I sometimes wonder if they can trace a lifeline backwards across your palm and discover where it went wrong.
The visiting room is crowded with bodies, wives crying as they sit, palm to Plexiglas to palm across an endless chasm, speaking words of love, words of concern, their fear as palpable as the phone cradled against their cheek.
For their part, the husbands, the brothers, the sons try to act natural, as if this is just another day. They enter the room together, sitting in unison, each breathing deeply before picking up the plastic umbilicus that will bring them news of their families, of the outside world.
Murder. The word is cold and mushy in my mouth, like old oatmeal. I’ve tried to roll it around on my tongue to pick out the nuances; I’ve tried to swallow it quick without tasting it. Either way, I find myself gagging.
The man across from me has shrunken in on himself – the cotton of his being contracting beneath the heat of the legal system until, I fear, he will disappear from my life forever. The hands, once broad and callused now worry a thread on his jumpsuit, and he pulls, unraveling the stitching and with it, my heart.
I’m willing him to look at me. I stare at his once wavy hair, now militant and short – each strand an angry soldier. Angry at life, angry at God, angry at me.
They say he’s killed a man. Unable to pay gambling debts, my brother killed his bookie. The jury was unanimous in their verdict. And at that moment, the courtroom silent as they cuffed the hands that used to lift me onto his shoulders, I wondered why no one bothered to arrest me.
I remember the day he came to me asking for a loan. Hollow eyed and paranoid, he spent most of his time looking over his shoulder as if his very shadow was out to get him.
“Frankie, I don’t understand. Help me understand” I must have sounded so juvenile then. I heard the whining in my voice, but couldn’t seem to make it stop.
“Life’s a game” he answered, the gravel in his voice trying desperately to hide the fear in his soul. “If I gamble, there’s a chance, each time that I’ll win. If I don’t, then I have to admit I’m a loser.” I remember his face in that moment, fierce and afraid all at once – daring me, daring God to contradict him.
They say there are moments that define you. Peter had his rooster, Judas had his kiss. Me? I had my checkbook. Silently, without looking at him, I tore the small paper band aid from my register and handed it to him. No words, no encouragement, no hope.
In front of me, he reaches for the phone. I brace myself for the only thing I’ve come here to tell him. The one thing I should have told him before. Perhaps I could have saved him. Perhaps I still can.
“Frankie,” I hesitate, finding my voice somewhere on the floor between my white sneakers. “You told me once that you gamble for hope. That life is game and you either gamble, and hope that you win, or you admit you’re lost.” I stop. My heart pounding in my chest I pray for guidance, for words, for a life raft that can save him. “Frankie, Jesus played the game. And guess what? He won. He won and that means you can’t lose. It’s not about averages or card counting or beating the house. It’s about love. And He loves you so much that he fixed it.”
I risk a look at his face. This face that has peppered every memory I have of my life – the good, the bad, and the stuff even our parents don’t know. The lines around the edges are new, but the face is all Frankie.
“He loves me?” He asks, and he’s 12 again, insecure and innocent, desperately seeking approval from his sister.
This time there is no pause. “Yes” I say, reaching my hand to the glass. “and so do I”.
I don’t know how long we sat there; eyes closed praying for his soul, for forgiveness from God, from each other. I do know that as I left the lobby of the penitentiary I heard it, faintly at first and then louder: the metallic sound of a casino jackpot, floating toward me on the wings of hope.
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