Bernard McMain, now known as inmate 999341, spent most of the night grasping for the memory of touch; his mother’s touch, to be exact. She had written him for the last time a month ago.
“I don’t wish to burden you with this news, but I’m dying. I’ve known for a while and hoped against truth that I would somehow survive this. This being the big “C.” I am possibly writing my last letter to you.”
Those words tossed around in his head all night. He tried pushing past them like a hunter in a marsh, but they were so strong. He welcomed the moonlight that lay across his face, for sleep would not come.
A few hours before, a stormed passed over the sky. The roar of thunder and blinding rays of lighting matched his disposition.
“I’m sending you a few things I found in the basement. I’m cleaning out the house and preparing it for whoever will live here when I’m gone.”
He sat up and positioned himself on the edge of his bunk. He held a picture of him and his mother against the moonlight. In the picture he was about ten, holding a basketball while his mother stood back cheering for him. His father, who had long ago died from a heroin overdose, took the picture. Bernard remembered that day so well.
“My boy is going to make it to the NBA,” his father said while winding the disposable camera. Bernard’s mother, Ruby, whom everyone called “Lady,” stood on the side of him cheering for him so loudly. He looked over at her, and she winked at him, which propelled him to perform even better. Lady had the softest face and hands known to any human. When she rubbed his face, he marveled in the exclusivity of her touch and begged for more. He would nuzzle his face in her stomach and inhale her familiar scent of vanilla and patchouli oil.
“When I’m gone.”
He stifled back tears from the memory. It had been six long years since he felt her warm embrace. Since she made him peach cobbler and had him sit down to eat it while she stood over him caressing his shoulders. Remembrance was his only confident now.
During his time in prison, she never visited him.
“I can’t see you like that, Bernard. Why was my love not enough for you? You had to go chase the life your father had. I tried being enough for you, Bernard. I can’t come there and see you like that. I did that enough times for your father.”
Her letters came consistently. She laced them with honesty and empathy. They made him feel as if she were holding a mirror to his face.
He was twenty-five years old now; far from the little boy who made a bad decision. He wished he could take back the night that led him here. Stupidity, thrill, and restlessness were the real culprits. At the time, he’d become enthralled in the seemingly glamorous pull of street-life. He soon found that the streets showed no love to a young man. Those streets concealed its brutality and unleashed it blindly.
The night was still and cold. Winter rushed into the city with the wind chill leading the way. The cold smacked him hard on the back of his neck, whipping through his flimsy windbreaker. With his shoulders hunched near his ears, he walked into the liquor store armed without a conscience. The music was low and, as he suspected, no customers were in the store. The Arab cashier eyed him for a split-second then looked away.
It was too easy after that. Bernard raised the gun to the cashier’s face at eye level.
“Just empty the drawer,” was all he told him.
“I don’t want any trouble,” the cashier replied in a thick shaky accent.
“Then just give me the money.”
The cashier did just that. Bernard stuffed the money deep into his pocket and began to back away slowly and cautiously. He was nearly out the door when the rustling of bags startled him, and the gun went off.
The explosion of the gun, the splatter of blood and the lifeless body of a little boy haunted him for those first few years behind bars. Now the death of his mother would be added to those nightmares.
He never thought of his dad. He hardly missed him. What he missed most was the thrill of his mom’s voice, the kisses on his cheek, the songs she sang him before bed, her holding his hand; none of that existed anymore. All he had now were the four walls of his cell and a box full of memories.
He slid back into the lying position when he heard the familiar footsteps of the correctional officer making nightly rounds. While lying down, his tears began to flow. There was no sound to muffle, just tears. The tears came slowly. They gathered all his emotions and spilled them down his face.
Then the sounds come. First, it was a soft sigh followed by a sob that rushed out of his trembling lips, then her name trailed out of his throat becoming a holler. He sounded like a wounded animal letting out a call for help.
The officers came running down to his cell like a herd of elephants. Bernard didn’t move, nor did he stop screaming. He was no longer in his cell. He was back in the courtroom where he was given his sentencing: 25 to Life; where his mother reached for him, but he could only feel the light touch of her fingertips; where he last saw her face; where the faces of his victim’s family were cold and unforgiving.
The officers dragged him from his bunk. He did not resist. They slammed him against the cold, stone floor. He screamed louder and longer. They carried him away into a solitary cell where he knew memory would not escape him, but he hoped time would be kind and eventually kill him.