“I’m innocent, I tell ya. It ain’t my fault. He shot at me first. I didn’t even have a gun! Okay, so I managed to shoot him with his own gun, four times. Hey, was it my fault the gun had a hair trigger? All he had to do was stay upstairs and I woulda just robbed the downstairs and left. Probably. But no, he’s gotta start shooting. What was I supposed to do, anyway? Let him shoot me?”
Guys like Willie Lunkers made George sick, and that was not good for a prison chaplain. In the old days, especially on death row, most of the inmates were remorseful and fearful, and they were open to and even grateful for anything George could do for them spiritually. They knew they were at the end of the road and didn’t want to face it alone. But that was a long time ago.
Today too many were like “Tattoo Willie,” who looked like he was wearing a shirt when he wasn’t. Nothing was ever his fault. Everything that ever happened to him was because of somebody else. He was a victim of circumstance. Society was to blame, and Chaplain George, old dinosaur that he was, was part of society, so it was even partly his fault. Willie’s clueless arrogance was just too much, more than George could bear.
“I just can’t help him,” George finally told the warden. “And you know what? I don’t want to. And I don’t want to walk through these cell blocks anymore and hear all the horrible things these animals spew out. I just can’t take another day! It’s time for me to retire while I still have some life left in me.”
So that’s what George did. The guards held a small retirement party for him, and the warden presented him with a plaque commemorating thirty-five years of faithful service. There were refreshments and hugs and handshakes all around. Memories and laughs were shared, and then it was over.
George walked out with mixed emotions, happy, no, relieved, to be finally out of there, but also a little sad. In the end he felt like he had failed. The task of being a prison chaplain had become too much for him, and eventually the inhumanity of it all had overwhelmed him. He just couldn’t do it anymore. That’s why he retired, right?
“No, dear,” Mary, his wife of almost forty years, reminded him. “There are lots of things we want to do while we still can. You gave most of your life to that prison. Now it’s time for us to have some fun. Let’s travel, see the country, do whatever we want. You’ve earned it. You deserve it.”
Her loving response persuaded him, so they sold their brownstone for a tidy profit and bought a brand new Winnebago and hit the road. They spent five years just traveling wherever the road led them, seeing all the sights, staying at campgrounds at night, and meeting all kinds of wonderful people doing the very same thing.
They didn’t notice when their home state abolished the death penalty, commuting everyone on death row to life in prison. And even if they had noticed, so what? Parole would be out of the question, wouldn’t it? Besides, it wasn’t their problem anymore. “The world’s tallest lollipop is just an hour away! Let’s go see it!”
Eventually even all that fun became less exciting, and George and Mary grew weary of living in the Winnebago. They missed seeing their kids and grandkids, and now that they were both pushing sixty-five it was time to slow down, settle down and maybe do something else. So they moved back to the outskirts of their hometown and bought an old two-story farmhouse on five acres, really too much land for George to take care of. Most of it he left for nature to take its course. Mary had her garden and he had a few chickens. They always had eggs but George just couldn’t bring himself to kill one of those chickens for supper. He’d much rather just go to the KFC down the road.
Life was good, this one, anyway. They had their health, and it now seemed like George’s former life as a prison chaplain was someone else’s, a million years ago.
* * *
“George, wake up. Did you hear that?” Mary pushed on his shoulder a couple of times, trying to rouse him out of a deep sleep. He slept so soundly these days! “George,” she whispered, “there’s a noise coming from downstairs. I think we might have a prowler!”
“Okay, I’m up.” George sat up, swung his feet around to the floor and took a deep breath, trying to wake up enough to shake away the cobwebs as he groped in the dark for the flashlight in the nightstand drawer.
“Be careful, George.”
“I will, don’t worry.” Their old farmhouse always creaked at night, especially if the wind was blowing. Some folks in town hinted that the old place might even be haunted. Was that why they got such a good deal on it? Anyway, for what seemed like the thousandth time, George dutifully got up to look for nothing, just to ease Mary’s fears.
As he trudged down the hallway towards the top of the stairs, he now thought he heard something, too. What was that? He shined his flashlight down the stairs. “Who’s there?” He saw a shape move in the shadows, and then a quick glimpse of someone’s face. Wait a minute, I know that face, George thought. “Willie? Willie Lunkers, is that you? What are you …”
* * *
A year later, George found that the horrible events of that night were still crystal clear in his mind. The only light that night came from the flashlight George was holding up the stairs, and Willie must have pointed his .38 at it when he fired off everything he had. Luckily only one bullet grazed George’s shoulder but blood splattered everywhere, or so it must have seemed to Mary. And the volume of the blasts! They sounded like cannons going off, the shock waves rattling the whole house!
Mary had leaped out of bed and in the reflected, ambient glow from the flashlight had seen George lying on the floor bleeding. He couldn’t hear her scream since the gunshots had rendered him temporarily deaf. He couldn’t hear himself scream, either, as he saw her clutch her chest and fall to the floor, dead of an apparent heart attack.
Willie, on the other hand, didn’t even bother to check upstairs to make sure he was in the clear. He just bolted out the back door with nothing but the gun he came in with. It only took a couple of days before he was caught and back in jail, and this time he was not getting out. Maybe. But how could you really be convicted of murder if you never even touched the one who was dead?
It had been a difficult year for George, waiting for Willie’s trial. Memories of his life with Mary only made him miss her all the more. Most of what they did together was her idea. The old gal had always been so full of life! With so much energy! Now he slept downstairs mostly to avoid seeing the bullet holes in the wall. But he couldn’t get past the guilt of watching her collapse dead before his eyes. And his rage against Willie knew no bounds.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but for George it was still boiling in the bowl. And he had so many unanswered questions that kept it piping hot. “How could Willie have been released from prison in the first place? What if he’s found not guilty of Mary’s death since he only shot me? What if jury nullification gets him off scot-free? How can I go on if Willie’s free while Mary is dead?” These questions and more had been festering within him all year long.
Three days were set aside for Willie’s trial. If it looked to George like justice wasn’t going to prevail, well, he’d just have to see about that! He started thinking about what options he might have, what things he might be able to do to make sure Willie paid for his crime. The courthouse was pretty old but way too small for him to smuggle in a gun unnoticed. Besides, he didn’t even own a gun, and where was he going to get one now? Willie’s holding cell was in the courthouse basement, but extra guards had been hired just for him. This murder trial was the biggest news to ever hit this little town, and the police were not taking any chances.
“How am I going to get to Willie if I have to?” George pondered. But the real question was, would a guilty verdict even be enough for him? Again, as when he retired, he found his faith unable to withstand the evil confronting him.
As it turned out, the question of Willie’s guilt never was an issue. Ballistics and fingerprints made sure of that. Before George had his chance to testify, even before the first day of the trial was over, Willie confessed. Stupid criminals make stupid mistakes, and this time a bureaucratic penal system would not release him again.
But it all seemed to come to a close much too fast. The testimony George had prepared would now be heard by no one. It was as if Willie’s confession had robbed George of his chance to prove Willie’s guilt. In a way he felt as if he’d failed Mary again.
* * *
Five years slowly passed, and George was now closing in on eighty. These last few years had really taken their toll on his health. So had the unchecked bitterness that had been growing within him. The scar on his now arthritic shoulder, the resulting pain when shaving, his many ulcers and increasingly high blood pressure kept his doctors busy and his anger fresh.
Mary had been good for his sanity and peace of mind, but since her death he felt all alone and rudderless. No matter how often the kids, grandkids, and now great-grandkids visited, there was still an emptiness, a hole, a lack of closure and peace that somehow needed to be rectified. But how? He finally decided that there was only one way. He had to go see Willie at the prison.
The ancient, drab, gray, cinder block walls and heavy iron doors seemed more foreboding than ever before, much more than he remembered. The dank, stale yet putrid smells, the dimness of the lights, the startlingly loud buzzers every time a guard opened any door, and the incessant yammering of young thugs vying for their own little kingdoms. Surely being caged up here was a fate worse than any death penalty! George made the trip to that hell hole six weeks in a row before Willie finally agreed to meet with him.
These last five years had not been kind to Willie, either. His tattoos were fading, and some were sagging while others were stretching out. What hair he had left had turned almost completely white. Looking much older than his sixty years, he walked with a slight limp, and George barely recognized him as a guard led him into the visitors’ meeting room.
“Willie, you’re probably wondering why I’m here to see you. To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure myself, or of what I want to say to you. So let’s start out this way. Do you remember me? I mean, from when I used to be a Chaplain here?”
“Yeah, I remember you. I thought you were a foolish old man. Now I’m older than you were then.” There was a difference, a resignation, almost a sadness in Willie’s voice that had never been there before. “What do you want?”
“Well, at your trial you said you didn’t know whose house you were robbing. Why did you shoot at me?”
“Because you called me by my name and I panicked. Why do you think? Look, man, I just reacted. I didn’t place your voice until later. If I’d known someone was there who knew me I would’ve gone somewhere else…”
George’s blood quickly began to boil and he was about to erupt when Willie paused, raising the palm of his hand as if wanting to start over. Then, rubbing his forehead he forged ahead, apparently intent on getting something off his chest.
“Look, I’ve been talking to the Chaplain here, the one who took your place when you quit. He’s the reason I agreed to meet with you. Anyway, I know I ruined your life, and mine is as good as over. I know I’m never getting out of here again. If I could go back and change things, I would, I really would. But we both know I can’t. And I’m sorry about your wife, too. I know what I did killed her as much as if I’d shot her. I didn’t intend for any of that to happen, it just did, but I know I brought it all on myself and you.”
George was stunned. This couldn’t be happening! What could this mean?
Willie’s gaze drifted off and he paused again as if deep in thought, trying to choose his words carefully. ”I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m asking if you can forgive me.”
That was the last thing George expected or wanted to hear, but it began to awaken something inside him that had long been dormant. He looked into Willie’s eyes and saw that they were welling up. Or was he looking through his own misty eyes? Was the former Chaplain still deep within him finally in conflict with his own cold heart?
For the first time he realized that Willie was suffering in a way that had nothing to do with being in prison, and everything to do with why he was there. He saw that the prison in Willie’s mind was similar to the one in his own mind, and that he too was a prisoner. And he further saw that he held the key to both cell doors. Maybe if he could absolve Willie of his guilt he could vanquish his own self-destructive hate at the same time. He wanted closure but how could he possibly forgive Willie? Was that really the only way?
“Yes.” Startled by his own response, George couldn’t believe what he had just said. He came looking for closure, satisfaction, and yes, maybe even a little revenge. He certainly did not come to forgive anybody, that’s for sure, especially Tattoo Willie! But he was not the same man who had consumed so much of George’s time, energy, and emotions. And suddenly George was no longer the same, either.
* * *
It’s hard to say who was more surprised that day, Willie or George. But from that moment on they both felt a bond unlike any they had ever felt before. No longer linked only by crippling violence, they now shared a newly recognized vulnerability, a common fallenness that suddenly basked in the freedom and peace that only forgiveness brings. It was as if a tremendous weight had been lifted off both their shoulders. Neither would ever be the same again.
In the early ‘70s, Russ Hicks majored in art with a minor in English. He currently lives in Michigan, where he runs a nursing home ministry and a Christian teaching website. Two years ago, his wife of 36 years passed away; then in 2009 his secular job fell victim to the economy. That’s when he decided to take up writing again after almost four decades. “George’s Revenge” is his first attempt at fiction.