The Real Russ

ASA

There are a lot of white guys in prison who are sex offenders, or more specifically, child molesters. “Aggravated sexual assault” is one legal term to identify them. The aggravated portion references the fact that their victim was under age twelve or fourteen. Laws and terms differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in my experience the number of these offenders has become epidemic, especially amongst the white population in prison. I have often remarked facitiously that if I didn’t talk to sex offenders, then I’d never speak to another white guy in prison. As with a great many jokes, there’s more than a kernel of truth embedded in that statement.

Vilified

For a long time these particular individuals were the most vilified of the prison population. They often faced ridicule, bullying and outright physical abuse from their fellow inmates and also from those wearing badges and tasked with insuring their safety. These inmates would often lie and say that they were locked up for some other more innocuous crime rather than admit their sex offence. This practice became so prevalent in fact that an inmate who was suspected of being a sex offender but who claimed to be incarcerated for dealing drugs, otherwise known as “having a drug case”, may have his assertion rebutted with the type of colorful quip which exemplifies the somewhat darker undertone of what qualifies as prison humor. An example would be; “Yeah, right, you’ve got a drug case. More like you drug that little girl off into the bushes.” Distasteful to be sure, but not an uncommon way of laying an entirely unsubtle accusation of pedophilia against someone.

Out of the Shadows

As the sex offender population grew it became common for them to band together and they’ve become emboldened to admit what they are locked up for, talking openly about their status as a sex offender, though often not often providing any details of their particular crime. Now they are such a large percentage of the prison population that they have infiltrated many social groups often unbeknownst to their fellow inmates. For the most part they are treated like just another inmate. Nothing more or less terrible than that.

Penitence

The comfort of Christianity has long served as a respite for these oft put upon prisoners. Being a Christian man myself, I would never deign to say that God’s gift of grace is insufficient to bring about forgiveness, salvation and transformation in the life of any sinner, no matter what their sin. I do however confess with a certain degree of shame that I struggle with this concept of forgiveness for such a despicable crime and iniquity. Perhaps it is more that I tend to question the sincerity of many of these men I have known. In my experience it seems that the claim of a religious conversion, especially amongst child molesters, tends to be viewed as a dubious bit of trickery. A professed change for the sake of convenience rather than an authentic repentance. As best I can I try not to stand in judgement of a guy, but in some cases it’s not so much a matter of judging as it is recognizing something that is just plain wrong.

Recruiting

Russ was the charismatic country fried leader of an ever growing group of sex offenders. They would be gathered in the yard or seated together at church on Sunday, each of them deferring to Russ in all things. Russ knew his Scripture, could quote it chapter and verse, and seemed sincere as far as my fallible eyes could see, but there was something about him that set off an alarm in the intuitive wrinkles of my brain.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that he was proselytizing not for the cause of Christ, but was building his number of followers by behaving like the pied piper of pedophilia. Russ recruited them with a twisted type of pseudo-religiosity that was far too heavy on acceptance and much too light on repentance and change.

Fallacy

Since I’m a white man in prison who was attending church regularly, Russ assumed I was a sex offender and therefore a likely candidate for his brand of fallacy. It wasn’t long before he approached me with his amiable charm and understanding nature all wrapped up in the honeyed tones of a soft southern accent. His voice made you feel welcome, made you want to believe everything he was saying. I listened as he began with Bible verses that were accurate and sound, then noted as he proceed to bend them to his own improper purposes. We disagreed and debated. When I informed him that I was in fact not a sex offender he was unfazed, proudly admitted that he was one, and then continued his recruitment script. I steered the conversation toward repentance and shared my own shame and regret over my crime—a violent assault. I expressed how I hoped my victim could somehow forgive me, but wasn’t sure that it would ever be possible. When I pressed Russ for similar sentiments about his own victim his evangelistic façade finally fell and I believe I got to see the real Russ.

True Colors

“Are you kidding? No! No way! I don’t feel bad. Why should I? Huh? Why?” He paused here, actually waiting for me to give him an answer as to why he should feel remorse for sexually molesting a ten year old girl. I noticed that his accent had lost its lilting dulcet quality and devolved into harsh guttural sounds which were befitting his ugly topic of conversation.

“I did it, nothing I can do about that now. Right?” I sensed that perhaps he might be heading in a less horrible direction. I was wrong.

“I did it. I like little girls. I like them and they like me. I did it and I’d do it again. I don’t feel ashamed. I won’t feel ashamed. I don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with what I did. Nothing wrong with me. That is how God made me.”

Unchristian

Each short confessional sentence carried the weight of a small sledge to my gut. It literally knocked the breath from my body and I struggled to recall how to perform the automatic response of respiration. Even if my lips could have formed words and my lungs could’ve pressed out the air to deliver them, my braining was sending anything coherent to say. All that I possessed was a visceral hatred for this counterfeit Christian. Although I freely confess that the visions of me violently assaulting him which I began to entertain were extremely tantalizing, inviting, even comforting, they were also entirely unchristian. My rigid fingers curled into fists and adrenaline dumped into my system as my heart screamed its increase. Breath returned to my body, and in that instant my more primitive mind was bent on using every bit of newly restored oxygen at his disposal to destroy Russ. All logic and restraint had been usurped by outrage and undiluted fury.

Salvation

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get to your cells. Now!” The belligerent CO bellowed and headed straight toward us. He was a young guy, new to DOC and eager to earn a reputation as a tough-guy. He had just returned to the cellblock and saw Russ and I loitering and talking in the day-room after our designated phone call time. Completely unintentionally he became our salvation. Russ was rescued from my violent assault and I was saved from a stint in Seg. Russ fled to his cell while I remained riveted to the spot a moment longer, entertaining the possibility of carrying out my attack regardless of the CO and the consequences. I heard Russ delivering an obsequious apology dripping in saccharine southern charm. It was all fake. I had seen his true self and knew that his worldview was nothing but delusional heresy.

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Nobody Wins

“Oh yeah? That’s nothing, I’ve got you beat; check this out . . .”

I had just regaled Tee with a tale of the disgusting conditions of the officer’s bathroom that I had to clean every morning. Unfortunately he interpreted this as my throwing down the gauntlet for a competition to see who had the grossest feces cleaning story. I gleaned from the gleeful glint in his eyes that I was about to lose a contest I had never intended to enter.

Storytime

“Okay, so, I’d only been working in Seg as a porter for, like, maybe a week or so. So I didn’t know about this one dude yet. So, I come in one day and the CO tells me that this guy, the one I didn’t know about, was sent back to STC with the rest of the looney-tunes, and I had to clean out his cell. Turns out this guy was, like, a regular visitor in SEG. He was a psych dude who would bug up and freak out bad enough to get sent to SEG. You know, like, hit a CO or a psych doctor or an inmate. Something bad enough to get to SEG. He was basically famous. Everyone knew about him except me. So I had no idea what I was walking into. They just told me to put on some gloves, grab a rag and bottle of bleach.”

Surprise!

“As soon as I opened the door to the cell it was like I got punched right smack in the face by the smell. It was so nasty so strong. I caught a throat full of it and thought I was gonna puke for real. I had to walk away, but before I did I saw that there was clothes and bedding crumpled and piled up like a rat’s nest. And everything was covered in shit.

“My two coworkers were standing off to the side laughing their asses off, and even the CO wasn’t trying to hide his grin, but he told me that it still had to be cleaned out. He gave me some heavy duty rubber gloves instead of the cheap latex ones I had and a little paper surgical mask they had laying around and tried sending me back in there, but I was like ‘hell-no!’ I had to have more than that.”

Ingenuity

“So I went and got me some big, like, fifty gallon garbage bags. I put one on each foot and tied them on really tight so that they covered me good up to my knees. Then I poke holes in another one for my head and arms, and put it on like a poncho, but tied a bag around my waist like a belt so that stayed against my body instead of poofing out. I wrapped more bags around my arms and tied them tight before I put the gloves on. Over the paper mask I tied a clean T-shirt to better cover my face and mouth. It was like my own homemade hazmat suit. That was about as ready as I was gonna get, so I went back to the shitty cell.”

Hazardous Material

“Now, usually, when I clean a cell I toss all the clothes and blankets and stuff into the laundry bin to go into the washing machine, but this time it was all soaked through with piss and sweat and funk. There was so much poop smeared and smashed into it so I just had to gather it up and I threw it straight into the garbage. Turns out that the guy didn’t actually sleep on his bunk, but he laid in a pile of clothes, blankets and sheets. There was layer after layer that I had to peel free and toss.

“My little mask didn’t really do much of anything to block out the smell, but it was still better than nothing. I ended up retching and dry-heaving, like, twenty times. I came so close to puking, my eyes were watering. I took a break and shoved wads of toilet paper up my nose, and that actually made a difference, but I could only take small shallow breaths through my mouth because whenever I took a deep breath it would hit the back of my throat like a funky little fist and make me feel like barfing. It was rough, man. It was super rough.”

Finale

“It probably took me, like, an hour, hour-an-a-half to get it all out of there. I actually had my watch on, but I couldn’t check it without peeking back layers of plastic to get to it, so I just had to guess how long I had been at it. Once I had it all out, my job was really just starting because then I had to scrape and scrub every square inch in there.

“Shit was still everywhere. Wet and fresh, gummier than pudding, and old crusty dried streaks of it. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the bed, the sink, the door. It was unreal, man. I nearly puked, like, a hundred more times. It was so bad. I just kept gathering goop in my hands and flushing it, trying not to think about it. Flushing and swabbing and scrubbing. I was just finishing up when they told me it was my time to go back to the cell-house. My shift was over; I’d been cleaning in there for close to five hours.

“And you know what? They told me that was the fourth time the guy had done that. And they just let him. They don’t try to stop him or get the psych doctor to talk to him, they just let him build his crap nest and redecorate the place for days or even weeks. It sick, man.”

Victor

With his rebuttal tale finally told, I was left peering at Tee through a grimace of disgust and a sneer of revulsion. I had not wanted to hear that. I suppose I had only myself to blame by raising the topic of terrible turd centric narratives. I couldn’t think of anything much to say in response to the inhuman behavior and inhuman treatment he had just described. After listening to him I felt there wasn’t anyone involved who could be crowned a victor, but I merely conceded.

“Alright, Tee, yeah. You win, man.”

 

The Psycho Whisperer

“No. Hell no! This is bullshit! You can’t do this. You have to let me go. You can’t just deny me. It’s my right! Hey. Hey! Are you listening to me? You’re denying me my right. You know that? Hey! Do you hear me? Hey! Get back here and let me out!”

Irate

I was livid. I couldn’t believe it. I smacked my palm against the security glass until the slapping began to hurt. I banged with my fist which produced a more dull and manageable pain. I continued to yell for the officer to come back, but it was all to no avail. He was, however, required to perform his routine count. Within thirty minutes the officer returned.

Round Two

There was more yelling on my part and pounding on the glass. I had a dim and distant understanding that I was behaving like a lunatic, but it was more like I was detached and watching some stranger lose his composure. There was nothing to be done, no solution that I could see. I was being denied my rights and no amount of rational discussion was going to change that truth. To be fair, at this point, I was well beyond the capacity for any reasoned or measured discourse. Further screaming and assaulting the large window that separated me from the officer had no effect other than causing him to let slip a little smirk as he exited. I therefore adopted a more aggressive tactic.

Not Calculation

I was frustrated and angry. I believed there was an idiotic logic to my actions. It was something that I had witnessed before: Behave politely and respectfully and you’re ignored—act like a wild animal and the powers that be have to pay attention. I’d like to say that I was being very calculating and precise, that it was all an act, but that’s simply not true. The truth is that I had completely lost it.

Unhinged

I gripped the bars of the cellblock door and shook them, making them clatter an enormous racket. I tried kicking the door, but it didn’t produce as sustained, loud or satisfying a sound. Also, it hurt my foot. Instead I resumed rattling the door on its track. I was vaguely aware that my fellow inmates were watching while withdrawing from me with looks of worry and bewilderment. I didn’t care. Rather than rein it in I began to scream.

Enraged guttural gusts of hot air exploded from my throat. They were wordless, primal sounds born from feelings of helplessness, hatred and rage. I hollered until it felt like I’d been swallowing mouthfuls of sand. I made the steel door sing its terrible lullaby until my shoulders burned from the exertion and my arms felt like twin twizzlers. In the frenzied insanity of the instant I would have sworn that my tantrum lasted a full ten minutes. My criminal compatriots later assured me that it wasn’t even half that—it was, however, long enough for the individuals in charge at the County Jail to send in the expert.

The Psycho Whisperer

I’d seen Officer Brett employ his unique skillset before, but never for an instant had I ever imagined that he would have cause to use it against me. Nevertheless, in this instance, I was the psycho. Officer Brett opened the door to the cellblock and stepped in leaving only steel bars between us, including the barred door that I’d been shaking. His mere appearance was enough for me to fall silent and still. The echo of the metal thrumming hummed in the sudden quiet. Officer Brett just looked at me as I gasped for air after having worked myself into an exhausted furor. He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head twice before speaking in a sober, confidential tone. “This isn’t you.”

Convicted

The calm assurance with which he spoke convicted me to my core. A breath hitched and caught in my chest as an abhorrent cesspool of pent up emotions fought to release themselves. When I spoke there was a whining keen in my voice that I despised but was helpless to hide or control.

“It’s not fair, Brett. You know it’s not fair. First they move me to separate me from Stape so I can’t help him with his case. Now I can’t even be in the same room with him? I can’t even go to church?” My outraged incredulity was tempered by my petulant tone so that it lost some of its potential efficiency and still just sounded like I was a child pitching a fit because I didn’t get my way. I had largely regained my breath, if not my composure, and I leaned in close to speak my piece. Officer Brett mimicked my body language so that I was speaking through the bars to him with only a couple of inches between us. My voice became an insistent whisper.

“You know, Brett, you know this is wrong. Not only illegal, this is just wrong. You know. Brett, you know that Stape is innocent. You know that the police killed his wife and now these state attorneys and public defenders are helping to cover it up. You know this. Now they figured out that we’ve been helping each other and they’ve made sure that we’re kept apart. This whole thing is wrong.”

It was Officer Brett’s turn to be convicted. He dropped his gaze, unable to look me in the eyes anymore. He executed an elaborate shrug and sighed out a lengthy exhalation. He shook his head back and forth, his mouth opening and closing in what I took to be soundless assent. Silence spun out between us for several long moments. There was nothing more to say on the subject.

Cold Calculation

When Officer Brett finally looked at me again he only had one question. “Are you done then?”

I coughed a humorless laugh. “Yeah, sure, I’m done.”

“Good. Good.” He nodded. “Once the church service is over you can speak to the pastor one on one.” Officer Brett turned to leave, but paused a bit before turning back. “And with Mr. Stape, I have to believe it will work itself out. I have to believe that.”

I blew wind through my lips in a scornful scoff. It was perhaps unfair of me, and Officer Brett was certainly in an untenable situation, but his equivocation rang hollow to me.

Afterthought

I never really got to see or interact with my friend Stape again even though we remained in the County Jail together for nearly another year. He was eventually convicted to eighty-five years in prison for a murder that I don’t believe he committed.

Psychotic Break

Aaron paced the cell endlessly, all through the night, mumbling incessantly in vicious whispers and angry vehement curses. He had taken a razor blade from its casing and kept it pinched between thumb and forefinger, slashing at the air as he went. He was off his meds and hadn’t slept in three days. He was unpredictable and utterly terrifying.

SMI

Aaron had been diagnosed with his particular psychological malady and classified as Severely Mentally Ill. In most circumstances, individuals such as him are housed in the psychiatric unit or special treatment center. However, in some instances if the behavior of the inmate in question can be regulated with medication then he is released into the prison’s general population.

As long as Aaron made his scheduled med line appearance every morning and evening he was fine. He slept for at least twelve hours straight, waking only to go to med line and work in the chow hall. When he was awake he was obviously in a dazed, drugged state. His eyelids were perpetually drooped, his speech was slowed but not quite slurred, and there was an overall impression that he was mentally through molasses as he reasoned, reacted and interacted. This isn’t the existence I would choose for myself or a loved one, but for Aaron it appeared to be what passed as closest to normalized or regulated. This was his version of being fine.

Oversight or Negligence

Aaron was scheduled to go home. He had served the time the judge had sentenced him to, but he had no family or friend who would take him in. This is far more common than most might realize. Rather than the Department of Corrections doing its job and finding a suitable place for the individual they just violate the inmate and essentially extend his prison term by two or three years.

The criminal justice system at its finest.

However, since the powers that be have to give the appearance of trying to place the inmate in a halfway house or homeless shelter, they also go through the entire charade of processing the inmate for release. Aaron had a new picture taken along with his fingerprints. He was made to sign several documents in anticipation of a release of custody which wasn’t actually coming. His meds were discontinued and a two week supply of them were prepared to be given to him as he walked out of the prison. Instead he never left, and his meds were never restarted.

Un-medicated

It was a precipitous in Aaron’s behavior. Within days he was sleeping less and more visibly irritable. He began quietly mumbling or chuckling to himself. He would get in the bed, roll around for a while, then get right back out again. By the end of the first week he was pacing and presumably arguing with whomever he was hearing or seeing. Besides Aaron and I there were four other men who shared the cell with us. When one of my cellies asked Aaron to please lay down or be quiet, Aaron raised up physically like a cornered raccoon and let loose with verbal threats of violence and promises to carry out these threats. Prior to this Aaron had been sedate (and sedated) and a complete milquetoast.

At ten days into the ordeal his rants and arguments with invisible or imagined individuals was a constant and he hadn’t slept in three days. It was also at this point that the razor blade became a component of his psychosis. While Aaron experienced a psychotic break from reality I lay beneath my blanket, wide awake and terrified that I’d have to somehow defend myself against this razor-wielding lunatic.

Little Help

I spoke to every security staff member that crossed my path. The COs referred to the sergeant, the sergeant referred me to the lieutenant. Everyone was quick to pass responsibility to the next person. Lieutenant Danish was potbellied and gave the impression of a clean-shaven, surly Santa Claus. He was skeptical of the veracity of my claims. He listened out of a sense of politeness or duty. It wasn’t until I confronted him for three consecutive mornings with tales of Aaron’s abnormal behavior that he finally said the most he could do was report Aaron to a mental health professional so he could be evaluated. It was better than nothing.

Decline

At this point I’d only been able to snatch snippets of sleep—an hour or two at a time. At night my exhaustion eventually overcame my terror and I would lapse into slim unconsciousness only to be bolted awake by Aaron’s increasingly loud ravings. I’d lay awake for long minutes and hours until I had to get up and go to work. Aaron was still working in the chow hall. They had discontinued his meds, not his job assignment. I could sleep some while he was gone. Aaron’s erratic behavior was showing at work and his coworkers reported him to their supervisor. The supervisor was apathetic and paid no attention, took no action.

The Way It Is

Aaron was called out for an impromptu call pass. He saw the psych doctor and apparently was able to mask his mania enough so that he was sent back to the building. Lieutenant Danish had set up the meeting just as he told me he would, and he reported to me that since the mental health professional hadn’t found cause to remove Aaron from the general population there was nothing he could do. Neither he nor the psych could force Aaron to take his meds, though they had finally been renewed. He also couldn’t just take an inmate to seg for no reason. I replied that I wasn’t saying that I wanted Aaron in seg, but that it was only a matter of time before he did something seg-worthy. That could mean attacking me and forcing me to defend myself, or antagonizing another individual to the point of violence. I told Lieutenant Danish that Aaron needed help. Lieutenant Danish said that the psychologist didn’t see it that way, so there was nothing he could do. He shrugged and simply stated: “That’s the way it is.”

An Inevitability

The next day at lunch Aaron’s instability was on full display. Lieutenant Danish had to order him to sit down and eat. A CO had to tell him to just be quiet and eat because he was ranting in a loud voice. Food flew from his mouth and across other men’s trays. When some of the men at the table with him took offense at his disgusting intrusion, Aaron threatened all of them. He called them all faggots, pussies and bitches. That’s the pretty much the prison trifecta of “fighting words”. By which I mean that, in most circles, to let such egregious insults stand would be tantamount to admitting that those statements were true. Aaron’s comprised state of mental health was a nonissue and didn’t make him exempt from reprisals.

Avoidable

I was performing my duties as a housing unit porter, taking the garbage out to the dumpster so I had an ironclad alibi with multiple COs as witnesses. It turned out that I would need it.

As I eventually made my way back to my cell, Aaron came rushing down the hall toward me. He was bleeding from a split lip and his left eye was already visibly swelling. Aaron walked straight into the officer’s control bubble and started raving and yelling. That is a completely unauthorized area for an inmate, and a place where no one in their right mind would ever dream of going. Aaron was handcuffed and Lieutenant Danish was called to hear Aaron’s grievance and deal with the situation.

Deaf & Dumb

The announcement came over the speakers for everyone to return to their cell. A few minutes later Lieutenant Danish sauntered up to my cell in a cocky strut. “Okay, guys, who did it?” My outrage over his indifference and incompetence up to this point got the better of me.

“Are you serious!? I’ve been telling you for days that this guy was losing his mind. You saw him in the chow hall. The COs on the walk back from chow heard him going nuts and yelling nonsense and they just laughed about it.”

“So it was you then, was it?” Lieutenant Danish brimmed with confidence and grinned like the cat that ate the canary.

“Nope. It wasn’t any of us. We would have done it days ago, that’s why we came to you in the first place, but you didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even in the building. I was taking out the garbage.” Then I named the four officers who could attest to that fact. My reveal and my tone smeared the smirk from his face. At this point I didn’t in fact yet now what happened, but I assumed my cellies were all innocent.

“Show me your hands,” Lieutenant Danish demanded. He was pissed and all business. He inspected my mitts for any signs that they had recently been used to assault Aaron. He repeated the ritual with my remaining four cellies, questioning them as to whether it was them who did it or they had seen who did it. Each of them shrugged and mumbled in the negative. “No one knows anything, huh? Big surprise.” He scoffed at our convict behavior and left in a huff, taking his entourage of three officers with him.

Outcome

Aaron was taken to seg for fighting and unauthorized movement. His description of his attacker—black guy with a bald head—wasn’t too helpful in narrowing the search. It did, however, exonerate me and my cellies since none of us fit that bill. According to my cellies, Aaron’s description was little more than a shot in the dark, and terribly inaccurate since Aaron hadn’t ever actually seen his attacker.

The attacker was one of the offended men who sat at the chow hall table with Aaron. He had followed Aaron back to the cell and put a choke hold on him from behind until Aaron ceased struggling and lapsed into unconsciousness. A couple of sharp cracks of Aaron’s face against the concrete floor accounted for the split lip and swollen eye. My cellies stopped the assault before it could get any worse and cleaned up the blood evidence before Lieutenant Danish showed up.

One of my cellies worked as a porter in seg, and for months he would bring back horror stories/reports of Aaron behaving more like a beast than a man, and being treated as less than human. This is what often happens to the disenfranchised mentally ill in this “enlightened” society.

A Despicable Reflex

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I did not know this man; I had never laid eyes on him before he entered the visiting room. He walked past the table where I sat with my visitor and gave me a harsh glare full of meanness—that hard prison stare that many guys develop shortly after their arrival. At first, this look is designed to intimidate and to ensure that people take you seriously, not try to take advantage of you. It’s a practiced facade put on just like any other accessory, but it becomes habit, until eventually it simply becomes who you are. We made eye contact for an instant, and I was pretty sure his mean look was not an act at all.

men-neck-tattoos2He seemed to be tailor-made for the cruelty his gaze denoted. His jaw was squared and hard-set, eyes dark and sunk into his skull, hiding under the shelf of his too-prominent Neanderthal brow. Tattoos blackened his neck with many more crawling up his arms. Scar tissue from past violent encounters smudged his cheeks, and his left ear had a sizable chunk missing, probably lost in a brawl of some kind. With a glance, I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side or run across him in a dark alley.

There was a woman visiting him, probably about his age—mid 30’s—and a girl in a wheelchair; not a regular wheelchair, but one with the seat much higher and a tall inclined back and straps to securely hold its occupant.

The man had to undo the straps before he could hold his daughter. Her arms and legs were spindles, but she wrapped them around him with a loving reflex and made a soft moaning sound that seemed happy to me. With her out of the chair, I could see she had the height of a healthy twelve-year-old girl, but there didn’t appear to be anything else healthy about her. She had a developmental disorder of some kind; her arms had never hefted even the lightest of burdens, and her legs had never bore her weight. Her head rolled around on her neck at times as if independent from the rest of her body, and her eyes had trouble focusing, lolling in their sockets like errant, mischievous marbles. It was clear that her developmental setback was not only a physical one, but mental as well.

This man who I did not know and had pegged as a killer of some kind, or at least a killer-in-waiting, lowered himself into the squat chair, wedging himself into the scant space between the seat and the table, and cradled his daughter in his lap with love and care. Her head snapped back unexpectedly and with frightening force, but he gently repositioned her so she could rest her cheek against his chest, just over his heart. He gathered the lifeless arms hanging at her sides and stowed them in her lap; her legs he pulled close to his body where they wouldn’t dangle haphazardly.

Thin blond hair held mostly atop her head by a lime green scrunchie had fallen over her forehead and eyes. With a hand I’d assumed was made for inflicting pain, he carefully brushed her bangs back in place and smiled down on his daughter, then spoke to her. Though it was clearly a struggle, her eyes fought to focus on her father and eventually achieved the feat. The smile he reserved for his daughter was full of warmth and unequivocal love—the opposite of the stony, uninviting gaze he’d shot my way just moments before. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, then caressed her cheek while saying something I couldn’t hear from where I was spying. The smile that erupted across her face broke my heart with its open, honest, and unconditional love.

I had to look away, as I felt the burning sting of impending tears at the edges of my eyes and had to shut down the rising well of emotions threatening to flood my system. Shame, hot and angry, rushed over my cheeks and across my neck—shame for judging and pigeon-holing the man so quickly and easily, like a despicable reflex, and shame for interloping on their precious moment of intimacy.

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