Not too long ago I lived at a Rescue Mission in Phoenix, Arizona; A homeless shelter, in layman’s terms.
It was hidden away in a small corner, just south of a Jack-in-the-Box, in a place where no police roamed, packed to the brim with the most dangerous and desperate individuals to have ever been released from, or evaded, prison.
Every day, after lunch, they would circle around each other and talk about the worst things they’ve ever done. This wasn’t to brag to each other about who was “the hardest on the yard.” It was more like show-and-tell; A pride in their dreams to come. Each one would stand before the rest, point at their scars and say, “Look. This is how far I’ve fallen, and this is how far I’ve got left to climb.”
Although each and every single one of these stories was vastly different from each other, each speaker felt they all shared one thing in common: They all believed themselves to be monsters, and each and every single one of them was trying--with every thread and fiber of their body--to try and be people again.
To try and be good people again.
And I felt like a fish out of water.
You see, the thing is, every single person to have ever walked past those black gates of the compound has never been clean. All except for me, that is. I’ve never done drugs, I’ve never broken the law; I was there because I was unlucky. But everyone else could not understand, nor believe, that I was at this homeless shelter simply because I had been unlucky.
“I bet you sell drugs,” Some would say.
“You’re a goddamn narc, aren’t you?” Others declared.
“This is your little sanctuary from the cops, ain’t it?” The rest would state.
I denied everything.
Then Mike stepped forward and asked over everyone else: “How many people have you killed?” I stared at him for a long while, for I had never seen such duality in a single being. A smile as bright as the sun, but forced and artificial. He had every visual cue to be the most terrifying thing on earth, and yet he tried as desperately as possible to seem otherwise.
I could see the disparity of his actions, and his violent need for affirmation of uniformity of every criminal: To believe we were all monsters clawing at at ourselves in an attempt to change.
My tongue danced before I could think.
“I never kept track.”
“Me too.” He answered without hesitation.
This sparked conversation with the rest of the inmates, all about what Mike had done in his life before having to live out of this homeless shelter. He simply laughed and chatted about how he used to be the whitest guy to ever run with the biggest drug cartel in Mexico; however, every time he talked about it he would stare straight through people, like he was caging the truth behind a vault.
But the truth would knock on every word, trying to spell out the answer as the gaze in his eyes grew evermore distant, all to hide a single word: Everything.
Mike loved telling jokes, especially dirty jokes. The other thing he loved to do was talk about the various sexual conquests of women he’s had over the years, but those stories would always end with him saying “but that bitch doesn’t even hold a candle to my wife” because, above all else, Mike loved his family the most.
He talked about his wife as if she were the original design of the crown of England; A jewel so precious that he would start and end an entire war with his own bare hands if it meant he could see her face again.
The only pearl that could ever outshine his wife was his daughter, because his daughter was at that ripe age of curiosity where a single look, a single question, and a single phrase would be enough to excuse her of murder.
He couldn't go a single day without talking to them. Every second he wasn’t berating the rest of us with jokes and stories, he would be chatting on his cell to his wife. Mike was on his phone so often that I thought AV wires would poor from his ears so he could attach himself permanently.
But then judgment came. The program he had been waiting for, one made only for convicts and drug addicts alike, came for him, and with it he lost the ability to communicate with the outside world:
He couldn’t leave the shelter.
He couldn’t watch the news.
He couldn’t watch sports.
He couldn’t leave the main building, except for meals.
He couldn’t use his phone.
It took him 3 days to talk to me about borrowing mine.
And so, while no one was watching, we snuck off behind the dorms and hid away beside a parked semi that had just finished delivering donated food for us to eat. He started ringing his wife before we were entirely out of sight.
Their conversation was basic, but the diction in their voice was like a movie, where two heartthrobs notice each other across the beach before sprinting into each other’s arms. They talked about how he was doing, the program he was in, and how he’s struggling with not being able to talk with them. The topic switched to sports, and the UofA game that happened the night before.
And then a child’s voice poured through the speaker, and Mike began to visibly shake with excitement. It was his little girl, his precious princess. He couldn’t control his smile, he couldn’t control his happiness. In fact, he was so filled with uncontrollable joy that he almost dropped my phone.
However, it all began to fade when she started asking questions.
She asked why he didn’t call as much, he answered.
She asked how long he was going to be away from home, he answered.
She asked why she can’t see him, he answered.
She asked if he was okay, he answered.
It was like watching a wolf howl and cry while trying to squirm its way out of a bear trap; Each fading second sapping away at its very heart. Each word she said fracturing his soul with every syllable.
“I love you daddy”
He almost couldn't reply--not because he didn't want to, but because his tears squeezed at his throat like a vice just to torture him long enough for response to come barreling out of his mouth like a speeding locomotive.
I had my phone confiscated for two weeks.
Mike and I sat together quite often after that. I asked him questions about what he had done, but I was always given roundabout answers.
“Everyone here is a monster,” he often said, “And I stand below all of them; The worst that hell would ever have to offer.”
“Then why are you here?” I’d always found myself asking.
“My wife deserves better, and my daughter can’t idolize something like that.”
He asked me questions too, about what he believed I did for a living. He once said, “you’re too clean to belong in the place like this, but you’re not clean enough to work for the government. So I’m pretty sure you’re a hitman.” I could only silently agree. I didn’t want to break his sense of reality. I was too afraid of the consequences.
I told him all about my imaginary group. About how we only targeted criminals who managed to slip through the jaws of justice. About how I often traveled the states just to track some of these people down. About how our most frequent targets were drug dealers and serial killers.
“You’re here to kill me, aren’t you?” He said one day, but he couldn’t look at me when he said it. His eyes were glued to the floor, shifting ever so slightly through the memories of every terrible thing he had ever done.
Again, I didn’t want to break his sense of reality. I was too afraid of the consequences.
“I haven’t decided yet,” I said.
As soon as my phone was returned, Mike was on my back about calling again, to which I happily agreed.
However, this conversation was soft and somber. This conversation had no smile. This conversation was its own personal hell. No wife. No daughter. Just an automated message that seemed to sap the very life from his eyes. Mike set the phone down and put it on speaker.
When the final word was said, Mike was nothing but a husk. He had no more reason to laugh, no more reason to smile, no more reason to care.
He stared at me like a shadow were slowly enveloping his body, leaving nothing but his bloodshot irises shine through the darkness. I could almost hear the screaming in his mind:
“See! I told you!!”
“My wife deserves something with a heart.”
“My daughter shouldn’t have a monster for a father like me.”
I tried to think of something to say; Anything at all to try and comfort him, but I couldn’t. Not with his world shattered.
After the eons of silence, he said to me: “When I get out, can I join your group?”
I shook my head. “No, Mike. You’re not in the proper state of mind to be accepted.”
“Can you kill me? I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
At first I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Before me was the most dangerous creature on the planet: A man with nothing left to lose.
He was desperate. He knew the same thing I did: If he were free to roam once again, he’d be right back into the very same things that dropped him at God’s last door in the first place. And we both knew that if he did, he wouldn’t ever be back. His path would end in a bodybag, with the world forever thinking him as a monster.
In a moment that felt like a lifetime, I made a decision. One I hoped would be enough to kill the regret, would be enough to keep him going, enough to help him keep a tight grip on his dreams.
“I don’t kill good people.”