Transport to Prison

It takes fifty minutes to drive from Dover to Concord. I wished it would take longer even though handcuffs chaffed my wrists.

The sun on that June day shone on purple lilacs. I was seeing nature up close for the first time in nine weeks and for the last time for years. Behind me was the maximum-security cell at Strafford County Jail, my home for sixty-six days awaiting yesterday's sentencing.

My one-man cell had a window that looked past the caged exercise yard and green metal dumpsters to the fields of the former county poor farm. Near where the fields drop away to the Isinglass River stands a granite obelisk marking the common grave of thirty-six prisoners who died in the Dover jail fire, locked in their cells, screaming for the keys. From my window I watched spring decorate their grave with brilliant grass.

My jail cell was a sanctuary compared to what I imagined prison would be. It was quiet, almost monastic. I spent my time there reading, writing, and praying desperately for mercy. The guards cleaned out my cell while I was at court getting sentenced. They shipped my books, papers, and family photos home. You can't take anything with you to prison.

They brought me back from court, strip-searched me, and put me in the concrete holding tank. I sat on the slab and stared at the toilet hole in the center of the floor. Electric locks snapped open. Steel doors clanged shut. From the next cell someone swore loud and long. The sound echoed against the bare walls. I tried to concentrate on what I had heard the judge say, to get my mind around the future. It had all happened so fast, the crowd of familiar faces, some angry, some sad, the prosecutor's call for punishment, my family and friends' pleas for clemency. The judge imposed three consecutive terms of three-and-a-half to seven years in prison.  What was my total sentence, ten-and-a-half to twenty one years?  What would my wife and children do?

The courier arrived to handcuff me and take me away. We drove along familiar roads. I watched the world through the tinted glass of the cruiser. We passed the pond where I skated with my children. We passed my daughter's soccer field, the gas station, its lot edged with tulips. We passed the houses of former friends. I stared at the home of one and thought of the breakfasts we shared at a local greasy spoon. I last heard from him before the trial. No word since.

We passed the antique store that took our furniture on consignment. Had they sold the deacon's bench from Pennsylvania, or the Canadian pine dresser? We needed the money for lawyer bills and moving costs. It had been almost a relief to sell them, to simplify, to prepare for the abyss into which we stared.

We passed the entrance to our road. Not ours anymore, I reminded myself. The house was sold. We couldn't afford the mortgage without my salary. I had signed the papers in jail. The realtor couldn't get in and out of there fast enough. My family was living in temporary housing, on the charity of friends of my sister. I imagined the driveway to our cape, the early blooms in the garden, the kids on swings. I looked deep into the woods where I had hiked and biked. New ferns fringed the paths. How long would it be before I could walk in woods again? I thought of looking for salamanders and mushrooms with my boys. Who would do such things with them now?

We continued on. I let my eyes travel up another dirt road then closed them in a wince of shame. Up that road, a year and a half ago, I had broken the law of New Hampshire while on a camp-out with a teenage girl.

"How could you have done this to us?" my wife had asked.

I had no answer.

When I opened my eyes, we were farther away from home. There was the white clapboard church my dad pastored when we first moved to New Hampshire. I was two years old. The old parsonage, the first house I can remember, is gone, razed to widen the road. I looked at the empty corner lot with soul-numbing emptiness. My life had been torn from its foundations.

The road widened into four lanes. Our speed increased. The familiar receded with the miles. A brick wall rose up to block the sun. The radio crackled. The razor-wire topped gate of the vehicle trap opened. I had arrived.