CLICK BANG. Angela woke to the sound of the automatic door lock, followed by the curses of her cellmate. Most people woke in the morning to their chosen ringtone, or perhaps a lover’s whisper, children’s laughter, or the warble of birds congregating in a tree. But for Angela, every morning started as an auditory assault. She had a simple fantasy; wake to no sound at all, just the feeling of sunlight touching her face. Warm, gentle, silent.
It was 2:00 a.m. In what universe did that constitute morning? But in a world of artificial light, the only important demarcation was the day just past, ticking closer to the only time that mattered–time served.
Angela hated kitchen duty, but without a job time would pass at an agonizingly slow pace, each minute hanging in infinity. Prison was the brave new world of choreographed structure; no free will, no free spirit, constricted by the narrow rules, narrow halls, and narrow thinking. All inhabitants of the institution, correctional officers included, were confined in body and mind.
So heigh ho, heigh ho, off to work she’d go, joining the pre-dawn parade. She amused herself by assigning the kitchen crew avatars based on Snow White’s dwarves.
There was Dopey, a little too literal, perhaps, who spent years sniffing gasoline. Angela wondered if the lifelong combination of alcohol consumption and gasoline would eventually make Dopey spontaneously combust. The alcohol damaged her liver, and her skin was a pasty gray color. The gasoline impaired her brain, leaving her eyes vacuous and her limbs twitching. Still, she rose in the morning, marching alongside the Disney characters from hell, performing the same task year after year–stirring great pots of porridge and lobbing it into serving bowls. Dopey was the best porridge stirrer ever.
Doc was a wizened older woman, black and worn gentle after years of incarceration. She never spoke of the offense that resulted in a life sentence, but the rumor was she killed her husband. Angela thought the quiet sadness draped around Doc like a shawl was the ache of lost children. Her dignity brought global respect; her presence the only glimmer of grace in the dark fortress.
Grumpy was Angela’s cellmate. Bitchy was a better description, but she had to stay within the confines of her game rules. Grumpy was nasty and resentful, a martyr to her own perverted world view. Nothing was her fault, not her addiction, violent relationships, criminality or even her lost children. She used the men in her life and tolerated the beatings as long as they delivered. She had an excuse for every bad turn. In Angela’s opinion it was simple, Grumpy was just a fuckhead.
Sneezy suffered stomach aches, fits of coughing and sniffling. Her skin was sensitive and an angry rash covered her torso, possibly a reaction to the laundry detergent, though more likely because of the recycling system that used the same water for five consecutive days to wash inmate clothes.
Sleepy was perpetually tired. Angela was sure she had chronic fatigue syndrome, iron deficiency, African sleeping sickness, or depression. Maybe all of them. Sleepy would probably survive, though for any illness or injury plaguing the inmate population, you’d better learn to live with it. Medical help was only for those at death’s door, and Angela had seen plenty of women walk right through that portal without so much as an aspirin.
Bashful was a woman named Francesca Lopez, serving a five-year sentence for DUI vehicular manslaughter. Frances was twelve years younger than Angela, pretty, with hazel eyes, almond skin and dark, wavy hair. Introspective and quiet, Frances spent time alone reading or writing. Frances’ best friend died in the accident and in memoriam, her forearm bore a tattoo of a red heart with a ragged tear down the middle, overlaid by a yellow rose.
Angela encouraged Frances to enroll in classes and consequently Frances joined AA meetings. Angela watched with a sisterly pride as Frances started the long process of forgiving herself.
Angela could never find an inmate in their troupe to be Happy. There was only so far you could take an analogy.
She returned from the kitchen at 8:00 a.m.
“Noise level!” shouted a Correctional Officer.
Angela would never attempt to articulate a thought at two in the morning, but the kitchen crew didn’t care what unfiltered blather came out of their mouths. Back in the large day room, the voices bounced off the walls, pinging back and forth like an echo in a great cavern. What it would be like to experience silence and privacy again?
Angela sat on a stainless steel bench in front of the television with several other women watching the news. The anchor was interviewing the director of a mentoring program. “Many prisoners convicted of drug charges are also parents. Their children have suffered from neglect or abuse and exhibit physical and psychological symptoms. They need a loving home and foster parents, grandparents, and guardians need a support system.”
Angela turned away from the television. Even though she’d been clean for almost ten years, guilt could set her stomach on fire. Was it possible to repair the ruined relationship with her family?
She sat at a table by herself and laid out the lined paper. She wrote regularly to her mother and daughter, but it was a rare to receive mail. Not surprising, considering the mess she’d made of her life.
Angela resided in the women’s prison in Gatesville, Texas, two hours from where her mother and her daughter lived in Austin. Over the years, visits became less frequent. Her letters were now without demands, which had been the content for years: please put money on my books, send me a care package, please visit, tell Rebecca to write me.
She stopped asking when she finally understood the burden she placed on her mother by abdicating her responsibility as a parent.
Angela had been incarcerated nearly ten years. This was the final countdown. Nine years, eleven months served. One month to go.
“Don’t worry,” her mother whispered. “No one will ever know.”
The music from the clock radio calcified from formless sound into a familiar tune, and the first shades of light exposed the gray images of Rebecca’s room. She was alone.
Oh yeah. My mother’s getting out of prison.
Rebecca reached for her cell phone and threw back the covers. A lump under the comforter at the foot of the bed levitated.
“Sorry, Jasper.” Rebecca pulled the covers back, exposing a small white and brown wire-haired mutt. Jasper rose to his feet, stretched in perfect yoga-form with an accompanying groan, and wagged his tail. “Off then,” she said, and he trotted out of the bedroom. Rebecca shut the door, made her bed, and headed for the shower.
She liked her shower hot, steaming up the bathroom and washing away the night’s chill, coaxing worrisome thoughts from her sleepy brain. Shampoo and conditioners were neatly arranged on a five-tier shower basket. Foaming shaving cream, facial treatment, foot scrubs, moisturizers, defoliators, and soap presented in bottles and bars in scents ranging from peach to hyacinth and colors from avocado green to periwinkle blue. Each morning started with a decision-making process similar to choosing which presents to open first on her birthday. After her shower she was warm and relaxed with wonderful fragrances clinging gently to her skin and hair. Sometimes, late in the afternoon, sitting at her desk, eyes focused on her work and her long brown hair loose around her face, she would catch a hint of a scent.
She stepped out of the shower, grabbed a towel and checked her cell phone again. There was a message from Jonathan: Hope your sleep was sweet with rest so you can pass your science test. Meet you at your locker. She smiled and responded with a heart emoji.
Rebecca heard Mimi in the kitchen, the cacophony of pots being shoved in the cupboard and the clanking of silverware being tossed into the drawer. The teapot whistled, the tone fading as the kettle was removed from the flame. The rest of the world heated water in quiet microwaves, but not her grandmother. Despite this judgment, the old kettle was comforting, whistling a mournful tune when water came to a boil.
Hearing an old Beach Boys tune, Rebecca turned up the radio volume. Mimi preferred classical music or jazz, but Angela loved her rock-and-roll full-blast. Rebecca recalled sitting in the backseat as they drove down a country road. Angela was singing, and from the backseat Rebecca watched her mother’s head and shoulders bobbing to the music.
“Come on, Rebecca! Sing with me.”
The windows were open and Rebecca joined in, her voice growing louder, emboldened by the wind whipping through the car. Rebecca was six years old. That was the last time they were together without the presence of a correction officer.
She picked up the letter sitting on her dresser and read through it again, pausing at the last line. It won’t be long before we can spend time together!
Rebecca shivered. She finished drying her hair, dressed, and went downstairs.
The table was set and breakfast was ready. Mimi stood at the sink, ignoring Jasper’s barking demand for readmission. Rebecca opened the back door and let him in.
A stack of mail sat on the counter, a letter from Angela on top. Rebecca recognized the carefully printed block letters and the long return address.
“There’s another letter for you,” Mimi said without enthusiasm.
“Okay,” said Rebecca. “I’ll read it later.”
Her mother’s release date was quickly approaching, but the subject was taboo. At times, the fear gathered like smoke, growing thicker until it was so dense Rebecca could hardly breathe. This morning that smoky presence was perceptible, an ominous barrier between them.
Mimi looked tired. Rebecca stepped up behind her grandmother, wrapped her arms around Mimi’s waist and placed an overzealous kiss on her cheek, making a lovely smacking sound.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” was the response.
“Morning, Mary Sunshine. Have a seat, breakfast is ready.”
Rebecca’s insistence that she wasn’t hungry didn’t excuse her from their morning breakfast routine. Mimi poured hot water over a tea bag, the color turning an icky brown.
“I’ll be home late tonight,” Rebecca said, spreading cream cheese on her toast.
“What for and how late?” Mimi stirred milk into her oatmeal, looking up at Rebecca for the answer.
“We’ll be meeting several times a week for the school musical.”
“You’re part of the chorus. Isn’t it awfully early to start rehearsals?”
“I volunteered for stage crew and scenery.”
Mimi grunted. “What time should I pick you up?”
“I’ll catch a ride.”
Mimi looked at her granddaughter doubtfully. “Only if you call me when you’re on your way home. About what time?”
“I don’t know, 5:00 or 6:00.”
“Didn’t your teacher provide a schedule? Do they expect parents to be fine with ‘whenever’?’”
Rebecca tilted her head as she considered. She reached into the backpack beside her chair without unbuckling the top, like a magician reaching into a top hat. Out came a wadded piece of paper.
“It’s a miracle,” exclaimed her grandmother.
Rebecca handed over the paper, which Mimi smoothed out and studied.
“That’s quite a schedule. I suppose it will keep you out of trouble for the rest of the school year.”
“Wishful thinking, grandmother dear.”
Mimi looked up and pinched her lips together; her eyes twinkled as her face relaxed into a smile.
Rebecca grinned. “I’ll call you when I’m on my way home, okay? Don’t worry.”
Angela remembered the day her life slammed head first into reality. She was booked into the county jail, welcomed with a body cavity search, and handed bright orange pants and a loose-fitting squared shirt to match. White socks and funky plastic flip-flop shoes reduced all the inmates to a shuffling gait. Still tweaking from her last high, she nearly jumped out of those flip-flops every time the thick doors slammed behind her as they proceeded through the endless maze of hallways.
The women next to her leaned in slightly. “You must be jonesin bad, girl. You be lucky if you can keep dinner down, even if you wasn’t sick. Just stay away from my table.” The woman chuckled, but Angela figured she was probably serious about the table.
She hadn’t had a fix in three days and didn’t care about eating. The long hallways were menacing, and she stayed close to the group, feeling like a circus clown, the kind with a big red frown and billowing outfit. The Correction Officer reveled in his Ringmaster role.
“Hey Sullivan, how does it feel to be home?”
Sullivan didn’t answer. She didn’t look so good.
They arrived at Pod 1E, entering through a set of doors into a small square passage and waiting for the first door to close and the second set of doors to open. Click, bang, click, bang. Her head exploded with every echoing slam. Inside the pod was a large open room, with tables, chairs and a TV set. Along the circumference were cells with bunk beds and a toilet.
Angela wondered why everyone was so ugly. She lifted her head to feign attitude because a group of women were giving her the evil eye, but she couldn’t pull it off. Her legs shook, her skin itched and her head pounded. Her stomach rumbled like a volcano, and trays of leftover carnage from lunch piled on a rollaway cart was the trigger to set off an eruption. All she wanted was the stuff that would stop the sickness.
She approached the CO’s station and leaned toward the window. The CO looked up. “What Davenport?” he asked through the microphone.
“I’m sick. I think I’m gonna puke.”
The CO looked down at a list on the workstation. “You’re in twenty-two. I’ll unlock the door; there’s a toilet and you can lay down. You’ll be going to the medical unit at four.”
She sobbed and sweated, her body convulsing so that she was sure her heart would stop. Isolated in the medical unit, the staff checked in on her occasionally, presumably to make sure she wasn’t dead. If she had the resources, she wondered if she’d have the courage to kill herself. Like her father.
When the withdrawals receded, she returned to Pod 1E to await her court hearing. The thought of a trial jury was horrifying. Judged on years of stupidity, every bad decision revealed in a dramatically accusing tone by the prosecuting attorney declaring her life an aberration. Or worse, a joke.
What if efforts brought about by a jury trial somehow uncovered the truth, the misadventure that made all these other crimes–using, selling, burglary and the final coups de grace, armed robbery–seem insignificant?
She looked at her lawyer, his baby face and tired eyes, his patient tone as he explained the procedure. He was an earnest young man with little experience and a caseload from hell.
She agreed to a plea bargain. No jury, no prosecuting attorney, just her lawyer and the judge. A gavel bang and all done. She didn’t need a trial to reveal the truth, which played out in her nightmares. Judgment whispered in her ear, impervious to all the drugs poured in her veins to shut out the noise. Maybe sacrificing her freedom would pay off the debt, expunge the mistake, and she would be purged of the nightmares.
Angela had been on the run for two years. Reggie was arrested several weeks after the police discovered the meth lab, but he never ratted her out. She left Texas for Arizona shortly after his arrest, running the streets of Tucson, using drugs, trying in a half-ass way to kill herself. When Reggie went to prison, she wrote to him occasionally, out of loyalty, until he overdosed and died. Lucky bastard.
Things got a little hot in Tucson when the newest boyfriend, Axel, ripped off their connection. They left Tucson in a hurry, bound for Texas, with fifty dollars cash in an ’86 Firebird. When they got to El Paso, Axel decided to rob a convenience store. It should have been easy, but Axel was tweaking and in his nervous agitation, shot the clerk. Luckily the clerk survived, or her sentence would have been a lot more than ten years.
The year before her release, every event took on special meaning. Last birthday, last kitchen rotation, last Christmas, thirty-five more Sundays.
The day before her release, Angela sat with Frances, who had another five months to serve.
“I’m glad you’re getting out, but I’ll sure miss you,” said Frances.
“We’ll connect after you’re released.”
“No, I’ll be on parole and I’m not even sure where I’ll be. I don’t want to go back to Lubbock.”
They walked the yard, the sun’s warmth on their backs. Angela turned to Frances. “I need to tell you something,” said Angela.
“Something that happened,”
“Whatever it is, I don’t want to know.”
“I have to tell someone.”
“I’m not a priest,” Frances said. “If you need to confess, join the Catholic Church.”
“I have no one else.” She touched Frances on the arm, signaling for her to stop. Frances looked around nervously.
“What?” she said, trying not to attract attention.
Angela lowered her voice. “What if you made a terrible mistake, but no one knew?”
“But isn’t part of the Twelve Steps admitting what you did wrong?”
Frances shook her head. “I live with what I’ve done every day,” she said. “I’m an alcoholic and terrified of running right back to a bottle. I can’t take on someone else’s truth.”
Angela smiled sadly. “I know. But somehow, I thought if I told you, I could forgive myself. And if I could forgive myself, you could, too. We help each other, right?”
Angela watched Frances struggle with the decision
“Okay,” said Frances, “tell me what happened.”