Junior had been locked up for twenty-three years. He began serving his time at age sixteen. Prison was what he knew, much more than the real world beyond these gates and walls.
Junior was a hospice volunteer, which meant that he sat with and cared for terminal patients in the healthcare unit. I had been in the cell with him for six months, during which time I witnessed him deal with the death of several of his patients. Some of them he was afforded special permission to sit beside through the night and provide comfort in their final moments. Within these six months Junior’s father also died. Through it all he exhibited more grit and grace than I imagine I could’ve managed were our rolls reversed. Whatever crimes led to his incarceration, I observed him to be a good guy.
New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and Junior was declaring, insisting, that the six of us who shared the large cell would all stay up and ring in the New Year with a raucous party fueled by food, caffeine and sugar. Lots of the latter two especially. Junior had a radio so we could blast music and really turn it into a wild all-nighter never to be forgotten.
I’d been incarcerated for nearly a decade at this point and had never once stayed up to ring in the New Year with any kind of celebration. Didn’t much see the point? In the grand scheme of things it was just another day in prison. I valued my sleep. I’m an early riser, usually up between four and four-thirty every morning with rare exceptions or deviations. Making it to midnight and beyond seemed an impossibility, and it wasn’t a plan or prospect I was too enthused about. However, this would be my first New Year in a communal living arrangement—six man cell instead of a two man—so, as much as I didn’t like it, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to alter my habits to accommodate my cohabitants.
Since this was something I wasn’t happy about, and I’m stubborn, I kept telling my cellies there was no way I was staying up that late. I also told them they better be quiet when I got to sleep. It was a jocular back and forth between them and myself, but deep down I was fully, completely serious. Junior was the driving force behind everyone’s sudden desire to stay up. He met each of my protests with his big grin and easygoing assuredness. I couldn’t fathom why exactly Junior wanted to be awake for midnight because he was usually waking up the same time as me. It was a puzzle which would eventually reveal itself.
All Is Quiet
New Year’s Eve.
Our big plans for cooking a large meal for all of us to share together was stymied by commissary shopping being so delayed that we didn’t get to go before the holidays. We were all animated enough until around nine o’clock when the conversation grew more muted and restrained. Without the aid of caffeine we were all fading fast.
By the time the ball dropped in New York City we languished in the middle of the country waiting for our time zone to catch up. A sleepy silence settled over the cell which was only punctuated by an occasional comment about one of the interchangeable pop-singers performing in Time Square. Yawns were seen and heard all around the room. I was battling sleep with the vigor of a barbarian. Junior was laying on his side, watching TV, his heavy lids drooping on numerous occasions. He was the ringleader of this ill-conceived, silly slumber party, and if I was awake he had to be too.
“Junior!” I yelled. “Junior!!” His eyes flew open and he shot up sideways onto his elbow, making some garbled inarticulate noises posing as words.
“Wake up, man. This is your party, no going to sleep now.”
Junior grinned sleepily, sheepishly, and sat up on the edge of his bunk. We all had a laugh at his expense, but good-natured, not mean-spirited. He was clearly just as exhausted and ready for sleep as the rest of us, so I asked him pointblank just what the big deal was, and why he wanted to stay up and ring in the New Year.
Junior smiled once again, looking around the cell at the four other expectant faces all wondering the same thing that I was, and wanting an answer. He shrugged before indulging in a full-bodied yawn and stretch. He looked a bit embarrassed as he searched for a way to explain himself. Finally with another shrug, he told us.
“As soon as this year clicks over to the next I can finally, officially say that I go home next year.” Junior’s shoulders raised lazily to his ears as if in apology for a lame excuse. I don’t believe any of us felt his reason was a bad one. On some level we each understood. The remaining twenty minutes of the year were spent in an amiable silence with everyone staring at their respective televisions.
At the appropriate time subdued cheers and Happy New Years were passed all around. Within three minutes the idiot boxes were all dark and everyone was tucked in for sleep. From where I lay on my bunk I could see Junior was on his back, head propped atop his pillow, blanket pulled up to his chin, eyes closed.
“Hey, Junior,” I called. In the orange glow of the security light shining in the window I saw one eyelid peel back to acknowledge that he heard me.
“When you go home?” The second eye shuttered open and his face split into a grin filled with the greatest degree of satisfaction I’d seen in my middle-aged life. When he answered me his voice was warm and joyful, excited and content.
This past New Year’s Eve I reenacted this same scene. I didn’t make a big fuss or deal out of it, didn’t involve my cellies. I did, however, break from my established routine so that I could stand at the threshold and mark the turning of 2017 into 2018. I did this because now it is my turn. I can finally voice Junior’s same sentiments.
I go home next year.