The guard shut the door. The lock snapped loudly. “Nine months,” Leon thought. “I can’t make it.”
He couldn’t remember anymore how long the darkness had been with him. Looking back over the past few years, he wasn’t even sure if he had ever been aware of it.
I was aware, he thought. I just tried not to feel it.
Is that what it is? Yes. No. It is part of it. But there is also something else. There is also an emptiness.
Conscience. Maybe that’s what it is.
He slipped his arms into the sleeves of the shirt they’d given him and began buttoning the buttons. The shirt was stiff with starch and scratched his skin.
“A little less starch in the shirt next time,” he said and made an attempt at a smile. The guard stared at him coldly.
Darkness. Conscience. I’m just scared half to death.
He slipped on the canvas shoes and stood. The guard opened a door and pointed out with his night stick.
They walked down a long corridor to a set of iron bar doors. A tall, heavy-set guard stood by the doors.
“This one wants a little less starch in his shirts next time, T.C.”
The big guard smiled.
“Thinks we’re runnin’ a hotel, huh? Well, let’s see. We just might have a reservation for him.”
The guard shuffled through a stack of pink papers on his clipboard.
“Leonard Curry?” The guard looked up.
The guard smiled.
“Well, Leon, you’re in luck. We still have a deluxe suite in the east wing we can let you have.”
Both of the guards laughed.
“Put him in with Crazy Charlie.” The guard looked down at the clipboard again. “Number 57.”
The doors banged open, and they started down the corridor, a corridor walled with steel bars. Hard faces watched as they passed by the rows of cells. The emptiness that he’d felt before became even more intense.
“Nine months,” he whispered the words.
The guard stopped at a cell and opened the door.
“This is it, kid.”
Leon stepped into the cell. It was a small room with only two beds, a sink, and a toilet. There was a strong, stale odor mixed with the smell of a caustic cleanser of some kind. In one corner a small, wild-looking man was sitting on a bed. The man had thin, hard eyes and a full beard.
The guard shut the door. The lock snapped loudly. Leon suddenly felt lost and closed in.
Nine months. I can’t make it. And even after I get out, what then? The feeling of emptiness was powerful.
“How old are you?” The man asked.
Leon looked up at him. His mind wasn’t working.
“How old are you?”
“Just a kid.” The old man smiled. His eyes were looking in two different directions at the same time. There was a long scar on his forehead.
“My name’s—” Leon started.
“Hey,” the man shouted. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me your name yet. We’ll save that until tomorrow. That’s how it is, see. If you spill the whole pot of beans now, we won’t have anything to talk about later. The rule is that you get to ask one question a day and you got to answer one question. Don’t volunteer nothin’.”
The old man settled back onto his bed and picked up a magazine.
“I’m 68,” he said. “I figured that’d be your first question.”
That night passed slowly. Every second became an hour, and there seemed to be no end to the darkness. Leon drifted in and out of sleep several times. The soft click of the guard’s shoes on the cement floor came nearly every hour. In the distance Leon could hear snoring and coughing.
The events of the last few days went through his mind. The icy stare of the judge. “Nine months in the county jail,” the judge had said. Leon went back to the arrest. The knock on the door. The sudden rush of men. The guns.
I wasn’t careful enough.
But maybe I wanted to be caught.
Time passed just as slowly the rest of the week. The days faded into nights, and the nights faded into days, into night, into nothingness.
“Leon Curry,” he told the old man.
The questions always came in the morning.
“Drugs, selling drugs. No hard stuff, though.”
“There’s money in that.”
The money was there, Leon thought, but it had only been an illusion, like all the rest of it had been. The money had come in, but there was nothing left of it. Everything about the last few years had been like that. Everything only seemed good. You ate, but you never tasted, and you were never filled, and you were left with emptiness in the end, and the more you tried to fill the emptiness, the more hollow you felt.
“How long you in for?”
“I’m in for five years. That’s a light sentence for robbery. I wouldn’t mind if it were a little longer. It’s always warm here, not bad anyway. There’s always food, and you don’t have to do any work if you don’t want to.”
Work. I used to hate it. Now, I’d do anything to have something worthwhile to do. Why didn’t I before? What’s worthwhile? What makes anything worthwhile? I don’t know.
“Three times. Been divorced three times, too.”
Leon began to understand why the crazy was attached to Charlie’s name.
“What have you got to read?”
Charlie shoved a box across the room. Leon began picking up the magazines and thumbing through them. At the bottom of the box was a book.
“I don’t know. Never read it. It looks like some kind of religious book. There’s a Bible around here somewhere, too.”
Leon opened the book to the first chapter.
“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents,” he read out loud (1 Ne. 1:1).
“You don’t have to read that. The jail has about fifty western books. You can have the guard get a couple for you. I already read them all. They’re pretty good books, and you can learn something from them. I don’t think you can get anything out of that one. It don’t make no sense. It’s just like readin’ the Bible.”
Leon set the book down.
“I’ll ask the guard about the western books tomorrow.”
He lay back on his bed.
“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” He repeated it softly. He thought of his own parents sadly. He remembered the reasons he’d left home four years back—the shouting, the narrowed eyes, and the tensed muscles and hard words.
Several hours later he picked up the book again.
“Therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days …”
“… nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea …”
Yea, that’s a strange word.
“… yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.” (1 Ne. 1:1.)
“Do you believe in God, Charlie?” he asked the next morning.
“That’s your question?”
“That’s a stupid question. There’s half a million things better you could ask me, like have I ever killed anybody or have I been to China or something like that. Ask me if I’ve ever been to China.”
“It’s my question. I can ask one question about anything I want. That’s the rule. You made it. I didn’t.”
“Well, it’s your question. If you want to waste it on something stupid, that’s no business of mine. How’s that saying go, a fool and his question are soon parted?”
“Do you believe in God, Charlie? It’s not that hard of a question.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if I do or if I don’t.”
“You don’t know what you believe?”
“Yes, I know what I believe. I’m smarter than that. Are you saying I’m stupid?”
“No, I’m not, and you’re not answering the question.”
“Well, it’s a dumb question to ask somebody in jail. It’s a dumb question to ask anybody. I just never gave it much thought. I was Catholic once. It’s a hard question.”
Charlie shook his head.
“I guess I really don’t know.”
Charlie leaned forward and began tugging on his beard. His eyes were wild. “I guess I always kind of avoided it. I guess I really never wanted to know. If you can say yes, that means you have to reform and go to church and all that, and if you say no, well, that’s not so good either. That’s my answer.”
“That’s your answer?”
“Yeah, and now it’s my turn. Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“I guess I’m like you are. I don’t really know. I’ve always avoided it, too. And you’re right; it is a hard question.”
“What good does it do to know, anyway? What difference does it make?” Charlie asked and then leaned back on his bed and buried his face in a magazine.
Does it make any difference?
Later that day one of the guards brought in the western books. Leon sat back on his bed and picked them up.
“Which ones did they bring you?” Charlie asked.
“Comanche Blood, Outlaw Killers, and Bad Odds.”
“That Bad Odds is one of my favorites. You’ll like that book, and you’ll learn a lot from it. All them books is good books.”
Leon opened Bad Odds and skimmed through the pages.
“When the dust settled, Mcluhan saw the three of them at the end of the street, waiting. They were the best guns in the territory. Three of the worst sort of characters you could ever run into. Mcluhan knew he was in trouble. He knew he didn’t stand a chance, not against all three of them.
“‘It’s best to meet trouble head on,’ he thought, and started down the street.”
Leon picked up Comanche Blood.
“Ned’s horse suddenly slipped and crashed to the earth. Ned hit the ground hard and rolled. He stood up and saw the stampeding cattle had turned again. They were coming toward him now. He heard his boss’s deep voice again. ‘That’s the biggest cattle herd there’s ever been, and if they ever break, it’ll be trouble.’ ‘That’s what this is—trouble,’ he thought. He quickly looked around at the rolling hills. There was no place to run to, and in the darkness, somewhere, the Comanches were waiting. First things first. He pulled his six guns.
“‘Maybe I can turn them longhorns,’ he said out loud. ‘The gun shots will bring the Comanches down on me, but I gotta try.’”
Leon smiled. ‘It’s best to meet trouble head on.’ ‘First things first.’ Just the kind of advice I need. First things first. Well, maybe it is.
He reached up and pulled the book from the shelf above his bed and started reading.
“Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people” (1 Ne. 1:5).
“And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Ne. 1:12).
I wonder what that feels like? Can it really happen? How?
“And it came to pass that I Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; … and [he] did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father” (1 Ne. 2:16).
Deep inside himself Leon felt a stirring sensation. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before. It was cool, and it was warm. It was a yearning, and it was something more, something he couldn’t understand but could only feel.
“And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost” (1 Ne. 8:23).
The doors to the cells banged open, and the inmates began to file out for lunch.
“I’m not hungry,” Leon said to the guard. “All right if I stay here?”
“And they call me crazy,” Zahos said, walking out. “Missing lunch for no reason. You sick?”
Leon settled back onto his bed with the book again.
“Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.” (2 Ne. 1:23.)
A mist of darkness, chains, prisons within prisons within prisons—that’s how I feel. How I’ve felt.
“But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Ne. 1:15).
How do you get that? Is this real?
He read until the lights were turned out that night.
The next morning: “Have you ever felt sorry for anything you’ve done?”
“Nope, can’t say that I have.”
Charlie began pulling his beard and scratching his face.
“Well, that’s a lie, and there’s no need to lie. I feel bad once in a while, but not for long. You gotta fight it, or before you know it, your conscience will be runnin’ your life. That’s a bad thing.
“You ever sell dope to kids or anything like that?” Charlie asked.
“No, I never did. Just to friends.”
“You don’t have anything to feel bad about then.”
But I knew. I knew it was wrong.
The emptiness grew suddenly, slowly, engulfing him, engulfing the good feelings he’d had before. He withdrew into himself, into the darkness that had been inside. He curled up on the bed, not moving.
When lunch time came, Charlie shook him.
“You all right?”
“Just leave me alone.”
For two days he sat on the bed, falling deeper into him. And finally, out of desperation, he picked up the book and began reading again.
“And it came to pass, as they understood they cast their eyes up again towards heaven; and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe; and he came down and stood in the midst of them” (3 Ne. 11:8).
“O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires” (3 Ne. 22:11).
“And whosoever will hearken unto my words and repenteth and is baptized, the same shall be saved” (3 Ne. 23:5).
What is this I’m reading? Can it be real? How can I know?
“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moro. 10:4).
When the lights in the cells were shut off that night, Leon slipped quietly out of his bed and kneeled, clasping his hands in front of himself. He’d seen it done that way in a painting, and now it somehow seemed right.
“Hey, kid, what are you doin’ down there?”
“You ever prayed, Charlie? I’m not sure if I know how.”
“I did when I was a kid, but I can’t give you any advice about that sort of thing. I don’t see any use for it.”
“Say a word for me,” he said. “Just in case.”
Leon held nothing back in his prayer. He was as honest and open as he could be. Everything was released. He talked of the emptiness, of the fear he’d had, of the loneliness, and of his remorse for the past. And as he talked, the darkness seemed to diminish somehow. Then, finally, he began to ask and to listen.
When his prayer was over, he sat up on the bed. He could feel his own heart beating and his own blood pulsing softly, and he became aware of the fact that he was alive. His own breathing and the intricate, flexible movement of his fingers—all seemed a fantastic miracle. In the past, his torturing and numbing of his senses, his attack on this miracle that was himself, had brought terrible destruction. He looked back at himself, incredulous with horror. But the future, the possibility of the future, of being baptized, of being clean, spotless, of being free of the dark emptiness of the past—that covered him; it was dawn in the darkest night that he had lost himself in. With his eyes moist and his throat aching, he found the Bible and read of Gethsemane and of Calvary and found himself crying out loud.
Then he picked up the other book again. On the last page an address and two names were written. He sent a letter asking for information. After two weeks had passed, a guard came to the cell.
“You have some visitors.”
“I don’t know.”
Leon found himself sitting across the table from two men who were about his own age. They were dressed in dark suits, with white shirts and ties. He’d never seen either of them before, but somehow he knew who they were.
“I read your book,” he said.