Donna McLanahan

Common Ground

She'd pulled into the prison parking lot like she was going to Wal-Mart. Now that Sondra was at the Indiana State Penitentiary, she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. She didn’t expect it to be so easy, pulling in right off the street. Of course she could see the razor wire and the guard house she would have to walk through, be searched. From her Eastern Kentucky home, without telling anyone, she’d planned this trip to see a convicted killer so she could confess to turning him in.

          No one knew where she was, not even her husband of twenty-five years, Calvin, from whom she had never kept secrets. It wasn’t like she was having an affair. The convict was family for God’s sake, even if she barely knew him. Still, if anyone had discovered her plans they would have talked her out of it. She could hear their voices in her head, but for the first time, her own voice was louder than the rest. Loud enough to pull directions off the internet, fake plans for the weekend and drive two hundred fifty six miles.

          She had dressed modestly in black dress slacks and a turtle neck, but now the neck choked her. Nauseous, she backed out. By the time she reached the restroom at a nearby Pilot, her knees buckled and she gagged and splattered spew into the sink and across her blouse. She held on to the sink’s cold porcelain edge, clinging to consciousness. The room went dark, sounds echoed around her ringing ears as if she were in a barrel. When she recovered, she pulled her shoulder length hair back with one hand and splashed water on her face.

          Guilt was her worst enemy. All her decisions seemed to revolve around somebody else’s happiness. A politician’s wife and mother of three, she’d become acutely aware of what other people expected of her, but had no idea what to expect of herself. Since her last child moved to college, she’d become a cliché, a woman who needed to find herself. To do that, she would have to go back to the last time she was sure of who she was.

When Sondra was eight years old, her first cousin, Allen, was convicted of killing a sheriff in Indiana. Before that, he was just one of many of her dad’s nephews who stopped to visit their favorite uncle. She remembered him James Dean standing in the front yard, foot on the bumper of his latest car, hood up and hovering over the engine, a cigarette in his mouth. He was part of her childhood scenery, but that’s about all. There were so many cousins, and he, like most of the others moved to Indiana to find work. He found trouble instead.

          For weeks before his conviction, Allen was on the run, his picture on the news every night. Everyone believed he was in Kentucky where his mother lived, next door to Sondra’s parents. Deputies staked out the homes, barns and outbuildings of all Allen’s relatives. It was a time of pulling together and staying close while being watched and followed. A time of secrets. Adults spoke in hushed tones. Sondra wasn’t sure who she was supposed to be afraid of, the police or her very own cousin, Allen.

          She and her brother, Eli, played spies, listened in, looked for clues, anything out of the ordinary. They called themselves the Eagle Eye Detective Agency. One day they found bread sacks and the strings from baloney wrappers in grandpa’s barn. Even though their dad had assured them he’d packed his lunch to work on the farm, they weren’t so sure. Eli told her all sorts of stories. She felt like a real detective. But at the end of the day, she went to bed with the fear, doubt and suspicion that crossed family lines, unspoken.

          Her mother hung a blanket over her window and filled her bed with every stuffed animal she owned, a comfort ritual she maintained for years. Even now, years later, remnants of paranoia accompanied her into dark rooms. But the darkest skeleton in her closet was the one she had put there, talking to the police all those years ago when her mother had told her to stay away from them.

          Though Allen was a fugitive for only three weeks, it marked a turning point for Sondra. Her family had become known. Everybody talked to them or about them. True Crime wrote a story, with pictures. Kids at school repeated adult words, such as killer and electric chair. Words she had no images for. Later, when the song, “I Shot the Sheriff” was released, Sondra would be convinced it was about Allen.

          Reporters kept saying, “If he gets down in those Kentucky hills, he may never be found.” Even Sondra knew places to hide nobody would think to look. Searchers from Indiana got precious little help from the locals. Her mother had seen uniforms across the road from their house, hiding behind the trees. She’d had enough. She marched out to the road and yelled for them to come on up and eat something, her way of letting them know they’d been spotted. Sondra had never met real policemen before, so, while they were eating, she stood beside them bragging about her and Eli’s detective agency.

          “Sondra started talking when she was four months old and hasn’t stopped yet,” her mother said. “Sondra, come inside…now.” But, Sondra thought it was exciting to talk to them. They seemed real interested in her story. She’d told them about the baloney and bread remnants they’d found and about the best hiding place on their farm, on the mountain behind the barn. There was an animal path overgrown by brush, a crawl space through loose slate, leading over the side of the cliff, to an opening of a small cave. Just below that, a spring. Sondra and Eli had pushed a pipe into the ground for a spigot and hung a cup from a tree branch. They played there all the time until Eli convinced her Allen could be hiding there. She’d believed it and even though he’d sworn her to secrecy, she’d told.

          After Allen was arrested, everything returned to normal so fast it seemed like a dream. People just stopped talking about him. It was over. Yesterday’s news. But for Sondra, the ghost of his existence haunted family gatherings and dinner tables in a loud silence. His name was never spoken. Sondra was sure she’d led them to him. She couldn’t tell anyone. Soon she started feeling she’d betrayed her family. A big secret for a small girl. Kept for years, it was a splinter buried deep, rising to the surface, one whose time had come.

Sondra dotted the spots on her blouse with water and stood under the hand dryer. It felt good on her clammy skin. Allen could no longer be the sore subject she’d pushed to the back of her mind, trying not to think about his life or lack of it. One way or another she was determined to get a grip on the guilt that haunted her. When she’d written to say hello, asked if he remembered her, she had been in her own home and he was someplace far away. Now, with reality staring her in the face, fear burnt inside her like a hot coal. She wanted to go home, but her journey had just begun. She began a mantra as she re-applied her makeup. “It will be will be okay...”

          She checked her watch and went back to the car. Visiting hours would begin soon. She searched her CD case for something with a calming effect, let the soulful mountain voice of Patty Loveless comfort her like an old friend as she drove back to the prison.

          It had been thirty-eight years since Allen went to prison. She couldn’t imagine the life he had grown accustomed to. She would be forty-six this year. Not old, she’d told herself, plenty of time to start over. Allen, fifty-nine years old, would never have that option. He was twenty-one when he went to prison, the same age she was when she got married.

          Patty Loveless quit singing. The car was silent. She barely remembered pulling in, parking. Sondra opened the car door, took a deep breath and willed her fluid legs to become solid. Once she found her standing bones she pushed them toward the guard station where a line had formed. Signing in, she was given the key to a locker inside the guard’s shack and told to leave everything behind except her identification and $3.00 in change for vending machines. She took the exact amount out of her purse and placed it, her driver’s license and the locker key in a basket beside the metal detector. The rest went in the locker. Her heart beat as if she’d run a footrace, breathing shallow, mouth dry. She would need that vending machine. She walked through the metal detector with no beeps, yet still had to be patted down. Hands shaking, she returned the change to her pants pocket, leaving her driver’s license with the key to her locker on a shelf as instructed. She felt violated, scared and alone, the slightest hint of Allen’s life.

          The flat, wide open spaces didn’t help as she and the other visitors walked the long sidewalk into the complex. She’d always felt safer snuggled beneath the shoulders of a mountain, especially this time of year. The fiery reds and oranges nestled against a backdrop of brown, yellow and green reminded her of her grandmother’s quilts. Not here, it was colder here, no windbreaks among strangers. A grey existence of barbed wire and buildings made up the view, little obstruction to a distant horizon of factories and smoke stacks. The smell of baking bread, though tainted with the odor of industry warmed her senses. On the other side of the wire were Butternut delivery trucks backed up against a dock. The fence resembled a giant colander, keeping everything out but the smell.

          The visiting room looked like a high school cafeteria, surrounded by large windows. The blinds were closed. There were two vending machines, Coke and Pepsi. In the minutes waiting for the prisoners to arrive, Sondra downed a Diet Mountain Dew and went to the restroom before finding an empty table. The scene reminded her of the way airports used to be, when people could wait at the gate for their loved ones to step off a plane. Here visitors had to stay seated until the inmates joined them.

          The men filed in one at a time, scanned the room for their visitor. She wasn’t sure why, maybe the movies, but Sondra expected them to look rough, haggard, dirty even. They weren’t. Except for being dressed alike in brown uniforms, they were mostly tan, well-built regular looking guys, not the hardened faces of criminals. She guessed it would be a process of elimination when all the other tables were filled and she sat there alone, but it was much easier than that. Allen walked into the room and looked around until his eyes landed on Sondra and then stopped. He slowly approached the table and sat down, no words. There was no denying they were kin. They had the same nose, crow’s feet around the eyes, and their hair had aged to the exact same brown. He didn’t even have as much gray as Sondra. He looked young, younger than fifty-nine and younger than someone who had spent his life in prison. Sondra could tell Allen was as shocked as she was. She hadn’t thought of it before, how much they could possibly resemble one another.

          Their conversation was slow at first. The similarity in their looks glued it together until they felt more comfortable.

          “You sound like home,” Allen said.

          “You’re not that far away,” Sondra said, “Aren’t there other people in here from Kentucky?”

          “It doesn’t matter where you’re from once you’re here, everything changes.” Sondra had heard some men talking in what sounded like a different language, some kind of prison lingo and asked Allen about it. She wanted to know everything about this foreign land but he side-stepped any talk of the prison and prodded her about stories from home, she thought as much as anything because he wanted to hear her talk. “Do you remember the ‘pant bank’?” It was the name her grandfather had given the slate bank on the ridge behind his barn that overlooked the river. The place she came to talk about.

          “Sure, I do!” Sondra said. “But, I never knew why it was called that.”

          “Your dad is the first one to show me that place. He said it was because we panted all the way to the top. But, I think it was named for panthers. He just didn’t want to scare me. I used to take my BB gun up there all the time, then later the .410, then the .22. Allen’s eyes were fixed on nothing in particular.

          “Yeah, Eli and I played there too. Until…”

          “There was one big hickory tree that hung over that cliff, stood out from the rest in a funny sort of way. I used it for target practice. I’d try to knock loose bark off the side of it.” The story he was telling could have been hers. Somewhere in their words he became a real person, no longer the monster of her childhood nightmares.

          “I actually got to be a pretty good shot up there myself. It’s a wonder that tree has survived with all the abuse it’s taken. All it did to anybody was stick out a little funny” Sondra said. She and Allen both grinned and caught eye contact for a second before looking away. A kid at the next table stacked up his mother’s coins, and then knocked them over. She was glad for the distraction.

          “Do you want something to drink?” she asked.

          “Sure. I’m dry as toast,” Allen said, “How about a Diet Mountain Dew.”

          Sondra stood up, fingered the change in her pocket and turned toward the Pepsi machine beside the window. She wondered how she’d approach the subject of turning him in. She was beginning to feel a connection to this stranger who shared her gene pool, her memories, not to mention her taste in soda. It was much easier when the bad guys were locked up and the good guys were free. Sondra put three quarters in the slot then absent-mindedly reached to open the blinds. A guard rushed over.

          “The blinds stay closed!” His voice deep and loud like a base drum echoed through the room. Sondra jumped back, embarrassed. She wasn’t just having a family reunion. This man was serious, this was a prison. She returned to the table with Allen’s drink and tried to sum him up as he gulped. Allen had been convicted by a jury. Even if Sondra told where he was, he was a murderer, wasn’t he? Still, she didn’t want to be the one who’d ratted him out.

          An intercom buzzed and a voice from outside the room filled the air, “Visiting time will be over in five minutes.” She couldn’t believe an hour had passed already.

          “Whatever it is that brought you here, Sondra…” Allen reached across the table and took her hand, “I’m glad you came.” Her heart pulsed in her throat, her breathing shallow.

          “Allen, I came because something’s been bothering me. Something I did…when I was little…when you were hiding.” Allen slumped forward, but not in an exaggerated way. More like on a picnic when the sun comes out from behind a cloud and the cool breeze dies, and everything is still, leaving an uncomfortable heat. She had seen this same gesture of disappointment in her father’s posture when she was a teenager and had wrecked the family car. “I’m sorry,” she said.

          “It’s okay, I just don’t like to talk about it.”

          “I talked to the police. I told them about the pant bank and the cave. They would’ve never known about it if I hadn’t told. I was bragging about Eli and me thinking we were detectives.” She had tears in her eyes but Allen laughed out loud.

          “I’m sorry for laughing at you, Sondra, but you think you got me caught? I wasn’t back there.”

          “You never were around home, with all those police and dogs everywhere. I was sure of it. Everybody was. They watched us come and go for weeks.”

          “Well, I’m sorry about that too, but no. Uncle Mitch, remember? Arkansas. It was the farthest away I could think of at the time. But, all along the way I kept seeing myself on the news. I was so relieved to get to his house just to find out he’d been questioned, too. It was no use.”

          Sondra felt foolish. Maybe the police hadn’t even taken her seriously in the first place. Her mind raced to wrap itself around this new information. She’d felt guilty for years.

          “After my head cleared what I’d done, I gave up. They weren’t gonna stop till I was caught or dead. I got too scared to run anymore so I let Uncle Mitch call the police.”

          “You turned yourself in?”

          “I didn’t mean to hurt nobody. Hell, I just wasn’t thinking about nothing but easy money.” His words familiar now. “In a weird way I thought I was defending myself. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I was breaking the law. It was an adventure.”

          “Of a lifetime,” Sondra said. Allen’s eyes fell toward the table where his fingers tapped a beat. “Thanks for telling me,” she said.

          “It’s okay. Maybe you’re one who can hear the truth and not just the facts,” Allen said. Sondra took his hand, felt his blood pulse between her fingers. “Nobody was supposed to be there. I just always carried a pistol and that Sheriff showed up and pulled his gun on me. Lord, he scared me.” He looked up at Sondra who held his gaze. “I always was a good shot.”

          Two loud, short blasts of a buzzer broke their bond. Allen stood, stiffened his back, and joined the line of convicts. Sondra watched until he disappeared.

          To leave that prison a free woman, Sondra would take Allen with her, in stories and memories carried back to his family. To the land that remembered his small feet romping across patches of dirt. To the mountains that would never forget.