The lunch bell sounded a reprieve, a breathing space. She was not hungry, but it was something to do, a brief procrastination before hunting down words and facing the blank page. There was time, altogether too much time.
Back up in the quad, she watched a game of dominoes between Joo-Eun and Betty. Maureen prowled near the door, two bulging grocery sacks forgotten on the floor behind her as she circled and paced, eyes glued on Betty’s table. She did not like being left out. Pearl did not mind the break and wandered over to the picnic tables where the hippie girl gathered the cards one-handed, her right arm limp by her side. She dragged her unresponsive flesh up and dropped it on the table, using her withered arm as a wall against which to cut and shuffle the cards until she was satisfied they were well mixed before dealing.
“Wanna play? This is Maria. I’m Lainie and you already know Martha.” Pearl nodded and sat down.
Pearl partnered Lainie and Maria partnered Martha in hand after hand, pausing long enough to eat sandwich and salad, return the trays and pick up where they left off. On the way back to the picnic table, Pearl noticed Maureen still paced and circled at a safe distance from Betty’s table, eyes dark with storm warnings, staring daggers at Betty.
Pearl thought about asking Maureen to join them, but decided it best not to say anything. It would do Maureen good to see Joo-Eun as an individual making her own choices rather than someone who owed Maureen gratitude for carrying her out of the quad. Joo-Eun had been unconscious at the time and probably did not even know what had happened. It was certain Maureen had not told her. There had been no chance once Joo-Eun had returned from the hospital, and no one else dared speak to her for fear of violating Maureen’s territory. Stalemate. The stalemate would not last for long. Either Maureen would speak up or Joo-Eun would roll out and the situation would be end.
More and more, it seemed to Pearl that, except for those scheduled to go on to the federal penitentiary and Angola, most of the women were in and out in quick order. In the short time she had been in jail, she noticed a steady stream of incoming and outgoing inmates. She wished she were one of the quick timers. Best not think of that.
Instead of rejoining the game, Pearl thanked Lainie and the others for inviting her and went back to the cell where empty paper waited for words. She had the urge to get some of her thoughts down on paper and now seemed as good a time as any.
Beyond the cell door, endless hours under the glare of fluorescents and the faint lightening and darkening of the green painted windows passed as she pondered the page. Minute followed minute followed hour followed day in an endless round of cards and dominoes, and it crawled where she sat and waited, pen poised above the page. Beyond her silent battle, furtive hands slipped along blue clad legs. Minnows drifted in ever changing schools herded now and then by sharks and through it all Maureen paced and circled by the quad door, waiting, watching, and hoping.
Well, she was not going to sit and wait. She went back up to the quad; it was nearly empty. Soft sounds trickled from the television and actors flickered in shades of black and white across the tiled floor. Through the bars of the railing, Pearl could see into her cell where the yellow legal pads lay on the desk, the black felt tip pens lined up beside them. She would have to face it sooner or later and there was not much time before lights out. Might as well be now. If she could wrest a few words from behind the locked and barred doors of her mind, put away the past instead of rubbing at it like a worry stone, she might be able to face the future that yawned away ahead. That was part of the problem—facing the future.
There was no telling how long she would be here or if she would ever get out. Not knowing wore away at her, time dripping moment by moment and day by day like a leaky faucet on a sleepless night. Chinese water torture. She needed to find something to occupy her mind, an outlet for the fear, abandonment and creeping despair that kept eating at her. The only options were succumb or go mad. She was tired of cards and dominoes, but there was not much else to do . . . until now.
Pearl got up and went back down to the cell, sat down on the cold stainless steel stool and picked up the pen, twisted off the cap and let the point rest on the paper for a moment as the thoughts jostled for attention . . . and the words flowed. One word after another in stuttering sweeps of the pen, hesitating, gathering force and movement until the words poured out in a rushing torrent that cramped her hand with the unaccustomed activity. It had been so long since she had held a pen for more than a signature or quick note. Fingers more familiar with stroking the keys on a typewriter or data entry keyboard cramped and stiffened. Like riding a bicycle, it all came back to her. The cramping gave way to a dull ache and then to warm familiarity as muscle memory took over.
First, came an outpouring of questions and observations and feelings of anxiety, fear and confusion and then came the wry sense of humor that had always sustained her when things were difficult or dangerous. After more than ten years of burying all emotions in the depths of mind and heart, Pearl swam through the shallows, paddling around the edge of the vortex and, taking a deep breath, plunged into the darkness.
Through the raging torrent, she dove deeper and deeper down to where the silent darkness hid her pain, anger and fears, down to those submarine creatures of fantastical creation that had not seen the light in far too long, shedding the past the farther down she dove. All of it came pouring out onto the paper in shorthand and coded script. She had learned not to leave herself vulnerable to discovery or to put dread mythology and occult thoughts on paper so they could be easily read and used to hurt and maim.
There were dark and dangerous thoughts and memories too deep and too unused to the light to coax out, but they would come eventually. Layer by layer and species by species, the past fountained out and onto the paper in tidal waves until Pearl was spent. I feel lighter, freer somehow. It was a wondrous feeling. How good it feels to finally tell someone, even if it is a piece of paper. Several pieces of paper were covered with twisting, swirling symbols, so much in such a few pages: six front and back. There were more empty pages awaiting the words. Pearl turned the page and set the pen to the first line and stopped. Stories swirled beneath the pen’s black point, not her stories, but the stories she had heard from Betty, Maureen and Joo-Eun. Now that she had her voice back, it seemed important to give each of them a voice.
Whatever she had endured, no matter how hard, some of these women had it worse, and so she began to write again about Betty’s rape, Maureen murdering her husband and Joo-Eun’s battle for control of her own future. Images coalesced on the blue-lined yellow pages and she jotted questions and ideas in the margins.
It was easier than she remembered to paint portraits of these women she was getting to know and with whom she shared the endless days and cold, silent nights. Almost as if the writing had never left her, had waited on an island in the mental stream for a chance to be seen and rescued, she picked up where she had left off ten years before. It had been the same with drawing and painting. Brushes, charcoal and pencils untouched for years, picked up once again, showed the passing years in the details and shadows that ran in precise lines, the mature technique that ended on the pages.
Time had not diminished the ability, but rather enriched it, as she had been enriched by experience, happiness and adversity. There was no hesitation or stiffness about the exercise, none at all, and there had been only a momentary doubt that gave way to the flood of words and lives that filled the lines. The gift and the abilities were intact, stronger and clearer than ever before.
A bright bubble of elation filled Pearl, followed by a brief sadness. Would Betty mind if she did not play cards or dominoes all day? She wanted the stories shared among these women, to remember and to remind herself of these dreadful days that had taught her so much.
As if magnetized, the pen sought the next empty page and she wrote, oblivious to the wan green light fading beyond the bars and wired glass.
“Hey. Hey! You want your dinner?”
Pearl looked up. “What?”
The hippie girl—Lainie was her name—stood halfway between the wall and the cell door. “Dinner. You want dinner?” She glanced toward the guard station and back. “Dinner.”
“Oh. Sure. Right.” Reluctant to stop, Pearl gathered up the filled pages, straightened them and slid them in the back of the tablet.
“I’ll take your dinner if you do not want it, but you have to get it.”
Pearl capped the pen with stiff fingers and got up. Her back and shoulders ached from sitting for so long. She needed a break. “No, that’s all right. I’m coming.” She stretched, hands low on her back, and arched backwards, massaging the tense muscles. Lord, but I’m stiff. She rolled her head, bent over and touched the floor, feeling the strain give way a bit.
“Come. Don’t come. Suit yourself.” Lainie walked away.
“Wait a minute.” Pearl hurried after and caught her on the stairs. When they got in line, Pearl leaned over the girl’s shoulder. “Thanks for reminding me. I appreciate it.”
“You’re always so polite. They teach you that at home?”
Pearl nodded. “Didn’t your parents teach you?”
The lank mousy hair swayed back and forth across Lainie’s face. “Oh, they tried, but it didn’t take. Don’t care much for all that Emily Post jazz.” She took a couple steps backward to be even with Pearl. "Not often someone like you ends up in here. It was inevitable for me. Ran out of luck.”
“What did you do?”
The girl turned around. “That’s right. You were already in when I got arrested.” She faced the front of the line. “I was stupid. That’s what I get for thinking. Momma always told me whenever I got the urge to think -- don't. Thinking was not my strong suit.”
“That wasn’t very nice. My mother said I’d never amount to a hill of beans. Looks like she was right.”
“Whatcha gonna do? Hell of it is, they were right.” The girl turned and stuck out her left hand. Pearl took it. “If you’re interested in stories, I got a doozy.”
“So I’ve heard. Word gets around.”
“Don’t it just?”
They got their food and Pearl pulled out the chair at Betty’s table. Lainie hesitated and leaned in close. “Think she’ll mind?” she whispered.
“Ask her. She doesn’t bite.”
Betty looked up at Lainie and then back down at her tray, more interested in the food than the conversation.
“Maybe later.” Lainie disappeared around the corner of the guard station at a fast walk and Pearl started to rise.
“She be back. That one been circling like a buzzard waiting for an openin’. She cain’t wait to say her story. She be back.”
Pearl shrugged and ate. Something told her Betty was right. Lainie had not shown up at her cell before, but she had hovered on the edge of things for a couple days. She would be back.
And she was back, right after dinner as Pearl started down the stairs.
Pearl did not need to ask about what. “Sure, if you want to tell me.” She followed Lainie back to the first picnic table on the shower side of the quad and sat down next to her. One look from between the mousy falls of long hair and everyone at the table went back to their own conversations.
“Like I said. Thinking ain’t my strong suit. Momma was right about that, and oh, how she was right. When that pig flagged me down all I could think about was what was in the trunk. If I’d ob been caught with that, I’d of been sent up so fast.”
“But you were caught.”
When she smiled, tiny fingernail moons of decay bracketing several of Lainie’s side teeth marred the sharp, rodent-like shape. It was the smile of a well fed ferret with its next meal in sight. “Not till after they chased me all over the parish. All those pigs squealing after me in the air and on the ground and they didn’t catch me for a long time. Nearly got away.”
“Why did the cop want to stop you in the first place?”
“That’s where thinking wrong part comes in.”
“Okay. So what happened?”
“You gonna to write this all down?”
“I can remember it.”
Lainie shrugged. “All right by me.” She shifted closer, checked to see if anyone else was listening—and they were without being too obvious about it—and plunged ahead. “I could’ve saved myself some trouble if I’d’ve stopped. They don’t
look in the trunk for a busted tail light. Only give you a warning before they let you go. But I didn’t think; I just put the pedal to the metal and got the hell out of there.”