The Chaplain, the Tao Te Ching, and the Long Game

The Chaplain, the Tao Te Ching, and the Long Game

In Fiction by Jan Jolly

The Chaplain, the Tao Te Ching, and the Long Game
Image by George on Adobe Stock

Arkansas Department of Correction: Grimes Unit, 2000

The inmates leaned on their shovel handles and gazed up the long, sloping fairway. The man in a clerical collar and black shirt stood on the tee box.

“Ostrich?” one inmate whispered.

“No. Lower body is too skinny. Stork?”

“I got it. Praying mantis.”

The three-man work detail laughed, putting away their tools for the day as the field major in charge of the inmates watched from his horseback. Chaplain Thomas Aquinas Paine was a regular on the two-hole course where the prison’s golf course maintenance program was in its second year.

The gangly chaplain—6’4” of bony elbows and knees—packed his clubs and headed home. Tornadoes were predicted tonight, and the prison at Newport on the plains of northern Arkansas was likely to be hard hit. The threatening clouds caused Tom to cut his practice short, unusual for the chaplain, who usually worked on his long game until nearly dark. He needed to practice. He was probably the worst golfer the inmates had ever seen. On his best day, he never drove more than 125 yards.

The golf course maintenance program was the newest vocational class at Grimes. The course had two holes—a par 3 and a par-4—two sand traps, a small water hazard, and three greens where the inmates learned to grow and care for several types of grasses. The program was one of the reasons Tom was pleased with his current position at Grimes. He could play the holes as much as he wanted. Perfecting his long game.

Folding his spindly legs into the golf cart, Chaplain Tom drove the nearly silent cart down the path past the guard shack. His house was on the freeline—the housing area for the prison staff just outside the security fences. Tom, Warden Lewis, Doc Wright and his wife Trula, and a couple of the majors all had houses provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction. They needed to live close by so they could respond quickly to emergencies, and they all enjoyed their little neighborhood. Like so many other small communities across the South, they ate together, prayed together, mourned together, laughed and cried with each other, and over the years, had become a tight family.

Tom admired Trula’s lovingly tended beds of pansies and impatiens as he drove past. They glowed with yellows and dark pinks, not a weed in sight. He caught the aroma of steaks sizzling on her charcoal grill. She had already left Tom and Warden Lewis messages to join her and Harold for an early supper before the storm hit. A confirmed bachelor at age fifty, Tom was grateful for the neighbors and the kinship of his freeline family.

Tom pulled under his carport and parked the cart next to the Volkswagen minibus he inherited from his mother five years earlier. Removing his golf shoes, he brushed off the dirt and grass and left them by the back door. He slipped into the moccasins that sat neatly beside the steps and walked into his immaculate, well-stocked kitchen.

Inside, Tom listened to Trula’s message about supper. He grabbed a cold Bud Light from the refrigerator and sat down in his recliner to catch the local weather report and chill until time to walk over to the Wright’s for supper. Still predicting tornadoes later tonight. Better check the flashlight and grab an umbrella. Sure hope Trula made a pie. Sweet potato. Or maybe peach. Ah, heck...who'm I fooling? Anything she makes will be amazing. Through the open window, the scents of the approaching storm and the prison’s horse barn wafted on the breeze. Tom closed his eyes.

Little Rock 1956

Six-year-old Tommy had spent the day on the golf course with his father. Cecil Paine loved golf almost as much as he loved his booze. Cecil started teaching Tommy the game as soon as he could walk and hold a club. Every day after school they either hit a bucket at the driving range or played nine holes, heading home as soon as the thermos of whisky ran dry.

By the time they got home that afternoon, the Jim Beam bottle—full when they teed off on the first hole that morning—was long empty, and Tommy had to help Cecil walk into the house. Rain was starting, and the skies to the south were a deep grayish green. The air smelled of ozone and manure from the dairy farm across the creek. A southern storm was headed their way.

“Come on, hon,” Penny coaxed. “Have some supper. You’ll feel better.” Cecil just glared at his wife and tossed back another tumbler of whiskey he kept stashed in the cellar. Sheets of rain started pounding the roof of the house about the time Cecil rallied and opened his second bottle. The trees on the other side of the dairy bent with the wind.

Lightning flashed to the south followed by thunder that shook the pictures on the wall. “Help me haul him down the stairs, Tommy.” They dragged Cecil into the basement where they waited out the tornado. The second Jim Beam bottle was, by then, nearly empty. Tommy’s mom read to him from Winnie the Pooh by flashlight while they huddled on an old cot. Cecil muttered to himself on a mildewed mattress in the corner, backlit by the lightning and the storm raging outside.

By midnight, the storm had passed. Several trees were down, but the house was untouched. Tommy’s father lay on the mattress where he would stay until midday, a puddle of vomit on the floor and warm piss staining the mattress. The sight of his father comatose in the corner of the basement and the pungent aroma of urine wafting up the stairs became one of Tom’s earliest memories.

Penny never gave up on Tommy’s father, even as his drinking took over. After losing yet another job, the drinking was so bad he wouldn’t even pick up a golf club.

“Daddy, let’s go hit a bucket,” eight-year-old Tommy begged every afternoon. “Come on, let’s hit at War Memorial today. I’ll wash your truck if you beat me.”

By age nine, Tommy was driving over 150 yards and had a smooth, natural swing. He grew taller every day and soon outgrew the junior clubs his mother bought for him when he started playing four years earlier. Back when his dad was still sober. Back when his dad could still be a dad. Back before he disappeared completely, leaving the boy and his mother to scrape by on whatever work she could find.

A week after his father disappeared, ten-year-old Tommy crawled onto the kitchen counter to reach the plastic cups. He then went into the garage and pulled a spade off the workbench. Out in the yard, Tommy dug a hole deep enough to sink the cup, the rim flush with the grass. Every day after school, he took his putter and nine-iron to the yard where he practiced his short game—putting and chipping—until dark, ever watchful for his father’s pickup to pull into the driveway.

See, Daddy? Hole in one! How’s my backswing? Look at that putt, Daddy. In the hole!

Every night, after homework and a few minutes of reading with his mother, Tommy sat in the chair beside his bedroom window waiting for the headlights of a truck pulling up in front of the house. His father was out there. Somewhere.

Daddy’ll be back. He won’t forget my golf lessons. He must be hurt somewhere. He won’t stay gone long. He can’t. He won’t.

Years passed, and Tommy quit hoping. A little boy’s tears turned into teenage resentment and anger at the long-gone father. Picked up for shoplifting at age thirteen. Suspended during eighth grade for fighting with another kid who called Tommy a son-of-a-truck-stop-whore. Caught breaking into a convenience store at age sixteen. Soon Tommy was known around Central High as a party guy who could pass for twenty-one because of his height, and he could buy booze from any liquor store in town. Most days, Tom kept his friends in stitches cracking jokes and seeming not to have a care in the world. Then, like flipping a switch, he would go dark and sullen for days.

The night of graduation, Tom and a few of his friends hotwired a car in the K-Mart parking lot and took a joy ride in a  car on Faulkner Lake Road—a twisting, swampy two-lane blacktop known for haunted shacks and alligators. Taking his eyes off the road to grab a beer from the backseat, Tom missed a curve. The front tire lurched onto the soft shoulder while the rear of the car swerved into the bog beside the lake.

The crash caused major damage to the stolen car but only minor damage to the drunken teenagers. A pitiless judge, running for re-election with a hard-on-crime platform, gave the new graduate a two-year sentence for grand theft auto and driving under the influence. Tommy’s life took a hard U-turn.

Arkansas Department of Correction: Tucker Unit, 1967

Tom was seventeen when he walked into the Tucker Unit, the Arkansas prison that held the youngest men. The older ones went to Cummins. Now over six feet tall and weighing barely 175 pounds, Tom stood out from the general population of inmates. Still showing the world his mellow, carefree face, the wounds left by his father’s desertion simmered just beneath Tommy’s easy smile and his soft Arkansas drawl. Feet hanging over the end of his cot, he was quickly given nicknames like “Sticks” and “Treetop.” He learned that to survive in this place, he had to keep his dark moods under control. Being the easygoing class clown made life in the barracks easier to bear. But his anger and darkness were never far below Tom’s affable surface.

After his ninety days on the hoe squad, ninety more working in the chicken houses, and making it six months without getting in any trouble, Chaplain Adair and the warden called him to the front office.

“Inmate Paine, you graduated high school, right?” From behind the gunmetal-gray desk, the warden clearly already knew the answer. “Y...Y...Yessir.”

“And you read pretty good?”


The chaplain spoke for the first time. “I’ve recommended that you be assigned to library duty. You’ll start tomorrow, if it’s OK with you, Warden.”

The warden agreed and Tom went to work as the prison librarian. His high school diploma and the knowledge of books learned from his mother set him apart from the average inmate with a fourth-grade education.

“Hey, Treetop. Watcha got for me today?” called the first man to spot him as Tom pushed the metal book cart down the hallway between C and D Wings, metal wheels clacking against the concrete floor. Inmates who liked to read traded ones they had finished for something on the cart—anything to pass the long hours between evening chow and lights out.

“Just got this one in, Jonesy. I figured you’d like it, seeing as how you’re a dog and all.” Tom handed Jack London’s Call of the Wild through the bars. “Hey, Pete. Here’s one with some good ideas to get outta this hole.” The Time Machine swapped for Pete’s copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom enjoyed his rounds and the banter with the other inmates. He made sure to have some comics and magazines on hand for those he knew couldn’t read.

Tom’s personal reading took a more spiritual turn. Many books in the Tucker library were donated by local church groups and charities. Raised in a Baptist church, he started with the Bible, whose familiar stories from childhood he now read through the eyes of a prisoner. He began seeking answers to the unspoken questions he’d suppressed since childhood.

Why did Daddy leave? Why did he never come back? Never called. Was he dead? Did he have another family somewhere? Does he hate me? What did I do that made him leave?

Tom devoured anything with a mystical theme. Stranger in a Strange Land by the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein challenged Tom to overcome prejudices and to think for himself. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree made Tom think about the nature of giving and taking, deciding that he would become a giver once he was paroled. He would be the opposite of his father, now seven years gone.

But no philosophy influenced Tom’s spiritual growth like Zen Buddhism. The Tao Te  Ching enraptured the young man with ideas of kindness, simplicity, and humility. The teachings of the Tao helped Tom accept his situation and begin to move past the hurt he’d held onto for so long.

Be content with what you have...A journey of a thousand miles begins from the first step. Tom promised himself that, once his two years of incarceration were over, he would study the scriptures and texts of all the great thinkers and come back to this prison to help the men who lived behind its bars and cinderblock walls. And he would begin his journey of a thousand miles—a journey to forgive his father and to leave the negativity and hatred behind.

Chaplain Adair helped Tommy with some correspondence courses for college credit, and when he paroled out, Tom headed for the Lutheran seminary in Missouri. They welcomed a chance to help turn the young man’s life around. Two years later, wearing his new black clergy shirt and white collar, Tom headed straight back to Tucker to beg for a job from the chaplain who had helped free him from his past.

“Yeah...well...Tom, we usually don’t hire ex-cons.” The chaplain shook his head. “But tell ya what...I’ll talk to the warden. Your record might keep you from getting hired, but hey, it also might give you some street creds with the inmates.”

“I understand, Chap. I’ll volunteer. I’ll stay away from the crew I hung with when I was here before. Whatever it takes. I’m just asking for a chance.”

At age twenty-one, Tom became the youngest assistant chaplain in the Arkansas prison system. As predicted, his history as a former inmate earned him a measure of respect. Thus began Thomas Aquinas Paine’s long career as a prison chaplain.

Arkansas Department of Correction: Grimes Unit, 2000

After serving as chaplain at several Arkansas prisons for thirty years, Tom was now settled into his life at the Grimes Unit, a men’s prison in northeast Arkansas. After punching the time clock on the morning after the storm, Tom headed to his office.

“Hey, Chap! You get blown away last night?”

“Mornin’, Gibson.” Tom greeted the chapel porter, struggling as always to make his gentle voice heard above the din of the clanging gates and echoing voices in the hallway. “No damage I could see. Some tree limbs down. You get swooped away to Oz?”

“Yep. Me and the scarecrow and that sweet, sweet Dorothy.” Joking was part of their daily routine. Tom put away his lunch and jacket, locked his office, then headed out for his morning rounds in the barracks while Gibson vacuumed the chapel floors.

“Hey, you bunch of sinners.” Tom approached a group of inmates heading for kitchen duty. “Am I going to see you guys for dominoes this afternoon?”

“Sure, I’ll be there, Chap,” answered one of the trustees. “You know I cain’t let you get away with beatin’ me again. I’m due for a win.” They all laughed. One of the younger inmates pulled Tom aside. “Hey, Chap. I...uh...I got a letter from my wife Saturday. She’s filed for a divorce. Can I come by and show you her letter? Maybe you can call her?”

“Sure, Mason. Man, that’s tough. Come by my office...say around three. Maybe I can help. Maybe not. But we’ll work through it. See you then, OK?”

Counseling inmates when tragedy struck—family deaths, divorces—was part of Tom's duties. Sessions were voluntary; some took advantage while others declined. No matter to Tom. Those who didn't want counseling were still enthusiastic about the lively domino games that took place in the front room of the chapel nearly every afternoon after the inmates got in from working their field and maintenance jobs. Tom spent a lot of his time playing dominoes and checkers with the inmates. That gave him a chance to get to know the men without preaching or witnessing to them—a feature of the chaplaincy that turned many inmates off.

One daily duty Tom enjoyed was interviewing the new intakes. "Shorthairs," they were called because of the department's practice of shaving the new guys’ heads when they arrived to keep headlice out of the barracks. Tom remembered how it felt—the buzz of the shears, the humiliation of his baldness as a teenager at Tucker.

The stack of files on his desk that Monday morning looked smaller than usual. Typically, he interviewed around ten guys each morning. But today it looked like only five short hairs were waiting to complete their intake process. Excellent. I’ll get away early and hit a bucket of balls. Maybe play both holes.

Tom’s love of golf—the only positive legacy from his absentee father—did not translate into its mastery. Adorning the shelves of Tom’s office were several red bricks—booby prizes—embossed with the words, Dead-Ass Last. He’d earned the reputation for the worst golfer in the department seven years running in their annual Ball and Chain Tournament, which provided funds for the course maintenance program at Grimes.

After his father deserted them, Tom lost his passion for the game, and he felt jinxed every time he picked up a club. As his height increased, his coordination decreased. Tom took up the game again during his first stint as chaplain at Tucker—his ministry to himself—and the game became a near obsession. Still, his devotion did not improve his game. When Tom came out to hit a bucket of balls after work, inmates working on the course mumbled to each other.

“Watch out. Here comes the human stork.”

“Better get on our hard hats.”

“Safest place for us is the middle of the fairway. Watch him shank it into the trees.”

Tom’s lack of skill did not diminish his love of the game—his way of staying connected to the memory of the father he both loved and hated.

That spring morning, sitting in his office surrounded by his golf bricks, his diploma from the seminary, several posters with the sayings of Lao-Tzu, and bookshelves full of religious literature of every ilk, Tom began going through the five files on the day’s intakes. He’d see each of the short hairs before his afternoon counseling sessions started.

Willy Harris: age 22; robbed a liquor store; 10-year sentence; married; three kids; no religious affiliation

Richard Wilkes: age 18; aggravated robbery and attempted murder; 40 years; divorced; one son, also in ADC on a related charge but housed at Cummins; Baptist

Danny Heathfield: age 30; manufacturing meth, possession with intent to deliver, endangering a minor; 5 years; two daughters, one with third-degree burns from daddy’s meth lab explosion; Methodist

Robbie Heathfield (first cousin to Danny): age 24; manufacturing meth, possession of 27 unregistered handguns; 10 years; Baptist

Cecil Paine: age 70; car theft, kidnapping; 15 years; divorced; one son; Baptist

Wait...Tom read the name again. Cecil Paine. The photo showed an elderly man, thin, wispy gray hair, square jaw, same dead-eyed stare as the others. Tom was looking in a mirror of himself in another thirty years.

Tom’s stomach roiled. His heart raced and pulsed in his ears. The blood drained from his face. Sweat popped out on his neck and chest. Dizzy. The room blurred and faded to gray. He grabbed his wastebasket and vomited. Gibson, the chapel porter, heard the retching and came inside.

“Chap, what’s wrong. You look like you done seen a ghost. Shit. Hey! Cap’n!. Get in here quick!” Next thing Tom knew, he was surrounded by well-meaning staff and inmates, and Doc Harold was on his way from the infirmary. The file on Cecil Paine lay open on the desk.

“Everybody out.” Doc Harold, as always, took charge with his authoritarian voice and imposing size. An ex-Razorback offensive lineman and Marine colonel, Doc cleared the room and felt Tom’s pulse. “Tell me what happened. Any chest pains? You takin’ any meds?” Doc put the blood pressure cuff on Tom’s arm and began squeezing the rubber bulb, stethoscope dangling from his ears.

Tom took a few minutes to answer. He let Doc finish his exam in the now quiet of the office. “Sit down, Harold. I need to show you something.”

After showing Doc the file and telling him the quick version of Cecil’s disappearance in 1960, they sat quietly for a minute or two. Tom held his head in his hands, elbows on the desk. Harold, in respectful silence, let Tom gather his thoughts.

“You’ll have to tell the warden.”

“I know. I just need some time. Gotta let this sink in. Go with me?”

“Sure. Let me call down to the infirmary and let ’em know where I am.”

Tom locked up his office and stopped by the staff men’s room to rinse his mouth and face. His usually ruddy skin looked ashy and drawn. The warden’s secretary sent them right in.

As Tom told his story for the second time, Warden Annie Claud Lewis nodded. She’d known Tom for over ten years and had served with him at several other prisons. Having staff with a family member incarcerated was a common occurrence and required reporting up the chain of command. The wardens had wide discretion on how to handle these situations. Sometimes they simply transferred the inmate to another unit; sometimes they just restricted contact within the facility; sometimes the employee was placed on the inmate’s visitation list just like other family members. She’d have to think about the best way to handle this one.

“Well, Inmate Paine’ll be confined to the intake barracks for the rest of this week, so you won’t run into him. I’ll keep you posted on his movements. If you don’t want to stick around today, go on home. You need some time to think about this mess. Lord, Tom. Drama like this is only supposed to happen at the women’s unit.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Tom managed a chuckle at the warden’s joke. “Yeah, I don’t think I can handle the intake interviews today. There are only five counting...well, counting him. Maybe someone from mental health can see ’em today. Oh, and Adam Mason from Four Barracks is supposed to come for counseling at 3:00. Can you get someone to call him down...let him know I’ll catch up with him another day?” Tom rose to shake Warden Lewis’s hand.

She looked him in the eye. “We’ll figure this out, Chaplain. You call if you want to talk some more.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll do that.”

Doc Harold headed back to the infirmary, and Tom turned to lock up his office. He grabbed his jacket and keys and headed to the front where he parked his golf cart each morning. Driving in a daze down the familiar path to the freeline, Tom pulled over at the top of the tee box. The morning mist had not yet burned off. Inmates in their white uniforms were shrouded in fog causing ghostly movements around the greens. Tom gazed unseeing as they took soil samples and unloaded the mowers. Numbness enveloped his whole body, and his mind soaked up the morning haze. He needed to think, to pray, to meditate. Tom turned the cart back to the path and headed home.

If ever the teachings of Jesus, of Mohammed, of the Buddha, of Lao-Tzu were needed, it was now. But before Tom could consult his books and meditate on his father’s sudden reappearance in his life, he would need to process all the feelings of hurt, disappointment, frustration, and regret he’d held inside for the past forty years.

Tom pulled a new notebook from the closet in the spare bedroom he used as an office. He began to write. And write. And write. Around 3:00 that afternoon—a full eight hours after arriving back home—he had filled over 100 pages with notes, thoughts, and a narrative of his life and how his father’s desertion had shaped his journey to this place at this time.

Exhausted, Tom sat in his kitchen and opened a plastic tub full of Trula’s potato salad she’d sent him from their supper before the big storm. Staring at its contents, Tom’s stomach churned again, and his mouth went dry. Returning the salad to his refrigerator, Tom got back in the golf cart and drove over to the course. Hitting a few balls might help release some stress. The inmates scattered for safety as they saw Tom unload his clubs and a bucket of balls.

Two hours and two large buckets later, Tom drove slowly back home, enjoying the late afternoon breeze. Trula’s azaleas were in full bloom—huge orange blossoms providing a background for her ocean of jonquils and tulips. The aroma of something smoking on her grill sparked some hope for a beer later with Harold to talk things over.

Tom’s house was cool and quiet. He drew the curtains to block the setting sun and put on a meditation CD. As the soft guitar melody filled his living room, Tom sat in his recliner, eyes closed, counting his breaths—inhale: one-two-three-four; exhale: one-two-three-four-five; repeat. Soon his thoughts faded. His mind cleared. Years of mediation practice had prepared him well for this moment of confronting his fears and the chronic fury born of his father’s desertion.

A soft knock on his door came around 7:00. Doc Harold, inviting him over for a beer and some barbeque. Although food was still out of the question, Tom needed his friend, needed his counsel, needed someone to help talk it through. Harold was the perfect person, the pragmatic military man, an ethical and morally wise giant.

Their conversation lasted well past midnight. Fireflies twinkled around the darkened patio. Scents from gardenias drifted gently on the spring air.

“It wasn’t just that he left me. He left Mom too. The things she had to do to get by. My God, Harold. It was years before I found out.”

“I know this sounds like a cliché, my friend, but listen to an old warhorse. Carrying around so much hate is hurting no one but you. I see it every damn day in the clinic. Disease caused by bitterness, by self-loathing. Your hatred doesn’t hurt Cecil. It only hurts you. Heaven only knows what he’s been up to for the past forty years.”

“Well, whatever it was, it can’t have been good. I mean, look where he is now. Maybe he’s getting what he deserves., I hate to say this but...maybe I’m glad he’s got fifteen years. But why did he have to get sent here? To Grimes. To me. Why couldn’t they have sent him to Cummins or Tucker?”

“Have you considered that it might be God’s will? Cecil being here? God’s way of making you finally think about forgiveness?”

Forgiveness. The one theme that emerged from their hours of talk. Forgiveness. The thing that helps the forgiver far more than the forgiven. Walking back home in the moonlight, Tom knew that he needed to unburden himself of all the hatred, the disappointment, the anger that had brewed inside for so long. He needed to face Cecil and find the strength to forgive.

Easy to say; harder to do.

Although it was late, Tom pulled down a few of his favorite books where he knew he would find guidance. From Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he read “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” And from the Tao in his favorite translation, “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” Could reconnecting with his father be a “new beginning”? Even the Hindu holy man Mahatma Gandhi gave counsel to Tom: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Nice words. But Tom couldn’t stop thinking about those long afternoons in the front yard, pretending to practice his short game but, in truth, aching for his father’s return.

Nice words. But Tom remembered the names the other eighth graders called his mom. The things she had to do to keep a roof over their head.

Nice words. But Tom couldn’t deny the trembling hands, the pounding heart, or the acrid bile in the back of his throat when he thought of Cecil sleeping on his bunk just down the road.

He finally drifted off to sleep around three in the morning with prayers for the spirit to forgive still on his tongue.

As Tom rose the next morning, he could hear the doves cooing outside his open window. Would the fresh day bring a fresh start? He was determined to face his father. Regardless of Cecil’s reason for leaving—a reason that no longer mattered—Tom vowed to find a way to forgive him and get on with his life.

Tom stopped by the warden’s office on his way in to make sure it was OK with her for Cecil to come to the chapel for a chat.

“Sure, Tom. If you are up to it. Want someone there with you?”

“Yes, Ma'am. I was thinking of calling Chaplain Reynolds. He’s scheduled at the women’s unit today. If it’s OK with you, I’ll give him a call and see if he can come ’round lunchtime. We’ll get Inmate Paine added to the lay-in list for this afternoon.”

“Fine. Just let me know if you need anything.”

As expected, James Reynolds, one of the other chaplains for the department, found time to leave his duties at the women’s prison to counsel his friend. Tom spent a few minutes filling James in on the situation.  Each time he told the story, it came out a little easier.

“Mom died five years ago. In ‘95. She wanted me to forgive him to get rid of all this anger...this hatred. She never gave up on him. Never. Never said a bad thing about him. Not once.” Tom sighed. “Ok. Let’s get this over with.”

The officer assigned to the chapel called Three Barracks where the new intakes were housed. Tom paced. Ten long minutes crept by. Finally, the officer appeared at the chapel door with Cecil. Tom froze as the men approached his office. “Want me to wait out here?” the officer asked as he took a seat on the front row of the chapel. Ducking through the door frame, Tom nodded and signaled for Cecil to enter the office. Chaplain Reynolds took the couch to leave the chairs on either side for Cecil and Tom.

James made the introductions. Cecil stared at Tom. His lanky seventy-year-old frame seemed to shrink. “Please sit,” James gestured to the chairs on either side of the couch. Cecil’s legs buckled. Mouth agape, tears began to well up in Cecil’s eyes, and his hands trembled as he clutched the chair arms.

“T...Tommy?” The tremor in his voice could not disguise the deep Arkansas drawl Tom still heard every time he stepped up to the tee box or lined up a long putt—the same voice that came out whenever Tom spoke. “My Lord. Tommy. You...You’re a priest?” The clerical collar and black shirt.

“Well, not exactly. Lutheran minister. Not Catholic. I’m...I’m the chaplain here at Grimes.” Tom’s quivering voice echoed his father’s.

Chaplain Reynolds, the experienced and consummate professional, took charge as the two men continued to stare at each other, speechless. “Y’all have a unique situation here. Can’t say I’ve ever seen this kind of predicament before. I can certainly see the family resemblance.”

Cecil’s stunned expression slowly gave way to something else—fear, embarrassment, shame—reddening his sallow cheeks underneath the day-old stubble and sunken eyes. He looked away from Tom. James interrupted the moment. “If it’s OK with y’all, I’m going to say a prayer then let you two talk a bit.” They bowed their heads while James spoke softly to God for guidance and wisdom.

It had been forty years since Tom had seen his father. Now, sitting before him in this quiet room in the middle of a maximum-security prison, Tom could feel the kinship, the family ties. Despite all the years of disappointment and pain Cecil had caused Tom and his mother, that surprising connection was still there.

“Your mother?” Cecil asked. “Penny?”

“Passed in ’95. Cancer.”

“I’m sorry. She was a fine woman. Deserved better’n me. Both of ya did.”

Chaplain Reynolds saw Tom’s wince and eased the conversation back to the practical. “Let’s plan on meeting again tomorrow. You guys have a long road ahead, and we can’t do it all today. Mr. Paine, we’ll add you to tomorrow’s lay-in list, so you’ll be available. When do you start on the hoe squad?”

“I think they’re givin’ me a different job. ’Cause of my age. Maybe hall porter, you know, moppin’ floors. Somethin’ inside.”

“OK. We’ll clear it with the building major.”

They all three stood. Cecil sheepishly held out his hand, and Tom shook it as he would a stranger’s. “See you tomorrow, Tommy...uh...Chaplain,” his eyes downcast, thin shoulders stooped. The officer waiting in the chapel stood to take him back to the barracks.

Tom collapsed into his chair, head in hands, and let his tears flow. James was a good friend and let him get it out before saying anything. “That went well, I thought. Think you’re up to seeing him again tomorrow?”

“Sure. I have to. I can’t sleep. Can’t eat. I’m living on Tums. I’ll never be any good to anyone if I don’t find a way to deal with this.” He thanked James who returned to his own set of problems and inmate drama down the road at the women’s prison.

That night, Tom once again pulled out his Bible and other spiritual guides. He prayed and meditated late into the night. In a book on Eastern culture, he read words attributed to Confucius: “To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” To forgive his father, Tom had to quit holding his anger inside. To quit nurturing the pain. He had to talk frankly with Cecil and let him know that whatever his reasons for leaving, Tom was still his son. He had given Tom life, a stable early childhood, and the love of golf. The game had seen Tom through tough times, always igniting memories of the good days he had shared with Cecil during his early years. That was something to build on. Something to cling to. Something on which to base a future relationship.

Tom slept soundly. A dreamless, peaceful sleep. Tomorrow, he would face Cecil again. Tomorrow the healing would begin.

Tom, Chaplain Reynolds, and Warden Lewis discussed the situation the next morning, filled out the required paperwork, and set out a treatment plan designed to allow Tom to have limited contact with Cecil during his time at Grimes. James would serve as Cecil’s chaplain, and Tom was added to Cecil’s approved visitor’s list with special access, meaning they didn’t have to wait for the weekends to have time together.

That afternoon, Tom once again called for Cecil to be escorted to his office. James spoke quietly with Cecil in the chapel for a few minutes, explaining the plan. When they finished, James brought Cecil to Tom’s office where the dominoes were spread out on the conference table.

“You play?”

“Sure. Remember I taught you when you’d just learned how to count.”

They started drawing the “bones.” Cecil drew a double five and started the game. An hour later, Tom had won one hand, and Cecil had taken two. The escort came to take Cecil back to his barracks. Father and son once again shook hands goodbye.

“See you in a day or two. I’ve missed some work I need to catch up on. I’ll lay you in again on Friday.” Tom nodded to the officer and closed his office door.

Their meetings continued for the next few weeks. The dominoes led to checkers, and between games, they talked of golf, of Tom’s mother, of their early life. Two months after first meeting, they finally got around to Cecil’s desertion.

“I was so deep into the booze I couldn’t function. I was makin’ your mother’s life a livin’ hell, and I didn’t want to ruin yours too.” Cecil fidgeted with a domino.

“Where’d you go? All those years?”

 “Oh, I roamed down round Louisiana for a year or two. Went to ‘Nam in ’62. Stayed in that hellhole for nearly five years. Started usin’ heroin. Took a lot of LSD. I was a tunnel rat. Felt right at home in the black holes underneath that jungle.” He took a deep breath and stared at nothing. “Got back to the States for good sometime in ’67. Couldn’t keep a job. I didn’t know how to ask for help, so I just stayed away. I didn’t shake the needle for another two years. By then, it was too late to come crawlin’ back.”

Cecil went on to tell Tom about his life on the road, being in an out of jail and rehab, being homeless for most of the time.

“This last time, I was desperate for money and stole a car. Didn’t realize there was a kid in the back seat. Now I’m lookin’ at fifteen years for kidnappin’ and car theft.” Tom remained quiet, letting Cecil fill the silence.

 “But here’s the thing that’s weird. I’m thinkin’ the Lord was bringin’ me home. To you. So we could reconnect, ya know? I mean, what are the odds of you bein’ in this place and the judge sendin’ me here?”

Tom had to agree the odds were pretty slim. He too began to open up. His quiet drawl mimicked Cecil’s.

“I had put you out of my mind, Cecil.” It was just too weird for Tom to call him Dad. “I moved on. Got some teenage wildness out of me. Did some time myself down at Tucker. Got my education.” Tom gestured with open palms around the office at his diploma and bookshelves.

“Now I’ve dedicated my life to this work...this ministry. I just never even considered that you could still be alive somewhere. That I would ever see you again. And...well...if I did see you...uh...what I might do to make you pay. For leaving us. To get some revenge.”

Tears welling up in his eyes for the first time since their initial meeting, Cecil asked, “Can you ever forgive me, Tommy? For leavin’? For causin’ your mother...well...for causin’ her and you so much pain?”

Tom was ready. “All I can promise is that I’ll try. Try to forgive you. The burden—the hatred, the disappointment—has weighed me down since the day you left. I always wondered what I did to make you leave. Why you quit loving us. Why we weren’t enough. And maybe that’s not fair but I have to be honest with myself. Someday, I hope I can say that I forgive you. I can’t right now. But someday.”

“Listen Tommy. I never quit lovin’ you both. And as crazy as it sounds, I’m glad God brought me here. To this prison. To you. Maybe we have a chance to start new. Somethin’ together. Somethin’ neither of us was ready for up ’til now.”

Tom sat quietly. Thinking. Then he spoke, barely above a whisper. Cecil leaned in close.

“If I am ever able to forgive you, that won’t mean it was OK, what you did. Or that I can forget about it. We had a hard life, Mom and me. She had to do things to keep us alive that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.” Tom took a deep breath. “But that’s the past and this is now. Now we both have to try and put it behind us. To look ahead. I’m willing if you are.” Cecil looked at Tom and nodded. Silence echoed through the room.

Cecil rose and headed back to the barracks. Tom finished his paperwork and called Chaplain Reynolds to report on his meeting with Cecil. Folding his long limbs into the golf cart after clocking out, Tom headed for the course, ready to unwind.

“Hey, guys. Heads up.” The officer in charge of the golf course work detail yelled to the inmates. “Here comes the chaplain. Better take cover.” They all laughed and scattered toward the fence line.

Tom took out a driver. He placed a new Titleist on the tee. Shoulders relaxed; knees bent. Tom kept his eyes on the ball as he started his backswing. Woosh! Whack! The ball rose and arced gracefully across the summer sky. The inmates craned their necks as they watched the ball rise and float toward the green. It landed on the apron and bounced toward the hole. The ball hit the flagpole and careened to the right, stopping less than a foot from the hole. An easy eagle on the par 4.

A cheer rose from the inmates by the fence. A cheer rose from the officers on horseback. A cheer rose from the guards high in the corner towers. A cheer rose from the hoe squad in the cabbage patch.

It was the first time since they had built the course that Tom had made the green in one shot. He felt hope that his long game was finally coming back. Standing on the tee box at the top of the hill, his long legs kicked out a dance while his arms raised the club to heaven. Silhouetted against the afternoon sky, Tom leaned back and let out a howl that carried across the fields and to the freeline where smoke from Trula’s grill signaled an early supper. Tom’s mouth watered.

About the Author

Jan Jolly

Jan Jolly retired from the Arkansas Department of Correction in 2017 and is currently working on a master’s in nonfiction writing at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. Jan lives with her husband in Little Rock, Arkansas where she raises an urban vegetable garden and writes for academia and pleasure.

Read more work by Jan Jolly .

Share this Post