"We might as well proceed," Warden Mitchel proclaimed, tapping an ink pen impatiently on the table as he watched the wall clock inch slowly toward noon, "unless anyone here has an objection?" A hushed agreement passed through the Parole Board as the Warden shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Flanking him on either side of the folding table was an older woman in her sixties wearing a glitter embossed cat sweatshirt, and a tall, thin man dressed sharply in a black suit and power-tie with rubber ducks printed on a grid. At the far end of the table sat an empty chair with a manila folder placed before it, seemingly waiting for someone yet to arrive.
Mitchel glanced once more toward the empty chair and then flipped open his copy of the folder. He cleared his throat and began to read, adjusting his reading glasses to the tip of his bulbous nose to do so.
"You realize that have the right to have legal council present at this hearing… Mr. Coach, is it? Do I take it that you intend to wave that right?"
Coach laughed, thinking about the last time he had help from a lawyer, his best friend, Nick Miller. Fifteen years in prison had changed Coach, chiseled him from the slab of weakness that once engulfed everything he was into something strong, confident, and deadly. A shock of thick dreadlocks fell about his head and neck, obscuring crude prison tattoos that now crept up his body and dotted haphazardly across his face. His muscles bulged beneath the ill-fitting orange jumpsuit he'd been forced to wear. He hated the way it hid his masterwork, like putting a trash bag over Michelangelo's David.
The Warden asked once again if he would need legal council present. Coach motioned toward the empty seat. "We aren't waiting?"
The Parole Board looked at one another in mild disgust. "It would seem this hearing is to proceed as attended. Now please, for the record, answer the question."
Coach fell back into his seat, feeling suddenly like a small island in the vast ocean that had become the room (which was, in actuality, an underused dance studio turned makeshift meeting room).
A complex wave of emotions washed over him. If there was a constant in Coach's life, it was Nick Miller. During the past fifteen years of his incarceration—which was in no small part due to Nick's machinations—Coach found it difficult to remember a time before there was a Nick Miller. His first day of school, his first date, his first sexual encounter with a girl who, unfortunately, turned out to be his cousin—Nick Miller played some part. Even his name, "Coach," came from Nick. These thoughts kept Coach awake at night. They drove him as he survived, even thrived, behind bars. But now, sitting before the Parole Board for the eighth time and staring at the empty chair usually reserved for Nick, a moment of clarity swept over him. Nick wasn't there on the first day of school, or his first date, which was awesome because he got to touch a boob for the first time. Sure, the cousin thing still happened, but he wouldn't meet Nick for another two years after. How did this happen? How did Nick Miller infect his life to the point that Coach questioned whether he could even exist without the misadventure Nick left in his wake?
No answer came from the empty chair where Nick would sit, with his suit nicely pressed and his perchance for telling the other members of the board exactly what they needed to hear to get what he wanted. It's taken Coach nearly half his life to see the truth, but he could finally see that thing in Nick, the thing he hides most with his frantic bumbling. Nick Miller is always in control. Nothing happens without his causing it to happen, and things happened when Nick Miller was around. Except for today.
"I haven't had much luck with lawyers, sir." Coach quipped, springing back to life. The warden nodded, first to Coach and then the rest of the Board. The older woman flipped carefully through her own copy of the file. She shook her head in disbelief as she absorbed the events leading to Coach's incarceration. "I am at a loss here, young man. This crime, it's absolutely horrible. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Coach took a long breath before he spoke. He'd practiced this speech a thousand times in the last fifteen years. Always keep it repentant, he reminded himself as he droned on and on about finding God and hitting rock bottom, never try to defend the crime or avoid it, always be sorry. He gave them a story. He wove the tapestry of a life done wrong. This version of Coach had a bad childhood, one that would drive him to fits of rage as an adult. Not a word of it was true.
The old woman's features softened and Coach knew he was getting her. He turned his attention to the man in the suit and duck tie, and suddenly there were drug problems and molesting uncles. He plucked misfortune and bad circumstance from the ether and formed it into a glittering apology. His was a story of reform and redemption. Today Coach was the author of his own destiny. Hell, not just an author, today Coach was the Shakespeare of lies.
When he finished, he was met with silence. Sweat poured from his face and his jumpsuit clung to his hardened body like wet paper. The old woman wiped a tear from her cheek as she turned to the two men. They nodded in agreement and the warden took a stamp from the desk, pressed it against a pad of ink, and slammed it down onto Coach's file.
PAROLE DENIED, it read.
"Damnit, I used the wrong one." He slapped down a second stamp haphazardly over the first:
Coach thanked them one by one, yet he couldn't stop himself from glancing over at Nick's empty chair. Some part of him was waiting for Nick to show and ruin everything once again. But Nick never came, and Coach smiled.
Coach stood, for the first time in fifteen years, beyond the gates of prison. He could hear the sound of protestors chanting their rhetoric from the other side of the complex, unaware that he was being released by the rear exit. Their presence didn't bother him. Coach understood the power Nick Miller had. He'd played the entire world and the foolish were easily caught in his web. God knows he was.
Coach closed his eyes, forcing thoughts of Nick Miller from his mind, and savoring the sound and taste of freedom. He stretched out his arm, his palms up to sun as it bore down upon him. A breeze whirled around him. He never realized that he'd forgotten what a simple gust of wind could feel like against his skin. The loud clank of the prison fence slamming shut woke him from his daydream. His heart jumped into his throat and for an instance he was behind bars again in his mind. And then nothing happened, and the guards behind the fence went back to their duties. It wasn't a dream. He was really free.
Coach clawed at the tight fitting shirt and pajama pants he'd been given to wear—the same clothes he'd worn on the way into prison. They had been laundered at some point, but the scent of mildew wafted strongly from them.
"You just look terrible," a shrill voice called out to him from the dirt and gravel road behind the prison, "are you still eating Glutten?" Coach turned, cupping a hand over his eyes in an attempt to make out the sunlit silhouette before him.
Schmidt sat "seductively" on the hood of a candy red convertible parked on the side of a winding dirt road behind the prison. He arched his back, propping himself up with his arms while he slowly crossed his legs. A pair of red pumps hung loosely from his long, painted toes as cut-off jean shorts hugged his non-existent curves. A white blouse with embroidered cherries over the pockets clung to his waxed chest; the ends of the shirt had been tied in a knot just high enough to show off a row of glistening abs.
Schmidt lowered a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses further down his nose to reveal his dark, made-up eyes as he gave his deepest voice. "Hello, lover."
Coach sighed, "don't call me that, man, it's weird." He tossed a duffel bag containing the rest of his personal effects into the back seat of the convertible. Schmidt hopped off the hood and ran around the car to meet him, himself very unsteady in high heels. "Well, I don't know what else to call you, my Nubian Prince."
Having lost Cee-Cee for the umpteenth time, Schmidt came to the realization that perhaps the reason he couldn't find happiness with a woman was due to the fact that he wasn't meant to be with a woman at all. Schmidt being Schmidt, he threw himself whole-heartedly into the homosexual lifestyle when he began to visit Coach twice a month after losing contact with Jess and Nick. Eventually, their visits began to turn conjugal in nature, despite the protests of Coach that it didn't mean anything.
"There is never a situation where Nubian Prince is OK."
"Right. Nubian Price…unacceptable. Got it."
"Did you do what I asked?" Schmidt nodded and then directed Coach to the trunk of the convertible, which hung low to the ground as if holding a considerable amount of weight. Schmidt bent over slowly as he unlocked the trunk, looking back with doe-eyes at Coach who simply winced in response to Schmidt's generously exposed ass in his face. "I think you'll see something you like," Schmidt cooed.
Coach rolled his eyes at the proposition, completely speechless as the trunk popped opened. Finally, words began to form in his mind once again, "how did you…how did you even find them?"
Schmidt slammed the trunk down again and locked it before tossing the car keys to Coach. "Now, now, a girl has got to have his secrets. We should get going."
Coach made his way behind the wheel, closing the door behind him. Schmidt followed, leaping into the passenger side. "So, what happens next," he asked as he fixed his lipstick in the rear-view mirror. Coach started the engine, letting it roar beneath his feet. It had been a long time. He placed his hands on the steering wheel slowly and deliberately. Across the fingers, just below the knuckles, a tattoo across both fists read: NICK KILL.
He really wished he'd paid more attention to which hand was getting which tattoo. He crossed his arms one over the other.
KILL NICK: read his fists. He intended to do just that.
NEXT: TRUE AMERICAN