by Terrell Woolfolk-Carter
Early in my life—before I had facial hair and my life was not complicated by overdue bills, the care of children, and trying to figure out my purpose in life—every once in a while I would see these two strangers. They seemed to be good friends and more often than not they would be together. The first of the two went by the name of Time; he was a young man with a body like one of those guys you see on billboards modeling Calvin Klein underwear. Whenever I saw him he would be wearing the same outfit: white tee shirt, blue jeans, and some Timberland boots with metal taps on the soles. He was a handsome young man with black, curly hair, caramel complexion, piercing, brown eyes that sparkled with mischief and a smile that was so infectious, no matter how bad of a day I might be having….. that smile would make it all better. He was full of vigor, and always energetic—which caused him to move at a breakneck pace as if he was always running late.
His partner went by the name of Death. He was little bit older and a little overweight. He always wore white outfits: white hat, white tennis shoes, and white pants that were always baggy as if he was ashamed of his size. He had these lifeless, hazel, hooded eyes that were matched by a face crisscrossed by old battle scars. He never smiled. Instead, he would always be smirking.
Whenever I heard the adults speak of him, the occasions were always sad and tinted with fear—a fear that I unknowingly inherited and that would manifest itself in my dreams. I would be running, with Death close on my heels. I’d hear his grunts as his feet pounded on the ground behind me. Out of nowhere I would always trip, and stumble to the ground. Death would loom over me; he’d reach out for me, with these long, dirty, razor sharp, claw-like fingernails. Right before he would grab me I would wake up, heart pounding, drenched in sweat. Just as quickly as that dream would end I’d forget about Death until the next time.
Death was different from Time in the sense that Time never invaded my dreams and Death moved at an entirely different pace. Death was more deliberate and slower, almost calculated as if he measured ever step he took. They were the exact opposite of one another, but at the same time perfect for each other. This was evident whenever I noticed them together. At those moments it seemed as if they were engaged in this game with the adults in the neighborhood. Time, the younger and fitter of the two, would always be chasing the grown-ups, while Death hid, waiting in ambush. It was like this weird game of tag, one that they could never lose—although they would both always be “it,” and whoever was lucky enough to be caught was never seen or heard from again.
Neither of them had any relevance to me personally; other than seeing Time and Death chase after the adults, they existed only in the periphery of my life. But every once in a while, they both would slip out of the margins and make themselves known to me personally. On occasions when Time made his presence known, it seemed as if my days would pass by a lot quicker.
For instance, when I was a boy—after school was out and my homework was done—I would be outside riding my bike, chasing girls, playing tops, or catching bugs. You know, just having fun like young boys do. All of a sudden, I would see Time. He would speed by with these long, quick strides. Before I knew it, the sun would be descending behind neighborhood row homes, street lights would be lighting up, and mom would be calling me home.
Time’s quick strides were a blur in the corner of my eye in the summertime, and before the sound of his metal-tipped boots clicking on the concrete would fade from my ears, the shouts and laughter of children playing in the summertime heat was replaced by school bells ringing in the fall.
The funny thing about these sightings was sometimes it seemed as if he would catch me watching him and he would change his appearance. Like I’d be in school sitting in class bored and anxious for school to be over, and I’d take a quick glance out the classroom window and see Time power-walking through the playground. On occasions like these he would notice me watching him. He would pause, nod his head, smile, and right before my eyes magically transform. He would go from a young man to a feeble, gray-haired old man, bent at the waist, with a walking stick in his hand. His new white tee shirt would transform to an old one with the material so worn I would be able to see through it. His blue jeans would be faded and frayed to the point where I could see the flaking of his skin peeking through the holes that exposed his knees. He would hold my gaze for a moment while still smiling then wink, right before turning and continuing to shuffle along in slow motion, scraping his metal tipped limbs across the asphalt of the playground. At those times it seemed as if my school day, which only lasted for a few hours, took days to end.
When I got older, I would still see Time. I’d be in the club holding my girl close, our bodies moving in time with R. Kelly’s smooth voice singing about some Honey Love. Strobe lights would flash in the darkness and out of nowhere Time would glide by on the crowded dance floor, dancing too fast to love songs. Before I could even laugh at the ridiculousness of his non-rhythmic dancing, the lights in the club would flicker off and on, signaling last call for alcohol.
This was also the period in time when Death would escape the margins of my life. On rare occasions I would notice him with his dead eyes, scarred face, and perpetual smirk. But now that I think back on it, it would be on the same occasions when he would pop up in my dreams. Every time it would be right after that weird game of tag was ending, with Time skipping away as some unlucky soul found themselves trapped by Death never to be seen or heard from again. At this point, no one close to me had ever gotten trapped in this weird game of tag. So, although I would notice that some of the adults in the neighborhood would be sad, for me, when someone fell into Time and Death’s ambush, it was just something I noticed. There was no emotional investment; it was just some distant occurrence that had no bearing on my life.
On June 6, 1992 my relationship with Time and Death changed. It was one of those events in life while you’re in the moment that it’s happening, you’re oblivious to its impact, and you only realize the significance of it years later. For me it was no different as Time and Death ensnared me in their deadly game.
It was one of those-record-breaking summer evenings. The air was thick with moisture and as still as a statue. The heat was stifling, oppressive, and it clung to me like the embrace of a desperate lover. I was in my early twenties, on the cusp of manhood, lost, a stranger to myself, and addicted to anything that felt good. In this particular night I was in heaven, enjoying the effects of the heat on the codeine that polluted my bloodstream. As I nodded in and out of awareness I was oblivious as Time funneled me into Death’s ambush. When Death sprung his trap I was caught totally off guard. There was no pain at least not in the physical I-just-got-shot kind of way. It was more like a how-stupid-can-you-be type of shock; after all I was in the ninth month of being on the run for a homicide, and with all the brilliance of a twenty-three year old, I figured the best place to hide was the first place the police would look for me—my neighborhood. It was sort of a stupid version of hiding in plain sight. But now that I think back on it, it was a stupor, a side effect of the codeine coursing through my bloodstream, and I was just high rather than in shock.
Cold metal handcuffs bit into my wrists, and for a moment I climbed out of my stupor. In that brief moment of clarity, I felt Death’s cold hands began to squeeze.
“You fucking murderer! We finally got your black ass! You’ll never see the outside of a prison wall again.” Harsh words shot from the detective’s mouth. They cut through the hot, humid air. My body jerked as if his words were bullets that penetrated my flesh. I stumbled. Rough hands gripped tight, steadying me, not to protect me from injury, but to prevent any slick escape attempt—and also to be used as an excuse to inflict some pain. The detective yanked my cuffed hands that were behind my back and lifted them upwards. I was forced to bend over awkwardly at the waist as daggers of pain shot through my shoulders. All of a sudden, I was weightless. My feet dangled in midair before he tossed me face first into a black maw. As I rode air currents of pain on Fear’s back, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glance of Time as that feeble, old man, and he was shaking Death’s hand. I began to panic. My life flashed through my mind right before I landed in the back of a police van. Pain exploded throughout my body and purple light flashed in my eyes. My head spun as I tried to get my bearings. A loud bang. The police van doors slammed shut and I was swallowed alive in Death’s trap.
When the effects of the codeine wore off, I found myself in the county jail. At 140 pounds, I was lost in a bright orange jumpsuit and oblivious to the seriousness of my situation. Instead of preparing myself for what lay ahead, my days were spent gambling Little Debbie snack cakes and cigarettes. Time was there also. I only saw him once and it was a quick glance. I almost didn’t recognize him with his tight-ass jumpsuit as he moved at that breakneck pace, but then he paused for just a second and smiled. Before I knew it six months had streaked by and I found myself sitting in a courtroom.
BANG BANG BANG! “Order in the court!” The pounding of the wooden gavel and the judge’s shout exploded like gunshots in the confines of the crowded courtroom, killing the murmur of the crowd. The judge cleared his throat and glared at me, “Will the defendant please stand.” He pronounced each of his next words slowly and deliberately, as if they would be the last words I would ever hear. Malice dripped from his voice, “I find you guilty of murder in the second degree which carries a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”
I sat in that courtroom with my head bowed, staring at the lines of the tiled floor. Although I heard the judge’s words and I understood what those words of condemnation meant I refused to believe them. Forever was a concept that my young mind lacked the capacity to process. I refused to believe in the possibility that my life could be one where I spent decades living in prison only to die there. That was not how I envisioned my life would be.
I slowly raised my head and took stock of all the pain that echoed through the sobs of my loved ones, and the hurt that was apparent in the tears staining their faces. I locked eyes with Time. He had transformed once again, and this time he closely resembled his partner Death. He was dressed in an all-white suit, and those piercing brown eyes were devoid of that spark of mischief. They were lifeless, hooded. His infectious smile was also gone. Normally relaxed, his body was tense as if he was poised to strike. But he didn’t strike; instead he smirked as if the loss of my freedom was something to be mocked. I glared angrily at him, long and hard, and Time stared right hack. I shouted threats at him, and lunged angrily at him. But Time didn’t budge. He didn’t respond at all to my idle threats. In that fast power-like stride, he just turned his back to me and simply walked away. By then, Time was no longer a stranger. He had become my bitter enemy.
When I left that courtroom handcuffed and shackled on my way to board a Blue Goose prison bus, all I could think of was Time and how much I hated him: I find you guilty of murder in the second degree, which carries a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. This feeling was my constant companion. It stayed with me as I traveled from the county jail to a state penitentiary.
When I found myself residing in a state penitentiary trapped behind forty-foot walls topped with razor wire, motion detectors, and interspersed with towers manned by guards armed with assault rifles, I was in a daze. Separated from everything and everyone I loved, I retreated into a prison of my own construction, and it would be years before I figured out what it meant to truly be free.
As I fortified the walls of my inner prison, my hatred for Time ran out of fuel—I simply became indifferent towards him. This indifference created a duality, where sometimes he was a distant relative—like a cousin ten times removed that lives down South that I never saw, and didn’t have a relationship with. On other occasions, he was like a close family member who’d always be there. Because of this, I would take him—like I did them—for granted. That’s the best way that I can describe how our relationship was by then.
Although I had become indifferent towards Time, it seemed like to Time, I had become an object of obsession. No one was deserving of my thoughts, love, or attention except him. Like a jealous friend Time began to subtly come between as many of my relationships as he could. With a well-placed whisper, Terrell ain’t never getting out of prison. You might as well get on with your life. Before I knew it, people that I once knew and loved became strangers to me as they began to listen to those whispers and drop out of my life. No matter what I did to reconnect those severed bonds, Time would kick up some dust, and year after year after that dust had settled I was left alone holding the tattered remains of those broken ties.
During the first eight years of my incarceration, as Time sabotaged my relationships, he no longer shuffled by slowly as a feeble old man. The minute I stepped inside those forty-foot walls, Time appeared to me as that young man, but instead of simply walking at a quick pace, he moved with the record-breaking speed of a world-class sprinter. Every tenth of a second the clicking of his metal-tipped boots echoing in the hallways of the prison marked his passage, and before I knew it I had aged eight years, although it felt like I had just arrived. You see, my mind was in rebellion against reality. I’d been condemned to die in prison and the best way that I knew how to cope was to act as if my condemnation wasn’t real. So I focused on the immediate. I immersed myself in the daily prison existence: I played cards, chess, sports, I read books, I exercised, I listened to stories, and I told stories about the women I had mistreated in the past, the drugs I had sold, the robberies I had committed, the jewelry and the clothes I had worn and the cars I used to drive; while my nights were filled with dreams of getting back to a life I no longer had. Life in the penitentiary was fast-paced, and my days passed by in a blur. It was just like it was when I was younger when Time would step out of the periphery of my life and I would see him in the club gliding by as he danced too fast to love songs. The minute I saw Time sprinting through those dim corridors, those first eight years of my incarceration went by just as fast. Only now there were no clubs, no dancing too fast to love songs and Death was conspicuously absent.
By the turn of the new millennium I noticed that instead of seeing Time every once in a blue moon I would see him every day. I noticed that Time no longer moved like a world-class sprinter, for he had transformed into that feeble old man. Simultaneously life in the penitentiary had slowed to a crawl. It no longer felt like I had just arrived, but instead it felt like I had been in prison forever. For eight years, Time had been sprinting at that record-breaking pace and only when I accepted the truth about my circumstance did he seem to slow down. It had taken me eight years, but I finally came to the realization that there was a strong possibility that I would grow old and die behind those forty-foot walls. I finally realized that I had been so immersed in that daily prison existence that I had done nothing to change that possibility.
During that same period, his partner, Death, had reappeared, and he and Time resumed their game. From the year 2000 to 2015, every so often someone I loved would get caught in their trap: my father, my grandmothers, my grandfather, my little brother, my cousin, my uncle, and one of my childhood friends. But Time and Death’s game of Tag wasn’t an exclusive thing that was only reserved for those outside of those forty-foot walls. It was the kind of game that transcended boundaries. All around me, I began to notice the older men within that concrete fortress being funneled by Time into Death’s snare. With each episode of loss I’d find myself back in that courtroom face to face with Time. He would be dressed in an all-white suit, his eyes would be dead and hooded, and that mocking smirk would be plastered across his face. This vision would be a painful reminder of what my life had become: an endless parade of occasions where I’d be trapped in a world of hopelessness and despair with no means of escape. There was no refuge in my dreams, for my dreams had become corrupted by years of living in the penitentiary. Every time I drifted off to sleep and found myself in the world of dreams, I would be walking down a familiar street in the old neighborhood, but before I could get to the corner, the row homes of the neighborhood would be gone and I would find myself on a prison cell block. Other times I would be stepping out of my mother’s house, or the house of my ex-girlfriend, only to find myself entering a prison yard. These dreams weren’t populated by ex-girlfriends or guys that I had grown up with; instead they were populated by new friends I had met while in prison, and correctional officers that I hated. They were also haunted by the faces of my loved ones who had been ensnared in Time and Death’s deadly game.
Through all the pain and the longing to be free I would still see Time with his tattered, worn clothes hanging off his weak and frail shoulders. He would be shuffling up and down the penitentiary’s dim corridors with the familiar sound of his metal-tipped boots scraping against the waxed floors. For some strange reason he would always be singing. With a voice as soothing as a summer breeze, his song would provide me with a little comfort:
I was born by the river
In a little tent
Whhooaa just like a river
I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, long time coming
But I know change gone come…
And yet, even with the comfort his voice provided me, I would always find myself thinking, why the fuck is he always singing this old ass song?
In June 6, 2015 I had reached a milestone—my twenty-third year residing in a state penitentiary. On the morning of that day, I stepped into the prison yard into the brilliant rays of the sun, and there was Time staring me in the eyes. For the past fifteen years he had been singing that old song. But on this day there was no singing, he just stared at me with this knowing smile. Because it was on that day, at the age of forty-six, that I realized I had lived twenty-three years outside of a prison wall and twenty-three years within the confines of a prison wall.
Those first twenty-three years had produced a man that no mother would be proud of. I was walled in behind facades of what I thought would protect me, of what I believed people would accept me as. I had developed a false sense of consciousness that resulted in a perverted world view that took me down a path that led to half of my life languishing in a maximum security prison. It was on June 6, 2015 when I stepped into that prison yard that it dawned on me, when I was arrested way back in ’92, who I was for those first twenty-three years of my life had been chased by Time into Death’s waiting arms. For the first eight years of my incarceration I struggled to stay alive. I retreated further behind the facades that had been protecting me for most of my life. My false consciousness became my life support system that allowed me to desperately cling to a life I had known. But Death removed the bricks of those facades of self-protection and others’ expectations right before his claw-like hands grabbed the cord of my false consciousness and yanked out the plug of my life support. The walls to my inner prison came tumbling down, and who I used to be flat-lined. As Time shuffled along singing that old Sam Cooke song, it was on June 6, 2015 that I finally understood why—he was singing my requiem.
But that wasn’t the end of me. For Death’s trap had become a womb of consciousness and I was reborn. Once I emerged, I finally realized what it meant to truly be free. My past mistreatment of women, the drugs, the robberies, the clothes, jewelry, and the cars were not stories told to fill monotonous days, they were the very things that imprisoned me. So, when Death removed the bricks of my inner prison and yanked out the plug of my life support, I realized that I was free to move beyond the things that placed limitations on who I could be.
Old man Time, weak, bent at the waist, walking stick in hand, has been inching along. As he’s slowed, the beating of my heart matches the scraping of his metal-tipped boots. My heart pounds to keep pace as Time once again funnels me towards Death’s ambush.
I understand that on this go around when I’m caught it won’t be symbolic. I can see Death hiding, lying in wait, and I know he’s waiting for me. I’m okay with this inevitability because I understand that Time funnels everyone into Death’s trap and once Death’s clawed hands gets a hold of you, there is no escape. Even his partner Time dies—betrayed by Death. But as soon as that second hand clicks past the twelve, Time is reborn into a new day.
Death no longer invades my dreams and the fear that was passed on to me when I was a child is no more. Now I understand that although Death looks frightening with his battle-scarred face and his perpetual sneering, he’s necessary. Because without Death lying in ambush, how could I truly appreciate life?
Right now Time is no longer a stranger. I no longer hate him, nor am I indifferent towards him. That duality does not exist. Time is no longer like that cousin ten times removed or that close family member that I had taken for granted. I’ve become a man who’s finally realized how important Time is. Each scrape of his metal-tipped boots is as precious as each beat of my heart. No one has been with me as much as or as long as the old man, and because I finally learned not to take him for granted, he has become one of my best friends. Without Time chasing me into Death’s trap, I would have never experienced a rebirth in my own life. I’d still be walled in behind facades of self-protection and others’ expectations. I would have lived the rest of my life under a false consciousness and as a stranger to myself. My potential to be more would have remained locked away within my inner prison with me never being able to realize what it means to truly be free. And a life lived like that is a life not worth living at all.