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Excerpt: 'The Way Home'

by George Pelecanos
May 26, 2009

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George Pelecanos

Along with an escort guard, Thomas and Amanda Flynn walked out of the building towards the gatehouse, Thomas in front of Amanda, his heavy steps indenting the mud beneath his feet. Inmates, between classes and lunch, were moving from unit to unit, their arms behind their backs, one hand holding the wrist of the other, accompanied by a guard carrying a two-way radio. All of the boys were black. Flynn had seen one Hispanic kid, waxy-eyed and wired on meds, on his last visit, so maybe there were a few Spanish here, too, but that was immaterial to him. What weighed on him was that Chris was the sole white inmate of the facility.

My son, here with all these...

Flynn stopped himself before ugly words spelled themselves out in his head.

He rang the bell on the door at the rear of the gatehouse, looking through bars and Plexiglas to get the attention of one of two uniformed women behind the counter. Like most of the female guard staff Flynn had seen here, these women were wide and generously weighted in the legs and hips. He and his wife were buzzed in, and passed through the same security aisle, similar to those used in airports, they'd entered. Neither of the guards looked at the couple nor spoke to them as Flynn and Amanda collected their keys and cells.

They exited the gatehouse and walked along the chain link and razor wire fence to Amanda's SUV, parked in the staff and visitor's lot. They did not talk. Amanda was thinking of going to early mass on Sunday and lighting a candle for Chris. Flynn, as he often did, was thinking of what had gone wrong.

By Flynn's reckoning, he had begun to lose his son somewhere in Chris's freshman year of high school. At the time, Chris was playing football and CYO basketball, getting decent grades, attending Sunday school and mass. He was also smoking marijuana, shoplifting, fighting other boys, and breaking into cars and lockers. This was all happening at the same time, when Chris was about fifteen. Flynn began to refer to his son as if he were two people: Good Chris and Bad Chris. By the age of sixteen, only Bad Chris remained.

As a teenager and into his twenties, Flynn had blown his share of marijuana, so he detected Chris's use right away. Flynn could see the high in Chris's eyes, the way he would laugh inappropriately at violent images on the television screen, or his sudden interest in their lab mix, Darby, playing tug of war or wrestling him to the ground, something he would never do while straight. Of course, there was the smell that always hung in Chris's clothing and, when he had copped, that unmistakable skunky odor of fresh bud in his bedroom.

It didn't bother Flynn horribly that his son smoked marijuana. In fact, he told Chris that he had no moral objection to it, but felt that it was, basically, a waste of time. That for an already marginal student like Chris, it could impede his progress. What bothered Flynn, what had become alarming, was that Chris began to smoke marijuana at the exclusion of everything else. He stopped playing sports. He stopped going to mass and hanging out with his church friends. He quit his job at the coffee shop in Friendship Heights. His grades edged towards failure. He seemed not to care about the loss, or what his degeneration was doing to his parents.

Amanda still thought of Chris as her little boy, and couldn't bring herself to discipline him like a young man. Plus, she was certain that the Lord would step in and, when He deemed it appropriate, blow the black clouds away and give Chris the wisdom to get back on the righteous path. Flynn's response was elemental and not carefully considered. He believed in Darwin over fairy tales, and aimed to reinforce his position as the alpha dog of the house. He put Chris up against the wall more than once, raised his closed fist, and walked away before punching him. So Chris knew that his father was willing to cross the line and kick his ass, but the knowledge did nothing to alter his behavior. He didn't care.

Chris was charged with possession of marijuana. The arresting officer did not show up for court and the charge was dropped. Chris got in a fight at school and was suspended. He strong-armed a fellow student for his Walkman on school property and was expelled for the remainder of the year. He received community service time. Chris and his friend Jason were caught on camera, looting the lockers of their high school basketball team while the players were at practice, and were arrested and charged. An adjudicatory hearing was pending. Chris was videotaped vandalizing and stealing from cars in the back lot of a Mexican restaurant. His father paid off the owners of the restaurant and the owners of the vehicles, thereby avoiding the involvement of police. And then there were the final charges and conviction that led to his incarceration: assault, possession with intent to distribute, leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving, driving on the sidewalk, fleeing and eluding police. With each succeeding "incident," with each visit to the Second District station on Idaho Avenue to pick up his son, Flynn grew more angry and distant.

From the book THE WAY HOME by George Pelecanos. Copyright 2009 by George P. Pelecanos. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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