Root Beer and Potato Chips


I see him every couple of weeks, our time spent playing a game and talking about his accomplishments. Tonight, he’s got on his best shirt and a pair of khakis.

“I dressed up for you,” he says, as we shake hands and sit down at the table.

He takes the games seriously, being focused, attentive, a big smile showing up when he wins, or when he makes a good play. He smiles when I win, too, just enjoying the company, and having a good time.

“I played with my dad, too,” he says. “We had a good time.”

I nod and talk a bit about having fun playing games when I was a kid. I make light of it, not wanting to linger. A few visits back, he talked about how his dad abandoned his mom and the kids when he was ten, and then died of a drug overdose.

Life went downhill for him, and he found himself in long term foster care, then an adoption. The family rejected him, and he was adopted again, and then that family rejected him, too. He ended up in some program for lost and abandoned teens, and then, he ended up here, in prison.

I make sure I show up when I say I will, and I’ll play any game with him he wants to play. I buy him a coffee drink from the prison canteen, and sometimes a cookie or a hamburger. I try to be one of the few who stick around for him, who show up, and are willing to spend time with him.

I’ve known him well enough now that we can talk about most anything. He’s growing a goatee now, and its starting to fill in, and look like a real beard. It’s growing in with two colors, patches of brown and then patches of tan, almost white. His hair grows that way, too.

I say something nice about his addition to his face, trying to send a compliment his way, to notice his new manliness.

“Interesting that there’s two different colors,” I said, suddenly realizing I might be coming off as rude or obnoxious, tripping over my tongue.

“Yeah, just like my hair,” he says.

“I was a failure to thrive baby,” he adds. “I was in the hospital for my first three months, and then my mom got special formula for me.”

“But, she sold that for drugs, and fed me root beer and potato chips for six months, before the case worker finally caught on.”

“That’s why my hair grows in patches; two different colors. Malnutrition.”

No big deal.

He goes back to the game, intent on studying the cards in his hand.

He lays down some cards, making a brilliant play in the game, racking up a bunch of points. He laughs, telling me he’s going to beat me on this hand.

Root beer and potato chips. I’m still back on that, still trying to wrap my head around a mom who would sell her baby’s formula for drug money.

And, it’s no big deal. Just a fact in his life, just part of the craziness he’s gone through, just his story. Another matter of fact anecdote to tell over a game of cards.

He’s finished up with high school, and he’s ready to graduate. He was going to go through the graduation ceremony, the one the high school has here every June, but he got sick and had to go to the hospital for three days, and missed the ceremony.

We’re planning a special ceremony for him, a day just for him to get his high school diploma, and get a round of applause. He thinks his mom is coming, in a couple of weeks, and his brother, too. He wants them here for his graduation, wants them to see him get his diploma.

She’s only been back in his life now for the last six months. They talk on the phone, and she’s come to see him a couple of times. He says it’s a good thing, and they are starting to have a real relationship.

“But, when she comes to visit, I don’t get any root beer or potato chips,” he said, breaking into a chuckle, and giving me a wink.

“We’re just moving ahead.”
8/30/14

Another Role To Play


 

 

The filthy child, eyes deep and empty, 

fidgets in the chair, 

nodding at me in greeting, a silent request

catching my heart–

Next to him, mom tells us

about the demons and monsters, and

ending it all with a bottle or a knife,

her arm showing me how.

 

In that year, he runs free, 

finding life on a farm, far away from mom,

showing me, one day, his 

cowboy boots and his 

big grin.

 

Thirty years more, I’m next to a young lost soul, 

him talking with the prison guard, 

about ready to blow,

struggling into manhood, wanting

out of the jungle of his life with crazy mother, absent

fatherhoods, him being tossed into the trash.

 

The guard nods, taking it all in, offering a few

kind words and wisdom, 

now nodding at me in greeting, 

again,

thirty years later.

 

Neal Lemery  5/27/2012