Help!

“Things to Overcome When Sprung From Prison” by John Langenfeld

17 November 2017 on Nonfiction   Tags: ,

After serving a decade-and-a-half in the Texas prison system, you’ll undoubtedly have developed more than a few disabling habits. How could you not? You adjusted as needed to survive. But when the state springs you after 5,475 tedious days, it will be in your best interest to acclimate to your newfound surroundings. In other words, take the initiative to help yourself. Here are a few friendly suggestions from someone who’s been there:

*

You do not have to stockpile soap, oatmeal, or lotion every time you go to the store. Your neighborhood supermarket is unlikely to run out of basic necessities, unlike the prison commissary. Aloe vera may be in high demand, but there is more than enough to infuse into your favorite skin care products, and silos are crammed with oats you can pluck off of shiny shelves twenty-four hours a day, along with cinnamon raisin bread, gorgonzola cheese, and lemon-pepper salmon fillets. Of course, this promise is premised on the assumption you’ll have cash, hence a lawful job. Convincing a prospective employer to bet on you won’t be easy, but eventually one will. When she does, show up early, offer to stay late, and keep your area clean.

*

Those mucky orange earplugs you’ll have stuffed into both sides of your head for fifteen years can go in the trash. They’ll have served you well in muffling the flushing of toilets, the clanging of lockers, the slamming of sliding doors. Especially when you struggled to sleep. Now it’s okay to lob them into the garbage. Go ahead and stretch out on your soft mattress in the darkness of your comfy bedroom, and listen to the squeak of your ceiling fan, the chirrup of cicadas in the oak tree outside, the sonorous snores billowing from your parents’ bedroom down the hall. I’m assuming you’ll stay with them until you land a job that pays well enough to cover bills. Just don’t let your self-esteem plummet. Living arrangements change. Appreciate that you have people who love you, who are willing to help, who have offered you space in their home. Many are not so lucky.

*

People will inquire if you were talking to yourself—at home, at the post office, when puttering amongst acquaintances. They’ll observe your lips moving and your hands gesticulating and wonder whom you’re chatting with. Be quick-witted. Pass it off as singing. Fib that you have lint on your tongue you’re trying to pinch off with your teeth. But the truth is, you’ll carry on exchanges in your mind that will leak like a faucet from your mouth. In the joint, you acknowledge others with shrugs, nods, and monosyllabic huffs. In there, it’s best to feign disinterest. You keep your figurative door shut and slap a neon sign above the eaves that reads, Ain’t nothin’ happenin’. Know, however, that loneliness will concretize into habit. Once out, slip a rubber band around your wrist and give it a sharp snap whenever you catch yourself in the act. After a month’s worth of welts, you’ll notice a remedial dip in soliloquys.

*

Understand that not everybody has a hidden agenda, most folks aren’t sizing you up, and the vast majority of people on the free side of the fence aren’t plotting your demise. Sure, others will accuse you of being paranoid, but in the System everyone is out to get you. Or so it seems. You’ll be on the lookout: What did that glance mean? Was something insinuated in what he said? This is the third time I’ve ended up next to this guy in line. What’s he up to? All fair questions in the clinker. But out here, people are pondering their mortgages and juggling what’s for supper and debating paying for a trip to Cozumel. Don’t insist that every nuance is loaded with intrigue. Keep your neighbor’s snarling dog at a distance, but allow its human the opportunity to hurt you. It’s the only way you’ll ever grow to feel.

*

True, the social skills that benefit you in the free world mark you as a chump in the pen. Attempting to reason with an inmate intent on bludgeoning you will only inflame their fervor, being polite will paint you as weak, and soliciting the guards’ intervention will spike your chances of stitches. However, if you want to get along once you’re back home, you’ll have to learn to smile. Yes, even though you’ve mastered the art of indifference, you’ll need to let your pearlies twinkle. Practice if necessary. Stand in front of a mirror, soften your eyes, and upturn the corners of your mouth. Hold for a count of three, then shake it off like a collie fresh out of the creek. Do that twenty times, twice a day. It will seem foreign at first, akin to feigning a Portuguese accent when you hail from Oklahoma. Yet if you consider how fortunate you are to be able to plunk into a hot bath, or set off for an early morning jaunt, you will eventually score enviable wrinkles around your eyes like bright rays emanating from the sun.

*

Let’s see; you’ll have been assigned a number, clad in a uniform, and corralled into a cage. Add to that the sense of separation consequent of robbing a gas station attendant or peddling crack to the corner junkie, and the chance of feeling like you belong back on the streets is up there with striking gold in a granite quarry. Don’t fret. Next time you see a transient tottering under a busy bridge, imagine how the asphalt feels under his feet, how the lingering stench of piss burns his nose, how the traffic appears to his bleary gaze. Next time you hear an immigrant prattling in her native tongue, visualize how the night sky looks as she stares into it, agog. You don’t have to taste the salt of everybody’s tears. Simply slipping under their skin grafts you onto the vine. It nourishes you through shared roots. Understand, we are all interconnected. The universe thrums through our veins.

*

Last, you will need to learn to give. I know, when you’re fresh from the slammer, money’s as abundant as unicorn dung. But flinging a wad of dollars in the collection plate on Sundays isn’t what I mean. Offer your seat on the bus. Overlook a slight. Toss a hunk of your nectarine to the grackle in the grass. You don’t have to save the world, but tending to the garden of your heart is a must. Be kind to the bank tellers and front lobby receptionists and unpopular billing clerks. Say Please and Thank you and Don’t worry, I make the same mistake. When somebody else is talking, lean in a wee bit, gape your ears, and hear what they have to say. Presence is an exquisite gift. Know that it takes courage to care. No easy feat, for sure, but kindness will blast a chasm between that wretched cell and yourself.

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John Langenfeld has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sam Houston State University and a master’s degree in literature from University of Houston at Clear Lake. John is a lifetime member of Sigma Tau Delta–International English Honor Society. He has been published in Entropy, The Threepenny Review, and was a finalist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Langenfeld, or contact him through his website at johnlangenfeld.com.

"Help!" painting on canvas by Nigel F. Ford. His stories have been included in the The Penniless Press anthology “Howling Brits," which was published by Worldscribe Press in 2011. He contributes regularly to The Crazy Oik magazine, and his work has also appeared in Outposts, Encounter, New Spokes, Inkshed, The Crazy Oik, Weyfarers, Acumen, Critical Quarterly, Staple, T.O.P.S, The North, Foolscap, Iota, Poetry Nottingham, and Tears in the Fence. He is in the process of writing a novel and also producing and directing a stage play. 

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