Child of War, A Memoirby Jason Flores-Williams
It was the beginning of the 80s and my dad Drake had made a fortune—legally, for the most part—in the business world. Vance, his identical twin brother and an outlaw, had made a bundle in the pot biz. Everyone was loaded. We moved from Houston to Santa Fe, where I started St. Francis Junior High in the middle of the seventh grade.
We try to pretend like class doesn’t exist in the U.S., but make a jump in the strata—up or down—and you’ll feel it. I was in basketball practice at St. Francis and my sneakers were noticeably run down. The coach and another player, who were usually good guys, said something about my shoes. I responded that Oshman’s was having a sale on “Nike Slam Dunks for $14.99,” and that my mom was going to take me there on Saturday. The coach rolled his eyes mockingly and said to the other player: “You hear this rich kid…What does he have to wait for sales for?”
“Yeah, he gets everything he wants.”
That Saturday I got in the car with mom Camille, a lower-middle class Chicana from El Paso. She had the Oshman’s flyer and had carefully circled, in red pen, the hi-tops she thought I might like. It was going to be our special day, but the comments at the gym had gutted me. My shoes were more beat-up than the other kids’, but I felt guilty for getting a new pair. I was losing my sense of knowing where I fit.
My insecurities were intensified by the person who gave me all I had. According to Drake, I was a spoiled brat with no appreciation. He had risen from the ashes, while I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. All I had to do was keep breathing and I would inherit the fruits of his genius labor.
The old man had started doing cocaine. Santa Fe was a chic spot for the jet set in the early 80s and he was seduced by it. He had a new group of friends and tons of excess wealth. Vance would visit twice a month. He didn’t deal coke as it was a different, more dangerous game, but he would trade pot for it so that they had, to say the least, ample amounts for personal use. Few people get so addicted to blow that they have to do it every day. Instead, it’s just that every time they go out, they want to do coke. And when you do coke, you tend to go out a lot. Nights that used to end at eleven now go till sunrise. The brain chemistry starts to change. In strict psychoanalytic terms, you become an asshole.
Mom went in the opposite direction and immersed herself in Catholicism. She took my sister Sarah and me to church on Sundays, and also went alone to evening mass every night of the week, cooked for the priests and joined the choir. Her sanctuary-escape was St. Francis Cathedral, the big famous church that looms over the center of town, the one that Willa Cather wrote about in Death Comes to The Archbishop.
We moved into an even bigger house in Hyde Park. Reality was schizophrenic. One weekend, there would be Drake’s crowd locked in his study listening to Chick Corea till six in the morning. The next weekend mom would have her church friends over for an afternoon potluck where they would do skits and play charades. Our little version of the American dream was beginning to fracture.
In the 8th grade, I began attending St. Mike’s, the main Catholic school in Santa Fe. I wanted to go the normal route—get good grades, play football.
One day I came home from practice and found my mom and dad sitting somberly at the kitchen table. I sat down with them in my white football pants. After some back and forth, Mom explained to me that Dad had been indicted by the federal government for “something to do with illegal drugs.” She said that Vance had gotten in trouble and that it was rubbing off. They tripped over themselves trying to downplay it, but from this point forward, Drake was in a manic state of movement. He would go to Houston—where the trial was going to be held—and meet with his lawyers, then party for days with Vance and my other uncles who were also under indictment. Drake was burning it at both ends, strung out with pressure and drug use. When I think of him during this time, I hear a high-pitched scream in my brain.
Drake, cracking under the weight of the indictment and coke intake, became monstrous. I’m sure he was cheating on my mom. He was abusive. I remember Mom cooking breakfast for him. I had already learned to keep my distance and was sitting on the other side of the room. He wanted chorizo with his eggs, but she didn’t have any. He got up, pounded into the kitchen and twisted her arm to the point of almost breaking and yelled, “I can have any woman I want cook me breakfast!”
Camille (crying in pain): “I’m sorry, Drake. I’m sorry. I’ll go to the store right now.”
Drake (spitting venom): “You’re damn right you will because you’re fucked up!”
My father was an intimidating man. But I went into the kitchen and said to him in a wavering voice, “No, you’re the fucked-up one.”
“Is that right?” He moved toward me. I ran up the stairs, out the door. I could hear him raging at her inside. I hid along the driveway for a few hours until he drove away in his Mercedes Benz to go to the airport.
Mom took solace with the pudgy choirmaster from St. Francis Cathedral. His name was Brother Walter, and when I met him for the first time, he was lounging in my dad’s chair in the living room with a red glass of wine rolling in his hand. I view Camille now as a person just trying to survive, but the choir people—and this is the church’s estimation of things, not mine—were all in on an adultery racket, the penalty of which was excommunication. Brother Walter and his crowd would come over to the house, drink wine, offer to pray with me, then gossip to each other about what was going on. (I would get enough bits and pieces to know that something wasn’t right.) The times Brother Walter and Drake met, Walter would shake his hand, look him in the eye and say that he cared deeply about what was happening to him and his family.
Everything came to a head on a horrible, horrible day. Drake was home and Mom was out. He was in a terrible mental state, coming down off a heavy binge. I was upstairs, I’ll never forget, listening to my new favorite band, the Doors. He yelled for me to come down. In his infinite maturity and wisdom as a father, he determined that I needed to hear a love letter that the man from the choir had written mom. He read it aloud, then showed me a receipt from the video place where they had rented Body Heat, the steamy thriller with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt.
I make light of it now, but it distorted my world. Drake damaged me into believing that Mom had abandoned us in our time of need. After the indictment came, she couldn’t handle it, and so she was off having an affair. My feelings and thoughts toward her were warped for years to come.
Anyway, when Camille came home from the grocery store that night, Drake yanked her into his study. The monster, sensing that he now had the upper hand, screamed every horrible and denigrating word at her that you can imagine. He then stepped out as though he were a just and generous man and said, “Your mother wants to see you.” I went in and stood by the back wall. My mom, who through the maelstrom fought to remain a steadfast and nurturing parent, asked me for a hug. To my shame, I wouldn’t give her one.
Drake threw her out of the house. Sarah, sobbing, went with her.
“The way this is going to work, Jason, is that you and I are going to be friends,” Drake said. “You’re a man now. [I was thirteen.] Here’s a credit card. [He hands me an Amex with my name on it.] When I’m off fighting for my life [this became the motto espoused by our hero], I expect you to maintain the house and keep your scores up. Can we agree to keep it above a 3.2?”
“Then we’re in business?”
Sarah and Mom were now living in an apartment in downtown Santa Fe, close to the plaza. I made it there only twice, because to my mind, Camille was now the enemy and I owed all allegiance to Drake, the martyr. To his credit (nothing is ever simple here), he did try to be at home as much as he could, often leaving for Houston in the morning and flying back home that night.
Things on the legal front were bad. This was 1982 and Reagan was kicking the Drug War into high gear. It’s strange to think, but there was once a time when this country didn’t have a War on Drugs. Only three years prior, the Carter administration was toying with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana. But now, due to the Republican proficiency for getting America to see everything in black-and-white terms, the nation was buying into the idea that anyone who touched drugs was a homicidal maniac.
The federal prosecutor’s name was Ken Magidson, but everyone called him the Maggot. An unfair epithet if he had gone after dad and the uncles simply for what they had done. But Reagan had given the DEA and federal prosecutors new laws and powers to get the evil during the Drug War and the Maggot, like many of his colleagues, was overzealous in his attempts to make a name for himself.
Vance was a drug dealer. He knew the laws and if we want to live by a social contract, he deserved to be prosecuted and go to jail. My father had borrowed from Vance and so he also deserved, by the recognized laws of our society, to be punished. There were the other uncles and some of their friends, who were not drug dealers but most certainly partied and benefited from the lifestyle, so they too, it can be argued, deserved to be reprimanded. The Maggot, however, used the new laws to accuse them of running a drug cartel of which my father was the Kingpin. He said that my dad’s accounting firm, A Jiffy Corporation, was nothing more than a laundering front for a Pablo Escobar-like organization. This was a total fabrication.
The Kingpin charge carried with it a minimum of ten-years-to-life in prison. Add the other charges that need to be made to reinforce and support the claim—racketeering, laundering, distribution—and the total years that the Maggot was seeking to incarcerate my father were in excess of sixty-five. That’s way more than the average sentences for rape and murder.
One of the products of the Drug War has been a gutting of defendants’ most basic civil rights. Without a guilty verdict and only an indictment, which any creative federal prosecutor could achieve, the US Government can freeze, then ultimately seize the assets of the accused. These Forfeiture Laws apply to all property that the government deems related to drug money—from bank accounts to bicycles to carpentry tools. Already at a great disadvantage in trying to defend himself against the government’s infinite war chest, the accused is left nearly helpless in his attempts at a fair trial. As in my dad’s case, his bank account can be frozen, so he can’t pay his lawyer. His truck, wrenches, or computers can be seized, so he can’t make a living. As a result, families like mine can be left financially crippled.
Add to this the media, which in matters of the Drug War—and perchance a couple of other things as well—is little more than a PR machine for the U.S. government. Early in the case, on the day the Maggot sent the DEA and sheriff’s department into the offices of A Jiffy Corporation to seize files, the Maggot had the Houston Chronicle and the local TV stations go with them. This, of course, was devastating to the company. No one is going to do business with a CEO who is under a well-publicized federal investigation.
For my part, it was difficult enough being a wayward teenager, but then I would go to school and a teacher or classmate would shove in my face Santa Fe New Mexican headlines like “Santa Fe Drug Kingpin Under Indictment,” with a picture of my dad above the fold. Moreover, the stories would mention that I attended St. Mike’s and that my parents were recently separated.
With the trial approaching, Dad started to not come home as much. He was consumed with trying to keep the government from taking everything that he had worked to obtain. My mom, who had a few thousand dollars hidden away, moved to Albuquerque to go to school at the University of New Mexico and rebuild her life. She begged me to move with her and Sarah, but I refused. Besides my confused feelings toward my mom, I was on my own with a credit card and got off on playing bad boy. I would skip school and eat lunch at Santacafé, a fancy restaurant, buy myself a massage, go to movies, drink booze and smoke pot. One day, I wasn’t expecting the old man to come home, but he walked through the door and there I was, during school hours, mixing drinks with my friends in the kitchen. He threw everyone out and kicked the shit out of me, busting my nose and leaving my face covered with blood. I stayed in my room until he had to leave again, then invited everyone back over.
A week later word got around that I was having a party and the masses came. I was a mess, lost, out of control. I passed out on the kitchen floor and woke up the next day. Everyone was gone, nothing broken. I cleaned and scrubbed, dad got home, things seemed okay. But the following night I was in my room watching TV when he stormed in hysterical with a broken jewelry box in his hand, screaming about his mother’s rings, which he had given to Mom and that someday were going to be handed down to Sarah. They were the only beautiful things he had left, he said, and now because of me they were gone. His face was contorted with pain. He was so hurt inside, from everything, that after screaming at me for fifteen minutes, he merely slunk away. I could hear him sobbing in his room downstairs.
The guy was only thirty-seven years old. He had a cocaine addiction, his marriage was finished, his business had been destroyed, he was abusive, his son was coming apart and he was staring sixty-five years in prison in the face.
I’m sorry things went so horrible for you, dad. You deserved to get your ass kicked, but you didn’t deserve to be annihilated.
If this was life, I decided, then you could have it. No more suffering, no more causing pain. Enough. I waited in my room for Drake to leave, then went downstairs into his bathroom and took every pill in the medicine cabinet. There were probably fifty in all and whatever they were, they put me over the edge. I smashed one of the double plated windows in the living room with my head and gouged at my wrist with a piece of broken glass.
By pure chance, some friends stopped by and found me barely conscious on the floor. They dragged me to the toilet and tried to get me to vomit. They were screaming at me to wake up while one was squeezing my wrist with a towel, trying to stem the flow of blood.
I heard a scream filled with intense pain and knew it was my father. He kept yelling, “My son! My son!” as he carried me to the car. He was shaking too hard to operate the stick shift so one of my friends had to drive for him while he rocked me in his arms.
I woke up in the Mental Unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital of Santa Fe a couple days later.
My grandmother died from diabetes around this time, so my mom was torn between staying with me and organizing her mother’s funeral. She did the best she could, but was mostly in El Paso. My dad was mainly in Houston, focused on pre-trial motions and trying to unfreeze his bank accounts.
I liked being in the mental ward. I was glad for the chance to talk about my life one-on-one with the doctor, then in a group. (The problem, though, was that all they could tell me was that I had a bright future and was a good kid.) My issues weren’t self-delusional neuroses, but divorce, an abusive dad and the United States government. I imagine that a dedicated therapist could have isolated my suicidal tendencies and provided me with tools for improved mental stability, but there was no one there with the time. I was in the midst of a storm.
The most interesting thing that happened on the mental unit was when they admitted a twenty-year old girl named Cary. They used to give us sleeping pills at the end of the night when we were watching TV. She noticed that I wasn’t taking mine. (I couldn’t swallow any pills after the attempt.) She and I were in the room alone together and she asked me for my pill. We flirted. She came and sat next to me, legs touching. She had straight brown hair, sleek brown eyes with a tattoo of a black rose on her neck below her ear. She leaned into me and whispered what she would do if I gave her my pill. I thus received my first eighteen seconds of oral pleasure in the mental unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Santa Fe.
At the end of three weeks, Camille and Drake came together to pick me up and meet with the psychiatrist. Even if it was only for my sake, it was nice to see them getting along. It reminded me of better times. They came out of the doctor’s office smiling. Mom hugged me, stroked my hair and said that she could “see the sparkle back in my eyes.” Dad shook my hand like a man. It felt good. I decided that no matter what, I was done with the suicide bit. It took too much out of them and we all had enough to deal with.
We went to Furr’s Cafeteria in DeVargas Mall. I could tell something was up. Once we were digging into our food, Drake began talking about how the trial was going to start in two months and how it was going to take up every bit of his energy. He continued by saying that I was a young man with immense potential and that what I needed was to be kept busy. I needed to be put into a program that would give me all the options of the world placed at my feet. In four years, I could be at Harvard studying economics.
Mom was mostly quiet, but appeared to agree with whatever it was he was building up to. Then again, I could tell that she was trying to be strong.
My dad sometimes had a formal, life-coach-type way of talking. That day he said, “Through in-depth research and recommendations, we’ve hit upon what everyone involved—the doctors, people in your mother’s church, family—thinks is a win-win all the way. I’m excited about it. It’s a viable move toward getting you back on track. What I’m referring to here is New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) in Roswell. It’s one of the premiere programs in the country.” He then produced a folder containing brochures exhibiting, in full color, the power and the glory of military school.
In all honesty, it sounded pretty good. Structure, sports, challenge, excellence and indeed, the chance to get back on track so that I could go to Harvard and study economics. I put my arms around them both and enthusiastically agreed. We had a cheerful dinner and three weeks later I was on my way to Roswell to start football practice. It was the beginning of ninth grade.
The military school way is to break you down, then build you back up as an allegedly more durable, group-oriented individual. My first and chief problem was that I was already broken down when I got there. I didn’t need to be pushed around at five in the morning by tenth graders who dreamed of joining the Green Berets. My second problem was that I have never cottoned to the concept of doing something to perfection that has no meaning simply because it’s somehow good for you, like spending hours and hours shining shoes, labels and door knobs to specifications that have no basis in reality.
Football was my one sanctuary. We practiced every day and it was a no-hazing zone. It doesn’t make for a good offense if people hate each other. I was second-string running back, which was impressive because I was one of the youngest guys on the team. Things were going well, but the day before our first game I stepped wrong and pulled my groin. I am here to report that the groin is involved in everything you do: breathing, chewing, sleeping.
I couldn’t practice for two weeks and lost the momentum and attention that I had earned. To make matters worse, the hazing assholes were insensitive to the injury. I was forced, with a pulled groin, to do push ups and sit ups and to run across the quad. I would try to explain that I was hurt, but by the time they understood, the damage had already been done.
One night when I was supposed to be studying, I escaped back behind the barracks to be alone. I sat down on some stairs and started to cry. It all poured out in a wave. The dissolution of my family, the ugliness of military school and my lack of inner-strength for not handling it all better. Tears streaming down, I looked up and standing at the foot of the stairs was a cadet. He was in his second year, a corporal. He had a southern accent: “Hey man, what’s wrong?”
It was a mix of being mortified that he had seen me crying and complete desperation. I blurted out: “My dad died.”
It felt good when I said it, like I had managed to express the truth. He said, “Aww man, hold on.” And he took off running to the front the barracks. I thought that I should hurry away, but was so hungry for tenderness and sympathy that I couldn’t. I needed warmth. A moment later he showed up with a cadet officer. They put their arms around my shoulders and told me not to worry about the corps, football, midterms, anything. I remember the officer said: “Forget all this military shit. You got to take care of yourself right now.” Those were the sweetest words that I had heard in a long time.
The next day I returned from class and the two biggest pricks in the troop were standing in my room, waiting for me. First words from the ranking: “Are you aware that we have an honor code?”
The other: “You’re in violation. You’re a lying piece of shit. Be at Lieutenant Colonel Jay’s quarters at 19:30.” They brushed by me with disgust.
I didn’t want to be at NMMI, but I also didn’t want to get kicked out for an honor code violation. Considering the lie and how they found me crying on the stairs, this was not something to be proud of. It was pathetic.
I sat alone on my bunk that afternoon, head in my hands, asking myself how I had gotten into this rotten situation. My father was about to go to trial for his life. My mother and sister were living in a house that I had never seen. I had gone from a suicide watch in a mental unit to a likely dishonorable discharge from military school. I felt broken off from anything that was supposed to be my existence.
Lt. Colonel Jay—I’m making up his name because I can’t remember it—was waiting for me in his office. He actually said “Enter” when I knocked. Jay was a fat, pasty, middle-aged man. They hid out from the world in this place. They never stopped playing army.
“Sit,” he said condescendingly. He took his sweet time arranging papers, getting water. He had complete power over me and was relishing it. He let me squirm for three minutes before he spoke.
“You are guilty of adducing a sickening falsehood,” he said with a leer. “You are in flagrant and direct violation of my honor code. Do you know what it means to be drummed out of my corps?”
He went over to his TV and put on a tape. A video that, by all appearances, he had made himself. It started with heavy beating drums and then a young man walking with his head down, alone, through the center of the barracks, the totality of the corps staring at him.
He flicked it off and said with joy, “You just saw your future, chief. Three days, that’s you,” and then dismissed me.
That night I was terrified. I was fifteen.
I was pulled out of my second period class the next day. I was expecting it to be Lt. Colonel Jay and a firing squad, but it was instead an escort to the commandant’s office. The head officer of the school. A one-star general.
I was nervous. There were sabers on the wall. Relaxed in his leather chair, he asked me in a boisterous voice, “What’s your druthers, my man?”
I didn’t know what druthers meant and he explained. The guy was reaching out, trying to be decent. He was offering me a second chance.
I answered with respect, but at that point I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I didn’t want to see any more brass, salute anyone, shine my shoes, sharpen my gig line or fix my chin. My hate for the place was overwhelming. All I could think about was that my dad was flying in for parents’ weekend in ten days.
Drake got to campus on Saturday afternoon and was excited to see the place. I told him that what I wanted was go to the mall. We drove in his rental car, found a spot, and walked together through the asphalt parking lot. He in a brown sport coat, me in my blue uniform. We got two sandwiches in the food court and found a corner bench under some plastic shrubbery. I put my hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said, “Dad…”
“I know that sometimes I’ve not dealt with things as well as I could have.”
“It’s been difficult…”
“But what I want to say to you right now is something outside of that. It is something that I mean from the bottom of my heart.”
He was paying attention.
“I need you to get me out of here. I hate these people. I hate the military.” I squeezed his shoulder and looked him dead in the eye. “I can’t be here, Dad.”
And despite everything that was on his shoulders and all that he had done, my father, for the last time, came through for me. “You can come to Houston for the trial.”
Drake was staying with his new girlfriend. There was no room for me there, so I went to stay on the couch of his friend, a guy I had never met. He was a heavy smoker, and it was like sleeping in an ashtray. The advantage to the place was that it was fifteen blocks from the federal courthouse, so I could walk to the trial every day.
The money was gone. While I was at NMMI, the government seized the house in Santa Fe and all our assets. I would call dad and ask if he wanted to get something to eat—I wanted to be with him—but he would make excuses or say he had to meet with his lawyers. He was broke again and ashamed that he couldn’t take me to dinner. His friend, whom I would rarely see and can only remember as looking old and worn, would leave a couple bucks on the counter for me every day.
In the mornings, I would wake up at 7:30. I had gotten in shape from all the exercise at NMMI, so to stay that way, I would go for a run and do push-ups on the kitchen floor. The Houston air was thick and humid. I would think about my old friends from grade school on their way to high school. They were probably reading about the trial, wondering what happened to me.
I would make myself as presentable and handsome as I could, then set off to the courthouse. The traffic would be heavy, people on the way to their lives. It gave me a new, sad feeling that life goes on no matter what, that a fifteen-year old kid walking on the sidewalk can be living in nausea, while the lady at the stoplight is having a great morning.
The government shaped the trial before it began. The Maggot didn’t like the first judge, a liberal black woman, so behind the scenes worked to get her removed. The new judge, De Anda, was not only conservative, but his daughter was rumored to have drug problems. This made him, to say the least, unsympathetic toward the defense.
In an attempt to show that my family was a cartel, the Maggot convinced De Anda to try everyone together in the same courtroom at the same time. Eight men crammed into three rows so that from the start the jury would view them as a gang. This was legally questionable and the defense loudly objected, but De Anda refused to even consider their petitions.
Drake and Vance, remember, were identical twins. Normally I would have to get within five feet to tell them apart. (They both wore the same mustache.) The jury was sitting more than thirty feet away. Vance already had a minor drug conviction. Drake, stupidly, but probably out of an emotional need to be by his brother, sat knee-to-knee with him throughout the trial. The Maggot would point his bony finger in their direction and I could see that the jury was confused as to who was who.
In anticipation of his assets being seized, Drake paid his well-known lawyer, R.C. Bennett, one lump sum at the outset. This turned out to be paying the carpenter before he builds your house. Bennett was burned out and ineffective. He seemed to be off somewhere. Drake trusted him far too much. There were statements made during the trial that even I could tell should have been contested, but Bennett let them pass without even clearing his throat.
Even though the Drug War was part of the same Republican agenda that included Family Values, the stress of being investigated by the IRS, DEA and FBI left cities of broken homes. Seven of the eight defendants were in the midst of a divorce. There were never any wives in the courtroom, and as for friends, they were all legitimately fearful of being associated with the “cartel” and having the government start to poke around their lives. They stayed away.
I would enter the courtroom, smile at Dad, try not to think about the fear in his eyes, then make my way to the far left corner of the second to last row. I liked it there as I could hide away during the times when they were really going after him. The Maggot was a vehement prosecutor. He enjoyed crossing the line into denigration. He played to the media, which filled the first three rows directly behind him. The atmosphere was cold and vindictive. The Drug War is still raging, but people now have doubts and concerns. I think the same trial today might have gone differently, but back then—and I don’t think this is an exaggeration—the feeling in the courtroom was similar to what it must be like today when the defendant is accused of terrorism.
The cafeteria was downstairs and Drake would signal me if I was to meet him for lunch. I wish I could say that we made this time together valuable, but on the one or two days a week he wasn’t meeting with his lawyers, he’d convene the whole group, which amounted to nothing more than a silly joke session. They needed, I imagine, to keep things as light as possible, to remind themselves of the normal times and to try and create the illusion that none of this was a big deal.
I would sit next to Dad, quietly dying, hoping he knew something that I didn’t, because there was nothing here that looked funny to me.
At the end of the day everyone would nervously go their own way. I would give Drake a hug and he’d say, “See you tomorrow?” We both knew that I had nothing outside the courtroom resembling a normal life. I wasn’t in school. I wasn’t on vacation. I didn’t live there or anywhere.
The walk back to the apartment was always lonely. Head down, dragging. The guy who lived there was usually gone, or if he was there, wouldn’t be long in leaving. He was always polite, but he didn’t want to be around me. I got the feeling that he owed Dad, but outside of that, didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He stayed nights with his girlfriend.
I would cook spaghetti and watch TV. Sometimes I would go for a walk, but besides a McDonald’s, everything in the area was closed. Mom would call every night at nine. Her voice was secretly the highlight of my day, but I would be sullen and short. Still, every night at nine, every night, she would call.
Toward the end of the trial I was watching Three’s Company, when R.C. Bennett called and in his chipper way asked if I would take the stand. He said that everything was going fine and that it would be a nice way to make the jury “feel good about giving us a win.” He explained that it would only be one or two questions concerning Drake and his character as a father. I was absolutely prepared to perjure myself.
In all the times I would be in front of audiences later in my life, I was never so nervous. I was about to go before a judge who intimidated me, in front of a jury that I saw as hard and unsympathetic, and in front of a prosecutor who I had watched viciously dissect the man I thought invincible. I sat in my corner. I heard my name. Everyone turned and stared.
I walked to the front of the court. I put my hand on the Bible, the bailiff swore me in. I took the stand. I could feel De Anda looking me over with harsh eyes. It was strange to look down on everyone. There was the team of prosecutors, and there was dad and all the uncles. They all seemed small and sad.
Bennett asked me what I thought of Drake Williams. Dad and I made long eye contact.
“My father is a good man. I need him in my life. I wish he could come home with me…”
Bennett asked another question and I basically repeated the same thing. (“He’s a great father…hasn’t done any of this.”) My testimony didn’t elicit sympathy, but pity. I could see it in the juror’s eyes. They felt bad for me. One of the women looked like she was going to cry.
The prosecution, wisely, declined to cross-examine and I was off the stand in five minutes. Overall, my testimony did no good and probably hurt the case. It was a sign of desperation. To the juror’s minds: “What kind of person would have their son, who’s been sitting alone in the corner of this courtroom for weeks, testify in Federal Court?”
The last days of the trial, various friends and family showed up. This, at least, made for some company and dinners out. One of Drake’s pals, a lawyer who I only met twice, took me out for my first taste of Vietnamese food in the Montrose District. The food was good, the dinner oddly upbeat. He was convinced that at the most Drake would do two years in federal prison and said, “To be honest with you, Jason, I wouldn’t mind doing a year in a prison camp myself. Get away for a while, read good books, get back into shape.”
The day of the verdict came, I woke up early, did no push ups, got dressed and walked two miles to the nearest Catholic church. The morning mass had ended. I was alone. I genuflected at the front pew, got on my knees and clasped my hands in prayer.
Eyes closed, every fiber of my body focused, I begged God not to allow Dad to be sent to prison for the rest of his life. I then begged him that if Dad was going to be sent to prison, that he look after my sister, my mother and me. To be with us, to not let us starve and make sure that we didn’t suffer any more than we had to. I asked him not to forget me in my life, to remember that I was out here, doing the best I could.
The courtroom was full. The press was loud. They cared only about getting their story and going to lunch. No cognizance whatsoever that people’s lives were on the line. I got to my spot in the corner and felt a hand on my shoulder. It was one of the older cousins from El Paso. A guy who was always there when the money was around. He was, I guess, expecting a celebration.
De Anda entered. Everyone stood at attention. He surveyed the court, then allowed us to sit. He took his time adjusting himself in his chair, then turned to the jury: “Have you reached a verdict?”
The foreman stood. My gaze fell to the floor. Everything went silent. My breathing was short and fast. Inside I was going at super speed, but the rest of the world was in slow motion. I experienced a feeling of profound isolation, like truck headlights were bearing down on me in the dark.
“Regarding Drake Williams and the Kingpin Charge: Guilty.”
I felt erased from the world, a portrait rubbed out.
A beat on a drum: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
One half of the courtroom was in total darkness, the other in shining light. My father was bent into himself; I could only see the slope of his neck. The Maggot and the prosecutors were smiling, making eye contact with the press. After finding dad guilty on all counts, the bailiffs came over, walked him in front of the court, then removed him through a side door. The jury moved on to Vance, who was in turn found guilty on all counts. This continued for all the uncles so that the word “guilty” emanated from the court for half a day.
When the bailiff opened the side door to remove Vance from the court, I caught a glimpse of something that a son should never see.
There was my father in a cage, sitting in the darkness, tie dangling. His face was hollowed out. His body, crumpled. A vision of pure defeat, staring into the abyss of a life destroyed.
My heart ripped apart and I started to cry. I had watched my father die.
As reality descended on the day, the rows of friends and family emptied out. By the time I was functional, I was once again alone.
Outside in the hall the prosecutors laughed, shook hands and interviewed with the press. I walked by the Maggot to see if he would say anything, but he didn’t notice me. Often, we’re not even afterthoughts to the people who shape our lives.
I don’t remember much about the walk back to the apartment, except that when I got there the phone was ringing and it was mom. I could hear Sarah crying in the background. She kept saying that she was so sorry that this had happened, but insisted that it was time for me to come live with her and start back up in school.
That night I stared at the television. The vision of my caged father burning in my mind. Part of me died.
Two months later Drake would be sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. His earliest eligibility for parole would be in fifteen years: the same amount of time I had been alive.
County jails are holding pens, the worst form of American incarceration. The population is unsegregated, meaning that Drake, a thirty-eight year old Certified Public Accountant, was penned in with nineteen-year old gangbangers. I went in the morning, operating on zero sleep, to visit him. After three hours of standing in line with stressed out, brokenhearted, impoverished people, I filled out papers, went through a metal detector, was searched and entered the visiting room.
I sat and waited in the small booth. There was the yellow plastic phone, six inches of Plexiglas, no physical contact. I watched as they brought dad out from behind the prison door. He was wearing a stained orange jumpsuit that read “Houston County” across the back. I clenched my teeth and closed my eyes. He had already aged ten years.
Dad sat down and we picked up our phones.
“Is that a designer suit?” I asked.
He smiled. “I had my tailor fly it in from New York.”
“Looks good. How is it in here?”
“Wonderful. They have a Jacuzzi next to the sauna. I’ve got a business meeting over there at three.”
“Dry or steam?”
“That’ll be good for your skin….”
There was a long silence. We stared at each other. Two shattered hearts. I started to cry.
“Tell me about what you’re going to do?” he asked.
I got myself together. “I’m flying to Albuquerque tomorrow, dad.”
“Good, you need to get back in school.”
And with that there was another long silence. We knew that it was over. Our being father and son, whatever it had been, was done. He was going to stay in the darkness of prison. I was going to live in the remains of my life.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.