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I don't remember the days of the week--not that it matters. It could be Monday, Tuesday, or Sunday. The personnel are nicer on Sunday. Maybe the guards feel like they have some moral obligation on Sunday.
My name is Johnny Chambers. I'm in for robbery, and even though I got a five-year sentence I hope I leave in two to three. I've been in for a year and I should get out early on good behavior, or so the warden says.
It all started in 1960. I was living in Dallas, working for Consolidation Freightways. The drivers call it Controlling Freightways, but that's another story. I was doing long hauls between Dallas and New Orleans and other points all over the country. My wife, Kitty was working as a waitress for the Dew Drop Inn, a sleazy bar on Stemmons Freeway. I've seen one like it in every one-horse town I've been through. The joint had pool tables, and on Friday nights the club offered two-for-one pitchers. Everyone got smashed, and the guys usually hit on Kitty. She put up with it, but when you're gone for a long time, sometimes a woman gets lonely. I know the guys were hitting on her because I know how guys are. After a few beers all they can think about it getting laid.
I was on my way to New Orleans. I'd pulled into a hotel and was cleaning up when the phone rang.
"Johnny." Kitty. She sounded upset.
"What's wrong, baby?"
"Johnny ... I got fired." Her voice was final and flat. She sighed and began to cry.
"They said I stole money. I don't know how they thought it was me. It could've been anybody. There's this new woman, Joni. I think she set me up. My till came up short, and there's also been money missing from the other registers. Joni's been real lovey with Reuben. Maybe she's screwing him. All I know is Reuben has a big grin on his face whenever Joni walks in the room."
"Did you do it?" I asked Kitty quickly.
"Hell no. If I were going to steal some money, I wouldn't go for the nickel and dime shit." Kitty's earnest tone was convincing.
"I believe you."
"When are you coming home?"
"Tomorrow late. I've got to drop the freight in the morning, and then I'll head back.
"I love you, Johnny," Kitty said in her strong, raspy voice.
"I love you, too."
I lay on the bed and pulled out a Marlboro, took a few drags and exhaled the smoke. My eyes swept the room. Motels look the same everywhere you go, as if all the motels in the world contract with the same vendors and install the same mundane furniture and toiletries. It all looked bad, as far as I was concerned.
Once I was back in Dallas with Kitty, things started to get worse. She was trying to find work and not doing a very good job of it. She also started drinking more and ragging on me. I got real sick of it real fast. Sometimes it's better that I'm on the road, so I don't have to put up with her bitching.
Just when it looked like things were going to get better, I got fired. Actually, I was laid off, but after a few foul words with my boss and this and that, he went ahead and fired me. I didn't have enough tenure--that plus my attitude meant I got the ax.
It was Friday, and I just pulled in to get the orders for the day. I walked into the office, and right away I could tell something was wrong. The air was as thick as molasses. All the guys in there started walking out. I looked over and there was Jake.
"Chambers," Jake muttered like he had a mouth full of marbles.
Jake was a company man, about 55 years old, with a big scar running across his forehead. Jake's belly preceded him, and he liked to put his cigarettes in his T-shirt sleeve. Jake was fond of his newfound position, and he liked to flaunt his power. He liked to brag about the fight that won him his scar and how he'd beat the crap pout of the guy. I think the scar was like a trophy to him. He liked to show it off the way some people like to show off deer heads. Jake wore faded white shirts and baggy pants. He liked to talk, but never had much to say.
"I need to talk to you." Jake raised his voice, with authority.
I sat down in the chair and listened to him tell me about how much he liked my work, but I was still getting laid off. It's always the same. First, they tell you how great you are, and then they kick your ass out.
I sat there while Jake gave his little talk and then showed me his graphs and charts. Finally he quit talking. I looked at Jake for a few seconds, and then it was my turn.
"Listen, you jerk. I don't give a shit that the company is losing money. I just know that I'm not going to be eating because of your sorry ass, so I think you can take your company, and the charts and graphs, and shove it." I got up to leave.
"Now don't get sore."
"Get out of my way." I grabbed Jake and shoved him back into the chair. He fell with a grunt while I opened the door leading outside. I sensed the news of my demise had spread around the yard because all the drivers were talking and looking over at me. So I got into my car and sped off.
I floored the gas pedal of the 1957 Mercury and raced to nowhere in particular. I drove around for a while before deciding to go home and break the news to Kitty. I've only been fired twice, but both times it felt like a shock. As if what they're really telling you is that you don't make the grade or you're not worthy. The first time I got fired was when I was working at a pawnshop. I had a customer come in and buy thirty-four sets of hubcaps, in the process clearing out about twelve rows of shelving for new merchandise. At the end of the day they fired me-because I had taken a Saturday off the week before. I went home to lick my wounds, and the next day the boss called and asked me to come back to work. I told him to kiss my ass. The company must've wanted to see how badly I needed the money.
After driving a few more blocks I pulled around to the back of the house. I nosed into the driveway and noticed Kitty's car was there. I put the car in park and got out. The car shuddered as I slammed the door and headed in.
When I opened the door I saw Kitty sitting on the couch watching television. I sat down next to her, and she smirked at me in her familiar way.
"What's wrong, baby?" she asked, her favorite soap opera, "The Secret Storm," playing in the background. I didn't wait for a commercial break.
"I got fired."
"You what?" Kitty grimaced.
She turned off the television and put her head in her hands. She seemed distressed. I looked at Kitty and her strained demeanor. Usually she was so glad to see me, but now she was agitated and uneasy.
"What are you going to do now?" Kitty's question sliced the air. She sighed and handed me a bill from the utility company. In large red letters at the top was the scheduled termination date.
"I could go look for another job ..." I said.
"Good luck. I haven't been able to find work for weeks ... and now you. The rent is due and the utility company is going to shut off our power." Kitty began to weep, and I tried to comfort her in silence as the Dallas afternoon turned to dusk.
THE THREE SOULS
There was a loud knock at the door. I cracked the door and saw two policemen. One was heavyset, with a round face and beady brown eyes. He held his nightstick with authority. The other policeman was thin and had a subtle smirk on his face. He stood with his feet firmly planted on the ground and his hands to his side. His steel blue eyes cut into me.
"Is your name Johnny Chambers?" The heavyset policeman asked quickly. "We'd like to talk to you, if you could step outside."
The words sounded ominous. As I opened the door I paused, deciding to question their authority.
"May I see some identification?" Both policemen show me their badges and ID, and as I looked them over I said to myself, "I know this is the real thing. These are real policemen with real jobs, and they are about to interview me for some reason that I don't know about." Oh, I'd been thrown out of a few places. I'd written a hot check or two, although I usually took care of them. But this was serious. These guys meant business, and I had no idea what it was about.
"Put your hands up in the air when you come out of the door and listen to my instructions." The heavyset policeman grabbed my hand, and I heard the familiar quick click of handcuffs being secured around my wrist.
"You're cuffing me? What's the charge, officer?" I asked, but whatever the reason, this situation was going downhill fast.
"What's he done?" Kitty's voice chimed. I could see I was heading to jail, and I didn't have a clue what would happen after that. I was led to the patrol car and squeezed into the back seat. I looked around and noticed the shotgun rack located between the front and back seat. The heavyset-policeman sat in the driver's seat and the thin officer sat in the passenger seat. They gave me their names but still hadn't told me what I was charged with. There I was, just an unemployed truck driver waiting to hear the charges. The police radio blared incessantly as the two policemen rifled through sheets of papers with numbers printed on them. I looked over to see Kitty peering through the screen door. She had a perturbed look on her face and stepped away from the door to sit on the couch.
"Can you tell me your names and what I'm being charged with?" I asked again.
"My name is Officer Bates and this is Officer Halston." said the heavyset policeman.
"Have you ever owned a Smith and Wesson .357 magnum with serial number 048765431?" said Bates.
I thought about that gun, and after a few minutes it came to me. Howie had used my car at work, and I had that gun under the front seat. A couple of days later when I looked for the gun I couldn't find it. I didn't see why these clowns were questioning me. I didn't have that gun.
"I loaned my car to Howie at work, and the gun was in the car."
"Where's Howie?" Bates chimed in gruffly.
"He left work soon after that and I haven't seen him since." I said, trying to assure both officers that I was not their man.
"This gun was involved in a robbery. It was found in a dumpster not far from the crime scene. The serial number is linked to you and the handgun had your prints on it, and that's why you are being questioned." Officer Bates grabbed the radio, spouting a bunch of jargon about me, then rattled off a group of numbers. The two policemen seemed excited. So this was the payoff for cops, even when they had the wrong person.
I could see them getting excited when they executed somebody. Who cares if it's the right person, as long as someone's paying the price, right? I started thinking about how Howie framed me on this one. He borrowed my car, robbed a store, and conveniently left my gun around so it could be traced back to me. What a con job. Leave it to Howie to dream up that plan.
"We're going to take you down to the police station and formally charge you," Bates said.
"Halston, let's get going."
Halston started talking, and I drifted off, replaying the day's events in my mind. It was such a blur that it was hard to make sense of. I still couldn't believe what Howie'd done, but it all seemed to fit. He'd left work soon after borrowing my car, and he probably told Jake a few things to get me fired while he was at it. Now I was probably going to go to prison because of that jerk-off, and there was nothing I could do about it. Kitty had an anguished look on her face as the two cops cracked jokes and talked about what they were going to eat for dinner.
What a life. They go from house to house arresting people, then they crack jokes about it and go drink coffee with their cronies and talk about all the jerks they hauled off to the police station that day. Hell, I'd like to slap the cuffs on those two clowns and see how they liked it.
The police car hummed along at a fast pace, and Halston looked at me and smirked. Bates seemed to be in an especially good mood, as he waved his hands back and forth and both cops started laughing. My heart sunk as the police station came into full view.
I was escorted into the station, where they took mug shots and fingerprints. Once they finished the whole booking routine I was shuffled around between cells. I called Kitty a few times to explain the situation to her. She was still trying to find work and not having much luck. She had to pawn a few things to pay the utility bill. I tried to get a lawyer to take the case, but with no money to pay him I had to use a court-appointed attorney.
The case was really stacked against me. Howie had used my gun to rob the corner store. He switched out my plates on my car with some California plates, so it took a while to trace the car. He and I are the same age, the same build, and have the same hair color. He wore a stocking over his face to prevent identification. All the evidence pointed to me, even though I didn't commit the crime. My attorney tried his best, but I didn't have an alibi or any financial means to fight the case.
I finally went to court on December 15, 1960. I was getting tired of sitting in that damn jail cell. The food sucked and there was hardly anything to read. They liked to cram religious stuff down my throat, and the stuff they offered is slanted toward reform. Hell, I don't need reform. I didn't even commit a crime. I'd been watching a lot of television and the President kept talking about commies. The country was always talking about the Communist threat. It was like a venereal disease; if you just happened to talk to a Russian then suddenly you were looked upon with suspicion, as if you'd contracted something.
The big day finally came, and I sat there in court waiting to hear the sentencing. I looked over at Kitty, and she looked so beautiful. She had on a black dress and her dark hair was pulled back neatly. Her lips were ruby red and her tan highlighted her shapely figure. Man, I missed her, especially those early morning sex romps on Sunday.
"All rise." I was jerked back down to earth when I saw the judge enter the courtroom. Judge Jennings, a slightly balding man with wisps of gray hair framing his ruddy complexion, spoke with authority as he took the lead in my case.
"Will the defendant please rise?" the bailiff bellowed as I looked to see the judge who would set my sentence. I rose slowly and the judge began to speak.
"Mr. Chambers, since the court has already convicted you of the crime in a court of law, I am sentencing you to five years in the Huntsville prison. You shall serve a minimum of three years before you are eligible for parole. Is there anything you want to say to the court?"
"Yes, sir, there is."
"You may speak to the court briefly," the judge said.
I got up quickly and saw my parents were in the courtroom as well as Kitty. There were only a few other spectators.
"I just want to say that I am not guilty, and I think it is a case of mistaken identity. Someone borrowed my car and used my gun to commit a crime, and then framed me for it. I hope the criminal will one day be caught and brought to justice. The other thing is I couldn't afford the legal counsel of my choice, and I believe I would have been proved innocent if I hadn't had a court-appointed lawyer. That's all I'd like to say."
I sat down for a few seconds, feeling better for having gotten that off my chest. I'd been sitting in that damn jail cell so long and I just wanted to tell somebody.
"Will the bailiff please remove the prisoner?" the judge said as he rose to go back to the judge's chambers.
As I was led away I looked back and saw Kitty crying and my dad and my mom clutching each other nervously. The corner storeowner was there and smiling confidently knowing that someone would pay for robbing his store. I heard my attorney mumble a few words about getting me out on appeal as I was whisked back to my jail cell to await departure for the penitentiary. Penitentiary has always seemed such an ominous word to me. I remember growing up as a kid and seeing that word in a dictionary and feeling a chill go up my spine. I never thought I would be sitting in one for three years, much less five. What if I never get out of the place? I shivered as I tried to banish that thought from my head. My cuffs were removed, and I lay on the cot and drifted off to sleep.
I had recurring dreams about reincarnation. The dream started off with me meeting someone who had been there before. I then saw myself talking to others in higher places. I didn't know what it meant. It had been a long day, and maybe I'd learn more later.
Excerpted from "The Three Souls"
Copyright © 2018 Bill Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of BookBaby.
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