After twenty-four years, Gabriel Meehan was exonerated of rape-murder and went to church on his second Sunday home because his grandmother insisted.
“I’ve always gone. None of the others have since you went away, but this time we’ll all hold our heads up high.”
Gabriel could barely listen when the preacher welcomed the return of a beloved member of the congregation. He cast his eyes about and was startled by the sight of his ex-wife Julie, a girl he stupidly married when he was nineteen and she was only seventeen. The only way she’d let him in. Still pretty enough to have attracted the much younger man who sat beside her in the pew across the aisle.
Gabriel knew what he himself looked like because prisoners dwell on their images in the scratched metal mirrors over the washbasins. A face is a calendar; it tells you how much time you have served and have left to serve; it gives you something to hate. The fact that the man beside Julie somewhat resembled him when he was younger shocked Gabriel. Only the lingering paralysis of an ex-prisoner kept him from crying out: “Who are you?” at that young man with the brown hair, broad face, and broad shoulders.
Gabriel and Julie had fought on the night of the crime. She suspected him of cheating with an even younger girl named Laurie Adcock. She hit and bit and kicked him and said she wished he were dead. Gabriel shouldered through the screen door. He drove to a spot by the lake where he sometimes fished and drank a six pack he had bought along the way. He was so tired from work at the mill that day that he fell asleep. Past midnight, he drove back to town, unaware of what had happened in the surrounding woods or that a motorist saw his truck pulling onto the highway or that the store clerk remembered selling him beer. Beyond that there were bruises, scratches and bite marks on his face, hands and wrists. Julie refused to admit putting them there. She said did not know where he had been until he came back drunk and a mess at three a.m. She filed for divorce before the trial ended.
Gabriel already had found that the cycle of a falsely convicted inmate’s passage through a penitentiary was not conducive to reentering life with confidence. He could not keep looking at Julie and that guy and returned to the preacher, who had stopped talking about him. His imprisonment had proceeded from disbelief and humiliation to anger undermined by fear and then a sickening sensation of being gassed breath by breath. The tumult of his exoneration exceeded his ability to respond. The lawyers who got him out said their work was their gratification. Good, because Gabriel had nothing to give them. Then came the follow-on lawyers, pursuing damages. All because a ball cap had been found near the rape-murder scene and not been disclosed by the prosecution. That hat contained the commingled DNA of the victim and perpetrator, who was not Gabriel.
Gabriel moved in with his grandmother, who had outlasted his parents. He didn’t feel comfortable beyond her front porch and the dog park down the block where he walked her greyhound after luring him out of his crate. She explained crates were what some greyhounds needed since they had been confined in narrow kennel stalls during their racing days, too valuable to be bunched together where they might nick each other up. Gabriel’s own room was on the third floor because his grandmother didn’t want to change a thing lower down where she and her husband had lived for fifty-five years.
Fine. Being stowed up there didn’t hurt as much as many other things. The sight of the thickened, sagging faces and waistlines of his sister Pam and his two brothers Kurt and Lowell, for instance. He struggled through their invitations to come over for a drink. He worried about starting and not being able to stop. Yet he had no idea what else to do with himself. He envied the greyhound’s crate and experienced something like bewilderment when he walked to the dog park and the dog took off like a rubber band that stretched and snapped back, catapulting it forward. He had no idea how the dog’s speed could manifest itself so instantly. One moment, stone still. Next moment, flying. He wished he could do that.
His grandmother was an opinionated woman whose mouth would get her into trouble in prison. Gabriel didn’t mention this because no one wanted to hear about prison: its rules, its violence, its relentless nothingness that would make inmates silence a person like his grandmother, sometimes forever.
She said the one thing she insisted on—not true, she insisted on him taking the garbage out, mowing the lawn, trimming the bushes, sweeping the walk, watering the flower beds, washing the windows, cleaning the gutters—was that he go to church with her. The first Sunday he made it downstairs and sat in the parlor as frozen as a rusted lock. The idea of church reminded him of a prison meeting. The inmates gathered, were talked at, said nothing themselves, and departed, having been told to serve their time without complaint. They did complain, though. His fellow convicts constantly cast blame on the police, their defense attorneys, the judges, the law itself. Ironically, the more they did that the more Gabriel’s actual legal innocence seemed trivial compared to the ways he was not innocent, including fooling around with Laurie Adcock. He saw a prison pastor a few times, and the pastor agreed he was deeply sinful, but with a proviso: If Gabriel would accept the Lord, he would understand the richness of incarceration. Being imprisoned had made him reflective and acute about himself and all men. Being in prison had helped him grasp the futility of anger and disobedience. Many men on the outside never confronted the inescapable consequences of original sin. Gabriel considered what the pastor said. He had time to consider everything, such as who really committed rape and murder by the lake that night and how many more times he had done such a thing. Why was that man free and Gabriel in prison?
The whole family went to his grandmother’s house for dinner after that first visit to church. The idea wasn’t to celebrate; it was to be normal. Two sisters-in-law who didn’t know Gabriel were working in the kitchen with Grams. Kurt and Lowell were minding bumptious children from ages six to fifteen and awkwardly avoiding Gabriel. Again, acting normal—they’d never been close to him.
Pam sat beside him on the sofa in the parlor. She was the one who always wanted to talk to him, her big brother. He saw her when her first period came, the blood smeared on her inner thighs. “Look at me! I’m a mess!” He heard about it the night she first had sex. She was a sweet, pudgy, freckled girl you’d never think would be pursued, or give in, when she was fifteen. “But I didn’t feel anything. It was just wrestling and he got it in me, that’s all.” Now she was forty, heavy-hipped, her freckles faded, her hair graying, and never married.
“Did seeing Julie in church upset you?” she asked.
“I guess it did.”
“None of us has talked to her, believe me. We heard she went around town saying no more older men for her. As if being nineteen made you an older man. Guess she got her wish.”
Town. Gabriel had only come to understand what North Carolina towns really meant when he was sent away, places where people collected like cobwebs and dust. One after another connected by wizened two-lane roads boring through the pines.
“What do you mean ‘got her wish’?”
“That was her husband there. She married the baby Laurie Adcock abandoned to her sister. Remember Laurie?”
“I remember her.”
“Well, Laurie took off, and her sister raised her baby, and there he is, Julie’s stud. Don’t bother about her, Gabe. She’s in commercial real estate, pitching tech companies, but your settlement will make you richer than she’ll ever be.”
What Gabriel had liked about Laurie Adcock was how sassy and brazen and bossy she was. She’d give you everything if you just let her talk. Called his marriage to Julie a big mistake. “You should have married me!” And she was right. He had thought he and Julie would grow closer, but the opposite occurred. So he got close to Laurie. When Julie refused to corroborate his explanation that she’d messed him up, Gabriel had to change his story. No point in dragging Laurie Adcock into things. Ended up saying he’d tumbled into some branches and brambles while trying to fish that night because was drunk and lost his balance. The jury didn’t believe it because it wasn’t what he’d said at first.
“How old is this stud husband?”
Pam looked at him the way a man might look at another man in a cell, sensing something, but she had visited him in prison dozens of times and always left feeling she knew him less well than before. “Like twenty-five. What’s it matter?”
“Just curious. Julie was my wife once.”
“He probably liked Julie’s money from selling land to these tech companies coming in as much as he liked her. There’s computers everywhere now, even here.”
“We had them in prison, blocked for porn, but you could get everything else.”
“Grams says you stay close here.”
“I walk to the dog park with her hound. Pass that store where I can get better coffee than she’s got here.”
“I know it’s hard, Gabe, but give it time. People liked you. We had folks on our side.”
Kurt finally joined them. As usual, it was money he found easiest to talk about. “I hear they want to settle your suit fast. No niggling.”
Gabriel said, “I leave it in the lawyers’ hands.”
“He’s just concentrating on being out,” Pam said.
Gabriel could see her explanation didn’t interest Kurt. Kurt went right back to money. “When the time comes, we can talk. This town’s not exactly the same dead pile of wood and brick you left. Interested?”
When Gabriel thought about the settlement money, it was as unreal to him as getting out of prison had once been. “Interested in what?”
“Investing, making it grow. The thing now is fracking.”
Pam said, “It’s just pushing water into the earth and forcing the gas out, no more than that.”
“You into it?” Gabriel asked Kurt.
“Yeah, I’m into it.” Kurt jerked his thumb toward Lowell. “Him, too. We bought three hundred acres in the swamps. That’s where you’ll find gas and no environmental bullshit because the land’s worthless otherwise.”
Pam said to Kurt, “I’d rather have you make money than newcomers who ignored us when we were down and would like to keep us from getting up.”
Gabriel drifted away from the conversation, which went on without him. He wanted to know something he couldn’t ask. Had he gotten Laurie Adcock pregnant? Had Julie married his son when the boy grew up? Could something like that happen to him on top of everything else?
They finished a dinner that had the same quality of wary vigilance that dinners had had when their parents had been alive. Back then family fighting was more important than eating. Even so, Gabriel could see Kurt and Lowell had good kids and good wives. And Pam worked hard pushing things along, complimenting the food and bragging about the children, telling their strange new uncle all their good points and accomplishments. Gabriel could see years of effort on her part making things right in a family that wasn’t right. All the time his heart was getting smaller, hers was getting bigger.
Grams, a sharp-featured old woman with thin white hair, waited until dessert before she said she had an announcement.
“Because Gabriel didn’t have a chance to make a life of his own, I have decided that I will leave him this house and all my worldly possessions.”
Hearing this, Kurt’s face hardened to where you could have struck a match on it.
Grams continued, “I know the time may come when he is wealthy enough to tear this house down and build a new one, but not until the law that harmed him makes amends. This is nothing against the rest of you. I just want to make sure Gabriel knows he’ll always have this home.”
Lowell raised his hand to point toward the grandchildren, who had just lost an important inheritance. His wife jerked it down before he could say, “What about them?”
Pam said “God bless you, Grams. It’s the right thing to do. Do you want to say something, Gabe?”
Say something? Gabriel felt imprisoned again. Now he could never leave this town and all the trouble it had caused him, and in his brothers’ eyes, he was guilty again, just what they had always thought. “Thank you, Grams. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
The women carried things into the kitchen where Pam insisted Grams let her wash up. Pam shooed her sisters-in-law away, too, sending everyone home to meditate upon what had just happened. Gabriel sat on the sofa by the brindle greyhound’s crate, reaching in and rubbing his ear.
After Pam helped Grams upstairs for her nap, she said, “What if we walked that dog, burned off some calories?”
On the sidewalk, the dog walked with his head down, anteater style, but eyes looking up, taking everything in. Pam put her arm through Gabriel’s. They were in one of the better neighborhoods, a step up from anything their parents had managed. Well-tended trellises and boxwoods, deep porches with wood-slat swings, and functional shutters, always a sign of status in North Carolina.
“I don’t mind showing off my big brother,” Pam said.
“I wonder how it makes people feel when they see me,” Gabriel said.
“What do you imagine?”
“I imagine the sight of me makes them think this world isn’t what it looks like. The ones who knew me saw me guilty. Now they see I’m not. How right can that be?”
They came to the dog park. The dog wanted to go in, but Pam pulled them all along.
“I never believed you were guilty. You know that.”
“Where are we going?” Gabriel asked, as disturbed as the dog they weren’t sticking to their route.
“Just walking. Sunday afternoon, what else is there to do? Did you watch football?”
Gabriel said it wasn’t safe. Too many fights broke out. Playing football in the yard was worse. So he lifted weights to exhaust himself and bring on sleep. Nothing in prison was better than sleep.
Pam drifted back to the subject of Julie. “Lying bitch.”
“Why’d you pick her?”
“She worked on me until she got me. Then that stopped.”
“And now this boy, how long is that going to last? The birth mother he had is no indication he’ll stick around. Laurie Adcock was one naughty girl.”
Gabriel’s animal drives were a dead battery. The last female he’d touched decades ago would have been Laurie. Never walked with her. Couldn’t let themselves be seen. But holding her. Listening to her rag him so he’d want sex again to shut her up.
“Maybe his father would have counterbalanced Laurie,” he said.
“I doubt it. She was more my age. You didn’t know her as well as I did.”
Gabriel wondered if Pam could ever understand what a true convict he was, in no one’s eyes more than his own. He thought about telling her what he now took to be the truth, but the truth was solitary confinement he could not bring himself to share, the thing he knew best and worst. “I heard she was wild.”
“Then imagine Julie marrying Laurie’s son. Good luck with that.”
“Look, we should turn around. This dog runs better than he walks.”
“But I like it out here with you, just the two of us,” Pam said.
“It’s not the two of us. It’s three. You have to count the dog.” They looked down at the greyhound slouching along, large soft eyes probing the distance. “After a point, he needs to get back into his crate. Hounds like this hunt by sight, not smell, and see things no one else sees. It gets to be too much.”
“Too much what, stimulation?”
Pam grasped Gabriel’s arm more firmly. “I guess you know the feeling.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you feeling it now?”
“No, I’m fine.” Another lie. “It’s the dog. I cannot understand what Grams was thinking taking in a dog like this.”
He gave the greyhound’s leash an unnecessary tug. It already knew they were turning back.
With more than ninety stories in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary short fiction writers in America. His new novel is Suffer the Children. In 2017, Vine Leaves Press will publish a collection of his stories entitled Imagining Women. He lives in North Carolina after a diplomatic career that took him to Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East.