To that point, all I really knew of Albert Lewis was what an audience member knows of a performer: his delivery, his stage presence, the way he held the congregation rapt with his commanding voice and flailing arms. Sure, we had once been closer. He had taught me as a child, and he'd officiated at family functions—my sister's wedding, my grandmother's funeral. But I hadn't really been around him in twenty-five years. Besides, how much do you know about your religious minister? You listen to him. You respect him. But as a man?
Mine was as distant as a king. I had never eaten at his home. I had never gone out with him socially. If he had human flaws, I didn't see them. Personal habits? I knew of none.
Well, that's not true. I knew of one. I knew he liked to sing. Everyone in our congregation knew this. During sermons, any sentence could become an aria. During conversation, he might belt out the nouns or the verbs. He was like his own little Broadway show.
In his later years, if you asked how he was doing, his eyes would crinkle and he'd raise a conductor's finger and croon:
"The old gray rabbi, ain't what he used to be, ain't what he used to be..."
I pushed on the brakes. What was I doing? I was the wrong man for this job. I was no longer religious. I didn't live in this state. He was the one who spoke at funerals, not me. Who does a eulogy for the man who does eulogies? I wanted to spin the wheel around, make up some excuse.
Man likes to run from God.
But I was headed in the other direction.
About the time that, religiously, I was becoming "a man," Henry was becoming a criminal.
He began with stolen cars. He played lookout while his older brother jimmied the locks. He moved on to purse snatching, then shoplifting, particularly grocery stores; stealing pork chop trays and sausages, hiding them in his oversized pants and shirts.
School was a lost cause. When others his age were going to football games and proms, Henry was committing armed robbery. Young, old, white, black, didn't matter. He waved a gun and demanded their cash, their wallets, their jewels.
The years passed. Over time, he made enemies on the streets. In the fall of 1976, a neighborhood rival tried to set him up in a murder investigation. The guy told the cops Henry was the killer. Later, he said it was someone else.
Still, when those cops came to question him, Henry, now nineteen years old with a sixth-grade education, figured he could turn the tables on his rival and collect a five-thousand-dollar reward in the process.
So instead of saying "I have no idea" or "I was nowhere near there," he made up lies about who was where, who did what. He made up one lie after another. He put himself at the scene, but not as a participant. He thought he was being smart.
He couldn't have been dumber. He wound up lying his way into an arrest—along with another guy—on a manslaughter charge. The other guy went to trial, was convicted, and got sent away for twenty-five years. Henry's lawyer quickly recommended a plea deal. Seven years. Take it.
Henry was devastated. Seven years? For a crime he didn't commit?
"What should I do?" he asked his mother.
"Seven is less than twenty-five," she said.
He fought back tears. He took the deal in a courtroom. He was led away in handcuffs.