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My Roommate, the Ex-con



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I never knew there could be such an object lesson in packing.” My roommate’s sudden statement came after two hours of heavy silence that had come between us as we packed my belongings and carried them to the old battered station wagon outside. “It’s amazing what a pack rat like you can cram into one small college dorm room!”

“And just what have you learned from it?” I had to suppress a laugh. A dustball puff clung to a sweat-dampened curl that always fell stubbornly in the middle of Michael’s tanned forehead.

“I have learned why Christians are warned not to attach value to worldly goods,” he said seriously. “You treat these pieces of junk like they were your children or something.”

“They have a lot of sentimental value,” I said defensively.

“What possible sentimental value could this have?” he asked, thrusting a rusted motorcycle piston in my direction.

“That’s from the first bike I ever owned,” I argued. “Besides, I’ve given up the rest of the engine to make this move. It’s in your closet. You can toss it. Or keep it—it will remind you of me.”

Michael threw up his hands in mock desperation. “You’re gonna leave me a rusty motorcycle engine to remember you? It’s bad enough that I’ve had to help clean up your greasy psychology assignments and stub my toes on grimy cylinder heads these past two years. Is that really how you want me to remember my best friend?”

Silence fell between us again. We stood in the middle of the room looking at each other’s shoes like a couple of newly introduced freshman.

“This is sort of like how we started, huh?” Michael said in almost a whisper.

“Yes. Just about,” I agreed.

INCOMPATIBILITY

A flood of memories rushed into my head. I remembered the day Dean Ferris had come into my dorm room with the campus chaplain and Dr. Williams, vice president of student affairs. The way they kept smiling at me, I thought that at last my past two years of college transgressions had come to light; they had come to help me pack. Before they could say a word, I started confessing.

But instead of being shocked and angry, they appeared to be bored. Dean Ferris kept glancing at his watch; the chaplain picked lint off his suit.

Finally Dr. Williams held up his hand impatiently. When he had my attention, he explained the reason for their visit and told me the story of Michael.

All I really remember about the conversation is that they kept telling me that I had the perfect personality to put up with a few problems Michael had. They said that he had just been released from the state penitentiary, where he had begun taking college courses.

They offered a few vital statistics—he was my age, a member of the church. But his history, they said, was a violent one. Because of his young age, he had been attacked several times in prison and had turned to violence to protect himself. The violence had included numerous fights and several stabbings.

“He had a brutal reputation in prison,” Dr. Williams said gently. “But we have great faith in Michael. We wouldn’t have accepted him otherwise.

We have prayed earnestly about this, and we feel he deserves all the help and guidance we can offer. Think of him as your missionary project, Tim—”

Dean Ferris interrupted. “And think what a terrific subject he will make for your psychology class.”

Dr. Williams smiled. “Will you let Michael be your roommate?”

It took me several seconds to find my voice. “I already have a roommate.”

“We have already talked to Jon,” said the dean knowingly. “He has agreed to move.”

So Michael, my “missionary project,” moved in.

BAD FIT

But he didn’t fit in, not right away. For the most part other students ignored him. I didn’t do so good myself. Not much was accomplished that first semester.

But gradually over the winter, Christian love began to thaw Michael’s fear and paranoia. He no longer slept on the floor with a chair blocking the door. His suspicious eyes softened. He stopped raising his fists every time someone startled him. With his superior athletic abilities he led us to victory after victory in everything from school basketball games to softball games at church picnics. He became a sort of hero to many guys—and much sought after by the girls.

There were problems on his rocky, uphill climb. Michael was different, in need of a lot of attention. He was an ex-con with many traits to unlearn. But the experiences of that year showed there was nothing that love and friends and God could not help Michael overcome.

Graduation weekend came. Michael was a junior and I a senior. I had gotten what I came for, and it was time for me to leave. The 3,000 miles between school and my North Carolina home seemed halfway around the world.

“I have a confession to make, Tim.” Michael’s voice cut into my thoughts.

“Like?”

“I didn’t like you very much in the beginning.”

“That’s OK,” I grinned. “I knew my charm and grace would win you over.”

“Well, maybe a little. But your playing games with me at all hours of the night when I was feeling low, and then always losing, helped.”

“Well, it was either play games or stay awake all night because of your snoring! Lucky you never had to cram for a test with that buzz saw roaring in your ear.”

“I never heard a thing.” Michael bent down to pick up the last box. “You better step on it. My new roommate needs to move in.”

Outside by the car, Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold chain with a tiny gold cross. “I want you to have this, Tim,” he said, putting it around my neck. “A guy at the joint made it. He was a blacksmith. He started on it about two months before Christmas because he was expecting a visit from his daughter.

He was dying of cancer or something. He wanted to leave her something.”

Michael took a deep breath. “Well, she never showed up. He wanted someone to have it that would appreciate what it meant, so he gave it to me.”

Michael held the cross between his fingers. “See, we weren’t allowed to have small tools for fine work like this in prison. Too dangerous and easy to hide, they said. So the guy used the same blacksmith tools he used to make horseshoes.

I know you don’t wear jewelry, but keep it to remember our days here.” I offered Michael my hand. He ignored it and gave me a bear hug instead. Tears slipped down our cheeks.

“Brothers?” asked Michael, pulling away. 

“Brothers!” I agreed.

We made the same solemn promises to keep in touch that all friends make. Yet, somehow, I think we both knew that time, responsibilities, and miles might keep us apart.

Late that night, as I drove across the dark Kansas plains, I found myself fingering the tiny, rough cross. I couldn’t help but think how much Michael and that little cross were alike.

The prison blacksmith, with his oversized tools, had shaped, out of love, a thing of beauty. He had used what he had to put his talent to work.

When Michael first came to our college, my schoolmates—and me too—had been without proper tools. We stumbled around and even balked at our duty. How easy it would have been for God to provide someone suitably equipped to shape Michael’s life and give it direction, someone with more education, professional training—someone with better tools. It would have been easier, just as it would have been easier for a jeweler with the smaller precious tools to form the blacksmith’s golden cross.

But both Michael and the cross had been shaped by love; and perhaps love is the best tool.

 

This story originally appeared in the June 7, 1983, issue of Insight. At that time Timothy Asher wrote from Pueblo, Colorado. He now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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