That’s what it read on the first ring and, as always, it would read the same until it went to voice mail.
After all, I was in the tenth frame of a high game with two strikes, preparing for another and a solo celebration of my personal best at a game I haven’t played in years, but from the looks of things, I should probably resume.
I haven’t answered an Unknown caller since September 4, 2011. That was the day I made a pivotal life decision, ending 8 years of a hellish crystal methamphetamine habit which had taken everything I own, and then some, including a squeaky clean criminal record. Feel free to read my backstory at http://www.lifemeanssomuch.com/my-9-1-1/ now or later to get the ugly truth of the darkened life I lead for so many years and would again be reminded of today.
Yet, at the top of my game in a noisy bowling hall, a still small voice instructed me to answer this divine call.
It was Siri.
Well, the Federal Board of Prisons Siri giving me the option of accepting or rejecting the incoming call from a John _______, a name I either didn’t recognize from her automated pronunciation or the ambient noise of the bowling hall.
I accepted the call.
“Don? This is John, remember me?”
He’d said his last name the way I’d remembered it at least six years ago.
I dropped the ball and collapsed into the chair.
Had it been one of my three kids, I might have been less shocked. But I’d spoken to all of them this week and they were doing fine at work and relationships and unlike their dad, were mostly not criminally inclined as I had once been, and still very squeaky clean. At least to a father’s knowledge.
“How are you?” is probably the most useless opening question in any conversation, especially one with this inmate who’d been incarcerated 21 months to date. I’d heard stories about prison and they’re not just true, they’re much worse.
“I’ve been trying to find your number for years to reach you,” he continued on a call that was being timed and recorded at the Lompoc, California Federal Correctional Facility.
“Well, here I am,” is probably the second most useless thing to say, but I was speechless as to the nature of the call from this dear friend who, like me, had once immersed himself in the drug trade as deep as the Mexican cartel, but apparently, from the call, hadn’t escaped the consequences.
For about six years, we both knew our endings in the business wouldn’t be pretty. Either we’d end up in prison or very, very dead. The world of crystal meth and upline suppliers are unforgiving, unpredictable and outright crazy. Several times, I narrowly escaped being murdered either by a skinny crackhead for a $20 bag or in negotiations on bulk purchases from Mexican men who, not surprisingly, all went by Jose or Freddy.
I had been arrested in the city’s biggest drug bust of the month several years ago in a sting where they confiscated tens of thousands in a variety of drugs and tens of thousands in cash I’d amassed from the business I began purely by accident. I faced 25 years of a mandatory prison sentence for high level trafficking but for the grace of God, subsequent immediate life changes, and even more grace, I’d escaped. And not in the El Chapo way. It was a profession I never wanted in the first place. John had not been so lucky. He’d left the country to avoid prosecution but years later had apparently been apprehended in a surprise visit by US marshals who brought him home to face his crimes and penalties which had landed him a cold cell in a federal penitentiary for the past two years.
I learned of these things in this short conversation which surely wouldn’t be our last on the topic.
You see, despite the fact we both were addicts and dealers, we genuinely liked each other. We “worked” together often and even spent social time talking about the good men we used to be and not finding answers to why we were doing what we were doing nor how we ended up in the business. Both of us were secretly ashamed of our habits and our livelihood which depended on keeping people high enough to lose everything, including their families and jobs, and low enough to often lose their dignity.
By now, we were well into the important topics of the quickly elapsing conversation. He was to be released at the end of March and wondered if he could count on me for a ride to wherever home and a new clean life might be found. I said of course to all his requests, for he was a man who had my back countless times I don’t even dare detail here for lack of time and words to explain the loyalty, brotherly love and support I experienced at the hands and rescue of this man at pivotal moments of my drug-dealing days. Suffice to say, It was the kind of unwavering support I hadn’t even experienced from a brother in church after a lifetime of serving God which, for many years, I’d placed on hold.
Having time for our histories later on, we’d made the necessary connections of his information and my commitment to be there for him upon release as he had been so many times for me.
If I hadn’t answered the divine call that morning in a loud bowling alley at the peak of my final game, I’d have missed forever the chance to fix something that has haunted me for years and was part of a Fourth Step I never did. And not because I didn’t want to.
“It’s really good to hear your voice, Don.”
I reciprocated as we hung up, knowing that this was to be one of those nodal, memorable events in my continuing life of recovery and promised a sober opportunity for both of us to reunite, unenhanced, to re-experience those virtues in one another that we’d only seen through the obscurity of a methamphetamine haze for so many years.
Ball in hand, I stared down the lane like a villain, armed with 14 pounds and a rather large smile. I rolled my third strike, a perfect final frame, and my day’s personal best.
Funny thing, nowadays, when my life seems at its lowest, the most comforting statement I can make to myself is:
“Don, you could be in prison.”
Such was the situation today, when I answered a divine call from the Unknown.