The King of LiesBy: John Hart
I’ve heard it said that jail stinks of despair. What a load. If jail stinks of any emotion, it’s fear: fear of the guards, fear of being beaten or gang-raped, fear of being forgotten by those who once loved you and may or may not anymore. But mostly, I think, it’s fear of time and of those dark things that dwell in the unexplored corners of the mind. Doing time, they call it—what a joke. I’ve been around long enough to know the reality: It’s the time that does you.
For some time, I’d been bathed in that jailhouse perfume, sitting knee-to-knee with a client who’d just gotten life without parole. The trial had damned him, as I’d told him it would. The state’s evidence was overwhelming, and the jury had zero sympathy for a three-time loser who had shot his brother during an argument about who’d get control of the remote. Twelve of his supposed peers, and not one cared that he’d been drinking, that he was cracked to the gills, or that he didn’t mean to do it. No one cared that his brother was an ass and a felon in his own right, not the jury and least of all me. All I wanted was to explain his appeal rights, answer any legal questions, and get the hell out. My fee application to the state of North Carolina would wait until the morning.
On most days I was ambivalent, at best, about my chosen profession, but on days like this I hated being a lawyer; that hatred ran so deep that I feared something must be wrong with me. I hid it as others would a perversion. And this day was worse than most. Maybe it was the case or the client or the emotional aftermath of one more needless tragedy. I’d been in that room a hundred times, but for some reason it felt different this time. The walls seemed to shift and I felt a momentary disorientation. I tried to shake it off, cleared my throat, and stood. We’d had bad facts, but the decision to go to trial had not been mine to make. When he’d stumbled from the trailer, bloody and weeping, he’d had the gun in one hand, the remote control in the other. It was broad daylight and he was out-of-his-head drunk. The neighbor looked out the window when my client started screaming. He saw the blood, the gun, and called the cops. No lawyer could have won the trial—I’d told him as much. I could have had him out in ten, but he refused to take the plea arrangement I’d negotiated. He wouldn’t even talk about it.
The guilt may have been too much, or perhaps some part of him needed the punishment. Whatever the case, it was over now.
He finally tore his gaze from the jail-issue flip-flops that had known a thousand feet before his and forced his eyes to mine. Wet nostrils shone in the hard light, and his red eyes jittered, terrified of whatever they saw in that jigsaw mind of his. He’d pulled the trigger, and that brutal truth had finally taken root. The trail had wound its way across his face as we’d talked for the past few hours. His denials had sputtered to a halt, and I’d watched, untouchable, as hope shriveled and died. I’d seen it all before.
A sopping wet cough, his right forearm smearing mucus across his cheek. “So that’s it, then?” he asked.
I didn’t bother to answer. He was already nodding to himself, and I could see his thoughts as if written in the dank air that hung between us: life without parole and him not yet twenty-three. It generally took days for this brutal truth to bore through the bullshit tough-guy act that every dumb-ass killer carried into this place like some kind of sick birthright. Maybe this joker was smarter than I’d given him credit for. In the brief time since the judge handed down his sentence, he’d grown the lifer stare. Fifty, maybe sixty years behind the same redbrick walls. No chance of parole. Not twenty years, not thirty or even forty, but life, in caps. It would kill me, and that is God’s own truth.
A glance at my watch told me I’d been in there for almost two hours, which was my limit. I knew from experience that the smell had by now permeated my clothes, and I could see the dampness where his hands had pawed at my jacket. He saw the watch come up and he lowered his eyes. His words evaporated in the still air, leaving a vacuum that my body settled into as I stood. I didn’t reach to shake his hand and he didn’t reach for mine, but I noticed a new palsy in his fingers.