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People Think You Deserve It

I didn’t know for five years that Ringer was innocent. It wasn’t my fault but I still feel ashamed that at first I’d thought him resigned and defeated. But getting to know him was hard. When he first spoke, my stomach clenched. Is he speaking English? It was his teeth, he had only six. A strong black accent didn’t help, especially since I’m Australian. An Australian far from home and out of place.

Eight years ago, when I first volunteered to visit four inmates, I wasn’t sure why I felt such a tremendous pull toward confined men when I was already giving too much to a husband that was trapped in a different type of ruin. Now I understand. Besieged and bereft, adjusting to life with a husband whose stroke left him four-fifths of a genius, my visits to prison were acts of love. One outsider forging connections with men more removed from love than I was.

On the first day in that airless prison visiting room, I was a bright parrot in a cage of brown sparrows. My new blue pumps pinched but my colorful clothing was perfect because nearly all of the color inmates see is arrayed on their dinner plates.

After an awkward pause, I smiled blankly. “Sorry, Ringer, I didn’t catch that.”

Even at about fifty, he was as tall and loose-limbed as an athlete. His full-moon face was young-looking, too, with a handful of pitted scars strewn across its surface. When he was first imprisoned, he’d probably had pimples. A mustache like a grey scrubbing brush was the single nod to his age. But although his body had aged gracefully, Ringer was wracked with anxiety. With elbows resting on spread knees, he wrung his hands constantly, as though washing them without soap.

Without a trace of irritation, he repeated himself, watching me intently. I still couldn’t decipher what he’d said but he read the dismay on my face and tried again, slowly. It sounded like, ‘I couldn’t meet you until I had time to grieve.”

The loudspeaker squawked and I jumped. “Chow is finished!”

“I’m so sorry about your wife,” I said. “How long since you last saw her?”

“Twenty-three year. But we … on the phone all… ever’ week.”

Suddenly, I tensed. My heart started to pound and I looked around, panicked. What is it? A guard strolled into the visiting room and I understood my anxiety. It was the clanging door. That horror of containment.

I turned back to Ringer. Don’t make him repeat himself again. I took a stab at a reply. “You both showed a loyalty that’s unusual. You didn’t get to see her age.”

“Yeah. She …” His hands never rested. They writhed and rubbed incessantly. He could have been speaking Urdu for all I knew. I gave a strained smile. A giggling toddler ran between our knees, her sandals slapping on the tiles. Paces behind, her brother rushed by with unlaced tennis shoes flopping.

We resumed our conversation but it limped along and when I stood to say goodbye, I’d learned next to nothing and was exhausted. But I was Ringer’s only visitor in twenty-three years. His eyes lingered on mine and a responsive tug in my chest told me that our hour-long struggle to understand each other had touched him.

I understood that suffering isolates. Since my husband’s stroke, I’d cut off friends and family. Not permanently. I sent cards and birthday gifts. I just didn’t tell them my life was falling apart. That John was now like an autistic person who’d forgotten how to love me. When he’d first got out of rehab, I’d had so much hope. But as the tell-tale evidence mounted, I promised myself that I’d call everyone next month, when surely, I’d feel less depressed.

I didn’t care that John dribbled or never did up his fly but my loved ones didn’t need to know that the post-stroke John had an explosive temper. That when he couldn’t get the computer or appliances or windows to work, he’d thump and kick them. That his disasters consumed my life: dousing bonfires he lit in the fireplace, turning off our stove’s hissing gas jets, racing across town to deliver anti-seizure meds that he’d forgotten to swallow, and shrieking as he readied to throw our young daughter into the air and into the whirring blades of a ceiling fan.

I told myself I was sparing my dad pain. Mum would worry. My best friend would say, leave him. Life had become hard and bizarre but I didn’t know how to describe living with a man whose cognitive skills registered in the first percentile for many tasks but who also scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for many others. How could people understand the small reprieves? The celebratory awakenings? The steady signs that John might get better? So I closed my shutters against the claims of love and didn’t pick up their phone calls. And when I emailed, I never talked about myself but filled the messages with stories about my daughter. I was so lonely and afraid that sometimes when I sat down quietly, I trembled.

During those years, I dreaded my visits with Ringer. It was stressful and embarrassing not to understand him. But when he said, “I got thirty-five to life. Done twenty-six,” his words rang out.  I waited for him to mention his crime but he never did.

He focused on the short end of his sentence. Smart but uneducated, he studied the prison’s law books and worked every angle to overturn his conviction. Like a dimming light bulb during a brown-out, he didn’t need much to keep going. When his motions were denied by the courts, he researched another. There was sorrow but a steadiness, too, a willingness to work again. In charge of the prison painting team, he said, “I never tell the workers what to do. I just say, ‘You all pick the jobs you want and I’ll do what’s left. I’ll do the jobs no one wants.’” When they finished cutting and rolling the paint throughout the entire prison complex, he led them to start again at the beginning. He didn’t just count years in prison, he counted repaints.

He grew up in D.C. and I had assumed, on bleak streets. But later he reminisced about his granddaddy’s farm where he rode a patient work horse over acres of tussocked grass. He longed for streams and squirrels in the thicket but his long sentence was spent without the sight of a single tree.

Some prisoners just want to bend your ear but Ringer always asked about me and tried to repay me for my visits. The greeting cards he sent were confiscated because prisoners were forbidden to contact their volunteers. Then one day, with a shy glance, he recited a list of job websites from memory. “Heard them on the radio. They might help you out.”

I’d been laid off. And just prior to that, John had left me after twenty-years of marriage. All the labels I’d worn like merit badges fell away: wife, partner, lover, and caregiver. Moving to America for John’s career was foolish now that I lived here without him. Sacrificing a career to care for him while he battled paralysis and brain damage to reclaim academia was weak-minded now that I could no longer support myself. Some days, I sank to the floor weeping and calling myself names. I am stupid, stupid, stupid! Feeling like I knew nothing about love or even myself, I felt a deepening empathy for the prisoners I visited. We’d all lost the roles, occupations and relationships that defined our identity. But I had my daughter, friends and freedom. They’d lost everything.


While the volunteer program that consumed my every fourth Saturday was designed to help men stuck behind lonely walls, those all-day visits provided the momentum that pulled me from despair. Four felons gave me a sense of purpose when I’d been hollowed out.

I’d known Ringer for four years when he came out to the visiting room with bloodshot eyes. “I been due to see the parole board for five years.” He shot up his creamy palms. “For years, I been telling my caseworker it ain’t responding to my letters. But last week, she say she’d get me an appointment. Told me to come back Monday at eleven. Come Monday, I waited in her office from eleven ‘til two.” He caught my eyes with a plaintive expression. “She didn’t show up.”

The jingle of keys announced a guard’s presence. I couldn’t see him behind me but felt breath on my neck and smelled the soap he’d used that morning. “Move your seat back! There should be four floor tiles between you.” I sighed, wishing there were tables. Four feet between my knees and Ringer’s was too far. But the guard wouldn’t leave until I complied and Ringer remained silent until the officer left.

“I ain’t mad she didn’t show,” Ringer continued. “Things come up.” His gravelly voice slid higher. “But she carries a walkie –talkie ever’where she go. I weren’t mad ‘til she walked out them prison gates without letting me know she weren’t coming.” She never did get Ringer a date, so he wrote to the court which mandated an appointment for the following February.

A guard shouted for all prisoners to line up against the front wall for count. When Ringer returned, he said, “Now the board mad. Because of my letter to the court. My counselor, she say, ‘You better not show them no more attitude.’” Noticing my worried look, Ringer said, “I’ll just say they weren’t doing they job.”

“No! Apologize. Say you were afraid you’d fallen through the cracks.”

“I’ll just tell the truth. I been waiting five year.”

“Don’t give them an excuse to mess you around.”

“They’ll just string me along, some. I can deal with that. Eventually, they have to let me go. I’ve done the time.” With a start, I realized it wasn’t stubbornness but dignity. Ringer understood the consequences of stating his truth but was determined to exit prison on his terms.

I knew about such honesty. To survive, John had to believe he was whole. But I didn’t airbrush my experience as the wife of a man with brain damage. It was a testimony of love. Like the Japanese, who admire the deformed and the mended. They use gold to fill cracks in beloved hand-pinched pots. Just as I loved John even when he slurred and walked into signposts. But oh, how clumsy I was. When I confessed my sorrows and frustrations, my husband heard only that he was a burden.

One blazing hot monsoon day, Ringer’s hands embraced like sinuous tango dancers. Then they flew apart to flirt and nod in silent acknowledgment before kissing again. Their choreography mesmerized me. It was the sub-text to all our conversations. One I wanted to understand. I still missed whole paragraphs of what he said and I never decoded those hands.

“My mom old, with diabetes,” he said. “She can’t visit me ’cause she poor. I ain’t seen her in nearly thirty year. When I was young, she always wanting me to go to church. But it didn’t feel right ‘cause I was robbing graves — I was a stone-setter. But one day, I wanted to surprise her and I walked down the aisle. I saw her up front and I was thinking I was gonna make her happy.” He scowled. “The minister say, ‘Here come someone who’s not been here in a long time. Someone that should’ve.’ I turned ‘round and walked out.”

“You don’t go to chapel here, either, do you?”

“Nah. The chaplain lies.”

“The chaplain?”

“Yeah. Once, I asked for a book she loans out. Something about chicken soup.”

“For the Soul?”

“Yeah. That was it! How you know that? Anyway, she was kneeling down, sorting out her books. Said I’d have to ask someone else, later.” Disgust contorted his face. “She couldn’t be bothered ‘cause I don’t go to her service. It’s not just me. There’s thirty men who pray on the bleachers at night to avoid her.”

“You, too?”

“Nah. I walk the track in the evening. Clears my head.”

Unlike the religious leaders who’d denied Ringer twice, nature’s cathedral doesn’t turn people away. I explained that I was a fellow congregant in the church of trees and sky. A faint compression of his lips, a brief pause in his hands, made me hope he knew that he didn’t worship alone.

Other prisoners went to the hole but Ringer kept out of trouble, even though a stint in the hole can turn on an officer’s bad mood. So when I was told to wait for Ringer in a narrow cubicle where a glass window looked into a darkened room, I wasn’t surprised. I drew my lonely chair to the stainless steel shelf abutting the glass and waited.

Finally, a light flashed on and Ringer shuffled in. He averted his eyes. His hands were manacled behind his back. Chains dragged between his feet. Grey stubble sprouted on his head and chin where there had never been hair. When the steel door clanged shut behind him, he squatted, aligning his hands with a slot cut low in the door. Eventually, two white hands poked through the opening and unlocked his handcuffs.

I picked up the telephone and mustered my gentlest voice. “What happened?”

He rubbed his wrists. “I cussed an officer.”

“Seems a harsh punishment.”

Looking like his face had been slapped, he said, “He couldn’t get me for cussing so he charged me with stealing painting tools! I was standing in the cupboard, getting my gear, when he ordered me to run a chore. I had a job to do! Don’t have to run no chores for him.” Ringer couldn’t wring his hands because one needed to hold the phone. He compensated by balling and stretching the free one.

“How long are you in for?”

“Six weeks. Ain’t too bad.” He was locked up for twenty-three hours a day with an hour of solitary exercise in an outside cage. “Worst thing is my family.” His amber eyes were rimmed with red. “I usually call ever’ week. They’ll worry ‘cause I ain’t spoken to them.”

His clenched hand pulsed open and shut, double time. “My friend on the yard died last week. Had a heart attack in the gym. He been here thirty year and was due for release in two weeks.” He heaved a sigh. Ringer’s wife had died while he was in prison. He hoped to make it out to see his mum.

“Had good news,” he said. “I saw the parole board and it give me one more year of prison.”

“How are you going to get through it?”

“Time I get out, it’ll be nearly thirty year.” He shook his head, dazed by the enormity of a sentence survived. “A year’s nothing.” I could hardly believe my ears but time is mysterious and elastic. Ringer’s sense of it was forged behind bars.

“I wanna be prepared. I’m applying for a rent-controlled apartment. I’m planning how to set up a painting business. Signed up for an anger management course.”

“But you’re not an angry person. You’re not impulsive.”

“People get tense when they get an out-date. They fight and say things they don’t mean. Parole board say, I gotta keep my head down. Can’t have no shots.” His stress and longing to leave prison was dry tinder, aching for a spark.

“So many men lose heart in here. But you’re taking control. How have you held on to those abilities?”

“I refused to be programmed. When I first came in, my counselors say, ‘You need this program and that.’ I weren’t having none of it. You program computers not human beings! If I thought a program would do me good, I’d do it. Got my GED, H-VAC, electrical, and painting. But I decide what’s right for me. When I refused a program, they’d shake down my cell and take all my stuff. I’d think, ‘I paid for that but I don’t care.’ They sent me to the hole but I told ’em, ‘I ain’t doing it to be difficult.’”

The Ringer I’d known for five years never smiled. But one day, he arrived looking like he’d been zapped by the hand of God. Taller and straighter, striding jauntily as if accompanied by a marching band. His chin rasped my cheek as he raised me from the floor in a joyous squeeze. “The Innocence Project wants to take on my case!”

“My God! You’re innocent? How did they find you?”

“Don’t know. But I got two lawyers and they say my case stood out for them.”

Beside us, a black woman shrieked as she hurled herself at her man, tucking slim legs around him and kissing him hard. But my eyes were glued on Ringer. “How did you bear it?”

“Sweat lodge, move,” announced an officer on the loudspeaker, calling Native Americans to worship. “North side.”

“I had to accept it,” Ringer said. “Or I’d go mad.”

“This is fantastic but you’re close to getting out, it won’t shorten your sentence. All it can do is restore your reputation.”

“Yeah,” he grinned. “S’alright. Done all this time, I can wait. I was gonna work on my reputation when I was on the streets but now they gonna help me. I been walking around the yard, smiling. Ever’body say, ‘What you smiling about?’ I say, ‘Never you mind.’”

“You’ve never talked about your crime. What happened?”

“I was in two line-ups. They ain’t supposed to do that.”

“A witness saw two line-ups with only you in both?”

“Yeah. Lawyer say there’s lots of abnormalities. She got hold of the police report for the line-up. They witness told the sheriff, ‘It’s either number four or five.’ Sheriff say, ‘You got to pick one.’ They witness say, ‘I’ll go with number four, then.’ Sheriff didn’t even ask if she was sure. They’re supposed to. And I had an alibi.”

“An alibi?”

“Yeah. It was raining. My boss, he picked me up because my car was in the shop. He drove me to work and I punched in. I was there at ten when it all happened. The marshal who took me out the court in handcuffs, he say, ‘I don’t know how they pinned that on you.’”

“My God!”

“My defense lawyer cried when they convicted me. She knew I didn’t do it. “The prosecutor knew, too!”

“How could someone do that? Why was the prosecutor after you?”

“Nah. I was nothing to her. She got enough convictions to make judge after my case. They don’t care about the truth. They just want the convictions.”

“What was the crime?”

“Two counts of armed robbery, assault with aggravation, assault with a weapon.”

“Your life was ruined!”

He raised dark eyebrows.

With all his news, Ringer still thought to ask, “How’s the job hunt?”

“Frustrating. Applying online is like casting messages in a bottle to the ocean. You hope and hope but never know if anyone ever sees them.” He understood. When Ringer cast his bottle to the ocean, against all the odds, it washed ashore. And then another miracle: someone waded in to read his plea.

By the next month, Ringer’s round-moon face had thinned to angles and planes. His rich dark skin had paled to grey. “What’s going on? You look terrible.”

“Can’t sleep. It’s messing with me. Thought I’d put all that behind me but now, I can’t get it out of my head. Keep seeing my mom in the court watching what they did to me.” He looked up suddenly. “I’m gonna go see those friends that dropped me and ask why. Then, I’m gonna have nothing to do with them.”

“That cut deep,” I said. “Betrayed by the system and then by friends.”

He glanced up, eyes glistening.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were innocent? We’ve known each other so long.” My visits weren’t bartered for secrets but secrets make us lonely.

“When you in here, people think you deserve it.”

The harsh florescent light seemed too bright to bear. I slid my hands out from under my thighs; they’d been pressed against the plastic seat so long that they were imprinted with an orange-peel texture. “Can you be happy when you get out?”

“Anybody that helped or stood by me, they got a chunk of my compensation coming.”

“Your lawyer says that’s possible?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna pay off my friends’ mortgages. My mom, she don’t wanna move. But I’m gonna buy her friend a car. Tell her to drive my mom, so she don’t have to take the bus no more. And I’m gonna buy some units for people out of prison who got nowhere to go.”

“But what about you? You’ve probably got thirty years of life left.” I stared at his haunted eyes. “Re-discover yourself. Find out what gives you joy.” The smile he gave me surprised me with its intensity.

The parole board had said it would release Ringer in a year’s time if he stayed out of trouble. But three years later, he is still waiting for his follow-up visit. He was stymied by the FBI, too. When the Innocence Project requested the paperwork for his case, the FBI dragged its feet. After two years of legal wrangling, the FBI admitted that one box of evidence was missing, the other box: empty.

“My lawyers say the government don’t want the trouble,” Ringer said. “The prosecutor made judge after my trial. If the Innocence Project proves misconduct, the government would have to investigate all her trials. My lawyers ain’t giving up but it will take a while.”

To help himself deal with frustration, Ringer joined a group run by the Calvary Chapel. After attending for eight months, he chuckled. “My aunt, she say she likes me better, now. The group changed me.” He paused for several heartbeats. “I forgive them for putting me in here. I didn’t do the crime but now I see. I been punished for the bad things I did before. Robbing those graves. It helps me to think like that.”

Ringer and I had both arrived in Tucson from far away. But he was transferred in the middle of the night, and although he’d lived here longer than me, he’d never seen a saguaro in bloom beside the dry riverbed nor heard the thrum of a hummingbird’s wings. The only sense of the desert he knows is its thirst. His forgiveness after thirty years in prison was a phosphorescent spark.

When I first woke in a landlocked American state, I mourned the absence of edges defined by the ocean’s pulse. I felt lost and didn’t know how to navigate. But I learned to set my mind’s compass to the timbered shoulders of the Santa Rita, Catalina, Rincon and Tucson Mountains that cradled the city like circled wagons. By the time my husband abandoned me, I knew to stand in the drench of monsoon beside Scordato’s Pizzeria, to watch the dry river’s fractious rebirth. I knew how to lean into the mountains’ embrace.

Suffering scours the heart and makes it clean. I’m not denying the lingering fear about my unwaged state, an occasional brief lapse into bitterness, or the ongoing sorrow for my daughter — now a young adult —  who knows that a father with an incomplete brain can’t help but continue to wound her. But my broken lonely heart and four felons taught me that sitting beside someone when they are in pain is powerful. We don’t have to understand how they feel because often, we can’t. The moment I realized this, I began to return calls from family and friends. On simply hearing their Aussie accents, my sorry heart was fortified.

  1. Pepper Provenzano on

    My oh my, Gillian, your powers of observation astound me. Last night in the group, when you shared your island experience, I listened more carefully and followed along in awe of your keen descriptive passages. You inspire me to take my writing so much more seriously. Thank you. Here’s to more.

  2. Julie Marsh on

    Beautiful Gillian. Please contact me. Would love to catch up on life.

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