Nothing is Lost, Where Memories Lie

by John Ballantine

hands-in-chainsI spent the weekend at the reformatory spinning bowls. Sometimes I had birthdays in the haystacks with women locked up for prostitution and burglary. During the summer Chain Saw Jack, in a cavernous dormitory, dripping with sweat, told me how he had cut off his wife’s head and liked it so much he continued. But he also told us of the Tucker chair where the warden slowly moved the needle and increased the voltage, until the screams were heard across Cummins Farm in every corner of the white man’s prison in Arkansas.

“What ya in for?”

“Nothing; my mother goes through your file and judges if you should be out on the street again. I ain’t in for nothing. What about you?”

At breakfast, with Henrietta cooking up eggs and bacon, the truant boys, here for a week-long furlough, told me why there was a scar across his face. How his crazy mother shot up, and why he ran away from home and slept over the warm grates near the Newark refineries. Now, with his blond whiskers hardening, he is trying to get it right.  Learn to read the drivers manual and tell me, an eleven year old boy, that prison isn’t so bad.  Food, a bed with blankets, and maybe even the safety of four walls; not like life out here.

I was held at five by the women who walked the streets of Trenton. I felt their kind hands and saw laughter in all their eyes—remembering children lost—as my May birthday was celebrated in the warm sun at the Clinton Reformatory for Women.

I remember the Christmas chorus at the boys’ reformatory too, the parents hoping their sons would be let out by my mother and the warden, Charlie Houston. The books by my bed told me “Prisoners are People,” and the streets of Harlem with the shooting galleries Clyde showed me did not say you can be here too, but open your eyes and see the Madonna in the basement with one bare light bulb, child, and a trick to turn for food.

I did not forget the simple story, the lesson my mother wanted me to see. Kindness was here between the four walls, and terrible cruelty, too, on every side you look. I remember two hands on the visiting-booth glass, touching, almost, as the father’s tried to make it right, and the world said, “lock ’em up and throw away the key. Get them, the drug addicts, murderers, and crazies away from me. Protect my children from the darkness.”

And me, full of rage, ready to strike the drunken, mean mother on TV down. I know the anger of life is just underneath my smile. There must be another way, a way to hold the hurt, the crazy lines of cocaine blowing up the stories of our lives. There must be a way to turn this around, to make it better.

I don’t know. Now, everyone I remember is with me. I see them in the shadows when I stop briefly and listen. But the walls went up, and I moved on. I don’t know what I’m in for, how to make it right, or why life happens this way. I do feel the arms of desperate love of the mother with no child and the eyes of hope of the boy running away from that world.

The street life, the forgotten life is full of love, meanness, and skullduggery. It touches us, even me, looking back some fifty years. I remember nothing and forget not a thing.

Category: Short Story