By Benjamin Frandsen
WYOMING — The silent screaming of a soul as it’s ripped from the world. All too often my brain is a malfunctioning time machine, always bringing me back to the same moment. The same man. It never matters that he’d been caught burglarizing, or that he came at me. It only matters that in that instant I made my life more important than his. I don’t know how to forgive myself for that.
For a while I tried blaming what I’d done on those same buzzwords the district attorney kept spewing at the jury: martial artist, U.S. Marine, trained killer. But words didn’t take a man’s life. And his mother and father and sister and brother have felt that loss every day for almost nineteen years. I can’t pretend to ever fathom their anguish.
My own mother’s pain, though, I know, because she shared it with me: the agony of trying desperately to free her imprisoned child. The pain she endured hurt me far more deeply than my own fears and humiliations brought on by lock and key. She shared those with me, too. The strange and beautiful thing is that our relationship was strengthened by our helplessness, sweetened by having to overcome bitterness. Side by side, we battled the barbed-wire beast, reminding each other never to give up. This is our story. It is also the story of millions of American families, perhaps even yours. We need to tell the tales of our struggles. We are stronger together. The beast cannot conquer us all.
I sometimes wonder if I would have spent that morning differently if I had known it would be my last as a free man. I was living in a cabin in Yellowstone National Park, waiting tables at the Old Faithful Inn, a stately log hotel a scant hundred yards from its famous namesake geyser.
It was mid-September, but in Wyoming that is nigh on winter, and I felt the chill in the mountain air as I crunched down the pine needle path. As I climbed the rickety stairs to the employee entrance, I was wearing an all-black waiter’s uniform, my Sony DiscMan pumping bassy electronica through my earbuds.
A warm wall of freshly baked bread, roast beef, and sauteed rainbow trout met me when I turned into the kitchen. When I passed the walk-in cooler, a park ranger I knew by name was mouthing noiseless words. I pulled out my earbuds.
“… gratuity discrepancy or something,” Mike was saying. “You mind stopping by the ranger station real quick?”
“Now?” I glanced at my watch—10:45 A.M. My shift started in 15 minutes.
“Should only take a second,” he lied.
I shrugged, stashed my DiscMan on the shelf below the condiments, and trotted back down the stairs and across the parking lot. Stepping into the seemingly empty station, I saw a tall white man in a dark suit and red power-tie. A trim blonde woman in a navy pantsuit watched me in rapt attention.
“Have a seat, Mr. Frandsen,” the man instructed, sounding like Friday from Dragnet. I sat tentatively in the only seat left, the stiff order book in my apron making it hard to get comfortable. In unison, they flipped open identical leather wallets, revealing shiny gold badges and photo IDs.
“My Frandsen, I’m Special Agent Cloney with the FBI. This is Special Agent Decker. You know what this is about, don’t you?”
I swallowed. “Not unless they take tip discrepancies really seriously around here.” I was stalling. My heart thumped violently, sounding like underwater explosions in my ears.
Agent Cloney was not amused. He stood suddenly, jostling his chair and looming over me. “You know damn well why we’re here.”
His partner pulled two photos out of a binder and handed them to him. He held them in my face and I saw two slender men in their twenties. I quickly glanced away, but the eyes of the man on the left followed me, the same eyes that had been haunting my dreams like hell hounds on the trail of a wayward soul.
If justification was an art, my mind had become a Da Vinci, deftly stroking its canvas with dabs of truth to cover the stain of uncertainty. He attacked you. It was self-defense. Then why couldn’t I sleep anymore? They were burglars. He had a weapon. Then who put this black stone in my heart?
They grilled me for several hours and, as my public defender Mr. Gottlieb was fond of pointing out, I talked as if I would die if I stopped. Some of it was fanciful, some of it dolled up in frilly mitigating dress, but as the words poured out, I could no longer hear the panting hounds on my trail. It wasn’t a confession: I knew my part in the deaths had been accidental. Neither was it absolution: hiding like a coward and denying others closure deserved no such healing balm. Soon enough everyone would learn that it had been an accident, and that I didn’t come forward because I was afraid no one would believe me.
The cold steel of the handcuffs encircled my wrists. Tucked into the back of the black government SUV, I glanced at Agent Decker. For the first time, I noticed she was pretty. She had the majesty of a shark slicing through water towards their unwitting prey. The evergreens speeding past seemed to wave their boughs in sad goodbyes.
Strange what bubbles to the surface of the mind. As the SUV hurtled me away from my life, I thought, who’s gonna end up with my CD player? I closed my eyes and sank into a gray and dreamless sleep.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
As my U.S. marshal escort’s vehicle slowed and turned up the road to the prison, I sighed with relief. After spending two hours hunched sideways with hands cuffed behind my back, I was glad to arrive anywhere, so long as it meant getting out of the backseat.
The roaring metallic echo was staggering as the SUV eased into the vehicle bay under the rising electronic door. An armed marshal unfolded his wiry frame from the driver’s seat and stepped out, nodding to the two Wyoming correctional officers. By tacit agreement, the three waited to speak until the loud door screeched shut again.
The pudgier of the two officers cast a wary glance at me through the SUV’s glass. “That him?”
The Marshal nodded, handing over two sheets of paper. Mr. Pudgy and his partner skimmed the two documents then snapped their heads in my direction, eyes narrowed. Suddenly, they seemed to be on high alert.
After opening the back door of the SUV, the Marshal frowned at my woven necklace. “Can’t have that,” he said. With a practiced hand he whipped out and opened a folding knife. Holding the necklace away from my neck with his left hand, he chopped through it with his right—and sliced my left cheek. Not a deep cut, but the unexpectedness of it added to the sting.
With a sharp intake of breath, I looked at him accusingly, my cheeks blazing hot. He took a quick step backward. A warm droplet of blood trickled down my face.
“Sorry,” he said, his hands spread placatingly. “I didn’t—I slipped. Are you okay?”
Under the circumstances, the question struck me as so absurd that I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Studying his face, I decided he was sincere, and I offered a slow nod. He helped me out of the tall backseat, a feat made more difficult because the handcuffs pinning my hands behind my back had rendered both arms numb. Gripping my upper arm, he led me over to the correctional officers, or COs. “All yours,” said the Marshal.
“Great,” the skinnier CO muttered. “Thanks for gettin’ him all buttered up for us.” Watching the Marshal hop into his vehicle, Skinny turned to me. “It was him what cut you; don’t get any ideas ‘bout tryin’ to take it out on us.”
Pudgy cleared his throat, waving the second document. Skinny nodded and radioed for two more COs. For the remainder of my stay at the Wyoming state prison facility, I would be escorted by four edgy-looking COs—two in front, two in back—every time I left the cell.
At twenty-nine, I had never even been to a proctologist, let alone been strip-searched by strangers, so the first time I was ordered to disrobe, bend over and cough, I thought I would die of embarrassment and shame.
That first night, I was relegated to a solitary cell where other inmates would not come in contact with me. As the prison’s only federal detainee, I was a visitor, prohibited from mingling with the local prisoners until Uncle Sam could arrange for my extradition to L.A. The electronic door clanged shut behind me with a finality that reverberates in me even now. Perpetually single, I was surprised at the thought that then sprang up unbidden: I’ll never get to have a family.
Apparently federal regulations allow all new-arrival prisoners to make a phone call within seventy-two hours. In an effort to keep me from communicating with the outside, however, the government circumvented this pesky rule by simply transferring me to a new prison every seventy-one hours. I patronized a jail in Montana and five prisons in Wyoming within three weeks. At each new stop I would put in an order for prison canteen items; each time I would be shipped out before the canteen arrived, so it would be mailed to my home instead.
At every facility I was escorted—legs and wrists shackled—by a four-CO squad, often with canisters of pepper spray aimed at my face. They wore masks of anger and suspicion, at times jabbing me with their batons to goad me into moving with more alacrity. I continued to be polite and obedient. After weeks of being treated like a dangerous beast, I felt like snarling and baring my teeth. It seemed to be expected of me, anyway.
My last Wyoming pit stop was the longest at a full week. After the first few days without incident, a salty, gray-haired sergeant stopped outside of my cell. His wizened eyes peered at me appraisingly through the narrow glass slit in the door.
“Starting to think they might have got you figured wrong,” he said. “You ain’t been trouble.” He tugged thoughtfully at his bushy mustache. I met his gaze with a gratitude that startled me with its intensity. These simple words were the first reminder I’d had in weeks that I was still human, and I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I blinked away the moisture in my eyes. Coming to a decision, the sergeant nodded once.
“I’m gonna change your status. Feds wouldn’t like it, but screw ‘em. Never liked them uppity fellas anyway. ‘Sides, I ain’t got the man power to have half my staff following you around like groupies.”
“Thank you sir,” I said, my voice dry and grainy from lack of use. “I won’t give you any problems.”
“No, I don’t expect you will. Frandsen, you even know why you been getting the dee-luxe bad boy treatment?”
“No sir, not a clue.”
Shaking his head, the sergeant smirked and slid a familiar-looking sheet of paper under the door, the second document delivered by the marshal weeks ago. It was a warrant with my name on it declaring my offense. Beneath the large FBI seal was an admonition in large, bold, and capital letters:
FBI WILL MAKE ARREST
SUBJECT BLACK BELT
My jaw dropped. Black belt? So what? I know an eight-year-old girl who has a black belt. I slid the paper back under the door.
“You need anything at the moment?”
“Yes sir,” I said immediately, my heart leaping in my chest. “I’d like to call my mom.”
He grunted affirmatively and walked me to a phone in an uninhabited module.
“Go on then.” He said. “I’ll come back for you in fifteen minutes.”
I smiled and scurried to the phone. When my mom heard my voice, she sobbed. “Oh, Benji, I’ve been trying to find you for weeks.” As we cried and talked, I realized something. This whole thing is even harder on her than it is on me.
“Don’t you dare give up hope, Benjamin.” She commanded. “God makes a way out of no way.”
I glanced around at my steel and concrete dungeon and wished desperately for that to be true.
“If you say so.”
“I do.” She sniffed. “Now I need to ask you something important. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but,” she paused as she always did before a good punch line, “why are you sending me boxes of Top Ramen and candy bars every three days?”
I burst out laughing for the first time since my arrest. Our mad giggles were like fists we shook at the void of separation and despair between us. In that moment, two facts branded me with white-hot certainty: I would make it through this, and I would breathe free air again. Many in my situation had clung vainly to these same two hopes. But they didn’t have my mother.
CHAINS AND PLANES
In my dream, I was fifty feet under water, sinking with heavy chains shackled to my ankles, pulling me to the ocean floor. From my wrists, the chains like rusty snakes had ensnared my mom and dad, dragging them down with me. The watery depths muffled my bubbling screams, and I thrashed my arms in vain to free my drowning parents. When I looked up, my mother gazed down at me with sweet, sad eyes and mouthed, it’s okay, Benji. Each word released a slowly rising bubble. I tried to yell for her to untangle herself, but saltwater flooded my throat and scorched my lungs. Breathing was impossible.
With a loud gasp, I bolted up in bed. The underside of the upper bunk loomed above me like the lid of a steel beige coffin. I decided right then that, if given the option, I would choose the top bunk for the remainder of this journey.
A fast-talking baritone crackled through the P.A. system. “Wiley, pack your stuff! Your ride’s here. Two minutes.”
Glancing around the cell, I chuckled mirthlessly. What stuff? I was fairly certain the FBI and scavenging Yellowstone employees had it all by now.
It was about a half-hour ride to the small, dusty airstrip on which waited a surprisingly posh Learjet. “DEA agents,” explained my shaggy-haired U.S. Marshal escort, “seized this and five other jets from a Colombian drug lord and turned them into federal air taxis.”
A female prisoner with a bob-cut and frosted hair was led over to the side of the plane, her staccato sobs the melody to her rhythmic drag-chain shuffle. We waited side by side as the hatch opened and lowered until it was flush with the sand-dusted runway. The flipside of the hatch had metal stairs built into it that rose steeply into the aircraft. It was difficult to climb with shackled legs, but after some wobbly close calls, we were secured in cushy leather seats. Take-off was almost immediate.
Once her flow of tears began to ebb, the stout girl glanced at me from across the aisle. “What do they have you for?” She asked with a sniff.
“Right now they’re saying kidnapping. You?”
She shrugged. “Ecstasy.”
I’d sort of forgotten that my occasional weekend drug, “Vitamin E,” was illegal. When had my morals become so loose? “That’s a federal crime?”
Before she could reply, the marshal cut in. “It is when you get caught with three hundred pounds of it.” He flipped another page of his Guns & Ammo magazine. A rising, sharp wail escaped the girl’s lips as she sobbed with renewed vigor. The marshal rolled his eyes.
I felt a surge of Y-chromosomal protectiveness, wishing I could at least throw her a tissue and tell her it would be okay. Of course, it probably wouldn’t be—300 pounds of MDMA likely carried decades in a federal penitentiary. But such is the impulse of caring souls: tell a comforting lie in times of need.
Her subdued mewling became my own mother’s trembling sobs as she willed herself to be strong enough for both of us. Became the cries of the mothers of those two men, pleading with God for answers and comfort. And what could I tell them? Yes, their sons were burglars but they didn’t deserve to die? I’m so sorry—it was a reflex? What mother would care about anything but the all-consuming grief that once tore itself from King David’s throat, “Would that I had died instead of you, my son, my son!” What good would it do if I told them that every day for the last eternal month I wished I could trade places with their sons, that the last piece of me I recognized died along with them?
But I did not have the luxury of giving up because I knew my mother would not. Not if she had a breath of life in her body. For her, then. For her I would cling to the shards of myself and hope against hope that the carpenter she prayed to could rebuild shattered glass.
THE SPIRIT OF ZARCON
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, where federal inmates are housed until trial, was a swarming hive compared to the solitary confinement I’d experienced over the last month. There were nine floors, each divided into north and south wings. When the escorting CO used his huge jangling keyring to let me into my assigned module, I braced myself. Would I be cuffed and shackled everywhere I went once again? Since the FBI had labeled me “dangerous,” would I be tossed into a battleground of truly dangerous men?
As I stepped forward uncertainly a tremendous social clamor engulfed me. Well over a hundred men of all ages and races buzzed around the huge dayroom: chatting, slapping down pinochle cards, doing push-ups, playing chess. A few curious souls noted my new face. A CO in a blue sport coat and clip-on tie rose from his desk. His nametag read CO Davis.
“Welcome to Nine South,” he said cheerfully. “You’re Franz-den?” He did not eye me warily or point pepper spray.
“Frandsen. Rhymes with Hansen,” I said automatically as I had for every substitute teacher since first grade.
“Gotcha. Okay, the rules. You want to smoke, do it on the patio by the weight machine. We have two stand-up counts at sixteen hundred and twenty-one hundred hours. If the alarm sounds, sit down on the floor wherever you are, and when the COs run in, stay out of the way.”
Davis handed me a white mesh laundry bag containing underwear, socks, towels, sheets, a blanket, drab olive pants and T-shirts, and pointed to a cell near the phones.
Phones, I thought. Mom’s probably worried. I hoisted the heavy bag over one shoulder and lumbered over to my new digs. The metal door was slightly ajar but I knocked lightly anyway. I was looking forward to finally sleeping after a midnight Learjet flight followed by a bumpy four-hour bus ride.
“Come in,” said a Kermit-like voice, clearing his throat.
As I pushed in I smelled stale sweat, cigarettes, and something cloying like hot sugar and meat. The scraggly-haired form was beached on the bottom bunk, bloated hands crossed over a mountainous chest. He was 400 pounds at least.
“They call me Big Mike,” he croaked, tilting his head toward the top bunk.
“Why’s that?” I asked, heaving my bag onto the mat up top. Might as well see if he has a sense of humor. His formidable maw tried vainly to form words, the confusion evident on his face. That answers that.
“I’m Benjamin,” I extended a hand. He didn’t seem to see it.
“We’ll be fine,” he said, “as long as I don’t get mad.” Screwing up his face, he turned yellowed eyes on me. “Last time I got mad at a guy, my spirit warrior Zarcon took me over and I bled out my eyes and the guy died. Ya know what I mean?”
“I know enough.” I rolled the thin mat around my laundry bag, picked it all up and marched right back out of the cell. Off to one side of the dayroom I dropped the bag, unrolled the mat on the floor, and lay down, closing my eyes. A smattering of laughter fluttered around the room. Footsteps approached and stopped right behind my head. “Frandsen?”
I opened my eyes and found myself staring at an upside-down CO Davis.
“What are—you can’t sleep,” he struggled to keep his composure, “on your mat, in the dayroom.”
“Then please tell me where I can, sir, because I am not going back in there with Zarcon.”
“I went to my parents and had turkey,” my mom pouted. “But it wasn’t Thanksgiving without you.” she reached across the visiting room table and squeezed my hand. This was our seventh visit now, so we were becoming well-versed in what constituted “excessive” contact and what was allowed. She took a deep breath, readying herself for something.
“Benji, I need to talk to you. We need…” covering her face with one hand, she choked back a sob and sighed loudly. After a moment, she lowered her hand, placed her palms flat on the table, and met my gaze. “We need to come up with all the ways I’ve failed you as a parent.”
I stared at her as if she were speaking another language.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Your investigator, Monica, says it’s extremely important. They’re doing ‘death penalty protocols’ and they need… to present mitigation to show why they shouldn’t… execute you.”
“What? You’ve never failed me. I was the one who was hanging out with people I only knew from nightclubs and getting sucked into—”
“Never mind that,” she growled. “That doesn’t help us. This is about me, what I did or neglected to do that might have contributed to you…” she waved her hands helplessly.
“Being here,” I finished. I shook my head, furious at this whole process for forcing us to think along these disloyal lines. “I don’t know. This is stupid.”
“Benjamin. You have court tomorrow. We have to do this.”
Gritting my teeth, I said, “Maybe… Well, neither you nor Dad ever really taught me how to handle money. I mean, the last several years you’ve been good with it. But by then I’d already…”
“Learned how to be bad with it?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry for that, Benjamin.”
“Mom, stop it. You don’t need to apologize for…” I stopped as the realization hit me. When I spoke, it was in a whisper. “You blame yourself for this?”
Her hand reached out urgently for mine, a drowning girl grasping for a life preserver. Tears pooled in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks.
“Of course I do. How could I not? You’ve never been in trouble, not even when I was lost in my addiction. Maybe if I’d—”
“Don’t.” I snapped. “That way madness lies.” I reached out and wiped her cheeks with the back of two fingers. Technically not allowed, but the guard pretended not to notice.
“You can’t quote me to me.” She sniffed with feigned indignance.
“Why not? You’re the smartest person I know.”
Her wave of sadness passed and she dried her eyes on her sleeve. “Thanks. But it’s Shakespeare, anyway.”
“It was the X-Wing Fighter,” I informed her seriously.
“I was twelve. All I wanted in the world was Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing Fighter so I could put him and R2D2 in it and fly them all around the house.” I sighed tragically. “But you wouldn’t buy it for me. That’s why I’m here. You failed me as a parent.”
She snorted a laugh, “I brought you into this world, boy, and I can take you out of it!”
“Oh, and the threats. Write that down, too. Monica can use that.”
Her giggles blurped out so loudly that we didn’t hear them announce the visit was over. When we noticed everyone rising from their tables we followed suit, and I smothered her in the hug we both so badly needed.
Original Publication: https://arts.columbia.edu/exchange/issue-3/some-mothers-darling-excerpted