Betty shuffled and turned over cards on the table by the guard station, not even looking up as Pearl walked past. Making as little noise as possible, Pearl slipped down the stairs and to the cell.
As soon as she walked through the door, her cellmate shoved a frayed grayish rag and a spray can at her. “The sink and desk.” The girl dug the toilet brush into the commode and swished it vigorously. Tiny droplets of water spangled the seat after the toilet was flushed and were swiped away with another grayish, shredded-edged rag.
Clanking and clattering sounded from the corridor, streamed through the open doorway and were trapped in the shallow shoal of the cell. Women passed, taking and returning cleaning tools, scouring powder and spray cans from the cart she had seen parked in front of the utility closet next door.
Pearl diligently sprayed caustic-smelling foam on the stainless steel desk, mirror, and small sink welded to the walls and wiped the surfaces until they shone dully in the anemic fluorescent light.
“Stool, too.” Her cellmate stretched two threadbare blankets over the sheets tied around the mattress on the heavy metal tray bolted to the wall. “Make up your bed.”
Pearl set down the rag and can and straightened the blanket on her pallet, tucking the ends between the mattress and the tile floor. She was a neat person by nature, but being ordered about had to stop. She was not a delinquent child and she did not like being treated like a stupid servant. Before she could complain, her cellmate took the rag and can and disappeared into the corridor. She returned with a dripping mop and a broom, thrusting the mop at Pearl.
“You mop. I’ll sweep.” She shooed Pearl with the broom.
Angry words boiled up and threatened to spill out as Pearl stepped outside into the corridor. Looking around at the guards strolling up and down, making sure everyone was working, she thought better of it.
It could be an overactive imagination from too many prison movies or simple self preservation, but letting her sharp tongue shred common sense and risking not getting out tomorrow was not an option. If charged with starting a fight, the judge would likely add real charges. That would be grounds for firing. Contemplating how many weeks she’d get for fighting kept her silent. She had prospects and would not chance a jail term and a conviction, however minor, on her record.
No jeweler would trust her. She would never qualify for a bond and no one would hire her. She would end up on the streets for good.
“Go ahead, mop.” Swallowing bile-stained words, Pearl gripped the mop handle with white-knuckled hands and swirled the mop over the dingy tile.
“You missed a spot.” With her hands around Pearl’s, the girl guided the mop under the bunk, thoroughly swabbing every inch of the floor until satisfied not a single dry spot remained. “Put it on the cart.” She shoved the mop handle at Pearl.
Hands on hips, her cellmate turned around to survey the room and nodded, pleased at the results.
Pearl backed out of the cell. How dare she? Okay, so she did not know the ropes and that girl did. Taking a deep breath, Pearl prepared to let fly the words burning her tongue. No. She forced them past the lump firmly lodged in her chest and down into her knotted stomach. No, she would not risk freedom, at least not until she figured out the routine.
I can do this. I have to do this. One more day. My friends will come get me and we’ll celebrate—outside the Quarter.
At that moment, the Absinthe Bar on the corner of Bourbon and Conti seemed so far away.
The night had been full of laughter. She had tried a popper—amyl nitrate that made her head feel swimmy and light—and everyone and everything had been beautiful. Colors and shapes had been less sharp as though seen through a fine gauze curtain. It had been the first time she had been happy since J.D. disappeared.
Already it felt like a fever dream. Was that what happened? Is that why everyone seemed so dazed and pale, everyone except her cellmate? Did everything on the other side of the walls fade away like chalk drawings in the rain?
Her life until this moment felt blurred around the edges, less real.
She had given Cap everything she had: twenty dollars from the plasma center and a hundred fifty and change left from her first paycheck. It had to be enough.
Why had no one contacted her?
Dark thoughts slipped to J.D. Pearl had trusted him; that had been a huge mistake. Was it a mistake to trust Cap?
The feeling that she had been duped grew stronger. Visions of her erstwhile friends blowing the money on a week in the rundown hotel with the usual hot and cold running roaches seeped through the cracks in her control. What was happening?
A deep shiver ripped through her. Pearl stuffed both hands into the pockets of her pants and curled her fingers into fists.
It’s so cold I cannot think.
Warmth returned in a slow flush. Though her pants were of heavy material, she felt like she stood in a draft, but there was none. Nothing could penetrate the walls and floors. The cinder block walls and metal doors never reached body temperature, hoarding the icy air and remaining chilly to the touch. Will I ever be warm again? I thought winters in New Orleans were mild. This is not mild.
In an effort to get her circulation started again, she chafed the silk lining of the trousers up and down her legs, hands fisted deep inside the pockets. Her legs were glacial blocks. She rubbed harder and faster, pacing the small space. Feeling returned with stinging needles and muscles and sinews melted and move freer from the friction.
There had been heavy corduroy trousers and leg warmers in the baggage in the trunk of her car. Those were gone. All that remained were a couple of tank tops and a makeup case. She was thankful for the trousers. From riches to rags.
A week ago the pants had hung on a thrift store rack and they were worth more than the dollar she paid. The heavy material kept in some of the heat. Taking her hands out of the pockets, she rubbed her arms hoping to generate more heat. The three-quarter length sleeves of her favorite blue-and-white-striped cotton shirt drooped like limp, half empty sacks, but they trapped a little more heat.
There was less of her and more fabric than when she left Ft. Lauderdale. Logically, that meant more air to trap more heat, although it felt like the only thing trapped was cold air. What she did not understand was why the guards had not given her pants and shirts like everyone else. Maybe that was a sign she was not stuck.
The only good thing about the past six weeks was no longer watching her weight, not since starting the French Quarter diet. It was the quickest and most effective diet: starvation and walking everywhere. At last there was a reason to be thankful for being homeless.
When J.D. and she drove across the bridge into New Orleans, it had been an adventure. The bridge across the Mississippi had been a bright trail of crossed metal spars suspended in the darkness and glittering with lights. It was the road to the Promised Land.
It felt like centuries ago.
Pulling back a sleeve, she automatically checked her watch. The watch was gone. Cap had it.
The minutes crept along like a snail frozen in its slime trail. She was afraid she would never feel normal again. Maybe if she took a shower, she would feel better, less itchy, less antsy. It would be worth braving the stares of the women at the picnic tables. Anything was better than waiting.
No amount of bathing with carbolic soap and industrial strength shampoo helped her feel normal. She still felt the white powder the guards had thrown all over her on her skin.
While she had stood naked and vulnerable in the shower, the guards had sprayed her with some kind of bug spray. Before she stopped coughing, eyes tearing from the stench, they hit her with a scoop full of white powder.
Fingernails raked the exposed skin of her arms, leaving pink, swollen furrows.
She had never felt as humiliated as she had standing in the naked open shower, arms reflexively crossed in front of her body. Her hands and arms were not big enough to hide the stretch marks and sagging skin. “Spread your legs. Hold you arms up and out to the sides,” the guard had ordered. Reluctantly she complied while the women stared. There had been so many women, a blue clad audience with furtive smiles and keen eyes gathered to watch her humiliation. She had felt vulnerable.
Gritting her teeth, she banished the memory. The feelings refused to vanish.
All those eyes crawling over every inch of exposed skin. She had wanted to cover her eyes and cry then. She wanted to cry now.
Nothing would have been solved, nothing would be solved, by tears, except to make her appear to be weak, a bleeding dolphin in shark-filled waters.
If only they had celebrated somewhere else at a bustling restaurant or a smoky bar. If only….
Along that road lay danger. The only thing Pearl could do to help herself was deal with this moment and the next and the ones after that.
The reality now was bars and concrete and green-painted window. Tomorrow would be better. She would either sink or swim. After all she’d been through it was a good thing she knew how to swim. She could survive. She would survive.
Caught in a world she did not understand and never expected to see, except in a documentary, being monitored and deprived of freedom did not frighten her half as much as being among all those women.
The women on the quad were the dregs of society, people who lived on the fringes of civilization, seen and not seen. They were the beggars holding out tin cans or Styrofoam cups for stray coins. People, productive citizens, the kind of person she used to be, never looked the wretches in the eyes, just tossed the change from jingling pockets or bulging coin purses without thought. It was only change.
The mentally retarded dumped onto the streets when the institutions closed ended up here. She looked up to the main floor. There they were like scattered wrecks roaming apart whispering and twitching and oblivious to anything but food and the bells that marked their lives.
Whores who sold their bodies for money and their souls for drugs were locked up. Thieves who’d rather take what decent people earned landed on these caged shores.
She was not a beggar or a whore or mentally retarded. Until six weeks ago, she had been a productive, hard working citizen, and now she was cast aside with the rest of the city’s trash.
Among all of society’s refuse, the only ones Pearl could understand were the mentally retarded. Those poor, deranged women were more to be pitied than feared. They probably were not even aware of where they were. They were used to institutions.
Pearl was not so blessed. She needed mental stimulation. She feared her mind would atrophy from lack of use and motivation of some kind, any kind. Unlike the rest of the denizens on the quad, the mentally ill were mostly harmless.
Reaching for the medallion that no longer hung about her neck, Pearl closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer: Get me out of here now. Please.
Pearl sat on her pallet and keeled over onto her left side, folding into a fetal ball, intent on chasing sleep. She tucked her hands between her thighs.
“Get up. Cannot sleep now.” Her cellmate nodded towards the common area behind her. “Get up.”
“Who do you think you are? My boss?”
“I’m Tamara. I’m not the boss, but you’d better pay attention. They watch.” She nodded toward the guard station. “Get up. Cannot be here now.”
Dragging herself to her feet, Pearl followed Tamara to the common room. The girl disappeared into a knot of women chattering like magpies. Pearl was stranded—again—among strangers.
She was not a victim. She was scared, but she did not dare show it. She would blend in, keep her eyes and ears open and stay as far from trouble as possible. She would deal with the situation as she did everything: get through it and then let go.
This is a learning experience, one I will not soon forget. She looked around, assessing, measuring, and fixing the details in her mind.
Women clustered around four evenly spaced picnic tables to her right near the showers and toilets. Small groups perched on the stairs to her left connecting the upper tier to the common area. The women on the stairs took turns weaving cornrows and French braids like communal apes grooming each other. Others huddled in twos, threes and fours along the walls while a few lone outcasts hugged themselves and wandered around and around barefoot muttering and shying away from all physical contact. She knew how they felt.
There were two tiers of cells, each with about twenty-five cells. If there were two to each cell, that made fifty women. Maybe less if not all held two people. Pearl walked past the glass cage of the guard station.
Betty, a dark gnome carved of ebony, dealt Solitaire at her table. She sat alone, sucking her teeth, oblivious to everyone and everything around her—until Pearl walked past to peer through the window in the door. She looked up and stared directly at Pearl. With a barely perceptible nod, Betty beckoned her closer. Wary and uncertain, Pearl approached.
“You best sit down fo you falls down, Boo.” Betty nodded to the empty chair beside her and continued playing Solitaire.
She might be a murderer, the first Pearl had ever met, but Betty had been polite and welcoming. There were empty chairs and Pearl did not relish sitting on the cold tiles or wedging in next to the crowd on the stairs or at the picnic tables.
Sitting close to the guard station would be the safest prospect. She had to sit somewhere.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Pearl resisted the urge to stare at Betty’s dark sphinx-like features, afraid to rouse or attract close scrutiny lest she ask questions Pearl could not—or would not—answer.
She stilled her rising fears and looked around. Tall windows high up on the walls were painted the thick-thin watery green of mossy bayou waters. Behind the bars, light and shadows shifted like wavelets lapping an invisible shoreline. In the dim light of the guard station, black women in neatly pressed sheriff’s uniforms materialized briefly at the dial- and lever-filled console and disappeared into the shadowy rear of the little wire-mesh and glass room, returning at intervals to scan the perimeter. Inmates came together briefly and scattered in an unknown dance.
“Busted,” Betty said. “You play dominoes?”
“Not since I was little.”
“Good enough.” Betty put the cards into a worn cardboard pack and dumped the tiles onto the table. The black tile edges were worn down and some of the white spots faded to gray, black showing through in places. She turned the tiles face down, laid her hands on top, and shifted them around. “Draw.”
Pearl moved a couple tiles closer.
“Pick seven.” Betty chose seven tiles, turned them on edge in front of her and put a double four out in the middle. Pearl followed suit and they played silently for a few hands.
“He raped me.” Betty nodded at the tiles. “Yo turn.”
“Who? The man you killed?”
She sucked her teeth, nodded, and chose another face-down tile.
The knot in Pearl’s stomach loosened and curiosity bloomed. How could this small, dark twist of humanity, who weighed maybe a hundred pounds, have fought off an attacker and killed him? How had she survived the attack? How could she sit there with such calm acceptance? If she were sent to prison for the rest of her life for defending herself, would she be so calm?
She glanced at Betty. There at least sat someone who was not vain or vapid or silly, someone with an interesting story to tell.
While they played, Betty explained the rules of the game and talked about the murder, plucking occasionally at the neon orange plastic bracelet around her left wrist. Her matter-of-fact tone and single-minded concentration on the game eased away Pearl’s fears. As she talked, Pearl leaned closer, her muscles less tense, and she less ready to run. She listened in silence, playing mechanically, more interested in connecting the brutal facts offered with casual nonchalance with a world where life made sense than in connecting white spotted rectangles of wood.
“Fus’ time he come to the job, I liked ‘im, all strut and smooth skin and jive. Didn’ know nothin’ ‘bout layin’ concrete, but he willin’ to learn, so the boss done put him wif me.” Betty’s voice was soft and slow, an easy drawl that ignored the hard consonant endings of words. “Shore was a fine lookin’ man, but uppity. Didn’ think no woman could teach ‘im nothin’. Fool done figgered out he was wrong.”
“’Cause I done showed him. Other boys laughed at ‘im, but jobs be scarce. Gotta be desp’rate to work in construction fo someone like ‘im wif his soft hands. His clothes be too fine fo that kind of work.”
“Is it hard work?”
“No worse’n any otha kinda work, just mo physical.”
The story of their relationship unfolded.
Calvin had talked Betty into letting him stay with her for a couple of nights, just until he got paid. Two nights turned into a week and then into months. Betty had been lonely and did not make friends easily. She had been respected by the men and her boss, but was not really one of the guys. Working every available hour, all she had wanted at the end of the day was a hot bath, a hot meal, time to write letters to her mother and children in Texas and a comfortable bed. Then Calvin had walked into her life and awakened a part of Betty she had believed safely put away on a shelf.
“Did not have no time for no man. Mens jus’ gets in the way. Turn ever’thin’ upside down and inside out wif they games, but I needed to get me some and Calvin be handy. Too handy by far, Boo.”
Calvin had not been easy to lose, even after the boss had thrown him off the site. He had disappeared for days and then showed up drunk one night ready to take what he felt was owed.
“Jes when I be so glad he gone, he come knockin’ on my door."
Pearl imagined the scene as Betty told it, and as she would one day write it.