(Contains mature language and subject matter)
A short story by J.M. DeBord
Dying on a wet prison floor with a sharpened butter knife sticking out of my chest, the next step for a person like me was eternity in Hell, I figured. How wrong I was.
Soon after crossing over to the afterlife I began seeing possibilities for another life in body. A fresh start on a conveyor belt of mortal opportunities. Humans busily procreating on Earth eventually produce circumstances attractive to a soul in search of a life to balance the many others already lived. But I was still haunted by my last life and wasn’t ready to try again. I’d do my time in Purgatory getting poked in the ass by devils if that’s what I deserved. I’d been a bad man by most standards, a bad father by any standard. Died gasping for breath while serving life for dealing drugs—lots of drugs, with a side of murder, death, kill.
Someone thought the pain and tragedy I’d already experienced were enough punishment. Don’t get me wrong, no Angels sat on clouds playing harps in my honor. Nothing like that, but surprisingly, the only real difference was I no longer had the body I had before. At least I wasn’t as lost as some souls, though I accepted no one’s presence, a loner in an isolation cell of my own making, nursing the memories of my last life. I might have resisted the beckoning Light and become a ghost, if not for the Teacher who stood at the threshold as I died. He spoke in complete thoughts, and what I heard was: “The decisions you made were stupid, sometimes unnecessarily painful, but they were yours to make. Some good can come from it if you learn.”
My sort of Teacher. I drifted away from my corpse, regretful but ready. Every Pit Bull eventually lets go of the leg and returns to the doghouse, broken and exhausted. I wanted rest.
The Light washed away all pain and suffering, tried to cleanse all my earthly cares, but I couldn’t forget my daughter, Kara. I’d never really known her, having spent most of my life breaking the law, running from the law, or locked up by the law. Her mother had kept us as far apart as possible. Couldn’t blame her; I was bad news walking. Many nights, locked in a prison cell, the thought crossed my mind that if only I’d been more involved in Kara’s life, I might have taken better care for my own. I’d been forgiven for sins and all that when I followed the Teacher into the Light, but the hardest part was forgiving myself. I’d missed out on the best potential for my previous life. I’d missed out on love. And it was too late to do anything about it, making me a restless and troubled soul.
I’d been a hard person, colorful, intense. Looking back over many lifetimes I saw a pattern: lives of turmoil, untouched by feeling, distant from my fellow beings. I needed to learn an important lesson or else my fate was to live another life repeating the same mistakes. My last life opened the door, but inside the next room it was dark. Then a possibility for reincarnation presented itself and I saw all of its potential at once:
*Female, named Monique. Would die before her 2nd birthday, drowned in bath water by her crack-addled mother’s boyfriend. He was destined to go into a fit of rage because he hadn’t had a fix that day and poor Monique cried ceaselessly. No wonder she was crying and hungry, I observed from a distance, the moronic boyfriend spent the food money on crack! After Monique’s tragic death, he’d skip town in terror and soon be cut down in a bar fight started over whether Tupac was really alive. The mother would go to jail for child neglect and drug abuse and get clean. Whenever the crack devil beckoned thereafter, she’d remember her beautiful little girl Monique and resist, living the rest of her days with regret but determination to make good. If she was fortunate, she’d learn that indifference is worse than hate. The knowledge earned through hardship might eventually make her something of a saint. That was her potential, and I’d take the life of her child to help make it happen. The boyfriend would learn that rage stems from self-loathing and unfulfilled dreams that, when abandoned, abandon you. What’s left is a shell with a soul crying to get out. At least some good could come from Monique’s life.
I saw a chance to pay off Karma by inhabiting that body and putting my unique stamp on its life. Many lives had been ruined by the drugs I’d peddled; I just wasn’t ready to leave my isolation.
Before I got shanked with a butter knife and died, my daughter Kara visited me in prison. We hadn’t communicated in more than a decade, yet her letter arrived out of the blue saying she wanted to see me. During my first stint in prison I’d written to her once a week for a year. Hard letters, not only because they were slow and tedious in the making, or because of my eighth-grade education, or because I had to wait until late at night when everyone was asleep. I didn’t know what to say to a little girl. “Hi, this is the father you barely know, writing from the penitentiary. Last week I watched a man die with a smile cut into his throat. How’s school?”
Shame was tough for a man like me to admit. I could swing million-dollar drug deals, but when it came to the heart I was stone. My life had revolved around crime, violence, and prison—not exactly conversation for a schoolgirl. After a year her mother wrote back telling me to save the ink, Kara would never read the letters. So I stopped writing and tried to forget everything but the daily challenge of survival in the joint. Hard to do with so much time to think, but I did it—until Kara wrote and the door to my past blew wide open. At a bad time, too: the white, black, and Mexican factions were at war, and we all expected blood to spill.
Kara was more beautiful than I’d imagined she’d be as a grown woman. Slender cheeks, pointy chin, long curly brown hair and hazel eyes. I recognized her immediately in the prison visitors room. She had some of her mother’s Puerto Rican heritage in her, mixed with my curly hair and slim waist. A clean-cut black man sat next to her trying to appear comfortable. I strode up and told him in no uncertain terms that he must have the wrong table and should be moving along.
“Tyrone,” my daughter said, indicating the man-boy next to her, “is going to be my husband. He belongs here.”
Prisoners watched us on the sly. I was well-known in the joint, a person of authority, and my daughter with a black man wouldn’t play well. I wasn’t particularly racist until locked up. The Aryan Brotherhood initiated me in return for my undying loyalty. Everyone needed someone to watch their back when in a cage full of animals, and the Brotherhood didn’t just watch out for your body but your lily white soul, too.
The young man fidgeted under my menace, though he looked determined. The reason for him tagging along became apparent in the way he and Kara looked at each other: to help her get through seeing me. My respect for him grew a notch—took balls to walk into such a situation. I had radar for when a man could be backed down, chicken liver for a heart, and this wasn’t the time to prove who was Alpha Male. So I turned on her, saying, “Husband? You’re too young to get married. How old are you, 19? Oh, you’re 21. Same difference.”
She replied that they loved each other, nothing could keep them apart, and even her mother had accepted their union. Little did I know then that some souls are made for each other. Kara and Tyrone had reached across a vast divide of time and culture to be (re)united. Soul mates. All I saw at the time was my rosebud being deflowered by a black man. Wait until the Bulldogs in the Brotherhood tossed that around….
Kara deftly switched subjects. She remembered the sweet letters that her mom had read to her before bed, until one week they stopped coming. Kara wanted to write back, but my ex-wife told her I was in “the bad place.”
The words plunged into me like ice picks. All I could think was, that fucking bitch lied to me—and our daughter! I would’ve strangled my ex right there and must have turned color because Kara’s pretty brows furrowed over her concerned eyes. She asked if I was all right. I wasn’t; I choked on rage! She tentatively placed her hand on my tattooed forearm. A jolt shot through it. People were watching. The jackals sensed weakness, but it was no time to pay them much mind. Tenderness flowed from my precious daughter through my skin, up my nerves, and tried to penetrate my hardened heart.
No such luck. My daughter’s love had the opposite effect of triggering a blind fury.
I tore away from her and stalked over to the barred gate leading back into the prison. Back to my cell. My hell. I wanted out, not in, but this was Hotel California and I could never leave. I grabbed the bars and heaved with all my might—snarling, thrashing blindly, a torrent set loose. Let me in! Let me out! Let me die! I couldn’t take it. A jackhammer split the stone in my chest.
Prisoners hooted. The intercom screeched for more guards. They couldn’t pry loose my hands. A cloud of mace in my face and still I held on, snarling like a wolf caught in a steel trap. Riot sticks pounded my ribs and kidneys. Guards yelled, ordered me to stand down. Visitors were quickly cleared. I heard Kara above the clamor:
“Daddy? Daddy, please stop!”
Unable to cry or cry out, I collapsed and curled into a ball, beaten savagely into unconsciousness.
After crossing over, earthly life is supposed to wash away. The soul needs to conserve energy before taking another whirl on the Wheel of Life and Death—the Samsara, as it’s called by eastern cultures. My body had been cut down before finishing its task and I thought maybe I’d stepped too eagerly across the threshold. Even if my corpse rotted in a prison cemetery, I wanted to go back. ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’ The memories stirred life in buried bones.
I knew of souls making contact with the living. It could be done. I pictured Kara and reached out.
So many minds and their petty concerns to wade through: what’s for dinner; how are my stocks doing; that intern at work sure looks good; what to buy this weekend; Brenda at the salon said Sheila said and blah blah blah. Life is slow death when the importance is missed. Don’t you see, I railed at the lost people, that you’re missing the point? Love! Love one another! The time is up before you know it, and all that’s going with you is what you learn. Ever seen a U-Haul pulled behind a hearse?
I got distracted and lost any chance to find Kara. It was no use. And even if I did find her, what then—punch through the barrier between life and death like a poltergeist and scare her shitless?
“Doesn’t work that way,” I heard, “though you’re learning to recognize what you missed.” It was the Teacher.
Oh, you again, I thought. Thanks for nothing.
The Teacher radiated mild amusement but also sadness at my obstinate insistence on remaining isolated. I felt his admonishment and railed: “I could have held on if you wouldn’t have convinced me to give up! Now I have no chance of getting back to my Kara. To just sit in her presence. I’d gladly be a ghost for eternity to be near her again. Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
Silence. God it was aggravating.
“Then go away!”
The Teacher’s presence left, and I was left to marinate in regret over everything I’d lost.
Back in my earthly life, the scene in the visitor’s room earned me a week in solitary confinement: The Hole. A week to talk to shadows. I was empty once the rage subsided, just a shallow bowl of murky feelings. How could I show weakness in front of Kara during our only meeting? No pen and paper were allowed in solitary so I couldn’t write to her. I didn’t have her phone number even if I had a phone. I was impotent, and for a man like me at the time, that felt worse than defeat. At least in defeat I could go down fighting. At least I could move on. Impotence is a three-legged horse on a circular track, hobbled and going nowhere.
Three times a day a tray of crappy prison food got shoved through a little slot in the steel door of my solitary cell. On the second morning a pair of narrow eyes peered at me and a raspy voice got my attention. The Brotherhood sends its greetings and congratulations, it announced.
I recognized the voice of a junior Brother. It continued: Whole place is talking about you, man. Did that nigga boy really come with your daughter? You never told us ’bout no daughter.
Kara. Oh Kara, I’m so sorry.
My mind drifted aimlessly, my only desire silence, but the Brother had nothing better to do and kept ranting:
She’s corrupting her blood with that piece of shit. Man, I woulda whipped out my fat white cock and pissed on the mother fucker. The golden arch smacking that black face. Yeah, that’s it. Silent huh? Save your energy. When you get outa The Hole, it’s party time. Gonna show d’em monkeys who’s boss.
You don’t know what it’s like to live until passing the hours in a 6′ by 8′ steel box, where nothing marks the days and nights going by except the routine of waking, eating, shitting, and sleeping. When you know you’ll never be free again, one day is no different than all the rest. A dull fatigue settles in. The blood pumps slower, with less conviction. There’s no motivation to do better. A staggeringly numb feeling forces closed the eyes of the soul. The body continues but the soul prepares for rest, sooner the better. Some souls in prison fight it; others hibernate, sleeping through life. Mine tore in half wanting life, and wanting to leave it.
Another possibility for reincarnation presented itself after a long time of sweet nothingness. Circumstances built on Earth that appealed to some incomplete part of myself. My soul in that body had good potential.
*Female, Iranian, would live a long and fruitful life for 97 years and raise many children and grandchildren. Her husband from an arranged marriage would treat her pretty well. Life would compensate in small comforts for what it lacked in passion. The main lesson to be learned was that love can be found in little things, and so can God: a sunrise, a child’s laughter, a good meal, a cherished friend.
After what I’d been through in the last life, this possibility presented appealing easiness. No sudden violent deaths. Good health. Mostly pleasant days and nights surrounded by strong family, which brings out the best in just about everyone. Almost a century of good living, but something didn’t feel right about it. Some other soul should take that turn on the Wheel and work out its own potential. My soul had issues to resolve, still refusing any company in the afterlife, and barely able to tolerate my own.
On the fifth day in The Hole, I broke down. I could see Kara squarely in my mind’s eye, tantalizingly near but quickly vanishing as my fingers reached for her apparition. Her last words echoed: “Daddy? Please!” It was driving me nuts. I stopped eating, slept in fits, dreamed of being chased by shadowy monsters, paced the steel box and stared vacantly at the walls. Only the regular meal deliveries and cries of other inmates further ahead on the insanity spectrum reminded me where I was.
I’d always been the coolest cat, untouchable by fear or feeling. Lesser men cracked but I’d earned my tough exterior. Nothing got to me until Kara. Love finally touched my heart—and broke it.
In prison I devoted myself to the Brotherhood. Everything revolved around white power and the struggle for racial purity. It all suddenly smelled like pig shit, unimportant, and worse, the sort of deception that involves personal complicity. Nothing mattered: not my “rank” and status: not my “wares” (once a drug dealer…): not the respect I’d earned by taking the fall rather than ratting the last time I got busted. Not even the Brotherhood mattered.
So on the morning of the sixth day when my “Brother”—that scab on the ass of humanity—stuck his snout through the food slot, I totally lost it. I’d questioned a lot of assumptions while in The Hole, eyes opened at least partially, and cringed at the truth of what I’d become. Dead weight. Dead to myself, no longer fitting into the world I knew behind bars that had shaped me into a human caricature.
“You a true Brother!” hissed the serpent. “Got all the blacks talking; Mexicans too. They know who’s boss. Woulda been better if you woulda scrubbed your ass with that afro-turfed skull. Dude! Who does blackie think he is trying to marry the daughter of a real man?”
“I wish them a happy life together,” I said. “I hope they have a whole tribe of little afro-turfed kids that take over your neighborhood and blare gangsta rap all night, living on your tax dollars and drinkin’ 40s in the street. In fact, I hope your pathetic little soul comes back as a big fat-ass black woman called Queen Shaniqua, who eats fried chicken by the bucket and smacks her lips licking her fingers. You think I was mad because he’s black? I’m mad at myself for judging him—and her!—by his color. And for being locked up the rest of my days with a bunch of idiots who don’t know their asses from a hole in the wall, while she goes on to make a family without me. That’s why I went off,” my voice echoed down the corridor for all in solitary to hear. “And you are a fucking idiot. Get out of my sight.”
“And to think you were just voted Brother of the Year,” spat the serpentine voice. “A unanimous vote. The Brothers told me not to say nothing before you’re let back in population tomorrow. It was going to be a surprise. Some surprise! A new vote is needed, I think the Brothers will agree. We were going to show the blacks our unity, but instead you just bought yourself a ticket to Hell…Brother!”
My soul’s regrets must have been causing ripples in the afterlife, because the Teacher showed up again and sent a thought:
You wanted to see your daughter, here is your chance. Each soul has its own tone, the frequency at which it vibrates. Listen for Kara; you will find her, but you can only observe. She’s dreaming earthly life and can’t be disturbed. Now go!
I did as instructed and found Kara after some practice at attuning rather than seeing. It was Christmas Eve. I hovered nearby, so close to want to touch her, but remembered the instruction to remain in the background. I wasn’t the only one. Many souls hovered about for various reasons, mostly out of kindness and the desire to help. Her husband sang the sweetest tune. Such passion and restraint. Tyrone was a good man. I knew instinctively that his voice would be heard around the world and he’d make a name for himself. Good for him. Good for them.
She sat happily on the floor of their living room reclined between his legs. He placed a hand on her belly and smiled as he finished a song about the birth of a blessed child long ago. A new life grew in her womb, they’d just found out. Still early in the pregnancy, but there was definitely a living fetus within her, I sensed. Its destiny being written, its lessons to be learned.
“If the baby is a boy, maybe he’ll look like my dad,” Kara said.
Tyrone quipped, “Oh yeah, with spiky black hair to boot!”
They laughed together, clear and happy but with a touch of sadness. She still mourned the loss of the father she barely knew. They had a picture of me from before I’d done hard time, when some smile remained in my eyes. It was the closure I needed. I could move on.
The door crashed open near the end of the seventh day of solitary, letting me out of a small steel box to enter a big one. A guard escorted me back to the ward. Normally, I would’ve bantered with him to establish trust, but a strange sort of clarity had descended upon me. I might as well have been walking on the moon. I said nothing.
Everyone on my ward was at chow so I went to the dining hall, not really hungry in body but famished in soul. Hard looks shot my way as I entered, especially from the blacks. Their gleaming eyes said “marked man.” I grabbed a tray, worked through the food line—lines are the routine of prison life—and came to the point of no return. The Brothers were sitting together at their usual table watching me like hyenas. If I sat down with them I could explain what I’d said in The Hole as a momentary lapse, not uncommon under the circumstances. I could turn it all around and accuse the jackass junior Brother on the other side of the food slot of trying to take me down. I’d take him down first, easily, dead before the end of the hour. He sat right there. I smelled the fear behind his sneer. I could go back to the old routine and maybe even run the Brotherhood if I played it right. If I walked away instead and sat down at another table I would be known as the dead man. The Brotherhood is a lifetime commitment. Most of them weren’t going anywhere except under the dirt of the prison cemetery, eventually.
I approached the table with food tray in hand. My seat was open but I didn’t sit, instead looked at them, thinking. Had I really learned anything? Temptation is a bitch that never goes away. Even knowing the Siren’s deadly call, the water beckoned to me. Finally, the head of the Brotherhood, mountainous and covered in green tattoos and battle scars, rumbled, “You gonna explain yourself? I hear you’re losing faith.”
His words echoed in my mind: “faith,” “explain.” I retorted, “What do you know about faith? Explaining myself to you means I give a fuck about your opinion.”
I wanted to say more, tell them that their Brotherhood is a child’s game for adults and their ideology is a cover for fear. But I knew it would only give them a reason to hate me and justify away the symbolism of what I was about to do. I could have the most impact by just walking away, which I did.
I ate alone under the stares of the whites, blacks, and Mexicans, fiddling with my food until the dining hall closed. The loudspeaker announced roll-call in five minutes. Time to get back to my cell. I took my tray to the dish window and tossed the silverware into a bin of blue sudsy water. A guard lackadaisically watched me to make sure I’d returned everything that could be used as a weapon, and I exited the dining hall, last one out.
“Roll call in three minutes, move it, ladies!” the loudspeaker blared.
I didn’t care if I was late. What could they do to me? More time in The Hole would be a blessing. I passed a group of blacks on work detail in the corridor outside the dining hall. The floor was wet from their mopping and reflected the sunlight coming through high, barred windows. I normally would have strutted right through the middle while dragging my feet to disrespect them, but instead walked to the edge, respecting their work. I didn’t see the shank or who shoved it expertly into my belly up under the ribs and left it; didn’t even really feel the blade. A sharp bite and there I fell on the wet floor, alone, diaphragm frozen, heart racing, each attempt at breath causing a blazing rip in my sternum. I thought: “Relax, you can live through this. Someone will notice.” But suddenly I didn’t want to stop the inevitable. Death seemed better. Didn’t take long. My soul popped out of that body, saw the Light, felt the reach of the Teacher, took one last look, and escaped the place I could never leave.
The Teacher was silent and so was I. I didn’t mind his presence. The haunting restlessness was finally settled. We had reviewed my life, and I learned that even the harshest moments served a purpose. I was “bad,” I was immature, and I could be forgiven. But I still longed for my Kara. As little as I’d really known her, the potential for love was real. Our souls possessed a special connection, like two voices that harmonize.
Said the Teacher: There is an opportunity for you. A child will be born and live for 19 good years. The parents are loving. Their son will be cherished.
That grabbed my interest. Sounds promising, I replied. Tell me more about the parents.
You already know.
And I did, suddenly, know all about that new life and its potential. The parents were Kara and Tyrone. She was close to giving birth. I had assumed that opportunity was reserved for a better soul, but I realized there is no better or worse, just incomplete.
I asked, Who is to say I’m the right soul for them? Don’t they have some say?
The teacher answered. The soul chooses the parents. This life will bring balance so that you can evolve and join the One, painting your uniqueness onto the eternal canvas as we all do, eventually. The deep love between you and Kara opens the door to the expression of God. You will love Tyrone with all your heart, and he will teach you what it really means to be a man.
I hesitated but the decision was already made. The Wheel turned and time had come to jump back on for another ride. Time to come full circle.