes away the tears from his eyes)

Joey:                I was so ashamed for what I did to you and our family.  For what I did to Jenna and the kids.  The way I yelled and screamed like a maniac!  The violent outbursts! I was in the abyss, Pop. (Beat) My addictions and mental health issues had me in complete darkness.  (Beat) I was on the chaotic road of destruction.

                        (Then, Joey looks forward as the sorrow overwhelms him.)

Joey:                I killed a man to feed my addiction, Pop. (Pause) I took his life for only fifty freaking bucks.

                        (Joey breaks down even more.)

Joey:                I took his life, Pop. (Beat) This was a man who had a family.  There were people who adored this man. They depended on this man. He was loved. (Pause) He was loved just like I was loved. I killed this man. He was a good person. 

                        (The tears flow from Joey’s eyes.)

Joey:                My sorrow is endless, Pop. I’m so sorry. I was so selfish. So lost, man. (Pause) That day destroyed so many lives. This man’s family and my family. (Beat) You were so ashamed of me. You didn’t even show up for the trial, Pop.  

                        (Joey looks at his father with deep regret.)

Joey:                One day you stood high in the stands cheering me on.  (Beat) Then one day I wasn’t your son anymore for what I’d done. You were no-where to be found.  I was a disgrace to you. 

                        (Joey cries on.)

Joey:                I heard Mr.  Turner’s family speak of the agony that I caused them. The tremendous loss that they suffered. The hate they had for me. (Beat) I hated myself. I told them how sorry I was. (Pause) The jury found me guilty and I ended up with a sentence of 20 to 40 years for what I’d done.

                        (Joey looks forward again.)

Joey:                It was my fall. My fall from grace. 

                        (Joey steps behind his father and speaks on in agony.)

Joey:                When I killed this innocent man, it broke your heart. Coming to prison broke your heart. Destroying my life, my family, my dreams broke your heart. I know this. This breaks my heart, Pop.  

                        (Joey is still as he looks at his father, wiping his tears.)

Joey:                I’m here now, Pop. I really love you; I need to make this right between us.  I’m never gonna let you down again. I promise. (Beat) You never came up with Mama to visit me behind bars. I know: you were ashamed of me. I know, Pop.  I understand. I do, Pop. (Pause) After all these years in the penitentiary, I’m here now. I’m never gonna let you down ever again, Pop, I promise you this. 

                        (Joey places his hand on his shoulder again.)

Joey:                Forgive me, Pop. I need you to forgive me. (Pause) I want you to be proud of me. I know when I destroyed my dreams; it destroyed your dreams. 

Joey:                I know, Pop. (Beat) I’m a better man now. I got an education in prison. I learned a few trades and gained my faith in the Lord, Pop. I took many drug and alcohol programs to deal with my addictions and mental health issues. I’m attending good programs now every week. I’m on a good straight path. Jenna and kids have accepted me back into their lives fully, Pop. I’m trying to make things right. Mr. Turner’s family has forgiven me now; after all these years they have chosen to forgive me, Pop.

                        (Joey removes his hand from his father’s shoulder.)

Joey:                I’m not a failure, Pop. I’m gonna make it. Please forgive me. I need you to forgive me, Pop. (Beat) Please forgive me. 

                        (Old Louey just sits there almost lifeless even more; Joey looks at his father eye to eye, hoping for a response.)

Joey:                I know you can hear me. You’re stronger this, Pop. I know you can hear me.

                        (Joey raises his voice.)

Joey:                (Aggressively) You’re stronger than this! You were bigger than life, Pop! You pushed me and said I can do anything in this life. I can do anything. Be anything! Anything I wanted to be! You said; “All you need is to work hard and have faith!” Remember telling me that, Pop? Huh? Well, I’m telling you the same! You can beat this, Pop? You’re strong! You are! (Pause) You are.

                        (Joey’s sorrow is immense, as he looks at this father’s frozen face with no response. Joey wipes the tears from his eyes once again.)

Joey:                Do you remember this, Pop? This song?

                        (Joey slowly begins to sing softly to his father.)

Joey:                (Sings) I’m here for you/you’re never alone. I’m here for you/you’re never alone. I’m here for you/you’re never alone. You’re never alone/you’re never alone. I’m here for you/you’re never alone. 

                        (Joey sings with heavy emotion.)

Joey:                (Sings) You’re never alone/never alone.
                        I’ll encourage you/you’re never along.
                        I’ll protect you/you’re never alone.
                        I love you/you’re never alone.
                        I’m here for you/you’re never alone.
                        You’re never-ever-alone.

                        (Joey stops singing.)

Joey:                I’m here for you.
                        (Old Louey still stares into deep space. Joey wipes the tears from his eyes.)

Joey:                I hope you hear me, Pop.  I really hope you do.  I love you, Pop.  I always will. I’m here for you.

                        (Joey turns away in his emotional pain and slowly turns away from his father. That’s when Old Louey slowly grabs Joey’s hand with sincere fatherly love, Joey turns back to see his father smiling at him with a large happy grin. Old Louey then stands up and becomes eye to eye with his son.  Joey’s joy is extraordinary.)

Joey:                (Overwhelming joy) I knew you could hear me.  I knew it.

                        (Joey hugs his father.)

Joey:                You’re back, Pop. You’re back!

                        (Joey and Old Louey break from the hug.)

Joey:                You’re back. Miracles do happen, Pop. 

                        (Old Louey smiles on. Then he begins to sing.)

Old Louey:       (Sings) I’m here for you/you’re never alone. I’m here for you/you’re never alone.

Joey:                You sing like you used to, Pop.

Old Louey:       (Sings on) I love you/you’re never alone.

                        (That’s when Old Louey starts to walk away from Joey.)

Old Louey:       You’re never alone/never alone.  I’m here for you/you’re never alone.

                        (Old Louey starts to exit stage left. Joey becomes confused.)

Joey:                Where you going, Pop?

Old Louey:       (Singing) You’re-never-ever-alone.

                        (Old Louey exits stage left completely.)

Joey:                Come back, Pop! Don’t leave me again! Come back!

                        (Joey screams out for his father.)

Joey:                Come back, Pop! I’m here for you now!!! I’m here now!! I’m sorry, Pop! I’m sorry!

                        (Joey yells out in desperation.)

Joey:                I’m here for you!!!

                        (A loud voice is heard in the background.)

Male Voice:     What the hell is going on in there, Romero?  You talking to yourself?

                        (Joey is silent in his helpless state.)

Male Voice:     Keep it down! You’ll wake up the whole damn block!

                        (Joey is silent in his helpless state.)

Male Voice:     Do you understand me, Romero? Huh?

                        (Joey responds to the correctional officer’s voice.)

Joey:                I understand, officer. I understand.

                        (There’s silence on stage.  Joey stands there in total despair. He stands a broken man. Lost in regret. He lowers his head. His arms drop to his side. A defeated man.)

                        (The lights darken on the stage.  Joey backs away in the darkness.)

                        (There’s silence.)

The End

Larry Stromberg DG6370
Smart Communications/PA DOC
SCI Phoenix
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733
"I'm Here for You" placed third in the drama category for the PEN AMERICAN 2019

My name is Larry Stromberg, and I am a resident at S.C.I. Phoenix in Pennsylvania.  I’ve written and staged over sixty plays since being incarcerated, and look forward to sharing my work with Minutes Before Six readers.