Objectively a clear, calm and cool early January morning greeted John Knopick but for him every day seemed bleak. Fourteen years, three months and twenty-four days into his ongoing life sentence he sub-vocalized his 5,229th prayer of contrition, The Lord’s Prayer, a Hail Mary, and another half dozen rote Catholic doxologies before rising from his bed. He also petitioned the Lord to watch over Hata Tawil, Athol Porter Zahorik and Margaret Porter along with his wife Joni and most fervently prayed that Sydney Porter and his mother-in-law, Lottie Hagans, had been welcomed into heaven. Lastly, he asked for strength and peace and hoped that God would show him how to be an instrument of justice in this world.
Even though John had been imprisoned for nearly 15 years his windows had remained unbarred, his doors unlocked and the entire world available to him. The crime for which he suffered was real, but Man’s justice had set him free. But, as Janice Joplin had said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Seven o’clock was early for John but today he was a man on a mission. His Greyhound bus was scheduled to leave at 8:50 and he couldn’t afford to miss it. He reached over from the bed in his rundown efficiency apartment, turned on his tiny TV with its digital to analogue signal convertor and listened for WWL’s weather report. The commercial to news ratio is amazingly skewed towards commercials in the early weekday hours but John’s perseverance paid off. Laura Buchtel prattled on that last week’s highs in the eighties would be replaced with mid-fifties this week and that NOLA currently sat at 47 degrees with winds out of the north. “Forty-seven, hmm?” he asked himself. “Wonder what it’s going to be in Chicago?”
John ate hurriedly and entertained the notion of showering but decided that nineteen hours on a bus would nullify any attempts he might make to spruce himself up. He looked in the tiny, poorly lit medicine cabinet mirror and stroked his stubble covered face. “Nah, that’ll wait too,” he said, throwing his disposal razor into the small, already packed, distressed black vinyl duffle bag. He brushed his teeth, put the toothpaste and brush into the bag, got dressed in his least wrinkled clothes, slipped his rosary into his front right pants pocket, grabbed his heaviest coat, gloves and hat, looked at his rusty single speed beach cruiser bicycle sitting in the corner, screwed up his face, muttered, “Better not,” and headed to the greyhound station.
Riding to the Greyhound station would take less than twenty minutes but the chance of his bike still being locked to the bike rack when he returned home from Chicago was too much of a risk for John so he stuck to his original plan and hoofed the three miles. A brisk walk had him arriving at just after eight, plenty of time to catch the 8:50 that would take him to his first stop of Baton Rouge and then on to the great white north.
John had lost his freedom on September eleventh, 2001 when he went along with a crazed pack of Iowans that was hell bent on showing a Muslim that his kind couldn’t get away with attacking America. The spontaneous show of force had ended when John’s friend and supervisor, Sydney Porter, was accidentally pushed off of a catwalk, falling to his death nearly three stories below. Sydney’s death had been prosecuted as involuntary manslaughter and Doctor Hata Tawil’s testimony had prevented John from even having to face criminal charges. John didn’t go to prison but he hadn’t known freedom since that bright September day.
The young, robust, optimistic 21-year-old John had drifted away. Now, half a year away from his thirty-sixth birthday he looked far, far older than his driver’s license indicated. Even though he’d spent the last fourteen plus years a free man John’s life had been dramatically altered, especially his married life. John and Joni had only been married four months when the bottom fell out of their life. Stress and strain took its toll on the young couple and before long Joni had reverted to her maiden name of Hagans, “Just so I can get a job!” she’d insisted, and John was forced to travel away from Cedar Rapids. While their marriage remained on paper Joni had ended up moving to Chicago while John drifted down the Mississippi until he came to rest in New Orleans.
Communication between husband and wife had ebbed to infrequent and visits almost nonexistent. He knew that Joni deserved more than he could give and he’d sacrificed being with the love of his life in hopes that she’d find a new life without him, as Sydney’s poor widow Athol had done. Instead of closure John and Joni lived in limbo where both of them were haunted by the actions of John’s past. Then, just after New Year’s Joni had called him. She needed him, please come.
The phone call had startled him. Living like an ascetic monk almost no one called him and he and Joni had fallen to sending notes with birthday, Christmas and anniversary cards: Reassurances that each was alive but harsh reminders of how separate their lives had become. Hearing her voice, her plea, had brought home how much he loved, missed and desired her. There was no way he could deny her plaintive request that he come to her and as he boarded the Greyhound bus Oleta Adams’ mournful lyrics played in his head and taking his seat he quietly sang , “‘I don’t care how you get here, get her if you can.’”