Win Your Life
by Floyd Looney
Lying on his bunk with an arm thrown over his eyes because there was no way to turn off the light, Wayne Allen Johnson thought about all the ways his life had turned out wrong. Growing up in the hood without a father, mother on welfare, dropping out of school, hanging with the wrong homies until it got him locked up.
Eight years, so far, of a twenty-eight year sentence for accessory to murder.
Eight years of his life locked up. The more he thought about it, though, these eight years were no more 'locked up” than the rest of his life had been. Crap on top of more crap was not going to change it into something non-crap. Today he was going to meet his lawyer, or the lawyer, since Wayne Allen Johnson wasn't paying him.
He hadn't seen this guy since he didn't know when. This lawyer had been a joke during the trial where he did little to distinguish his client, the driver, from the ones who pulled the trigger. Eight years though, a lawyer could improve a lot in that much time.
He sat across the table from the lawyer.
“Hey, why did you want to see me?” Wayne asked the guy.
The lawyer opened his briefcase and took out a thin file. He laid it flat on the table between them.
“There is a small chance you can get out of here. I think we can make a deal that would give you a real shot at getting your freedom.” the lawyer said.
“What is it about? What are you talking about?”
The lawyer straightened his glasses. “A tele-net program is being put together that will allow felons like you earn their liberty and get out of prison. The Governor put his foot down and said he won't let actual trigger-men to get a conditional pardon. Since you were the driver, you can get in on this.”
Wayne was a bit confused. “What kind of tele-net show?”
“Wayne, I mean Mr. Johnson. It is very doubtful you can get paroled any time soon in this state, I am asking that you at least think about this.” the lawyer said “It won't be easy. I think they will put you through the ringer, the family of the victim will likely be there. It will be emotional but it is a real shot at being released.”
He left the file, Wayne Allen Johnson was returned to his cell. He had seen a lot of bad television in the last eight years. People seemed to have hideous taste in the country, but the idea of being free again was enticing.
He was standing off-stage, still wearing the orange prison jumpsuit and cuffs, there were two armed guards there to keep an eye on him. He could hear the studio audience and see how bright the stage lights really were. At one point a woman came by and put some pancake make-up on his face, to make him look normal on screen.
Wayne Allen Johnson even got to meet the host before the show. He was a jovial type of guy with the brightest, cleanest teeth you can buy to implant. He explained that after the stories are told, the studio audience would vote and if this was more than 50%, the viewers would get a vote too. If the studio audience gave him more than 75% support, he would win right there and then.
The rules were pretty straightforward. Wayne Allen had no beef with the rules.
Then the announcer on the loudspeaker said “It's show time!”
Lights flashed and some music played, “and here is your host, Mort Martindale!”
Loud applause. Then Mort, the host spoke “Today is the first episode of a new program, as has ben explained to the audience here. I think it is an interesting experiment, but I might be biased because I am getting paid.”
Laughs. Then he spoke again “Okay, Johnny announce the name of this show.”
“Welcome to this edition of WIN YOUR LIFE!”
“Hello, Hello, ladies and gentlemen here and at home watching over Tel-Net 17 to Win Your Life! On today's show we have a convict, he was locked up eight years ago for being the get-away driver for a gangland murder.” The audience hisses, but Mort interjects “No, no.. now just listen. You have to hear his story, all the stories and make up your mind. Is eight years enough for what he did? Does he deserve a chance for freedom? This is what we will decide today, together, on Win Your Life!”
After a quick break (ads will be added after the taping) they were back. Mort speaks again ”Well, let me bring out the first ever contestant on this show, his name is Wayne Allen Johnson! A little applause, come on out here, Wayne.”
He walks onto the stage and the two shotgun-wielding guards follow. They stand back a bit but they are clearly visible to anyone who watches the program when it airs.
“Hello Mort, thank you for giving me this chance.”
“Well, we will have to wait and see how it turns out, won't we?” Mort answered to get the audience to smile. “Now you were just 18 at the time of the crime, you barely turned 19 when you were convicted, can you tell us anything about that. Anything about the process strike you as unfair?”
Wayne knew this question would be the first. “The process was fair. The problem was we were all tried at the same time, the trigger-men and their stupid naive driver, me, all convicted together. They got harder time, that is true, but I think I should have been able to present my defense to a jury who weren't already biased by their cases. They were ready to throw us all into a hole, and anyone who ever knew us.”
Mort chuckled once “Would it have made a big difference?”
“No, I was the driver. I thought we were out to buy drugs, some smoke, I had no idea those guys were going to kill someone. I think if I had a separate trial I would have gotten a lesser sentence.”
Mort asked, even though he already knew the answer “How long was the sentence?”
“Twenty-eight years, Mort.” he answered, the audience responded “ooh” sympathetically.
“Then you have twenty more to go?” Mort asked “There is no time off for good behavior? Parole board reviews?”
“Not in my state” Wayne said “And the parole boards almost never give early parole, they are hard-cases.”
Then for the next several minutes Mort got Wayne to discuss his terrible childhood and how it affected him. He never knew his father, his mother hadn't had much time or ability to be a better parent. Dropping out of school was one of the dumbest mistakes he ever made.
“These are not excuses, okay?” Wayne said, remembering what his lawyer told him “These are just the circumstances. I still made the bad decisions, but in that world they didn't seem like the worst of the choices.”
After a commercial break, ads to be added later before airing, Mort decided to change up the pace with something surprising “We interviewed your mother, it's a very short video we want to play.”
Before he could say anything there, on the big screen behind the stage appeared his mother. She had gained a lot of weight and was looking even more ghetto than normal. Wayne was embarrassed before she even said anything.
“My son was a good boy, but he didn't get enough whoopins” she said, the audience laughed, some of them applauded. On screen his mother put a photo up to the camera, a baby picture of him standing there with his diaper around his knees “See that, he was already practicing for being a gangta, with the droopy diaper.” The audience laughed again, longer.
“Why you do that mama?” he asked the screen.
“I can definitely sympathize, my mother has whole picture books she shows everyone who goes by the house. The mailman, the garbage man, the guy who checks the water meter...” Mort said, the audience was still laughing.
“After this next break, we get to hear from the victims family. For the first time, they get to really meet Wayne and talk to him.” Mort said as they cut away.
“Okay, the victims family should come in and be seated at this white bench over here, the one with the penalty box.” Mort said pointing to a part of the stage Wayne hadn't even noticed. It had been bathed in darkness but was now just as bright as the rest.
“Welcome back to Win Your Life here on Tele-Net 17, I am the host Mort Martindale. Now we are going to hear about the victim in this case. What kind of person he was and why he was killed.” the host said, moving toward the bench where the victims family sat, Wayne Allen Johnson just stood where he was.
“You are the mother of Adrian Foster? Is that right?” he asked the woman wearing the dark purple pantsuit. “That's correct, Mort. My name is Angelina Baker-Foster.”
“What kind of person was Adrian?”
“He was one of the top students in college and he was the back-up running back on the college football team and he still had a job on top of that” she said “He did the same in high school, he was always the most responsible child a mother could want.”
“How did such a good kid know these thugs who killed him?” Mort asked her.
“They pretended to be big fans, brought him gifts and acted like they were his friends. Then they show up the day he got his income tax return and killed him.” she said “They were never his friends, they were the same type of people who treat him like dirt behind his back, saying he acted white because he got good grades.”
“Did you notice Wayne Allen Johnson at the trial? He was tried at the same time as the killers for the same crime.” Mort told them “He said they tricked him into driving the car.”
The mother and the other relatives talked to each other about this, the mother answered “We saw him, he sat apart from the other two. They didn't seem like friends of his, that was our impression.”
Mort slapped the transparent gate into the penalty box “So, that part of his story was true. Did you hear his story on the stand?”
“We never really paid him much mind back then, to tell the truth.” she answered “He said he was there, he said it happened the way the prosecutor said. It sounded like a confession to everyone in the courtroom.”
Then Mort turned back to facing Wayne Allen Johnson “Didn't you get an appeal?”
“I was told that a judge reviewed the case files and determined I was still guilty.” Wayne answered “That is how things are done these days after all the reforms, except in the biggest cases.”
Mort nodded. “By the way, did you ever apologize for your part in the crime? To the family?”
“I did when I was on the stand, but we never really talked before.” Wayne answered.
“This is as a good of a chance as any to plead for their forgiveness.” Mort told him.
Of course, Wayne should have seen that coming. He didn't expect them to forgive him but he wanted to show the studio audience he really was repentant about it. He got down on his knees right there on the stage and told them how he felt. “I wish I could change the past. I wish I could have stayed in school, I wish I had better friends, I wish I had made better decisions. I wish I could have had friends like Adrian to look up to instead of friends I had to act down with. I can never express how sorry I am for what happened and how I behaved afterward. I was stupid and scared, I will never be able to understand why it happened, how I didn't know what to do.”
Mort injected “You lied and defended those thugs at first because you were scared to admit it.”
“They might forgive you, eventually, Wayne.” Mort said, but maybe if you spend some time in the Catharsis Booth, they will forgive you right here on the show! Let's hear what the audience says.”
“Booth! Booth! Booth!” the audience was chanting as the host Mort Martindale opened the door to the chamber. Wayne was a bit confused about this, they hadn't told him anything about this before the program began. Still, he walked into it under his own volition. Mort shut and locked it before backing away and picking the microphone back up.
“The Catharsis Booth is not for your benefit, Wayne.” he said “It is for the benefit of the families of the victims. Those leather and rubber implements are for their use, just for letting out the pain and frustration they feel after more than 8 years. It was in the release form you signed, by the way.”
Wayne was about to ask “what was in the release form?” when he saw stars as something smacked the side of his head. Then other things were hitting him on the head and shoulders, and he got a glimpse of the victims families wailing away with the leather and rubber implements. For two whole minutes the beating continued. It was painful, he was bleeding from the lip and nose, he felt his face around hie left eye was swelling already, two teeth were loosened. Finally he heard the buzzer, like from a hockey game and the door to the Catharsis Booth was opened again.
He was pulled up and out. Next thing he knew he was standing, groggily, next to Mort Martindale with his belly laughs and bright fake teeth. Good old Mort, he really liked Mort right then, seemed like a really great guy.
“Now it is time for the audience to vote on whether this Conditional Pardon is given to Wayne Allen Johnson, or if it goes into the shredder! Start voting!”
After a few moments of recording the voting taking place another commercial break was declared.
“Now Wayne, whatever happens now, it was worth a try.” Mort said “I think you did a good job today, I am proud of you.”
“Thanks Mort, I like you too” Wayne told him, still feeling a bit groggy. Mort looked at him a bit funny just as the as break ended, it'd be longer when the ads were put in.
“Okay and the audience vote is in.” Mort said looking at the cards “There is a change in the rules since we are not live for this episode. Instead of having the second round voted on by the viewers, if the audience vote is between 50.1 and 74.9% to pardon Wayne, we let the victims family decide his fate.”
Wayne was starting to get his senses back. He understood that his fate would likely rest in the hands of the family of the victim. It seemed a pretty big hurdle since they had just beat him up. Was coming on this show pointless? Had this been a big waste?
“Okay, let us look at the big board for the vote totals.” Mort said to the camera, Wayne just wanted to look at his feet, the prison slippers looked ugly. They didn't go with orange at all.
The audience applauded and Wayne looked up at the board to see that 73.2% of the studio audience believed that he should receive the conditional pardon. Tears came to his eyes, he felt warmth in the bottom of his stomach. After eight years of feeling like the world didn't even care to know about his case, this was like a miracle.
“Now, just so you remember, Wayne, a conditional pardon in your state means that if you are in trouble again for almost anything, you could be locked up for life! Do you understand that?” Mort asked “You will have to lead a very different life if you get this second chance.”
“I understand!” Wayne said, tears on his face and he turned to the audience “thank you, thank you.”
“It's not over yet” Mort said. He walked over to the table and picked up the envelope and turned on the shredding device. “The verdict will have to come from the victims family, since the audience didn't give you 75% or more.”
“So now we come to the moment of truth! Now we will get down to the end of this show. Now we find out whether Wayne Allen Johnson, flunkie driver for killers, leaves prison after eight years. I hold the pardon in my hand, over the shredder. The answer, the last word of this case, will come from Mama Foster. Mama Foster, how do you declare?”
For some reason Wayne's whole terrible life flashed before his wet eyes. He felt like he could faint. His legs were weak and felt as if they could falter any second. He wanted to get out of prison, he wanted to get out of the ghetto, which was its own prison. Maybe he could move to Wyoming and do something like raise bison. Anything to get away from his old life.
“We have decided...” Mama Foster said. Wayne felt his knees wobbling, his hands were shaking, his vision was blurry.
“... that the pardon is hereby..” Mama, I'm sorry mama.
As the lights shifted, music played and audience applauded Wayne Allen Johnson fell to the floor of the stage and cried like a baby.
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