As I agreed to accept the collect call, my stomach clenched in dismay and my palms grew sweaty. I hated these calls from my brother Dale. They were infrequent but they were always distressing. What would he want from me now: more money? That was a given, and he usually spent most of the conversation cajoling, demanding, manipulating, wearing me down. I felt trapped by my sisterly obligation and ashamed that I endured my brother instead of loving him.
“Hey, Dot. They just moved me to Jackson. Here’s my addy,” came Dale’s tinny voice. “Same ID number.”
“Wait a minute—I have to find a pen.” Jackson was a state prison. Dale was a petty thief who’d been in and out of jail, mostly in, for the last eight years. He’d forged some checks at one point and once stole $200 in quarters from a Laundromat so he could walk across the street to buy some snacks and beer. He’d never hurt a fly, never even dreamed of it. But the court system found him as irritating as that pesky fly, so now he’d been moved up from the local detention centers to the big time.
“I gotta make this quick cuz I get only five minutes…hey, cut it out, I’m not done here.” The phone seemed to vibrate in my hand as the background noise, always a dull roar of men’s voices and shuffling feet, erupted with unintelligible shouts and curses. I sighed—heavily, painfully, trying not to think about the fact I was paying $3 a minute.
“You there? Dot, you there?”
“Of course, Dale. What’s going on?”
“I got reduced privileges till I move outta the inside wall.”
“Well, I just got here so they put me inside the outside wall.”
“What does that mean, Dale?” I was surprised to find myself curious.
“Ya’ know…not quite inside the prison yet. Most guys get processed out to main lock up in a coupla hours but you know I’m supposed to be under protection from the beating in the last place so who knows. They don’t got enough guards or single cells so I may be here a while.”
I shivered, nauseated to think of what my brother’s life was like. He’d been raped, cut with shanks, and beaten senseless. I knew that often the money he’d extorted from me and my parents was used to purchase whatever minimal protection he could get. Not even the guards or a special cell could keep him completely safe.
“Guess you could say being inside the outside’s kinda like no-man’s land even if I’m a man.” Dale’s snorting laughter, always too loud and too long, burst into my ear.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he muttered and I knew our time was winding to a close.
“So, Dot, could you send a check? I need toothpaste, a couple stamps, maybe a candy bar. I got nothing here.”
Frozen with guilt, I mumbled, “Can’t do that, Dale. Only Mom can send you money.”
“Yeah, I’m—let me say goodbye, will ya? Bye, Dot. Love you.” The phone squeaked through his hands, leaving a dead space under which chains clanked, and then a dial tone.
I sank into my recliner and gazed without seeing out the window. Inside the outside wall, I mused. How fitting—not only for Dale’s life, but for my own, truth be told. On the fringe, trapped between two walls, not quite alive, waiting for something to change, to release me. I realized I spent too much time figuring out how I could escape into a place where life would be better, where I would be better able to live the way I should live. Paul’s words from Romans 5 and 7 came to mind, particularly where he explains how sin has shackled us, walling us away from God, how under Jesus “we're free to live a new life in the freedom of God.”
I did not feel free, and I knew I wasn’t living in freedom any more than Dale was. Instead, I found myself living inside the outside wall of God’s grace, justified but still bound with chains of my own making. Driven to my knees, I embraced Jesus’ “wildly extravagant life-gift” and leapt into His freedom, determined to live each moment “out in the wide open spaces of God's grace and glory.”
*Scripture from The Message.
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