The fertile swell of Martha’s belly swung heavily below the shiny, dark moon of her face. Twin basketball sized breasts bulged out of her blue cotton shift. She shuffled slipper-clad feet here and there from cell to serving line and bathroom to picnic table, one thick, swollen hand pressed to the deep curve of her lower spine above the prominent mounds of her buttocks.
“I cannot wait to get to the Fed,” she said as she stirred sugar into a cup of coffee. “This be killin’ me, all this waiting.” She looked directly at Pearl.
“Excuse me?” Pearl stopped, looked around to see if Martha was talking to someone who had come up behind her. When she did not see anything else, Pearl pointed at herself. “You mean me?”
Martha nodded and shifted over on the bench, patting the space next to her. Pearl perched on the edge of the bench facing the stairs, curiosity aroused, but ready to bolt. “Why do you want to go to the federal penitentiary?”
“Better food.” She took a sip of her coffee, grimaced, and added another heaping teaspoon of sugar. “And coffee. Better all round.”
“I thought it would be worse.”
“No, Boo.” She nudged a worn paperback with the tips of her fingers, cover and pages curled and grimy from too many hands since . . . Pearl opened the book and checked the copyright date: 1972. The book had no doubt been around at least that long from the looks of it. She riffled the pages and a couple slipped out. “Big library and I kin go to college, get me an education and get off Welfare.”
“I din’t think you could get Welfare in prison.”
“You don’t, Boo, but I ain’t gonna be there forever. Just twenty months and then out. Welfare pay my mama for my kids till I get out.” She stirred the coffee with the stainless steel spoon, sipped, shook her head and added another heaping spoonful of sugar.
“Pardon me for asking, but what did you do?”
Martha took a long drink, put it down on the table and stirred it, considering whether or not to answer. After several long minutes, she sucked the spoon clean and laid it down. “Shoplifting.”
“That’s a federal crime?”
“Is when you rack up them dollahs.” She smiled, big, white, shining teeth as even and straight as a row of dazzling white alabaster tiles in the dark chocolate frame of her face.
“Did you shoplift from a federal depot or storage facility?”
“No, Boo. From the Saks. My kids get the best for Christmas. They may be born poor, but they ain’t gonna live poor.” She sipped her coffee, stirred it, and sipped some more. “Got them all 12-inch color TVs, VCRs and Nintendos.”
“How did you get all that out of the store?”
Swinging muscular legs heavily over the bench, Martha heaved herself to her feet, picked up her things, cradling the sugar bag in the crook of her arm, and pointed down. Pearl’s looked down. “’Tween my legs,” she said as she shuffled off, belly, hips, and buttocks swaying. A deep-chested, full-throated laugh rumbled merrily.
Pearl walked quickly to catch up with her. “But how did they catch you?”
“Made a big mistake.”
Stunned and stifling the urge to laugh, all that Pearl could manage was, “Oh.” Pearl stood in the middle of the floor while Martha rinsed her cup and spoon, shook off the water, and waddled past on her way to her cell.
“Nope. Ain’t gonna make no mistake the next time.” She pointed to a silent figure hunched over the discarded book, brows drawn together, a deep sharp gash between them, sounding out the words in a muttered rush of hissing and clicking while she read. “Lainie done told me ‘bout duck tape. Next time, I‘m gonna put a roll in my purse.”
“If you get some college, why would you keep shoplifting?”
“Gotta keep my skills up.”
It was inconceivable to Pearl that anyone would choose to steal, yet there was something appealing about Martha that aroused a certain train-wreck fascination. “What would you do differently?”
Grabbing the railing, Martha turned around. “Oh, lots of things. ‘Course I won’t be with child next time, but a sofa pillow works fine, less I get myself done up again. Daddy always said a big family was a blessing and he be right, Boo.”
Martha glanced at Pearl over her shoulder as she started down the stairs. “Baby be good for you. Build up yo strength.” She chuckled as she descended the stairs and disappeared into her cell.
Exasperated, Pearl followed her and asked again. “How did you get caught?”
“Tell you some other time. This baby done kicked me for the last time. I gotta get me some rest.”
“Feel better,” Pearl said automatically. Always be polite. It costs nothing. No, it doesn’t cost anything, but answers.
For the first time in days, Pearl was interested in getting to know someone other than Betty. Okay, so Martha was a thief, but she had something: flair, chutzpah, a story. Her story was bound to be more interesting than the saccharine, cookie-cutter romances and self help books available. Pearl had read all the tattered copies scattered around the quad. It did not take long. The books were short on story, characters and plot. She hated romances. They were insipid stories for gullible women hungry for a shred of romance who believed love really made everything better. It did not. Not for the women who read them or the cardboard cut-out characters in the books.
Pearl had always enjoyed fairy tales and fantasy, but she knew where the lines between fantasy and reality were drawn. Women who devoured insipid romances could not tell the difference between fact and fiction. They bought the whole “happily ever after” bit. So had she once upon a time. After the past few months, Pearl was short on belief that love conquered all. She was living proof. First a mama’s boy, then a con man, and finally Cap. It all came down to money. She had learned her lesson, but the empty-headed bimbos surrounding her either did not care or did not learn.
As if a lifetime caged with empty-headed women was not bad enough, the cruel and inhuman torture of formula romance novels made life inside even more intolerable. Why did the Geneva Convention and the prison reform boards not do something about that?
Martha’s federal penitentiary was beginning to sound pretty good. A whole library full of books that offered more than romance and remedial reading. Books with knowledge and stories that did not turn the brain to mush. She was not going to the penitentiary. No one, not even the parish courts, knew she existed. She was a number without a name, another shambling body picking up a tray full of bland, unappetizing food and returning the empties. She did not exist in reality
or, it appeared, in the system either. Why had someone not been to see her? Where was her attorney? Where was her due process?
The one thing that could have made the day bearable was finding out how Martha was caught, but she was tired. “How did she get caught?”
“Learn a lot if you keep your ears open.”
Pearl did not realize she had spoken out loud. “Pardon?”
Lainie looked up from the book, withered right arm holding down the curled pages. She shook her long fine hair out of her eyes and winked. She looked down at the page, picked up her right arm and shifted it to the side and slowly muttered the words as she read.
“Were you speaking to me?”
Lainie ignored her.
Now I am losing my mind, not that there’s much left to lose.
Pearl drifted over to Betty’s table. She was writing another letter to her mother and children, cursive for her mother and printing for her children. The letters to her children were all dated before she was sentenced to life. She had asked Betty why she wrote to her children if they believed she was dead.
“Mama done told em I was in the hospital with cancer.”
“Didn’t they want to see you, to be with you?”
“They did, but mama din’t have no money. I wrote and told them I was in God’s hands. When I got sent down for life and mama told them I died, I kep’ writing. My babies get letters on special days, like birthdays and Christmas and graduation when they be old enuff. Mama tole them I wrote em letters till they growed.”
“So, you keep writing and they don’t know the truth. What if they find out?”
“I deal with that when the time come. Ain’t no way for them to know, Boo. Leastways they got something good to remember me by.”
Betty’s schedule kept Pearl on track. She was as dependable as red beans and rice on Wednesday and canteen on Tuesday.
It was hard to tell time without the sun. The fluorescent lights coming on and going off simulated day and night, but Pearl longed for a window where she could see outside. The weak light filtering through the green-painted windows could be from the sun or street lights. Oh, how she missed real sunlight and real moonlight. She would never take them for granted again.
Pearl sat down and listened, catching stray snatches of conversation, whispered confidences, mumbled riffs from the vague-minded women circling endlessly, plucking at their clothes, shaking their heads in disagreement and conversation with their invisible companions.
Betty was her safe haven, her lee port in what Pearl considered dangerous waters. Come right down to it, none of them looked all that dangerous, not even the hard-faced, basilisk-eyed career prostitutes sitting on the top tier stairs. They were all marking time, waiting to get out or go to Angola or the federal pen in Texas like Martha and Lainie. The waters were deceptive, shallow in some areas and deep in others, and there was no way to tell where the danger lay until it was too late—like pissing off Maureen or asking too many questions of Deputy Walpole.
It never occurred to Pearl that jail could be a learning experience. She was too busy finding something, anything to do while she waited to find out where she was going to end up. How long must she wait?
She had not seen a lawyer and no one came to visit her. She had fallen through the cracks or, worse yet, was tangled in floating islands of seaweed becalmed in the Sargasso Sea. And the days went on and on and on. She was tired of the hours, the interminable silent hour, and of people leaving, like Sabrina. She envied Sabrina, not for the thick, golden corn silk of her hair or her sunny disposition and smiles, but because she was leaving and would see the sun again.
Sabrina was free, at least for the moment. Would she step out into the blinding glare of the sun like a blind cave fish, shrinking from the merciless heat against its transparent glassy skin? Would she be burned to a cinder by the pitiless rays of the sun or would she uncurl and raise her face and arms to the sky like a sunflower greeting the dawn? Or would she miss Elke so much, she’d find a way to get arrested again? No, Elke would not be there long. The Feds would pick her up and send her back to Germany soon.
Would Sabrina miss Elke? They had been inseparable—until now.
They clung together. Sabrina had daily brushed and woven Elke’s dark chestnut-colored hair into shiny coils looped about her ears or fingered into soft waves about her heart-shaped face. They were like lovers, long familiar with each other’s bodies, rediscovering each other in searching caresses and lingering touches with a sense of awe and wonder that fired Pearl’s cheeks with a blush of embarrassment and an answering rise of buried passion whenever her eyes strayed their way. Hands memorized familiar curves and hollows, storing sense memories for the empty days ahead. Their touches seemed innocuous enough, nothing to raise suspicion from the guards. Maybe that was why the women did each other’s hair. It was an acceptable intimate practice rated G for the conditions. Neither Elke nor Sabrina hid their feelings now. There was no time.
A peeping Tom. She had become a peeping Tom, intruding on private intimacies and unable to look away. Long forgotten tenderness welled up inside and threatened to spill over in hot waves. When was the last time she had been held and touched like that? How long had it been since she was torn and broken by parting? When had anyone touched her life or her heart the way Elke and Sabrina touched each other: tentatively, greedily, joyfully, gratefully, sadly? When had she felt anything or cared for anyone that deeply?
The memory surfaced like a rotten gas bubble from a haunted swamp and fired. When her children were ripped from her arms and her feet set on the path that led here. That was when she locked up her heart and kept people at a safe distance. Unlike these women, she had been betrayed by a woman. Oh, she’d been betrayed by men, too, two men who promised the moon, got what they wanted and left her in the dust before she got smart—until J.D. snuck past her defenses. The only man she had walked out on was her ex-husband, the father of their boys, who had betrayed her with her best friend Lilah. No sense raking up old wounds.
Sabrina was gone now and Elke wandered around dazed, eyes glued to the door willing Sabrina to materialize. Without conscious thought, she drifted over to the guard station and leaned against it. Within seconds, one of the guards jumped up and banged on the glass. Elke jumped, retreated, hands up, palms outward, shaking her head and apologizing before shuffling away.
Pearl looked at Betty who, never taking her eyes from her cards, nodded. Pulling out a chair, Pearl beckoned the teary-eyed girl closer. Facing the guard station, eyes riveted on the guard, arms crossed and waiting for the least infraction, daring Elke to get close to the glass again, Elke moved warily toward the table. “You’re welcome to sit.” Pearl pushed the chair out a little more and nodded. She hesitated and stepped closer. “It’s all right. Betty doesn’t mind.”
Never taking her eyes from the guard, she sat gingerly on the edge of the seat, body tensed, ready to spring up and get away. Pearl touched her shoulder and the tension seeped out as the grieving girl slumped against her, arms going out and around Pearl’s neck. She sobbed and buried her face against Pearl’s shoulder.
Arms out to the sides, she turned toward Betty. Her lips shaped the question: What do I do now?
Betty sucked her teeth, shrugged her shoulders and studied the cards spread out on the table, the answer obvious. It’s yo problem, Boo.
It was a big problem. She was uncomfortable with displays of affection.
Although she craved it from her family and had been rebuffed time and again or greeted with a hit-and-run kind of hug that was more a brief collision of bodies and arms that touched without really touching, she was completely undone every time someone reached out to her. She did not know what else to do but pat Elke’s shaking shoulder as she sobbed. She almost felt like she was patting a dog that was possibly rabid, nothing more than a sad, fluffy bunny. Fluffy bunnies had long claws and powerful hind legs that gouged dripping, bloody furrows in tender skin.
Hot tears dripped against her shirt and soaked through to the skin. Pearl grimaced and shifted. Like a child, Elke moved closer, arms tightening as she continued to sob. No doubt everyone was looking and enjoying the tender drama as though she would become Elke’s next lover. Worse yet, the guard was probably calling out the deputies to yank them apart and throw them in some isolation cell for breaking the rules. She looked out of the corner of her eye into the guard station. The guard had merged with the shadows. Was she on her way now? Pearl pulled back a little, patting Elke’s shoulder, only to be clung to. She looked around, eyes shifting beneath lowered lashes. No one watched.
It was not the idea of being considered a lesbian that made her uncomfortable, but knowing there was a flaw in the defenses, that the walls were not sufficiently high or thick enough around her heart. She could be reached and undone by someone’s tears and her own feelings of compassion. The need to reach out and touch someone in pain, offer them comfort burrowed past the walls. She was vulnerable.
Something boldly defiant sprang up inside Pearl and her arms enfolded Elke, rocking the grieving girl and murmuring words of comfort. No guard appeared to break them apart. It would not matter if the deputies had come, she would not let go. Let Elke cry for her since she dare not cry for herself.
Sobs turned to hiccups and sniffles. She gently broke the embrace and dashed the tears aside with the heels of her hands, a shy, apologetic smile like a ghost smile danced at the edges of her mouth highlighting a hint of dimples.
“Are you all right now?”
Elke started to get up.
“You can sit here if you like.” Pearl looked to Betty for confirmation and she nodded her head over her cards.
“All right.” She glanced over at the stairs where Sabrina had combed and braided her hair every morning, Sabrina’s hands smoothing the shining waves before deftly weaving them into fat plaits she coiled at the base of Elke’s neck. Guilt tinted her cheeks bright red; she covered by touching Pearl’s wristband. “I knew a Caldwell in Idaroberstein. She was named Barbara not Pearl.”
“One of my sisters was born in Idaroberstein when Dad was stationed there after the war.”
“It’s a beautiful place. They carve crystal into animals and all beautiful things.”
“I was a baby and don’t remember it, but I have seen pictures.” Emboldened by the meager connecting strand, Pearl moved into more familiar territory. She pointed to Elke’s yellow band.
“Aah, yes. Mine is different. I wait for INS to pick me up and send me back to Germany.”
“My visa was—how you say?—run out.”
“How long ago?”
Pearl waited for Elke to explain. She did not want to seem too anxious or rude. Curiosity burned and fought to push the questions past lips caught in her teeth.
She fingered the wrist band. “I’m not here because of visa, but for same as Sabrina. They tell INS when they find out I am not legal.” Tears glistened in half-lidded eyes. “Why is it wrong to take money for myself? No one get hurt but me if I am stupid.” She did not want an answer so much as an opening, a chance to justify what seemed to her natural and right, to understand her crime. “They will take me too soon. I want to stay.” Fierce determination glittered in suddenly dry eyes. “I will stay. I did nothing wrong.”
Unable to resist any longer, the words spilled out. “What did you do to end up here?”
“You do not mind if I tell you?”
Pearl patted her shoulder. “I’d like to know.”
Elke sat up straight and folded her hands primly in her lap.
Before she could begin, one of the women from the stairs knelt beside her and hugged her. “I’m so sorry. I know y’all must be hurtin’.” She stood up and tugged Elke to her feet, putting her arm around the German girl’s shoulders. “Come on with me.”
Elke stopped and turned with an apology.
Pearl waved her on. “You can tell me later.”
Like a burst of golden sunlight through the gray of an overcast sky, she smiled. “Really?”
“Really. Any time.” Although it hurt to say the words she felt were true, she nodded and admitted the worst. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You will wait?” Pearl nodded. “One moment. I will come again.”
The two women crossed the open quad and blended into the crowd on the stairs and Pearl felt something akin to regret, not for the chance to find a reason for her own unbelievable situation in another’s story, but because for the first time since Betty invited her to sit down she almost made a friend. She was set apart once again, not only by her friendship with Betty, whom most of the women feared and the rest avoided, lest she look up at them and they would have to speak, but by something else, something inside her.
It was not her no-accent Midwestern accent or the way she pronounced her words, giving each one weight, breadth and importance, but something less substantial and subtler that set her apart from these women. It was not education or disdain for women as a collective and mindless group, although there was an element of disdain in the way she viewed these fallen women. It was the way she carefully skirted what she considered the well-defined edges of propriety and the dictates of polite society that kept her tip-toeing along a narrow ledge, unwilling to invade anyone’s private space or peer into the rooms she passed.
In the bathroom she avoided looking directly at anyone, giving the women a discreet privacy denied them by the lack of doors and curtains that left the most personal and necessary of acts open to everyone. It was as much a part of her upbringing as from a deep desire to avoid looking too closely at anyone or anything that went on. She did not want to know who fumbled whom—or what—in hidden corners or surreptitiously slipped an extra packet of sugar from someone else’s tray. Let the intimacies and brutalities disguised in furtive glances and bruised and scratched skin remain mysteries. Leave the secrets buried and unremarked. I do not want to be a part of this world. She was not a part of this world and yet, now that Elke had touched her and forged a tenuous connection, a longing to wade in and be welcomed blossomed. No. If there was any hope of getting out, of being free again, she must remain untouched and untainted.
She was different and intended to remain oblivious to the vices and visions of dark underbelly of this world, hidden from the sharks and unseen by the remorseless remoras ready to feed the hapless and unprotected victims to their hosts.
Then Elke and Sabrina’s plight slipped past the barricades and showed this closed world in a new light. As much as she hated to admit it, these women were different, unique individuals. Forced to see what lay behind the daily hair-braiding, giggles and whispered confidences to the only tenderness left to these women, how could she remain aloof when such open emotions and trust seared and branded her heart? As much as she wished it were different, she was not a stone.
For the first time since waking up in the steel- and concrete-bordered world, she was awake, eyes wide open.
Elke had disappeared, her braids just one color among so many, absorbed into their midst and into the group that claimed the stairs. Pearl kept looking, kept hoping the tenuous connection remained.
“She done forgot you, Boo.” Betty gathered up the cards and games and put them in the box. “No sense lookin’. She gone.”
The speaker crackled to life. “Lights out. Fifteen minutes.”
In tune with the world of the quad, Betty’s uncanny sense of time baffled Pearl. How long did it take before becoming attuned to the ebb and flow of prison life, until the rising and setting sun and moon were no longer needed to define and divide the minutes and hours of day and night?
“Night, Boo.” Betty touched her shoulder, squeezed gently and ambled to her cell.
“See you in the morning.”
The tide was headed out and Pearl let it wash her up into the confines of the cell. She had not expected to see or hear the iron door clang shut on her and the bolts thud into place behind her, and here she was. With four days down and no end in sight, there was nothing to do but go with the flow. Fighting the tide was not possible and there was no sense clinging to hope. The job was gone and someone else would sit in her chair tomorrow and type the letters and reports. She was marking time, a human metronome with no off switch.
Tamara lay face-up on the bunk, hands tucked behind her head, asleep and faintly snoring as Pearl got undressed and rinsed out panties and bra. Her trousers felt coarse against her skin and she felt exposed without underwear, vulnerable. In the darkness with her faced turned to the wall, Pearl drug a finger down the hard, unyielding surface of the wall. Nothing showed, not a mark. One fingernail scraped down the wall and behind the mattress to the rubber baseboard. Scratching harder and exploring with the tip of her fingers, at last a rough mark teased the sensitive skin. She scraped again and again until a faint gouge could be felt. Three more gouges lined up beside the first. Trailing fingers across the marks, she counted in a whisper: one, two, three, four. Tomorrow five and another after that six, and another and another. No, best not to think too far ahead.
Fingertips resting at last on tangible evidence of the passage of days and nights, Pearl tucked the other hand between her legs and fell asleep.