One Saturday morning in June 2007, the phone rang.
“Hey brother, guess where I am!?! Never mind, you’ll never guess. I’m at the Greyhound Bus Depot! Just pulled in.”
“Ah, um, that’s nice, but I’m on my way to Vincennes this afternoon to sing at a little church in the morning. Come along if you’d like. Mia and the kids are out of town.”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Pick me up.”
So, after enduring a 22-hour Greyhound bus ride from Shreveport to Indianapolis, Kurt watched for Karl to pick him up at 350 Illinois Street. Off they went, down Interstate 70, heading southwest all the way to Vincennes. Those two hours flew by as Kurt, then 46, gave his big brother Karl the CliffsNotes version of the circumstances that drove him out of Louisiana back to his hometown of Indianapolis.
About how he had just been released from the county jail near Bossier City, Louisiana, serving a year on a charge of “failure to appear.” Seems something got in the way of his court date after being arrested for walking out of a store with a case of beer. He got out early on good behavior and he was free for now, but there were still bench warrants out for his arrest because of a few bad checks he had written. He went to another brother for help, but having long since wore out that welcome, he was met with, “Here’s the best I can do for you: I can give you a ride to the bus station and buy you a one-way ticket to back to Indy.”
When he stepped out into the bright sunlight on Illinois Street, after riding a Greyhound Bus for the last 22 hours, Karl remembers thinking his little brother had the unmistakable look of someone fresh out of prison. Long Gregg Allman looking hair (without the benefit of shampoo not to mention rock-star hair products or stylists at his beckon call.) All his earthly possessions were on his back or in the little old suitcase he probably picked up at a shelter along the way.
But just a few hours later, in Vincennes, after a nice hot shower and a big steak dinner, he was sound asleep in Karl’s hotel room. The next morning, he sang harmony on I’ll Fly Away. Karl remembers thinking they sounded really good together, like they had practiced or something. Kurt was so appreciative and grateful for every little thing. He felt safe and loved for the first time in a very long time.
Sunday afternoon Karl and Kurt got home about the time that Jackson and I pulled in the driveway from a soccer tournament in Fort Wayne. Walker and some friends were playing basketball in our driveway. Karl had given me a heads up that we had a house guest.
And here is how I remember what happened next.
It was a perfect summer evening in the suburbs. The scent of freshly cut green grass was delicious. The sounds of happy children playing echoed across the neighborhood. Families riding bikes greeted us by name as they waved. Bright blue sky with wispy white clouds signaled that all was right with the world. And sitting in my side yard, an assortment of Adirondack chairs painted in pastel colors in the shade of a giant pin oak tree.
I said, “Kurt, come sit with me. Tell me your story. What the heck happened?”
His words began to fill in the nooks and crannies of the 20 plus years since he got out of the Army. How he had moved to Shreveport where his brother Eric lived and looked for work. How he had married a woman two decades his senior. They stayed married for a long time and it sort of made sense to us that he would choose an older woman; after all his own mother abandoned him when he was just 14 years old. Alcohol and weed became habitual around that time and it occurred to me that talking to him was a little like talking to a 14-year-old, perhaps a textbook case of arrested development.
He worked for Eric in the oil business for a while and when that didn’t work out, he got a job working for the county on a road crew patching blacktop and picking up roadkill. He was content and he was paying his bills. Things went well for a number of years. Beer and pot were always a part of his life, but he managed to keep his marriage and his job together, and that was good enough for him.
Then one day he met a younger woman. She was flirty and fun and way prettier and easier to be around than his now aging wife. The problem was, she was addicted to crack and she introduced Kurt to his first bowl.
Kurt took a deep breath and gazed up into the leaves of that old oak tree. “It was like heaven,” he told me. “It is the finest most beautiful experience in the world. Everything melts away and it’s just you alone with heaven. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. It’s like you’ve had a visit from God Almighty Himself. And then you come down and CRASH! You immediately want to experience that same high again. But that’s it. No high is ever like your first high. Just ask any crackhead. But you keep chasing that fantastic feeling of your first high.”
“That is exactly what happened to me. I kept chasing and I ran through every dollar I had. My wife kicked me out, so I lost my home. I missed too many days of work, so I lost my job. I emptied my retirement account and burned through what little inheritance I got from my folks. I even sold that old ’72 Fender Telecaster Karl gave me. When the cops impounded my car after a DUI, I couldn’t afford to pay the ticket and the impound fees, so I lost my car.”
“Oh and the girl? When I couldn’t buy crack for her any longer, she moved on to the next guy who would trade crack for an hour or even a few minutes with her. Addiction is a real bitch, man!”
“I was so down and depressed. This is not who I am. This is not how my life was supposed to be.”
“Then in 2005 those big hurricanes, Katrina and then Rita, brought such a storm to northern Louisiana and it poured buckets for weeks with such strong winds, we had no power and no prospects of getting it back anytime soon. All of Louisiana was under a state of emergency. The girl had run off with God knows who. I was cooped up at a buddy’s place in a trailer that had been, get this, duct taped to another trailer to make a bigger trailer, way out in the middle of nowhere. It was hot as an oven inside, but the relentless torrential rain kept us from going outside.”
“I was alone and broke and broken-hearted. I felt like I was nearing rock-bottom. But guess again.”
“When the rain finally let up, I got the bright idea to walk to the convenience store a few miles away to get some beer. But of course, I had no money, so I walked in, grabbed a six-pack of beer, and walked out. I heard the cashier calling me back but I just kept walking. I made it all the way home and drank my warm beer.”
“It tasted so good that a few days later I went back for more. Walked in. Walked out. This time with a case of beer. Again, I heard the cashier yelling for me to stop.”
“Halfway home on a dirt road, I heard a car. Shit! Cops! I scrambled down into the ditch. They drove by. I snuck back up to the road. A little while later I heard another car. I dove into the ditch. They passed by. Back up to the road. It was so hot and muggy. The mosquitos were the size of damn hummingbirds. And I was carrying a case of beer! The next time that cop car drove by I wasn’t quite quick enough, and they nabbed me. I spent the night in jail.”
“My buddy bailed me out and my court date was months away. When the day came, I somehow did not make it to the courthouse. The girl had long since left me. In time, the police came to my buddy’s place looking for me. I hid. And when they left, my buddy said, “Hey dude. You gotta split. I don’t need this kind of trouble.”
“Long story short, I ended up serving 9 of a 12-month sentence for stealing about $25 worth of beer. I hate to think what it cost them to house me for stealing $25 worth of beer. I know, the charge was “failure to appear” but it was really for walking off with $25 worth of beer and not having the scratch to pay for an attorney.”
“The county jail near Boozier City was more like a huge warehouse for humans, way out in rural northern Louisiana. I got along with everyone for the most part. And if I was assigned a hostile cellmate, I would put in a request for a move and it was always granted. I got out early on good behavior but mostly to make room for the hundreds of non-violent offenders cycled into the hoosegow after falling victim to the habitual offender laws.”
My words here, not Kurt’s: The habitual offender laws are Bill Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” laws which still to this day drive the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.
Kurt continued, “I was one of just a few whites in the place; all the rest were young and poor, black or Hispanic, doing time for possession, not distribution, of dope. Did not seem fair. It’s like those young guys never had a chance in life.”
As Kurt’s story unfolded before me, the sun was heading toward the western horizon and the sky was turning pink.
I had just spent the weekend at a premier soccer tournament where my son had competed at the highest level for his age group. Sitting in those pretty pastel Adirondack chairs, we heard birds chirping and dogs barking hello to joggers passing by. The humidity was low, and the air was fresh and clear. A young couple in helmets glided by on their rollerblades.
My next-door neighbors came out to say hello, on their way to a wedding at the Indiana Roof Ballroom; they were all decked out and gorgeous, like they had just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. Their middle-school aged son was laying, shirtless, on his stomach on their warm driveway, nose to nose with their purebred Vizsla puppy, deep in conversation and mutual admiration.
Another neighbor had finished mowing his lawn, and, with a towel wrapped around his waist, waved hello to us with a bar of soap in his hand, as he walked to another neighbor’s outdoor shower.
My boys and their friends played a friendly game of horse in the driveway. Pushing. Shoving. Talking trash. Taunting. Laughing.
Me? I was hanging on Kurt’s every word.
My brain was hardly able to reconcile these two realities.
And then (you will not believe this!), out of nowhere, two figures appeared and streaked across the yard!
Painted head to toe.
One completely blue and one completely gold. Carmel’s colors: blue and gold.
Sports bras and short shorts!
And that is all.
Except body paint. And bubbly smiles.
Running across my yard.
Right though the driveway pick-up game.
The boys are taken quite by surprise.
Walker recognizes one of them.
And now the chase is on!
The boys catch up with the painted girls in the neighbor’s yard.
And tackle them, of all things!
All we see is a tangle of teens.
Before the world gets a hold of them.
Kurt and I couldn’t believe our eyes. I laugh out loud turning to him and say, “Wow Kurt, if you had known there was so much excitement in the suburbs, I bet you would have come home a lot sooner!
And he agreed.
And the sun set.
As it does every day.
Knowing that today is done.
And behind us.
And when the sun rises in the morning
It is a new day.
All things new.
All things begin anew.
I wish I could tell you that Kurt got his shit together and we all lived happily ever after, but that’s not exactly how it turned out. But, as Oprah says, that’s another show for another time.