“Every rose has its thorn, just like every night has its dawn. Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song… every rose has its thorn…”
The scent is drifting in through the open window, clinging to the breeze that whispers to me at 3:05am. Rainwater soaking into the woods, the leaves, seeping into the dirt. It’s a familiarity that comforts me, and this is what I need at the moment, not from another being but from nature, from something resembling a God or a Heaven. I believe in the healing of the rain more than I ever might in the other. The falling water seems to be a prelude to the tears that have yet to come.
A few weeks ago, I found an old box of letters, and as each one was opened – each card smiled at once again, each friend remembered, it seemed as if I were once again drowning in the fountain of my youth. Letters from junior high – thirteen year old girls weighing in heavily on the deepest matters of the world, - “does he like me, do you think? Which song should I dedicate to him at lunch??” Notes that followed us into high school, where the boys numbered many and the matters were deeper still.
A bundle of letters fell out, scattered on the table, and like an old home movie, a scratchy reel began to play out in the words before me.
It was 1995, I was headlong into the radio station, working full-time hours for not a cent of pay. My motivation was strong, my following was steadily growing. Our station had signals that reached far into the hills and wide as far as Canada – listeners whom I heard from on occasion. I’d developed my show with my tongue firmly in cheek. When in the office, a business head prevailed. In the studio, caution was checked at the door, and for the first time that I could remember, I was having fun, and was finally being recognized for something.
I enjoyed my listeners, most of them. There was something in me, from the time I was young, that connected to music. Growing older, being a child once upon a time of hidden wishes, I was driven to bring others and a favorite song together in a medley of emotion – be it happy, sad, angry… searching. Spinning vinyl apologues connected me to strangers in the universe, while I was heard but unseen.
One day a decorated envelope appeared in my office mailbox. Inside was a letter, and a beautiful graffiti-style pen drawing of my air name adorned by imperfect, vivid red roses. As I unfolded the carefully written letter, I was introduced to Bryan “Axl” Rose. Bryan was a prisoner, in a federal penitentiary hundreds of miles away in Northern California, who listened to my show faithfully “whenever [his] Heisman Trophy maneuvers and trusty wire coat hanger pulled through.”
I was touched by his poetic words of my show being the bright spot in his otherwise dreary life, and how the songs being played were an anthem of his inner “good guy.” Every instinct in me sternly warned against any sort of contact in return, but I never was one to listen to anyone, including myself.
Hesitantly, I wrote back. There had been several pen pals throughout my years, from many walks of life – seemed I was always finding new reasons to write to someone, but being answered in return meant something to me.
Bryan and I became fast friends, exchanging our sad stories, empathizing without sympathy, understanding without judgment. He never blamed anyone but himself for the mess he was in. His crime log included assault, burglary, drugs. “Straight up, Kym, it was my punk self that got me here inside this cell, where the walls come in a little closer every day.” He wasn’t much older than I was.
He was shuffled from prison to prison every year or so, and often he would end up somewhere that he couldn’t hear the show, but he had somehow procured a cassette deck for his cell. I would tape my shows and mail them with my letters, which were a journal of my anger and desperation at the time.
In his letters, Bryan would describe his “homeboys,” where respect and loyalty were thicker than water, and often paid for in blood. His soft spots were two: his young daughter, and his best cellmate, “Deputy Dawg” Sean. He and Sean would collaborate and send me the most amazing graphic work. The letters would be written on hand-crafted stationary with flames, flowers and skulls in the corners.
People often resent tag artists, for their graffiti and their attitudes, but truthfully it was a way for many street kids to shout out to a world who had abandoned them that they existed. Tattoos, street graffiti, and their creators are a representation of something enchantingly beautiful in their otherwise horrific lives.
Bryan did his best to atone for his sins, with what humanity he had left. He would talk about reuniting with his daughter, about “going legit on the outside with Deputy Dawg – maybe auto mechanics, a body shop or something big like that.” He had a long way to dream, not scheduled for release until 2001.
After writing faithfully back and forth for a few years, he bravely asked me if I would ever consider visiting him. I thought about it long and hard before agreeing to try. I filled out the application, but was denied due to outstanding warrants on traffic citations. Not having the money to clear them, the idea appeared to die somewhere in the miles between us.
My grandmother and my brother were all up in arms when they discovered I was writing to (gasp!) a convict. My brother had pilfered a letter one day he’d seen in a stack of my mail, and promptly they ganged up to come down hard on me. Friends weren’t much better with their lack of acceptance in yet another of my “misguided” deeds.
If only I could remember things I’d written to him, but the words are vanished from my mind like a leprechaun running off with his gold. Such a turbulent, fiery time of my life. Long nights spent at work, whisking off letters I wrote by hand describing the turmoil all around me – always the compassion he felt for me outweighed the pity he felt for himself. The sense of humor he kept as a defense shield, I got that – knowing it all too well. The positive outlook, I hadn’t a clue. I had freedoms he could only lie in a dingy, dim cell and long for, knowing they’d been stolen away by his own hand. And yet… he was the one always trying to make me smile.
“Not much happening on my end. Same ol’ trivial nonsense associated w/ the House Of Pain. It sucks! But then, I guess it’s supposed to, huh? Go figure. And silly me, I thought I had signed up for a 4 star luxury vacation? Ha. More like a Nightmare on Elm St. I keep waiting for my Caribbean cruise, but all I keep getting are these damn bus rides!”
Bry-guy was not only my biggest fan, but my biggest supporter as well – be it with my microphone or my pen. Always encouraging me to pursue my chosen career, no matter where it led me. As I pondered a move to Minnesota, where I could keep an eye on my friend Jackie and her kids while diving into the shallow end of broadcasting, Bryan knew that his letters would reach me wherever I went. It was now 1998, and I was in a state of indecision, but saving my meager paychecks nonetheless.
Bryan was never disappointed in me as I bounced around jobs, dates, friends. If somebody hurt me, he was there with a hug expressed in verse, and a threat of bodily harm following quickly after.
“On average, I’m out of the cell maybe 2 hrs a day – the rest of the time I’m usually inside this concrete coffin. I’ve been here [at the new prison] for 3 months and still haven’t gotta job!
Well, I rushed this ink so I could get it out to ya, so I must lay my pen to rest. Keep your eyes aimed toward the stars and smile real extra tuff!”
He longed to meet face to face, but never pushed the issue, knowing it was a hardship, sensing also the slightest bit of fear. I would send a pittance of money whenever possible so that he might buy things he needed. Stamps, letters, pens – “we only get to go to store once a month – if you can’t don’t trip, honest!” It was never enough to assuage the guilt that simmered in my belly for not making that trip.
His release date was often pushed back by another six months, stacking one violation on top of another, for fighting and other misdemeanors. “Kym, I straight up have to tell ya, a man doesn’t have much of a choice in these walls. You stand up for yourself, and your boys, or you die. I don’t make the rules – I just play along and bend ‘em when I can!”
I don’t recall when it was that my letters faded away. I think it was around the time I met my husband. He wasn’t especially fond of the idea of our friendship, and I conceded because there were bigger battles I felt to come. He meant well, with his protective nature, it was always myself I held accountable for letting yet another slip away as I moved into a new life. Roger was more understanding several years later in 2005 when I wanted to try writing to Bryan. A letter was sent to his last known prison address, but a reply never came.
Over the last few weeks in this spring of 2010, as I pulled the crumbling, colored handwritten letters of familiar Bry-guy rambles out of my box of memories, I held them in my hands and it was a familiar feeling. Even ten years later, the smell of the paper and the long sentences dotted with Jiles left me feeling as though I’d just been wrapped in a big bear hug from an old friend. I wondered if he was finally free, and with his daughter or at least near to her. I pictured Bryan and Sean sitting on milk carton stools in front of their mechanic shop, arms crossed like two bulldogs as they watched over their ‘hood.
Last week a friend gave to me a number that I could call to check the status of a prisoner in the California Detention system.
“Do you have the inmate’s name?”
“Prison ID number?” I provided the number I’d memorized while carefully printing it on a hundred or more envelopes.
“Relationship to the inmate?” This surprised me. I hoped they didn’t only release information to family members.
“It was a .. personal .. relationship.”
“Friend. A very good friend.”
There was a slight catch in the operator’s voice. “He was discharged in April of 2005.” This explains why I never heard back from him with my last letter, I thought. “I’m sorry, he was discharged due to death. He was still incarcerated at the time.”
“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on now, there’s so many places I’ve got to see…”
© Kymberlie Ingalls, April 22, 2010
Lyrics: “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” – Poison
“Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd