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Amy Butcher: Why It’s Called A Life Sentence

Kevin became interesting only after the night he walked me home, committed his crime, and called the police.

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Maximum security cell in Moundsville Prison, West Virginia.
Image from Flickr user ldysw357

By Amy Butcher

The day we met, Kevin and I both wore blue sweatshirts, the orange block letters spelling out the name of our new college, which we’d both enrolled in because it was beautiful, competitive, and close. That town, just like our hometowns, had a used bookstore and a mini-mart and an aluminum diner that named its entrees after the patrons who loved them most: The French Toast À La Lucy, The Bob Chicken Fried Steak. We had flea markets, and pancake breakfasts, and Friday night fish fries at the American Legion. There were antique-car shows held in parking lots, whole families sitting in vinyl lawn chairs, the grass beneath them dry from where idling children had scuffed their shoes. The adults drank Mountain Dew and licked vanilla soft-serve from kiddie cones, and the kids were all the same: plain but lovely in their own way. Kevin, too, was plain, which I think is why we were friends and not best friends; of the ten people in our social circle, Kevin interested me the least. His life and upbringing had been so similar to mine that he often bored me. Kevin became interesting only after the night he walked me home, committed his crime, and called the police.

In an unassuming sans serif font, it read, ‘I do not have any physical, emotional or mental problems which affect my ability to understand what I am doing today.’

The crime is the worst possible crime: he murdered someone. There is no way to pacify or rationalize those actions, though for many years I tried—writing letters and, when it felt right, making the fourteen-hour drive to sit beside him on the same side of that barbed wire in what seemed otherwise like a high school cafeteria—twelve round tables and plastic chairs, nothing between us except the years. The victim, an on-and-off-again girlfriend, had been nineteen years old the night she died, a child herself, a girl who, in my memory, wears cheap plastic sunglasses in neon shades. Kevin had been trying to take his own life when she planted herself between him and the weapon he was threatening against his neck, pleading, Stop. He didn’t. Three separate mental health evaluations would later confirm Kevin had suffered a “dissociate episode,” or a bout of “temporary insanity,” but rather than risk the judicial severity of what would, regardless, prove an emotionally taxing trial—within which he’d be leveled the maximum penalty, life in prison—he accepted a plea deal. In exchange for his plea of murder in the third-degree, he was sentenced to a minimum of twenty-seven years, though it’s possible he’ll serve up to fifty. In my copy of the official public records, in an unassuming sans serif font, I read, ‘I do not have any physical, emotional or mental problems which affect my ability to understand what I am doing today,’ and beside it, his looped initials. I find myself often looking at that document, that handwriting so much like my own.

When I visited him two years ago, Kevin told me was that if I scanned the photograph taken of us inside his maximum-security prison—which is where he’ll carry out the duration of his sentence—he would hang it on his cell block wall, between an illustration of a yawning kitten and similarly scanned photographs I’d mailed to him from our time in college: us drinking margaritas in straw sombreros, us squeezed across a cranberry cotton couch, our tongues outstretched and purple from the multicolored dust of Pixie Sticks.

“They won’t let me keep the official copy,” he explained. It had something to do with the chemicals in the photo paper, or the sharp edges reinforced by printable plastic. “But you could print me out a copy; I could tape it to my wall.”

I think he meant so that he might remember—that our friendship had endured, that beyond his mother and his father and the pastors who often visited from local churches, Kevin had my company, as well.

It’s an ugly truth to admit, and an uglier one still to move beyond—how I became obsessed with my every freedom.

I wrote him at first out of a sense of duty, and because I knew nearly no one else would; the overwhelming accusation was that he was not worth our time, or that he once had been but was no longer. Indeed, I’ve since learned that only one additional friend wrote to him regularly, and I have no idea if she writes him still. Time passed by, whole months and years and lifetimes, and in that time, we were all pulled apart, our opinions on what had happened no more relevant than our newfound lack of close proximity. In California, in Colorado, in Kentucky, in South Korea, and Massachusetts we went about our separate lives, and all the while Kevin’s letters accumulated first in a folder and then a shoebox and then a Container Store Tupperware. The bins came in half a dozen colors, but I chose gray, like his prison cell.

Kevin followed me first from that Pennsylvania town to a larger town in Iowa. Then New York; New Hampshire; Ohio. He lived at first inside my heart and then my mind and then my closet. I wrote to Kevin as if he were merely away at camp, or boarding school, or a semester at sea, and while my intention, early on, was pure, somehow, over time, our letters became a testament to my life. They were an official record of my vitality, proof that I was still thinking and breathing and existing, moving from one town to the next, one lifestyle to another, living the life not taken from me. What began as a loving communication—Do you remember playing videogames on projectors? Do you remember drinking sake with that famous poet?—had become an act of retribution.

Do you ever think about how much you’ve changed me, changed her, changed all of us?

Even now I will concede: something good about me turned. It’s an ugly truth to admit, and an uglier one still to move beyond—how I became obsessed with my every freedom, the rights and sights and sounds afforded to me because I was me. Because I was not him in that dark, dissociative hour, or her, or anyone. Because I was in a bed that night, asleep. And thus now could travel, or take a ferry, or learn Tagalog, or ride a bike. I think I want these things—I seek them out—not because they make my life more interesting, but rather, are made interesting because of life: because I am here when I could easily not be, because everything I see I could easily not.

A ghostly shadow, something moving in and out of his line of vision, sliding through walls, doors and windows, omniscient.

I am now in possession of thirty-eight letters, and I must assume Kevin possesses the same, though it’s possible he’s since discarded them, that they take up space in a stinking landfill. It has been twenty-three months since our last correspondence, when he wrote, I think it’s better if we don’t speak, and though I wasn’t there beside him, I sat in my living room and I said, I agree. I didn’t like who I’d become, didn’t like the friend I’d become to him. Still, I imagine his voice as it grew heavy, imagine what mental health experts refer to as the “dissociative episode” as something tangible and real—not a monster with horns or talons, but a ghostly shadow, something nondescript. Something moving in and out of his line of vision, sliding through walls, doors and windows, omniscient.

And who am I to say that it was his fault he let it in?

We were twenty-two when we first began writing, and now we are twenty-seven. The best year, my colleagues tell me, citing professional advancement and growing up, a more permanent job, perhaps a partner. Someday, maybe, children.

And yes, I think, let’s hope, allowing myself to envision it: the future backyard and its mini Weber, a little garden, a dog who yips. The books stacked high beneath the windows, the pastel window boxes and their cilantro, their Thai basil and dill and mint, those leaves so lush and full of life, how they curl upwards towards the sky.

A memory that remains: Kevin and I standing outside on a balcony. A party going on inside. We lean over the railing, look at our tiny town lit up beneath the moon. They look like Lincoln logs, he says, indicating the buildings. He pinches his fingers tight in the air, as if lifting each home from its foundation, as if picking up gyms and churches before setting them down. Let’s leave them be, he says, they look so peaceful; they look so calm.

I have to trust—I have to know—I am not the only one who remembers this now.

Amy Butcher earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Visiting Hours, from which this has been excerpted. She is the recipient of the 2014 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, as selected by David Shields, and her most recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Brevity, and Hobart, among others.

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