All Stories, General Fiction

Family and Friends by Victor Kreuiter

When Hartmann asked for a cigarette the two guards sitting with him turned away. He laughed. “What the hell, you worryin’ about my health … today?” He kept his eyes on them, craning his neck just a bit, toying with them. He’d promised himself no fireworks. Nothing physical. Be a man. He’d always been a man … when he was eight, getting beat up by bullies … when he was twelve, getting slapped around by one of his mother’s boyfriends … when he was sixteen, getting punched by the guy who said he was his father. Why didn’t he get praise for being a man?

“Where’s Moody?” he asked.

He liked Moody … trusted him. Moody was a friend. Nobody ever toyed with Moody because Moody never toyed with anybody. Moody was like that … everybody knew it. Hartmann knew Moody would bring cigarettes, he was sure of that. Moody would bend a rule for a friend. Friends do that, right?

“He’ll be here,” one of the guards said. He sounded dismissive, like he knew something, like he couldn’t be bothered; that didn’t bother Hartmann. He knew lots more than that guy, he was sure of it. What did that guy know? Nothing. That’s what Hartmann thought. Him and his uniform … that’s all he got?

The warden had stopped by earlier and hung his head, like that was the best he could do. “I’m sorry, Walter” the warden had said, then “You okay?”

“No,” Hartmann had replied. He’d shrugged and thought about smiling for the warden, but couldn’t bring it off. “No, warden, I’m not.” That’s what he said. “You don’t gotta apologize to me. Really.” The warden hadn’t replied. “I don’t mean to be smart-mouthing you, neither. You’re just doing your job.”

The warden had asked him if he was getting the meal he wanted and when Hartmann waved him off the warden nodded and walked off, knowing Hartmann had passed on the meal. Last meal? Those words … they irritated Hartmann. It was offensive. They’d asked him so many many times he got tired of answering. A meal? That was gonna show what? Sitting, waiting, he’d said it again, out loud: “Goddamn, I ain’t eatin’ no Goddamn last meal.” The two guards had sighed and didn’t respond.

Somewhere in the building a buzzer sounded. Hartmann hated those buzzers, all nasty sounding. He hoped that was Moody coming. He heard some mumbling, heard gates click open and clack closed and then Moody opened the door and looked in and Hartmann felt like he could cry. His chest, his throat and his chin, his jaw, his lips and his nose and his cheeks and right up to his eyes – everything said cry, but he wasn’t about to cry.

Moody nodded to the two guards.

“You guys can go,” he said.

They hesitated. One said “There’s supposed to be two here.” He nodded his head toward the prisoner. “With him.”

Moody sighed, frowned, and looked at the prisoner, then back at the guards. He went limp and his arms and his hands hung straight down, like he was exhausted. “Go on,” he said. “It’s okay. Tell ’em at the cage I’m the only one down here. They know, but it’ll keep you guys out of trouble.”

The guards left before Moody sat down, and when he did he looked at Hartmann. “You okay?”

Hartmann nodded. “Yeah.” He felt better now that Moody was here. Moody had never shit on him just to be shitting on him. Moody had always listened, never interrupted, never pulled some jailhouse shit on him just to be doing it. Moody had showed him pictures of his wife and his kids. He’d told Hartmann their names and told him what the boys liked to do and how his wife worked at a daycare center and how those boys kept him and his wife on their toes.

“Got a cigarette?”

Moody smiled, laughed out loud and pulled cigarettes out of his pocket. He handed one to Hartmann, pulled out a lighter and lit Hartmann’s smoke, then got one for himself. Hartmann inhaled and held it and thought ‘this right here … this is the best it is ever going to be.’ He watched Moody smoke, holding his cigarette, relaxed.

“You see any ‘Live Free or Die’ bumper stickers out there today?”

Moody shrugged. It was a familiar rant and he’d known it was coming and it was okay.

“I’m sorry,” Hartmann said. “I mean it, I’m sorry. But them candy-asses driving around in air-conditioned trucks, wearing two hundred dollar boots and ninety dollar blue jeans and all hell-bent living free or dying?” He sucked in more smoke and thought about asking for another one … then realized he hadn’t finished the one in his hand.

“There’s a preacher wants to come down,” Moody said.

Moody wore a somber face. This wasn’t the first man he’d walked. Why did they request him? Maybe it was because he felt no sympathy for them and they knew that and in some crazy way they appreciated that. What Moody felt was empathy. True empathy. Maybe that’s why they all talked to him and said things to him and opened up to him and never gave him any trouble. He’d stopped fights just by standing still.

“I figured a preacher would show,” Hartmann said. “It’s okay.”

They sat and listened to the clock tick. Why is it a jailhouse clock gets louder and louder the less time you got? Who would make a clock that did that?

Moody gave him another smoke, lit it, lit another for himself.

“You want something to drink?” he asked.

Hartmann leaned down and picked up a plastic cup. “Got me a soda,” he said, and he held it up like he was giving a toast, and watched Moody roll to one hip and reach into a pocket and come out with two tiny bottles and roll back, lean forward and hold them out to him.

“Praise Jesus,” Hartmann said. He smiled. Suddenly he felt real happy. He felt happiness spread out in his chest and up into his shoulders and he felt it spread downward into his gut and into his legs. Two bottles, like those little plastic airplane bottles. It was like Christmas morning.

Hartmann reached over and took one bottle, broke the seal and started to lean back to suck it all in when Moody stopped him.

“Easy now,” Moody said. “It just these little ones. I only got two …  it’s all I got … so maybe sip it.”

Hartmann nodded, agreeing, like he was a child. He was about to take a sip when he heard the gate open down the hall.

“Oh, Christ,” he said.

That would be the preacher.

Moody sighed. “Go on,” he said. “Kill it.”

Hartmann downed it, put the cap back on the bottle and handed it back to Moody. “Thank you,” he said. “I mean it.” He wiped his mouth with a bare hand. “That’s good.”

When the preacher arrived he stepped past Moody without a word and took a seat next to Hartmann. He slapped Hartmann’s knee, looked at him, then looked at Moody as if he was to go away.

“You know, Walter,” the preacher said, “Our Lord and Savior forgives everything. Every sin.” Those words hung there a minute. “You need only ask and He forgives.” They were familiar words to Walter Hartmann, and to the preacher, and to Al Moody as well, and they sounded tired. Hartmann looked at Moody, a sad dog-eyed look, and Moody reached into his pocket and fished out another cigarette and when he handed it over he preacher gave him the corner eye. Hartmann lit the cigarette from the butt of the one he was finishing. He inhaled deep, exhaled slowly, then turned to the preacher.

“You mean well,” he said, “and I want to thank you for coming. I want you to know that whether God forgives me or not, I am not asking for forgiveness. I’m glad I did what I did and I would do it again.” Those words made the preacher sigh. He was old, much older than Walter Hartmann. Older than Al Moody. “If you want to walk with me, that’s okay, too. And if you want to pray as I go, that’s okay. And thank you, I mean it. But I want you to know this …”

Hartmann stopped and looked at Al Moody and he could feel his eyes wanting to get that way again so he looked away. He was glad he’d had that drink and he was damn glad Moody had them cigarettes. Don’t you get, at least every once in a while, don’t you get something in this life? Something?

He tapped the preacher on the knee – just like the preacher had done to him – and smiled. “Look,” he said, “I’ve had a lot of time to think. And the more time I had the more I realized that if this is the right thing for the world, it’s gotta be the right thing for me. That’s how I see it. That’s how it works, don’t it? So I’m okay with it. And I see it like this: all of me, from the hair on my head to the bottom of my feet, all of me is going away.”

The preacher raised a hand, like he wanted to say something.

“No,” Hartmann said, “please, I’m asking you, let me finish.”

The preacher, who had pretty much heard it all, nodded. He’d had nothing new to say to anyone for a long time.

“So all of me is going somewhere else,” Hartmann said. “Down, I suppose, and I don’t mean into hell. Not that. Who knows about that? Anybody says they know about that … for certain … that can’t be. I’ve thought a lot about that. Anybody says they know … they don’t. So what I mean is, I’m going down into the ground. That’s my body going down there and I’m good with that. So, I’m left to wonder about the rest. You know, my soul.” He stopped, stared at his hands, blinked. “Hell, I read about it until I was blue in the face, didn’t I?”

He looked at Al Moody and smiled. Moody had brought him books. All kinds of books. Books for years. They’d talked about those books, too … quietly, like friends do.

“So here’s my concern right here,” Hartmann said, “and this is all I got and it’s all I want. I want to go in there as a man and take a deep breath and be polite to everybody that’s got to do their job and however this goes is however this goes. I got no argument.”

He stopped, blinked, looking for more to say and not finding it; he got quiet. The preacher said nothing and Moody was quiet and Walter was thinking, wondering why his mind was a blur and if that was probably a good thing. Then, “you know what?” he asked. He looked first at Al Moody, then at the preacher. “Hey, Al knows this but I want to say it out loud.”

More quiet.

“I didn’t make my peace for a long time. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I didn’t even know if I wanted it or what it was or if I would recognize it if I got it.”

A drag on his cigarette.

“But, I don’t know, it just showed up one day. Don’t know why. But one day I woke up and I guess I had been doing some thinking and such and I woke up and I thought, okay, I did the best I could. I did what I thought needed to be done and I thought that was being a man. And I thought about that a lot and decided it was the best I was capable of doing. And if I am cursed because of that, or if I am punished for eternity, I guess that goes with me trying to be a man.”

The preacher’s head was down. Al Moody’s head was down.

“Those guys deserved it,” Hartmann said. He was nodding. “I was judge and jury … and I did what I thought was right.” He looked at the top of the preacher’s head and wondered if he was listening. Moody looked up at him and nodded and that made Hartmann feel good. “The judge and jury … you know, at my trial … well, they got to live with their decision. None of them should feel bad. They was just doing their job.”

The preacher remained silent. Al Moody was scratching one hand with the other. More quiet. That damn clock.

Walter Hartmann turned to the the preacher. “Officer Moody is the best friend I ever had,” he said, “in my whole life.” He sighed, long and sorrowful, like he had worn himself out talking. It was quiet again, and then Hartmann said “Hey, I’m gonna lay down, I’m feeling sleepy.” He leaned over and scratched at both ankles, and when he straightened up he looked away, toward the wall.

The preacher raised his eyebrows and looked at Al Moody. Al Moody leaned forward, hands on his knees, rocked once or twice and stood up. The preacher took that as a signal and he stood up.

“I’ll be here,” Moody said. He picked up cigarette butts off the floor and stuffed them into a pocket.

Hartmann was already on his side, facing the wall. “Thank you,” he said.

Moody leaned over, slapped the other little plastic bottle down on Hartmann’s chest, waited for Hartmann to grab it, then straightened up and followed the preacher down the hall. They passed through two gates then found a couple plastic chairs pushed up against a concrete wall. They sat and the preacher looked at Al Moody, looked him up and down. “How well do you know that man?” he asked.

Moody shrugged. “Fourteen years,” he said. He pushed his legs out in front of him, leaned back and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“We got about four hours,” the preacher said.

Al Moody was quiet; he sucked on his teeth, then sighed. “Nah, we got more than that,” he said. “It’s Walter’s got four hours.”

The preacher looked at Moody like he’d said something important.

“He’ll be okay,” Moody said. “He’s going somewhere else. He’s been talking about it for years and years.” He looked down at the cigarettes in his shirt pocket. He should have left a couple, then thought … no … he couldn’t have left the lighter.

“You know,” Moody said, “I know that guy as well as I know anybody … anybody in my life. And I know what he did and why he did it. And I know how he grew up and what it was like and I have to tell you, I’m not saying he did the right thing. I’m not saying that at all. But I think I’m wondering if maybe he didn’t do the best thing. You know, the best thing for him to do; maybe the best thing for the whole world, too. Those guys he …” Moody stopped and chewed his words. He whistled, then turned to the preacher. “Sometimes it worries me,” he said,” me thinking like this.”

The preacher watched Al Moody drop his chin and think on those words.

“I have friends in here,” Moody said. “Really. Real friends. It feels strange to say it and it must be strange to hear it. It worries me. I wonder what kind of life I have.”

“You have a family?”

“No,” Moody said. He shrugged again, thinking about the photos he’d shown all the men he’d befriended inside. Those men needed to see something like that, that’s what he thought. Men measuring their lives in square feet.

“I don’t have family,” Moody said, “and all my friends live in cages.” He inhaled slowly, held, it, leaned forward and looked back at the preacher as he dropped elbows to his knees. He exhaled slowly then looked straight ahead at the concrete wall a few feet away. “There’s something wrong with that, don’t you think?”

Victor Kreuiter

Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay 

5 thoughts on “Family and Friends by Victor Kreuiter”

  1. There were still little moments and insights alive and well despite the big ticket Finale that is drawing closer and closer. The ease of the dialogue and a wonderful flow help take this a high level indeed. It stands well above the typical Death House fare. Though counterfeit, the picture means much anyway.

    Leila

    Like

  2. Hi Victor,
    I loved how the details were left out.
    I thought you turning the end on more emphasis about the guard was inspired.
    And the control of pace throughout shows a very confident and accomplished piece of writing!!
    Everything about this is excellent!!!

    All the very best my fine friend.
    Hugh

    Like

  3. As Gwencon has already said, nice shift in emphasis at the end that leaves you wondering how much Moody has sacrificed for his empathy.

    Like

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