A Man in Chains
by Michael Henson
“I know. I know,” said the man in chains.
But the officer said it again. “Fifteen minutes, no more, then we’re out of here.” It was the rule and he had been told, go by the book.
The man said nothing this time. The officer opened the door and both men heard the sound of organ music and both could smell the odor of flowers. The man in chains paused, then stepped through the door with a Chink-Chink at each step.
The man wore a blue prison jump suit and he was shackled with chains at his wrists and his ankles. A longer chain linked the chains at his wrists with the chains at his ankles so that he could barely stretch out his arms and he could only step at a shuffle. He was a tall, slender, loose-limbed man and it seemed that these shackles were a great irritation, for his arms and shoulders were atwitch as he walked. He seemed anxious to go where he was going, but he could only manage a hobbled sort of hurry. A dozen or so people had gathered in the hall and they parted for the man and the officer with him. The man nodded briefly at a couple of faces that he knew, and the faces nodded back.
The officer knew none of these faces at all. He had driven the prisoner several hours from a prison in the middle of the cornfields and he was new to the city and new to his job and new to black people. He could not tell if a black man blushed, but the prisoner did seem to darken. He was a dark man already, but at the sight of people he knew, his face seemed to crush a little and to grow several tones darker. It seemed that he was working just to hold up his head.
An older man in a dark suit approached. He was a short man with a blunt head and a face so grim that it looked as if it had been beaten flat with a hammer. He nodded briefly to the man in chains and then looked away. A younger man in a glossy blue workout suit said, in a low tone, “Wassup, dawg. Good to see you.” He put out a hand.
The prisoner glanced to the officer. The officer shook his head no. Another rule.
“That’s cool,” said the younger man. “We know what’s up.” He touched his heart with his fist and said, “Sorry bout your momma.”
The prisoner looked around.
“She right in there,” the young man said. He pointed to a side room.
The prisoner chinked and shuffled into the viewing room and the officer and the friend came close behind him. The casket was at the far end of the room, surrounded by flowers, big, elaborate wreaths and sprays, in red and yellow and white, bound up with green fronds and silken ribbon. The flowers crowded around the casket as if for a portrait. A man and a woman stood in front of the casket, but they moved to the side when they heard the chink of the man’s chains. The woman in the casket came into view and the officer thought he saw the prisoner buckle at the knees.
“You all right, bro?” asked the young man in the workout suit.
The prisoner nodded, but he did not take his eyes off the woman in the casket. She was a stout woman with steel gray hair and a dark dress. She neither smiled nor frowned. She was rouged on the cheeks and her eyes were emphatically closed.
“They couldn’t find your daddy nowhere, man. They called, but couldn’t nobody find him.”
The prisoner nodded briefly, just the smallest hint of a nod. A second pair of mourners had set themselves at the head of the casket, but at a word, they stood aside. The prisoner shuffled forward and, with the ring of the shackles and his slow steps and the organ music and the officer and the friend moving right with him at his pace, it was as if the prisoner marched at the head of a slow, solemn procession.
“Be strong, James; be strong, my brother,” a man said from the side.
Again, the briefest of nods and the prisoner, his face steadily darkening, moved on. The officer stayed right with him, according to the rule.
At the side of the casket, the prisoner buckled at the knees again. “Momma,” he said. It was almost a sob. “Momma!” He tried to raise his hands to reach her face, but the chains restrained him. This seemed to break the man altogether and he grasped the rim of the casket. He collapsed altogether to his knees and leaned against the casket wall as if it were his mother’s breast.
“Come on, bro,” whispered the young man at his side. “Come on, man.”
“Momma, Momma, I’m so sorry for how I done you.”
“Come on, bro.”
The officer reached down and the young man reached down and together they raised the prisoner to his feet.
“Sorry, man,” he said to the young man in the workout suit. He did not acknowledge the officer.
“S’all right, bro. We all done had our breakdown time.”
“I didn’t never want her to see me like this.” He raised his hands and looked at each wrist and at the links that led down to his ankles. “I told her, don’t even visit me, cause I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Several other young men came to stand at the casket. Each of them touched the prisoner on the shoulder and took a place nearby until the officer was flanked with black men all around him. It was an uncomfortable thing; he realized he was the only white person in the room. He was conscious of his uniform, his sunburned face, his country ways and he thought, It wouldn’t hurt me to step aside for a bit and let him have a few minutes with his momma.
But he knew the rule, so he stayed. He glanced around at the half-circle of black men surrounding him, but he stayed.
“She was my rock,” the prisoner said. “And I let her down.”
“Naw, man. You didn’t let her down.”
“I let her down, man. She raised me to do right and I let her down.”
“It’s gonna be all right. You just got to make it through this thing, man. It aint nothing but a bump in your road, man.”
The prisoner lifted his shackled arms and shook his head. He stared down into the casket at his mother and began to mumble something like a prayer. The officer could not understand the words, but the prisoner had closed his eyes and raised his head. He murmured steadily as if talking straight to God.
The officer remembered to check his watch. “Ten more minutes,” he warned.
There was a mumble of voices from the room around them and the organ played on, but the prisoner continued his murmuring prayer, if prayer it was, and the young men around him stood at a sort of loose attention.
Five minutes, and more people came to say a word to the prisoner and to view his mother. The prisoner nodded to each and said a brief word to each, then returned to his mumbling prayer.
A minute and a half. His captain had told him, be strict with the time. So he checked his watch every few seconds. He checked at a minute. At forty-five seconds. Thirty seconds. Fifteen. Then there was no time left at all and the prisoner still mumbled at his prayer. The officer touched the him on the shoulder.
“It’s time,” he said. He tried to say it softly, out of respect.
The prisoner did not move. He continued to murmur and pray.
“Let’s go, Johnson,” the officer said. “It’s time to go back.” His voice was a little louder this time, a little more like the voice he used on the unit.
The prisoner still did not move, and did not seem likely to move. Something began to charge within the officer; a little engine kicked in. He touched the prisoner at the elbow to give him a little tug, but the man shook off the hand and pulled away. “Don’t touch me, man,” he said. “Don’t touch me.”
“Don’t do me like this,” the officer said. “Cause I don’t have time to play.” He whispered it, out of respect. But he had been trained, don’t let them take kindness for weakness. “Come on,” he said. “We got to roll.”
The prisoner glared at him. He had drawn himself up and, though one was just as tall as the other, it was as if the prisoner looked down at the officer from a height. “I ain’t ready,” the prisoner said.
The officer’s little engine kicked into high gear. He felt his face go red and his blood pump harder. By training, the officer knew what to do. He started to pull his baton from its place on his belt. He felt engaged in every fiber, ready to take this smart boy down with a shot to the back of his knees. He took a deep breath.
But his hand was stayed. The little, blunt-face man had laid a gnarled black hand on his wrist. The officer started to jerk his hand away, but the man raised both hands in front of him as if to say, he could handle this. The officer remembered that he was surrounded; he felt the half-circle of young men tense around him like a noose. He let the baton slide back into place.
“James,” the blunt-face man said to the prisoner. “Man yourself up.”
“Listen to your uncle,” the younger man said. The prisoner stiffened and stretched himself tall and rigid.
“Man yourself up,” the man said again. “Do what you gotta do and don’t shame your momma by actin the fool.”
The officer reached out to pull the prisoner along, but the prisoner shook off his hand again. “I aint actin the fool,” he said.
“Yes you are, cause these chains done got in your mind. You think you got to fight this man, but you can’t win cause you done shackled your mind. You can take these chains off when you leave the institution. But you aint never gonna lose the chains you make in your own mind.”
“How come he think he can snatch me away from my own mama’s funeral?”
“Cause he can. Cause it’s the rule.”
“So why can’t I talk to my mama just one more minute.”
“You can. You can talk all the minutes you want. You just can’t talk to her here. Your problem is, you think all this is real. But these chains ain’t real. These flowers ain’t real. Ain’t none of this is real. All this is just the shell of something else. That woman in the casket ain’t your mother. That’s just her shell. You want to talk to your mother, you can talk with her all the way back to Madison and you can talk all night long. She ain’t in this shell no more.
“So go on,” the man said. “Go on back and do your time and act like you got some sense.”
They left the parking lot of the funeral home and drove in silence several miles to the edge of the city. It was late afternoon; neither man had eaten all day. The driver pulled into a drive-thru for fast food and noticed that, even here, in the whitest and remotest of suburbs, the prisoner tried to sink low in his seat. He held his arms close to his body to hide the chains.
Later, the officer noticed that, as they entered the open country, the prisoner merely picked at his fries and merely sipped at his drink and he did not touch his sandwich at all. Eventually, he set the meal down at his feet and stared out the window. It was just getting dark and, beyond the gas stations at the exits, the dark fields stretched out, marked here and there by the lights from the farms. Again and again the man tried to flex his arms and shoulders and to stretch out his legs. He flexed and stretched to the length of the chains, rested, picked again at the fries at his feet, stretched out again, then stared at the stubble rows and the distant lights.
The officer felt pity for the man in his chains. It was a rule and all, but it was a shame to stand shackled in front of your own mother’s coffin. No one should have to be shackled at his own mother’s funeral. He could imagine the shame of it before family and friends and even the waitress at a fast food window. It was the rule and all, and the man had done his crime, whatever it was. But he could still imagine the shame of the blue prison jumpsuit and the chains at his wrists and ankles as if he were an animal.
Again, the man stretched against the chains.
“It won’t be long,” the officer said. “It’s all interstate from here back home.”
Home was the wrong word, he realized. “Or whatever you want to call it,” he corrected himself.
The prisoner shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and stretched out to the limit of his chains again.
The officer had a mother too and he thought he could understand. “I’m sorry about your mother,” he said. He had been with the man all day, but he had not said once he was sorry about his mother. “I’m sorry, “ he added, “you had to come like this.”
There were any number of other things he could have said. He had a mother who was ill. And a girl who left him and she might be pregnant. And a brother in Iraq and what might become of him? And a sister who was surely headed down the wrong track.
But there was a rule for getting too familiar with a prisoner. An unwritten rule, but you would pay if you broke it. He might have talked with the prisoner about the way the world is governed by rules and without them there would be disorder and one lone man against another. But that would be to break the rule, so he said nothing as the miles rolled by. The prisoner stared out the window into the darkness of the fields and they rode without a word between them and no sound but the chink of the man’s shackles each time he stretched out against them.