If your father is convicted of a felony for drug possession—six industrial-sized garbage bags filled with red hash confiscated underneath his double-wide, with intent to manufacture, sell, and/or deliver to buyers such as history scholars with thin mustaches, pool sharks who play better in a haze, roadhouse musicians, tattoo-heavy bikers, pubescent youth working at the Sonic Drive-In on the weekends, and romantic flings in floral-patterned cotton dresses—if your father is tried and convicted, certain rights will be taken away that separate him from other citizens of the United States and small-town Tennessee.
Although your father faces no jail time as he spends all of his savings on a good lawyer, a gentleman named Howard Larson (often called StrongJaw by the local legal circuit), and since it’s your father’s first offense, since he works full-time as a land surveyor for the city and is single with an eight year old child, although he is a nonviolent criminal who plead guilty to forego a ten year maximum sentence in West Tennessee State Penitentiary and serves five year parole, rights will still be taken away.
The state will no longer allow your father to vote. You watch Saxophone Bill Clinton and Desert Storm George Bush on television and ask, “Who you going for, Daddy?” and he replies, “Neither of the bastards.” He doesn’t explain how it’s illegal for him to touch a ballet, how he can’t enter a voting booth for local or national politics, but he’ll still continue expressing his opinion on the candidates, “Bush comes from family money, the elite. How can he know us? And Clinton? Well, Clinton doesn’t play electric guitar. His choice of instrument stinks.” Your father prefers outlaw music: Willie for President, Cash for VP, and the rest of the Highwaymen for senate. He believes in no single party. Republicans and Democrats are there for the same reason: to control. Television politics don’t respect true democracy.
If your father is a convicted felon, the state will not allow him to serve on a jury because they believe in criminal bias and lawbreaker conspiracy, as if all felons are universally connected to one another. There is some truth here; your father could easily become a juror to a long-time cohort. This is small-town Tennessee, and a few months ago Timothy “Crater” Giles, an old friend, was arrested on a charge of illegal firearms, a cache of submachine guns found hidden in a bedroom closet. And Nelson Doll recently fell behind bars because of drunken exposure to a group of Ladies in Purple Hats socializing at Convenience Lounge. Your father and he used to fish for crappie at Beech Lake. However, your father doesn’t want responsibility for anyone’s guilt or innocence. “It can’t be good karma,” he says. Yet the courthouse makes mistakes. One day he receives a letter in the mail for jury duty. It pays forty dollars for each day served. The letter doesn’t say what crime has been committed or who the police charged, but your father must appear for duty week after next. “Those idiots,” he says holding the letter, calling the courthouse to report their mistake. On the phone, he tells the one responsible, “I can’t make it… Two years ago, y’all made me one of them… Yes, I’m a felon… Always and forever… Thank you very much and goodbye.”
Your father will lose his job for the city because the Henderson County Progress featured him in the incarcerated section. He will have to check Yes on future job applications when asked if ever charged with a misdemeanor or felony. He must explain in a few lines or less the circumstances of his arrest. He never writes: Snitched out by a man named Seth Pallay who’d been caught running ‘ludes across state lines. This Pallay received a lesser charge when he gave a “Drug War” veteran a few names. I only dealt a little herb. Really. Nothing more. It allowed me to meet interesting people and put clothes on my kid who always wore brand new shoes and never went without. It would’ve allowed early retirement without the bust. These are my circumstances. Instead your father will simply write on the application: I would rather explain myself in person.
His future jobs will include lawnsman at the Baptist university, pumpman at the Little General gas station, irrigation ditch digman for a temporary agency, firework salesman in supermarket parking lots, mopman for businesses around town (Princess Theater, Larson Lawfirm, Big Star Grocery). Your father will go through a number of menial-labor jobs. When he finishes each, he’ll come home and say, “I’m a slave to nothing. No one masters me.”
Luckily, unemployment benefits are not taken away from the convicted.
A felony can only be expunged five to ten years after completing probation. If inclined, your father can re-hire Howard Larson and pay an exorbitant fee for time and research rendered in the encyclopedia of law. The attorney will barely remember your father’s face. StrongJaw calls the process “record sealing” and says court fees will also be involved. After filing a motion, a judge determines eligibility for expungement. Nothing is guaranteed. Your father begins to wonder if it’s really necessary, if it would actually help future employment, if he really cares to vote for the next guy in, if he really needs to be one of twelve. He will ask himself, “In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if I’m a felon or not in these backward-ass times?”
And finally when your father is a convicted felon, he forfeits his right to legally own a firearm. During the original search and seizure, after several men in bulletproof vests knocked violently on the trailer, yelling “Police! Open!” and not waiting for an answer, busting down the aluminum door where you were watching late night television in bed, your father sitting on the floor, his head resting on the side of the bedframe dazing into sleep, after being scared to tears while they drove your father to the ground, knee to back, handcuffs curled around his wrists, repeating, “We know you got it. We know where it is. We know you got it.” After a policeman with muscular arms guided you by the hand to a cruiser outside strobing with blue light, speaking very tenderly, “You’ll see your daddy again. Don’t worry. Your granddaddy’s coming.” After the force found what they were looking for–the Mexican red brick stashed in garbage bags behind the trailer’s underpinning—after all this, the cops asked your father if the long barrel .22 pistol is registered, and your father, caged in the backseat of a cruiser, said, “It is. It is,” and they put it back underneath the bed where it was originally found.
After the trial, he must rid himself of the gun, sell it at a pawn shop, give it to a relative, bury it in the backyard, or destroy it with a welding torch because a convicted felon cannot own a firearm in the United States, whether it be hunting rifle or protective pistol.
Yet the individual can ignore the conviction, the felony, the law, and keep the firearm, which is what your father will do. It’s a black, long barrel Smith & Wesson revolver, a gift from his ex-wife, your mother. You’ve seen this gun destroy water moccasins, truck tires, and trashcans. He now keeps it in an electric guitar gigbag in his bedroom. No one knows he owns it (yet no one really comes around since the arrest, the straight and narrow). He’ll show the gun to you and not be afraid to shoot it while you watch. The two of you live on a plot of inherited land where wilderness is all around, the nearest neighbor two miles away. On this land, a rope-swing hangs from a tall oak on the top of a hill. You hook your feet in the swing, and your father pushes until the ground is left behind. You understand flight and freedom. Deeper into the woods, there are deer trails and gullies of kudzu. Your father owns a red four-wheeler, and both of you explore, your arms wrapped around his waist as the ATV climbs the landscape. But when your father appears outside wearing his straw Stetson, its brim gritty and folded, a snakeskin band wrapped around the crown with rattler still attached, a cowboy hat that experienced youth, travel, the West, Venice Beach, very strong narcotics, barroom brawls, beer baths, violent girlfriends, backstabbing friendships, a return to the South, Jesus Christ, baptism, marriage, birth, divorce, punishment, and love, when he appears in this hat, you will know it is time for the pistol to be fired. It will be polished from the night before, and the bluing will shine. He’ll set up a few cola cans on a wood flat atop some cinderblocks. Your favorite part is watching him load the pistol, pushing the small-caliber rounds into the cylinder with paternal concentration. He stands fifty feet away from the target, pulling the hammer and picking his shot. He inhales and holds his breath. Shot fired. A can flies end over end. Sulfurous smoke turns out the barrel, a transforming ghost disappearing with the bullet’s echo.
And even though your father is a felon, he’ll teach you how to shoot this pistol. He stands behind you, puts his arms in front of yours, bringing your hands to the grip. “Look through that sight there,” he says. “Shoot where you want to go,” he speaks as if this is the only truth. He’ll help you with the hammer. The sun is disappearing, the surrounding wood changing into blue shade. You’ll miss the shot, the bullet travelling into those night woods. But no matter where the bullet goes, whatever it penetrates, a mound of dirt, a dying oak, and no matter who hears the shot, a flock of black birds, a long-distance neighbor, an off-duty policeman perhaps, and no matter who or what experiences the sound of the law being broken, a guilty criminal with a firearm, a father with a conviction, the real truth is: it will not be him firing the gun, hands on the black pistol, disregarding a felony. It will be his next of kin, a child. It will be you.