The Dead Fox Near the Prison
It was summertime and pleasant outside in western Maryland. Part of nature’s dissonance is how the weather can feel so gentle and wonderful next to something so gruesome as a prison.
It was 6:00 p.m. as the two men waited until the tower correctional officer, or “C/O,” unlocked the outer gate to the visitor sallyport so they could walk out of Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution and back to the visitor’s parking lot. John was still dressed in his suit pants and dress shirt, but without cufflinks or tie. His driver’s license and bar card were in his shirt pocket. Tommy was in his newly purchased sweatpants and an old t-shirt. Tommy was carrying his DEA identification and badge in a small wallet. Their meeting with Abdullah had taken about two hours and both men still smelled like institutional disinfectant. John didn’t want the smell rubbed into the leather seats of his 1993 Lincoln Mark VII but there was damn little he could do about it.
John represented Abdul – short for Abdullah — in a federal narcotics case in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Ultimately, Abdul was convicted by a jury and sentenced to ten years minimum mandatory. This meant Abdul would serve 8 years and then be transferred to an immigration center to begin deportation proceedings back to Pakistan. The prison sentence was imposed a year before this visit. Abdul had been in jail for a year before the trial.
John and Tommy were friends and similar in nature, comportment, and attitude. Tommy was one of John’s first clients. Back in the day, before he became a cop and then a DEA Agent, Tommy was hell on wheels. He played college football, attempted to become a professional wrestler (the “Croatian Sensation”) and made his living as a bouncer and gym rat and – it was rumored – a bookie. Tommy had never met a man who scared him from a fight and never met a situation that was better handled by dialogue than by force. So, Tommy wasn’t just a client to John; in his younger years Tommy had been a law firm annuity. During any calendar year John could plan on Tommy being arrested. In a string of not guilty verdicts and following the death of Tommy’s father, Tommy turned it all around and entered law enforcement. Tommy hadn’t needed John’s legal services in some years.
As they walked to the car, both men noticed a line of visitors, many of them women in shorts. Tommy tugged on John’s shirtsleeve and both stopped. Tommy began walking back to the C/O doing visitor intake. The C/O was in the standard federal “uniform” on visitor’s day: tan slacks, white shirt, striped tie, and blue suit jacket.
“Hey, what about those fucking shorts,” said Tommy. This was the same C/O who had prevented Tommy entering the FCI even though he was a federal agent for the noon visiting hours because Tommy had been in shorts. After being denied entry because of Tommy’s shorts, John and Tommy drove to Cumberland to buy a pair of long sweatpants for Tommy but then had to wait until the “late, afternoon visiting hours” to again attempt to enter Cumberland FCI. The C/O said, “shorts are allowed after 4:00 P.M.” Tommy looked at the C/O like he was examining something that was an adult human, but born without a brain. “So, shorts on a man at noon, when the temperature is 93 degrees, are not allowed, but shorts on a woman at 6:00 P.M. when it is 82 degrees are okay, that’s what you’re telling me.” “Sir, I don’t make the rules, take it up with the warden.”
Now John tugged on Tommy’s sleeve. John had represented Tommy for beating up – among others – bar customers, bar bouncers, and a cop along the way. John was thinking that assaulting a federal correctional officer would be bad for Tommy’s freedom.
Tommy – now married and a father of two – must have had the same thought because Tommy walked away abruptly towards John’s car in the parking lot passing a line of visitors. As they reached the end of the line, both men watched as a woman stuffed an ounce of marijuana in her bra. Tommy looked at John and remarked: “Now as a sworn Drug Enforcement Agent of the United States of America, I think it is my duty to alert the C/O to the possibility that some bitch is trying to smuggle THC into Cumberland FCI. But I say, fuck ‘em, maybe marijuana is not allowed at noon but perfectly okay at 6:00 p.m.” John shook his head. He hit the button on his electric locks and both men got into the car.
“I’ll have you home by 8:00. What do you think, Abdul of any value to the feds?” Tommy bent his head left and then right the way he always did before thinking or fighting. “I can write this up as intelligence and get you a letter for the prosecutor. Also, I know the AUSA. I can call him and get him to shave a bit of time off the sentence. I see what you mean. Abdul is about as much of a bigtime dope dealer as you are or I am. He’s just dumb and believed that he could supplement his meager Pakistani income as a mule.”
“When I was representing him, every day he was in the best mood. ‘Hello Mister Johnny, how are you? Please do not worry. Allah is in control. I will be free as soon as the jury gets to vote. Then we will have some delicious Pakistani food and I will go home. Please don’t worry’.”
Tommy was looking out of the window and blessed himself.
“Tommy, you’re Catholic. I’m talking about Allah. Blessing yourself for Allah?”
Tommy just shook his head no. “So, what did he say when the jury came back guilty?”
“Nothing. He fainted. The Judge acted like it was some kind of terrorist plot to distract everybody while Abdul escaped. He starts yelling ‘lock the doors’ to the Marshals and the Marshals are looking around at everyone in the courtroom like who was making a move to free Abdul. I crouched down to check his breathing and his pulse, and then got up to pour some water on his face, hoping I could revive him. Nothing worked. He got taken out by an ambulance and eventually taken to Butner for rehab. The psychiatrist said he had a ‘non-epileptic dissociative seizure.’ All I know is that he reacted badly to Allah’s non-intervention policy on the jury verdict.”
Tommy smiled and shook his head. “That’s kind of sad.”
“Well, that’s what he gets for not believing in the one true Catholic God.” A pause. And for being born in Pakistan and trusting his faith to a jury of his American peers.”
Tommy smiled. “You’re almost cynical enough to be a DEA agent. Maybe you should quit defending scumbags and apply.”
“Scumbags? I’m God’s side of the courtroom. God doesn’t need to help the government in federal court. They own the building, the judges, the prosecutors, the federal agents, the court reporters, the jails, all the guns in the building – who the fuck do you think is going to win. I stand with the tired, the poor, the wretched, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Tommy looked at John with a sense of displeasure. “You know, I read books on the lives of the saints, and I am a believer. You better repent my brother before God castes you into hell.”
“I give a dollar to every bum I see.”
“What does that have to do with it?
“I took a course in college titled Jewish American literature. I was the only gentile in the whole class. In Jewish literature there is a parable that the Messiah comes back to Jerusalem as a beggar. So whenever one of the bums around Baltimore comes up to me, I always give him a dollar on the outside chance that he is actually God. My fantasy is I die and I’m at the pearly gates and in front of me are all my first cousins – holy rollers – and Peter is talking to somebody that we think is probably God and then Peter leans and points way down the line at me and he and Jesus call me up into heaven in front of all my perfect cousins.”
“John, in the New Testament that is the story of Jesus and Lazareth.”
“I wouldn’t know. I read all of Chaim Potok and Elie Weisel but I never read the Bible. My grandfather told me he tried to read it cover to cover but his God would never kill so many innocent people.”
John steered the car onto I-70 east and sped up to 85. “You got your badge handy if we get stopped?”
“Yeah, it’ll work as long as we’re not stopped by some state trooper who has a brother than works at the FCI.”
John now laughed. “You blessed yourself earlier, you take this stuff pretty seriously now.”
Tommy nodded. “I saw a dead fox on the side of the road. I just said a prayer for the animal’s soul.”
John feigned that he was incensed. “Tommy, I’m not even sure that the Croatian Sensation has a soul but you think the fox had a soul.”
“God created it, I suppose it reflects God and God’s will, so yes…I think the fox had a soul.”
“Tommy, when I was in the eighth grade. I used to babysit for this woman who lived across the street. She was very religious, part of the church choir. That type. Anyway, at one point her dog died and her kids are all crying. I’m across the street at my house out front and her kids start telling me that Rover or whatever the dog’s name was died and how sad they were. She’s standing there telling my mother the same thing. So, I say, ‘well, I hope the dog is in doggie heaven.’ Without missing a beat as she’s talking to my mom. she turns to me and says: ‘dogs don’t have a soul.’ Says it right in front of her kids who start crying and moaning and I just look like I stepped in it for sure. So, I mutter something like, ‘I didn’t know that.’ Anyway, after that I just took it as gospel that dogs don’t have souls, so by analogy therefore rabbits don’t have souls, deer don’t have souls, foxes don’t have souls. Fungus. God created fungus. But it is hard for me to believe that fungus has a soul.”
Tommy shook his head left and right. John said: “Don’t hit me man. I’m doing 90 miles per hour. We would be all over I-70 and the Cumberland news.”
Tommy sighed. “I don’t know about fungus. But I think animals – like human beings – have a soul. I mean haven’t you ever had a dog that you loved so much it was part of the family. I think my dog, like Churchill’s bulldog, went to heaven when he died. Churchill’s bulldog kept Churchill company while he stood up to the evilest man in the history of the world. That dog paid dues. Now, I don’t know if snakes have a soul. I hate snakes. Maybe snakes are Satan’s animals or devil animals. Maybe they have the soul of a fallen angel, a Lucifer soul. I don’t know, but I generally believe in souls but yes, maybe there is some soullessness. Such as Columbian drug lords.”
John drove without saying anything for about half an hour. Each man caught up in their thoughts.
Finally, John spoke up. “I always think of things on a continuum with a bell curve. One extreme to the other with most things in the middle. So, I personally find it difficult to believe that a rodent, like a rat outside of the Baltimore Circuit Court, has a soul, but I find it easy to believe that an innocent four-year-old has a soul. It seems to me that most people are the animals in the middle of the bell curve. Most probably have souls, but there must be some ‘condition precedent’ to soulness. Like maybe your dog represents an animal that may or may not be imbued with a soul as a birthright. But if the dog gets enough love during its lifetime or gives enough love during its lifetime, it is imbued by God with a soul. If not, like some wildebeest in Africa, it is deemed soulless and upon its death its energy and whatnot is just returned to the whole pile of stuff that was created by God to be recycled into a new planet, or plant life, or hydrogen atoms.”
Tommy looked up in thought. “So, you think there is a set point. Under some level of goodness, no soul. Over that level of goodness – getting love and giving love – you have a soul.”
John answered. “I do.”
“We’re fucked,” said Tommy.
John nodded. He noticed the state trooper in the median about a mile away. He looked at the speedometer and took his speed down to 74 miles per hour. “Now is when I need you to say a prayer,” said John.
Tommy blessed himself. “You better hope that one of those addicts you give a dollar to really was the Messiah.”
John nodded. He looked down at his shirt. He smelled the institutional disinfectant of the FCI. He said, “Maybe prayer is like disinfectant, or giving a dollar to a bum as an act of Christian charity is like disinfectant for sin.”
Tommy thought about it. “You’d be better off taking 40 once we reach Hagerstown.”
John signaled his way from the fast lane of 70 to the ramp for 40. John eased the Lincoln onto the ramp at Hagerstown that would take them briefly north to catch 40 east.
Tommy continued. “You know what I think.”
“What’s that,” asked John.
“I think you should keep giving every bum you meet a dollar. But you should stop doing it because you are playing the long shot that one of those addicts is really the Messiah. You see, when you do it for that reason, you are really doing it for you – not for them. And God would know that. So maybe you are lucky enough that you give one to the Messiah who is here on earth as the second coming of Jesus, and he needs a cheeseburger, or some vodka. And maybe the Messiah makes a note to put John at the front of the heaven line when John dies because John gave money to him when he was walking around Baltimore as a beggar. But if the beggars aren’t the Messiah, then God doesn’t look at you like you’re doing an act of Christian charity. God looks at you like your just another cynical, compulsive gambler betting scared money on a longshot so you don’t have to tell your wife that you lost your paycheck at the racetrack, or your soul at the strip club. The most God could possibly do is consider you pitiful. But if you give the bums a dollar, certain or almost certain, that they are just Baltimore bums and not the Messiah, then an all-knowing God says that John has done something that is charitable and John is trying to help someone less fortunate.”
John looked at Tommy. “And…”
“And, then God says that John did some good in his life, and treated some bum with dignity and then God puts a deposit in your soul tank and when the time comes to determine whether you have met the condition precedent, the set point, and Peter and Jesus have to determine whether you have a soul after your existence on this planet, or you are just another soulless dog, you qualify as having a soul.”
John looked at Tommy. “I imagine when you were at the Academy of Professional Wrestling with the dream of becoming the Croatian Sensation you realized God had a better plan for you.”
“I believe in all sorts of miracles. Maybe I do believe God tries to show us the way,” said Tommy. “And today God put you and me together, and a dead fox with a soul, in our path as we left the soulless Cumberland FCI which created the right circumstances for us to be in the same car when I saw the dead fox, just so I could carry the word to the unrepentant and largely misguided lawyer who keeps feeding the addiction of Baltimore bums on the longshot that one of them is the Messiah.”
“Preach brother,” said John. The two men now filled with the spirit as the Lincoln continued east on 40.
Clarke F. Ahlers