I’ve had a rough “Dad Transition Period” as my young adult daughters have begun their new lives. Recently, my very wise — if slightly irritated — wife said I needed to “redefine myself” to help smooth the road ahead.
Here is a fictional take on that charge.
***CONTAINS SOME ADULT LANGUAGE***
“So, asshole, what’re you gonna do?”
Diz’s deep, brown eyes locked on to the equally deep, brown eyes opposite.
“I said, what are gonna do? Huh? Make up your mind!”
Another unresponsive stare.
“Man, I wish you’d knock that shit off.”
Diz turned to the man lying in the bunk above his own in their six-foot by ten-foot cell.
“What’d you say?”
“You heard me.” Jailed for the third time in his 25 years, currently for drug possession and use, Branford was familiar with “street crazy” – the showy bravado effected to earn position or reputation or credibility. Yet this old man truly made him nervous. Branford glared at Diz from his top bunk. “Stop talkin’ to yourself in the mirror like that.”
“Aww, what’s the matter? Does it bother you?”
“To be honest, yea, it does.” Branford turned full on his side. “You been actin’ like some nutty ass old geezer for weeks, man. Is that why you called Diz? ‘Cause you act all dizzy and shit?”
The kid wasn’t entirely wrong.
The truth was, John’s mother loved jazz and had named him after her favorite trumpet player — John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.
However, the innocent nickname came to mean something more ominous as John’s erratic temper and dark behavior earned him half a dozen trips to jail for petty offenses as a teen; then, when dark turned deadly, a life sentence for murder twenty-three years ago.
Diz usually explained the unfortunate evolution of his name to the prisoners that passed through his cell over the years — most who were too young or stupid to know Dizzy Gillespie, much less care about jazz, America’s most significant cultural contribution.
Normally, Diz wrapped the story in a good-natured “I-know-I-am-an-old-man” laugh. A joke about how, in his sorry case, life and art collided in a way that no one could have anticipated. Certainly not his sainted mother! He was impressed that Branford had somehow pieced together enough facts after only a few weeks together – or at least had picked enough information from the prison grapevine – to connect the dots about Diz’s past. Though Branford’s conclusion wasn’t entirely accurate, it was “close enough for jazz,” as the musicians say.
Still, today Diz didn’t feel like schooling this boy on the finer points of jazz, irony or anything else. A tension he’d never known gripped his mind like fingers struggling to grasp a ball that is slightly too big for them. Plus, there was no harm in keeping the kid in the dark a bit. If nothing else, the rumors about his past infractions gave Diz a slight upper hand in a place where any advantage was golden. He purposely kept his answer non-committal, neither confirming nor denying Branford’s conclusion. Diz offered only a conciliatory chuckle. “You’re pretty smart, for a young punk.”
“Really man, I don’t much care. I just wish you’d be quiet so I can get some sleep. Ain’t no one going to answer you from the other side of that steel.”
“Well, you seem like a good kid, so I’ll try to control myself. But the truth is, somebody is going to answer me.”
Branford sat up in his bunk, hunching over and ducking his head slightly before it scraped the ceiling. “Who? It sure ain’t me.”
“No, not you. Me.”
“Man, now I’m totally confused. Whadda you mean, you gonna answer yourself?”
Diz backed away from the stainless steel mirror attached to the stainless steel sink, adjacent to the stainless steel toilet. He leaned against the wall on the other side of the cell, facing Branford. “You haven’t heard?”
“This is January 2017, man.”
“Dude, I know what year it is! I didn’t smoke that much crack!”
“There’s a new law this year that lets a few inmates go before the end of their time if they change something about themselves.” Diz’s eyes twinkled with the prospect of freedom after nearly a quarter century behind bars.
“Who told you that? I talked to my lawyer not three days ago and he didn’t mention any new law.” Branford dropped from the bunk, his bare feet hitting the concrete floor nearly noiselessly.
Diz quickly crossed in front of his cellmate and sat on his own bed. Branford spun around to keep Diz in his line of sight and nearly tripped on the toilet. Diz liked to do things like this, knowing the tight space they shared was even tighter for those unused to navigating it. Sixty square feet is a lot smaller than it looked in the movies. One more way to let the new guy know that the old guy was in control…
“Well I can’t speak for the quality of your Public Aid attorney, but I got this directly from the warden herself. She told me and a bunch of other long timers that the state has a new clemency program – hey, you know what clemency is, right?”
“Yea, yea, asshole. Just ‘cause I did a little dope doesn’t make me a dope.”
Diz cracked a thin, teasing smile. “Ok, I just wanted to be sure. I know you druggies sometimes can’t remember your own names much less understand big legal concepts.”
About fed up with his cellmate’s riling, Branford did not return the sharp-humored grin. “Go on, man,” he said flatly.
“Anyway, she said the state is going to give early parole to ten lifers who ‘redefine themselves.’ ”
“‘Redefine themselves?’ What the hell does that mean?”
A long, hollow silence ballooned inside the cell.
“Well?” Branford’s volume rose like a child waiting for the end of a bedtime story.
Diz rose from the bunk and paced like the caged animal, back and forth from the barred cell door to the concrete back wall. He stopped and stared up at the three-foot wide by two-foot high window in the center of the wall, seven feet from the floor. The window was too high for anyone to reach. Even if he did think about escaping now and again, six bars sectioned the window into narrow gaps breached only by the sun light – which shone, mockingly, in the mornings on the floor in long, cold, muddy-gray stripes.
Diz gaped silently at the window for another 30 seconds. “She didn’t say. Women piss me off, man. They say half of what they actually mean, and then you’re supposed to just somehow figure out the rest. And God forbid if you get it wrong!”
Branford, who had a serious girlfriend, understood and laughed. Diz spun quickly on his heel to face his cellmate, his eyes now flecked with frustration and anxiety.
“I mean, I can’t change my past. Hell, if I could go back to when I was your age, I would change a million things just to get rid of the guilt that eats me alive some days. I can’t change who I am here. I don’t pretend to be no model prisoner, but I do my best to keep my head down, fly under the radar. I do my work. I keep my cell clean. Mostly I just read my books and listen to my jazz.”
“To what? Jazz?” Branford saw an opening. Like a boxer he jabbed, playfully flicking a verbal punch at Diz. “Oh, you mean that Old Man shit? I don’t listen to anything before when I was born!”
The thinnest hint of a smile creased Diz’s face as he mentally scored a point for his cellmate. Touché, punk …
“No, really man, all joking aside, I think the answer is right in front of your face,” Branford said.
Diz stepped quickly toward Branford, hands waiving, voice rising, exasperation exploding. “What do you mean? This is my life in the balance and she’s talking in circles like the goddamned Riddler from Batman or something! I feel like the top of my head is coming off. What’s the fucking answer, man?”
Branford cautiously put his hands on Diz’s chest – a dangerous move to make with a man doing a life sentence for murder. “Slow down brother!” Branford ordered. “Sit down for a second and just breathe for a bit.”
Diz collapsed onto his bunk and cradled his head in his palms.
Branford talked low and slow, as if to a child in the throes of a temper tantrum. Except this “child’s” tantrums could hurt many people – and had killed at least one for (allegedly) looking too hungrily at his baby sister.
“Look, the warden said you had to redefine yourself to get out of here, right? You’re absolutely right. You can’t change Yesterday. It is what it was.”
And you can’t change Today. It’s not in your control, at least not in here.”
As if on cue, one of the ever-present guards sauntered by, peeking in and trying a little too obviously to eavesdrop. Diz stared at the guard and sighed. “You got that right.”
“So the only thing you can do anything about is Tomorrow.”
“I don’t underst…What are you…? C’mon, man! Say what you mean!”
“Change your Tomorrow! She said redefine yourself, right? Well redefine your Tomorrow. Does it mean change your politics? Learn to control your temper? Take up a new hobby? Earn a college degree? Hell if I know! You’re the only one who can figure that out. And I sure as hell don’t know how or why that would let you get out of here. But I bet that’s what the warden’s talking about. Women are always saying some shit like that! It’s confusing as all get out. But in its way, it makes sense. Redefine yourself. Let go of the past. Make a new future. No one can do it for you, man. You gotta do it for yourself!”
Diz raised his head and stared silently at Brandon. He couldn’t believe that this crack-smoking kid had produced such a simple, yet profound insight. A sudden wave of guilt crashed on the shores of his conscience.
“Listen man, I…” Then, just as he was about to apologize for everything he’d done and thought about his cellmate in the couple of weeks that they’d bunked together, the same guard appeared again in front of their cell.
“Diz, let’s go!” the guard ordered. Invisible hands magically unlocked and opened the door. “The warden wants to see you.”
Diz rose from the bunk and turned toward the guard. “One second, please, sir.” He turned back to Branford. Confusion and fear and exhaustion conspired to etch new lines in his face, adding to those that middle age had already dug. But his eyes sparkled again with excitement. “I’m not sure what’s gonna happen here. I don’t know if I’ll be back.”
“I hope not,” Brandon said. “Nothing personal, but I won’t miss you talking to yourself in that mirror.”
Diz smiled, turned his back to the guard, shook Branford’s hand and held it. He squinted hard, effecting his best “Dirty Harry” stare. “If I don’t come back…just know that it’s completely your fault.” His eyes widened as a grin replaced the mock scowl. “And if I ever see you again on the outside, I won’t be holding it against you.”
“Based on what I heard about you, that’s good to know!”
“I said let’s go!” the guard barked. “I have more to do today than be your personal escort service!”
Diz reached the front of the cell in two short strides. He looked right and peered at himself in the steel mirror…Something looks different…But what? He broke his gaze. “Oh, by the way.” He looked over his left shoulder. “My mom named me for Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpet player. Just thought you should know.”
“Yeah, I know.” Branford’s sly, crooked grin confirmed he’d figured out Diz’s secret. “My mom loves jazz, too. She named me for Branford Marsalis.”
Diz exploded with laughter.
“I should have known! Why else would anyone name their kid Branford?”
The guard grabbed Diz’s left elbow and guided him down the corridor as the cell door clanged shut behind them.