Sneak Previews

[The following are excerpts from A Jacket off the Gorge, a 100,000 word narrative nonfiction manuscript by Susan Ashline, represented by Lane Heymont/The Tobias Agency.] 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

This is the story of my life where it intersects with the life of Jon Fontaine, a young man who was hiding a secret of a stolen treasure, and beyond that, a severe criminal past. Why I did I get involved with someone with such a reprehensible background? The answer is simple: I didn’t know about it.

At a point in our relationship, I found out about Jon’s crimes, but not in detail. By that time, it seemed so much out of character that I felt information on the crimes needed to be left where they’d been unearthed. I truly believed this person had changed, so his past didn’t matter. I didn’t ask much about it. I wanted to believe the bond I felt with Jon was real, and I wanted it to be lasting. No one wants to think someone will break their heart or steal their $50,000.

Only when I set out to write this book did I learn details of Jon’s crimes. I traveled to multiple jurisdictions, talked to people, and collected a stack of legal documents more than a foot high. The true crime chapters on Jon’s background are written from a variety of sources. I recreated scenes using police statements from witnesses, victims, the defendant and conspirators; court transcripts, conversations with the people involved, and bits of information I learned along the way. I did not take fact-checking lightly, and did my best to verify every piece of information. This was natural for me. I’d spent my career doing it.

My journalism career spans more than 25 years. As a radio reporter, my beat was courts and crime. After spending nearly every day at the Hall of Justice covering hearings and trials, I thought I’d learned enough about the criminal justice process to become an attorney. Now, I am surprised at how much I didn’t know. All those years covering courts didn’t open my eyes to what was happening on the other side – the defendant’s side. For the justice system to work, it needs to be fair. That means those charged with upholding the law need to follow it for both parties. But it doesn’t work that way.

It also hadn’t sunk in with me that in New York State, children go to jail and prison. Their adolescent brains are not formed, they cannot buy a cigarette, but they can be thrown into violent, abusive, irreparably damaging penal systems and spit out angrier and bitterer than ever, with no real help for reform.

New York prisons offer no viable help on the inside – for children or adults – and many prisoners endure obscene abuses from the very people within the system charged with their care. Then, the system releases them back into society. Enter your neighbor.

This book is less about me than it is about Jon. It is less about Jon than it is about the roadblocks thrown up for those who need help getting to a better place in life.

Those in the legal community tend to repeat the cavalier, pat response, “The justice system isn’t perfect.” It is far from imperfect. It is seriously flawed to an alarming level. And we should all care.

We should care about the rehabilitation of one person. We should care about the suffering of one person.

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PROLOGUE

A lesson from my 10th grade social studies class: tabula rasa. It’s a Latin phrase. The literal translation is “blank slate.” It’s a theory that everyone starts life with a pure mind, before it’s affected by experiences.

I saw the human embodiment of tabula rasa twice – once in the beginning and once at the end.

 

His eyes closed, sandy colored lashes stuck out like soldiers at attention, ending at a constellation of light freckles dotting his chiseled cheekbones – tabula rasa. It was virgin, and contradictory. His face when we kissed the first time was the same as when he lay dying. And my mind wrestled with the question, Why did I meet him? As if answering my unspoken thoughts, a friend sent a text: You gave him comfort. No one else could.  

 

CHAPTER 1 – GHOST

True Crime

 

AUGUST 28, 2000

AUGUST 28, 2000

Eyes trained on the border crossing, Jon charged the rock pile.

“Go ahead, run!” shouted the Canadian Mountie. “Border Patrol is gonna get ya on the other side!”

Pant legs whipping – flap flap flap flap – was all he heard after the cop’s battle cry. The sound intensified until Jon caught a side glimpse of Eddie passing him, jeans rapping against shins. All he could focus on was getting past the rock pile, his thoughts drowned out by the whipping of pant legs and his own huffing breath.

The teens had all they could do to outrun Canadian police past the boundary that could mean freedom, or imprisonment in a foreign country. Jon was about to get caught – in Canada – with a backpack stuffed with cash for a major drug buy.

 

At 17, Jon Fontaine had a robust pot selling business moving more than $30,000 worth of marijuana monthly. Some he sold, some he smoked. He filled a seat in the classroom – sometimes – but the school desk was just a vehicle to rattle his leg under while his mind drifted to more rousing matters. Logistically planning his drug trafficking provided the intellectual stimulation he craved, and more. It paid rolls of cash and bought respect, even if in a twisted sense.

It was rural Wayne County in Upstate New York. Jon lived in Newark, a pocket of retail, fast food fare and gas stations. Just a mile or so in any direction, apple orchards were ubiquitous, along with farm markets and roadside stands. People who lived in Wayne County were commonly picked on for being country folk; mocked as “315ers,” referring to the county’s area code. The derision came mostly from those who lived in neighboring Monroe County, in the populous city of Rochester and its suburbs. Yet, those who ridiculed were often the ones who made Wayne County their getaway, day-tripping for a walk through a pumpkin patch or corn maze, or a ride down the Erie Canal bike path. The county’s northern border of Lake Ontario was a big draw, offering stellar views of what looked more like an ocean stretching to infinity, whereas the lake’s northern end actually licked the shores of Canada.

Living in Newark bored Jon, as did most things. That’s why it wasn’t difficult for two older boys to lure him into the drug trade in eighth grade. He was wowed by the fast financial gains, and it activated his acuity.

Jon was more knowledgeable about marijuana than most. He had an unlikely tutor: his friend’s father. Everyone called Steve Racey by last name, but Jon called him Mr. Racey, the formality of a prefix belying a deeper bond, one more of father and son.

Racey was a laid back, hippie throw-back who’d been making 36-hour, non-stop, piss-in-a-jug trips to El Paso since returning home from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. He ended up moving so much weed he had to get a partner, a commercial driver’s license and two semi trucks to make runs from Texas to New York.

Racey was selling about a hundred pounds per weekend to bikers, lawyers and doctors.

And eventually, to Jon.

In high school, Jon would show up on Racey’s doorstep with thousands of dollars to buy his cheap, low-grade Mexican brick weed. But over time, even Jon’s interest in pot selling dulled. In the spring of 2000, seeking ways to free the bottlenecking of ideas and plans in his mind, he decided to change up his marijuana business by securing higher quality product.

First, he’d put safeguards in place.

He rented a storage unit a few miles north of where he lived with his dad and younger brother, Justin. He put in a safe for his cash, weed, scales and pipe. It eliminated worries of Dad finding drug paraphernalia in the house. A few months earlier, he’d gotten busted selling pot after he cut a slit in the box spring of his bed and stuffed in marijuana, expensive, hand blown pipes, a cigar box full of cash and two digital scales he stole from biology class. Dad found it, and Jon wound up with criminal charges that were pending even as he took on this new venture.

Unit 41 had a lot of potential in this teenager’s mind, soon doubling as a party shack, with a rug and wall hangings of tie dye prints and pin-up girl posters. He put in a table and chairs, a television, a video game system, and a pricey stereo to play ska punk, a blend of ska and punk music just hitting its peak of popularity. Then, he modified the unit by unscrewing its only light bulb and rigging an adapter to plug in the myriad electronics. Unable to figure a way to override the timer connected to the main light, he had to turn the knob every 30 minutes to keep the power from going out.

He brought his friends (boys who distributed weed for him) regularly. They’d all go to the unit to smoke, weigh and bag, and many times, just to hang out.

Security handled, it was time to look for a connection to higher quality bud, referred to as “nugs.” The boys who got Jon into drug dealing were buying their stuff from a Newark supplier named Ricardo Richardson (Ricky Rich, they called him). Jon heard Ricky had found a Canadian connection and was bringing back nugs from Canada that were rock hard and looked like acorns. The denser the nugs, the better the quality. It was just what Jon needed.

Ricky was a fair-skinned Hispanic, about 5’8”, and what he lacked in height, he made up for in ornamentation. He was a peacock, a flashy dealer who wore heavy, thick, gold chains and medallions. Ricky had multiple houses and cars, including a car with color-changing paint. He was arrogant and intimidating.

Jon set out to impress Ricky with his smarts and enthusiasm, and sway him to partner with him on selling the Canadian nugs. He went to Ricky’s house and pulled out a brick of cash and slapped it on the kitchen table. “I’ll take whatever you got.”

It wasn’t that simple; it was a struggle, more like a dance – a drug-peddler two-step of wits. But ultimately, it made him look serious. Soon, the two were collaborating. They worked out an agreement: Jon would get a better rate if he helped Ricky bring weed from Canada. Ricky presented it as an opportunity, and Jon took the bait, not grasping he would be an international drug smuggler, an extremely risky crime with serious consequences. Jon would have little to gain, but for Ricky, it would cut nearly all the risk.

It was May 2000 when Ricky and Jon took their first trip together to the border. They drove about four hours north and spent the night at a hotel in Massena, New York, in the northernmost part of the state, next to the Adirondack Mountain range.

Ricky was fidgeting with cocktail napkins on the small table in the hotel room, using them to illustrate how their drug buy would proceed, as they went over – again – how everything would go down.

“So we’re goin’ to the Indian reservation,” said Ricky, pushing a napkin to the far side of the table. “That’s about 20 minutes from here. I’m gonna call our Canadian connection. We get the green light,” he navigated another napkin, “and drive here.” He looked up at Jon.

“Okay,” said Jon, laser-focused on the napkins. “We drive up a dirt road. You drop me off. I follow a road that’s gonna snake through the w–.”

“Not a road,” Ricky interrupted. “Looks like an ATV trail.”

“Right. A two-track in the woods. I’m gonna pass a pile of rocks, like a blockade in the middle of the trail.”

“Once you cross that boulder pile, you’re in Canada.”

“Right. I’m in Canada, and when I see the hayfield, the trail goes deep into the field, and then curves to the right. That’s where a car is gonna be. At that curve.”

Jon would hand a bag of cash to the guy in the car, and in return, get a bag of pot.

Morning came fast and without much sleep. Excited and full of adrenaline, Jon rode with Ricky to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and ate breakfast at a Native American-themed restaurant complete with stuffed black bear. Though he was one year shy of being able to gamble legally, Jon played the slot machines until the Canadian connection was a go.

Ricky parked deep in the woods.

Jon walked along the two-track. His eyes widened at the impressive clear-cut that lay before him that looked like a massive bulldozer cut an endless gash across the land. On the U.S. side was forest, on the Canadian side, hayfield and woods. The rock pile was literally that – a dump truck load of cantaloupe-sized rocks dead center of the trail. It was only as wide as a car. He could’ve walked around either side. Instead, he climbed the pile, stopping on top to look around. Jon was in the middle of nowhere – one foot in Canada, one in the U.S.

As he followed the road into a hayfield that stretched to the horizon, Jon tilted up his chin – self-assured and powerful – as though on the cusp of something important.

When he came to the bend in the path, there wasn’t a car, but a pickup truck. And he noticed not one, but two people in the front seat; one a female. She buzzed down the window and said all of two words: “Get in.”

Jon was shoving aside mounds of clutter in the back seat when he overheard the driver on the phone issue a curt: “He’s here.”

That’s when he realized how alone he really was. Wide-eyed and silent, he experienced the first hints of worry this might not go as planned. Each time his anxiety crept up, he swallowed it. It’s all he could do. Only one person – really – knew he was there.

They resembled modern day hippies; the woman in her late 20s with jet black hair, and the man with goofy glasses and red hair curling under a hat, looking like a music festival freak who’d done too much acid.

“I’m Ghost,” said the man.

They made small talk about Jon’s new role of drug mule, and the female, who hadn’t introduced herself, was joining in the conversation. It was clear she wasn’t just along for the ride, but an equal partner.

After Ghost and his girlfriend counted the money on the armrest and in their laps, Ghost instructed Jon, “The bag’s in the trunk. Take it and walk across the border.” He wrenched his head around as far as he could to look Jon in the eye. “If anyone on the Canadian side rolls up on you, drop the bag and run to the U.S. side. Do not let anyone catch you on the Canadian side with weed. Got it?”

Jon nodded his head slowly, heeding the seriousness of the warning. He didn’t know if it meant being caught with weed on the Canadian side would result in a legal nightmare, or if it would be putting Ghost at risk.

He pulled up the cover on the truck bed and saw a hockey bag that had to be five feet long. You could stuff a body into it.

This time carrying tens of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana, when Jon came upon the rock pile, he walked around it.

At 17, he’d just pulled off his first international drug run, which amounted to little more than an hour walk in the woods. He enjoyed the rush it gave him. It was a high he’d be chasing for years.

[Excerpts from Chapter 4 – Surreal Life – of A Jacket off the Gorge]

Sunflower stems choked the mailbox and bright blooms spiraled around it, the prettiness slightly offset by the reflective safety tape Jon had stuck all over the post. In front of his house was a hand-made wooden vegetable cart in patriotic colors, but it was empty. It was one of those wheeled stands farmers use to sell their produce to folks driving by. This was the perfect road for that; busy, despite it being such rural countryside. Shrubs encircled the wrap-around porch, and in front of them, a row of sunflowers with blooms bigger than my head, towering above the porch roof.

I pulled into the driveway that wound around back and was more like a parking lot, looked up and all I could see was house. Jon was living on the first floor and there were two apartments he was renting out on the second.

As soon as I killed the engine, I noticed my date was walking off the porch. It forced me to abort the last-minute check of my face and hair in the rear view mirror. I started to worry I had a ball of snot sticking to my cheek, or lipstick on my teeth, but he cheated me out of worry, because he was at the driver’s side door faster than I could fret.

In an instant, I relegated him to the “hell no” category, even though he was clean shaven and had the military-style hair I liked. He was shorter than I was used to, and I thought – skinny. An unsightly scar cut through the middle of his forehead like a wandering creek and his wire-frame glasses were not sexy. I never pictured myself with a glasses-wearing guy. Even I was supposed to wear them, but never bothered, preferring to go through life a little blurry. This guy in glasses was not the least appealing.

There’s something to be said for charisma, and it was absent. Nothing said “unwelcome” like the scowl on his face. One dreaded hour lay before me. I held out my hand, but instead of shaking it, he drew me in for an awkward embrace. That’s when I smelled a not-so-pleasant odor, and I don’t know if it was body odor or underarm sweat. He was wearing a black shirt with torn-off sleeves and a liquor logo. There I stood in camouflage pants, flip flops and a 50-cent T-shirt from a yard sale, trying to fathom a guy not bothering to clean up for a date.

All the while with a stern expression, Jon led me across the porch. We stepped through a rattling screen door to a living room of lots of empty space, near-bare walls and, just as I’d seen in the online photos, red leather furniture and a stripper pole. The living room curtains were an American flag and one of those yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags with the rattle snake ready to strike. There was a mop bucket in the corner and the place smelled like bleach.

A rough looking young man was on his way out the door and Jon introduced him, but didn’t acknowledge a few shady types skulking near the doorway.

At least I was camouflaged.

I felt so out of place and was wondering what the hell I was thinking getting together with a 28-year-old. Maybe I could see myself here 15 years earlier, but at this point in my life, it was surreal.

. . .

Dirt clouds stirred around the truck and after a bumpy half-mile, Jon stopped to open a metal gate. Before us was row upon row of crops that he identified in exhaustive detail. “I’ve got five 16-foot wide by 300-foot long strips planted with veggies, two 16 by 600-foot strips planted with pumpkins, half of a 24 by 300-foot strip of sweet corn.”

There was a beat-up camper, a mattress laying out on the ground, and a fire pit.

Jon lowered the truck gate to reveal an arsenal of long guns and boxes of ammunition. He lectured me on the importance of wearing safety goggles before handing me a pair. My hair was then matted down at the top of my head by the goggles, and I had to keep whipping the loose bottom hair from side to side to dry the sweat on my neck. The dampness was a dinner call to hungry mosquitoes.

“We’ll shoot this last. It’s a 12 gauge shotgun.” Jon was describing each gun. “When we get to it, I’m gonna have to brace you, or . . . you’re like a hundred pounds. It’ll knock you on your ass. ”

After I popped off the first round from a tactical shotgun, Jon asked me to pose with the gun for a picture.

The first two guns were easy, my aim awful. I didn’t care that I wasn’t interested in seeing him beyond an hour. I was having fun shooting.

It was time for the last gun, the one with the strong recoil. Jon started walking toward me and that’s when dread hit – the brooding 28-year-old with body odor was going to have his bare armpit in my nose. I was sweating under the hellfire of July, and I could imagine what the heat was doing to him. Soon he was right next to me, then behind me. I could feel his stomach touching my back in spots, which was way cozier than I wanted to be. He positioned my arms on the long gun, and then turned into a human body glove, wrapping around me tightly with his skin sticking to mine. He braced my arms immovable and gave me the ready signal. I took aim.

BANG!

That shot – his pheromones, those circumstances, that moment – was the most romantically intoxicating three seconds of my life.

[Excerpts from Chapter 6 – The Recoil – of A Jacket off the Gorge]

The whole gun-firing scene flipped a primordial trigger in me, maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t question it that night. It didn’t even strike me as odd that my feelings changed so suddenly and drastically. I over-thought it for years subsequent, though. Love’s recoil lasts infinitely longer than the shot.

Then there came a time when I accepted not everything in life can be explained away. Not this. When it came to Jon, I was baffled about far more than I understood.

Having slammed backward from the recoil, my arms shaking, I handed him the shotgun and stormed off. “I’m done.”

He eyed me with a blank look.

“I’m done. Done,” I repeated, rubbing my arm. “That gun has kick. It almost took out my shoulder. I think I’m bruised.”

Jon got on one knee and – bam bam bam – cleared out the clip as I watched astonished. He blew a coffee can off the platform, hitting it with every bullet.

It was hot.

Not summer hot, but glasses-free, sexy hot. He would be finding an uncommonly gorgeous, age appropriate female, I mused, grimacing through life with nefarious looking characters in settings foreign to me. With melancholy, I took a mental snapshot of the scene, lamenting that he and I were worlds apart and never meant to be.

And if only he had a personality.

His monotone words jarred me from my daydream. “You wanna eat now?”

[Excerpts from Chapters 17 – Freedom – and Chapter 19 – Fugitive – of A Jacket off the Gorge]

Jon’s trial had been pushed back a day to April 6. Instead of sitting at a courtroom table, he’d be concomitantly meeting his maker and sightseeing the Pacific Northwest.

He bought a bus ticket to Portland, Oregon, leaving at 9:30 at night. For a time, everything was on schedule and running smoothly.

Then, they hit a snag.

Jon had already borrowed his mother’s car, but overlooked that they would need two cars to carry out the plan. He came up with the idea of borrowing a car from Hannah’s mom by telling her he needed to get to the mall to buy an engagement ring. This story would help back Hannah’s version of events.

On Sunday, April 4, at about 2:30 pm., Jon and Hannah drove to Letchworth State Park in separate cars, Jon driving Hannah’s mother’s car, and Hannah driving Jon’s mother’s car. On the way, Jon was thinking up special touches. He stopped at a convenience store and picked up two 40 ounce bottles of beer.

When they got to Letchworth, Jon called Hannah and told her to park near a pond and wait for him. He then drove to an area known as the Middle Falls, with 100-foot-high falls and a bowl of raging water below. He could see at least a quarter mile down the walking path. There were no more than a dozen people on it. The parking lot was enormous and nearly empty. It was an unseasonably, brutally cold day for sightseeing. There were maybe three other cars.

Mother Nature was fighting the end of winter, ready to whip up a monstrous snowstorm. Against the harsh winds, Jon opened the car door and emptied the beer bottles, spray hitting his face. He placed the empties on the passenger seat, and next to them, a suicide note on bright pink paper: I can’t take it. I can’t go through a trial. Please scatter my ashes with Grandpa.

Jon dropped the keys in the cup holder and shut the doors, leaving them unlocked. Careful not to draw attention to himself, he walked casually to an overlook.

In preparation for the fake suicide, he’d done a lot of reading on what happens to a body as it falls off a waterfall. Clothes get sheared off. After making sure the walkway was clear, he leaned over a stone wall about waist high and launched his boots and jacket into the gorge. He watched them swirl, and then flush like a toilet bowl down the Genesee River.

It took about a half hour to die, including the walk back to Hannah’s car. But the plan was unfinished.

Back at the hotel, Jon rushed around checking to make sure there was nothing to reveal his death was staged. The two had been keeping a notebook to jot down notes about their plan. Not wanting to risk someone finding page imprints of the words “Vancouver, Washington,” he took the entire notebook.

Under the hotel marquee, the taxi waiting for Jon started to fade behind a backdrop of snow that was falling with more fury each minute. Jon and Hannah shivered as whirls of white swept by them. Flakes fell on Hannah’s locks, uncoiling them with wetness. Snow falling on her nose melted and blended with tears that carved a path from the corners of her eyes. Drops fell off the tip of her nose. Her brown eyes were downcast as Jon tipped up her chin to kiss her. With his thick gloves, he brushed the snow from her cheeks, and then her shoulders. He tousled her hair to send the snowflakes tumbling, but couldn’t keep up.

“Hey,” he whispered. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said barely audibly.

“We’ll be together soon. Everything will be okay.” He wrapped his arms around her tightly. “All you have to do is stick to the story.”

Hannah nodded as best she could with her face pressed into his bulky winter coat.

He pulled away and walked backward to the cab. Holding up his thumb and pinky to his ear, he mouthed, “I’ll call.”

Hannah took two hesitant steps toward the cab.

Jon rolled down the window and as the car pulled away, his eyes met hers, he shook his head back and forth with deliberate slowness and mouthed, “Don’t fail me.”

But for the windshield wipers giving a tease peek of life outside to the sound of rhythmic ticking, the world faded to whiteness. Jon was about to be reborn.

. . .

Now it was a mad snowstorm, snowing an inch an hour, and Jon was on a bus headed west. Just as they’d planned, Hannah called 911 and reported him missing. With manufactured tears, she told authorities, “He was making comments that his life was not worth living.”

Hannah gave a description of the vehicle Jon was last seen driving and the jacket he was wearing: men’s size small; black, blue and yellow, with a hood.

It was the following morning when Park Police discovered Jon’s abandoned car with the note inside. They contacted New York State Police and launched a joint search and rescue operation. Specially trained officers rappelled off the gorge, communicating by two-way radios. The sky buzzed with helicopters and the ground with sniffer dogs.

[Excerpts from Chapter 33 – Ghost – of A Jacket off the Gorge]

My head throbbing, I went upstairs to get aspirin, and when I opened the medicine cabinet, found a neon pink sticky note with Jon’s handwriting: Two roads diverged… TNT.

By choosing to stick with Jon, I’d taken the road less traveled.

I went downstairs for water, opened the cupboard and found another note: I miss making you coffee.

Bright, pink notes were hidden all over the house. Levi got off the bus waving one. “Jon put this in my lunchbox!”

It read: I love you Levi. I will miss you.

Being able to visit Jon in jail the following day brought relief – reassurance he wasn’t dead, just away. As soon as he caught sight of me, his eyes reflected lights in the room, and his smile was as wide as his cheeks. He joined me opposite the stool, and we stood and embraced over the hard plastic barrier.

“You smell so good.” He breathed deeply. “What’s it called?”

“Free sample.”

“The physical… “ Jon struggled to find the words. “Burning in my chest to the psychological anxiety leading up to seeing you… I get so excited, like a dog, I swear I must piss three or four times before you visit.”

I told Jon I’d found the notes he’d planted around the house. That’s what he’d been doing late the night before, and in the morning, just before we left.

“When I was out, you said you were going to write our story.” He asked, “Were you serious?”

“I want to.”

“You could call it . . .  Bumbling Fool of a Felonious Fuckup.” He made himself laugh. “You could be a former journalist writing the Epic Felon Fuckup series.”

. . .

I didn’t think I would ever be, but the nurse asked, “Are you ready to go in?” I hesitantly followed her past a patient barely tethered to life and surrounded by people. Jon was behind the next curtain. His body looked swollen. Grateful for the forewarning, I was less uneasy than I would’ve been about the needles and lines sticking out all over. And the tube in his nose was unsettling, a mine shaft carting away clumps of a yellow-black substance. I stood at his bedside and stared unblinking, the air drying my eyes, causing stinging, then pooling.

A guard appeared on the other side of the bed and was fiddling with something on a tray. Another guard was sitting, armed, at the foot of Jon’s bed, and I quietly asked, “Can I touch him?”

“I’m sorry. We can’t let you touch him.”

Though the squiggles on the monitor had no meaning to me, I watched the waves and listened to them rhythmically beep, looking for something to make sense. The guard’s words jarred me, “You have five minutes with him, and when five minutes is up, you’ll have to leave.”

Stepping closer to Jon, and not taking my eyes off him, I asked, “Can I talk to him?”

“Well, we don’t know if he can hear you, but sure – you can talk to him.”

After angling my back so the guard couldn’t see, I slid my right hand under Jon’s left hand, careful not to disturb the pulse monitor attached to his finger. And I gently stroked his hand with my thumb.

There was no reaction. The monitor maintained the same patterns and numbers, and Jon’s body appeared lifeless. I bent over and got within inches of his ear. For all I cared, there was no one in the room but Jon and me. And in broken speech, I told him, “You have to be strong for me. Okay? I need you. I need you, Jon.”

By now, I was rubbing his arm, and I’m sure the guard saw me but didn’t say anything. I found myself doing just as I’d seen in movies, looking for the slightest indication he was still alive, and with me. I stared at his eyelids, but they didn’t as much as twitch.

“I need you, Jon.” There wasn’t a fidget. Nothing moved at all – nothing.

He looked innocent, same as he did lying in the hammock our first kiss, untainted of all his past misdeeds yet unknown to me. He looked so peaceful, his face free of lines and his eyes closed. Behind those eyes was a blank slate. He was in his purest state – death same as birth – tabula rasa. No evil; no good, either. No gamesmanship to ameliorate insecurities and vulnerabilities, just an empty shell pumped up and down rhythmically by mechanical means.

“You’ve got about two minutes, ma’am,” said the guard.

“It’s me, Jon. It’s Susan. I love you,” I gushed, desperate for a sign. “Be strong for me. I need you.” If he were going to respond to anyone, I thought, it would be me. “You have to get better. You have to hang in there for me.”

Maybe the naysayers were right that he’d been using me all along. Perhaps he didn’t really love or care about me, because if he did, he would respond. Wouldn’t he? “Don’t let me down.”

The guard said it was time.

“I love you, Jon. I need you. Be strong for me. I have to go now,” and with that, I passed through the curtain to the hallway.

As I made my way to the exit doors, alarms sounded loudly. I walked through the doors to see Jon’s mother seated in the waiting room, looking up at me.

“I hope that’s not Jon,” she said.

There was sudden commotion. Hospital workers rushed out the door behind me and were joined by others at the entrance to the ICU. People were running back and forth.

. . .

 

In the morning, still wearing Jon’s thermal top, I went outside and sat on my porch steps and wrote Jon a letter he would never receive. I told him – too late – what he meant to me, and why I needed him.

The deck at my feet was cracked. The sunflowers around the post near my leg had dying – dead – leaves. My mind drifted to the deck furniture falling apart, rotting away at the nails from being weathered. I could put a can, or four, of spray paint on it, but underneath, it would still be rotted. I could fix that, too, maybe. It would take more work. I could grab a hammer and new nails, or even screws. Screws would be sturdier. But I might have to replace the wood if it’s that bad. It would take time. And it would be different wood; maybe not better, just different.

He said he wished he could scrub his soul clean with bleach and steel wool.

If you could get rid of everything, you’d have nothing. I could just burn the deck furniture and get new ones; not necessarily better, just different.

And the wind was blowing, and a storm was headed to my house sometime that afternoon. I was hoping it wouldn’t be soon.

Afternoon arrived, and my phone lit up with a call from “restricted.” I knew what that meant. I didn’t want to answer it. But the ending to our story had come.

I picked up the phone.

“This is Lieutenant Such-n-Such from Attica Correctional Facility. I need to speak with Susan Ashline.”

Choking out a single word was all I could muster. “Yes.”

“Is this Ms. Ashline?”

“Yes.”

I braced for the news, swallowed hard and promised myself I’d remain composed and get through it.

. . .

“I am not a simple collection of objects.”

“I hope you recognize my words, thoughts, feelings and actions are small puzzle pieces, and that you don’t see how it fits into the adjoining pieces; that the shape their connection brings into focus is missed, and the picture as a whole is not seen. I am not a half dozen, a dozen, two dozen independent puzzle pieces on a table. I am a complex (“ahem”) work of art. You are a complex puzzle to me, and I take every puzzle piece, and I hold it up to the light, run my fingers over it, admire it as a piece of you, even if that individual piece is ugly. I twist it, turn it, and figure out how it fits into the puzzle as a whole. I sit back, take the whole puzzle into consideration, scratch my head over the missing pieces, and run my fingers over the pieces I have in place. I am not a simple collection of objects. Everything is interconnected and a part of a bigger picture. I don’t think you’ll ever find another guy like me.”        Jon

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