The moment the guard handed him the papers, he knew it was time. He felt relief, but at the same time a heavy burden seemed to settle on his shoulders. Being free to go home left him scared to death.
"Well, Johnson, looks like you'll have Thanksgiving dinner at home this year. Get your junk together and get out of here. We'll see you again in six months; I'll just keep your room clean and tidy." He chuckled at his own wit.
Jim Johnson, a tall, slender, black man, had been in prison half his life. Armed robbery. He knew he was fortunate to be let out at all. He'd been sentenced before the law made it mandatory for a consecutive twenty years to be tacked on for the use of a gun. Yes, he was fortunate, but the time was gone, lost. He tried not to think about it anymore, it was finished; he was going home.
"Thank you, sir, but you won't be needin' to worry 'bout that cell, I won't be back." They shook hands, and Jim began to gather his few things.
At the outside gate, he caught a ride into town with a Correctional Officer. But still, sitting stiffly and looking straight ahead, he didn't feel free. The guard offered a small amount of conversation but neither felt the need to speak so soon fell silent. Jim hadn't had a normal conversation in twenty years, and wondered if he was still able to.
The CO dropped him off in front of the drug store which also housed the bus depot counter. The tarnished, copper bell on the door jingled as he pushed it open and it awoke a memory. He hadn't heard such a thing in a long time and smiled to himself as he looked up at it.
"Dover please, one-way."
Carefully counting out the money for the ticket, he took the precious piece of flimsy cardboard from the clerk.
Sitting on the edge of the wooden bench outside the building, he gazed around the busy little town. The sun began to warm him as he breathed deeply of the sweet-smelling, fresh air. Two-hundred miles; that was all that separated him from his folks. That, and twenty years.
Finally, Jim heard the bus gearing down as it approached and pulled up in front of the store. Raising his eyes, he drew a deep breath and stood, waiting for it to stop. He climbed aboard, making his way down the narrow aisle to a vacant seat as close to the back as he could. He hoped no one asked him where he was from or where he was going, he wasn't ready for talk.
Staring out the window, he watched the landscape rush by. The bus stopped at every nook and hollow on the route to pick up a passenger or two, or to let one off. He was glad of the delays, but his heart beat rapidly with impatient anticipation at the same time. His thoughts were conflicted. He wanted to see the folks, to get back into the business of living with people who cared for him--if they still did. He was scared to find out.
It's been a long time, maybe they've forgotten they used to love me. Aggravated at the tears that suddenly and unexpectedly began to run down his high cheekbones, he quickly swiped them away, his eyes searching to see if anyone noticed. No one did.
Four hours later, the driver called out the name of a town. Dover? Did he say Dover? That's me. He felt panic tightening his gut, but knew there was no way to delay what must be done. I gotta get off now, can't sit here no longer. He rose. I gotta go on home and see if I still got one. Lord, help me. God, I'm more scared than I was when they hauled me out of here.
He stepped off the bus and set his bag on the ground, looking around the town he'd grown up in. It hadn't changed much. They'd painted the store fronts and the sidewalks looked new. Nice.
The few pedestrians didn't bother to look up to see who got off the bus, and he didn't recognize anyone--thank god. He'd like a cup of coffee but couldn't take the time.
Jim shuffled his small bag into his other hand, and began the long walk. The folks lived way out past Murphy slough, about ten miles out and around.
About a half-mile out of town, Jim found the path that led through the woods and he lit out in a trot. Soon, feeling the dread of being too late, he began to run. Surprised to find his feet still knew the trail, he turned them loose while his mind reflected on the past.
Suddenly--impossibly quick, he came upon the slough. It smelled of rotten fish and slimy, green water. The spindly willow branches brushed against the damp ground. Jim felt a sudden urge to crawl underneath the dark curtain of leaves and hide as he did when he was a child. He wanted to stop and think instead of just rushing on.
I sure wish I could've let them know I was comin'; surprises aren't always a good thing.
He continued to walk, fear and excitement roiling together inside of him, leaving him feeling as small as a guilty, wayward child. Emerging from the last stand of pine, he stood behind the thick, wild blackberry bushes and watched the house. The place was in bad repair; twenty years had taken its toll on it too. The once white painted clapboards were colorless, the weather having stripped them bare. He saw tar paper patches on the roof, and some corrugated sheet metal that seemed to be holding the little shack tight to the ground. It was smaller than he remembered.
The yard though, was swept clean of loose dirt and leaves, the same as it had always been. The old tire swing was still attached to the cottonwood, even though he knew the rope was so frayed it would no longer hold a child. The sight was beautiful and he smiled.
There's Daddy on the porch. Just sittin' there, not even rockin'... Jim choked and tried to swallow the knot that'd suddenly come into his throat and watched, drinking in the sight. He desperately wanted to fill himself up with all the lost years and spit them out.
A movement at the corner of the house caught his eye. He turned his head slightly and there she was. "Mama", he thought as he took a few steps forward She must still have a garden as she was carrying a small basket. She looked so small. She was wearing a dark dress that reached to her ankles; her style hadn't changed a bit. Jim's eyes sparkled with tears, blurring his view. A red bandanna was tied around her head, with wisps of gray hair peeking out here and there. Mama, you and Daddy grew old too fast. I'm so sorry.
Jim dropped to his knees, giving thanks to God for allowing him to come home and see his folks again. When he rose the tears were flowing, but he wasn't ashamed this time, nor aggravated. Raising both arms as if he would gather them close, he laughed joyfully.
Leaving the bag where it stood, he began to run across the small field separating the woods from the yard. His laughter carried to them and both looked up, shading their eyes with their hands, to see who it was coming at such a gallop.
"Jimmy?" they questioned, as the garden basket slipped to the ground unnoticed, and they both shouted in one voice, "It's Jimmy! He's come home!"