Brushy Mountain Penitentiary is a prison in a dense mountain in Tennessee. I say dense, as in packed with trees. Tall green trees with trails that lead to nowhere or everywhere. This makes escaping this prison especially difficult. I read about it in a book of essays. There is an ultra race through that same forest. The competitors are to run 100 miles and not go crazy through this wild, dense forest. The not going crazy is the difficult part. James Earl Ray was kept in this prison.
“Kept” feels like the wrong word to use here. He is a man, not an animal. But “kept” is also the best word I can come up with to convey what I am trying to say, so it will stay.
James Earl Ray was the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr. I know a man from work who has met James Earl Ray. I cannot describe this man from work because of confidentiality, but he is a man you can learn a lot from. When he smiles, his eyes wrinkle at the sides and get small. It is a genuine smile paired with a genuine man. He speaks about his time at Brushy Mountain with passion. We sit near the pool in the back yard and we both get excited over a mutual place. And a mutual person. I have come to know them through words and paper. They are fantasy to me until he speaks about them as though they are real. Then that place up in the dense mountains and the man who shot a kind, progressive man became real to me.
The genuine man describes how James Earl Ray tried to escape. He packed himself into a box and shipped himself out of the prison. The genuine man made sure to mention that his accomplice was black. He couldn’t believe this fact. Somehow it wasn’t as difficult for me to understand.
James Earl Ray was caught and brought back but the genuine man was never able to speak to him again. The book describes it differently and the genuine man only heard about this through rumors, but I still want to believe him rather than the book. After all he was there.
Later that day a woman I work with began talking to me about her experience having children. She is tall and wears dark eye shadow. She had eyeliner tattooed to her eyelids so that she did not have to pencil it in morning after morning. I am slightly envious of these few moments she gains each day, but I could not have a needle that close to my eyes. For now I will continue to pencil. Lean in close to the mirror and smudge a dark line as close to my eyelashes as possible.
She told me she became depressed when she had her children. Her and her husband only had one car and so when he would leave in the morning for work, she would be stuck. She described her lonely monotonous days of bringing her children, who weren’t really people yet, to the park. They were little beings that took so much and couldn’t even speak to her to ease her loneliness.
Later I read her this quote: “I looked to her in the simplest smallest moments- when she reads, or drinks coffee or brushes her teeth and I am breathless- knowing it does not take a million dollar telescope to witness the crushing beauty of the universe.”
I told her I longed for somebody to see me this way. She told me it reminded her of her children. In a moment she contradicted herself. But then I understood how she could feel lonely and see beauty all at once. She described what she saw as she looked down at her nursing, bald child. “Magnificence” That’s how she described it. I saw that this magnificence was her savior. These moments of realizing she created this person and they would grow up to be good.
As I drove home on the empty freeways I listened to a podcast. It was a woman who became a voyeur, watching the life of her neighbors through their window and her binoculars. The naighbors’ love was a young love filled with passion. And then it became an old love as the man became ill. She watched as their young love became desperate. She watched as they both changed from carefree to serious. As he transformed from healthy to malnourished. She then watched as he passed away. The voyeur woman was in the room with the man’s girlfriend and mother. They cried on either side of his body and she watched from her window. This quote stuck with me.
The voyeur woman said “I started out bitter towards this young beautiful woman and their young love. But then she had no idea that a complete stranger was rooting for her and her success in this world. I wanted her to be happy again and live life. “
The podcast ended. The voyeur woman began to cry as she narrated near the end. I cried too. Then I turned the radio off. There was no music that could happen after a story of that kind.
Instead I listened to the rumble of my engine and the birds singing their songs outside.