A Life of Quiet Desperation

 I didn’t speak, not because I wanted to convey the impression I was a hardened criminal, and not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I was afraid. Adorned in an oversized, navy blue, one-piece uniform, the Orange County Jail standard, surrounded by lawyers, prosecutors, and an unforgiving judge, I imagined anything I said being quickly refuted and twisted in a way that would worsen an already bleak situation. My public defender’s argument rested on the ostensibly unimportant fact that I was “just a kid,” seventeen years old, but that was no defense at all. Aside from an incompetent attorney, a lack of courtroom perspicacity, and my fear of speaking in front of a mob of higher-educated adults, was a rap sheet that was inserted at every opportunity. It served to confirm the idea that I was some inveterate rule-breaker, a danger to society. The scene was more of a show than a sentencing, like a public hanging, and I was the ideal antagonist, unwealthy, unprivileged, unlucky. They were all against me, I thought, and decided not to hand them any more ammunition than they already possessed. I was terrified of being ridiculed by those people, so I remained silent when the judge asked if I had anything to say before she proceeded with sentencing.

My attorney leaned in, whispering. “I think you should say something.”

My eyes doubled in size. A beat thundered in my chest and I was certain it shook my body visibly. I had prepared a response, but all the eloquent words that poured forth so fluidly in practice eluded me.

I stuttered in response. “Oh…uh…do you think it will make a difference?”

He expelled an audible breath, tugged on the lapels of his blazer. “Yes. It can only help.”

      I shifted eyes toward my mother and sister sitting in the crowd of onlookers. I swallowed, looked at the judge whose countenance screamed of seriousness.

“I…uh…I know it seems like I’ve done something really bad, but the charge makes it seem worse than it really was, and I know I’ve been arrested a few times already, but I’ve never been punished or incarcerated before and-

“All the more reason why he needs to be punished to the full extent of the law, your honor.” With every utterance the prosecutor intended to vilify me, and she succeeded in presenting me as a teenage, one hundred forty-five pound monster who needed to be dealt with mercilessly. 

I was silent. The prosecutor continued with her assault. “And I didn’t hear him apologize, your honor. He’s not even sorry.”

There were volumes I wanted to recite, but only seconds into my bumbling speech I was interrupted and denounced. My fear had come to fruition. The prosecutor didn’t allow me time to complete my thoughts, interjected, then cleverly drew attention to what I hadn’t said, undoubtedly sensing vulnerable prey. I knew I couldn’t win a war of polemics against a resolute prosecutor, I mean, she went to school for this, and me, I was a kid with a GED diploma.

Judge White shuffled papers, a normally slight and insignificant sound but deafening amidst the enveloping silence of the moment. She glared at me. “If that’s it, we can proceed with sentencing. Anything you wish to add Mr. Varela?”

I shook my head. “No, your honor.”

She snatched up a pen, struck it across various sheets of white, yellow, and pink. “Okay then, in the case of The State vs. John Varela…”

I visualized the name; John Varela. I remembered my second grade teacher, Mrs. Rossin, telling me the name John means ‘God is gracious.’ It was my father’s name, well, the anglicized version of it, but he wasn’t here, I thought, not in this room, not in this building, not in this sate and, for the most part, not in this life.

“…charged with one count of Robbery with a Deadly Weapon…”

That’s me, I thought, the armed robber who apparently, judging by the way the lynch mob looked at me, upset the earth, but it would be nice, I would appreciate it, if the official charge, Robbery with a Deadly Weapon, was followed by important details, the kind which could assist onlookers and listeners, but mostly the judge and prosecutor, in grasping a truth that was hidden behind a charge, because there was, I believed, one thing that could have helped me; the revelation of fact, the illustration of my movements within the store, during the commission of the crime, and those judging me would then be informed of what really happened that night, eight months before, when I was still sixteen, when my cousin Jason and I walked half-drunkenly into that store, each of us intent on committing a specific crime so we hurried to the rear of the establishment. He selected some colorful sneakers while I chose a pair of Timberland boots. We put them on and tried to run out of the store, but some guy, a customer, an employee, it wasn’t clear, he grabbed Jason as we were leaving. My cousin withdrew a handgun from his waistband. The man released his grip and we stepped out into the buzzing night air, where there was a team of officers already in place, prepared for our exit, and we were arrested. We tried to steal two pairs of shoes: Robbery with a Deadly Weapon.

“…I hereby sentence you to sixteen years in the Florida department of corrections, followed by ten years probation.”

She raised a pale hand, her bony fingers choking the neck of an oak-colored gavel, manipulating its downward trajectory, and it must’ve sounded with pounding punctuation, but the report never registered with my auditory sense. In those eternal seconds of muted slow-motion I was listening but not hearing, living but not breathing. Her thin shapeless lips snapped at a steady pace, left hand pressed against her pregnant belly, but slightly, quickly, you had to be really focusing to have noticed. The robe’s darkness surrounded her like an aura and hid the pregnancy well, veiling her humanity. I wondered if she would be so unforgiving with her own child.

An impatient voice carried me back. “I asked if you understood all that is going on Mr. Varela.”

“Yes, your honor.” How could I not? You’re sending me to prison, I wanted to say, where I’ll probably die from a knife wound or, if I’m lucky, I might be the one inflicting the torture, pushing an ice-pick through some would-be attackers jugular, then fleeing the scene to the echo of hurried taps, my bare feet slapping wet tile in a bloodied shower stall. I clenched my teeth.

“I need you to sign these,” my lawyer said. He placed some papers before me and handed me a pen. It was a difficult task to perform in handcuffs, but I managed to scribble my name as the steel that bound me clanked repeatedly, an eerie reminder of the captivity I was signing up for.

*****

       I staggered back to the juvenile pods of Orange County Jail, still cuffed and shackled, escorted by a nameless, faceless officer. Dazed and unable to focus on anything but my impending prison days, and nights, the flashes of violence I was certain lay ahead. I wondered if I would survive my punishment. Would someone, or some group, try to rape me or kill me? I wondered if all the prison movies were true. I averted my gaze from everyone, trying to conceal eyes that glistened like polished marbles. I had never been so frightened.

The officer reclaimed his chains and let me loose in the pod.

“John, what happened at court today?”

I started up the steps.

“John, what’s up?” It was the same kid, scrawny, too curious.

“They gave me sixteen,” I said without looking back.

“Years?” He stared but seemed to arrive at the proper conclusion: the conversation was finished.

I walked to my cell, the last one on the second tier, and fell into my bunk.

 

________________________________________________________________________________________

*Please let me know what you think of  my writing.

Based upon what you’ve read so far, would you continue reading the book?

Have you spotted any weak points in my writing? If so, what are they?

Anything I should add? Take away? Let me know.

Thank you for reading.

53 thoughts on “Prologue to My Memoir

  1. Descriptive and heart-felt. Well written. I was sitting there in the room with you. Reading ’16 years’ made my heart sink. The only thing I’d add is ‘scent’. What did the room smell like? or someone in the room? or even yourself…I’ve been taught to use as many senses as possible in a piece. I’m looking forward to reading more. Bravo for making it this far. Write on!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. A gripping story so far. I’m a bit surprised at the punishment, though. I know Florida has an ironic sense of justice: It’s OK to shoot an unarmed person just because you feel fear, but if you shoot a gun in the air instead of at someone it’s 20 years. You might add some background to the law in this case. Also, is this a true story? I know it is, but letting me know in the telling will confirm that the sentencing was real and not exaggerated for impact.

    Your prose is excellent. You keep well to your inspiration, Eldridge Cleaver. I read Soul on Ice when I was in High School and still remember his description of prison life like it was yesterday. But, one word of caution: Try not to use words that are too complex. I know it sounds nitpicking, but certain phrases in your writing pop out as too intellectual and tend to confuse me, the reader. I have this problem, too, of using college level words in my stories. My wife stares at me with a puzzled look every time I read her something I wrote, so you’re in good company. You have a great vocabulary, but it’s better to use more common words—like you hear in everyday conversation—to hold the reader’s attention. I found the words perspicacity, polemics, inveterate, and ostensibly out of character with the rest of your story. I use Thesaurus . com and Google to find synonyms that match my line of thinking when this happens.

    Best of luck on this. I look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you so much for reading. I really appreciate the constructive feedback. Thanks for pointing out those four words. I’ll have to go back, reread it, and maybe consider changing them. Good advice. Sometimes the wrong word can throw off a sentence, or a whole paragraph. Thanks again. God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your story is very well written. I agree with the commenter above about emphasizing how this is a true story. If I know something is a true story, I’ll read it despite the good or bad writing quality.

    It’s good to get the perspective of the “criminal”. The only way prosecutors can justify their punishments is to vilify and dehumanize whomever they are prosecuting.

    Thank you for following my blog. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and provide feedback. I do plan on writing a book about my time and experiences inside. It’ll be a memoir, so readers would know that it’s a true story. I do see your point (and Pablo Cuzco’s point) that, as a post alone, it may be difficult to determine whether or not it’s a true story. Thanks again. God bless.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful writing! I have no recommendations for you whatsoever except keep writing. I particularly like how you present the emotional experience, the sense of helplessness, and disorientation as a teenager up against the machine of justice. My youngest brother was murdered by someone with a gun, so I’m not a fan at all of armed-anything – yet despite that, you elicited my sympathy, and I could feel the teenage fear about what was to come. I’m not a fan of our justice system either, btw, nor of the social challenges that rob children of their futures. We are all victims of a system that doesn’t treat people like human beings. Yes, I would keep reading. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so sorry about your brother. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. It takes a very strong person to pull through such a tragedy. God bless you and your family.
      Thanks for reading. Thank you for the kind words. Words like yours inspire me to keep writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Keep writing! In Singapore we have the Yellow Ribbon Project that helps ex convicts get jobs. There must be second chances. Stay strong and be a beacon for others, giving them hope that change is possible😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, “There must be second chances.” I once read a quote that says, “He who cannot forgive burns a bridge over which he himself must someday pass.” Thank you for reading and commenting. Thank you for the kind words. God bless.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Excellent writing and I am sorry to be one to ask again, but this is all? 16 years huh? seems a little harsh… I saw a recommendation about how you must tone down some words to end up with something simpler and relatable…. I agree with that but also feel that a big word or two though somewhat jarring I sometimes argue with people but we have google and dictionaries if you see an unfamiliar word you could look it up and learn something and readers are not as simple as editors tend to stress about when they recommend edits for books, readers usually have an extensive vocab, because they read… well of course it would be prudent to not over do the big words…
    That said I like how you make us see this event through your eyes as you probably were then also through your now wizened eyes as you see what you could have said, should have said……
    ~B

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, and thanks for reading. Yes, I agree, 16 years is a little harsh, very harsh, actually. It almost doesn’t make sense, like, it’s almost hard to believe, but it’s what happened. Would you consider the sentence “Cruel and unusual”? Some would. Anyway, I got arrested in ’93, sentenced in ’94. Bill Clinton was our president and more prisons would be built under his watch than under any other administration in the history of our country. Those prisons were built for minorities like me (I’m Puerto Rican). So, Clinton built prisons for us while at the same time convincing us that he was our friend. And we fell for it. What a devil! I wonder if Hillary would’ve done the same, had she won.
      On another note: There are times when I use an obscure sort of word when a simpler one would do just fine. I guess the question should be, “Which word is more impactful?” I also agree that “it would be prudent to not over do the big words.”
      Thanks again B. God bless.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It is hard to believe, its the sort of thing that could break a man, if you cant how to deal with everything…… You seem to have managed to find some form of solace, from what I gather from your blog.

        I have come to realise that politicians (at least the ones I see in my country) are generally not to be trusted, some more than others but they promise one thing whilst doing something else actually once someone starts running for public office they slowly start turning into exactly what just moments before they were saying they are against, maybe it is of a corrupting nature…?
        We have elections coming up next year will need all the luck we can get.

        ~B

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow. Your story is really touching! I’d love to read more. I’ll admit that I’ve not really read the experiences of ex-convicts -from their own perspective. Keep writing, please don’t stop. There are many lives waiting to be touched! Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The emotional perspective, given you were so young, its gripping. You write really well. I don’t know how the rest of the story goes but the ending, you out + transformed life, is a success story we need to hear more of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.
      The very next part after “Prologue To My Memoir” was posted yesterday entitled “The Blue-Bird and The Welcoming Party.” I’m not sure if you’ve read that one. I’m honored that you took the time to read my story.
      Thanks again.
      God bless.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I was enthralled from the first few words. I wouldn’t change a thing about your writing style. this is your story and your voice is coming out loud and clear. It is a compelling voice and the POV had me right there in the courtroom galley with a scared, sixteen-year-old boy, biting my nails, and waiting. Well done. I will definitely be reading more.
    I’m thrilled you discovered my little corner of the world and I yours. Thanks for following my blog, cow Pasture Chronicles. I look forward to reading and interacting more. Keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks you so much for stopping by, reading, and commenting. There are 3 posts so far that make up the beginning of my memoir. In order, they are:
      1) Prologue to My Memoir
      2) The Blue-Bird & The Welcoming Party
      3) An Introduction to My New Reality

      Thanks again.
      God bless.

      Like

  11. Your writing is clear and organized and your story moves briskly. Well done. Question: Is your description of what really happened written from the perspective of seventeen-year-old you or from your current perspective looking back? It strikes me as teenage in its absence of responsibility-taking.

    I might keep reading, hoping for emerging realizations and growing maturity. I’d want to know more about your dad, your mom, your sister. I’d want to know what happened to your cousin – the fool who was actually carrying the gun.

    On an unrelated note, what is that one thing on your sparse mantel?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m always super excited when anyone finds my writing readable, maybe even entertaining.

      As far as perspective goes, I’ve aimed to tell the story from the perspective of who I was back then, that crazy, capricious, living-one-moment-at-a-time 17 y/o kid, however, there are moments when my adult mind chimes in.

      There will most likely be more information on my family, maybe my cousin too. I was actually talking to my cousin a few days ago. We still have a good relationship. We pretty much grew up together. He, like I, was a kid who made mistakes, like any other kid.

      The “realizations and growing maturity” you hope to see will show itself mostly from a spiritual, Christian perspective.

      That thing on the mantel? Good question. I’m not sure. Now, this might be obvious, what I’m about to write, but that’s not actually my house. I chose those particular pictures because I thought they spoke to the feeling of solitude and loneliness one feels when in prison.

      Thanks again.
      Have a great day.
      God bless.

      Liked by 1 person

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