Visiting Mother

July 24, 1996|By Nathaniel Johnson Jr.

I AM A PRISONER. I do not need more sorrow or regret. Yet in November 1991 I suffered a blow far more aching than was caused by the six police bullets I caught in 1972. From the former blow I will never recover.

I was told by a guard to return to my housing unit. I asked why. To receive a telephone call, he said.

Had a judge come to his or her senses, realized that my rights had been violated in 1972, and ordered my release? No, I decided. I would have been summoned to court first.

Had Janet Jackson finally concluded that life without me was intolerable and she was eager to fly into my waiting arms? Probably not. After resisting the delicious possibilities for so many years, she would somehow live without me a bit longer.

As I neared the cellhouse my spirits sagged. The thin, miserly sunlight seemed to fade, as if a mad sorcerer had cast a pall over the day. I could hear my thudding heart. People I passed looked at me oddly, with a vague pity. My fingertips were cold, my lips stiff, my tread like that of a man headed for the gallows. For I knew what the caller would say. I felt it in my bones, my blood, my pores. I sighed mentally, exhaled emotionally, but without unburdening my soul. The knowing numbed me.

I dragged heavily up the steps, reached for the door, passed through a foyer and into a hallway. A female guard stared at me from behind a glass enclosure, emotionless.

Younger sister

''Phone call for you,'' she said, pointing at a nearby wall telephone. I shambled over to it, took it from its cradle, put it to my ear.

It was my younger sister Lynn, a voice I had not heard since 1972, yet strangely the same. Our mother had died, days earlier. Lynn had not known which of Maryland's prisons I was in and had telephoned many to give me the news.

Lynn had persuaded the warden to allow me a ''compassionate leave'' for the next day, to view Mother at a funeral home. Lynn had done everything. I thanked her profusely. She said I would not be allowed to see the family, that I would be alone at the funeral home with guards. She had been told quite tersely that the guards would drive past the funeral home and not stop if other people were there, even on the home's front porch. We expressed our love and hung up. I stared at the phone for a while.

The next day I was dressed in handcuffs, waist chain, black box (a ''handcuff cover'' that makes cuffs tighter) and leg irons. Three guards -- one male driver, two females in the van's rear with me -- escorted me.

Where they belonged

We traveled from Jessup to Baltimore. I sat somberly looking at the floor, half-listening to the ladies bragging about how much money they spent on their children. I had not slept the night before, or torn my hair or rent my clothing. I kept my feelings within, where they belonged.

I recognized the streets of West Baltimore, which I had not seen in years. But I could not enjoy them.

We arrived at the funeral home in a rowhouse on North Avenue below Bentalou Street. Mother had lived on Braddish Avenue, six blocks away. A black-suited, soft-spoken man opened the door. He waved me inside. The guards escorted me a short way down the hall. I passed doorless rooms in which the dead lay within caskets.

The man pointed at a room at the hallway's end. The guards would go no further, which pleased me.

I saw Mother's name on a sign. The first floor was wreathed in a hideous blood-red light. It bathed the dead garishly. I looked behind me. The guards and the man watched me. A flight of stairs lay to my right. Did people live upstairs, sleep up there? I wondered. Did they hear odd noises at night? I entered the room, chains clanking.

I saw my mother and went to her. The careworn, lovely face was without the lines of worry I had seen in 1972. Death seemed to have relented somewhat, banishing such sad emblems of life. I had caused Mother much worry -- always in trouble with the law, forever being dragged off to so-called reform school, jail, prison. How many thousands of nights had this good woman wept, worried and prayed for her son? I tried to recall good times with Mother, but failed. I had not spent much time with her. She and my father had taught their nine children the difference between right and wrong; I had been heedless. Yet she loved me.

I recalled a time in 1958, when I had just been ordered committed, by a Juvenile Court master, to Boys Village. I would be there two years. Mother, as always, had journeyed to the court to be with me as I was taken away. Her face was lined with strain. She bought me a small bag of candy, a going-away gift. I clutched it as though it were a life preserver.

As the black car bearing me away pulled from the curb, I saw Mother standing there, a breeze tugging at her coat. She had spent her last quarter on the candy, I was sure, and would have to walk several miles home.

I kissed Mother's forehead as she lay there, freed of the worries of this world. I prayed. God surely had brought this angel to his heaven. I left the room. The guards were waiting.

Nathaniel Johnson Jr. is an inmate of the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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