The track seems symbolic, no direction and wasted efforts really. There is very little real connection here. Men separated by a layer of fear and suspicion stronger than I have ever seen before. Communication is reserved and guarded, partly because it’s prison and partly because—I know in my own case—the shame of being here. ~ Lou Reese, Inmate #52760-080 Federal Prison Camp Yankton
Harvey pressed the tape across the last cardboard box: five boxes, one for each year. He shivered in the wind from the open window of his prison dorm room and pulled a sweatshirt over his head. Tomorrow he would put on his green shirt and the jeans that no longer fit, and he would leave this place. Tomorrow he would get on the bus and go home. It was hard to picture.
He and Betty had done pretty well the first year, and then, he still wasn’t sure how exactly, but something had gone wrong. And then everything had gone wrong. And even though nothing, absolutely nothing had been said, he had known.
Late at night, he’d found himself thinking about the others: the women before he’d settled down to marry and have kids. When he was just starting to make his own way. And then there were the ones, the pros, while he and Betty were together. But mostly he remembered the ones before, when he’d been young. Before all the trouble with the government, before he’d put on the weight.
Then the money had run low, and Betty had stopped visiting. A few months later the phone bill became a problem, so he called less, and always late at night. He’d felt as if he were disappearing, vanishing into a fog as if his family had moved away to some mystic island, remote and exotic. A place he could imagine but never know. The divorce, when it came, had been a relief.
Funny, he’d thought so much about going home. Now that it was here, he didn’t know. He didn’t know anything.
FPC Yankton had been a lucky placement for Harvey. Originally, this campus had been the home of Yankton College, founded in the 1880s as the first institution of higher learning in the Dakota Territory. Prison staff born and raised in Yankton liked to brag that Yankton College produced nine Rhodes Scholars before it closed in 1984. Four years later, the campus was taken over by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The grounds covered an entire two block area in an otherwise completely residential neighborhood with majestic spruce trees lining the streets that displayed the very nicest homes in Yankton. The campus itself had charming brick and stone buildings, low ornate wrought iron fencing around the perimeter, meticulous landscaping, an adequate gym, and a good track. But, most importantly, FPC Yankton was a minimum security prison. Everyone had an assigned job of course, but outside of that, inmates had a decent library, a plethora of extracurricular programs, and plenty of time to read, write, call home, lift weights, play some cards or sit around and watch TV.
Harvey pulled on his tennis shoes and signed out for the track. He could get in four miles before count and then another five or six before the next count. The track was empty in the cold, with snow piled along the sides. Harvey adjusted his headphones and settled into a steady, short-strided walk. He pulled the stocking cap over his ears and zipped his jacket to his stubbly chin. He could see his breath. The night would be bitter, and he would have the track all to himself. Harvey smiled and walked faster.
Five years ago, when he’d arrived, Harvey had been monstrously fat. He couldn’t make it even once around the track without stopping, and his walk had been something else: more of a side-to-side rocking than a moving forward. He’d seen it in other big men, that same kind of Humpty Dumpty rocking walk. Most never made it back to normal, yet Harvey had kept at it. Day after day. One lap at a time, telling himself he was walking home, back to Betty and the kids, back to his house and his business and his life, his real life.
He passed the tennis court with its maple trees, the area he’d been assigned on his first day at landscape. Then, he’d barely been able the push the mower, looking more like a statue or a bloated scarecrow than a man. Harvey chuckled, the sound lost in the wind. He imagined the track covered with the fat he’d lost, over two hundred pounds. This is where he had left it, where he’d left his past behind.
Other inmates heading for the gym waved as they passed.
“Still walking home, Harv?”
“Yep. Almost there too.”
“You leaving tomorrow?”
“Good luck, Harvey. Guess we’ll have to name the track after you. You damned near wore it out.”
Harvey laughed and readjusted the headphones of his Walkman: he didn’t lose a step. He would miss these guys, some of them, and the track. He would miss the track most of all.
By the time Harvey finished his fourth mile, it was almost four o’clock, and he had to hurry to make the count. When it cleared, he went to mail call and then straight to chow, so he’d have enough time to walk one last time.
It was already dark when he hit the track, and he was alone. Under his coat and sweatshirt, Harvey was aware of all the loose skin. Empty, flaccid beach balls, hanging against his body. He’d deal with it later, but for now it was fine. A measure of how far he’d come. A reminder of who he’d been.
“We’re gonna miss you, Harvey.”
“Yeah. Landscape won’t be the same.”
It seemed everyone had something to say, and Harvey, never breaking stride, smiled and waved to them all. Going home wasn’t going to be like anything he’d expected. At least, that was clear. The house was gone, and Betty, and the kids were grown. And after all, who was he? Now. The night was clear and the moon rose, full and bright over the track. Harvey felt the folds of skin flapping against his ribs. No, he wasn’t the same. Nothing would be the same. Harvey had a strange, unfamiliar feeling. Anticipation? Maybe. Perhaps even exhilaration. He walked until time for the ten o’clock count, then showered and fell asleep almost at once.
After breakfast, Harvey climbed in the passenger’s side of the prison van. His size 4X jeans were so loose he had to keep hitching them up and securing the rope he’d found to use as a belt. It made him smile. Bob McCallister, the gregarious, well-liked handyman who also ran errands for the prison, got behind the wheel, ready to take Harvey to the station where he would catch the bus to the halfway house in Omaha.
“So, this is it, huh, Harvey?”
“I guess so.”
He backed out of the parking space and shifted into drive.
“Say, Bob, could you drive around the perimeter one time?”
“Sure, Harv. Want to say goodbye, huh?”
“Something like that, Bob. Something like that.”
As they circled the campus, Harvey looked out at the beautiful, historic buildings where he’d spent the last five years of his life. Five years of eating meals with men whose paths he never would’ve crossed if it hadn’t been for prison. Five years of half-sleeping, listening to the riotous snoring of roommates. Five years of walking around and around and around. Up ahead the track came into view, glistening with frost in the early light. Harvey squinted. The reflection of the morning sun on the snow hurt his eyes as he tried again to picture what home would be.
Lou Reese was a devoted husband, father of three, friend to many and commercial real estate developer in Dallas, Texas. He was married to Susan for 31 years until his death in 2008. Susan now has nine grandchildren and enjoys fly fishing, reading, and is learning to play the drums. Lou was incarcerated in federal prison from 1992 – 1995. During that period, Lou wrote many poems and essays and mailed them home to Susan for her review. Susan also wrote about the prison experience from the point of view of the ones left behind. Susan is revising and editing Lou’s work and her own and is working on a book length manuscript that will marry the two.