"Paid In Full"
It was 20 degrees outside that morning and all I had was that ugly thin jacket. The cold smack in the face from the cold air reminded me that the zipper didn't work. So I folded my arms around my chest and tried to pull the jacket closed but my pocket Bible that Chaplain Ross gave me was a bit too bulky. That Bible was old and tattered, just like my jacket. I must have looked ridiculous trying to close that thing, but I didn't care. Home, finally.
Well, not actually home. It's just a place to stay where I could keep the light on longer than nine o'clock at night. I could get up at eight instead of four in the morning if I chose. Might be hard to do, since I've been used to being told what to do for so long.
You see, for 28 years I've been on lockdown. That's slang for I've been incarcerated. Then I returned to my last place of residence, Washington Heights, New York. It was my mother's apartment now my sister's apartment. My sister had visited me sporadically at best throughout the years. All I knew is she was married in 1982 divorced in '83 and somehow had a baby by that same man five years ago in '95. I knew Mom was gone, not dead gone but retired in Florida gone. Well, not retired in Florida gone, but put away from Gail gone. Gail's my very successful sister.
Now that day when I stepped off the "A" train I was amazed at how much the world had really changed. I mean sure, we in lockdown know what the world looks like but trust me, until you're locked away there is no substitute for realism.
Okay, that made no sense. A lot of things I say and do make no sense. Like when I was five and I flushed my sister's kitten down the toilet just to see if it would swim. That was stupid. I still hear my mother now.
"Quincy Jonathan Fisher! What in God's name is wrong with you!"
Nothing was never wrong with me mind you. I was just stupid that way. So it was of little surprise that when I was 18, I held up a bodega with a so-called friend. His name, ironically, was Clyde. He didn't dress as well as Walt "Clyde" Fraiser of the New York Knicks did though. But he stole like Bonnie's friend Clyde. It was Clyde's idea to rob the corner bodega. He said it would be easy because he always did things like that in whatever neighborhood he said he was from. I on the other hand had never stolen anything bigger than a pack of M&Ms.
So there I was, September 10th 1972. I remember it like yesterday. I knew I wasn't cut out for it when Clyde showed me a little pistol that he got from his brother or somebody. I was so afraid of it, I didn't want to even look at it.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked Clyde.
"Don't worry," he said. "It's not loaded. It's for show!"
That was the plan, to scare them.. After all, Clyde said, they have insurance anyway. I didn't understand if insurance covered this kind of thing, but I didn't understand much at 18. But Clyde said we needed some cash. However, it's not as if I was poor because I wasn't and neither was he.
My mother pushed Gail and I as hard as she could -- and Gail made a pretty good life for herself. And when she did, Gail packed Mama away and sent her to Florida. I don't agree with that, but I understand. After all, Mama could be annoying.
So we walked in the bodega. Clyde tried to look innocent, which is inconspicuous, like he wasn't about to commit armed robbery. He walked around, fooling with the Bon Tons Potato Chips. I stood there, staring at him. It wasn't until Clyde gestured for me to walk around did I walk around. We must have looked like a couple of dopes because the man behind the counter started getting nervous.
"You buy Papi?" he asked.
That's when the jig was up, so to speak. Clyde rushed over here, holding the pistol as if it was a cross and the man behind the counter was a vampire.
"No, no, no!" the bodega man screamed.
"Give me the money!" Clyde replied.
The bodega man reached for the cash register. He fiddled and Clyde screamed for him to hurry up. You ever have a bad feeling something's about to happen? That's what I felt watching Clyde with the gun, pointing it at the man.
"Think this is a joke?!" Clyde screamed.
"No, no, no!"
Then Clyde waved the gun some more and I heard a loud, pop. I immediately jumped to the floor. When I looked up, Clyde was over the counter, trying to open the register. Somehow, I managed to stand, with my shaky legs. There was the bodega man, on his back, his face in permanent surprise.
"Oh my God!" I screamed. "I thought you said..."
"I didn't know!" Clyde screamed. "I thought it wasn't loaded!"
We rushed out with no money and no sense. Man, we didn't even get home we were arrested so fast. Clyde was actually running up the avenue with blood on his leg and the gun in his hand. And then there was me, running alongside him like an idiot. The grand jury indicted us, I was convicted and sent upstate and Clyde (whom I discovered never committed a robbery in his life) was sent to Attica where he died in a prison riot.
My old building looked the same. Sure it had a fresh coat of paint, and an intercom system, but it's the same. Gail's apartment's on the eighth floor, but I didn't take the elevator. Jail will do that to you. I didn't want to be boxed in anymore.
Finally, I rapped the door. And I heard footsteps and Gail's unmistakable voice screaming at her son. She came to the door, took one long look at me, rolled her eyes and walked away. I guessed that by the way she left the door open I was invited in. So I walked in.
I sat down and carved a little space out amid the stuff. It didn't bother me that much really. Anything was better than a jail cell. I lay back on the couch. It was years since I felt a soft cushion under my butt. I dropped my bag, took off my thin paper weight jacket and closed my eyes. I exhaled. Suddenly, Martin ran right into my shin like a freight train. He had the nerve to laugh! He didn't look anything like Gail, so I assumed he looked like his father. I never knew his father. I wasn't around when Gail was married.
"Martin!" Gail screamed at her son. "What in God's name is wrong with you?"
Martin at least had the common sense to keep silent. Gail picked him up.
"So," she said, sitting down with Martin in her lap. "You're home."
"I'm home," I said.
"I don't have much room for you," she said.
"Well, I'll take the couch."
"No," Gail replied. "I don't have much room for you, so you can't stay too long."
"You mean tonight?"
"I mean after tonight. I need the room."
I looked around. I knew our old apartment had two and a half bedrooms. It seemed small back then, the way Mama complained about it. But now, it seemed like a palace.
"The living room is fine," I said. "From where I came from, this is paradise."
"Well," Gail replied. "Don't get too comfortable. You can start looking for a job tomorrow and then a place to live."
I was starting to feel unwanted here.
"So," I said. "You're kicking me out?"
"Are you expecting a parade?" Gail asked. "I've got two mouths to feed here. I don't need a third one. It's not like their father is helping me. And Mommy wants something from me every month."
"Maybe I should go down there. She could use a little company."
"That sounds like a plan to me," Gail said, fixing Martin's shirt as he tried to get out his mother's lap.
"Maybe next week, God willing."
"So," Gail said, letting Martin go. "In your last letter you said you got religion. Are you telling the truth?"
"Yes," I replied. "I'm a born-again believer. I let Jesus into my life."
"Great," Gail deadpanned. "Well, I'm not into all that stuff. You're not going to try to convert me are you?"
"No," I replied. "The Holy Spirit..."
Later that night, Gail and I spoke about old times as best we could, but it digressed to her filling me in on her life from 14 years old, that's how old she was when I got arrested, to now. In between work calls, we had a pretty good conversation. I wanted to tell her about Christ, but I remember Chaplain Ross telling me that I can't force anything on anyone. But it was so hard, listening to Gail speak about her life. I wasn't there for any of it. I realized that I didn't even know her anymore.
But my Bible told me that I was a new man in Christ. So that's what I went to bed with that night. I praised God until I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, the front door opened. I looked at the VCR time, and it read 2:30 in the morning. The light was flicked on and there was this kid, spitting image of Gail.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"You must be Jerome!"
"You ain't Dad," he said. "So who are you?"
"I'm your uncle. Uncle Quincy."
Jerome looked at me inquisitively.
"You're Uncle Quincy?" he asked, as if I was an extraterrestrial he just stumbled upon.
"Sure am." I didn't know if I expected a hug or something, so I wasn't surprised when I didn't get one. Jerome just shrugged and walked into the kitchen. I felt compelled to make some small talk with my sister's son, whom I had never seen.
"So," I said. "What's going on?"
Jerome laughed at me. He took his juice and walked to his bedroom. I stood there, in the kitchen, wondering when will I stop feeling as if I was still imprisoned.
That morning, when the sun came out, I heard screaming. I was used to that. Every other morning some young boy was getting raped in the bathroom up in Ossining. I wasn't used to Gail's screams though, so I woke up quite startled. She was screaming at Jerome, probably for getting in so late. She sounded just as annoying as Mama used to sound.
I probably shouldn't have, but I walked in there.
"What's going on?" I asked stupidly.
"Keep out of this!" Gail replied.
"Cut him some slack."
"Quin!" Gail said. "I'm warning you..."
"Gail, he didn't do anything wrong."
"How would you know?"
"He's just hanging out," I said. "I used to hang out too."
"And that's what I'm afraid of," Gail replied. "Of him ending up like you!"
I put my head down and Martin screamed. Gail walked out the room, blaming Jerome for waking Martin up while swearing to me that our conversation wasn't over. That left Jerome and I, alone again.
"Thanks," Jerome said. "You didn't have to do that."
"Don't mention it."
For a whole month Jerome and I hit it off. He introduced me to his girl friend, a pretty young lady named Shawanda. And his best friend was a thug named Alex. For some reason, he seemed to be distracted when I met him. He kept asking about the supermarket where I worked.
Gail and I had a strained relationship at best. But I had my own money from stocking shelves at the supermarket and I was happy. I hadn't found a church yet, but I was just waiting on God. Jerome would ask me questions about God and salvation. I told him what I knew - the basics.
"You were born in sin, and on the way to hell. But Jesus Christ paid your debt in full."
Jerome liked the paid in full part. And it seemed as if he liked the idea of having me around to answer his biblical questions at night. I really thought we had a great connection going, until that phone call brought me down to earth.
"Hello?" Shawanda said. "Uncle Quincy?"
"Shawanda. And I have to talk to you..."
I couldn't believe what she told me. The previous night, when he stayed at Shawanda's, Jerome revealed a plan to rob the supermarket I worked in. I couldn't believe it. I had to see for myself. Shawanda said it was Alex' idea. I hoped so.
"When is it going down?" I asked.
"Tonight, just before they close."
So I grabbed the keys Gail made for me and I was off. I couldn't believe that my nephew would do this. He was as stupid as I was!
Finally, after running two miles, I was at the supermarket. I saw the manager, who was alone, and admonished him to leave.
"Why should I to go?" he asked.
"To get some rest," I replied.
"No, that's all right. I still have stuff to do around here. Go home."
"Quincy, go home."
I was about to tell him that I overheard something about a holdup. I didn't care how it sounded, the heck with it. I started to tell him the deal when Alex and Jerome busted in. They wore ski masks, and gloves. Alex held the gun.
"No, no, no!" we screamed.
Alex demanded money. I looked at Jerome and he stood silently. Suddenly, the manager ducked under the table came up with a gun as if it were a movie! He was about to squeeze the trigger when Alex squeezed first and shot the manager in his chest. He slumped back. His face was locked in permanent surprise.
"Why did you kill him?" Jerome screamed.
Alex said nothing and that's when I realized that they were as stupid as I was.
"Gimmie the gun," I said to Alex. And he did. "Get out of here. I hear the sirens now."
Alex bolted. Jerome stared at me.
"Why," he asked, "are you doing this?"
"They'll find you," I said. "They always do."
"But you don't have to take this."
"I'm paying your debt to society like Jesus can take your sin debt and pay it in full."
"Go," I said.
Finally Jerome left, crying. I cried too. My life was officially over at 46. I sat by the dead manager and prayed for his family. He was gone now, as I am.