Squinting to read the menu through cataract-clouded eyes, Ben Jefferson turns the page with stiff fingers, their joints swollen and gnarled with arthritis.
Reverend Morris, having seen the sight one too many times, shakes his head and sets his now empty Styrofoam coffee cup aside. He pulls a pair of reading glasses from his inside coat pocket and wipes them with a clean white hanky. His metal chair, probably older than Ben, creaks and groans as he rises and steps to the side of the ailing man’s bed.
Ben cracks a smile and accepts the glasses with a quiet, ‘Thanks.’ Taking a fresh look at the menu, another smile finds its way across his face. ‘Chicken-fried steak. And grits. Then some of that peach pie.’
‘I hear they make some fine grits,’ says the reverend.
‘It’s an art,’ says Ben. ‘Yous gotta have the butter just right. And then some folks use too much water. Thins ‘um out.’ He hands the menu back to Clyde McKinnis, who, other than rubbing his neck under the starched collar of his pressed shirt, has been standing pretty much motionless in the opened doorway. ‘You tell ‘um to watch the water. Don’t like me no mushy grits.’
Clyde tips his head, closes an eye, and makes a gun with his gloved hand, his index finger pointing at Ben. ‘You got it, my man.’ He starts to turn, but lifts a chin at the reverend’s cup. ‘I’ll take that for you, if you like.’
The reverend, still chuckling at the finger gun, nods in appreciation, as he has what seems to be a thousand times before. ‘’Preciate it, Clyde,’ he says, passing the cup. As the man leaves, he turns back to Ben. ‘Yer kids still ain’t come round to see you?’
Ben looks away. Twists his mouth and shakes his head. ‘Ain’t nobody been comin’ round. Theys all act like theys gonna catch sumpin’, keel over and die should theys git too close.’ Ben turns, looks to Reverend Morris and gives his head a slight cock. ‘‘Sept’n you, Reverend. Yous been comin’ pretty regular since…since…well, since theys stuck me in this here bed, that’s for sure.’ He tries sliding up, hoping for a sort of sitting position, hoping to catch the reverend’s eye, but his arms give out and he drops back onto the pillow. ‘I nevers even been to yer church. Yous know that, right?’
‘It’s hard for some folks, Ben. ‘Specially if they kinfolk.” Reverend Morris, dodging most of Ben’s questions, looks away, his gut in a twist. ‘Maybe I’ll see if I can give Cleo a call. He don’t live but a coupla miles from here.’
‘Yous be wastin’ yer time, Reverend. Wastin’ yer time, I tell ya.’
The reverend takes a sudden look at the door. ‘What’bout Tom Carson? He’s gonna be here, right?’
‘Said he had sumpin’ ‘portant to tend to.’
‘Hmmm. Sumpin’ ain’t right.’ The reverend gives his chin a rub and stands. ‘Well, then, I’m gonna git and lets you eat yer meal in peace. But I’lls be back before they wheel you in for the, uh, uh, procedure. Maybe he’ll be here by then.’
But as he turns for the door, Ben raises a hand, his eyes narrowed. ‘Why do’ya s’pose God let this happen to me, Reverend?’
Reverend Morris feels his knees go to rubber, while his tongue stiffens to concrete. He fumbles for words, but none seem to fit together.
‘God has a plan, Ben,’ he finally says. ‘Sometimes don’t seem to be no sense in what’s doin’, but he’s got a plan. That’s for sure.’
Ben nods, but the reverend knows he’s not the least bit convinced. To be honest, Reverend Morris finds it a stretch himself. When nothing else works, when nothing else make sense, ‘God has a plan’ is his old standby.
Or, how about, ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ Now who the hell came up with that one?
‘When did you know God hads you a plan, Reverend?’
Ben’s voice gives him a start, and rather than answer right away, he finds himself in even deeper thought. His pause lasts a minute too long, his eyes drifting ever so slightly, before finally letting go a gusty sigh. ‘Not sure I really ever knew fer sure. Then again, maybe it weren’t so much a plan. Sometimes, Ben, we do stupid things, digs ourselves deep holes. It’s then hard choices have to be made. The Lord just seemed to be my only ladder out of that hole.’
Ben nods, a twist slowly taking hold of his mouth. ‘I twern’t there, ya know. No wheres near that liquor store. I twern’t there, I tells ya. I twern’t there.’ His shaking head drops, his teary gaze drifting to the distant wall.
‘I knows you weren’t Ben. Lordy, lordy, I knows.’ The reverend heads for the door, turning back at the last moment. ‘You enjoy those grits, you hear?’ He then slips out, nearly bumping into Clyde, who stands in the gloomy gray concrete corridor. He holds Ben’s tray of food in his hand, but wears a mask of anticipation upon his face, almost as if he’d been waiting for the reverend to step out. With his sharp stance and crisp prison guard uniform, he looks to be ready for a military inspection.
‘Reverend,’ he says with a smile. But the smile washes away and his broad shoulders show a bit of a slump. ‘Sometimes life just ain’t fair, huh? I can’t believe that Ben…well, you know.’
The reverend nods, puts a hand on Clyde’s thick arm, and fakes a smile back. ‘You’ve been good to him, Clyde. I knows he really ‘preciates that…’
His voice trails off as though there are no more words left to say. Then again, maybe words won’t say what’s left. Looking away, he continues down the hall.
In his church, in his own pews, the reverend kneels. He stares up at the wooden cross, gazes absently at the stained glass windows, some of which are cracked from age, others from rocks, errant or otherwise. He wonders if there comes a time in the life of every man or woman of the cloth where they question their faith. Leave room for doubt.
Or has he opened a lonely door for which there is no closing…
Rising, he moves to the back, taking time to make a light supper. He eats quietly without so much as saying grace, something he’s not done since he was a teen. And a wild one at that. Now he knows too much so.
If only he had…
Or maybe had not…
He wonders, if that were the case, where Ben would be today. A hard-workin’-give-ya-the-shirt-off-his-back black man, he’d be home with his family, that’s where he’d be.
Shaking it off, Morris washes his plate, dries it with the dishtowel hanging near the sink, and tucks it back in the cupboard. Then, with an eye to the clock – still a couple hours before he needs to head back – he picks up a book. Not the Good Book, as should be the case in this moment of need, but instead picks up Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, hoping King will pass along some of that redemption to him.
He wakes with a start, still stretched out in his old chair, book opened in his lap. He takes a panicked look at the clock, but time remains on his side. Setting the book aside, he moves to the bathroom to wash his face, yet finds himself looking into the mirror, hollow empty eyes staring back.
What would his mamma think of him now?
What does God think of him now?
His old Rambler sputters, but still the drive back is short. Mostly because he’s lost in trying to get his feet back on solid ground. By the time he makes it to Ben’s room, they’re just rolling his gurney into the hall.
‘Heys, Reverend.’ Ben smiles, cocking his head up ever so slightly.
Aside from Clyde, there’s a couple of other folks that the reverend’s not seen before marching along. A young white man, wearing a white doctor’s coat and his eyes glued to his phone, walks to the back. Another young fellow, dressed in green scrubs, pulls the gurney from the front. Clyde and his partner – the reverend stumbles for his name…Ray? – walk stiffly on the other side, their black leather shoes squeaking against the tile floor.
It’s a quiet walk, short but long, and when they arrive at the procedure room the door is open. The reverend is given to pause, for the room’s insides shout of sterility. An end to all that is unclean. Antiseptic white tile floors, slick white metal walls, stainless steel. A single flat-screen monitor – straight lines of green, blue, and red stretching from side to side – hangs over a bed situated in the center of the small room. High above, in at least two of the corners, cameras point down. Recording what they might do right. Making memories of what could have been done better.
To the right, the wall is mostly window. Just outside a small group – four, maybe five folks – sit in foldaway chairs. While they may be dressed in their Sunday best, they wear grim, almost angry faces. Tired, as if the journey has been long and wrought with misfortune.
As they roll Ben’s gurney up aside the bed, a second young man in scrubs steps up and helps the first to slide Ben over. The reverend, so focused on Ben, notices for the first time yet another man in a white coat as he approaches from the opposite side. He wears a badge that dangles around his neck, and even with his fading vision, the reverend can see ‘MD’ in its print.
‘We’re going to hook you up to the monitor,’ the doctor tells Ben.
Ben nods, but looks over at the reverend. For the first time, he sees fear in Ben’s eyes. Deep and dark, it calls out, and Reverend Morris can’t help but move over and place his hand on Ben’s.
‘What happens now, Reverend?’
‘It’s in God’s hands, now, Ben.’ He cringes as he says it; yet another cliché of faith. ‘You can’t worry, Ben, things—’
But before he can finish, there’s a tap at the door and it opens. Two men, both dressed in dark suits enter, Tom Carson, Ben’s lawyer, right behind. They stop just past the doorway, a look of anticipation, or maybe expectation molded upon their faces. Just as the door closes, as if on cue, the phone rings.
The doctor takes a quick glance at the trespassers, then snatches up the phone mid-ring. Mounted on the wall next to the window, its older style and black color make it look out of place in the otherwise crisp modern room. Other than grunts of acknowledgement spaced here and there, he says nothing and keeps his eyes averted to the floor. Finally, after several minutes, he hangs up and leans over, whispering something into Clyde’s ear. The guard’s eyes first fix on Ben, then, in sync with the doctor, shift up to the three men who stand in silence.
He nods, and it seems that is all they have been waiting for.
Both men reach under their lapels and pull out a badge, going immediately into some rambling about being agents for some state bureau. But to the reverend, lost in trying to comprehend what is going on, their voices are nothing more than the static from an out of tune AM radio station. He closes his eyes trying to get some focus, and as he reopens them, the man on the left is pulling out a folded sheet of paper.
‘After several years of appeals, the courts finally agreed to have the original evidence reviewed. It was during the review process that previously missed incriminating DNA was uncovered in the evidence packet. After repeated testing, it has been established that this DNA does NOT match Mr Jefferson’s.’ Still holding the folded paper, he turns toward Ben. ‘Mr Benjamin Jefferson, I am pleased to inform you that all charges against you have been dropped, and you are a free man.’
The air in the room seems to evaporate. But before anyone, including Ben, can jump with joy, the man turns toward the reverend. ‘Mr Samuel Morris, after some careful reassessment of that evidence, we’ve had cause to collect DNA samples from your disposed coffee cups over the course of the last several months.’ He takes a deep sigh. ‘I’m pretty sure you know the results.’
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