Marcus led the prisoner—his name was Jacob—down the old, dim hallway of the Maryland State Penitentiary. Marcus only knew what he was told: Jacob had been convicted of kidnapping and first-degree murder; He was on death row.
“Here you go. Home,” Marcus said. He unlocked the single cell. The door creaked as it opened. Jacob ducked as he stepped inside and turned around to face Marcus. Looking up at Jacob, Marcus was drawn to his eyes. They had no sparkle, no life, and the outside corners dipped down toward his cheeks in a frown. The door slammed with a clang of finality. Marcus removed the cuffs from Jacob’s large, rough hands and turned to leave. He wondered how a man with such sad eyes had ended up in place like this. Marcus walked back down the hall and stopped outside the warden’s office. He opened the door and stepped inside.
“Yes?” The warden raised his head and his eyebrows at Marcus, his small skinny frame overtaken by the giant door.
“I was wondering if I could get the assistance of an inmate in moving some things around the library while I update security in the room,” Marcus asked, stumbling over his words. “Lots of heavy bookshelves that need moved around,”
“I suppose we could arrange that.” The warden peered over the rims of his glasses at Marcus, all too familiar with the favors officers often do for inmates. “Any particular prisoner you have in mind?”
So Marcus and the inmate with the sad eyes began working together, and forged an unlikely friendship. A friendship that was, however, rather shallow. Marcus, for example, would never tell Jacob about his divorce, the wife that left him because he had a heavy hand with his whiskey, and once, just once, laid a heavy hand across her face. Jacob would never divulge the details of his crime, of whether he was innocent or not—he had plead not guilty at his trial—and would never talk about his appeals, although his sad eyes always gave him away. Jacob would never tell Marcus about his wife who refused to divorce him, who after ten years of blissful marriage refused to believe the jury, the evidence, and the prosecution. And Marcus would never tell Jacob about being a detective, fired because of alcoholism and a gambling addiction he developed after his wife left him, and how he spent his nights looking for an easy lay, and when we couldn’t get one he ended up paying for one. They would never talk about the thing they had most in common—their fall from their lives, from their dreams.
For the next ten days though, the two shared that walk down the old, dim hallway of the Maryland State Penitentiary twice a day. They worked in the small room lined with shelves and with one window, the room the prison dubbed the library for its small collection of books. They ate lunch together and discovered their love of football, their dislike of politics, and their hearty laughs that would fill the small room.
For the next 11 months, Marcus always found a job for Jacob in the prison, and they spent nearly every day together. They talked. They talked about football—the Stealers were better than the Patriots, even if the Pats did have Tom Brady, Jacob said—and they talked about politics—everyone’s just a crook, except for Clinton, the only thing he did wrong was sleep with his secretary, Marcus said—and they talked about the weather—snowed today, I hate the snow, Jacob said. Marcus began to doubt the accusations against Jacob. His kind, gentle demeanor and his sad, consoling eyes told Marcus they had got it wrong. The whole system had got it wrong.
In a couple months, when Jacob would return from his last appeal, Marcus would finally ask about the trial, about the crime.
“Did you do it, Jacob?”
“How can you ask me that, after all this time?”
“Just please tell me. I have to know. Did you do it? Did you kill that woman?”
“Whether I did it or not, my fate is sealed. I won’t get to go to that Stealers’ game and I won’t get to see my family outside of these walls. That’s the funny thing about all this, you know, is you didn’t get to see me as I was, before I fell. Before all this. We could have been great friends, you and me.”
“We are friends, that’s why I gotta know. I have to know.”
“Why? If we’re friends, what would it change.”
“Just tell me you didn’t do it.” Those sad, consoling eyes looked at Marcus. The outside corners drooped a little further.
“I can’t do that.”
Marcus would stop finding jobs for Jacob, and he would only see him one more time. When that time came, Jacob would stand, arms outstretched through the bars of his cell, and Marcus would handcuff him and open the creaking door. And they would walk together down that old, dim hallway of the Maryland State Penitentiary one last time. Jacob’s cell door would shut with a clang of finality.