Convictions - Installment #6

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Beth lay on the narrow bunk, exhausted, but unable to sleep. How could it be less than a day since she walked out of prison? So much had happened. She swayed between hope and fear. This was a stepping stone to freedom. In six months, she could apply to live on her own. At the moment, that seemed like an eternity. But failure meant a return to prison. Her chances for this parole had been slim. Another would be impossible. She had to find a way to survive here. She had earned Pastor Bob's distrust before she walked in the door. It wasn't going to be easy.

“Stay below the radar, girl. Just stay below the radar.”

. . .
Hannah's voice came clearly to her. Beth did not remember much about those first days in prison. In shock from loss and the sudden changes in her life, she was oblivious to most of her surroundings. But she did remember Hannah, a tiny lady in her fifties, who had spent over twenty years in prison for murdering her abusive spouse. And she remembered her advice.

“You've got to pull yourself together, girl. Don't attract attention. Not from the guards and not from the inmates. It will make you a target. If you need to cry, go take a shower. No one will hear you above the water. Don't take gifts and don't accept friendships. Be polite, but don't get close. In a while, you'll start to know who is safe. For now, be invisible. Do your work assignments. Follow the rules. Keep to yourself. Stay below the radar, girl. Just stay below the radar.”

The advice had proved solid. Perhaps it would work here as well. She'd already learned some of the routine. After leaving Pastor Bob, Cassandra had led her back down the narrow hall and through a recreation area. It held several worn sofas and a couple of folding tables and chairs. A small TV sat in one corner with wire coat hangers substituting for antenna. A number of residents sat watching it. No one looked up as they passed by. A door on the back wall opened into another hallway. They walked to the end, passing several small and identically furnished rooms. Bunk beds were shoved against three walls. The floor space that remained was barely sufficient to allow the door to open and close. Four wooden crates fit tightly under each bottom bunk. At the last room, Cassandra pointed to the upper bunk that would be Beth's and indicated two empty crates for her possessions. The contents of her handbag didn't fill one. Plenty of room to expand. Not that she would have the money or opportunity to shop any time soon.

Beth would have liked a few minutes to chat with Cassandra. She hoped to learn a little more about the house and it's residents. But Cassandra hurried her to the worship service. Tardiness, she explained, resulted in loss of the dinner which followed. Beth was hungry and didn't argue.

The dining area was also used for services. At Gran's church, worship had been filled with joyful music. Sermons spoke of love and forgiveness. Prison services were not that different. Pastor Bob's was devoid of song and his sermon focused on the wages of sin. It concluded with an introduction of the two new residents, Beth and Dorinda, and a lengthy prayer that they would be saved from the evil of their previous lives.

At the conclusion of the service, residents setup the folding tables and grouped the chairs around them. Cassandra explained that the residents of each bedroom also shared a dining table. Two residents from each table went to the kitchen and brought back food for their table. Fifteen years in prison had not given her high expectations for food, but the evening meal was a new low. A plate of overcooked pasta disintegrated into an already pasty gravy. Four small slices of canned peaches floated in a pool of thick syrup. Each table was also allotted a half loaf of slightly stale bread, but no margarine. Beth ate the peaches, but decided she wasn't hungry enough to touch the pasta. Cassandra nudged her and whispered that she would be in trouble if she left food on her plate. She set her mind elsewhere and began to eat.

Residents were not allowed to leave the house after dinner, but were free to spend time in the recreation area or their bedrooms. Beth had started to follow Cassandra out of the dining room, but was detained by Lord's Servant Margaret. She explained that new residents were expected to clean the kitchen and dining areas after meals. Although she stayed and gave numerous instructions, she never assisted Dorinda and Bethany as they completed the tasks. By the time they were finished, the recreation period was almost over. Residents rose early and lights went out at 10pm. Beth's tired body had craved sleep, but her mind could not settle. It seemed that hours passed before she finally drifted off.

A bell clanged and a booming voice jolted Beth from her short slumber.

“Praise the Lord for a new day. Praise the Lord.”

It was 5:30am. Residents rushed to the communal bathroom, trying to wash and get dressed before the 6am worship service. Breakfast would follow. Cassandra explained that this allowed residents to attend services before leaving for work. The morning's service was a repeat of the previous evening's. Pastor Bob reminded them that the new day provided another opportunity to repent of their evil ways. Even he did not finish the breakfast of burnt oatmeal and poorly reconstituted milk that followed his sermon. Beth and Dorinda headed to the kitchen to clean. Cassandra told Beth to find her when she was done. She would be accompanying Beth to the parole office. Dorinda had visited yesterday, so it would be just the two of them.

Beth was happy to learn that she would be escorted by Cassandra, who seemed more relaxed than Margaret. The time outside the building might provide an opportunity to learn more. Soon, they headed down the elevator and out to the sidewalk. Beth drew a deep breath as she left the suffocating environment of Redemption House. She had been there less than a day. How would she tolerate a week?

They walked down the street and turned a corner. Beth was mulling over an opening question, when Cassandra pulled a cigarette from her pocket and lit it. Beth's face revealed her surprise. Cassandra grinned.

“Not quite what you'd expect from a Lord's Servant?“

“I'm not really sure what to expect of anyone here.”

“Just give it some time. How long were you down for?”

“Fifteen years.”

Cassandra's face fell.

“What's wrong?”

“I was hoping you'd had a chance to learn how to cook before you got locked up. But you must have been pretty young, if you were in that long. Too bad. We're going to starve if they can't find someone who can cook.”

“Actually, I learned to cook when I was quite young. It's been a lot of years, but I don't think I've forgotten how.”

“Let me see what I can do. It would make me happy and I bet you'd prefer cooking to cleaning toilets.”

The walk took about 10 minutes. Beth learned that Lord's Servant Margaret was not a resident, but Pastor Bob's wife. They received some assistance from members of their church, but were the only full time staff.

“Don't let Pastor Bob intimidate you. He wants you to think that he sees everything. But he really knows very little about what happens in the House. Just stay below the radar.”

Beth smiled and relaxed a bit when she heard those familiar words. Cassandra stopped and pointed across the street.

“That's the parole office. When you're done, come find me here." She pointed to a small coffee shop. "I'm going to get me some real breakfast.”

Want to read more?   Check back next Saturday for a new installment.

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