The blood spatter covered his face and arms where the worn T-shirt left his skin exposed. Tiny red dots, slowly drying in the August heat. The infant in his arms gurgled happily while Phillip fed him in the back seat of his wife’s car, bloody fingerprints covering the sweating glass of the baby bottle.
Audra lay dead in the front seat. Half her face blown off by first gunshot. Three more bullets redundantly lodged in her heart.
“I love you, baby boy. I love you, baby boy. I love you, baby boy,” whispered the broken father over and over. Silence shrieked in the sweltering summer day on the bayou beside the Mississippi River. Waiting, just waiting, for the sirens and sheriff’s cars to find them, knowing this would be his last chance to hold his child for a long, long time.
Stretched out for miles on either side of Phillip’s perch beside the Arkansas bottomlands just east of the Levee Road, the ragged fields still had a few white bolls that the cotton strippers had missed. The lint looked like snow along the riverbank. The Mississippi River, brown and murky in the summer heat, oozed slowly southward, toward Memphis and Vicksburg.
Phillip remembered the countless hours spent on that stretch of river. Fishing, frog gigging, drinking with his buddies after football practice. Occasionally getting into fist fights, generally good-natured. But Phillip had a quick temper that his coaches and his father continually had to channel onto the football field and the weight room. Even as a toddler, Phillip had been prone to tantrums that both confused and frightened his parents. Now, he spent his days loading and unloading the barges bringing grain to the silos beside the river and managed to keep his dark side under control.
In the silence of the afternoon, Phillip savored the moment, the memories.
“I love you, baby boy. I love you, baby boy. I love you, baby boy.”
It was August of 1970. Phillip and his new wife had graduated from high school the previous May in the tiny Arkansas delta town of Osceola. She, eight months pregnant, and he, hopelessly in love both with her and the teenage ideal of the husband and father he knew he would soon become. Married in a “shotgun wedding,” Phillip was a more-than-willing participant.
Her? Not so much.
Within just a few weeks of the marriage ceremony and birth of the boy, her wild side won out over her virtually nonexistent motherly instincts, and word quickly got back to Phillip that she was partying with one of the local deputies from Crittenden County. Phillip remembered the deputy from high school. He was a couple of years older. Always flirting with Audra. A braggart, a bully, not too bright. Joined the sheriff’s office right out of high school. He had a new girl every week or two. Sometimes juggled two or three at a time. A player.
When his foreman at the grain silo sent Phillip and the rest of the crew home early on a Tuesday afternoon after a conveyor belt broke down, he was surprised to find her car gone. She hadn’t gone back to work since the baby came, and she always had the boy down by noon for his long afternoon nap. The shower stall was still wet. Phillip could smell the perfume lingering in the bedroom in the hot August afternoon. He had a good idea where to find Audra.
Never one to shy away from a fight and knowing he could talk some sense into her, Phillip set out to find the two. He knew the likely places to look for them. Knew all the back roads into fields miles from any house. Places the locals regularly went to drink and smoke pot and have sex. Places where Phillip had taken her during their senior year. Places where they likely conceived their baby boy.
Phillip got back in the truck and stuck the small pistol he carried when he worked in the fields around the river bottoms into his waistband. He could show the gun just in case there was trouble. He wouldn’t use it, he told himself, but the two might need to have the fear of Jesus put into them.
Phillip drove down the Levee Road past his job site and north toward Luxora. Following the bend in the river, he checked out some favorite haunts. The sandbar on the oxbow lake by the Howard’s soybean field. The abandoned barn where the Miller’s had a horse farm back in the 50s. The old store outside Moran. The Drift-In Lounge, parking lot empty. Heading north toward Mill Bayou down a dirt path used only by tractors and teenagers hiding from their parents and the law, Phillip spotted her car through the dense stand of pines near the water. The top of the baby’s car seat visible through the dusty rear window.
Though the air thick with mosquitos and the dank smell of the bayou, Phillip watched the couple. Audra perched on the hood of the old Impala, legs wrapped around the deputy’s waist. He with jeans heaped around his ankles, thrusting against her, again, again, again. Tears blurred Phillip’s vision. Sour bile filled his mouth and his stomach turned to hot lava. He pulled the gun from his waistband. Safety off. Arm raised to shoulder level. Eyes burning with tears.
Never hearing him approach, Phillip’s first shot just grazed the deputy’s shoulder. The second traveled straight through his throat, choking off croaks of protest, of shock. Blood arced gracefully across the brown uniform shirt, splattering the badge pinned to the pocket, turning the crunchy late summer grass the color of rust. Spraying across Phillip’s face and arms as he loomed over the body.
Pulling her dress back down, Audra lunged behind the wheel, losing a shoe in the grass. But Phillip was too fast. He pushed her across the wide bench seat, eyes clouded with rage and crazed by fury. Her screaming and begging could not penetrate the boiling madness taking control. His muscles twitched in spastic rhythm. Sweat trickled from his neck down his back. Time stopped. His trigger finger held rigid, tight. Blinded by the rage, the heat, the sweat, the stench of urine, Phillip raised the gun to stop her screaming. Or…was it his?
POP…one hard, thin shot. POP. POP. POP. Three more to the heart. Smoky, acrid stench filled the car. Ears ringing. Ringing.
The heat from the river bottoms rose in waves, filling the air with the smell of dead fish and rotted wood. A mockingbird chattered. Phillip gasped for air. A tree frog croaked. The river swooshed outside the car window. The baby gurgled.
The baby gurgled.
Phillip slowly lowered the weapon, laid it on the seat beside the bloody creature that was once his wife. Thundering heart slowly returning to normal. Trembling under control. He climbed into the back seat with their son. Taking the boy from the car seat, he pulled a bottle from Audra’s bag, cradled him gently, and placed the nipple against the boy’s lips. Fighting back the nausea. Focusing on the baby’s serene face.
Phillip’s memories invaded his nightmare. Arkansas is the best place to live in the summertime. Near a lake or a river. Even a creek will do. Especially for a teenage boy. Something about the water and the heat. Something about the tadpoles and snakes. Phillip and his friends spent hours swimming in the oxbow lakes along the river, shooting snakes and river rats living in the bayou with their .22s and BB guns. Catching lightening bugs in glass jars at night after supper. Teaching the beagles how to track. Sunday afternoons at church—all day singing and dinner on the grounds.
Phillip started hunting with his dad when he was ten. Deer. Squirrels. Turkey. Dealing with ticks and chiggers was nothing compared with the thrill of the hunt, what his dad called “buck fever.” Phillip’s childhood was a happy one, filled with family, friends, and laughter. As he entered his teenage years, he was popular at school with lots of friends. “A good kid. Got a hell of an arm on him and fast too. Good quarterback material. He’s got a temper, that one. But we’re working on that,” his coaches told Phillip’s dad. The school counselor told his mom, “Start thinking about college. He’ll go far if you can afford it. Might even get a scholarship if he keeps his grades up.”
“I love you baby boy. I love you baby boy.”
It took about an hour for the sheriff to arrive, siren’s blaring, lights flashing. Phillip’s heart rate back to normal. Breathing now controlled. A man fishing nearby had heard the shots and spotted the deputy’s body lying beside the car. Drove back home and called the sheriff’s office. They found Phillip—still holding the baby, blood dried on his arms and face, red speckles across the boy’s tiny forehead—quietly whispering, “I love you, baby boy, I love you, baby boy.”
Offering no resistance, sapped of strength, jeans wet and cold with urine, mind dulled by the harsh reality just starting to emerge from his fog, officers took Phillip to the county jail and called his parents to come get the baby. A quick trial and a sentence of life without parole marked the end of Phillip’s dream of a happy family life in the sleepy Arkansas delta.
His short life as a husband and father was over.
His long life as an inmate in an Arkansas prison had begun.
Phillip was eighteen years old.
The pungent smell of burning paper drifts through the open second-story window. Fourteen-year-old Audra sits, mesmerized by the small flames. Pictures of her father curling on the edges. Turning brown and melting away his face, his hands. The face that appeared in the darkness of her bedroom nearly every night since she was ten. Rough hands that crawled on her skin beneath her nightgown. Tears trickled down the teenager’s cheeks followed by an almost imperceptible smile. Audra’s sly smile belied the fear and the self-loathing she would carry for the remainder of her life. Her mother had finally caught on and kicked the bastard out of the house. Not soon enough.
Audra, four years later
Today is my wedding day and the worst day of my life. Today I hate myself and everyone in it including this baby growing in me making me fat and the laughingstock of Osceola, Arkansas.
“Mama! Come help me with this zipper. I’m like a cow in this stupid dress.”
“Settle down, honey. You still look like my little princess.”
Gawd, she is soooo lame. I just graduated high school. I’m also eight months pregnant by a boy I can hardly stand to see anymore, much less do the things that got me in this trouble in the first place. Phillip—that’s who I’m having to marry this afternoon—was always chasing after me at school.
“Hey, Audra. You look hot as hell today, babe,” Phillip calls out in front of the gym door. I hate when he calls me “babe,” especially in front of my friends. He even finds excuses to come by the Sonic and honks when I walk by with the trays. “Whoo hooo. That is one fine set of legs you’ve got there, babe.” Gag.
The man I really love—the one that got away, as they say—is named Frank and is already twenty-one and a deputy sheriff. He was two years ahead of me in school and we “went all the way” twice before I found out he was cheating on me with my best friend and two other girls on the cheerleading squad.
“I know what you did, Frank. Marsha told me about the party and how you snuck off to the bedroom with that slut from Luxora.”
“Now, Audra. You know I cain’t say no to a prime piece of ass. Especially yours.”
After I broke up with Frank for the umpteenth time, I started going out with Phillip Haynes. Mostly to get back at Frank for cheating. I figured two could play at that game. Phillip has had a crush on me since seventh grade so I knew I could get him anytime I wanted. He’s like a puppy dog, always trying to please me, buying me presents, taking me to restaurants in Blytheville that I know he can’t afford. Writing me love letters and poems. Pathetic!
Anyway, next thing I knew I missed two periods and had to admit to my mama that I was pregnant. After everything that happened with my daddy, she was afraid to do or say anything that might upset me. I wanted to get an abortion but couldn’t come up with the money working my stupid job at the Sonic, and Mama sure didn’t have any to spare. My mother liked Phillip. He sucked up to her worse than he did to me. “Oh, Phillip will make a great dad.” “Phillip will be a faithful husband, Audra. You can’t hope for anything more in this world.” “Phillip will never cheat.” “Phillip will never come home drunk.” Phillip, Phillip, Phillip. I’m sick of Phillip, and I haven’t even walked down the aisle yet.
I’ll tell you this. Just as soon as this kid comes, I’m outta that cheap apartment we rented and headed to Memphis. Frank’s been calling me on the sly and wants to meet at the Peabody on Union Avenue just as soon as I can get away.
“Audra, hon. You’re the only one for me. I was just passing the time with those other girls while I waited for you to come around. You know I love you best of all, and I’ll never cheat again.” Frank could be a real charmer.
Of course, I forgave him. I figure it will take a couple of months to get the old you-know-what back in shape after the kid comes out and I can hook back up with a real man again.
I am eighteen years old.
I never thought I’d be telling anyone my story. I didn’t even know my own story until I turned fourteen. Living with my grandparents—my father’s parents— my entire life just seemed natural to me until I went to elementary school and found out that the other kids lived with their moms and dads.
I had a good life, and my Mamaw and Papaw took me to church, came to all my ball games and school plays, even chaperoned a few dances. But as I grew older, I began to wonder about my parents. I knew my mother died when I was a baby. But no one even gave me a straight answer about my father.
“He just moved away,” they’d say. Or “We don’t really know,” another time.
I guess I was in eighth grade when I finally quit accepting their vague responses and forced the question. “Just tell me the truth, Mamaw. I want to know the truth about my parents.” She looked at Papaw. He nodded slowly. “It’s time he knows. Sit down, Benny.”
It took several hours for Mamaw to tell the story. “Your father, Phillip, was a wonderful, loving son. I couldn’t have another child and we tried to give Phillip the best home we could. But he always had a dark side. A temper. He was usually quiet and content to play by himself most of the time. But once in a while, something just set him off. He’d scream and kick, turn red in the face. Sometimes, we were afraid he would quit breathing.”
Papaw took up the story. “When he got older, in high school, he had mostly outgrown his temper, we thought. He’d have outbursts during football practice or when the boys managed to get hold of some shine or a few beers. But his coach knew how to handle him and just made sure the practice sessions were long enough to wear them all out and keep him too tired to get into a fight.” Papaw bent forward with his head in his hands wiping away tears. I’d never seen him this upset.
“He was head over heels in love with your mother, Audra.” Mamaw took up the story again. “They got married just before she had you. Audra had a rough childhood. Some say her no-good father abused her for years. She turned wild during high school. A few months after you were born, Phillip caught your mother with another man. Frank, a deputy sheriff. One of her old boyfriends, it seems. Phillip just went crazy. Shot them both with a .22 pistol out by the river below Luxora. I’m so sorry to have kept this from you, Ben, but you are old enough now to know the truth. Your father was sent to prison for life. No parole.”
As Mamaw told the story, my father became a real person to me for the first time. Imagine that one day you are in the middle of living a happy life, going to junior high, playing football, noticing girls and then, within the time it takes to watch a movie, you find out that your father murdered your mother, who was a slut and a cheat, and that your father is living just down the road inside an Arkansas prison.
“Wait a minute. You mean, my father is alive? All this time? He’s in prison right here? Right here in Arkansas?” My tears welled up. My hands shook. I shouted. “You’ve been lying about him all this time? I thought he just walked out on me or was dead.” I choked back sobs and stormed to my bedroom. It was hours before I came back out. Still shaken. But calmed down. Ready to learn more about my father.
The massive frame of the former college offensive lineman and Army drill sergeant barely fit behind the gun-metal gray desk. Warden Jackson stopped to straighten his framed diploma from the University of Arkansas where he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. At well over six feet tall and weighing in at a trim 265 pounds, Jackson’s fifteen years as warden of the men’s prison at Tucker, Arkansas, still satisfied his desire to serve his country and to improve the lives of the inmates under his care.
When Phillip first arrived in 1971, Jackson had been warden for just over a year. He made it a point to meet personally with all the lifers under his care.
“Mr. Haynes.” Jackson rose from his seat behind the desk. He towered over the nervous teenager as they shook hands. “I understand you’ll be with me for a long time.”
“Yes, sir.” The eighteen-year-old spoke in a low, raspy voice, keeping his eyes on the floor. Phillip’s white jumpsuit was stained and wrinkled, the ones worn by the new inmates—the “short hairs” as they were called.
“You graduated high school?”
“Yes, sir.” Still not making eye contact with the huge man sporting a well-starched shirt and tie, the high-and-tight haircut straight off an Army recruiting poster.
“Okay. You stay out of trouble, do your time on the hoe squad, learn to fit in, and we’ll see about getting you assigned a job in the library or down at the vo-tech school in a few months. You and I will be seeing a lot of each other. We can help make each other’s lives easy or hard. Mostly it’s up to you. I’ll be fair with you if you follow my rules. Deal?”
“Yes, sir.” Barely above a whisper.
The first few months were hard. Phillip’s temper landed him in an isolation cell twice. After the second fourteen-day stretch in the seven-by-ten concrete box, he asked to see a counselor to help him learn to control his angry outbursts. A year later with no further disciplinary actions and true to his word, Warden Jackson reassigned Phillip from the hoe squad to the library. The soft-spoken teenager had found his niche.
Fourteen years into his life sentence, Phillip had proven to be hardworking and trustworthy. An inmate neither the guards nor the warden ever worried about and, truth be told, rarely noticed. The ideal inmate.
Late one afternoon, word came down from Chaplain Tom’s office that Haynes’s fourteen-year-old son has asked to visit. In all the years since he arrived, Phillip has had just two visitors—his parents. Now they’ve asked to have Ben Haynes added to his visitation list. Warden Jackson sent for Phillip at his job in the prison library. Chaplain Tom joined them in the warden’s office.
“Sit down, Mr. Haynes. Chaplain Tom and I have something to ask you.” Warden Jackson spoke first. “Your son Ben has asked to come meet you. Now, your parents have been honest with him about what happened with his mother. They’ve told him everything. They seem to think it will do the boy good to meet you face to face.”
The chaplain further explained. “It’s Ben’s idea, Mr. Haynes. Your parents are not pushing him, but they’re hoping this will help the boy deal with the situation. What do you think?”
Whether the boy would be allowed to visit rested wholly with Phillip. Known now as a peaceful man given to long hours of introspection, reading, and quiet brooding, he asked Warden Jackson and the chaplain for some time to think.
“I’ll give you my decision tomorrow, if that’s okay.” Of course.
Ben met his father for the first time in the spring of 1985. They met in my office, a warm, serene room, an oasis in a concrete desert. The Haynes couple had prepared the boy well—an honest accounting of his history, of Phillip’s deep love for his mother Audra, of his psychotic break in the face of her betrayal.
As we gathered on the sofa and armchairs in my lamp-lit office, I spoke quietly with Ben and his grandparents for a few minutes before the officer brought Phillip down from the barracks.
“This will be awkward.” I warned them all. “Phillip is a soft-spoken guy, hardworking, never gets in trouble. Meeting you, Ben, will be as hard for him as it is for you. I’ve worked with Phillip for a long time, and I can tell you that he is a man who has deep, genuine regrets about killing your mother. He is a man whose heart broke that day. He has never fully recovered, and I doubt he ever will. Keep that in mind during our meeting today.”
I said a short prayer with the three of them before we heard the soft knock on my door.
Phillip entered the office. Wearing his clean, starched Class A white uniform shirt and pants, his eyes were already welled with tears. He stretched out his trembling hand to Ben to touch him for the first time since the police separated them on that horrible day fourteen years prior. They shook hands. Phillip reached up to brush away the tears that streaked down his pasty cheeks. Ben looked away. Mamaw Haynes patted his arm. We all finally sat. Silence engulfed the tiny room.
Dealing with uncomfortable situations is one of my routine duties as a prison chaplain. With many icebreakers in my repertoire, I soon had a conversation going. Ben’s school. His football team. How the farm was doing. What was going on in Osceola.
“Phillip, tell Ben about the library where you work.”
His slow, Arkansas drawl seemed more pronounced today. “They put me to work in the library when I’d been here about a year. Not too many inmates have a high school diploma so that put me in good for the job. Sure beats working the fields or mopping floors. I like it. Get to read a lot of books. I like James Michener and a new guy named Stephen King. His are scary but fun to read.”
“Oh, man,” Ben chimed in, “I just finished Firestarter. Have you read it yet?”
Phillip and Ben talked novels for a bit, then turned to Phillip’s position as president of the Inmate Council and the woodwork he was doing in the hobby craft program.
“And I’m playing bass in the chaplain’s praise band on Wednesday and Sunday. Sometimes we practice on Saturday when there’s not a lot of visitors. We do get kinda loud, huh Chaplain?”
“Wow, did you learn to play bass here?” Ben was fascinated. It had never crossed his mind that prison was anything more than a warehouse for hard-core criminals and psychopaths. After an hour and a half, I pulled the meeting to a close with another short prayer. Phillip held out his hands to his mother and Ben and held them as we prayed.
“I hope to see you again, Ben.” Phillip caught his mother’s eye; she nodded and smiled. A silent pact to bring Ben back again.
I never knew my real mother. She was dead before I was three months old, so Mamaw was the only mother I had ever really loved. Meeting my dad for the first time was scary, but he turned out to be a normal guy if that is possible for a double murderer. Chaplain Tom told us that prisons are full of good men who did a bad thing. I think my dad fits that description.
The next time we went to visit, we stayed in the visitation room with the other families. Phillip—I can’t call him Dad just yet—has such a low, soft voice that sometimes he’s hard to hear. Mamaw packed some snacks, and we got Cokes from the machine. He and Papaw told stories about hunting along the bayous, and the time Phillip caught a water moccasin in the Miller’s pond. We laughed so hard that Mamaw nearly peed her pants.
After I turned sixteen, Papaw let me drive over to Tucker by myself. By then, the officers knew me, and Warden Jackson gave permission for me to come without my grandparents, who were getting too old to travel all day. We played Scrabble. Chess. Talked about books we’d read. Mamaw died when I was twenty, six years after I first met my dad. Now I call him Dad. When Papaw passed a couple of years later, Warden Jackson gave Dad a twenty-four-hour furlough to come to the funeral in Osceola. We cried together and hugged before he got back in the security van for the trip back to Tucker.
“I’ll see you in a few weeks, Dad.”
“I better see you. You’ve got a birthday coming up. Getting old, Benny! See ya soon.”
Being a nurse inside a maximum-security prison is not exactly what I planned when I enrolled in nursing school twenty years ago. I’ve been here at the Tucker men’s prison now for fifteen of those years and couldn’t be happier. It’s like getting paid to do missionary work right here in Jefferson County, and I don’t have to travel to some awful third-world country where they don’t even speak English or use real money.
Seeing the inmates for their minor as well as major health care needs brings me into contact with all sorts of criminals. Some are pure evil and need to be thrown in a hole and forgotten. Some are simply good ole boys who got caught doing something wrong; any one of them could be my brother or my second cousin, my daddy or my next-door neighbor. Some committed horrible crimes in the heat of the moment—a moment and a situation that will never happen again—and are spending the rest of their lives locked up here. One such fella, Phillip Haynes, was a sad case who I came to know quite well over the years.
I met Mr. Haynes during a routine sick call visit to the prison infirmary. I had seen him in the library when I went in there to check out books, but he rarely came to the infirmary or complained about anything concerning his health. He submitted a request to see someone about “black, tarry stools.” Following standard protocols, I scheduled him on my appointment book for the next day.
“I’ve been down here before for this,” he told me in his deep, quiet voice. Phillip was nearly sixty years old, about 5’6”, shorter than average, weighed in at 175 pounds, with salt-and-pepper hair, and a pale, pasty complexion, typical of the older inmates who worked the indoor jobs.
“Oh yeah? Let me look back at your history. Just a sec.” I scrolled backward in his electronic health record. Two weeks. One month. Three months. “Looks like this is the fourth time you’ve complained about this same problem in the past ninety days. I think you need to see the doctor ASAP.”
“That’d be great, ma’am. I’ve finished the Imodium they gave me and had two refills already. It hasn’t done a thing to help.”
I made Mr. Haynes an appointment to see Dr. Wright the next day. As I expected, the doctor sent Mr. Haynes out for a colonoscopy. Unfortunately, it was another month before the clinic had an opening. Now, it had been four months since Mr. Haynes had first complained of the problems with his stools. The report was bad. Colon cancer. Stage 4. Surgery and chemotherapy ordered. Prognosis poor.
In 2012, I had to call Ben Haynes with the news.
“Ben, this is Chaplain Tom from Tucker. Gotta minute?”
“Sure. Is something wrong? Is Dad alright?”
“No Ben, he’s not. I hate to tell you, but Phillip has been diagnosed with colon cancer. Stage 4. It’s bad. We’ve got him scheduled for surgery and chemo at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock. But the doctors are not very hopeful. I know the truth hurts, but I can’t lie or mislead you, son.”
“Can I see him? Will they let me go to the hospital?”
“Sure. I’ve arranged things with Warden Jackson. The officers are expecting you. When do you think you can go?”
The department provided the care we termed “medically necessary”—chemotherapy followed multiple surgeries. But treatments were not successful and in 2015, doctors, both in the prison and in the community, agreed that Phillip probably had less than a year to live.
Ben, his “baby boy” now a middle-aged man who had never married—a quiet loner much like his father—visited regularly during those difficult three years. Phillip was transferred to the prison hospital in Malvern where Ben could visit whenever he wanted. Phillip knew his time was short and some things needed to be said.
“Benny, I hope you know how much I love you and how much getting to know you has meant to me. After I did what I did—I can’t hardly say it, but I killed your mother and you’ll never know how sorry I am. Ben, I just went crazy. I was only eighteen and so angry with her. If I could turn back the clock, I would. Can you please forgive me? I’m begging you, son. Forgive me.”
Ben took Phillip’s shriveled hand in his. Skin thin like the pages of an old King James Bible. “Of course I forgive you, Dad. I forgave you a long time ago. So did Mamaw and Papaw. You don’t even have to ask.”
Their years together, with Phillip behind bars and Ben growing into manhood on his own, had allowed them to come as close as two people in such a dire situation could to a normal, loving relationship. Ben would have gladly taken Phillip home to die, had that been an option.
The cancer took Phillip’s life in 2016. The prison chapel filled with inmates, officers, and staff who had come to know and care for him. I gave the eulogy; then many of Phillip’s fellow inmates told stories—how he had helped them through their early days in lockup; how he provided a role model for the younger inmates; how his quiet presence in the barracks had a calming effect on them; how he learned to accept his fate.
“Haynes was the smartest man I know,” said one grizzled old-timer in a wheelchair. “He read every damned book in that library. I never made it past sixth grade. But ole Phillip, he loved those books.”
“We got to Tucker on the same day,” piped up another. “Got in a fight the first night. I blacked one of his eyes, and he almost broke my nose. Became best friends after that. Phillip always looked out for me, even though he was a little runt.” Laughter broke the tension.
Then Ben spoke to the crowd.
“I didn’t know my dad until I was fourteen. But over the years we became a family. Regardless of what he did when I was a baby, I know my father was a good man, and I’m glad I got to know him. We learned how to be a family despite, or maybe because of, his past deeds and lost life. I love you, Dad. Rest in peace. For me and for the family we became.”
I went back to my cramped office when the service was over. A stack of folders on my desk. New inmates; new short hairs. Men whose lives, like Phillip’s, would never be what they hoped. Men who, like Phillip, would never live their dreams of a normal life. A few of them, pure evil and cruelty. But most, like Phillip, just good men who did a bad thing and now must pay the price. I closed my eyes and prayed that some others in my new stack of files might hear their story and find inspiration in how Ben and Phillip had learned to be a family even in this hard, cruel place.