The Accident




Some words just have a nice sound. Dissociation is one of those words for me. I just like the way it sounds.

I left the last bar of the day that night sometime around 8:00. I was bored. Exhausted. It was time for me to go. I waved a lazy good-bye to the girl behind the counter. Pretty girl. Pretty smile. If I had had more energy I probably would have flirted with her. I had been out late the night before, drinking, and I just didn’t have it in me. The crummy, nicotine stained apartment that I was living in was about three miles away, a pretty long straight shot. I had the option of going through town, which would have been traffic laden and busy, or to take the highway which ran parallel to the town roads. I opted for the highway. Less lights. Less people. Less chance of getting caught.

Things were pretty much going as expected. Driving drunk wasn’t an unusual thing for me. In fact, it was something that I did as often as not. After a while of intoxicated successes you start to think that the drinking and driving laws are really for those other people, the people that don’t know how to do it. The people that go to a Christmas party once a year, drink a little more than they expected, and stagger out the door towards home. I considered myself at this point a skilled professional. I smoked pot almost all day, everyday, and had for years at work, at home, driving. I left the bars drunk almost every night and, again, had for years. I had many friends in the bars that had lost their licenses, there was certainly no shame in that, and I figured that eventually it would happen to me too. I had experienced a few run-ins with the law, but had so far been lucky. So, at this point it was becoming like a never-ending game of hide-and-seek. I knew the roads, knew the towns, and had a pretty good idea of what roads to avoid for traffic stops. Also, there was kind of an underground network in the bars of people that would tell you which roads had traffic stops set up on them, which areas to avoid. So it was kind of like this huge game. I had reasoned that eventually, like many people I had known, I would get stopped, and probably lose my license. That would be inconvenient and expensive, annoying, but that was the price I would pay to maintain this lifestyle.

It was a huge game. I lost.

Everybody lost.

I wasn’t weaving down the road or anything like that. I wasn’t speeding. I might have been going five miles over or something like that. That was part of my strategy for pulling this off. Don’t go the exact speed limit. It looks too suspicious. Nobody goes the exact speed limit. I was driving a big, plain white, Econoline work van. It wasn’t mine, it belonged to the company that I worked for, but I drove it around everywhere, so I was pretty used to it.


It’s interesting. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened. This many years later it still confuses me. I finally did read a lot of the articles that were written in the papers regarding the accident, so I know what happened. I’m just still not sure how. It seemed like slow motion. There were weird lights up ahead. Something unusual was going on, and it was just as I was trying to decipher it that I crested this hill. There was a group of people in the road. Cars? And I remember thinking…or did I actually say it? “What the…” I’m still not sure what word finishes that sentence.

I remember trying to aim for the ditch on the other side of the highway. I remember seeing the ABS light activated on the dashboard. And then…

Well, next I was between the seats in the front of the van. There was a tangy, familiar smell, and some sort of smoke filled the van. Vinyl hung from the steering wheel looking for all the world like a deflated balloon, a giant used condom, and Ray Charles played stupidly on the radio, his warm, happy, voice so incongruent with my surroundings. “Basin Street is the street, where the e-lite always meet…” And so I wonder if I’ve been hurt. I try to move and find that it’s easy. I pull myself up into the seat taking in my surroundings. Gun-smoke. That’s what the smell is. Why gun-smoke? And then I put it together, that’s how the airbags were deployed. The windshield is cracked. The hood of the van is all bent up and there is steam coming from the radiator. The alarm is going off. I’m still confused. I’m not sure what happened. Did I hit the ditch? Did I hit those cars? This doesn’t make sense.

From there it all becomes elusive, like a dream, like a nightmare, and I have all of the pictures, but I can never seem to put it all together in a way that makes sense. It’s exactly like trying to tell someone about a dream. It seemed so real and seemed to follow such a logical path when it was happening, but when I try to explain it, well, it’s like trying to hold water in your fist. It just keeps slipping away.

I get out of the van. There’s a man running across the road. Is he a fireman? He’s screaming an anguished, frustrated, “Noooo!” And there are people running and standing still and yelling. A woman is on a phone and I hear her say that they need many, many ambulances. There are…are those bodies? It’s hard to tell what is going on. I need to help, but I don’t even k now how, and I am, I don’t know what I am. Confused? Frightened? Drunk? All of my cells want to run from the fear. All of them. I’m not sure why I am not running. I’m just standing there idiotically, my hand clasped over my mouth.

Behind me I hear a voice.

“Who did this?”


It all comes together.


And that’s when I start screaming.

But it doesn’t end there. I have to help. I don’t know how. I am drunk, confused, terrified. I feel sick. Overwhelmed. I see a body alone on the ground and I run to it. It’s a man. He is in pain and I see confusion on his face. The blood. My god the blood! It is everywhere. It’s as if the entire world has been coated in blood. I have this very odd realization- whenever I have read books where blood is mentioned it is always described as this metallic smell, but standing here I realize that I don’t smell the blood at all. It’s everywhere I look, a world painted red, but I don’t smell it at all. I tell this anguished man that he has been in an accident. He looks so bad. So hurt. I want to hold him, to comfort him, but I am afraid to touch him, afraid to move him more. His body is a distorted, unnatural, mangled mess. I walk away.

I walk away. I sit down on the ground, shuffle around for my cigarettes. Light one. I pull my knees in towards my chest. To my left there is another body there on the ground a few feet away from me. No movement.

I am rocking, rocking, rocking, rocking, rocking.

None of this seems real. It doesn’t feel like it is really happening. It’s like a bad dream, a terrible, terrible dream. It feels like I am outside of myself, outside of my body, like I am watching it all happen.


  • A Few Years Later…                                                         A Body In Motion



    Walking around the fence’s perimeter, another lap, another…quarter mile? I wonder if it really is a quarter mile. That’s what I’ve been told, but there’s no way to be sure, really. How many times have I made this particular journey? Hundreds? Thousands? I should know the distance by now, or, if not the exact measurement, then at least the number of steps. I suppose I could have counted the steps, but I’ve learned enough to know that counting is a bad habit to fall into in here. It’s dangerous. Sure, it could start with something simple, like steps, but it wouldn’t stop there. Next it would be…what would it be next? Months? Yeah, probably months, and then weeks, and then days. No, it’s better not to count. Better just to keep on walking.

    I start into the longest stretch of the walk. On my right, about sixty, or maybe it’s closer to one hundred feet away, I see the long, tangled vines of what I’m guessing to be sweet potatoes. I hope it’s NOT sweet potatoes. They grew sweet potatoes the first year I was here, and that’s all we ate for months after the harvest: sweet potato bread, sweet potato pancakes, candied sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie. I don’t mind sweet potatoes; they’re okay. really, but…well, too much of a good thing…

    Last year they grew cotton. The year before that it was soy. I wonder if there are rules about what the farm next door can and can’t grow. Corn might be a bad idea. Even tobacco grows pretty high. It doesn’t grow as high as corn, but it grows high enough that I can see where it might be considered a threat, a “security risk.”

    I pass a sign hanging from the galvanized steel linkage. In sharp, red letters it warns: “STAY BACK TEN FEET.” I ignore the threat, like everyone does. The well-worn path that I’m hiking, the one created by the footsteps of thousands of men before me, is a mere


    two feet from the fence. The only time I can recall this close proximity being a problem was about six months ago. There was a new guard training in the gun tower. Poor kid. She didn’t know that this is the path we always tread. One of the guys was out doing his walk, this walk, two feet from the fence. She shouted down from the tower for him to “Get back ten feet!” He ignored her, of course. Must have thought she was yelling at someone else. She panicked and pulled the gun on him. Staring fiercely down the barrel of the rifle, she screamed, “I said get away from the fence.” Her shrill voice sounded more full of fright than authority. The whole yard broke into fits of laughter. Guys were hooting and hollering, falling off of the weight benches. The basketball game came to a standstill in order to watch the drama unfold. I don’t know how it ended. Bored with the hysterics, I walked back inside. I know she didn’t shoot him. Everyone laughed about that event for days afterwards: “She pulled a gun on him! Stupid. Can you believe that? She pulled a gun!”

    What a riot.

    Sometimes it frightens me, how easily I’ve adapted to this place. The language, my language itself, was the first notable change. Not just the semantics, either – though those have changed, too – but I expected that. No, what frightens me is the way I approach subjects now. For example, early on, when guys would ask what I was in for, I’d go into a long soliloquy describing the unfolding of the nightmare that landed me here. I’d carefully explain how a car ran a stop sign one evening, slammed into an on-coming vehicle, and injured someone. I’d tell how a group of people stopped to help, and then how I came over the hill too fast to stop, but then, I had been drinking, too, and…

    These days, when someone asks what I’m in for, I shrug and say, “Car accident. Killed a bunch of people. I was drunk.” And I shudder inside at how easy that has become to say…”killed a bunch of people.” That should never be easy to say, but the guys closest to me over the years have grown bored with my despair. They have their own hells to face, so I’ve learned to shrug off my despondence out of…politeness?

    A mockingbird lands easily, tauntingly, between the glinting blades of coiled razor wire that shrouds the top of the fence. She chatters at me angrily in some unknown tongue. The fence is what makes this a prison. The buildings are just buildings: concrete, steel, glass, bricks, tar – just buildings. The earth that the buildings rest on, cooled by their looming shadows, is just earth. In a thousand years, long after nature has had her way with mankind’s “progress”, this will still be earth. The mockingbird doesn’t know this is a prison, a penitentiary, a place for penance. No, what makes this a prison, what confines me to the point of suffocation, is that fence, that quarter mile run of metal mesh, tangled barbed wire, and accordioned razor wire. I can see freedom through it, but I can never reach out and touch it from here. If not for that fence, this wouldn’t be such a bad place; free food, free rent, and I’m only lonely when I want to be lonely.

    If I could just saunter over there and pluck one of the leaves from a sweet potato vine, smell its fresh, green scent, rub its milky smoothness against my skin. If I could just do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.

    Dragonflies busily zoom here and there, across the yard, over the fence, to some unexplored water source, some mythological Xanadu. If I could just follow them to that magic fairyland, just hear the splash of water, smell the cool, damp earth, dip my fingers into that dark, liquid pool; if I could do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.


    What I really want, desire…CRAVE, is a day off. I want my innocence back, just for one day. I want to enjoy the quiet creaking of a porch swing, to chase fireflies in the twilight, to thump a watermelon under the blazing sun and listen for the telling ring of ripeness. I want to not know death. That would be freedom! But I’ll never be that free again.

    It surprised me to learn, in here, just how malleable time can be. Get a steady routine going and the years fly by. Shave every other day. Lift weights for an hour or so daily. Read voraciously, because a good book is the closest thing left to actually living. So that’s the trick. Get a good, steady routine and watch the seasons melt into each other. Of course, the downside to that is that I’m aging faster, too. Well, it’s about time I grew up. I’ve been playing this Peter Pan thing for too long as it is, and it has cost too many people far too much.

    Step after step, lap after lap, mile after mile, always watching the ground, watching the grass blur beneath me, I walk this fence, going nowhere, just walking, because the body needs motion.

    Sometimes I imagine that I’m training to hike the corridor of the Appalachian Trail. That’s one of my dreams of freedom. I’ll march the twenty-seven hundred miles of mountain ridges and flowering valley floors, and I’ll remember prison. I’ll look on all of nature’s splendid perfection, and I’ll muse to myself that I’d never be able to complete that stretch of walking if it weren’t for the endless miles I’d laid down behind these walls. It’s important to dream.


    Other times, I’m just walking to escape the ghosts that haunt me now. If I walk fast enough, or far enough, or both, then maybe they’ll give up and leave me alone. (They never do.)

    Some days, I walk to feel the sunshine warming my bones, browning my skin. The sun is a shimmering reminder that the world will be okay. Life will prevail.

    I walk in the rain for solitude. I revel in the drenching sky-water rolling off my face, baptizing me, healing me, renewing me.

    I walk in the winter for the winds, which is another form of travel for me. I begin in the Arctic, move down from Canada, across endless plains, and blow out to the Atlantic. I’ve wandered with the wind many, many times.

    Mostly, though, I just walk.

    I walk.

    I walk towards some future, away from my past.

    I walk.

    With countless miles to go, I walk.

    It’s better not to count the miles. Counting can be dangerous.

    I walk.

    I walk.

    I walk.

    A body in motion, I walk.








The Day of The Trial

You would think that you wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before an event like this. I mean, the rest of your life is being determined tomorrow by people that you have never met before, that only know the things about you that they have read. Also, I didn’t really have an idea of what this day would look like. My lawyer and I had determined that I would go with an “open plea”, which was basically saying that I was 100% guilty and that I would leave it up to the judge to decide what would be best for everybody involved. To tell you the truth, I’m still not certain what the difference between an open plea and “guilty” is.

My folks had bought a suit for me to wear from the local Wal-mart that fit my lawyer’s instructions. Originally he had wanted me to wear the orange jumpsuit that we all wore in jail because it looked more pathetic and he thought that might garner some sympathy from the judge, but then the jail changed their wardrobes to two-piece outfits that were orange and white horizontal stripes. They didn’t make you look pathetic so much as they made you look guilty. So, the day of the trial it was decided that I would wear a blue blazer, white shirt, khaki pants, a non-descript tie… wanting to keep something of myself in this outfit, I had asked my folks if I could wear suspenders instead of a belt, but they were afraid to do anything different than what Rick had instructed. I wore a belt.

Amazingly, I slept pretty well the night before. I think that a lot of this had to do with the fact that I had been in jail for so long, and nothing really seemed to change much from one day to the next. So, while my whole life was do to change drastically, it certainly didn’t feel like it. I skipped out on the red-pod evening circle up and pray. I just wanted to be alone, to read a little bit, to listen to my radio, and to think for a while.

There are a lot of resources available for free to guys who are locked up. If you want a bible, or a Qur’an you can always get one for free. There are organizations that offer bible courses and even offer “degrees” through the mail if you are incarcerated. I had sent off for a couple of things while I was in jail. One of my favorites was the story of “Peace Pilgrim”, a woman who walked continuously across the country carrying nothing but a comb, preaching nuclear disarmament to the masses. I loved her. I loved her organization a lot too, but there was something about her simplicity that truly moved me. I had torn her black and white picture out of the book that her organization sent me and had folded it up and put it in my Gideon’s bible. Other inmates told me that I was allowed to have a Gideon’s bible with me, and truly I had grown quite attached to my little bible if for no other reason than its cultural familiarity, but if I was going to be raked over the proverbial coals in the morning then I wanted Peace Pilgrim there with me, to comfort me.

I woke up early.

I woke up and was wide-awake and couldn’t sleep anymore, early in the morning, before they unlocked the cells or turned on the lights. I sat in the cell in the early morning darkness- nervous? Apprehensive? Fearful? Maybe even a little excited that I would finally find out what was going to happen next. It was too dark to read in the cell. I sat up, leaned the weight of my body against the wall, wrapped my blanket around my shoulders, put the headphones in my ears and turned on my radio.

I had developed this odd habit of listening to whatever I could find on the radio that was the most mundane, the most inconsequential. I liked to listen to evening traffic reports, or farm futures. There was something so life affirming in this. It was so very different than any part of my existence. It sounded so easy. These little things mattered so much to someone out there. It mattered whether or not it rained that morning to someone. It was really important to someone if traffic happened to be moving slowly on 40 east right now. There was something really innocent about these things that I loved and missed dearly. I wanted the things in my life to be so easily governable. I wanted the frustration of a traffic jam, the concern of weather. Nobody has ever been stabbed by weather.

So, I turned on the morning radio, an AM station. They were belting out the morning news as usual; only this morning the bright staccato voice was saying my name, something about “Sentencing will take place today for Larry Veeder…” I listened distractedly with a grim fascination. It felt so otherworldly; the name wasn’t right- I go by my middle name Robert, not my first name, Larry, which is what my father, whom I was named after, goes by. It was a distinction that would be altogether lost in my years in prison.

I wasn’t even allowed my own name.

Finally, the cell doors were opened, breakfast was served, and immediately afterwards many of the guys in the block went back to sleep. I showered. I waited. Charmed was playing on the television, back to back episodes, a show that I had never actually watched, but somehow it seemed perfect for this morning. It was easy to tune in and out of at will. Somewhere, people were bustling, moving frantically, worried over what this day would look like. My parents and close friends were filtering into a courtroom somewhere. My lawyer would be having coffee, talking strategies to his partners, and other caseworkers who had assisted him over the months. The victim’s families would be gathering somewhere hoping for…what? Vengeance? God, I hope not. Reconciliation? I had no idea. Outside of the eighth floor red pod, people were gathering with quiet and not so quiet anticipation, worry, anger, fear, and sorrow. But in here it was quiet. In here it was oddly still for the first time in over half a year. In here, I sat quietly on a stainless steel bench at a stainless steel table watching Charmed.

Waiting, which is an action that I had grown profoundly skilled at doing.

You would think that I would remember every detail, but honestly I don’t. I don’t remember what time they came to get me. I don’t remember the elevator ride down, or the long series of underground cinder block tunnels that led to the courthouse. There are a few things that I do remember: I remember that the guard that had escorted me upstairs to all of the jailhouse classes I took was working that morning. He was really nice to me, and had decided somewhere along the line that I was a good enough person that he hoped that I wouldn’t be locked up forever. He told me this that morning. I remember that once I was in the actual courthouse building, the wood looked dark, soft, and inviting, a stark contrast to my many months in jail. I also remember that they didn’t have a cell ready for me yet to be alone with my lawyer; they handcuffed me to a bench so that we could talk alone in the hallway for a few moments. He had a partner with him, someone that I didn’t know, but at this point it didn’t seem to matter. I had my little bible with Peace Pilgrim’s photo inside. He asked if I was nervous. I told him not really. The worst part, the night of the accident, was already behind me. This was just some odd formality. He nodded to his partner, who gave a knowing nod back. Later this would be what they told the local press. Then he told me to expect twenty-five years, but at this point, I just didn’t care anymore. What did it matter? My life was already over. What’s twenty-five years? I couldn’t even fathom who I would be in twenty-five years. It was inconceivable, just a number.

There was a guard in the cell with us most of the time. When we were alone, while I changed clothes, he offered me a cigarette. I simply couldn’t resist. I hated taking it from him. I had been so proud of the fact that I was finally nicotine free, but there seemed to be something so comforting, and familiar about it, even traditional- one last cigarette. Also, after so many months of guards being either angry or indifferent, it seemed rude to turn down this guy’s attempt at civility- I missed compassion.

My attorneys returned. We went over what I had hoped to say. I explained that if the families were there then I wanted to at least look at them and apologize, but my lawyers adamantly told me not to, I’m still not sure why. They said that I could say that I was sorry, but that I would have to face the judge while I did it, under no circumstances was I to face the families. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know…it still doesn’t seem right to me, but that’s what I did. I did whatever they told me to. This was their ballgame; I was just the ball.

Eventually we went into the courtroom to face the music. My parents were there, lots of friends were there and lots of people that I didn’t know at all. Again, it was different than anything I had seen on television. The judge asked me a bunch of questions regarding my competency to stand trial- “Do you understand the charges?” “Are you under the influence of any medications?” That sort of thing. Then the lawyers had some talking to do to the judge. Then anyone who had any relation to one of the victims that felt like saying something was allowed to get up and speak. Parents of one young man whom had been killed got up to talk about how admirable their son was, what a great kid he was, how proud of him they were; then I watched a video of him growing up, playing his drum-set on the back porch, riding his bicycle into a backyard pool. After that his girlfriend got up to say a few words about what a gentle person he had been. Then a victim’s mother got up to speak. Her son hadn’t been killed, thankfully, but he had been severely hurt, and while I was sleeping away my time in the county jail, lazily, he had been undergoing physical therapy. She hoped that I would spend whatever time I was given working on my relationship with Jesus. Another woman spoke about how her husband had been killed leaving her alone to raise her six-month old son. She expressed exhaustion, said that she had been too busy, and too tired to really grieve. It went on like this for a few thousand years it felt like. If I could have been granted one wish at that moment, it would have been to lay on the floor in the front of the courtroom, and to have any and everybody in the world come up and just kick the shit out of me as much and for as long as they wanted to; that would have been easier.

Eventually, everyone seemed to be finished, and it was my turn. They asked me if I had anything that I wanted to say. So, I stood up, and not facing the families, but instead facing the judge, a man that had nothing to do with this whatsoever, I said, “I am so, so sorry. These were good people just trying to help. I am so sorry that this has happened.” The judge declared a recess and I ran crying into my cell. The guard offered me another cigarette. I took it, and smoked gladly, a river of tears streaming down my face.

They brought me a tray of jail food, but I couldn’t eat it. So instead, I sat, waiting for the rest of the world to eat lunch. Then it was back on my feet, back into the courtroom, for the grand finale- sentencing.

Both my lawyer and the DA made some opposing remarks about what caused the accident, how sentencing should be handled, at one point the DA burst into tears and spoke of his own new-born child, and how he could only imagine the plights that these families faced.

Finally, the judge offered a few words, spoke of “a heinous confluence of events” mentioning that my “grief was real” and handed down his sentence. I was charged with 6 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 2 counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injury, and given 8.5 to 11 years at a state correctional facility.

I was wisped away to my cell, told to change clothes, and I was taken back upstairs to my cell. I was given no further instruction. Eventually, they would come to take me to prison, but I wasn’t told when. I made phone calls, called my aunt, my parents, a few friends, my sister, to tell them the good news. People were excited for me. I would still be young when I was released. That’s what people said. They said with relief, “Thank God, you’ll still be young when you get out.”

After that, I went up to my cell and fell sound asleep. The friends of mine who were still waiting for a court date started asking for my stuff before I shipped out. I had a pair of jailhouse tennis shoes. They cost about eight dollars in jail, but you could pick them up for a buck or two at the dollar store outside. Red wanted to know if he could have those. He said, “In prison, they’ll give you work boots.” I couldn’t wait for work boots. I gave him my shoes. Other guys wanted my collection of books, any extra batteries or stamps, extra toilet paper.

The next morning I overslept, missed breakfast. I was oddly happy, at least relieved. An inmate that I didn’t know showed up at my cell with a large orange garbage bag. “You headin’ out today, huh? Whaddya get?”

I said, “Eight and a half to eleven.”

He said, “Whew, that’s tight. You gonna hav’ ta stay busy; you wanna do eight and a half. What you takin’ wit you? Can I have some of this stuff?”

I said, “The shoes and batteries are taken. So are the stamps. You can have whatever’s left when I leave I guess.”

About that time they called my name over the intercom telling me to report downstairs with my belongings.

From there I was taken down to a holding cell that looked almost exactly like the suicide watch booth that I had first been admitted to. A few cells down from me I could hear the familiar scream of a heroin addict going cold turkey. This is how they handled withdrawal in jail, lock them in a cage and let them go at it. He was screaming, crying, and begging these pathetic cries. I really felt bad for him. There was graffiti around the window pane- mostly names with the amount of time they had gotten. I saw my friend Suki’s name scribbled in ink. He was from Uganda, had stabbed his roommate to death, when he caught her cheating on him. He had thought they were romantic partners. She had not. Suki, was a pretty nice guy to me. We would talk about Africa, Uganda specifically, and about the differences between the cultures there and here. I remember the funniest story he had told me. He said that he had come from Uganda to New York City and had flown in pretty late at night. He went to a bar that was filled to the brim with sparkling, bedazzled, attractive women. Not believing his luck, he called his friend that he was supposed to be meeting in the U.S. and insisted that he come meet Suki at the bar. Suki couldn’t believe so many attractive women could be in one place at the same time, with almost no men to compete with in chatting them up. An hour or so later Suki’s friend showed up and explained to Suki what a transvestite is. Suki couldn’t believe such a thing existed, and yet, here he was, surrounded by them. We laughed hysterically together over that one. Suki was a decent guy, and here was his name scratched out in blue ink…”Suki- 19 years 4 months”.

Eventually a sheriff showed up to take me to prison. He was gruff, sick, kept coughing and snorting a lot, and obviously didn’t feel well. I stood there as he instructed me in getting my shackles on. Shackles are different than handcuffs. These involved a special set of handcuffs, and then some kind of ankle restraints too. Once those were on a long series of chain was looped through a black box on the handcuffs, which went down to the ankles and back up, and a separate lock was put on the box. Now it was impossible to do much more than shuffle ridiculously down the hall. I couldn’t raise my hands more than a couple of inches because they were tied to my ankles. We made it to the door. He unlocked the keypad and then said to me, “Go ahead and get the door for me.” I thought he was kidding.

He wasn’t kidding.

I awkwardly twisted my body up so that I could open the door for him. We went out to the parking deck. Finally- Outside! The sky! Wind!

“The car is over there I’ll meet you there. You can go ahead and get in the back seat.” but I had no idea how I was going to accomplish any of this in these shackles.

Shackles! I couldn’t believe this. Is this who I was considered to be? Is this who I had become? I couldn’t believe it. I dreaded anyone seeing me at all. I dreaded anyone seeing me in the parking lot thinking that I was the kind of person dangerous enough to need to be restrained by shackles. It was amazingly humiliating.

To his credit, the officer opened the car door for me and instructed me in how to get into the car. He didn’t say much of anything, just coughed and hacked his way to Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. where I would go for processing about a ten-minute drive from where we were. We pulled up to one giant fence. It opened. We drove through, and then the fence closed behind us, so we were entirely boxed in by fences and razor wire. Some guards came and did a complete search of his vehicle, including telescopic mirrors for looking under the car. I remember thinking, “Has this been a problem? People trying to break into prison?” I didn’t say a word. No one around here seemed to have much of a sense of humor.

Eventually, they decided we were all right and they let us in. Everything seemed gigantic. The fences were huge and sprawling. The buildings were ominous, foreboding, unwelcoming, and dark.

I remember very specifically feeling like I was being eaten, ravenously devoured, and swallowed whole, which, of course, I was.





Why Jokes Matter

***This was one of the first things I ever wrote that received any attention. I think I had been locked up about two or three years when I wrote this for a prison English class I was taking. I entered it in a state wide writing contest and it won first place. Hope you enjoy.


My father is an intelligent man. By trade, he was a nuclear consultant; at least, that’s how he earned his living. I always thought of him more as a Renaissance man. He’s a skilled carpenter who enjoys woodworking and cabinet making. He’s well versed in world history, geography, economics, political science and an assortment of other subjects. He has a boating license and a pilot’s license. On all accounts, he is a pretty remarkable human being.


This is not what I want to write about, though. What I want to write about are his jokes. For as long as I can remember, my father has been telling jokes. He tells good jokes, bad jokes, dirty jokes, politically incorrect jokes, and on the rare occasion – very rare – he even tells a funny joke.


The first joke I remember my father telling is about a guy who walks into a doctor’s office with a frog on his head. The doctor asks, “Can I help you?” and the frog says, “Yeah, can you get this guy off my tail?” This cracked my father up to no end. I was just a kid when he began telling it, maybe six or seven years old, but after twenty-some-odd year, I still don’t get it. It doesn’t matter, though. He loved telling it, and we loved watching him laugh.


Over the years I’ve heard hundreds, possibly thousands, of jokes. I’ve heard so many jokes that when somebody starts to tell me, “the one about the guy who walked into the bar…”, I can easily rattle off a dozen. If I’m asked “How many ___ (fill in the blank) it takes to change a light bulb” I request the person to take a seat – this could take a while.


Flash forward to the very worst period of my life. I had just been in a devastating car accident. I had been in severe shock for days. I was on the brink of suicide and had been grasping at straws to try to find a reason to live. My body was trembling, shaking and involuntarily convulsing. Tears continuously rolled down my face. To top it all off, I was locked up in jail.


My parents drove to the jail from Alabama, a nine-hour drive, to try to comfort me. We were only allowed a one-hour visit, and that was with a 1” Plexiglas barrier separating us while we talked over a telephone.


My dad sat down, calmly picked up the telephone receiver, and started telling jokes. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to scream at him – , “This is hardly the time, Dad! I was just in a car accident that killed people! I’m not sure that I can live through this! Are you insane?” but I didn’t. I just listened and sat there staring at him in silent disbelief.


I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and have recently come to the conclusion that not only was his joke telling sane, it was the most perfect thing he could have done.


Another man might have lectured me about the terrible thing I had done, which I certainly didn’t need at that time. Another man might have told his son that everything was going to be o.k., which would have been an obvious lie. Any other father might have wept with grief, asking, “Why? Why did you do this?” I couldn’t have handled any more grief right then. I had enough of my own. My father told jokes.


Today, I don’t recall a single joke he told that day, but I remember the punch lines to every one of them, because they were all the same – “I love you, son.” That’s what he said, over and over.


“Why did the duck cross the road?”


“I don’t know, Dad.”


(Because I love you, son.)


“Three priests walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the priests and says, (I love you, son.)


How many blonds does it take to change a light bulb?


(I love you, son.)


I love you, Dad.

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Locked Up! (Conclusion)

I’m not sure why it worked like this. I expected to stay in processing, like my friends, for months. It may have been the media attention surrounding my case. I also had a friend that I used to play music with that had once worked as a caseworker at this very prison, so for a while I suspected that maybe he had something to do with it. I never did find out why, but I didn’t spend much more than a week in processing. Early one morning, and by early I mean around 2:00 am, I was instructed to gather my things and get ready to ship out. I would have breakfast, and then board the bus to my new destination, wherever that happened to be.

After breakfast we were taken to a waiting cell. There were about eight or nine of us in there, sitting on concrete benches that were built into the walls. We stared awkwardly at the ground not quite knowing what to say. I didn’t know what to expect. Frightened, anxious with anticipation, still sad that this was my new life, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where we were going, how long it would take to get there. I had seen the rolling cages that are prison buses on the highways before, was that what we would ride on?

I’m not sure how long we were there waiting; It felt like hours. Eventually the awkward silences were broken and we guys started telling stories about their past lives prior to incarceration.

One guy said that this was his second time back inside. “That crack,” he explained. He said that he had gotten out and landed a good job driving an ice-cream truck, “mostly in the hood,” he said. Things had been going pretty good, but eventually he ran into an old friend that offered him a little blow. He took it, and one thing led to another and as he explained it he sat in that truck for about three days straight with a friend, smoking crack. He said,” Man little kids was walkin’ past us just shootin’ us da bird. They was pissed! We was out of ice-cream. What we couldn’t sell just ended up melting.” We were all falling over laughing, thinking of all of these kids looking at the empty ice-cream truck that had been sitting there for three days straight with the ice-cream man all jooked up on crack.

Another guy said for him it had been heroin. He told a story about him and this girl he had been shacking up with for a little while, “pretty girl,” he said. They ran out of heroin. He said that they came up with this idea where she would go to a local trailer park where a bunch of migrant workers lived and she would prostitute herself, so they could get enough money to buy some more smack. They had driven over there, and he had sat in the car waiting. “Man, she was gone for like 6 hours straight. I was thinking that we were gonna be rich! Sittin’ there, all excited. She came back and had like twelve dollars!”

“Twelve dollars?” Someone exclaimed with disbelief. “What was she doin’ in there all that time?”

“I have no idea. Never did find out. Fuck it, right?” We had a pretty good laugh over that too.

Finally, a guard came and we got on the bus. I was given a string of numbers and told to memorize them, but I wasn’t prepared for this. He just read them off to me and said, “Don’t forget these numbers!” as I boarded the bus, my little plastic shipping bag in my hand.

The inside of the bus was just a cage. The driver, and the guard that was riding with him were in a section completely separated from the rest of us. I could see a rifle up there. The rest of the inside just looked like an old school bus. About an hour and a half into the ride I started squirming, I had to pee so bad. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty certain that this driver wouldn’t pull over to a gas station for me. I busied myself by looking at the people in the cars out the windows as we traveled down the highway, wondering where they were going. I missed my life. I missed having a life to miss.

My bladder was going to explode. I was sure of it.

The guy in front of me woke up and sat up. I said, ”Any idea where we might be going, or how long it will take to get there?”

“Naw, not really,” he said.

I sat there uncomfortably for a few more minutes.

“Man, I have got to piss.” I said, hoping he would interject some idea of how to go about this.

“I guess you should just go.” He said, uncomprehendingly.

A few more minutes. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. There was a drink cooler in the back of the bus with some paper cups next to it. I would just have to go back there and fill up those cups. They would just have to understand. I wasn’t going to sit here and pee all over myself. I stood up and walked to the back of the bus making a beeline towards the cooler. When I got there, to my amazement, I saw a toilet! Thank goodness. I had missed it in the early morning darkness when we were boarding the bus. Oh my god. Relief. That might have been the best pee I have had in my life so far.

We made one stop at a strange kind of prison depot. I stepped off of the back of the bus and the guard asked me for my number, the one I was supposed to be memorizing. I tried. “0-8-6-7-1-2-4-something?” “Wrong.” He said flatly. He handed me a paper bag with some kind of food in it. “Get in the cage,” he said as he checked my name off of a list. There was a giant roofed cage with about a hundred other inmates inside eating, talking, sitting on toilets. I stepped inside with everyone else and they locked the gate behind us. The guards ate. We ate. Finally, our lunch break was over. We boarded our buses again and took off to our new destinations. In my case this would be Eastern Correctional Institute, in Maury, North Carolina, where I would spend about the next four and a half years of my life, and where I would eventually meet the love of my life for the very first time, the most incredible, thoughtful, and loving person that I have ever known. And now, today, as I write these words, she is standing in the kitchen, in our kitchen, just a few short feet away. My heart.

My wife.


Locked Up (Part IIII)

The next day during breakfast a guard came to me and passed me a slip of paper, some sort of pass. He said, ”After breakfast you need to go directly to the medical unit and see the dentist.” This place was a fortress. Lots of long, dark tunnels. I had no idea where I was supposed to go, but I reasoned that I could ask and eventually find my way there. I was kind of looking forward to it. It would be nice to go somewhere alone, un-escorted. So, I hurriedly ate my eggs, gave my patty away, and rushed off to the dentist.

Once there I knocked on the door, and waited for it to be unlocked. I gave the officer my pass. The medical unit looked like little more than a long, narrow hall, with a few small rooms here and there. The guard pointed to one of the open areas and said, “Wait in there until I come get you.” I walked down the hall a little ways and made a left into the area that he spoke of. Inside there were a few chairs, one small wooden bench, and what looked like a giant birdcage, just big enough to fit one person. There was a man inside of this cage. He was wearing a yellow jumpsuit. I had no idea what a yellow jumpsuit meant. I sat down next to him on the wooden bench.

He said a happy, exuberant even, “Hello!” I said hi back, and continued staring at the floor. He explained happily to me, “I here getting’ ma sugars washed.” I explained that I didn’t know what he meant. He explained that he had, “the sugars” and that about once a week he had to come down here and “get ‘em cleaned”. Nice enough guy, he seemed a little challenged. I asked if he meant that he had diabetes and he affirmed that this was true. I asked him what the yellow jumpsuit was for. Explained that he was in PC. I didn’t know what that meant, and I wasn’t sure that this was the guy to explain it, so I let it go. Mostly, I sat there thinking about the wooden bench, how it came to be, how long it had been here. I wondered who had made it. It had a Quaker furniture appeal to it. It was simple, even a little rough, but it felt nice, in contrast to all of the cold smooth metal and concrete surrounding us. This bench felt familiar and warm and….

“Veeder?!?” An officer questioned.

“Huh? Yeah, that’s me.” I answered.

Annoyed, she said, “Follow me.”

So, I said good-bye to my friend in the cage, told him good luck with his sugars. He said good-bye to me with cheer in his voice and a glean in his eyes, and I followed the guard down the hall to the dental area. It was a tiny, cramped space. They instructed me to take a seat in the chair. I did. The dentist came in and explained that this was just a check-up for processing. He wanted to know the last time, if ever, I had seen a dentist. I explained that I had gone just a few months before I was locked up to have my wisdom teeth removed and for a cleaning. He harrumphed skeptically, and asked to look inside my mouth. I explained that I had just come from breakfast, apologetically, but he seemed to ignore me. I opened my mouth and he looked inside. Less than two seconds went by. He sat back up and angrily said, “Why didn’t you brush before coming to see me this morning?!?” I explained that the guards had said to come straight here after breakfast. I didn’t know that I could go back to my unit and brush first. It didn’t matter what I said. He wasn’t listening. He was busy doing other things, writing things down in a chart, and reorganizing his tools. Whatever we were here to do this morning, he had already done. I was excused and told to return to my unit.

Most of processing went something like this for me. I went to a medical examination where I stripped naked. The doctor stood about eight feet away from me, instructed me to grab my testicals, turn my head to the side and cough. I followed his instructions, but tried to explain that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling for. He never responded, just told me to get dressed. We were done. I went to see a psychologist who asked me if I felt suicidal, informing me at the same time that if I did then they would put me on a suicide watch; So, of course, no, no, I did not feel suicidal at all.

Over a period of a week or so I went through processing. I was pricked and prodded, given eye-sight tests, blood tests, IQ tests, reading comprehension tests. I stood in lines talking to others about what they were going through. “How’d you get here? How much timed’ ya get?” I met a few guys that were still recovering from being shot by officers during their apprehension. “Got shot in the ribs, and they still gave me all this motherfuckin’ time!”

The guys that I was processing with were very nice to me. I think we were all pretty considerate to each other. We would have talks about what we wanted to watch on television that night, and these were always pretty considerate. They knew that I didn’t have any money so they took a collection up and bought me some rolling tobacco, and some snacks to tide me through. I told them that I really couldn’t pay them back unless we ended up at the same camp; They didn’t care though, they said just to pay it forward.

Eventually, I was taken to meet my caseworker. It was an odd conversation. She talked to me as if I had some idea of how this all worked. She asked if I wanted to stay at the prison that we were at so that I would be close to family and friends. But this prison only allowed one phone call a year! No thanks. I explained that most of my friends had fallen away over the past several months, and now mostly it was just my family that would be coming around. No, I didn’t really need to be here. What I really wanted, I told her, was to work on my education. I explained that when I was outside, I had always heard that people in prisons were going to colleges. I wanted to do that. I had had a little college back when I was nineteen or so, but I had dropped out during the second semester. I wanted to go to college. Was that an option? She looked skeptical, said that she would see what she could do, but that it really didn’t work like that, but she would try. Our interview was over. I was told to return to my cell.


Locked Up! (Part III)

We weren’t escorted back from lunch. Eventually, they just opened the doors and we were free to roam back to our block. It felt like such a luxury to be able to walk like this, so…human. Walking back to the block a guard appeared in the hallway. “I’m looking for two volunteers. Who feels like pushing a lawn mower?” I was not fast enough. Two of the guys from my block beat me out. They got to go outside.

I went back to the block. Waved at the guard who opened the doors and let me inside.

We could smoke in there too. This was changed while I was locked up. Eventually they took all of the tobacco off of state, but when I was first locked up we could buy cigarettes or rolling tobacco from the canteen. I didn’t have any, and I didn’t have any money in my account yet. I was actually pretty happy that I had finally managed to not be smoking. I had been trying to quit for years, and now after months in jail I didn’t feel the rage of a nicotine craving in my system anymore. Even the cigarettes that the guard had given me the day I had gone to court hadn’t tasted great. But now I really wanted a cigarette. It wasn’t that I wanted to start smoking again as much as I wanted to be able to make decisions about my life, or at least that was how I rationalized it. I liked the idea of the smoke taking up a little bit of space for me. I liked the idea of lighting a cigarette when I wanted to light a cigarette. One of the guys in the block was sitting at a table rolling cigarettes. He didn’t speak any English, but understood when I asked him for one. He nodded yes and slid a hand rolled cigarette across the table towards me. I lit it and drew in deep with satisfaction. Excused myself and went to lie on my bunk for a couple of hours. There was one book in the whole block. It was a western by Louis L’amour, Kid Rodeo, I think. It was kind of nice, lying back on my bunk, a cigarette and some old western. There was the hum of a giant fan. I drifted off.

When I woke up the guys were back from mowing. We all gathered around the table so they could tell us about it, what outside was like. They said they just mowed a big hill. They talked about lawnmowers and talked some about the lawnmowers they had owned before being locked up. Eventually one of them pulled a dandelion out of his pocket. We took turns passing it around, smelling it. Talking. We slowly wonder over the dandelion, pulling apart its tiny petals, stripping the stem to smell the greenness. We chat and get to know each other better. “How long were you in jail?” “Is this your first time down?” “What’d you get?” We talked about court, our trials, what we were in for. A couple of people had recognized me from the news, but some of these guys were from the other side of the state, so hadn’t really heard, which was kind of a relief. Raymond said that he had to get his case back to court. He said that he had been a photographer for a pornographic magazine company. His wife had been his assistant. He had been brought up on child sex charges. The story he told us was that he and his wife had photographed a girl that had turned out to be 17 instead of 18. It had happened a couple of years ago. She was twenty and in college now. At the time of the session she had provided them with what appeared to be valid ID, but wasn’t. She had been paid for the photographs and signed contracts and everything, but she had falsified her information. One afternoon a friend of her father’s had managed to run across the pictures of her in this magazine, and had realized that she was underage. This friend alerted her father, and now this guy and his wife were brought up on child sex charges together. The charges were worsened by the fact that he had repositioned her at some point during the shoot, so he had touched a minor. Well, he tells us, he was sure that this was an open and shut case. His lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t do any time over this. They had all of the documentation, copies of the contracts, copies of the forged ID. His wife had been released already, and had gotten time served after being in the county jail waiting for so long. A few weeks ago his biggest worry was how they were going to save the house, get his finances caught up, get going again after so many months in jail. He was ready for court. He showed up for court and his lawyer gave him a pat on the back and said, “Right, you ready to go home today?” He damn sure was ready!

Eleven years.

I don’t know if his story was true or not. That’s the other thing about prison stories. You never really know if you are being told the truth. At some point you stop caring about whether it is the truth or not. What does it matter? It was his truth. He told us a good story, and he seemed to believe it, and so I could believe it with him. Who cares about whether or not the story was true. I have my own time to do, my own stories to live; if he needed me to believe this with him, then I was absolutely willing to do just that. We could complain together with righteous indignation about the injustice, the unfairness, of the justice system. I usually ended up hoping that the stories I was told over the years were true. I always ended up hoping that the guys that I met over the years that swore they were innocent, really were. I had one friend that swore continuously that he was innocent of attempted murder. I remember walking the yard with him one Saturday morning, explaining to him that I wished that I had been wrongly accused. It would be much easier waking up in the morning knowing that you were innocent, knowing that everyone else was wrong.P1030257

Locked Up! (Part II)


Around 11:30 am or 12:00 we all lined up at the door for lunch. This was another good rule of thumb for prison; just follow the guy in front of you. In jail lunch was brought to us, but here we would walk on our own, freely, to the chow hall. We lined up at the door to the block. Once we were all there the guard in the booth opened the automatic door, we stepped through cramming ourselves into a waiting area, chatting about whatever was on television, or what they had done in processing so far- medical checks, interviews with case-workers, drug-screenings. A few of these guys had been here for months, and had no idea when it would be over, or how long it would take. The prison we were in only allowed one phone call a year. You could call your family at Christmas, but that was it, and there were no “contact” visits. Your family could visit you on weekends, but it had to be through a plexiglass screen over a telephone. They told me that we could not send or receive mail while we were in processing. So, they had been here, completely cut-off from any outside contact. It was easy enough for us, we knew what we were going through, but we worried for our families outside who had no idea what had happened to us. Like me, all of these guys had gone to court, had been sentenced, and that was the last thing that their families had heard of them.

The door was finally opened and we were off. It was a crazy mad dash. We were doing a run-walk to the chow hall behind hundreds of other guys who were all doing this same crazy race to the finish. I would have asked what all of the rush was about, but between the pounding of hundreds of tennis shoes on concrete floors, the many conversations taking place simultaneously, and being nearly out of breath myself, I couldn’t do anything other than follow their knowing lead. Eventually we made it to the chow hall. Once we were all inside, they locked the door behind us, and started serving food.

Prison food is gruel. When they serve broccoli, you only get the stems, and it’s overcooked until it is a brown, messy, mush. Invariably, there is some kind of pasta mixed with; god knows what, something disgusting, or a patty: hamburger patty, turkey patty, veal patty, vegetable patty. But honestly, after jail, I made it my personal rule to never complain about the food. Prison food might be gruel, but hell, it was at least warm, and there was salt. I had just spent seven months eating two scoops of instant mashed potatoes a night, almost every night it seemed, with no seasoning, no salt, no pepper. By comparison, the slimy stuff on my plate right now might as well have come from the Ritz-Carlton and been peronally prepared by Escoffier. There were drink coolers with some kind of drink mix in them and we could go back for seconds on the drinks. There was a cake. Since I am a vegetarian, and because at this point the prison system didn’t know I was a vegetarian, and I didn’t know they offered a substitute, everybody wanted to be my friend. It meant that if they sat with me they could have whatever meat was on my plate.

I had one little moment though at lunch that afternoon. I was waiting in line to fill my drink cup. Some guy had left his tray in front of the drink coolers, and had gone to have a conversation with a guy at a nearby table, so the entire line had come to a stop. I stood there waiting politely for as long as I could, but the people behind me were starting to get impatient. Finally, I grabbed an empty Styrofoam cup, slid his tray cautiously down a few inches and…

“What the FUCK do you think you doin’, motherfucker! You don’t be touchin’ my motherfuckin’ tray motherfucker. What the fuck is wrong wit you. You wanna be startin’ some SHIT?!? Cause I will fuck you the fuck up!” Then to himself, “Goddamn! What the fuck is wrong wit people? Stoopid motherfucker.” I shrugged, not knowing what to say. Filled up my drink ignoring him while he continued his rant, and went and sat down with the almost familiar faces of the guys from my block.

“What did you do?” someone asked.

I couldn’t even explain. “I’m not quite sure…” I answered.

There were two separate chow halls separated by glass walls. Once the line cleared down and we were all fed, another group of inmates were let into the second area. They were all wearing red jumpsuits.

“Death-row,” one of the guys at my table explained, almost with a quiet reverence.

Someone else said, “Would you look at them. They actually look happy,” with wonder in his voice. I looked over. They didn’t look happy, or unhappy to me.

They looked like us.

Some of them were talking easily, others looked more isolated and alone. I saw one guy walking in what looked like some kind of chemical induced shuffle- Thorazine? Haldol? I couldn’t be sure. Other than the red jumpsuits, I couldn’t tell them apart from any other person that was here.

They looked, they acted, like us.

Locked up! (Part I)

*This is part of a longer piece that describes my first days in prison. More coming soon. 🙂IMG_0001


We are sitting at a stainless steel table. The walls are industrial grey, but the paint is peeling and you can see that there are many layers of paint under this. The room smells. It’s a mixture of human body odor, gas, mildew, sour mop water, and cleaning chemicals. There is a guard booth directly attached to this room, and a guard sits there a few feet away watching us all day, but unable to take part in the conversations. We are slowly dissecting a dandelion flower, feeling the tiny, soft, slippery petals in between our fingers; holding the tiniest pieces up to our noses attempting to smell spring, summer, the sun, whatever is left in that outside world that used to be so familiar, but now feels alien and unfamiliar, a thousand or so miles away.

Processing started out with the cop dropping me off into a large room, turning me over to various other authorities. I was directed to go to a series of rooms where they gave me my new clothes- prison “browns”, the brown color indicated that I would be in either medium or close custody. Both of these custody levels are colloquially referred to as “under the gun.” Minimum custody camps don’t have guard towers with armed personnel. They wear green clothes; Of course, every state is different when it comes to prisons. This was how it was done in the state that I was locked up in. One thing that was interesting over the years that I was locked up was, that because so many guys had been in and out of prisons for so many years in so many places, I got to hear different reviews of the various states’ penitentiary systems. Some places were much better to be locked up in than others. North Carolina was considered one of the better prison systems. Alabama, where most of my family lives, is considered one of the worst. I had considered putting in a request to transfer there so that I could be closer to my family, but after my mother looked into it she said, “Don’t bother. We’ll drive.” A friend of mine told me that in Alabama they don’t even have napkins to eat with. I was told that in Georgia they shaved everyone’s heads when they processed, though I have heard that those rules have changed. Then there was Texas, which I was told was extremely violent. Kentucky didn’t sound so bad. One friend of mine told me that in Kentucky you could buy your own personal television set, which they would take away as punishment for when you got caught violating the rules. And don’t even get me started on the Federal prison systems. Those places were considered to be the lap of luxury- swimming pools…movie stars… I was told that some had video games, and salad bars. I heard this so frequently that I had a patent response for when guys would start extolling the virtues of federal prisons, “That does it. You’ve made up my mind. Next time I get arrested I’m gonna make sure it’s a federal offense… No more state institutions for me! I’m robbing a bank.”

I was given a pair of tennis shoes in processing, the same ones that I had had to buy in jail. They were free here, and I was given a pair of “shower shoes”, which I also had in jail. They are little more than rubber sandals to wear while you take a shower. I didn’t really understand what shower shoes were for when I was given my first pair, and went to take my first shower in the jails general population. I started to walk into the shower barefoot, but someone stopped me and said,” You don’t want to go in there without your shower shoes on.” I said that I probably didn’t need them. I like being barefoot. He gave me a concerned, think about it for a second look, and repeated himself. “You don’t want to go in there without your shower shoes on,” followed by, “You don’t know WHAT’S on that floor.” It took a second, but finally it all clicked. I went back to my mat, slipped on my shower shoes. I learned how to wash my feet by balancing on one leg in the shower. That was a skill well worth developing. I don’t think I have ever touched a prison shower floor. Thank god.

Eventually I was escorted through a series of freight elevators and dark tunnels downstairs to the blocks that had used to house the old death row. There were still signs up in the hallways and even in the blocks stating that matches should not be used for vigils during executions. The block I was in only had about 16 cells in it, eight upstairs and eight down. The cells weren’t full, so I had my choice of cells. I took one that was downstairs and center. The set-up was identical to the cells in jail. There was a stainless steel toilet/sink combo, with push buttons for the water, which would only let out a trickle of luke-warm water, polished stainless steel mirror above that. A sheet metal bed frame mounted to the wall, but what I was most excited about was the mattress. It was a few inches thick, rolled up into a tight wad at the end of the bed. I unfurled it. It felt like it was stuffed with cotton, rather than foam. It was lumpy, but considering what I had been sleeping on, this was damn near heaven. One of the guys yelled into me that if I needed a hand fluffing the mattress, he’d be willing to help. We dragged the mattress outside, he grabbed two corners and so did I. We would lift the mattress high into the air and then sling it to the ground as hard as we could. We did this a few times. I thanked him and then carried it back into my cell, threw it on my bunk and stretched out on it. I hadn’t been given sheets yet, and I knew that this mattress was probably covered in forty years of funk, but at this point, I just was beyond caring. It felt so nice to be on something relatively soft.

Stop Killing My World!

IMG_E0092We lost a tree this week. I would have told you a few weeks ago that it was at least one hundred and twenty five years old. Its grey trunk was massive and hauntingly beautiful with twisted limbs and beautiful old knots. It was a walnut. My wife, Kara, hired a specialist to come in and try to save it. I was skeptical, telling her that it would be a waste of money; this thing was half dead, but Kara was insistent. We had to try, and somewhere inside I agreed and appreciated her unwillingness to compromise. At least we could say we tried everything we could for this old man. Unfortunately, I had been right on this one. The specialists came in and explained that this tree wasn’t really that old at all, thirty years or something. It wasn’t native to this area, and they reasoned that most of the walnuts around here were dying off because they couldn’t handle the frigid temperatures. This one would have to come down. If we didn’t do something about it then we were risking it being taken down by the high winds and it would more than likely hit our barn.

They took it down when I was at work the other day. I ran home from work. Thursday nights are my long run these days and so I get this in by changing clothes at work and running thirteen to fourteen miles back to our rural New York home. I knew it was coming down, but honestly had no idea how our yard would look without its wise old presence. I made it home, exhausted and hungry, and there it was, stretched out across the yard, defeated and sad. I actually didn’t expect my own reaction to it. I walked up to it and stretched my arms around his trunk, pressed the weight of my body against it. I wanted to hear whatever life happened to be left inside of it, the ants and roly-polies, centipedes, the microbes and wasps. I wanted to feel the years of cold winters and sweltering summers in my arms. This tired old man. And I wept for him. Kara came out of the house, across the yard, tears in her eyes too. We had done what had to be done; but what had we done?

And today, Sunday morning, I woke up early and went for a run with my dog and a friend. Trails. Out in the forests everything makes sense again. The trails were dry and a light breeze was blowing. It was perfect. My dog, Dela, had her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth happily. Jason and I fix the world’s problems, or we don’t when we run. Sometimes we talk about politics, or religion, or work. Sometimes we don’t talk much at all, but just work on getting up the next hill. Jason’s a good man. I mean, he’s one of those genuinely good people. He works hard at a job that he doesn’t love or hate, but it pays the bills, and he goes to father-daughter dances with his kid. He has no hate in him. He’s interested in the world around him. He has strong opinions, but he’s also willing to challenge himself and question whether or not his beliefs are correct at any given time. He’s a joy to run with. We’ve been running together for a couple of years now, and he’s still a pleasure to know. We had a great run this morning. I hug him, sweaty and thankful at the end, thankful of his friendship.

I told Kara I would do what I could to get the wood out of the yard in time for our daughter, Story’s, third birthday party. I told her that I would start when I got home from my run this morning.

I’ve been joking lately that toddler’s birthday parties are starting to feel like going on tour to follow the Grateful Dead. It’s the same ritual every time. We go to bounce houses, and we watch our frenzied children bounce until they are both maniacal and exhausted. Then we gather in a room for pizza, a vegetable tray, which is typically picked at, but mostly ignored, and then there is cake. We see the same faces, the parents of my daughter’s little friends, at almost every party. We hit three parties last weekend. Two the weekend before that. There was only one yesterday, Kara agreed to take the hit and go without me. I just didn’t have one more party in me. Not right now. We both agree, we are tired of pizza followed by birthday cake. We miss salad. Kara and I are rebelling together by breaking from the norm. No bounce houses for us. Story’s party will be outside in the yard. We hadn’t anticipated the death of our tree when this was being planned. We planned a field day, with races and, activities to whip the children into a frenzy before loading them up with sugar, but don’t worry, the sugar will almost certainly be organic.

But now there is a tree in the middle of our field day activities, and I have to move the wood, which has been cut up into logs and will be used this winter to warm our bodies. Some of the branches are too long and they will be tossed onto the bonfire pit in our yard.

I’ve enlisted Story’s help. Her mother is off buying more children’s shoes this morning, because Story burns through hers by either outgrowing them, or losing them, at about an equal pace.

So, out in the yard I have a wheelbarrow, and Story is proudly picking up logs that are too big for her and making me watch as she loads them into the wheelbarrow, which is just below eye level. She says that she wants her sweater because, “I’m a little chilly, daddy.” So, we walk back into the kitchen to put one on her. She asks for a cup of water, “without the lid, daddy.” She finishes this with, “I don’t really need the lid,” as much a statement made to herself as to me. And we stand in the kitchen together toasting our hard work and gulping down our drinks. It’s silent in the kitchen. I can hear the wind outside, and our breathing amplified through the cups as we greedily drink together standing next to each other in the kitchen. I pat her head and tell her that she is a really good worker. She agrees.

We head back outside, but I’m tired from the run I did this morning, and the wheelbarrows full of wood that I’ve already moved, so I’m taking a break, leaning against our picnic table, watching my beautiful daughter hunt for insects in the long trunk on the ground. She climbs it and yells, “Look, Daddy!” as she jumps proudly back to earth, and I applaud madly for her courage.

She’s so beautiful to me. I always wonder if she really is as stunning as I think she is. I remember an old psych class I took where I had to read research on parent’s attachments to their children; and recall that parents typically find their children attractive. Children look like their parents, so this helps.

The wind is whipping outside. A murder of crows swoops above our home chaotically. I can hear their voices cautioning each other loudly, as they dart across the farmland across the street from my house.

“Look, Story!” I yell and point excitedly.

She answers magically, “Crows, Daddy’s favorite bird,” with beautiful surprise, and we watch their mad sky-dance together.

It’s a quiet day, sitting out on top of the picnic table, watching my enchanting child touch the world around her, watching her weigh and discover; and I feel so in love with her.

And I feel like I’ve stepped into a poem that I never want to leave.

It surprises me how much I love being a father, a guide, “let me show you, Story, these are…[ snails, or roses, or drums, or this is how a ladder works]” She has given me a new world to see, or maybe the same world, but she gives me the ability to see it.

And I come inside my home.

Kara has returned from the store with new shoes.

And that’s when we learn.

Another mass shooting.

Another one.

Another goddamned mass shooting!

Someone else’s child.

Other people’s children.

Their roly-poly discoveries, their bounce-house birthday parties, and jumping off of logs, and swing sets, and, and, new shoes…

Another mass shooting.

While I was playing in the forest this morning, while I was quietly reflecting over the magic of this love.

While I was mourning the loss of my tree.

And I’m filled with hurt, and rage, and my god, so much sadness.

My child, my world.

Stop killing my world! I hate you.

Stop killing my world!

Please, I beg you, stop killing my world.


  1. Robert Veeder


Running With My Grandfather’s Legs

IMG_1139Sometimes when I talk to my grandfather on the telephone about running he will listen patiently, and at the end I can hear him say a quiet, “I miss it.” He doesn’t run anymore, but he is still an exemplary person, a gentle, loving man who drives himself to church on Sundays (though between us, they should paint his car a bright plaid and put a fire alarm on top so people will see him coming.) He likes to sing. A few years ago he started teaching himself to cook, and was making a pretty great vegetable soup. My grandfather is 95 years old.

Once, when coming off of a running injury when I was at a minimum custody prison, my grandfather dug out his old knee braces and passed them off to my wife Kara with the instructions that I should always wear them when I ran. Some guys were trying to get drugs, and cell-phones across the fence. I was smuggling in running gear. I had the only pair of Balega socks on the camp; I’ll guarantee it. A friend of mine snuck in a plain white, sweat wicking t-shirt for me to run in. I came up with a plan and managed to smuggle my grandpa’s old knee braces into the prison. These were something out of the 1970’s I think, and seemed to be not much more than the knees cut out of an old wetsuit. They were uncomfortable. They burned. They shredded the back of my legs. But it didn’t matter. They were a link to my grandfather. They were a time capsule of running adventures that he shared with me. For a while when I would wear them under my prison garb, while out running my thousands of laps around the yard, I got to run with my grandfather’s legs.

My grandfather’s legs.

Before I started running I watched friends of mine spend endless hours out on the yard’s weight pile. They were always complaining about injuries. There were pulled muscles, and disjointed backs, torn ligaments and tendons that were overstretched. I not only could never figure out why they did it, but also it was always a good justification of why I shouldn’t. Weight lifting was dangerous. People got hurt.

Runners are like this. A few weeks ago when out running some early morning trails with friends, on the very first mile I stumbled, landed horribly wrong, slammed my knee into a rock, tore the skin on one hand and managed to scrape a pretty good chunk out of my shoulder. We paused. My friends politely took a few minutes while I walked in circles cursing. I spit a couple of times and we were off again. I did 17 more miles that day. Luckily, THIS time the injury wasn’t too bad.

If you use your body like this you will get injured. It is inevitable. Talking to other runners about injuries is like walking back out onto the weight pile. There are stories of plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, runner’s knee, and countless other injuries that seem to happen regularly on the go.

So, why do it at all? Why would I do something that I am absolutely certain is going to hurt me?

Because the only other option is for me not to do it at all.

And I don’t want to live like that. Not anymore.

I have this one life, and I really want to use it until it’s all used up.

And then, like my grandpa, I want to wring it out when I’m done.




I love you grandpa. Thanks for the use of your legs.