Excerpt: Tide to Atonement
Jeremy Harrison was in the zone. He laid one last swipe of his brush across the top surface, then took a step back to study his latest creation. A homey shade of blonde maple, the dresser reached slightly over waist-high — at least, to a six-foot-two body like himself. It was his latest design, the “his and her” model, a column of five drawers on each side, separated by an open armoire-style cabinet. The stain was complete. Now, to soak in for a day or possibly two, to allow the high sheen to be brushed with fingertips without danger of leaving prints. After that, he’d check the drawers and make sure they rolled in and out smoothly with no sticks. Then he’d choose handles — brass? No, something more burnished.
He absentmindedly rubbed a hand over his lips, then spit out the taste of polyurethane. Searching for a clean cloth, he lifted his feet high, careful not to knock over any cans of thick liquid, the finishing tools of his trade.
A distant sound wormed into his consciousness. Buzzing, sort of like a mosquito or an angry pack of them. Infuriating in its persistence. Sounded like an alarm. Had he set …?
“Well, dang it!” He ran off the canvas tarp laid in his backyard that he called his work space and into the house through the backdoor. The timer on the microwave was buzzing away and after a quick study, Jeremy realized it had been sounding for at least four, five minutes. He turned it off. He’d set it this morning, knowing he’d get wrapped up in furniture-making and lose track of time — he always did. And normally, that was good. But not today.
Today he had an important appointment in town he couldn’t miss. Miss? Heck, no, he couldn’t even be late. He hustled to the bathroom at the back of the tiny house and shucked off his sweatshirt, boots and jeans. Jumping into the shower, he emerged two minutes later, dried with a towel, and raced into his bedroom. A quick study of his closet had him pulling out a pair of khaki pants and a button-down light blue shirt. Didn’t take much study. There weren’t that many choices in there anyway.
Who needed a Wall Street wardrobe when you lived in a beach town in rural South Carolina?
Dressed now, he swung back to the bathroom and made a quick swipe of his hand over his jaw. Shave? His eyes lighted on the digital alarm clock on the counter. Nah, no time. He’d shaved sometime in the last, what, three days? Neil wouldn’t mind.
Passing through the kitchen, he peered out the window for a glance at the dresser in the backyard. He shifted his gaze to the sky. No rain in the forecast, nothing but sun expected today. The dresser would be fine.
He raced out the front door and jumped into his truck. These monthly meetings were part of his life now, and he best learn to accept them. At least he’d moved to monthly from weekly. That was one thing to be thankful for.
And one meeting a month with Neil was a heck of lot better than where he came from.
* * *
He didn’t mean for his truck tires to squeal as he maneuvered into a parking space. But tardiness was frowned upon and he was cutting it close. He jumped out of the old pickup and took a cleansing breath, lowered his shoulders and walked intentionally.
The County Courthouse in Georgetown was a mere eleven miles from his home on Pawleys Island, but tourist traffic being so erratic, he’d settled into the habit of allowing at least forty minutes for the drive. Now that tourist season was over and autumn had made residence, he didn’t need the full timeframe, but as Neil had taught him, it was better to be prepared. Early was always better than late.
Screvens Street sparkled today with the sun glittering off the scrubbed sidewalks and immaculate brick buildings. At the center of them all stood the courthouse, a Pawleys Island historic landmark. It was a pastel yellow and white wooden building with six impressive pillars adorning the second floor balcony. In order to reach that level, Jeremy had the choice of identical closed stairways on the right or left of the building that circled up and met at the front door.
His visits to this landmark had become so routine that he barely noticed the grandeur today. He trotted up the stairs, entered the building, walked to the Probation Office at the back of the third floor, gave his name to the receptionist and sat in a folding chair in the waiting room, amidst about a dozen other offenders. He was twelve minutes early.
He lowered his head to examine his shoes. No eye contact with those seated around him, that was something he learned during his decade in prison. Mind your own business. Keep to yourself. There was no telling when you might see something or hear something you would be asked about, just because you had your head up, curiously looking around. Not worth it.
“Hey, man.” The voice came from the chair beside him. He swiveled his head and recognized a guy who’d spent a few of his last months with him in Columbia at the pre-release center. He scanned his brain for a name but couldn’t come up with one.
“Hey.” He nodded at the man, dressed in a similar outfit as his — neat-looking khakis and a button-down shirt. This man had sneakers and white athletic socks on though, instead of dress shoes like Jeremy’s. Heck, it didn’t matter. The ex-con was making an effort. Scraping up extra money for luxuries like leather shoes when the only time you wore them was to your probation appointments, took time. “How you doin’?”
“Good, good.” He was nervous, Jeremy could tell. He sat hunched, his shoulders rounded, and rubbed his palms briskly together, creating an uncomfortable slipping sound. “Trying to find a job. Ain’t easy.”
“No. No, it’s not.” One of the court’s requirements, hold gainful employment. You had to report on your job-hunt attempts at every appointment. Among other things. Drug testing, community service.
The man sighed, his manic tension cutting through Jeremy’s calm façade, making him feel nervous, too. Jeremy turned his head and tried to create an invisible wall between them. He didn’t mind helping, but he needed to stay calm, serene. That was the name of the game with this process.
“I’ll do anything, man. I’ve tried getting the most menial jobs. Fry cook, bus boy, bag boy at the grocery store. They just don’t want me. I’m dying here.”
Jeremy squeezed his eyes to the desperation in the guy’s voice. There were consequences to not meeting the court’s probation requirements. He himself hadn’t had to serve them, thank God. But you had to keep your nose clean. Don’t stand out. Follow the rules, as best you can.
“Sorry, man. Keep looking. Ask your officer for a hand. Maybe he could make some calls for you.”
The man wiggled in his chair. “What about you? You working? What’re you doin’?”
Jeremy exhaled. “I’m trying to start up my own business.”
“Oh yeah?” The man looked over at him with interest and in Jeremy’s opinion, leaned a little too close. “Doin’ what? You wanna hire me?”
Jeremy let out an uncomfortable chuckle. “Nobody on the payroll. I’m barely making ends meet. But doin’ what I love. Wood working. I make furniture.”
“Oh.” The man turned away, to Jeremy’s relief. “I don’t do nothing like that. I wonder if I could start my own business. Might be the only choice I have left.”
Jeremy looked up, glad to be called. “Good luck, man.” The man nodded as Jeremy checked in with the receptionist. Jeremy said a quick silent prayer, not even fully formed thoughts and words – just a sincere sentiment to God: help this man, help get him on his feet.
“You can go on back to Neil’s office.”
Jeremy nodded and headed back.
The word “office” was a stretch, but hey, who was he to judge? He edged into Neil’s closet-sized room stuffed full with a desk, Neil’s chair, two facing chairs and a filing cabinet. A few framed certificates scattered across the walls, but Neil didn’t seem to be much into decorating. Stacks of files littered his desktop and the man himself was so big, he dwarfed everything around him.
Neil had been Jeremy’s parole officer since he’d been released towards the end of the summer. He’d quickly recognized Neil as an advocate to help him adjust to life in the free world. Neil had high expectations and held him accountable for his behavior, but he made the rules clear and praised Jeremy when he saw results. That was fine with Jeremy. He never should’ve made the mistakes that had landed him in prison anyway and after serving his sentence, all he wanted now was to get his life back on track. He understood the odds stacked against him — he’d earned every single one. But by following the rules, he’d get there.
One step at a time.
Neil was bent at the waist, his powerful lineman’s body folded in half in his chair as he tried to get a closer look at something under his desk. They had talked once or twice about his college career at Clemson. Football had never been Jeremy’s sport, but he could certainly see how Neil would intimidate the defenders lined up across from him before the whistle blew. But inside that monstrous body and competitive scowl was the heart of a saint.
Jeremy waited in the doorway. Neil mumbled, sounding frustrated. “Can I help you find something?” Jeremy ventured.
Neil straightened at the sound and banged his head on the partially-opened desk drawer. “Dang!” the big African-American man eked out in pain.
Jeremy scooted around a chair and over a box of papers sitting on the floor, trying to get closer. “I’m sorry. Did I surprise you?” He reached out a hand toward the big man.
Neil was rubbed his aching head, distracted, a smile playing on his face. “When do I move out of this cubicle into a space befitting my size and accomplishments? That’s what I want to know.”
Jeremy smiled, thankful that he was cracking jokes.
“Can you reach that business card on the floor there?” Neil asked, pointing.
Jeremy leaned, reached, picked it up, handed it to Neil.
“No, it’s for you. Keep it.”
Jeremy frowned at the card. “Seminal Magazine?”
“Yeah. Have a seat.”
Jeremy made his way back to his chair and did as he was told. He waited for explanation, knowing it was coming.
“Do you know what the word seminal means, Jeremy?” Neil slid into his own chair, folded his hands on top of his desk and focused on Jeremy.
Jeremy took a breath. He was never good at English, had a horrible vocabulary. Books were never really his thing, he was always good with his hands. “Ummm …”
Neil shook his head. “No matter.” He reached under a stack of files and pulled out a thick book — a dictionary. He handed it to Jeremy.
Jeremy flipped pages till he located the word. “Influential, formative, pivotal, inspiring.”
“Good.” Neil held a palm up and Jeremy handed the dictionary back. “Nice name for a magazine, huh?”
Jeremy nodded cautiously, wondering what this had to do with him.
Neil continued, “I got a call from them last week. They like to do stories about people who display some of those words you read. Pivotal, inspiring. Ground-breaking. Me and the editor talked over some story ideas. Turns out they want to do a feature on some of our success stories.”
Jeremy fidgeted, not liking where this was going.
“I told the lady some of our Values Statements. You know all those. You memorized them a few months ago.”
Jeremy nodded, hoping to God Neil wasn’t going to call on him to recite them.
“Promoting and maintaining a safe community. Treating people with dignity and respect.” Neil leaned back in his chair, let his eyes roll thoughtfully to the ceiling. “What are some others?”
Jeremy sighed, the small card now digging into his palm. “Uh, the ability of offenders to change.”
“Yes! That’s a good one.” Neil’s smile formed, white teeth amidst dark complexion. “What else?”
Jeremy could come up with one more, so he hoped that was the last one Neil was after. “The relationship between staff and client can have a profound impact on successful outcomes.”
“You got it. I knew you would.”
That was one of the things Jeremy liked about Neil. He was genuinely happy when one of his caseload succeeded. The man could scare the crap out of him, and had on several occasions, but he was not without his virtues.
“So, I shared those values with her, and all the rest …,” he pointed to the framed paper hanging on the wall behind him. Jeremy swore to himself. They were right there, behind Neil’s head! “…and she asked me if I had any success stories she could interview and feature in an article about Georgetown County.”
Jeremy went motionless and felt his eyes widening as he stared at Neil.
“I had a few. And you’re one of them. Jeremy, you’re one of my best success stories.”
Jeremy shook his head. “No, no. Thanks for recommending me, Neil, but no, I’m not interested.”
Neil’s forehead creased, his lower lip protruded a little bit. “You don’t want to be seminal? You don’t want to help influence others to overcome challenges and be successful? I have to tell you, I’m surprised at that, Jeremy.”
His palms were starting to sweat and his breathing was a little labored. “I’ll help however I can. But not to be featured. I don’t want to tell my story and I don’t want to be made public. You understand. But I’ll help organize the other offenders and drive the reporter around. Uh, what else …?” He was grasping at straws now.
Neil’s mammoth face twisted into a pained expression and it about killed Jeremy to know that his refusal had caused it. Everything about the man was big. He had big emotions, big disappointments, big pride and big hope. So far, Jeremy had worked hard to fulfill all the goals Neil had set out for him. But this … he really didn’t want to do it.
“I have to say that’s very disappointing, Jeremy. You are a role-model, whether you know it or not. You have a story to tell, and I want you to have the chance to tell it. I can’t force you, of course, but my job is to rehab you. To get you out of your comfort zone, to try new things. I know you can help others. And isn’t that one of our values? To help the community and make things better? I really thought you bought into all those values. You said you did, back when you first got released.”
A sinking feeling hit Jeremy’s stomach. Neil was using the ole guilt trip on him. Of course he believed in the county’s probation values. Of course he’d memorized them and recited them when Neil ordered him to. He was trying his very best every day of his life and he’d never allow himself to fail again. He looked up at the big man before him and realized that he couldn’t tell him no. He admired him too much and Neil had been too good to Jeremy to disappoint him.
“I don’t want to talk about my crime. I’ve tried hard to work through that and …”
“No, no. The focus is on your transformation, your new story, how you’re making yourself a success. Very little about why you were in jail.”
“I’m not what I’d call a success …”
“Not yet, but you’re working hard, aren’t you? And look at it this way, it might generate some interest in your work. You might get some orders out of this. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Call it free advertising.”
Jeremy took a deep breath and let it out.
“Well, if you’re gonna be stubborn, give me the card back.” Neil held his huge hand out across the desk.
Jeremy looked down at the card. “I’ll do it.”
The transformation was instantaneous and real. An immense smile jumped onto Neil’s face. He got up and came around, pounding Jeremy on the back in his excitement. Jeremy choked and concentrated on keeping himself from flying across the room.
“That’s the man! Good job. I knew I could count on you. You’re going to be very seminal, I just know it. Great.”
They spent the next ten minutes discussing Jeremy’s progress. Then, Neil advised, “I’ll include your name on the list to the magazine. The reporter …” he waggled his finger at the card Jeremy was still holding in his hand.
“Emma Jean Slotky,” Jeremy read.
“Yes, she’ll call you at your cell number. Make sure you pick it up, now.”
“Yes, sir.” Jeremy got to his feet and they shook hands again, their standard good-bye.
Neil checked Jeremy’s folder a last time. “Oh, it’s your turn to drug test today. You know the drill.”
Jeremy nodded and ducked out the door. A few steps down the hall, he heard Neil’s call, “Oh uh, Jeremy?” He headed back, stopped in the doorway, eyebrows raised.
Neil rubbed his own chin and pointed at Jeremy’s. “The article includes some pictures. How about you make some time to shave, huh?”
Jeremy groaned and nodded. As he made his way to the receptionist’s desk for his little white cup, he seriously considered accidentally/purposely losing his cell phone.