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DREAM AWAKE - to Dream Awake means you have moved beyond the vision, you believe and support it, you can feel it because you too dream of invoking change by the choices you make because you are AWAKE you are DREAM AWAKE.
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DREAM WEAVER - A Dream Weaver is committed to doing what is needed to move the ball, to get the job done, to inspire and encourage others. You are willing to make all the right moves to get the very best results for yourself and others. Dream Weavers are critical thinkers committed to the will and resilience that is needed to weave the Dream so that it becomes reality.
As a Dream Weaver you order 100 autographed copies of Dream Awake, for your friends, your family, your team, your co-workers, your business. Everyone receives Dream Awake Tee Shirts, a Dream Awake Tote Bags and you will receive a Wine & Cheese private reading of Dream Awake anywhere in the United States or abroad.
*Dream Awake supports victims of Domestic Violence and any or all of your pre-order can be designated as a donation to shelters we support or Peace+Love www.weneedpeaceandlove.com
Dream Awake is a memoir chronicling Darnell “Nelli” Davis’ journey from a childhood touched by murder, mediocrity, sexual abuse, drugs, urban opulence, restoration, and renewal.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/YWiOS 3849 views
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Nelli was convinced his childhood was normal despite witnessing his father beat his mother as if she were a man on the street on a weekly basis. In addition to the abuse he witnessed, any sign of disobedience from Nelli towards his father would result in a steel fist reigning down on him. Nelli’s early memories of happiness were interspersed with scenes of his mother’s black eyes, and bruised body with echoes of her begging Nelli to call the police for help. Theresa Linda Davis depended on Nelli, the oldest of her three children, and hoped Nelli could save her when she couldn’t save herself. Nelli would muster the courage to call the police on occasions and reveal the family secrets that his father always said was ‘nobody else’s business!” But other times he was too afraid and sat frozen in the corner pushing the palms of his hands against his ears to stop the cries of help from his mother. ‘It’ll be over soon Mom,’ Nelli would whisper over his own soft cries. As the years passed, the fights between Theresa and Danny escalated and became more violent. Nelli and his family began to celebrate his father’s apologies with hopes of the happiness lasting longer than 24 hours.
Nelli’s father, Danny, was a charismatic smooth talker, which made it easy to love him despite his abusive behavior. At 26 years-old Danny ran the streets like an unruly teenager, making routine return visits to state and county penitentiaries. Danny was absent during Nelli’s birth and most his birthdays due to his penchant for trouble and illegal activities. Danny knew how to work for what he wanted in life, but he chose to take it from others instead. He missed Nelli’s 10th birthday by three weeks after spending six-months in prison for sexual assault on another woman. The criminal charges against him were later dropped, but so was the last straw Theresa held for her husband to turn his life around. After ten years of physical and mental abuse, Theresa finally decided it was time to protect herself and her family. She told her husband she changed the locks and had him served with a restraining order, forcing him to move out of their home.
Danny asked to match his house keys to Nelli’s keys. Nelli handed the keys over unknowingly showing his father the locks to the house were never changed by Theresa after all. Two days later when Nelli returned home from school with his younger sister, a key on the inside prevented him from entering the house. Nelli went to his grandparents' house to wait for his mother to return. After 24-hours with no word from their daughter, Nelli’s maternal grandparents broke the window of their daughter’s house to search for her. A few minutes later, Nelli’s grandfather found his first-born child’s naked corpse inside a bathtub full of water strangled and drowned. Nelli’s transition with his siblings to his grandparents’ house was seamless and permanent, yet the parents he knew just yesterday were gone forever.
Three years later Nelli found himself face-to-face with a ghost from the past during his father’s murder trial. At Thirteen-year-old Nelli explained with brave detail the years of abuse and the events that took place on the morning of his mother's violent death. The judge listened with compassion before finding Daniel “Danny” Williams guilty of 1st degree murder and sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Then next ten years were structured with Christian-based teachings from Nelli’s Jehovah’s Witness grandmother. The only trouble Nelli found was in the classroom where he reigned as class clown for most of his life. Then an experiment with marijuana during his senior year of high school changed Nelli drastically. Within three years Nelli found himself hurtling towards an inexorable path leading to all the wrongs conclusions. One month after Nelli’s twenty-second birthday, he became the lead defendant in a grand jury indictment, which led to a conviction for delivery and conspiracy to deliver marijuana. Although it was his first arrest, the volume of Nelli's drug distribution network – including $40,000 weekly profits – moved him to the highest level of the sentencing guidelines.
Nelli was sent to a maximum-security prison for a minimum of four years and two months. His first six months behind bars presented him with threats against his life, three months of solitary confinement and a brutal physical assault by the corrections officers.
After 30-days in solitary, Nelli was released with excruciating stomach pains from the food which forced him to visit the prison infirmary. It was that moment when he learned nightmares come true too...
1. A Blind Date with Destiny
Faced with his purpose of writing his story to inspire and change the world, Nelli is afraid to live in the darkness of his past. He takes a blind journey to Bali, seeking help from the Island of Gods and the spirit of his deceased mother.
2. Can A Dream Come True?
After his mother realizes that Nelli has genuine talent on the stage, she and young Nelli prepare to bring his dream to life. With his mother at his side, Nelli makes it to the very final round of auditions for a major Hollywood film—and then is left waiting.
3. Staying in a Child’s Place
Torn between accepting the end of his parent’s tumultuous marriage or somehow changing his mother’s mind, Nelli puts his own determination before his love for his mother.
4. Nightmares Come True Too
Convinced that any dream can come true, Nelli misreads some signs, thinking that his dream of becoming a Hollywood star is finally here—when in fact the nightmare of his father killing his mother is what really comes true.
5. Talking the Pain Away
Afraid the tragedy behind Nelli losing his mother might send him and his siblings into a spiraling depression, their grandparents start the kids in regular therapy sessions with professional counselors. Nelli hopes the sessions will provide the answers of why everything happens the way it does, but instead finds himself in a tough position because of his natural love for his father.
6. Is Goodbye Forever?
God’s last chance to deliver a miracle and bring Nelli’s mother back to life has come and gone, and Nelli feels the pressure of finding the exact reason and the good behind his mother’s death before she is buried—and before the answers are buried with her.
7. Remembering What Should Be Forgotten
Preparations for his testimony against his father in the trial for his mother’s murder begin. Again, Nelli finds himself fighting the temptation to love his father, instead reflecting on how bad the marriage truly was and subsequently maintaining his loyalty to his mother and her family. The responsibility of delivering justice for his mother and the memories of good times with his father forces young Nelli to make adult decisions, whether he’s ready or not.
8. What Happens in the Dark
A simple question by Nelli’s therapist triggers the revelation of a long-hidden secret. With the support of his grandmother, Nelli confesses about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle that led to him finding perpetual disgust in the semen of a man.
9. Facing the Monster
Nelli’s father’s fate hinges on the testimony of his oldest son, and inside that cold courtroom, Nelli discovers that no amount of therapy or prayers or “talking the pain away” can save him from the monster in his own head.
10. Second Time Around
It’s Nelli’s last year of high school, and on a quest to feel like a man, he convinces Grandma to extend his curfew for a New Year’s Eve party—a party full to the brim of the vices she’s always tried to protect him from.
11. Enough Rope to Hang Yourself
With the newfound freedom to make his own choices, Nelli chooses to sell weed to his classmates in order to fit in with the cooler kids and get the attention of girls who’ve always overlooked him in the past.
12. Fifty-Eleven Times
Eighteen-year-old Nelli now has more money than he’s ever seen before, thanks to his new marijuana business, but Grandma senses that he may be following in the footsteps of his reckless father.
13. Ready to Die
After losing every penny he’s saved in a single transaction gone horribly wrong, Nelli seeks the assistance of a drug-dealing mentor to help him get his money back and take his business to the next level.
14. On Reckless Highway
With the assistance of two friends, Nelli embarks on a twenty-four hour road trip from Philadelphia to Texas to exchange his BMW for 150 pounds of marijuana.
15. Don’t Lose Yourself
Nelli’s “living large” lifestyle, marked by his love for fancy cars, concert promotions, and restaurant ownership, garners attention from the wrong people, and he finds himself the victim of an attempted kidnapping scheme.
16. Dead End
A fourteen-man indictment—with Nelli as the lead defendant—ends the dangerous fast-lane lifestyle, and Nelli reaches the dead end: a future as a convict.
17. A Long Road
On a six-hour road trip to prison, Nelli tries to prepare himself for a fate worse than Hell.
18. I Am Not My Name
Another man named Darnell Davis rapes and sodomizes a young girl, and ends up in prison along with Nelli. Nelli has twenty-four hours to prove he’s not the Darnell in question before the other inmates seek retribution.
19. Rock Bottom
Nelli is sent to solitary confinement after a prison guard falsely accuses him of a threat. He is held there for thirty-five days with nothing but a Bible, the voices in his head—and an unexpected visit from an angel.
20. Good Fruit and Bad Fruit
After a heated spiritual debate with the other inmates inside “The Hole,” Nelli finds himself on his own spiritual quest for the meaning of life, as well as the meaning of his dreadful fate.
21. Divine Intervention
Nelli seeks out emergency medical treatment after his release from The Hole, only to come face-to-face with an unwelcome ghost of the past: his father.
22. Close to Closure
An intense conversation with his father leads to Nelli learning every awful detail about his mother’s murder.
23. Father and Son Time
Over the course of two months, Nelli gets to know his father, this time as a man, and his father attempts to repair the damage he’s caused to Nelli’s life.
24. Rebuild and Reborn
Reluctantly, Nelli accepts that he will have to serve out his entire prison sentence. At a loss, he resolves to use the time away to strength his mind and body through religion, meditation, and exercise.
Nelli prepares to re-enter society, bolstered by his newfound purpose: helping lost souls like those he met in prison. He learns, though, that no preparation is really enough for realizing a dream.
Seventeen years removed from prison, Nelli reflects on his life and journey from the Royal Compound of the Al Thani family in Doha, Qatar.
Dream Awake is unique in that it doesn’t have a specific target audience; rather, the book is geared toward the diverse audience that is the melting pot of the United States. One of the most important factors in Dream Awake is its accessibility; Nelli and his team want those who don’t have the resources to process highly intellectual reads to be able to fully grasp every idea in the book. Equally important are the readers who are highly educated. There is no interest in pandering to or patronizing anyone; the goal is to present this important story on a platter that everyone can “eat off of.” We want the young white female demographic that loves Orange Is The New Black to gain a realistic view of incarceration; we want to reach young black men who have lost their way; we want any curious human being who wants to empathize with others to read what we have to offer. Nelli is a character that is genuinely friends with everyone, and that translates into reaching a diverse but inclusive audience.
Darnell “Nelli” Davis is a renowned Lifestyle and Fitness Guru. With clients spanning the globe from Australia, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and beyond. Nelli is also a highly sought after Fitness Trainer and Lifestyle expert coining his namesake “Nfit” wherever and whenever he touches and changes the lives of those he trains, coaches, renews and restores. Beyond that, Nelli is a former sales, advertising and marketing executive. With his greatest gift and talent yet to showcased with the upcoming release of his autobiographical memoir. This author, changemaker, and prevailer over challenges of life. Nelli invites readers to DreamAwake.
I DreamAwake is the autobiographical memoir chronicling Nelli’s story of a boy’s journey from a childhood touched by murder, mediocrity, sexual abuse, drugs, urban opulence, restoration, and renewal.
From Hell to Beyond the Clouds to DreamAwake
Nelli, at 10 years-old found himself in a place that no child would ever want to be. Testifying as the key witness at the murder trial for his Mother; murdered by his Father. Nell’s dig deep determination to overcome the pain of the loss of both his parents would drive him to seek a life full of humility, sacrifice, drive, determination and a self-critical introspection focused on restoration and renewal. Nelli used this mantra as the formula for an “NFIT” lifestyle and the ultimate creation of the “NFit” Lifestyle brand that he shares with clients delivering his renowned trademark brand “NFit” Lifestyle. Nelli trains and teaches clients on multiple continents how an “NFit” Lifestyle can forever change their lives.
An NFit Lifestyle Brand:
The “NFit” Lifestyle is a trademark brand created by Nelli. The creation of the “NFit” brand was the culmination of Nell’s life of living abroad from Australia to Amsterdam to Istanbul. The “NFit” Lifestyle brand was created in Istanbul. “NFit” landed state side in New York and extended its reach in Miami with “NFit” Lifestyle Fitness experts providing “NFit” Lifestyle branded strategies for Life changing results in Miami and New York.
The “NFit” Lifestyle brand is an exclusive brand with exclusive clientele at one of the world’s most exclusive member’s only hoteliers Soho Beach House. Nelli has trained some of the most successful executives, affluent tastemakers, and million and billionaires stateside and abroad. The “NFit’ brand not only provides exclusive services to Soho Beach House but will soon provide services to residents and patrons of the renowned Four Seasons “Surf Club” opening January 2017.
A former sales, advertising and marketing executive Nelli has worked with Radio One and Source Magazine in the country’s top markets, Philadelphia and New York. Nelli career in sales, advertising and marketing was the springboard for his ultimate success in the creation of the “Nfit” Lifestyle brand and DreamAwake.
In campaigning for Dream Awake, we look forward to a number of developments in Nelli’s NFit brand: a heightened social media presence; a new website with interactive features; a YouTube channel that provides samples of Nelli’s philosophies and artistry; and much more. Cathy Hughes, the founder of Urban One, Inc., has endorsed and will continue to endorse the book, and we continue to reach out to her peers for similar endorsements. Upon the launch of Dream Awake, a Davis/Dream Awake press release will be issued nationwide, and a book launch event will be hosted in the Los Angeles
area. Following the launch, Nelli will conduct readings and conversations across the nation in venues that include but are not limited to bookstores, prisons, colleges, shelters, and more.
I Dream Awake evidences the crisis not just of incarceration, but also of unresolved trauma and the false dichotomy of victim and criminal – when in fact they are often likely to be found in the same person. Recent years have seen highly successful narrative driven memoirs about prison, incarceration including Orange is the New Black, Between the World and Me, The Other Wes Moore. I Dream Awake is first prison memoir to not only track the institutional drivers of incarceration but also the most ignored driver – unresolved and unacknowledged trauma.
The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore, recounts his own story and that of a man with the same name both growing up in neglected communities, defying authority, and moving in and out of precarious situations. One man, the author, became a Rhodes scholar and a successful journalist. The other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence in prison. This powerful memoir chronicles their parallel but divergent lives – and identifies the cause of their different outcomes as being family support and mentors. I Dream Awake is similar in the telling of two divergent lives. IDA tracks the story of two men, Nelli and his father, who both end up for very different reasons in the same place. It goes beyond the other Wes Moore's account because it is a more in-depth discovery about the journey to redemption about trauma recovery. It unmasks the hidden and often ignored cycles experienced by black boys and men of victimization unresolved trauma and incarceration.
In Between the World and Me, Ta Nehisi Coates, a New York Times bestseller, Coates authors a memoir to his teenage son in which he recounts his childhood growing up in Baltimore narrowly escaping the fate of criminalization - that was the fate of many young men he was raised with. This book is a coming of age lesson passed from father to son in the age of incarceration. Like Coates, Nelli explores a discourse between a father and son. However in IDA the father and son dynamic is reversed over the course of the book and by the end Nelli is in fact the one to guide his father to redemption. IDA, unlike Between the World and Me, is written in accessible language - and is not abstract or written exclusively for a highly educated audience.
In Nathan McCall’s candid autobiography Make Me Wanna Holler, McCall shares his journey from his life as a violent young man embroiled in street conflicts to incarceration and ultimately critical acclaim as a Washington Post reporter. This memoir documents his journey against the backdrop of pervasive racism and discrimination. IDA is similarly, written in accessible language for a mainstream audience, giving the reader a window into extreme violence that many never experience first hand. Unlike McCall, Nelli is deeply introspective, self critical and striving towards healing, during and through his memoir. Nelli’s internal discourse compliments Nelli’s storytelling ability and the social commentary that is interspersed throughout I Dream Awake.
A Blind Date with Destiny
“Darnell. It’s time to wake up.”
Mom’s soft voice wakes me from a terrible dream. She sounds like she’s standing over me, but when I open my eyes, there’s nobody there. I peel my face from the quilted blanket on my Uncle Herman’s bed. In the dream, my younger sister Danielle and I fell asleep right here, our heads cradled in our grandfather’s lap. We’d cried ourselves to sleep. He had just given us the worst news possible: our mother was dead.
“Darnell. Come here, baby.” Mom calls out again, this time from much further away. I push my body up from the bed. I’m only ten years old, but the sheer amount of emotion from that nightmare makes me feel old and exhausted.
Once my feet are on the ground I scan the room for Danielle and my grandfather, but they’re not there. In fact, the house is completely empty—aside from my mother, the only person in this world I need. “Darnell.” Her patient voice is clearer now. It’s coming from downstairs.
“I’m coming.” I yell within the emptiness of my grandparents’ home. Outside, the autumn air is fresh, crisp, and unbelievably cold. But the brown shag carpet in Herman’s bedroom feels warm – like love. For a second, I curl my toes downward into the carpet, squeezing the fibers between my toes until I feel that warmth throughout my entire body. Smiling to myself, I realize no love is stronger than a love you think you lost.
“Darnell,” Mom calls again. Every time she calls my name, it’s like an embrace that pulls me closer. I smile again, because I should’ve known it was just a bad dream. I should’ve known my mother would never leave me.
Uncle Herman’s room is next to the guest bedroom, with windows facing the driveway between Temple Road and Michener Avenue. My grandparents’ room is on the same floor, towards the front of the house. I quickly peek in all rooms to see if anyone is home before I dart down the steps to find Mom.
The burgundy carpet in the hallway and steps is the same carpet covering the living and dining rooms, with a short marble landing that extends from the bottom of the steps to the front door. I come down the steps with so much force that once my feet touch the marble landing, I slide forward fast, crashing the side of my body against the door before regaining my balance and restarting my run.
In my dream, the house was full of crying relatives, neighbors and friends of the family mourning the false news of Mom’s death. But now, there’s nobody. I curse at myself for dreaming
something so horrible about my mother. “Mom! Are you here?” I yell out, running from room to room. “I’m here in the basement, baby. Come down here,” Mom calls out.
I run through the small living room, then the dining room, before I hang a right to shoot straight through the kitchen and down the wooden basement steps. Halfway down, I look through the triangular gap in the stairwell to my right: Mom is there waiting for me. Not only is she alive, she’s even more beautiful than the last time I saw her. Her skin, usually a warm caramel color, is glowing like gold. Her big dark curls are combed back perfectly, shiny and smooth like waves of the ocean. Her smile is as bright as the white dress she’s wearing.
I take a big jump from the middle step onto the floor and bolt to the middle of the basement and into her arms.
“They said you were gone and you weren’t coming…” She squeezes me tight before I finish my sentence and tickles me until I’m silly. After a few minutes I laugh so hard I nearly choke on my saliva. Then Mom taps me on my shoulder and yells “you’re it!” before running away for a game of Tag.
She’s dodging and weaving around Grandpop’s tools and machines to avoid my tag. Every time I think I’ll get her, she escapes my touch. Mom’s already twenty-five, but she moves as fast as any kid I know. I trip over a piece of fallen wood from Grandpop’s saw machine. I lose my balance and begin to fall, but Mom appears out of nowhere and catches me in her strong, thin arms. She looks down at me to see if I’m okay. I look up at her, lips pouted, eyes drooping. She looks concerned— and then I crack a big smile, tag her arm and scream, “now you’re it!”
I’m just as good as Mom with zigzagging, dodging, and weaving, but I’m not as fast as her. So I crawl under the saw machine, squeeze between boards of woods, and run in circles until I’m dizzy to avoid Mom’s tag.
We’re playing for what seems like hours, with only the sound of our laughter between us. The sun is still shining bright through the small windows, close to the top of the wall of the basement. I haven’t had Mom all to myself for this long since I was the only child.
With her best efforts to grab me, she still can’t stop the will of her eyes to show me the best ways to elude her. When she darts right towards me, her eyes cheat the game and tell me to go left. I would never stand a chance to survive in this game without her help. I would never stand a chance of succeeding in life without her help.
Suddenly I think about what Grandpop said in my dream. The room feels still and the silence is loud. I can still feel Mom near me, but I’m not looking at her, I’m looking up at the small window, just barely showing outside from the ground of the front patio. The sun that had been shining so bright is darker now. Suddenly the whole basement is darker, too. I reach out in the darkness, to make sure she hasn’t left me. But she’s right beside me, staring out of the window I was just staring out of. Her white dress is the only light in the room. She looks down and directly into my eyes. Her eyes are soft. Her face is without strain or a crease on her forehead. I’ve never seen Mom this relaxed. She doesn’t have to say a word and I can understand her like I understand myself. “Do you remember all of your dreams, Darnell?” she asks, breaking the silence. “Sometimes I do. But sometimes I don’t want to remember dreams when they scare me.” I should tell her about the dream. They said she was dead. “Mom. I had a bad dream about you,” I confess. “You should never be afraid of your dreams, baby,” she says. “Your dreams are a part of you. They’re meant to tell you things about yourself. There are messages in your dreams. Those messages help you to control what happens after your dreams. Did you know that?” Her eyes are wide and sparkling. She’s excited by the magic she describes, like a kid on Christmas. “No, Mom.” Not only do I not understand it, I don’t like it. Mom never talks in riddles like this. I feel like she’s treating me like a child. I wish she just says whatever it is she’s trying to say. “Whatever you want to happen in your dreams,” she continues, “all you have to do is imagine. Your dreams are usually your last thoughts before you sleep. First you ask for your prayers, then you close your eyes and make your dreams. You can put anything you want in your dreams, baby. Even if you want me in your dreams, I will-be-there.” She pokes my nose to the beat of each word with the tip of her index finger. “When you get really good at creating your dreams, you’ll be able to do it while you’re awake.”
I’m suspicious, and I’m feeling a little nervous, too. The darkness has begun to close in around my mother’s beautiful face. “Why would I want you in my dreams, Mom?”
Mom takes a deep breath. She’s taking too long to answer. I need her to say the opposite of what I think she’s going to say. I don’t want to hear that. It cannot be true. “I can’t be here like before, baby, but I will always be here. And as long as you remember your dreams, you will feel me forever.”
My eyes immediately fill up, and I can barely see Mom through the tears and the darkness. The entire room is almost pitch black except the white blur of her dress, and that’s fading, too. My nose feels itchy like I have to sneeze, but it’s just tear snot—when tears fall from inside my eye down and out my nose.
Before I entirely lose sight of Mom, I wipe my face, only to see her crying too. “How can you leave me, Mom? What’s going on?! What happened to you?” I start crying harder, salty tears covering most of my face. My tear snot falls to my lip, mixes with the saliva in my mouth and makes mucus bubbles as I open my mouth to wail.
There’s no way she can be dead if I’m looking at her. The room is completely black now— not even her bright white dress or her smile light up the room anymore. Mom isn’t answering fast enough and I’m feeling afraid again. It’s impossible! It can’t be!
“I’m scared, Mommy. I don’t want to live if I have to live without you!” I cry out, hoping she’s still here.
“Baby, please don’t say that. When you think I’m not here, I truly am. I promise you this. But I need you to stay here. Your brother and sister need you. Don’t worry: even when you don’t see me, I’m right beside you. Remember, you’re the man of the house now.”
“But all I want to happen is for you to be here when I wake up. I don’t want anything else.” “I would like that too, baby, but we can’t change what is.” I still can’t see her, but I feel her hands squeezing my shoulders. “Now you have to be strong for Danielle and Danny,” she orders me. Mom lowers herself down on one knee and wipes the tears from my face. I can see her clearly again. Tears are falling down her face, but she’s smiling too. “You can create a new world. If you dream it, you can have it,” she says with a big smile before she pinches my stomach. I wipe the rest of the tears with the back of my right hand and my nose with the back of my left hand. I giggle with Mom, imagining the world I want to create in my dreams. In my dream world, I want to make people laugh and sign autographs and talk on my car phone.
“Can I be a movie star and drive in a limousine, Mom?” Mom always says I’m the brightest star she’s ever seen. I just want to do is make her proud. “You already are a star, baby!” Mom grins widely. “You can be anything you want to be.”
She attacks me with tickles while I squirm and giggle in her arms. We’re both laughing like before. She’s tickling every inch of my body. I’m laughing so hard I can’t catch my breath.
I’m still giggling and squirming when I kick Danielle by accident.
“Darnell, it’s time to wake up now.” I can hear Mom’s voice whispering in my ear. I’m back in Herman’s bed. I sit upright and look around the empty room. Danielle has a sleepy, confused look on her face as she rubs the spot of her leg where I kicked her. I hear the soft voices of relatives and friends of the family downstairs like before. My Uncle Billy is telling my Aunt Ida he’s going to a beer distributor to get a case of Miller Genuine Drafts – Grandma’s favorite beer.
Maybe Mom didn’t leave yet. Maybe she’s still down in the basement talking to someone else. I have to see if Mom is still in the basement. I have to see if it was real.
I leap out of bed to sprint through the hallway and down the steps. When I get to the middle of the steps, Grandpop softly calls from his room.
“Please don’t run down the steps, Nell.”
“Sorry, Grandpop!” I say, still running.
Downstairs, the living room is full of relatives. A few of them try to stop me to see if I’m okay. I zigzag through the crowd of people like I’m still playing Tag with Mom. I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to get to the basement before she leaves. I have to see my mom one last time. I reach the kitchen, turn right and slam into my Grandpop’s brother Uncle Ed as he closes the refrigerator.
“Slow down there, ‘Four Corners!’” Grandpop’s two older brothers say my head is square- shaped and they call me “Four Corners” because of it. I don’t see it. I usually laugh when they say it, but right now I’m on a mission. Aunt Rochelle, Mom’s second youngest sister, is a few feet away, coming up the basement stairs. Mom must’ve come to see her too.
“Is she still there?” I ask Aunt Rochelle, trying to squeeze pass her.
“Is who still there, baby?” she calls after me as I run down the steps.
Halfway down the basement stairs I look to the right, through the triangular gap of the stairway where I first saw her. But I don’t see her. She’s not there. I walk the rest of the steps slowly, scanning the entire room. I go right to the spot where she stood before.
“Mom,” I whisper loudly. “Mom! Are you here?” I close my eyes and try to feel her touch again. “I’m back, Mom!” I cry out.
There’s no answer. I open my eyes and look all over the basement. Under the saw table. Between the wood boards. She’s nowhere to be found.
“Darnell.” Grandma calls me from the kitchen, but I don’t answer. I can’t answer. All I can do is cry. Mom is gone.
“Time to wake up, sir.”
I wake up crying somewhere over the Indian Ocean. It was that dream again, the dream that never goes away. It’s permanently etched into my brain, destined to repeat itself over and over, no matter how old I get or where I am. I feel someone poke me in the shoulder, and I try to gather my bearings. It’s one of the flight attendants, reaching over my elderly seatmates to get to me. She’s the one who pulled me out of the recurring dream. “Sir, it’s time to wake up,” she says again in a tight voice. I have the distinct impression that she’s been trying to wake me up for a while. She wants me to fasten my seatbelt and return my seat to its original upright position. That’s a lot to ask of a man who just woke up sweating with tears in his eyes. But as I peek at her through the corner of my left eye, it becomes very clear that she is merciless and will not move until I do what she says.
Where am I going?
For a second I can’t remember to which country I’m going, or which country I’m coming from. Over the past six months, I’ve been on and off so many airplanes, seeking, searching, and yearning for the key to my destiny; that Godsent place, or thing, or challenge, or passion that satisfies my soul. And everywhere I go, I arrive just to realize that I’m not there yet.
The flight attendant clears her throat, and without contest I adjust my seat. Satisfied, she moves down the aisle to be stern with another passenger. Over the airplane’s speakers, a chiming sound is followed by the weary and drone-like voice of our pilot. In broken English, he says we will begin our descent to Bali’s Ngurah International Airport in fifteen minutes.
That’s right, I’m going to Bali.
I still can’t believe it. Nor can I believe I’ve boarded this plane from my new home in Melbourne, Australia. Or that I moved to Melbourne to write a book, after leaving my dreams of becoming a comedian and actor in Hollywood.
I can’t believe I went to Hollywood after losing all my money in a failed attempt to launch a seafood restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Or that I moved to Atlanta after walking away from a promising advertising and marketing career with one of the biggest media companies in New York City. And I still can’t believe that I landed the job in New York just eight months after serving a three-and-a-half-year prison term for operating an intercoastal marijuana ring in college.
The one common thread in everything I’ve done over the past ten years: I’d never done any of it before I decided to commit to it. I’d never sold weed or even smoked weed until the day before I decided to sell it. I’d never worked a corporate job before I became the Music and Fashion Director of the number-one selling music magazine on newsstands in America. I’d never visited Atlanta before I decided to start a business there. I’d never studied comedy, acting, or theater before I grabbed a microphone and got on stage. I knew nothing about Australia (other than what I saw in Crocodile Dundee movies) before I decided to pack up and move there to write a book. And aside from Chocolate Chip—a story I wrote when I was twelve about being the only black kid at a Bat Mitzvah—I’ve never written anything even close to a novel before.
But as my mother told me postmortem: “When you get really good at creating your dreams, you’ll be able to do it while you’re awake.”
So why am I crying? Why am I so afraid?
I already know the answer to that question, and I shake my head as I stare blankly out the airplane window. It’s this: in order for me to write this dream awake—this story of excruciating pain that ultimately gave me all the strength I now have— I will have to revisit and relive that pain once again. In order for me to convey the insecurities, abandonment, loneliness, and fear I felt, I will have to immerse myself in it all once more.
Recently I’ve learned that hanging onto these feelings of fear, sadness, and depression is a choice: an option given by my mind that I can choose to accept or reject. But to paint the perfect picture of the pain that lead to strength and confidence, I must truly feel those emotions now. I must choose to go there—and then muster the strength to come back to freedom of pain. People have been asking me to write this story whenever they hear a short version. But nobody knows what it means to go back into those dark caves. I’ve lived a happy life ever since I made the choice to separate myself from my darker thoughts, and I haven’t yet perfected the skill of going inside those emotions and coming out unaffected. For that reason, I can’t stop the tears from falling down my face.
Shake it off, Nell! You’re the only black guy on the plane. They’re gonna think you’re insane. I try my best to erase the terrified look from my face before any of the other passengers aboard notice. I wipe my face and try to focus my attention outside of my thoughts. That’s how you do it. Don’t listen to your thoughts. Don’t get trapped in them, I should say. Don’t get trapped in the anxiety. So I direct my attention to the back of the blue seat in front of me. I search for the beauty within the yellow, green, and orange squares on the seat. I try not to judge the thinness of the headrest (which is really just a glorified orange napkin that says “Easy Jet” that’s been draped over the seat).
I sit up in my window seat to look around the partially lit plane. I’m amazed that anyone— myself included—was able to sleep with the sound of the screaming child a few rows behind me.
Not a single person onboard seems to be the slightest bit annoyed, except for me. Had I not been exhausted from two sleepless days of anxiety about this trip, I would’ve missed the six hours of sleep I got since we left Sydney. I’m equally amazed by the parents, who have somehow mastered the art of washing out the sound of his wailing and howling—and that the child is still able to produce any sound at all after shrieking up a storm for six hours straight.
I take a deep breath and try to get my head right. When I get off this plane, the next chapter of my life begins. I was told there was no better place to connect with my soul, with the assistance of a higher being, than in Ubud, Bali. “Bali is a place of spiritual gods,” my new friends in Australia said. “Bali is where you can find yourself.” That’s when I got the idea that maybe I could find my mother, too.
Although she told me I could see her in my dreams anytime I desired, it’s been over ten years since she’s visited me last. In two days it will be her 50th birthday, so it seems like the perfect time to try to connect with her. It’s been a struggle remembering the sound of her voice, the pitch of her laugh, or the warmth of her smile over the years. I’m in desperate need of her presence and her encouragement in order to write my book. I miss her unwavering confidence in me when I doubt my abilities to succeed. And whenever I’ve wanted to give up in the past, it was her guidance that led me to safety. I worry constantly that I’ll die before I fulfill my purpose in life. Maybe, with Mom’s help, I can make it happen.
Last night, packing my bags, the confidence I’d summoned to accomplish yet another ‘I’d never done this before’ feat seemed to wither into a ‘what the hell was I thinking’ awakening. Not only did I begin to question my ability to do something else I’d never done before—the fact that I was planning on traveling to yet another unfamiliar land to connect with the Gods and my mother seemed mildly insane. Suddenly shaken, I called the one person who seems to always have the ability to make sense of my senseless moves in life: my grandmother.
Grandma had my mother when she was just fifteen years old, and never had an opportunity to finish high school. Yet out of the thousands of people I’ve met around the world, she is the wisest person I know. Her philosophies—a hardy mix of Scripture and the experience of raising two generations in her sixty-five years on Earth—are always the perfect dose of common sense I need to set me straight. She had one simple response to my fears: “Live for today. Don’t waste the day overthinking about tomorrow, because you can’t control that anyway.” I felt a calm wash over me. I was about to sign off when Grandma asked me why I thought I needed to start writing the book in Bali.
I struggled with that one for a minute. I couldn’t tell her that I was going to Bali to try to connect with my deceased mother on her fiftieth birthday. Grandma would think I done lost my gotdamn mind. Grandma is a Jehovah’s Witness, and she believes the dead are dead and conscious of nothing on Earth. When I asked, as a kid, if I could communicate with my mom again, Grandma was right there with Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 ready: ‘For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, because the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate, and their envy have already vanished, and they will never again have a portion in all that is done under the sun.’
Translation: “no. You will not be talking to your mother again.”
As I hemmed and hawed for an answer that wouldn’t sound crazy to her, Grandma asked again why I needed to go to Bali. Finally, I simplified the reason for the trip. “I have to find myself,” I answered, trying to sound confident In her signature witty sarcasm, Grandma shot back, “I could’ve helped you find yourself, but for some reason, yourself didn’t call Grandma and tell me where he was going before he left. That’s the real problem here!” Although I was a worried mess, I couldn’t help but laugh. Even when I feel like my life is in shambles, my grandmother will find some way to make me laugh about it.
“Look,” she said, “I don’t think you gotta go all the way to Bali to find yourself. You don’t know nothing about them people, and by the way, how in the heck did you lose yourself in the first
“Somewhere between living my life and living up to the expectations of others.” I replied. Grandma laughed, as she does when she thinks I’m being overly dramatic.
“Boy, it’s funny that you don’t see the blessing in your problems. People only expect things from others when they know that person is capable of delivering the expected.” I’m sure those words were meant to comfort me, but they just made me feel more pressure about not knowing how I was supposed to deliver this time. “I’m gonna tell you something else, baby,” she said more seriously, sensing the anxiety in my silence. “Jehovah made your shoes for you to wear. So tie your laces tight and have faith. Don’t put pressure on yourself. You can take as long as you need to find yourself. But when you do, you let me know where yourself was, so Grandma can give him a piece of my mind.” We both laughed, and somehow the anxiety subsided in that moment. “And make sure you get your grandma something nice from over there!” she added. Grandma has more clothes than the women’s section of a department store, but she always wants more. “I need a red leather belt, if you see one. And don’t be eating just anything over there. Like I said before, you don’t know nothing about them people." I rolled my eyes with a grin, told her I loved her, and hung up.
As we start to descend, I feel a jolt of familiarity - like spirits of Bali have already begun to attach themselves to me. How can I feel so close to God, yet still be so afraid?
Just then, the voices in my head fighting to be heard go silent, as the plane starts to shake and rattle form the turbulence. It feels like all the crucial nuts and bolts on the old Easy Jet aircraft are flying off right there in the air. I look around for an explanation, but everyone else is still and calm, paying absolutely no attention to the cataclysm. They don’t seem to notice the banging noises of the plane, just like they didn’t notice that crying baby. These people’s ability to ignore their surroundings astounds me. I suddenly imagine how the Facebook post will read if the plane crashes: "Nelli was a good dude. He never met a stranger. And in true ‘Nelli fashion,’ he was the token black guy on the plane."
I grab my armrest, straighten my back against the seat, and brace myself for the worst that can happen. The older couple next to me are awake now, peacefully smiling at each other as if this is normal. Maybe they’re just content to die together. “Flight attendants, please take your seats.” The pilot doesn’t bother adjusting his monotone voice or to inform us how serious the situation is. But I’ve been on enough airplanes to know something ain’t right. Still clutching the armrests, I imagine my family at the kitchen table. It’s a long black wooden bar that separates the kitchen from the dining room, with three stools on each side. Grandpop always sits at the first seat on the side of the dining room, with Grandma across from him on the kitchen side. My younger sister Danielle sits next to Grandpop and my baby brother Danny sits next to her. I sit between Grandma and my Uncle Herman, who’s only five years older than me. I can see everyone sitting at that table. Everyone except for me.
I picture Grandpop informing the family of my death on this plane, right there at the table. “Nell didn’t make it on his trip to Bali,” is all he would say, as if he were announcing what chores needed
to be done in the house. Grandpop loves me deeply, but he rarely shows emotions through his tough exterior. His angular face, topped with salt and pepper hair, gives him a stoic stature of authority and protection.
I picture Grandma getting up from her seat and heading towards the kitchen stove to prepare dinner. She hides her tears, her back turned to everyone else. Grandma’s movement would lead everyone else into action because as Grandma goes, so goes the family. Grandpop is the ultimate authority in the house, but Grandma is our matriarch and queen. I picture my sister Danielle, four years younger than me, and Danny, seven years younger— both crying because they weren’t first to know. I picture them feeling unimportant and unloved now that their older brother has left them too.
I haven’t seen my family in over a year as I try to chase my dreams, but all of a sudden, I would give anything in the world to be sitting at that kitchen table with them right now. I’m desperate to see what’s outside the window—I’m near certain that one of the engines is falling off—and as the plane leans to the left of the sky, the lights from the landing strip reflect off of the Indian Ocean. The sparkling ocean make it look like we’re about to land on a plane carrier rather than an airport. As we descend further, the turbulence finally subsides, and the traffic lights of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport appear more visible. I can’t help but to start crying again. Through the fresh tears in my eyes, the runway becomes brighter and the plane skids sharply on the tarmac before settling and slowing down. As the other passengers applaud our safe landing, I silently pray that this famed “Island of Gods” will bring peace to my mind and comfort to my soul again. I sure as hell need it. I remain numb and emotionless to block the cynical thoughts of a few moments ago, and I fall into prayer. I keep my eyes closed until the plane stop and we arrive at gate number four. It’s just before 11:30pm. I wipe the last tears from my eyes, take a deep breath, and unfasten my seatbelt before grabbing the composition book from my knapsack. I quickly jot down the feeling I just experienced. Then, as the last passengers debark, I throw my notebook back into my knapsack and follow them to the front of the plane.
Here goes everything.
Is Goodbye Forever?
I stand in front of the full-length mirror in Uncle Herman’s room, which I guess is my room now, too. We’ve moved in with Grandma, Grandpop, and Uncle Herman for good. At night I still sleep on the frog, but I overheard Grandpop talking about getting me and Uncle Herm bunk beds from Ikea in a few weeks. That was kind of exciting until I remembered why we moved into their house in the first place.
Looking in the mirror, I feel ugly. My suit doesn’t fit right. Just like everything else about today. Whoever hemmed the pants made the legs too short, and now they look like highwaters. Frustrated, I struggle to get the edges of my clip-on tie to sit flush under my collar. I can’t do it. I look stupid.
Someone knocks on the door. “Come in,” I say, sounding as hollow as I feel. I can’t stop staring at myself. This suit makes me look like a little kid, and not in a cute way.
Grandma comes up behind me. “Hey, baby,” she says apologetically, like it’s her fault that I feel the way I feel. “We’re all about ready to go. You all set?” she says.
She reaches around from behind me to straighten the edges of my black tie, neatly tucking them under my starched white collar. Our eyes lock in the mirror. She looks older. I’m sure it’s because she’s been crying every time she’s out of our sight. Her sadness makes her shoulders droop down and slightly forward, and the shoulder pads of her dress seem awkwardly empty. But her black dress is pressed perfectly, as usual. Her pearl earrings catch a ray of light from the window.
She sees me noticing them and smiles sadly. “They’re your mom’s,” she says sort of shyly. “I always liked these earrings on her.” I turn around and bury my face in her chest. “You look pretty in them,” I mumble. I want to cry, but I can’t. I think I already cried out every tear possible these past couple weeks. Secretly I’m afraid I don’t have any more left for Mom’s funeral. Grandma breaks the hug and leans over to hold my arms tightly. She looks intently at me. Her eyes are dry, too. “It’s gonna be a long day, baby,” she says. Her voice sounds thick and husky. “But we gone get through it, you and me.”
I just nod. I have no idea what will happen today. And I don’t know if I’m supposed to be this afraid, but I am.
I can’t wrap my head around mom’s funeral, because it just doesn’t make sense to me. She’s too young, and I still need her. The whole family still needs her. Danny wakes up crying in the daybed he shares with Danielle every single night. I can hear it from the frog in Uncle Herman’s room. He sobs and calls for her, and he calls for Dad too. I want to get up and tell him to stop it, but instead I hear Grandma get up from her bed and shuffle down the hall in her slippers, and eventually he quiets down.
I wake up crying for Mom some nights too, but I don’t call out. I keep thinking about what she said to me: “You’re the man of the house now.” I know she meant it about the divorce, but it’s even truer now. And everybody keeps telling me that I have to be strong for Danielle and Danny, like Mom told me. They keep saying that us three kids are our own little family now and I’m the one in charge. They say that I’m the big brother and I have to lead by example. I know they’re right, and that’s what Mom would want anyway. She would want me to be brave. So I don’t call out. I just stare at the wall in the dark until the tears dry up and I can fall back asleep.
This whole time, I’ve been turning it all over in my mind. I can’t figure it out. How can she be dead? How can Dad have killed her? That’s not what happens when you’re married. Maybe you fight a lot, and maybe you get divorced, but nobody kills anybody. I keep looking for a way for this to not be true. Grandpop pokes his head through the door. He smells like his Brut aftershave, and except for his mustache, his face is smooth and clear. He looks strong. He looks like a man who can guide us through this mess. “Y’all ready?” he almost whispers, like I’m asleep and he’ll wake me up.“Just about,” Grandma says. “We’ll meet you downstairs, bae.” Maybe I am asleep and this is just a nightmare. “Alright, bae,” he answers. “We’ll be waiting.” He disappears into the hallway, and I hear his heavy steps on the stairs. Everything about Grandpop seems heavier these days now that Mom is gone.
Grandma plucks a few specks of white lint from my black suit jacket. “You look so handsome, Nell. Your mom would be very proud of you.”
“Thanks,” I say dully. Then: “Grandma? I have a question.”
“What’s that, baby?” she says.
I pause. I already know what she’s going to say, but I still need to ask. “Do you think I’ll be able to talk to Mom again?” Her face screws up like she’s gonna cry again, but then it evens out a second later. If I hadn’t been looking right at her, I wouldn’t have even noticed how fast she was able to wipe her true emotions off her face. “Baby, you know she’s gone.” “I know, but maybe I can still reach her somehow.”
“Darnell.” She brings me over to the frog, and we sit down together. “Do you know what Ecclesiastes 9:5 says?” I’ve never read a single page of the Bible in my whole life, and she knows that. Of course I don’t know what it says, I think. And “Ecclesiastes” sounds like a disease. There’s no way I’m gonna say that to her, though. I don’t need to get my butt beat for disrespecting the Bible on the same day as Mom’s funeral. “No,” I mutter, kind of annoyed. Grandma rubs my leg like Mom always does. She knows the Bible verse by heart. I wonder if she already knew it, or if she learned it just for today.
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, because the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate, and their envy have already vanished, and they will never again have a portion in all that is done under the sun.”
That doesn’t make me feel any better, and I sort of think now that Grandma doesn’t know what she’s talking about—at least, not in this case. I know for a fact Mom watches over me and is always here, because she told me so. “She can’t be gone forever,” I start to argue, but then think better of it. Instead I change gears. “Can we leave now?” I just want today to be over as fast as possible. Grandma studies my face, then hugs me tight again. “Okay, baby,” she murmurs into the top of my head. “We can leave.”
We walk slowly into Kingdom Hall, which is like a church for Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’ve never been here before, and neither have Danielle or Danny. The few times we’ve been to church, it was to a Baptist church with my great-grandmother, Mye–my mom’s grandma. It’s always a crazy but fun time. There’s so much singing and dancing and rejoicing in Mye’s church, and everyone inside is always “hootin’ and hollerin’,” as Grandma would say. I always went home with a full stomach from the after-service meal, feeling really, really good. I already know that no one’s leaving here feeling good, least of all me.
The weird thing is that I feel kind of numb. I’m definitely sad, but it feels muted, like it’s a washed out gray instead of a real color. Am I supposed to feel this disconnected? I haven’t spoken to a single person. I know everyone around me is talking, but all I can hear is my own breathing.
I try to get my head straight. I need to be ready to mourn Mom properly. I know all these people here are sad, but I’m her son. I’m supposed to shed tears at her funeral. I’m supposed to do this right.
This doesn’t feel real. It almost doesn’t look real, either. The walls of Kingdom Hall are so white that they almost sparkle, and nothing hangs on them—not a picture of Jesus, not a bulletin board, nothing. It’s all just emptiness and humans.
The main lobby is packed with our family and Mom’s friends. Everyone’s dressed in fancy funeral clothes. It’s a sea of black stuck in a white room. Something about it scares me. I’m glad to feel fear, though. I don’t like feeling numb and lost like I have been since Mom died.
I look around as we slowly make our way through the crowd, toward the main hall. Countertops covered in little books and pamphlets line the walls of the lobby, and a serious-looking
Jehovah’s Witness stands nearby in case people have questions. At first it seems weird. It’s set up almost like a store. Are they selling religion here? I wonder. There are Bibles, pamphlets, stuff about being a Jehovah’s Witness, and small books of Scriptures like the one Grandma has. I grab a pamphlet and stuff it in my back pocket as we walk past. Maybe the answers are in here.
I stick close to Grandma as we enter the main hall, Danny and Danielle close on my heels. This room is white too, and it’s dry and bare and unlike any holy place I’ve ever seen. A stage sticks out from the far wall, and there are no pews, just gray-blue conference chairs lined up and facing the three sides of the stage. I spot Brian sitting way over in the corner with his mom. He gives me a small wave. Mrs. Hoggs and another teacher from our school are sitting in the row behind Brian, and Mrs. Hoggs sends a weepy smile my way. I’m amazed at all the people I know who are here, and I’m even more amazed at how many people are here who I don’t know. It’s bright and white in here, almost blinding. There are no windows to let in the sun, just a lot of lighting that makes buzzing noises. Even the flowers are white. It seems like just a room. And it would be just a room if my mom’s body wasn’t in it.
Mom’s chrome coffin sits up near the stage, the lid shut tight. Mom’s coffin. It makes no sense. The chrome shines flashes of silver, like it has its own light. It’s the only thing that stands out in here. She might not even be in there.
I hope she’s not in there.
I turn my eyes away from the casket. I’m still not crying. I thought for sure that seeing Mom’s coffin would help me, but I don’t really feel anything yet.
I look around the windowless room as we make our way to our seats up front. There are so many people here that if someone hadn’t saved us seats, we’d have to stand the whole time. On the street, cars were lined up for blocks and blocks, as far as I could see. That surprised me. When I think about my mom, she’s just “My Mom.” I know she has friends and all, but first and foremost, she’s my mom, and no one loves her more than I do. Seeing all these people crammed into Kingdom Hall now, though, I realize that my mom touched way more people than I ever thought possible. I didn’t know that a person could accumulate so much love in only twenty-five years. Everyone looks horribly sad, and I feel a little bad for thinking my family members were the only ones suffering.
My eyes go again to the silver box that holds Mom’s body as we sit down for a minute. The coffin’s color looks like my mom’s voice sounds—musical, bright, radiant—and the handles on the side shimmer a little. It’s so pretty that I feel like I should be comforted by it, but instead I feel a flash of fear. The reality of today is starting to set in.
There’s a simple glass pulpit to the right of the coffin. A Bible sits on top, ready to be read, to help worship, to comfort. Nervous, I watch the stage for a sign, any sign that my mother might come back. Just then, an usher opens the coffin so we can see her one last time. I suck in a breath. Is that a sign?.
Taking Grandma’s hand, I stand up and start trailing behind her very slowly. I’m suddenly too afraid to go up there, but I know I’m supposed to follow Grandma. She’s oddly calm as she walks toward my mother’s body. Danielle and Danny stay in their chairs. Grandma doesn’t want them to see Mom like this, and honestly I don’t think they even know what’s going on. It’s probably better that way.
When Grandma reaches the coffin, she just stands there frozen, staring at Mom for a few seconds. She doesn’t move or say anything, but it feels like she’s communicating with Mom in her own way—the way only a mother can communicate with their child. And then she cries.
To my horror, her tears quickly become loud wails. She starts screaming Mom’s name over and over again, like she’s trying to wake her up. The ushers and Grandpop pull her away from the coffin, leaving me standing there alone. Then my aunt Rochelle grabs my hand, the one that Grandma was holding, and she squeezes it tight.
Shakily, I take small, tentative steps until I reach the casket. Aunt Rochelle lets my hand go and backs up a little. I’m glad Grandma isn’t here, and I’m glad Aunt Rochelle stepped away, because this is something I have to do alone. I love Grandma and Grandpop and my aunts and uncle so much, but I can’t help feeling like my actual, smaller family is in that chrome coffin right along with Mom: me, Danielle, Danny, and even Dad—or their marriage, anyway. My little family, just waiting to be buried forever.
I close my eyes for a minute. I have to work up the courage to look inside the coffin. I squeeze my eyes shut hard and envision my mother’s face as it always was. “Go ahead, Nell,” she says in my head. “You can do it.” I open my eyes. Here goes everything.
There she lies: my mother. She looks mostly like herself, but her face is puffier, almost swollen. She doesn’t look real. She looks waxy and kind of gray, and she’s got way too much makeup on. Her sleeveless white dress looks just like the one she was wearing in that dream I keep having. It’s not a dress that Mom would ever wear if she were alive, but it does look beautiful on her. It makes her look like an angel. And I don’t care what Grandma or Ecclesiastes 9:5 says. I know my mom is an angel now. I’m so, so miserable, but the tears just won’t fall or even build in my eyes. As I’m trying desperately to force tears to drop, someone comes up behind me. It’s my aunt Rochelle again. She wants me to move along, but I don’t want to leave until I can cry for my mother. I’m her son. I’m supposed to cry now. Aunt Rochelle tugs at my hand a bit, but I don’t move. I just stand there next to Mom, letting my sadness completely take over so that the tears will finally come. My aunt tugs my hand again. This time I get angry, and I shoot her a look that very clearly says, “leave me alone. Leave me to do this.” But Aunt Rochelle is as stubborn as Mom, and when she says it’s time to go, it’s time to go. She’s kind about it, though. She saw that look on my face, and now she squeezes my hand again softly before gently pulling me away from the casket.
That’s when the tears come. As soon as I take these few steps away from my mother—as soon as I leave her there, alone—those tears suddenly come, and they’re coming fast. As I reluctantly walk away, I realize that part of why I’m crying is because I’m mad, and not just at Dad. I don’t want anyone else telling me what to do. I don’t want anyone else’s love. I want my mom. I know my family loves me, but they don’t know me the way Mom does. Suddenly, I’m crying so hard that I can’t even see. Aunt Rochelle ushers me back to my seat next to Grandma, who’s stopped wailing for the moment. Grandma’s blankly staring straight ahead, hugging Danny on her lap like a little kid with a stuffed animal. Danielle sits on the other side of her, swinging her legs.
Grandma looks exactly how Mom looks right before she’s about to fight with Dad: quiet but absolutely petrified, and very, very upset. I try to wiggle away from her so I don’t have to see that face anymore, but she immediately grabs my arm and pulls me closer to her. Now that Grandpop has gotten Grandma back to her seat, he goes back up to the casket, biting his lower lip. He takes one look at Mom and clenches his big fists really tightly, beginning to tremble with rage. But in a flash, his rage turns to pure grief, and he opens his palms to put his arms around the top of the coffin like he’s actually holding Mom. He rocks back and forth, comforting both his daughter and himself. “My girl, my baby,” I can hear him saying in the tiniest voice.
I’ve never seen him this small, not even when he told me and Danielle about Mom, and the fear I’m already feeling doubles. Grandpop is the strongest man I know. What happens when the strongest man I know is broken? I worry for a minute that he’s going to pull Mom right out of the coffin, but then he straightens up and transforms back into the powerful man I know him to be.
With his jaw set, he marches back over to our row and collapses into the chair on the end. I examine him and Grandma through my tears. My grandparents look like they’re ready for a war that they know they can’t win.
I glance over at my brother and sister. I’m hoping that they’re not really seeing any of this. But Danielle and Danny look so afraid and confused, and they both begin to cry along with the rest of us. They’re seeing it, all right, but they don’t really understand, and I don’t blame them. I don’t understand either.
Suddenly the big assembly room feels hot and electric, like when a big storm’s brewing outside. It’s been quiet and mournful—even the music is quiet and mournful—but now I hear raucous, angry whispers from behind me. People are moving around anxiously, and I even hear a few gasps. My grandmother snaps her head over to look down the aisle, and her expression gets hard fast. I turn and stretch my neck to see what the fuss is all about.
It’s my father.
He strolls down the aisle, looking for all the world like he’s just walking over to his car to get in and go to the grocery store or something. He’s wearing a really nice suit, and where there should be handcuffs on his wrists, fancy cufflinks flash. My whole body starts to shake.
“Daddy!” Danny yells happily. “Over here!” His tears immediately dry up, and he stands on the chair to wave to Dad.
“Shut up,” I hiss. Danny immediately looks like he’s going to start crying again, but I don’t care. He has to learn that Dad is not our dad anymore. That man doesn’t deserve our love or the love of any other human being. Dad doesn’t bother to look over to us. Instead, he continues to waltz up to the casket, almost like no one’s in the room with him. When he gets up there to Mom, he rests his nasty, cruel hands on the edge of the coffin, and then leans over and kisses Mom on the cheek.
And then: he smirks.
He looks down, right into the face of the woman he used to love, the woman he made a family with, the woman he murdered, and he smirks. He dirties the box that she’ll be buried in with the same hands that killed her. And without a second thought, he walks away. Every time I think I can’t get any angrier or more fearful, things get worse. I’m shaking even harder now, and a huge wave of fresh tears pours out of me. I don’t know if I want to throw up or scream, and I bite my bottom lip so hard that I split my lip.
I look to Grandpop, hoping he can calm me down. But I see absolute rage wash over him, and he angrily leaps out of his seat like he’s going to attack my father. I hope he breaks Dad’s neck, but an usher appears out of nowhere to block Grandpop as Danny Williams strides past.
Stopped in his tracks by the usher, my grandfather reminds me of a furious caged lion. With fiery, angry eyes, Grandpop stares hard. If looks could kill, my father would die right where he’s standing. Only when my father exits does my grandfather turn to face the family, and he slowly sinks back into his seat.
Grandma lets out a shriek of pain and slams my head down into her lap, like she can shield me from that ugly smirk that’s already come and gone. I can feel her body shaking too as I cry and cry and cry. All the rage, all the hurt, all the questions and fear—it all pours out of me as I bawl into
I spend the rest of the funeral weeping into her lap.
The procession to the cemetery amazes me. There are so, so many people here to say goodbye to Mom. If you didn’t know better, you’d think a big celebrity had died. It feels like all of Philly is here. I look behind us in the car, and all the vehicles are lined up for blocks and blocks again.
All of us are squeezed into the limo that’s right behind the hearse. It looks just like the car that the Addams family has. I didn’t realize that they’d been driving a car for the dead this whole time. But when you see that family in their hearse, it’s funny—the complete opposite of how this feels.
It’s the longest car ride of my life, but I’m not even irritated by my brother and sister right now. All I can think about is that look on my father’s face after he bent over to kiss Mom. That terrible feeling in my stomach comes back, the one that I had when I found out about all this. Earlier I thought I was all out of tears, but now they keep pouring down my face, and I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever stop crying.
At the cemetery, I look at the ground while everyone prays together. Tears drip off my face onto the ground, and I wonder if the grass is so green because it’s watered with everybody’s tears. I don’t want to be here, and I try to think of a way out of this. Now that the coffin is closed again, it feels like my mom isn’t even in there. I half expect her to come up behind me and put her arms around me like she always does. But then, someone hands me a rose.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I whisper loudly to Grandma, wiping some snot off my face. “Do people just hand out flowers at funerals to make you feel better?” I hear someone behind me laugh in that way that people do when they think a kid’s stupidity is adorable. I want to kick whoever it was that laughed at me. Today is not the day. Grandma chooses her words carefully. “No, baby. These aren’t flowers we take home. We’re gonna leave them with your mom.”
That seems stupid to me too. This entire thing seems ridiculous all of a sudden. My mother can’t possibly be in that casket. She’s probably at home, cooking dinner, or listening to music, or maybe studying the Bible. She’s been really into Bible study lately. I don’t get it, but she likes it, so I just go with it. But then the straps start to unravel, and I unravel right along with them. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. My mother is in that casket, and we’re letting it—her—fall into a hole in the ground.
Grandma and Grandpop walk over to the hole that we just put my mother in. They lean on each other, sobbing, and Grandma drops the rose she’s holding down into the grave. I see Grandpop’s lip shaking, and he drops his rose in too. Then Grandma turns around and reaches her arm out for us.
Danielle and Danny go over and toss their roses down on top of Mom. I can’t hear anything except for the sound of Grandma and Grandpop crying. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go over there. Maybe I’ll just stand here for the rest of my life.
But I do go over there. I stick my arm out and study my hand. It looks like it’s not even mine. It’s balled into a fist around that rose, and I can tell that I broke the stem from the way the flower droops on both sides of my hand.
I hold my arm out for what feels like hours. Because if I drop the rose, I bury her. She doesn’t come home frazzled from work or dance with me in the living room or cook us spaghetti and meatballs or teach me anything ever again. If I drop the rose, the illusion is over, and Mom is gone. I look over to Grandma and Grandpop as I hold out the rose. Grandpop has his arms around Grandma, and she’s pressed into his chest the way I pressed myself into hers earlier in the day. Grandpop’s eyes meet mine, and he gives me the smallest nod.
I look around the crowd. It feels like everyone’s watching me, but really, everyone is too lost in their own sadness. Instinctively, I look for my dad, but I don’t see him. That’s fine with me, I realize. I never want to see him again.
My arm is starting to shake from holding it out for so long. I look down into the grave where my beautiful mother lies. The hole is dark, and you can barely see the coffin anymore, just a shadow with the shapes of the roses scattered on top. I glance over at Grandpop again. Grandma is still buried in his chest, but now he’s crying into her hair. She’s gonna have to get her hair done now, I think wildly, and then turn back to Mom.
This is it. I can’t hold the rose above her any longer. I open my fist, and gravity takes the flower from my hand.
I did it. It’s finished.
Chapter Seventeen: A Long Road
The long road to Hell carves never-ending curves through God’s mountains, leading not down to a pit of fire, but up into grassy outcroppings and rocky cliffs. Back home, in the city of Philadelphia, every stone appears in a cold gray. But up in these mountains, stones and rocks have the richest hues of copper, jet black, sand, and deep oranges that I’ve ever seen. I never imagined fear could look so beautiful.
The area offers an aura of peace, so much that for a second, I forget all about the torturous activity I envision to be awaiting me at the final destination. The guardrail-protected cliffs stand above all of man’s laws and judgments, and I gaze in awe at their majesty; it is too commanding to contain. Watching the world go by, I feel an eerie connection to other life forms, both natural and spiritual. I can see all of life flashing past my terrified eyes as I hurtle toward Hell.
I’m not dying. I know that much. I’m not going to the same Hell we read about in the Bible. I’m just going to one of the places I’ve always imagined Hell to be like—a Hell-on-Earth type of destination. Put it this way: if Mount Everest is the closest place on Earth to Heaven, Graterford State Penitentiary is the closest place on Earth to Hell. That is the Hell I’m being escorted to, by two officers who are old and craggy enough to be stand-ins on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
"You hungry, buddy?" the officer in the passenger seat says in my general direction. I’ve been so absorbed in my thoughts that I’m caught off guard by his question—not to mention I’ve been assuming all my desires would go overlooked and unheard after the judge slammed the gavel. "Are you talking to me?" I mumble back. He turns to look at me, and with a warm smile on his face, he says, “Well, unless you got company back there…?” I’m not really hungry, but I use the strength left in my cuffed hands to push myself upright and try to sound excited. “Well, yes, sir. I'd love something to eat!” I’ll soon be a member of one of the most dehumanized minorities of America: a convict. So breaking bread with the men driving me to my destiny? Why the hell not?
"Well, you’re in luck, because we've gotta stop to get gas soon,” the sheriff driving the car announces. “There's a McDonald’s behind the service station. You like Mickey D's?"
I never thought my last meal would McDonald’s…but I hear Grandma’s voice ringing in my ear: “Beggars can’t be choosers, Darnell!”
"Yes, please," I graciously reply. Good boy, Darnell.
“Good! We're hungry too. And we’d hate to enjoy all that fine cuisine without you.” The sheriff’s joke doesn’t register with me at first, but when he glances at me in the rearview mirror, I realize he’s waiting for me to laugh. I pretend to find it funny and give him a half-hearted chuckle. In truth, the best comedian in the world with a peg leg and a high-pitched stutter couldn’t make me laugh right now.
As I bounce around on the backseat, handcuffed so tightly that my wrists are numb to the touch, I weep silently. Not for myself, but because by going to prison, I’m depriving Grandma of the chance to see the man I’ve always dreamed of becoming: a man who made other people better; a man people loved and remembered for my generosity; a man people respected and missed whenever my presence was absent. I wanted to leave a mark, to be remembered for something Grandma could feel honored by. But despite all the lofty aspirations, Grandma’s twenty-two-year-old grandson is cuffed and chained in the back of a Towncar, trapped somewhere in a moment before a nightmare begins.
During my teenage years, new “bad boys” of the neighborhood popped up almost daily. They brandished their badges of honor all over, witnessing or partaking in crimes that sounded like
news headlines: ‘Man raped and murdered;’ ‘Man beaten and extorted for life savings;’ ‘Man stabbed in gang war;’ ‘AIDS victim dies from drug overdose.’
Those badges of honor always sent those bad boys on a trip to Graterford State Penitentiary. The cautionary tales (along with the thugs who narrated them) instilled enough fear in me that in my eyes, Graterford was more daunting than the Hell I read about in the Bible—mainly because I knew for sure that the Hell they call Graterford truly exists. As appealing as the fast life appeared to be, the consequences convinced me to stay far, far away from that street life. I was positive I would never live through any of those consequences myself. My life was different, filled with Bible-based morals and a Christian way of thinking. My grandma ran a tight ship, and there wasn’t any room on that ship for “street nonsense,” as she called it. While the wanna-be thugs were slinging nickel and dime bags of dope, I was trying to make placements of the latest issues of the Watchtower and Awake Magazines from the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Each door that wasn’t slammed in my face was another opportunity to persevere and ultimately make God proud of me. The doomed fate of prison was not in the cards for me. I sure as Hell was wrong about that one. The car slows, and I’m pulled out of my reverie again. We roll into the McDonald’s drive- thru just as the breakfast rush is coming to an end. Two days ago I would’ve pitied the fast food employees I see now behind the window, stuck working and living in the middle of nowhere in rural Pennsylvania; little- to no- hope or imagination of anything outside the small bubble of reality they live in; unequipped with peripheral vision of the big picture outside their small town and insignificant daily activities. But that was forty-eight hours ago. Now I see the beauty in the simplicity I looked down on. I envy it. I would give anything to be wearing that McDonald’s uniform, to just go home to a boring and free life. After we get our fine cuisine, we pull into a parking spot so I can eat my already-stale McMuffin and hash browns. To my surprise, the sheriff opens the back door, looking completely relaxed. He unlocks the chain that connects my handcuffs to the shackles around my waist. Now I can raise my hands to my mouth without straining my neck or spilling the food all over myself—the simple things I took for granted. He’ll shackle them back when I’m done, but it doesn’t matter.
This is a gesture. This is kindness, an act of humanity that has made its way into my unjust, inferior world. Tears build in my eyes from his simple act of generosity, and I realize how hopelessly far my life has fallen. I squeeze my eyes shut and I say grace before eating and, in doing so, promise to appreciate this shit-in-a-biscuit breakfast meal more than anything I’ve ever eaten before. The hash browns are harder than Chinese arithmetic, but I intend to savor every bite like a juicy piece of tenderloin.
My food orgasm is a quickie, because five minutes later we’re back on the road to Hell. I’m sucking crumbs from my teeth and licking grease from the corners of my mouth to relish the last taste of freedom food as we continue into the mountains.
I squeeze my eyes closed, praying for a miracle to happen. After about twenty minutes, I open my eyes to see if God was listening, knowing full well that God stopped listening a long time ago. The long, narrow road is coming to an end in the middle of a green, hilly pasture. If I squint my eyes, I can just make out an old castle wrapped in barbed wire fencing. I blink a few times to moisten my eyes and focus on what I think I’m seeing. Yes, we are indeed approaching Hell’s front door. There are no guard dogs or men with machine guns to greet us, just thirty-foot-high concrete walls bolstered together by manned towers
on all corners. Tiny windows flash at me from all sides of the buildings, there for the captured prisoners to catch a glimpse of the sunlight I’ve taken for granted all my life. Panicked, I throw my back against the leather seat with all my might, kicking like I can save myself from drowning. My sudden explosion startles the officers in the front seat, and they jump; the car even swerves a little. The driver’s eyes are wide in the rearview mirror, and the officer in the passenger seat spins around to face me, prepared for a fight. But they won’t see any fight in me—just my shell-shocked eyes that hide the fear pulsing through my veins. I shut my eyes against their stares and try to erase the vision of Hell’s ugly face from my memory. Please, God, make this stop!
I’m a quick thinker, constantly problem-solving, and I’m spinning the wheels of my brain now, even in the back of this car that will inevitably deposit me into a locked vault. Holding my breath, I pray that the car will stall; that the engine will catch fire; for any miraculous act of God to prevent this nightmare from continuing. I wish that all four tires would blow up, or that we’d hit a deer so that they’ll heliport us to a hospital in Ohio. Then, as a result of my fractured and broken bones, I’d be unable to walk for the rest of my life. The way I imagine it, I’d get released and sent home to live a nice, quiet, handicapped life with my family. That would be perfect. I’d take that, a wheelchair, or any other calamity to avoid this fate.
Before I can pray for another disaster to come along and postpone my destiny, the car comes to a halt. I open my eyes and reluctantly begin breathing again. There’s a truck in front of us; apparently Hell has a mailing address and they receive deliveries here. I feel a tingling numbness throughout my body, like every muscle fell asleep without warning. It takes all my unwilling strength to lift my head and read the welcome sign of Graterford State Penitentiary to my right:
STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT GRATERFORD
YOU ARE ENTERING A STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION. ALL PERSONS ARE SUBJECT TO SEARCH AT ANY TIME. THE SEARCH MAY EXTEND TO YOUR PERSONAL EFFECTS, VEHICLES AND ITS CONTENT.
IT IS ILLEGAL TO BRING DRUGS, FIREARMS, ALCOHOL, CAMERAS, OR ANY WEAPONS ONTO ANY PART OF INSTITUTIONAL PROPERTY. PENNSYLVANIA LAW SECTION 5123 IMPOSES A MANDATORY MINIMUM PENALTY OF TWO (2) YEARS CONFINEMENT FOR ANY PERSON CONVICTED OF BRINGING DRUGS INTO ANY PENNSYLVANIA STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED!
“We’re here, buddy,” the officer in the passenger seat announces as the Towncar moves forward again.
This is my last chance if I want to make a run for it. We’re about to enter the gates of Hades; time is running out!
I could bang my head against the back window, break the glass and slither my way out in just a few seconds. I’ll make a run for it before the old-timers unfasten their seatbelts and reach for their guns. Then I’ll zigzag down the road so they can’t get a clean shot.
That’s a stupid idea, and I shake it out of my head. There’s no way I’d make it out of this car without giving myself a concussion or lacerations from the broken glass. After that stunt, these nice old guys would be forced to gun me down. Is that so bad? I think. I stop. Of course it’s bad.
All my wild fantasies of escape fade away as the steel gates of Hell groan their way open. The tires slowly roll onto the prison’s gravel grounds; my new life begins now. We follow a narrow two-lane road with barbed wire fencing on each side. I can’t hear anything other than my pounding heartbeats and the unpaved road crumbling beneath the tires of the black Towncar. The silence inside Hell is eerie, given the 3,500 hardened criminals they have locked in this place. I’m scared shitless and I haven’t even gotten out of the car yet.
I don’t know what I fear the most. Maybe it’s the guards in the towers watching our every move, ready to shoot at us by the slightest indication of “unusual activity.” Maybe it’s the other faceless inmates, guilty of far worse crimes than I’d ever commit. Maybe it’s the fact these walls contain an entire community built on human rage, or that I’m about to be yet another black man in America lost in the penal system. All I know is that I’m not ready to face any of it. How am I supposed prepare myself for this nightmare?
“That building over there is the Behavior Adjustment Unit,” the officer points out from the passenger seat as we make our way through the massive compound. “And that there is the Restricted Housing Unit. That’s where they keep the death row inmates,” he continues.
I can barely form a coherent sentence through my chattering teeth, let alone give a flying fuck what he’s talking about, so I hope he doesn’t expect a sign of appreciation for this unrequested tour. I mean no disrespect, but I really wish he would shut up and allow me to process my fear instead of adding to it. “They’ve even got a farm back there sitting on 1700 acres,” the driver adds. “It’s like a small town inside this place. Clothes, furniture, food…you name it, and they’ll figure a way to make it in this place.” He chuckles to himself. If you’re so fascinated by this place, man, feel free to stay and take my spot. I don’t need it.
The car comes to a stop as we approach a twenty-foot-high steel door. It’s so massive that I suddenly feel like a tiny passenger in a matchbox car, just waiting for someone to come along and give me a push through the entrance. A small plane could fit through these doors if it needed to.
After sixty agonizing seconds of waiting in silence, the doors slowly creak open, and we drive forward into the abyss. Everything is pitch black; all I can see are the dashboard lights and the shiny metal cuffs around my wrist. Seconds later, overhead lights flicker on, followed by the footsteps and appearance of two black correctional officers with sergeant stripes on their sleeves. The officer in the passenger’s seat exits first to greet the correctional officers. I watch from the back as they shake hands and exchange the temporary responsibility for my life. The sheriff hands the sergeant a sealed envelope containing my criminal biography, all one page of it. The driver exits next and opens the back door for me.
“Let’s go, Davis,” he says as he extends his hand towards me. He doesn’t remember that I’m cuffed again and without the ability to extend my hand back to him. He spots me struggling and leans in to politely pull me outside. As I stumble out of the car, one of the correctional officers opens my file and looks at the cover. Something grabs his attention and he turns to his partner. Then they both look at me angrily, like I did something to them. "Darnell Davis, huh?" the first guard says with a scrutinizing twist of his lips. "We read about you in the newspaper this morning." He looks back at his partner and points at a copy of the Philadelphia Daily News on a nearby table.
"That’s him?" the second guard asks, leaning over his partner's shoulder to get a peek at my file. He looks surprised, like my face doesn’t match my name. Meanwhile, I’m surprised too— surprised that my arrest made the Philadelphia Daily News. Sure, my case was big news in the small rural towns of Eastern Pennsylvania; but the Philadelphia Daily News is the biggest and most popular tabloid newspaper in the city. I can’t believe they had the ink to spare on my case. I don’t know if I should feel flattered by my notoriety or worry about the trouble that accompanies it. I decide to keep my mouth shut and wait for their next move. The guards continue to stare me down. This must be their version of trying to scare me straight before I get out of line. Little do they know, these sorts of theatrics are a waste of their time. I’m already so rattled that I’d shit my pants right here if one of them screamed ‘Boo!’ loud enough.
I hear Grandma’s voice in my head again: “When someone treats you bad, kill them with kindness, baby. Your kindness is like a lump of hot coal on they heads,” she always says. “Never stoop to their level. If you do, you’re just as bad as them.”
While the officers continue to size me up and stare me down, I offer a polite, non- threatening smile. They sneer at me. "Fellas, we'll take him from here," the first sergeant says to my officer friends from the car. My escorts bid me farewell and wish me good luck on my first day in Hell. I wish them a safe trip back. There's no need to wish them good luck; it’s obvious that their worst luck is better than my best luck right now.
My heart sinks deeper in my chest as I watch them get in their car and start the engine. I felt safe with those guys. I knew they would treat me with decency and respect. These new overseers are acting like they just caught Jesse James, simply because my name is in the Daily News. I can only
imagine what they have in store for me.
The two sergeants grab hold of my arms with grips as tight as vices while marching me out of the garage area. We walk through a stadium-like hallway, with the click-clack of their shoes echoing off the walls. Other than, we’re surrounded by silence.
And now we’re here—wherever “here” is. Potato chip bags, pizza delivery boxes, and soda bottles are scattered all over the place. Potbellied officers behind metal desks, shuffling papers, and
throwing insults like school kids fill the rest of the room. I’ll take a wild guess that this might be the inmate reception area and these lovely individuals are the welcoming crew. Great.
The sergeant takes me to a desk where a female correctional officer is yelling at someone across the room. My charm and charisma usually make communicating with women easy, but this lady won’t pause her conversation or make eye contact with me. She looks irritated that my presence means she has to work harder. Whatever, lady. I’m mad about it too. Without an introduction (or eye contact), she starts asking me personal questions. She wants my full name, home address, religious background, family medical history, and if I previously or currently have any STD’s. They’re all pretty basic questions, but it takes my deepest thought and effort to give her answers. Then I almost pass out when she asks her final question.
"If you depart while in custody, where would you like your body sent?” My mouth feels like I just ate a bag of cotton balls. There’s a dry knot building in my throat, making it painful to swallow.
"Huh?" I croak out.
"If. You. Die. While. In. Prison," she repeats slowly, emphasizing each syllable like I’m too ignorant to comprehend an entire sentence at one time, “Where. Would. You Like. Us. To. Send. Your. Body?"
This woman clearly enjoys the perks of belittling men like myself. Any doubts I had about this place are gone: I have officially entered the realm of Hell.
It takes a few seconds for me to absorb the shock of her question before I gather myself and instruct her to send my body to my grandma’s house. Then, just like that, we’re done. She closes my file and motions for the officers to take me away. My final arrangements have been prepared; I just
hope Grandma never has to receive my dead body.
Again, the officers grip my upper arms tightly and march me to my next stop in Hell: the strip search room. They shove me toward a corner and order me to strip completely naked. As embarrassing as it is to be without a stitch of clothing in a room full of strangers, I’m relieved to get out of my rancid-smelling jumpsuit. I’ve been sweating bullets in it over the last ten hours, and the funk trapped inside is offensive even to me.
Once all my clothes are on the table and my body is exposed for everyone’s judgment, things start to get really awkward. Tiny step by tiny step, I turn to the officers—and they all gasp outright, looking absolutely shocked by what they see. Granted, the men in my family have a reputation for being genetically blessed, but I always considered myself only slightly above average. The way these guys are staring, I’m beginning to believe I’ve underestimated my endowment after all.
I puff up with a little bashful pride—I’ll take it where I can get it these days—until one officer breaks the silence. “Sir,” he utters, trying not to make eye contact with me, “would you like to claim anything?” I'm naked. What could I possibly want to claim? Does he think it’s fake? “It’ll be returned to you when you’re released,” he continues. I have no idea what he could be talking about. We stand there in silence until finally he shifts his eyes downward. I follow his laser
stare down to my belly button, and only then I do understand what the shock is about.
The piercing! How could I forget the hook piercing in my belly button? It was a Valentine’s Day gift from Kisha. We didn’t want to do the roses-chocolates- traditional-dinner thing, and she came up with the idea of getting dual belly-piercings. I’ve always been confident in my sexuality, so it didn’t take much to convince me. “Why not?” I said, and we went ahead with it.
Prison. THAT’S why not. Jesus Christ.
“It was a gift from my girlfriend,” I frantically try to explain before the rumor mill starts churning and I’m labeled “fresh meat” for the booty bandits. The guards either don’t believe me or they simply don’t care at this point, because nobody flinches while I flail to unscrew the bar piercing from my stomach. Embarrassed, I drop the ring into the yellow property tray.
About five seconds later, the embarrassment from the belly ring seems like nothing. At the guard’s instruction, I stick my tongue out, lift my testicles, bend over, spread my cheeks and cough. Twice. I knew this part of the search was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier. No one says anything for a minute, and I turn my head slightly to peer at one of the guards. This is the most humiliating experience of my life—so far. They let me stand upright and continue on. I have nothing to hide. New inmates are issued a standard blue uniform: dark blue jeans, a light blue button-up shirt, and a pair of brown salesmen shoes. I’m also given a set of white sheets, two sets of underclothes, and a small green cup for drinking water and coffee. I even get a notepad with the ink tube from a pen to write letters. Honestly, it’s more than I expected.
Once I’m dressed, a short female officer with black hair pulled neatly back comes over to greet me. She positions me in front of a computer, takes my picture, and prints me a laminated nametag right there. “This is your new name: DK-6906,” she informs me, handing me the tag. “You’ll use that for everything you do and receive here in the correctional system.”
"Should I write it down somewhere?" I nervously ask. I would hate to lose or forget my new name. "No need for that,” she laughs. “You’ll remember this number for the rest of your life."
It upsets me that she’s laughing, and it scares me that she's so certain. What kind of permanent damage should I expect from this place?
I’m escorted from the processing room to a holding cell. I shuffle in, clutching my new nametag and my plastic bag full of the only belongings I’ll ever need here. Five other “Blues,” as they call us newbies, are shooting the shit and checking me out as I search for an available spot on the bench. They’re talking about how they got caught and all the money and girls they had to leave on the streets.
“What you in for?” one guy asks me. I’ve planted myself on the end of the bench, as far away from them as I possibly can be. I try to pretend I don’t hear him, but he asks again. “Hey, new
guy! What you in for?”
“Yeah, you!” They laugh together like they’re all old friends.
“It’s a long story,” I lie. “I’m not even supposed to be here. I’ll be out soon.” That part is true. I don’t care what I have to pay, I’m getting out of here as soon as possible.
“I believe it was a mistake, because you definitely ain’t no street nigga,” the other guy offers, guffawing. “You look like one of those college dudes. You went to college, didn’t you?” he asks so that I’ll validate his brilliant prediction.
“Yeah, I went to college,” I admit before shifting my attention back to the floor. I want these guys to realize I’m not looking to make new friends. They’re criminals who I have nothing in common with. And I don’t feel like explaining who I am or who I was as a free man. I lean forward and drop my head lower between my legs, pretending to be deep in thought so that they’ll resume their conversation without me. I examine the clear plastic bag that dangles from my hand. This bag of state-issued personals serves as a cruel reality of all my attainable assets. Everything I own fits in this bag, and everyone can see it all. Somehow, that feels as vulnerable as it felt to be naked in that strip-search room. On the streets I have everything I could ever want; yet I would give it all away if I could just be a homeless man living on a park bench. No negotiation feels too absurd when you hit this kind of rock bottom.
Suddenly, the image of Kisha’s face crosses my mind, and I miss her so much my chest hurts. Once I get settled, I have to figure out how to get in touch with her. She’s the only real victim in this disaster. She inherited the pain of my selfish mistakes. I can still hear her voice echoing through the courtroom, crying out for me to come back.
It’s true that she could’ve walked away before the nightmare began; she could’ve awakened from the dream I sold as reality. Her parents warned her of the consequences of falling in love with a guy like me, yet she chose to listen to her heart. Kisha is a blessing from God. I knew it from the first day I met her, and I knew immediately that I didn’t deserve her. I still don’t, but that doesn’t make being ripped away from her any easier, and I’m not sure how I’ll get through this without her at my side.
My thoughts of Kisha are slammed to a screeching halt by a chubby-faced guard’s roll call. “Grab your bags and step out of the cell,” he orders us, sounding like a boot camp sergeant. “Turn right and make your shoulder touch the wall.”
This guy's got a sumo wrestler’s frame with a basketball player’s attitude. There’s not a man on earth who can tell him he isn’t the best thing God created since roll-on deodorant. For at least eight hours a day, this guy is guaranteed to be a winner in his life.
Lucky son of a bitch.
“Now listen up! You’re about to be escorted to General Population,” he informs us, pausing for a response. We nod our heads yes.
“Here’s the deal,” he continues, “there’ll be no talking, notes exchanged, or gifts passed in the hallway. Got it?”
We all nod our heads again.
“Good. Stay in a single file line and follow me to your new home.”
The hallway is crowded with other rowdy inmates on their way to chow, yelling greetings and news to each other as they pass by. I’m relieved to move around without the restraints of hand and ankle cuffs for the first time in ten hours, but the energy in the hallway keeps my movements stiff and uncomfortable. I feel like a tourist in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah. And if God destroyed this prison too, it’d be alright with me. None of the prisoners are wearing black and white stripes as I imagined. Instead they’re dressed in street clothing, like they’re going to a restaurant instead of the prison chow hall. This place is like a gated community for thugs, not a correctional institution for the worst people on Earth. After four petrifying minutes struggling through the heart of the jungle, we arrive at my housing unit. There’s a circular open-space dayroom area with a small command booth for the officer in the far right corner. The dayroom is bookended on either side by a row of cells that wraps around the entire cellblock. There’s also a steel staircase to get to a second level of cells. Every cell is closed, and the unit is entirely empty except for the correctional officer on duty. The CO assigns me to cell C-29, which luckily is only a few feet away from his booth. I enter the cell and take a deep, careful breath before placing my sheets on the empty top bunk.
This is the first time I’ve been alone since this phase of the nightmare began. Everything is still and quiet, and some peace of mind briefly settles in. There’s nobody here to tell me which way to move in this small box. Well, not until the guy who occupies the bottom bunk gets back, at least.
For now, it’s just me with a head full of anxiety and a heart full of fear about what could happen next. Every moment, movement, and sound feels like the tick of a time bomb. Yet somehow I find solace in knowing I don’t have to run anymore. I’ve fought this day for too long. I’m too tired to keep pushing without knowing when the end will close in. I’m exhausted from the sheer amount of different emotions that have been raging through me all day. I’ve been knocked out, and all I want is my first night of sleep in defeat. There will be no more worrying about my freedom being taken away from me. It’s already gone.
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