This is a very early version of Among Women when I thought I could put it all into a story. I was wrong. There's too much to tell and a novel was the only way to do it.
Greed and the expectation of something for nothing are the reasons I’m sitting here on this splintered yellow bench bolted to this peeling institutional gray floor. Most of us are here for the same reasons, no matter what we tell you.
The dark-haired hippie sitting across from me overflows ragged, patched jeans and polyester maternity top. She fled the parish police at high speed because of the greed that filled the trunk and back seat of her car.
“You’re not here for drugs,” she says. Her voice breaks the hollow silence. Brown eyes, shadowed by a fall of lank strands, lick hungrily at the insides of my arms.
“No.” I’m surprised at my calm even tone.
She sidles along the bench until she’s opposite me. Her eyes never leave my arms.
A wizened brown stick of a woman mutters off to the right. “I am, but they got it wrong.” Another quarter heard from. “They’ll see when they call the judge. Don’t know who they messin’ with.” She hunches into the corner near the door, braced against the wall.
A thin arm, like a dowel jabbed into lumpy clay, strokes my clasped hands. Collapsed ropy veins sulk beneath the riddled depths of even her withered right arm. Not wanting to seem rude or scared, I pat her hand and slowly fold my arms. I don’t want to make any sudden moves, not when raw desire drools so near.
The judge’s maid mumbles and curses. “Judge won’t like me being here. Ain’t supposed to be here. Ignorant fools locking me up when the judge goin’ need his dinner. Don’t like to be kept waitin’. They goin’ find out though. Makin’ him come down here. Treatin’ me like some criminal. Got they heads in the lion’s mouth and that’s for true.”
When I look back the hippie smacks her lips, avid eyes glued to my arms.
“I bet a needle would slide easy in your veins,” she says.
Freedom echoes through the narrow chamber.
The judge’s maid takes her time gathering her dignity. Snarling with outrage, glistening black curls bounce against the majestic set of her shoulders as she strides through the door. Trickles of apologies and recriminations seep through the opening and die in the final clang of steel against steel.
We are alone at last, hunter and hunted.
They say innocence is its own reward. That was uppermost in mind when I quietly, voluntarily followed my black-suited captors to their squad car. I knew it wasn’t true as the familiar streets of downtown New Orleans slipped away. I haven’t been far from the French Quarter since DJ left me stranded. Now I’m here, sitting across from a drug addict who sees me as unexplored territory. I don’t even know where here is.
They called it Central Booking. I have no rights. I gave those up when I left the safety of two full time jobs in Ft. Lauderdale for the promise of California. I would trade my single American status for a sham marriage, a couple years of my life, and lots of money. Not even halfway to the promised land and I wake up to find my car stolen and my money and my ex-con boyfriend gone. He’s probably looking for his dream, a virgin sacrifice from a devout small town congregation he could rule from the pulpit.
Maybe I should ask her name. Names are power.
“Carla. What you in for?” she asks.
The inevitable question. What should I answer? Stupidity, trust, or the real reason – greed? “I’m not really sure.”
“Yeah, well, I really flaked out. I saw flashing lights behind me and lost it.” Carla laughs.
“Why were they stopping you?”
“I had a tail light out. I thought they knew about the stolen stuff in the car so I floored it.”
“I’ll say,” I say trying to be sympathetic. If she’s talking she’s not coveting my veins.
Carla sits down beside me. I turn to face her, putting my knee on the bench between us. No sense getting too cozy.
“Yeah, big mistake. If I hadn’t run out of gas I might’ve gotten away. My old man is gonna be pissed. It was his stuff. He can’t get his methadone with the car in the impound lot.”
We talk, exchanging histories and hurts until the door shrieks open again. No one’s rescuing us. The deputies toss in cold bologna sandwiches on mashed white bread. Carla asks for two. “Running makes me hungry,” she explains. She must run a lot.
Still tasting the gumbo I had for dinner, I give her my sandwich, too. Soon they come again, this time with cuffs and no nonsense.
We don’t have to go far. The elevator goes up several floors and disgorges us into a hallway teeming with prisoners and lots of black-clad deputies. A quartet of overfed toughs swaggers toward us with naked teeth. They take charge of Carla and me demanding we strip. We bend over as ordered while they probe any hiding places with rubber glove efficiency.
They let us dress before parading us past the chow line. It’s a short reprieve before they band our wrists in plastic.
Smirking, they lead us to the showers. A line of four stalls without shower curtains face one lone toilet stashed in a tiled cul-de-sac.
Stripped and shivering, we step into the stinging spray. Barely wet, we’re ordered to stop, raise our arms and spread our legs. Suffocating in a white cloud of delousing powder, they toss us some clothes.
The rough cloth sticks to wet skin and curdled bug powder while the dinner crowd watches. We’re the evening’s entertainment. I suppose it’s only fair. They’ve taken their turn and want to see the show from the other side of the stage.
Home for the time being is a small gray cell furnished with the latest toilet, sink, desk, stool and mirror in stainless steel. One bed is bolted to the wall. A lumpy sack of blue and white ticking hunches in the middle of the steel tray. Its twin lies on the floor between the desk and the heavy steel door tied up in a thin cotton sheet. Comfort isn’t allowed, at least not before casting the new fish into the population waters.
Carla fits right in, calling friends by name and striking a pose center stage. She relives her flight, careening around harrowing turns, blowing through speed traps, screaming around sightseeing tourists before coming to a sputtering, coughing stop as she runs out of road and gas. She smiles serenely when the local news stations play and replay her exploits. A new star is born replacing the rabid murderer who plays endless games of dominoes and cards.
The murderer sits at the head of the table under the penalty box where Sheriff Charles C. Foti’s flunkies watch from the safety of triple-paned double-glazed windows laced with wire. I watch, too, quietly answering the inevitable question, “What are you in for?” by holding up the neon orange plastic bracelet marking me as felon and fool.
“Tell them why you’re here,” Carla urges. She puts her arm around me and pushes me forward. The rapt audience sits on the stairs to the second tier of cells.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Don’t sound like a felony to me,” says a blonde getting her hair French braided.
“It is if you happen to look like a notorious prostitute wanted for being a Madam and a thief.”
“That’d do it.” She solemnly nodes her head
“So you ain’t this pro?” one of the other girls asks. This is her seventh or eighth trip down for prostitution.
“I’ve only been in New Orleans a few weeks. I wouldn't have time to do everything they claim.
“Don’t look like no pro to me,” Carla says. “More like a nun on parole.” Everyone laughs at that and I join in.
Lights out comes quickly and I follow the well-trained crowd milling toward the stainless steel comfort of bed and board.
Christmas is just past and New Year’s coming. The weather is fine and warm, just right to huddle under a threadbare blanket of scratchy blue-gray wool that stretches only far enough to hide beneath. I curl into a tight fetal ball as my naked cell mate howls with lunar glee. There is no rest for the wicked that first night or for many nights to come.
Morning never dawns so much as clangs when the heavy cell door locks are released. One of the Foti’s finest broadcasts the order for roll call. I stumble blearily to my feet, wiping sand from my eyes. I forget where I am until I bump into my roommate. I back off in the wake of her vapid smile remembering the howling that almost brought institutional wrath down on us the night before.
She had jumped and bounced on the bed, breasts bobbing, legs churning, as corded fingers wound through the heavy wire mesh of the window. She calmed down when the quad door bang echoed through the heavy silence. How her eyes burned in the dim reflected light bleeding through the window as she settled cross-legged onto her bed. I resolutely closed my eyes and hounded sleep until it finally smothered me in dreamless darkness.
I move back toward my pallet and turn away while she squats over the toilet, unable to ignore the rush and splash in such close quarters. When the toilet flushes I turn back around. She makes her bed as sanely, the night before a seeming fantasy of my over tired mind. I can’t afford modesty with my bladder near to bursting so I take my turn quickly and quietly. She ignores me. For her I probably don’t exist, maybe none of this does. Maybe she has the right idea of how to live through this all too real nightmare.
“Roll call!” a deputy yells behind me. I pull up my pants. My roommate smiles back at me from around the corner of the door.
I race out into the narrow walkway and take my place opposite her.
“Hold it,” the faceless deputy snarls counting me off, moving down the line. Daring a quick look, I see women on either side of the doors, some dressed in sheer peignoirs and some in cotton or just their underwear. A few – like me – are still in their clothes, rumpled and twisted as they sway drunkenly before we’re dismissed.
After standing in line for ages, runny eggs and clotted grits are slopped onto a metal tray over two hard shingles of dry toast. We each grab a paper cup of weak Kool-Aid laced with saltpeter to wash down the food and sexual urges.
Hunger plays tricks on your mind. You believe you can stomach anything if it means that the ache in your belly goes away for an hour. You eat, fending off everyone begging for your leftovers. They’ve grown fat and complacent, living for the weekly commissary delivery when, for one day, they get regular food – ice cream, candy, sugar, and coffee. Lucky for me commissary is the next day.
I’ve been told that I’ll be allowed twenty-five dollars. Good thing, too, because I gave my money to the captain for bail. It looks like I’ll be here for a while. It’s nearly two days and I’m still here.
Everyone offers to help fill out my commissary sheet, hoping I’ll share the bounty in exchange for their aid. At that moment butter pecan ice cream looks like heaven. Always go for the comfort food when you’re in trouble. I mark designer butter pecan on the preprinted list along with toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant. Everything is name brand, but the prices are outrageous. There are felt tip pens and legal size tablets. I can write. That will help.
I’ve always written down my thoughts, fears and pain. It puts them in perspective, keeps at a distance so that they don’t overwhelm me. When I was a teenager it became a very stupid habit. My mother always found my diary wherever I hid it and punished me for whatever she didn’t like – tirades of about punishment, secret longings, whatever I was trying to figure out. I got out of the habit. It wasn’t safe. I haven’t written much more than letters for over ten years. This could be my chance to get it back. Some chance – jailed in a strange city and no one knows where I am. Good chance.
Lunch, I soon find out, is always a hot meal, followed by a cold dinner. Lunch is full of cheap and heavy starches, like red beans and rice on Tuesdays, rice and what passes for chicken, occasionally some kind of mystery meat in the shape of something you nearly recognize. I begin to look forward to Tuesdays. They can’t ruin beans and rice.
Before the day is out I share dinner with the murderer. She isn’t what I expected. She is short – about 5’4” – and very dark-skinned. Wiry white hairs thread tight braids matching stragglers on her chin in deepest black.
“ You play dominoes? Two-handed solitaire?” she asks.
“Not for ages.”
“Have a seat. You’ll pick it up. You look like you got a brain.” She motions to a seat next to her and ‘washes the tiles,’ mixing up the dominoes face down on the table. She tells me how many to choose. We begin.
“Betty,” she says when I offer my name.
The game proceeds quickly. Most of the curiosity seekers move away into little groups that form and reform along the length of the quad. They move from the stairs to the second tier over to the picnic tables near the showers probably hoping for a show. Still, they pretend to ignore whoever is being sprayed and deloused.
Betty tells me her story in short bald sentences. Despite her seeming indifference to the surroundings, she is serene and untouched.
She tells me she moved to New Orleans because work was scarce at home in Texas. She got a job laying concrete the day she arrived. She found a cheap, clean apartment near the job site and dug in, sending money to her mother and kids back home. James happened onto the site looking for work. The construction boss hired him and put him under Betty. He ended up under her after work, too, after a few weeks spent wearing her down.
“He was a bum. Even a bum makes you feel better when you’re far from home and feeling lonely,” she explains.
“Wasn’t long I got to feeling lonely again. He found another pigeon.”
Betty chews her gum silently, her buckteeth working over her bottom lip as she carefully considers her next play. “Came to my place to pick up his stuff. Tried to talk me into giving him another chance, but I wasn’t having none of that. Pulled a gun and threw me down. Ripped my clothes. Raped me. I fought him, but he was strong and big. Real hard to throw off. Finally turned the gun on him. Blood everywhere and me covered in it. I pulled my stuff together and tried to put on a robe, but the whole house was beating at the door. Next thing you know I’m in here. Goin’ to be in prison the rest of my life.”
She wins and starts counting points. She checks what I’ve got left, adds them up and turns over the tiles. I help.
“Didn’t the jury understand you were being raped? That you were afraid for your life?”
“Didn’t make no difference. I knew him. Figured it was a crime of passion.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Isn’t the trial over.”
“Long over, but we down here for the appeal. I’ll be going back shortly.”
“You’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail for defending yourself?”
“Can’t change it. Might as well get used to it. Could be I get out in 15 or 20 years. . . or not. One thing, I miss my kids. They going to be grown soon and I won’t be there.”
Betty concentrates on the tiles, carefully considers her moves and plays fast. I wonder how many games of dominoes she’s played in eighteen months, how much solitaire, how many letters she’s written to her kids. How many in fifteen or twenty more years?
Another night with my naked howling cellmate, but I drop off easier than the night before. I’m afraid I may be getting used to this life. I don’t dare. I don’t want to spend my days playing dominoes and cards, looking forward to red beans and rice on Tuesdays, commissary on Wednesday.
When commissary is delivered everyone is excited and happy. Who would have thought the idea of a spicy dill pickle, ice cream, a little bag of sugar or coffee could cause so much stir? This is the high point of their week – and mine. I’m looking forward to the deodorant and writing again.
Betty’s story is hard to believe, but I feel someone should know. When I get out of here maybe I can find out what happened to her and find a way to get her story out. If not, then I’ll do it for myself. I can’t forget her accepting eyes, the way she mechanically shuffles the worn cards, or the methodical calculations, so neat and precise, that define her endless days.
By the time my name is called and I get my ice cream, it’s half melted. It tastes like heaven. What will it taste like in a month, six months, longer? I don’t know. I can’t look that far down the road, concentrate on now.
I take the pad and pens and sit down at one of the picnic tables. As Betty’s tale takes life on the page a scream rips the air. My cellmate is on the floor fighting Carla fighting over Buglers – tobacco and papers for rolling your own cigarettes. Two hefty deputies wade through the semi circle of women watching them rolling on the floor. They yank Carla up by the hair. My cellmate clings to Carla’s throat. She wraps her skinny legs around Carla’s ample middle trying to lock her ankles.
The deputies pry my cellmate’s legs loose. They grab her chin forcing her head back. She tries to bite them. They slap her to the ground. She crawls back toward Carla. The biggest deputy hauls Carla away toward the quad door. A little tap from the club, my cellmate lies still. The deputy stands guard over her while two more flunkies bring a pair of handcuffs. They cuff her and drag her to her feet, aiming her at the door. The three of them herd her toward the exit and shove her through.
Several inmates cluster around the door trying to see through the glass into the locked room between quad and the hall. “Anybody else want to go?” a guard barks over the intercom. They shake their heads and back away, their eyes glued to the window as the sounds of scuffling fade away.
“Keep looking and you’ll lose your commissary.” The intercom crackles and is silent.
Everyone drifts silently back toward their booty. They turn their backs on the door. Betty beats another opponent, totals up the score and gathers the cards for another deal – rummy this time.
I keep writing. If my cellmate stays away I might get to sleep on the bed. I won’t hold my breath. Good thing. She’s back that night subdued and quieter than usual. The moon goes unnoticed. It’s far too quiet. I can’t sleep.
“Williams. Paula Williams. You’re rolling out.”
A lock clangs in the quad. “Keep in touch. Don’t forget to write. Call my old man,” echoes through the quad.
“Y’all better shut up,” warns the intercom.
“Don’t forget,” someone whispers loudly in the cell next to ours. Feet shuffle by. “I won’t,” she whispers back. “I’ll see you when you get out,” she promises.
“Better get yourself on outta here or someone goin’ change they mind.” Her escort snaps her gum and the words, the warning clear.
“Yes, ma’am.” She shuffles faster. “Don’t want that.”
The quad door slams, the lock bangs, and the moon descends unnoticed.
Each day is like the next. The only difference is the stories. I tell the days by the food.
I’m running out of paper as everyone lines up to talk to me. They come watch me, ask what I’m writing. They know the answer. It’s just polite conversation, an introduction to what they really want – to tell someone who cares why they’re here.
Reluctantly at first, I let them read what I write. The papers reverently pass from hand to hand. Everyone wants to see their life through my eyes. They offer their stories like unadorned gifts. They decide I’ll wrap them the right way. They trust my judgment. And the tales mount up.
Bribes are offered for a little tobacco, a spoon full of sugar, a cup of coffee, but no one offers me a bribe. They know it isn’t necessary. Instead they loan books they’ve read and kept, the covers worn and ripped, pages torn and dirty. They’re not the current best sellers, but they’re an interesting mix. Romances mostly, but there are books on psychology and current events, biographies and tales of horror that pale in comparison to the lives they offer me for safekeeping.
Satire spills onto the yellow pages. When my pen falters another is offered in its place. “You don’t need to pay me back. If you need paper I’ll get come commissary,” they promise. I have a gift to offer them, the hope that someone listens, hears their tales, and notices they exist.
“Don’t care who knows why I be in here,” Louise scoffs. “Fourth time, but I got the bastard for true this time.”
Louise stabbed her husband when he beat her. This time she gets eighteen months. He died. She got him in the heart.
“Didn’t know he had no heart, for true.” Jail is a vacation from her ten children. The vacation will continue when she gets out – the king is dead.
Shayla comes into the quad regal and cool. Her distant gaze never falters in the cold shower or when the cloud of delousing powder clears. She steps from the shower and puts on her clothes. She doesn’t turn her back or hunch over. Displaying her sinewy compact body to everyone as if nudity were fine robes, she dresses and walks sedately past the guards. Shayla sits down across from me and watches me write. I stop and asked her the inevitable.
“Drugs,” she says.
I wait. She inclines her head, granting me her favor. She tells the rest.
“My boyfriend was upset when I kicked him out. I didn’t know how upset.” She stops and runs a hand through her close cropped hair. Water droplets sparkle as they dance and sprinkle her smooth caramel-colored cheeks, the ebony brush of her eyelashes. She licks full pink lips.
“My youngest daughter was sick. It was raining when time come to walk Dara to school so I let her sleep. The police were on the stoop when I got back. They came in. Said there were drugs on the premises. They found a Baggie of pot. Wasn’t there when I left. Found my daughter upstairs asleep and took me to jail after calling children’s services to take Keisha.”
The rest of the story is familiar by now. Her boyfriend watched the house, planted the pot and called the cops. Shayla was here until she could go to court. Her boyfriend had Dara and Keisha. They were his daughters, too.
Prostitutes told me about parish cops who screwed them and then carried them to jail. Thieves explained in detail how to steal in grocery, department, jewelry and liquor stores. Forgers demonstrated how to fake someone’s signature after seeing it once. Credit card thieves explained how much you could buy before the card was called in. Hold-up artists learned bigger and better ways to get away without using a gun, but making the victim think otherwise. Jail is networking for criminals.
If you came in on a nickel and dime charge, you left with information and contacts to move up the ladder. Prostitutes shared which cops just expected a blowjob or a fuck and which ones got their rocks off and turned you in afterwards.
Nacole is the best though. Big, black and very pregnant, she shuffles heavily around the quad in house slippers, her hand pressed to the small of her back. Her belly button juts out through the thin flowered cloth of her housedress like a thick, pointed knot. She doesn’t wear prison issue. Nothing would fit.
She folds her thick muscular arms on her belly when she sits. Everyone gives her room clustering on the opposite side to make sure it doesn’t tip over. Nacole arrived just after the first of December. She was caught Christmas shopping.
“Last thing I had to get, too.” She sucks her teeth. “Damn. Nice little color television for my son’s room.”
“Why are you here?” I ask.
Nacole throws her head back and laughs, the sound like a deep resonant bell. “Shoulda worn a bigger dress. Guard musta seen the television poking through.”
I’m almost afraid to ask. “Poking through?”
“I had the television between my legs headed for the exit. Didn’t make it much past the door when he grabbed Last thing on my list and he grabs me. Damn shame.”
Nacole also got three boom boxes, two video games, numerous dolls and a carriage, clothes, and various stocking stuffers for her kids for Christmas before she was caught. She shopped the same way for birthdays. This is the second time she’s been caught. She was out on parole on a federal charge and has to go back. She is here to have her baby. It’s due any day.
“Fed pen’s much better.” She leans closer, her tone confiding. “More like a country club than prison. Ain’t never seen no country club before, but you just know it’s like that. The Feds know how to treat you. Got a swimming pool, tennis court, and all kinds of exercise equipment and they don’t work you too hard. You can even go to college.” Nacole scratches her belly as she straddles the bench. She doesn’t fit under the table.
“I may take me one of them classes. Might as well learn something.”
My cellmate, Lily, is kicked loose one cold, rainy January morning. She smiles and waves then comes over to me and hugs me. “I really like you,” she whispers in my ear. “Come see me when you get out.” She places a folded piece of paper on my tablet, kisses my cheek and leaves. When she gets to the door, she turns and smiles then winks and leaves.
I open the paper. The address is somewhat familiar. Nacole looks over my shoulder. “Garden district. She come from money. Ain’t no doubt.”
I look up at Nacole. “She’s rich?”
“Oh, yeah. Her people done send her here. She probably got caught shoplifting or pissing on someone’s lawn. She just do it to aggravate them.” Nacole shuffles off laughing and shaking her head, her thick hand pressed to her back. “Don’t she just?”
With the room to myself and I move from floor to bunk. I look forward to having a room to myself. It’s almost like living at home growing up. I shared my room with two sisters – and more often than not, my bed. It doesn’t last long.
Tyra is medium height and very thin. Her skin is ashy, her eyes dull. The first thing I notice is her scent, like a wet, moldy raccoon. I’m not far off.
One of the thinner deputies hands Tyra a paper bag full of sanitary napkins. She waits impatiently while Tyra painfully eases to the floor, a bundle of prison issue blue mounded on one skeletal knee. Her hair is short and sticks up like clumps of porcupine quills. The deputy slams the door. The sound is too much for Tyra. She topples over and curls up around the bag. She doesn’t move again until morning, moaning and snoring by turns during the night one hand clutching her belly, the other her crotch.
I go to the bathroom first next morning. If you’re not awake when you sit down, you wake up quick when frozen stainless steel touches you. Praying I won’t stick to the toilet seat, I gather my nerve for the inevitable rip of pain when I stand.
I help Tyra to her feet, straightening the bed while she goes. She’s thin and wasted, her bottom almost too small to keep from falling into the icy water.
After roll call the usual group hovers around me wanting my breakfast. I’ve quit eating in the mornings. It’s just too hard to swallow on an empty stomach. I wave them away and set my tray down next to Tyra’s then go back to our cell for another half-hour or so of sleep. I’ve gotten into the habit of sleeping instead of eating since I ran out of paper last week. Commissary is two days away and I’m broke.
I reread The Art of Body Language for the fourth or fifth time. I’ve lost count. I doze until the early morning sound of mop buckets banging and the smell of industrial disinfectant clogs my nose. Time to get up and clean.
Lunch soon follows. Two bites and I hand the tray to Tyra, a chorus of moans following my gift. I drift over to the far wall and look down through the blue painted windows trying to see something of the street below. Just a tree or a car or another human being walking along the boulevard, proof there is still life. The hours drag.
Carla smokes toilet paper cigarettes. She’s run out of paper, but she saved enough butts to scrape together tobacco for one cigarette wrapped in a square of toilet paper.
Visiting day. The usual people primp and preen waiting for their names to be called. One or two come up to tell me they told their mother, father, sister, brother, lover about my stories. I nod and smile, forcing my lips past my teeth. I hope I don’t look depressed.
My name is called. It’s called again, but it’s not an inmate. It’s the intercom. “Get up here. You got a visitor,” the intercom snaps.
Someone to see me? Who? No one knows I’m here.
I shout and wave and go toward the door. A comb is shoved into my hand. It falls to the floor. I wait at the quad door. Someone combs the back of my hair. Betty loses a hand of rummy. She totals the points.
Cap sits on the other side of the wire-veined glass. He doesn't take long over the small talk or the usual friendly blather. He won't look directly at me and I know something's wrong. I ask and out it comes. His wife took my money when he couldn’t find me. No one knew I was here. He wants me to move in with them when I get out. It’s his wife’s idea. She wants to repay me for taking my money. She didn’t understand. I don’t understand. My lover wants me to move in with him and his wife.
I don’t like the idea, but I don’t have a lot of choice. My bra is ragged from washing every other day and my underwear is shreds of pink silk attached here and there to the elastic that almost holds it up. The Velcro tabs on my tennis shoes barely hold together any more. My shirt and pants are probably creased and musty from being locked up wherever it is they store your clothes. I don’t have a choice. But I’m still in jail and don’t know how long before I get out.
Cap smiles at me. He looks worn and haggard. We touch, palms flat against the glass. This will soon be over.
Cap leaves and I’m back on the quad. I have money on account, enough for paper and a couple of pens. I can get toothpaste and soap and butter pecan. Maybe I’ll get a candy bar instead. No, ice cream would be better. It’s been nearly six weeks since the last taste of butter pecan. I can’t wait. The light’s brighter. I make out my wish list and wait.
Tyra gets my breakfast today. I go back to the cell to sleep. We clean the cell and mingle on the quad. My fingers itch when they bring commissary. I can’t wait.
I eat half the ice cream and give someone the other half. I’m not sure who. One of the blondes, the one everyone says goes down on the skinny black sergeant. She walks around with hungry eyes and wet lips trailing anxious fingers down that one’s leg, over the curve of someone else’s ass, her cellmate’s neck. She’s an intimate secret no one keeps for long.
The paper is yellow and blank. It’s been only a week. It seems like forever since I wrote. I’ve covered stacks of tablets, the stories circulated everywhere. Nacole risked getting thrown in solitary to get one she left on the table. She almost got back to her cell with it when the skinny sergeant asked what was so important. “Some paper,” the fat flunky answered as she escorted Nacole to her cell.
“I want it.” The skinny sergeant thrusts out a hand. "Now.”
Nacole looked over at me and shrugged. She handed the satire to the flunky and disappeared inside the gray cell. I watched the papers disappear through the quad door and reappear in the skinny sergeant’s hands as she stood before the penalty box glass. She stopped reading once and glared at the flunkies clustered behind her. They backed off. She kept reading, folded the sheets and walked away from the glass. I didn’t have much time left.
Nacole was called back onto the quad. She shuffled up the stairs, taking her time, pressing the deep curve of her back with one coarse dark hand.
“You didn’t write this.” The skinny sergeant smirks. "Y'all ain't that smart.”
“Did, too,” Nacole shot back. “Don’t to call me no liar.” She glared back, beady black eyes blazing through the mounded folds of her cheeks.
“I’ll find out.” The sergeant stalked across the quad. A flunky escorted Nacole to her cell. Nacole took her time.
No, I didn’t have much time left. They were bound to find out it was mine.
Tyra’s worried. She hurries to tell me her story.
The wet, moldy raccoon smell still hovers around her. It’s the smell of wet mouton fur, the coat she wrapped up in when she left San Francisco to hitchhike all the way to New Orleans to get her kids back. Her boyfriend took them and brought them to Metairie in Jefferson Parish.
Tyra was broke. It was the end of the month and the welfare check wasn’t due. She took a thin steak knife for protection, her welfare ID card and hitched. Her last two dollars didn’t stretch past the first day. Luckily, most of the trip was through the South. It was still warm despite being January. When she hit Texas, the weather hit back with ice storms and freezing rain.
She must’ve looked like a drowned rat in her wet fur coat standing by the side of the road thumbing. Giving up and walking most of the way, blood trickled down her spindly legs. At every gas station, it was time to stuff her bloody panties with toilet paper, or paper towels when there wasn’t toilet paper. Reeling from one gas station to the next, she snagged a ride just outside the Louisiana state line and rode to Metairie – in the back of a truck with a dog that looked and smelled as nearly bad as she did.
The driver dropped her in downtown New Orleans. A trail of blood marked the slide down from the truck to the gutter where she nearly fell. Two cops just around the corner stood talking when Tyra asked for directions to Charity Hospital, knowing the unfinished baby inside, the only one she would be able to keep for a while, was slipping free in a gush of tissue, fluid and blood.
The cops asked her for ID as she swayed to a stop by their car. She steadied herself on the hood of the cruiser. They waited for her identification. “Move away from the cruiser.” While fumbling in her pocket for her welfare care, the steak knife clattered to the ground.
Minutes later, blood still alternately trickling and gushing, she was handcuffed to a post in a holding cell, the life inside her puddling on the peeling institutional gray pained floor and down the rusty and crusted drain.
Fainting and gasping for breath on the cell floor was enough to get someone’s attention, even if it was only the next criminal to walk through the door.
“Somebody better come get this bitch, ‘cause she dead. I ain’t staying in here with no dead bitch.” The husky prostitute covered her nose with a frayed and shaggy purse of bright orange that matched the tube top and mini skirt that alternately revealed and hid red lace panties crammed up between the muscular cheeks of her backside.
“I told them she wouldn’t last the night, not the way she smell.” The female guard bent down and checked Tyra’s pulse. “Nope, she still alive. Better move her to Charity.”
Shackled to the bed, Tyra weakly accepted food and water like a ravenous dog about to bolt, waiting until the nurses and orderlies were gone to bolt the food, cramming it into her mouth with one eye on the door. An upended bottle of clear liquid dripped into the tube in her arm. Antibiotics, the nurse said when she hung the bottle.
Two nights of hospital food and antibiotics, the baby still warm and safe inside, Tyra was dumped into my room. She made herself comfortable on the mattress on the floor and immediately went to sleep as though it was a fine bed better than any she’d known before. After being on the road for so many days, no doubt it was.
Social workers came and went offering help and promises as she fought for her baby’s life, getting stronger. Her boyfriend and the kids were with his mother in Metairie. He said Tyra was unfit. She was getting out the end of the week, but didn’t have anywhere to live. She wasn’t sure if she still had a home in San Francisco, but she was going to tough it out. She wanted her kids. They belonged with her.
All night long I write her story. I read the few scraps of papers the social workers left. I pray for one more day before they toss me into solitary for the story they found.
Another day comes and goes. I’m still here waiting for Shayla to leave. She’s smuggling some of the stories and articles out when she goes home to her children. The drugs turned out to be oregano. Her boyfriend had made do with what he found in the spice rack. My stories pass from hand to hand. Shayla tucks them into her dress pants and into silk sleeves. She hugs me and says goodbye.
I don’t know who got my lunch or my dinner. I didn’t pay attention. I went through the chow line and put the tray down on Betty’s table as I went back to my cell. I just wanted to sleep. Maybe when I wake up this will have been a dream.
Lights out and Tyra’s snoring. She mutters in her sleep, moans and then snores. I finally drift into the darkness repeating Shayla’s address and phone number like a prayer.
The lights stab through the eyelids. The intercom bellows my name over and over. “You’re rolling out,” the intercom blares. Who? Me? No, it’s just another sick dream. I’ll wake up and I’ll still be here.
“Rolling out.” The intercom crackles with the orders.
Tyra shakes my shoulder as the cell door bangs against the outer wall. A flunky tosses me a paper bag. My pants and shirt are creased and musty but they feel so good, so soft, so familiar. I’m rolling out.
Everyone calls from their cell. “Remember to write. Don’t forget the story. Come visit.” Their voices echo behind me wrapping me close as I walk through the quad door to freedom.
“What happened?” I am still dazed. I'm about to be free.
“DA refused the case.”
I don’t remember the halls or the rooms we pass. They shove me through the door when it buzzes. A tall guy with short thick fair hair gathers his things from the flunky sergeant, pocketing his wallet after he checks it and dons his rings. He fastens a small gold crucifix around his neck and counts his change.
I give my name and they hand over my driver’s license, watch and birthstone ring. The fair-haired guy and I walk out into the frigid teeth of an ice storm. Stinging needles of driving rain and ice lance through my thin cotton shirt dribbling down the back of my neck like cold electric fire.
“Where you going?” He hitches the collar of his leather jacket higher.
“Know how to get there?”
“Not really.” Shivers wrack me. Wet, icy fingers ravage me beneath my loose shirt
“I’ll walk you as far as the Canal bus.”
He counts out enough change. Good thing it's raining. I don't want him to see me cry. We walk together, heads down against the driving sleet, over countless blocks toward freedom and familiar places. I check my watch. It’s 10:30. Cap and my friends will be huddled at the cafe on Iberville drinking coffee and hot chocolate, pooling their money for soup. I wonder if he still wants me to move in with him and his wife.
It doesn’t matter. He’s got most of my articles and stories and Shayla has the rest. Through chattering teeth I repeat her address and phone number. Just a couple of blocks the fair-haired guy tells me. A couple blocks, a short ride to the French Quarter and freedom. I pray into the razor sharp teeth of the frigid night.