Never the Same

Fred Leonard

Copyright, 2002
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It's Christmas Eve and all through the block the sounds of time bounce off the walls. A new style of music is formed by the radios, each on a different station.

The jingle of keys rings out as the guard makes his rounds. In a six by eight world, each prisoner is lost in his own thoughts. Outside the snow is softly falling into the bright lights, which shine on the cell house walls.

I can't seem to get the subject of fate out of my mind. That little thing tells the snowflake on which side of the wall it will fall. Inches make up the line between the free and the imprisoned. It's fate that makes our lives, and fate, which has caused me to take a new look at life.

I know now Christmas will never be the same again. After seeing the facts I want to run out and tell the world about the injustice of the system. But who will believe me? I lost all credibility the day the judge sentenced me to prison for robbery.

Let me back up to the beginning and you'll see what I mean. I spent my first two Christmases feeling sorry for myself for being behind bars. This year, though, I have accepted the situation and have tried to make the best of it. Having taken my eyes off my own problems, I can see now how others are affected by the holidays.

The most noticeable case is Chris, an old timer who is normally a very cheerful, outgoing person. He has started to withdraw. A short stocky man of about sixty, Chris is considered by most to be a loner. He does not stay with one group of friends. Instead, he considers everyone a friend, and in the course of a day he'll talk with someone from each of the groups on the yard.

Around the first of December he stopped visiting and withdrew within himself. I asked a few friends if they could shed some light on his depression. All they could say was he's always that way in December. I told myself it was none of my business and went on with my own Christmas plans.

To give my cell a holiday look, I cut an eight-by-ten inch picture of a Christmas tree beside a fireplace out of the newspaper. I hung it on a shelf and highlighted it with a candy cane on each side. As the Christmas cards arrived, I placed them in different places around the cell. This led to a lot of kidding by my friends, who put up the front that Christmas doesn't mean anything special, it's just another day.

On the 15th, I noticed something was really wrong with Chris. I was walking down the tier when I noticed him looking into my cell. At first I didn't think much about it, we were waiting for the guard to open our cell door. As I drew nearer I saw he was crying. The tears were rolling down his round cheeks into his dirty white beard. He hadn't noticed my approach, because when I asked him if there was anything wrong, he flinched, looked up, and shook his head, and moved on to his cell.

The next morning I made up my mind to find out why Chris acted the way he did. I figured the best place to start would be to ask Critter. I knew if there were anyone around who would know why he acted the way he did, that it would be him. Critter, one of the last of the old time gangsters, was busted in '68 at the age of forty-two after a three day shootout which left him and a number of other people hospitalized. For years he has grown old watching the seasons pass.

Critter was sitting in his timeworn spot on a bench in the corner of the yard, with his pipe in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. As I sat down I noticed the shine off his jeans and knew it had been at least three months since they'd been washed. I told him how Chris acted the night before, and asked if he knew anything, which might explain his actions.

"Chris is Different" Critter said. "That old man has more heart than any ten men on this yard." Critter brought his pipe up to his mouth and started puffing, trying to bring the small spark back to life. Once the pipe was going again, he continued: "I only know what's been said over the years. It seems he was busted back in December of '46 for burglary. It just happened to be the Sheriff's house. The Sheriff took it personally and beat him up bad enough to put him in the hospital. I guess he wanted to make an example of him. Chris would have been out in '49 or '50, but in the winter of '47, he tried to break out. Now this is where it gets a little questionable. The way the story goes he made it to the roof with the help of two guys from the streets, they say they were kids, but I don't know of any kids who would bust some guy out of a joint. Someone tried, though, and it got messy. When the shooting started the little guys were killed, along with a guard. Even though the guards did the killing, Chris got the blame."

Critter looked down into his coffee and watched the ripples for a while. I took that as my cue to leave. "Thanks," I said as I got up.

Critter reached out and grabbed my arm. In a slow voice he said "Leave it be. There are some things that are better off left alone, and his past is one of them." Critter's face got tight and he returned his gaze to his coffee cup. The last thing I heard as I was leaving was: "He hasn't aged a day since I arrived in '68."

I didn't give much thought to Critter's last statement until tonight. Now as I sit here with Chris's words ringing in my ears, it all makes sense.

Before lock down tonight, Chris stopped by. He looked in and asked, "Did you find any answers to your questions about me?" I got a little uncomfortable and looked down at the floor. He gave a little chuckle and said, "Relax, I like your style." I looked up and noticed a spark in his blue eyes; his smile grew and in a low voice asked, "What's my last name?"

Thinking about it a minute, I realized I didn't know. He replaced his smile with a look of seriousness and said, "Kringle", reaching into his pocket he pulled out his I.D. card and handed it to me. I heard him say something else, but I didn't look up, my eyes were glued to the name Kris Kringle #12574.

Questions started to flood into my mind, and as I looked up to start asking, he put his arm through the bars and took his I.D. card. With a wink and a sad HO, HO, HO, he left me to ponder fate.


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