The file in front of her was thick but neatly put together. Stephanie Dannon didn’t like mess and disorganization. She glanced up briefly to take in the man who’d been coming to her office for the past eight months; a man who would be coming here another two-plus years to see her.
Isaiah Paxton was huge. The first time she’d met him, she was surprised that his hand engulfed hers when she shook it. At six-eight, three-hundred pounds, and sporting a size-eighteen shoe, he swallowed up all the air in the room. His skin was smooth and unblemished, much like expensive chocolate, his black eyes clear and bright. His hair was cropped close to his head and he wore no jewelry of any kind.
In all this time, she’d never seen him smile but she knew from his dental records that his teeth were all but perfect. According to the file, he had no tattoos, gang affiliation, and no history of drug use.
He was a product of poor life choices and she wondered if this time, maybe, they would make progress. Unlike her co-workers, making progress was what drove her every day she stepped into this building. She wanted these men – most of them young, poor, and non-white – to know they could get off the merry-go-round of their pasts and step into the future they were supposed to have. The future they deserved as human beings.
Most of them didn’t see that.
The pressure on the street, added with the status that put them on the other side of her desk, and habits they didn’t realize they could beat…combined to send them back through her files again and again – making them ever thicker.
“Where are you with the job hunt, Mr. Paxton?” she asked quietly, raising her eyes to meet his.
For a long moment, he didn’t answer but she knew he would. Unlike many of the hotheads she dealt with day after day, Isaiah thought carefully before he answered her questions.
“I’m still helping my uncle. I haven’t found anything else.” His voice, though low and calm, boomed in the enclosed space. It was deep and naturally loud.
“I know several factory owners and restaurants that would…”
Surprisingly, he interrupted her. “Miss Dannon, they aren’t going to hire me and if they did, it would be doing a job no one else wanted with the threat of being fired constantly over my head. You have no idea what it’s like to be a black man, much less an ex-con, in today’s world.”
He waved his big hand in her general direction. “Look at you. Blond and blue-eyed white girl. You have no clue so stop pretending like you know the black struggle.”
Stephanie said nothing. She leaned back in her chair and twined her fingers over her flat stomach, made harder by the bullet-proof vest they all had to wear after the incident last year. One of the parole officers had arrived at the office and was removing a file box from his trunk when he was stabbed four times in the low back. Shanked by one of his cases. That was where the media had stopped their report.
The rest of the story was that he’d been blackmailing one of his assignments’ wives into sex with the threat of sending her husband back to prison. Violation of his parole would have sent him up for five more years and she’d been willing to do anything to stop that.
Her husband’s brother…had not been so willing.
She was blond, blue-eyed, and white. She maintained a fourteen-percent body fat at all times. At six-two, being heavy made her appear hulking. Her body was important to her because it was the only one she would ever have. Her father had taught her that while putting her through drill after drill during basketball season.
All that was on the outside. It had nothing to do with who she was.
“So, you’re saying it was the black struggle that had you and your crew targeting delivery trucks and taking their loads at gunpoint? You’re saying it was the black struggle that had you hide four pounds of coke for your younger brother when his place was searched? You’re saying it was the black struggle, Mr. Paxton?” She leaned forward and crossed her arms on her desk. “I call bullshit.”
His eyes widened.
“Your life is laid out in this file, Mr. Paxton. I know all about your childhood, your high school years, your trouble. You, on the other hand, know nothing about me. Let me give you some real talk about the black struggle.”
She picked up a pen and worked it over and under her fingers, knowing she needed a physical distraction while she spoke. Something to keep her grounded in the world.
“My mother dated Joseph Dannon all through high school. They planned to get married. Over those four years, he was hospitalized repeatedly from the beatings he took for daring to date her – one of the most popular girls in school. Joseph’s father was fired from several jobs since he couldn’t keep his boy in line. Three members of the football team didn’t appreciate him taking pretty, white Anna off the market.”
She sat back and met his eyes directly. The skin around his mouth and eyes was tight.
“One night, they changed tactics and took turns raping my mother in the hopes that giving her some white cock would show her what she was missing. I am the result of that experience, Mr. Paxton. Joseph Dannon married my mother three days after their graduation and the moment the trial was over, they moved to the opposite side of the country to start over. I was born three weeks after they moved into the little house where they still live, twenty-six years later. It is his name on my birth certificate. He is my father and he’s the best man I know.”
The room was silent. The hum of the air conditioner outside the building seemed a million miles away.
“The black struggle may be the reason many things have gone wrong in your life, Mr. Paxton. It is not the cause for the personal…stupid as shit…choices you’ve made.” She closed his file. “I’m cutting our session short today.” She picked up an envelope with several pages she’d printed for him ahead of time. “Take a look at these. We’ll talk next week.”
He reached out and took the envelope, careful not to touch her. When he stood, she did as well, and watched him stare past her shoulder – an unusual experience – through her window to the parking lot beyond. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to apologize, Mr. Paxton.”
“No…on the way here, traffic was hung up. I let a couple cars in, kept going, got called a fucking nigger by the guy I didn’t let in. I took my anger out on you. You’ve only ever treated me with respect. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted. Those things enrage me, too.”
He cleared his throat and looked down at her desk. “Did your folks have other kids?”
“Four. All boys.”
He nodded. “You must feel weird at family events.”
Stephanie shrugged. “Everyone assumes I’m from a prior relationship. We don’t explain.”
Isaiah’s eyes met hers. “Why did you tell me?”
“Because I’m hoping you accept responsibility, embrace the possibilities of your life, and never come back through the system again, Mr. Paxton. You’re better than this.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve got a feeling.”
He stared at her for a long time then stuck his hand out to shake. She took it. “Thanks.”
“I’ll see you next week, Mr. Paxton.”
There was an almost imperceptible tightening of his hand around hers before he nodded and left her office. She sat back down as the door closed. A moment later, she watched as he loped across the parking lot and got into a late-model truck.
Taking out her cell phone, she dialed the top number in her favorites. It was answered on the first ring. “Hey there, baby girl. How you doing today?”
“I’m good, Dad. I just really needed to hear the sound of your voice.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “You had to tell the story today?” She made a quiet sound of agreement. “I know it hurts you.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“Honey, I love you, too. Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight? Let me and Mom hug you and feed you? She’s making tuna steaks and salad. What do you say?”
“Thanks. Yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Stephanie?” She waited. “You help people and you’re a good person. Maybe this time you putting yourself out there will pay off. If nothing else, you’ve put a story in his head he’ll never be able to un-know. Maybe that will make a difference. Cause a ripple.”
She thought about the quiet calm that surrounded Isaiah Paxton. “I hope so, Dad. I really do.”
Two blocks away, Isaiah pulled into a fast food restaurant and opened the envelope he’d received from his parole officer. There were several printed pages inside.
At the top of the first one was handwritten, “Be the best version of you, Mr. Paxton.”
The other pages consisted of companies that hired ex-cons, programs that helped them establish businesses through mentoring, and groups he could join to better integrate into society without falling back on criminal activity or associating with those people who wanted to keep him on their level.
He put the pages back in the envelope and gripped the steering wheel in both hands. For half an hour, he sat there, contemplating who he was and where he was going.
By the time he put the truck in gear, his path – for the first time in his life – was finally clear.
Note from Shayne:
I spent the majority of my teen years in South Florida. I attended a school that was 70% African-American – one of the magnet schools set in the middle of a poor and neglected area of Pompano Beach – called Ely High School. If you were not part of the magnet program, the band, or one of the sports teams – you were shuffled through the system with very little concern and very low expectations because you didn’t influence their funding.
Incidentally, I have slapped people in the mouth who have used that word in my presence. Don’t ever, ever make that mistake. It was hard for me to even type it…but ugliness and ignorance can’t always be easy to expose.
It is never too late to change where you’re going. It is never too late to succeed…and shock them all.
This story is inspired by all my underestimated friends who made it out, who changed the path they could have taken – the one they were all but expected to take – and by their success told society to go fuck yourself.