The follow story is by guest author Jeff Stone. Jeff taught for fifteen years. In March of 2016, he’ll begin releasing Lighting Strikes Twice, a supernatural novel about demonic and angelic forces threatening to tear apart a burdened man, on Channillo. More of Jeff Stone’s flash fiction can be read at the WordPress blog Rolling the Stone.
A penultimate set of gates had to be locked behind him before the final set could be opened. Outside the secure walls, the driver parked and stood beside another man who helped Robert Patrick exit the van. Both wished him well before family members began embracing him and eventually moving boxes of his personal effects into their vehicles. An anxious assembly of reporters, onlookers, and acquaintances closed tighter.
As he addressed the reporters and answered a few questions before asking to leave, Robert stood with his back facing his former residence. He dared not look back at the place he knew would follow him for the rest of his life—no matter how much that life changed or how long it lasted, no matter where he went or who he became. Fifteen years was a long time to be locked up. It was an especially long time to be wrongfully locked up.
He never wavered in his claims of innocence, just as he never stopped believing he would one day be exonerated. Between writing letters to various innocence projects and his loved ones, he conducted a highly successful prison ministry. Eventually the prison guards and even the warden believed everything he told them, including his denial regarding the grisly crime for which he’d been convicted. Robert’s self-deprecation and concern for others easily evoked deep pathos in a place where such things are usually seen as weaknesses, but everyone knew he was genuine. He often stated he had to accept some blame for his conviction because awful thoughts had flowed from his blinding rage.
The past two semesters before the crime and his wife’s “unfortunate decision” had been eventful. Dr. Patrick, as his students called him, had earned tenure and published a well-received book about Arkansas’ role in the Civil War. One of his students had written a thesis that won a national honor. Dr. Patrick had decided not to teach that summer but to visit some museums and other places where he could conduct research for his next book. He’d arrived home early from one of these trips when he found Dr. Dan Bidwell, an esteemed English professor and his purported best friend, in his bed with his wife. He went to a bar and then a motel that evening and moved into an extended-stay hotel the next day before trying to sort things out and drink away his pain. He’d been in his room on a drinking binge when the murders occurred. No one had seen him leave, but they hadn’t seen him arrive for some time either.
He showed up the next day to get some books from the house and found his publicly stated wish had come true. The stinking corpses of the two people who had inflicted unimaginable pain upon him were rotting in his bed. He called the police and reported the crime, but they eventually claimed to have found traces of no one else in the house. Robert was their only suspect. His attorney had warned him things looked bad, that he should take a plea and beg for mercy. But Robert refused to offer a false confession.
Circumstances conspired against him not only before he was convicted but even during his life in prison. One innocence project volunteer had taken an interest in Robert’s case only to lose his life in a fiery car accident before he could share that interest with anyone else. Another volunteer with a different project had started believing in the possibility of Robert’s innocence before suffering a traumatic brain injury. This was followed by bungled legal maneuvers and resistance by the legal system. Eventually a volunteer in a prominent group created significant pressure through a carefully crafted publicity campaign, which coincided with the arrival of a new prosecutor, advanced forensic techniques, and the discovery of buried evidence. Robert was awarded a hearing during which the judge determined grave prosecutorial misconduct and the submission of new evidence were more than enough cause to grant a new trial. He released Robert on his own recognizance.
Although he longed to catch up with family and friends, a large part of Robert’s heart was far away in some place he could only dream about behind prison walls—a place free from prosecutorial misconduct, spousal infidelity, betrayal between best friends. A quiet place. It was a place he knew might not exist unless he went and made it for himself by himself. For all its humiliating degradation, sometimes the worst part of prison was the unrelenting, soul-shaking noise. Robert would fashion earplugs out of various materials but nothing was ever completely effective. He had nightmares about sadistic judges, bitter prosecutors, hateful guards, insane inmates, constricting walls, disappearing floors, poisonous food, but none of it so severe as the noise swelling like a tsunami until it shattered his hopes, his dreams, his body, and even his soul.
So Robert rented a little place outside of a remote town in the Ozarks where he began putting his life back together between meetings with attorneys, requests for interviews, and visits with family. He appreciated that the innocence project’s publicity had helped free him, but his case had become a media sensation and he regretted the attention he unwittingly attracted wherever he went. Although he wore dark glasses and a cap, people would recognize him when he went to get groceries or buy supplies at the discount store or do virtually anything else. Even a trip to some place like Blanchard Caverns would elicit questions and well wishes. Most people seemed convinced of his innocence, outraged by the prosecutorial misconduct, and intent on wishing him the best possible outcome. Nonetheless, he was a man of books and letters, not one who enjoyed a media circus.
Robert had invested in six penny stocks before his incarceration. Three of the companies had folded and two had just managed to sustain their continued existence. A tech startup, however, had grown far beyond any reasonable expectations Robert ever harbored. He wasn’t filthy rich, but between his savings, book royalties, and stock proceeds, he might not ever have to worry about gainful employment if he lived modestly—which was not only his expectation but also his preference. Other than travel, there was nothing expensive he craved, especially if it attracted more unwanted attention.
Although his legal team was confident the uncovered evidence which the prosecutors and law enforcement had buried and some new evidence unearthed by fresh detectives and modern forensics would lead to the conviction of a new suspect and free Robert forever, he wasn’t allowed to leave the state until the matter was officially resolved and the original conviction overturned. Robert dreamed of going to the other side of the world to one of those places where he could conduct historical research if he felt like it or just stroll like a blithe tourist. He imagined living in some small French or Italian village for a time where no one would recognize him. Perhaps he could write another book if he felt duly inspired and just enjoy a relatively anonymous life.
For now he would settle on a short trip to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Although the national media had (he suspected unfairly) lambasted Alice Walton’s efforts to bring fine art to the masses, Robert had read about some impressive holdings by Durand, Rockwell, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Turrell, and O’Keeffe, among others. He once reasoned that Helen was his wife, history his mistress, and art his handmaiden—for history was a passionate love that stole time (perhaps too much time) away from Helen, but art served his soul as he continually searched for deeper meaning in life.
Art had become a large part of his salvation and his connection in prison. He’d taken some painting classes taught by a local artist between teaching history classes and conducting his prison ministry. Robert’s first few years in prison had been filled by appeal efforts. He read all the relevant information he could obtain, did much of his own legal work, and wrote numerous letters seeking assistance. At some point he accepted he’d gone about as far as he could until something significant changed. He saw no purpose in spending time on the same activities only to produce the same frustrating results. Although he’d been sentenced to doing time, he was determined to make the most of the time. He continued writing letters, but focused most of his energy on teaching, learning, and sharing. The art he learned to create helped him forge meaningful connections with a number of prisoners.
Now here he was at a place like Crystal Bridges, even more wonderful than he had imagined. Although general admission was free, the seasonal exhibits required a small payment. Robert had just bought a ticket to these when a man recognized him and asked if he could buy Robert a gourmet hamburger or some other delicacy served on the museum grounds. At first, Robert declined but eventually relented when the man politely insisted they needed to talk about some things. He learned the man had been wrongfully convicted like him and exonerated a few years earlier after sitting on death row for almost five years. He was months from his scheduled execution when a court granted him a new trial. He offered advice to Robert before expressing a desire to stay in contact so he might be able to offer future assistance.
Although Robert had eagerly anticipated a solitary stroll surrounded by inspirational art, he eventually decided he could do that another day. Instead he spent the visit with his new friend, who he learned was an aspiring painter and a frequent visitor to the museum. They went to a late dinner after the museum closed, discussing art, prison, artistic influences, the common faith that had sustained both of them, and the twists and turns of life. They both agreed much of what seems patently unjust and even tragic can often lead to life’s grandest discoveries. Both were happy to be out of prison and were still at times horrified by certain experiences but were also grateful for certain truths they had found behind its cold walls.
Although Joe Walker and Robert began an eternal friendship that day, cemented by bonds most people could never fully appreciate, one isolated memory that would seem so insignificant on the surface to any casual observer stood out for as long as Robert lived. Robert and Joe had finished their meals in the museum cafeteria and were preparing to leave the table when an acquaintance recognized Joe. Robert invited the man to take a seat and excused himself to find a restroom. He walked through a crowded cafeteria and a bustling lobby past the restrooms on that floor down some stairs toward a restroom on a different level that seemed to be reserved for special events, none of which appeared to be occurring at the time. Robert immediately noticed the silence. He had craved silence for years while incarcerated and regarded it highly.
The bathroom was empty and quiet, but something else struck him. The faucets, the lighting, even the urinals were works of art. It was all designed unlike anything he’d ever seen. Even the elegant marble bathrooms in Mexico didn’t seem nearly as beautiful as this place. How strange, he thought, to consider a bathroom beautiful. But it was beautiful. For someone who had so recently left prison after many years, it was almost incomprehensible. He scribbled a few notes about the details as he sat on a bench near the bathroom, fleshing out an impression he would record in his journal.
Joe found him with his head in hands and asked if he was okay.
A tear rolled down Robert’s face. “I’m just a little overwhelmed.”
“I understand. You don’t need to explain.”
“Yes, but someday I will.”
The next day, Robert wrote about the museum and Joe and the bathroom in his journal. He often revisited the words he wrote and thought about the life he’d led behind bars and the life he wanted to lead outside of them. A public bathroom is a place for the crudest of functions, yet that particular bathroom had been designed not only with basic function but also with aesthetic feature in mind. Faucets were curved like the necks of silver swans spouting water only when someone indicated a need and ceasing the flow as soon as the request had been fulfilled. Artistically encased fixtures had provided illumination only when someone was there to see the light. Typical antiseptic or other odors were concealed by motion-activated sprays smelling like botanical gardens. How exceedingly rare, thought Robert, and how unfortunate it is so rare.
Prison had been all about function, about separating people determined to be on the wrong side of the law from those assumed to be on the right side. Although judges counseled juries on reasonable doubt and attorneys discussed degrees of culpability, eventually the options would be guilty or not guilty, right or wrong, free or imprisoned. Why was this so often the way of the outside world as well when it clearly didn’t have to be? Couldn’t so many other things be something other than dark or light? Was there no room for the pragmatically beautiful? Things were not as black and white as he would’ve thought even in prison. He knew there could be people not guilty of any particular crime but nonetheless dangerous and others previously guilty and yet completely harmless.
Even he had wished two people dead. He had envisioned scenarios which would allow him to do this or that and evade conviction. He had wished them hurt even more deeply than they had hurt him. He had reveled in the thought of inflicting pain. In the days before their deaths, there were moments when he lost parts of himself in various bottles and recognized nothing that remained—vile thoughts, primal urges, insatiable hunger, lusts of varieties he had never known. In moments of lucidity, he would consider if he might be losing his mind and decided he’d only lost parts of it. He wasn’t sure which parts, if the parts were critical, if they could be recovered, if he even cared.
Perhaps there were similar parts in others: hidden killers capable of committing the crime under at least one ideal set of circumstances, capable of losing their minds in one blind moment of passion only to live the rest of their lives like lambs. Maybe most people simply never come to the intersection of that circumstance. But perhaps people also had something inconceivably grand deep within them, something rooted in the stardust from which they all rose. Perhaps they also never came to that intersection of revelation and opportunity. Perhaps there were ways to reconcile the world’s cold truths with beauty. Perhaps that’s what he had been doing for the past fifteen years.