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Freedom at Last

by Gary Clifton

Incarceration, rehabilitation, release...
Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

“We, the jury find the defendant, Clarence Smith, guilty of murder in the first degree,” the foreperson read, voice quivering. A smattering of applause topped the buzz circling the courtroom.

Clarence was well known around the neighborhood. “Strange,” “Goofy,” “Steal your socks” were a few of the epithets awarded him by neighbors, anxious to avoid the dumb kid who lived with his mama above the Owl Club Tavern.

Mama was a prostitute, never too careful about plying her trade around Clarence from infancy. That Mama was a hooker and Clarence, like half the neighborhood, had morphed into a small-time thief, was nothing special in the 1950’s.

Of course, when he beat poor old Mrs. Buchanan’s brains out with a flat iron, wagging tongues all knew, in hindsight’s perfection, that the no-good lame brain should have been locked up to begin with.

Mrs. Buchanan lived alone in a little white house off the main drag. Clarence sat on the corner curb and watched. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, she climbed onto the 12 South bus and didn’t come back until suppertime.

Clarence had no way of knowing the old lady cleaned peoples’ houses those two days. On the fatal day, she had a touch of flu and never left the house.

He slipped the lock on her back door and instead of finding easy pickings, encountered a shrieking Mrs. Buchanan in the kitchen. Push came to traumatic shove. Neighbors, hearing the din, called the cops. They found Mrs. Buchanan basically headless and Clarence sitting on the curb out front. “I done it,” he confessed before they made the station.

Texas Law is clear, Clarence had reached his 17th birthday and was legally an adult. Youthful offender Mulligans would no longer apply. Do the crime, you do the time.

The jury sentenced him to death in the electric chair, old Sparky. But the trial judge, citing “youth of the defendant,” commuted the sentence to life.

So, Clarence, assigned to the general prison population, remained an odd sort, staying to himself. Assigned to janitor duties in the machine shop, he labored eight hours daily, sweeping and cleaning.

During his work hours or his hour per day exercise period in the yard or his time in the chow line, Clarence never really made a lasting friend. He did visit the prison library, limiting conversations with any guard or inmate in favor of spending available time with his nose in a comic book.

A series of cellmates over the years complained that Clarence spent countless hours, often including during his exercise time, silently pacing back and forth in the limited floor space in a 6 by 12 cell.

One day, while removing trash, he happened upon a plastic pickle jar. Clarence would spend many years stuffing the container with bits of wire and scrap swept up from the floor. Prison staff, so-called experts in a violent trade, divined that accumulation of a pickle jar of junk might be therapeutic to an oddball like Clarence.

After 26 years of Clarence’s sweeping and pacing, news swept the prison. A federal judge had decreed that the prison was overcrowded and that 10 percent of inmates must be released.

Relieved of responsibility by judicial decree, the parole board acted. They determined that Clarence, once adjudicated not fit to live, was now rehabilitated, harmless, and fit to be paroled back to the area where he had already done murder.

Without ceremony or fanfare, Clarence was cast adrift in an alien world. They bused him back to the old neighborhood with a new set of prison-made clothes, ten dollars, and a pickle jar wedge-packed with little metal fragments.

Mama, now a partially bedridden but mean as hell octogenarian, still lived above the Owl. Reluctantly, she agreed that Clarence, whom she’d never visited in over thirty years in the joint, could stay temporarily until he found “work.” Mama didn’t want Clarence. Hell, she didn’t even know him.

To a dangerously paranoid man who’d spent much of his life in a jail cell, the outside world was horrifyingly enormous and intimidating. Instead of seeking work or even venturing outside, he spent hours daily pacing in a small, self-imposed square in Mama’s little cubbyhole.

Shortly, the pacing, the confined close quarters, and Clarence’s refusal — inability actually — to seek employment reached critical mass. Mama managed to drag herself out of bed. “Out, you sorry screwball!” She slapped Clarence several times.

Then she committed the ultimate sin. In her feeble frenzy, she grabbed Clarence’s pickle jar of junk and struck him with it.

Enraged, Clarence retrieved his precious trinket and used it on Mama’s head in an exact duplication of the job he’d done on Mrs. Buchanan nearly forty years before.

Neighbors, alarmed by screams, called the cops. They found Clarence sitting on the floor, surrounded by a circle of gore which had, until a few minutes before, been Mama’s head.

His hand clutched the bloody remnants of his pickle jar. The plastic had quickly shattered, but the metal bits, wedged and rusted from years of compaction, held their shape perfectly.

“Drop it buster,” a cop commanded, “or I’ll blow your damned head off.”

But Clarence was beyond hearing. He continued to sit. Over and over, he sobbed to his solid, bloody trophy, “How does it feel to be free?”

Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton

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