by Luisa Kay Reyes
He was being called into the office. And that could only mean one thing. This would be his last day working at the plant. Preston let his shoulders slump for a minute. Times were only going from difficult to rough. But there was no point in delaying the inevitable. So, he ran his fingers through his medium-brown hair and headed to where he knew he’d be receiving the same bad news all the others in his team had received. The news that the company was sorry, but they had to let him go.
And sure enough, his visit to the office had produced no surprises. The jobs were going south, south of the border, that is. Making it time to file for unemployment and come up with some kind of way for creating gainful employment in this rural section of forgotten America that seemed to yield very little for her citizens other than trees and grass. Preston let out a sigh. It had been hard, but he had actually managed to straighten his life out. Now he was debating whether he could resist returning to his old ways. It would be a couple of weeks before unemployment would come through and then there was the one-week initial waiting period, so help might be on the way. Yet, not by tomorrow.
Preston cranked his rusty old pickup truck and leaned his head back. Tomorrow, there was something about tomorrow, he just couldn’t quite place it. But something was supposed to happen tomorrow. Then he looked at the text messages on his phone. His mother needed her heart medicine tomorrow. Medicare and the supplement didn’t cover the bulk of it. And it would be several hundred dollars he needed by tomorrow to help her with her medicines. She was, after all, the only family he really had left. He had a son somewhere, but his mother didn’t allow him to contact his deadbeat dad. Not that Preston could blame her, he wouldn’t want his son contacting the likes of him, either. At least, not the likes of him before he started working at the plant.
Preston pulled out his faded black wallet from his back pocket and counted the dollar bills he had in it… one, five, ten, and twenty, and a quarter that had slipped into the inner fold of the coin section. All in all, he had about thirty-six dollars left and twenty-five cents.
Can I get away with it just one more time? He asked himself. He’d been clean for a couple of years now. And hadn’t even been tempted to employ his old ways to bad ends. But having to start life anew, he’d spent most of his paychecks paying off old debts and buying his used truck without managing to set anything aside for layoffs. Nobody had really thought about the layoffs coming. The plant had been around for most of the time anybody could remember, but now the Americans were considered too expensive to employ. Making the layoffs mount by the minute.
Preston’s phone rang. He looked at the number popping up on his screen and cringed. It was his old buddy. And there was only one thing this buddy could want. Preston let the phone ring a couple of more times and then, with his hand shaking at the thought, he answered.
Two days later, Preston felt all eyes staring at him inside the church. He knew only too well what they were thinking. Was he the guy on the news in the shadowy security footage or wasn’t he? His buddy had been right, the house the other night was uninhabited for the time being. The only problem was the neighbor’s house had a security camera hidden behind some bushes that no one knew existed. And as fate would have it, the camera was pointed right in their direction.
Preston wouldn’t have dared set foot in this sanctuary had he not promised his mama he’d bring her to come hear Dr. Potterson preach. As far as he was concerned, God had abandoned him long ago and he had no use for preachers, old or young. But Dr. Potterson was highly revered in the area as a brother who could really preach The Word and his mama was only too eager to hear him. Preston figured it was one good thing he could do before he broke her heart once more. And he sat there just biding his time until he could make a run for it after the service was over.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Dr. Potterson reminded the congregation as the ushers passed out the collection plate for a love offering for the Gomez family. Leading to a collective low sigh being uttered by the congregation. Preston stared at the pastor’s sky-blue eyes. He couldn’t really be serious, could he? Collecting money for someone in the Hispanic community at a time like this was foolhardy. He didn’t figure his mama would be wanting to hear Dr. Potterson preach for very long. And he repressed a smile as he noticed his mother squirming in her seat. Leading him to blithely pass the collection plate right on to the next person without putting anything in it. After all, any funds Preston had were ill gotten.
Dr. Potterson continued preaching some more about the virtuous ideals espoused by Jesus. Yet Preston failed to pay them much attention. Until Dr. Potterson began asking the deciding question “Are you saved?” which Preston knew was an indication the altar call was nearing. And the service would soon be over. Now Preston sat up straighter in his seat in anticipation of the grand finale when much to his dismay, he felt Dr. Potterson’s eyes looking right at him. “It is never too late to accept Jesus into your heart. Jesus still saves,” he continued. And Preston groaned.
Much to Preston’s relief, Dr. Potterson didn’t belabor the point any longer. With the congregation soon filing out of the sanctuary, slowly but surely as they reluctantly shook Dr. Potterson’s hands in the process. Preston let his mother step ahead of him, and she kindly shook Dr. Potterson’s hands. With Preston planning to move on quickly after her, for he wasn’t in any kind of mood to feign kindness where he felt none. But Dr. Potterson had other plans.
“Jesus saves,” he told Preston.
Preston rolled his eyes. In this part of the country, everybody had heard that at one point in time or another. And Preston figured he’d done his fair share of hearing it already.
Dr. Potterson glanced at him in all solemnity.
“When you need help, just remember, Daniel says Jesus saves,” Dr. Potterson repeated. And Preston moseyed on with only a grimace to acknowledge he had ever made note of what the pastor said.
A few days later, state inmate number 316-891-5 was Preston’s new name. The dilapidated corrugated metal building that resembled an overgrown trailer park was the state’s attempt at upgrading their correctional facilities and it would be his home for the next few years. With Preston noticing that it wouldn’t be too hard to escape from the medium-security facility, were it not for the triple rows of razor blade fences outlining the shabby institution.
He narrowed his eyes and put on his fiercest glare as the tough prison warden escorted him to his new quarters. Preston wasn’t a novice at doing time and he knew that even with these no-nonsense state officials being on duty round the clock, it was nearly impossible for them to keep the men from getting on top of each other. The gleam in his new companion’s eyes clearly conveyed that they were already eyeing him to see if he was fresh meat. Well, he wasn’t. So, Preston summoned up an even harsher glare as he laid down on his cot. Hoping to make it obvious that nobody was going to come near him.
The day had been long and the desire to sleep was overpowering. Yet, Preston knew it was best to only pretend to sleep. Especially this first night. However, he soon found himself in a delirium. Exhaustion was trying to gain control and Preston was desperately fighting it. Soon, he had a blurry vision appear before him of three men standing over his bed. Three men even taller and more tattooed than him. But he wasn’t sure. Was he dreaming? No, definitely not. Was he having a nightmare? Most definitely. Now, there were five men standing around him. It was going to be tough to escape from this. He might be able to take on three of these fellow louts on his own, but with their numbers ever increasing he was getting outnumbered, five to one. Now there were six.
“Daniel says Jesus saves,” he thought with irony. What little did Dr. Potterson know? Preston needed help and he knew it. However, there was no aid to be had in these parts. It was survival of the fittest and that was all there was to it.
The next morning, Preston awoke with the holler of the warden telling all the inmates to hurry and get their breakfast as there was no food left over for any late risers. Making him check his bedding as he got up. Noting to his surprise he didn’t see any signs of anything. His astonishment increased even more as he double-checked his arms to see if there were any bruises or signs of scratches or marks of any kind to denote a fight or a struggle had occurred during the night. But, try as he did, he could find nothing.
Still a bit bewildered, Preston started noticing the looks from yesterday were nonexistent. He knew that it was only his second day in, so for many of the inmates he could still be viewed as fresh meat, but they all looked away. Nevertheless, Preston wasn’t taking any chances and glared as firmly as his clenched jaw would allow.
A few minutes later, Preston was startled when the inmate next to him whispered, “Are you part Mexican?”
Preston glanced around to see to whom he was speaking.
“You,” the guy repeated. “Are you part Mexican or something?”
Preston glanced at his lightly freckled pale skin. Realizing this was definitely the first time he had ever been mistaken for being part anything other than Scotch-Irish.
“No,” he answered firmly. Knowing that multiculturalism was in vogue on the outside, but not on the inside.
“I just don’t get it,” the guy repeated with a shrug. “But here you go.” He slipped him a note.
In as furtive a manner as he could, Preston unfolded the note and began reading what it said.
‘Is Brother Daniel Potterson looking after my family?’ was the one line it contained. Except for the lone signature underneath it. ‘Gomez’.
Preston looked up and out of the far corner of his eye, saw a Mexican-looking guy in the distance looking at him with both disdain and anticipation. He nodded up and down to signal “Yes”, which made the guy briefly allow a look of relief to come over his face before he had to mask it, lest the others would catch wind of his momentary sentimentality.
“Who is this Gomez?” Preston whispered back to the man who had first handed him the note.
“You don’t know?” the guy whispered back in surprise.
Preston nodded in the negative.
“That’s Jesús Gomez,” the guy whispered back. “You know them durn Mexicans, always calling themselves Jesus. He’s the head of the toughest gang in this joint. Anyway, with him on your side, you have nothing to fear. He saved you from those guys last night when you yelled that Daniel says Jesus saves or something like that and they ain’t going to go nowhere near you ever again.”
Preston took a deep breath. He hadn’t realized he’d said that out loud. So that’s who Dr. Potterson took up the love offering for. Preston trembled for a moment as he recalled he hadn’t even put a penny on the plate to help. He was unworthy of being saved by this guy. Most unworthy. Yet, he knew now what he had to do. Come his next rotation at the store, he was going to get some envelopes and some stamps. For he had two letters to write. One to his mama to ask her to help the Gomez family however she could. And the other to Dr. Potterson. Just to let him know he was right… Jesus still saves.
Luisa Kay Reyes has had pieces featured in The Raven Chronicles, The Windmill, The Foliate Oak, The Eastern Iowa Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay, ‘Thank You’, is the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature. And her Christmas poem was a first place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay ‘My Border Crossing’ received a Pushcart Prize nomination from the Port Yonder Press. And two of her essays have been nominated for the ‘Best of the Net’ anthology. With one of her essays recently being featured on ‘The Dirty Spoon’ radio hour.