Lainie squatted down beside Pearl while she ate breakfast: scrambled eggs, toast and grits. She would rather have had creamed chipped beef or eggs over easy or even poached eggs on toast. No sense wishing. Pearl sipped her tea. “Did you finish?”
Pearl nodded. “You haven’t told me what was in the trunk yet.”
“Well, where is it?”
Pearl swallowed her food. “In my cell.”
“Want me to get it?”
“No, I’ll get it when I finish.”
Lainie nodded and walked toward the picnic tables.
“What you done promised that one?” Betty slurped her coffee. “Don’ to promise none of em nothin’. Cain’t trust em.”
“She wanted to read what I’ve been writing.”
“I noticed you been busy and I’m thankful for your food, but yo gots to eat sumpin’ or yo gets sick.”
“I’m fine. I’m not really all that hungry.”
“Yo best eat. Don’ wanna get sick up in here.”
The only reason Pearl ate was because it was expected. The usually bland food was better than nothing, almost. About the only thing worth looking forward to was red beans and rice on Wednesday. She’d had better, and the jail version was edible—barely. Someone at least knew how to cook and where the spices were kept. She offered the rest of the food to Betty.
“Thank you, Boo.”
“Don’ be going on no hunger strike. Yo be near dead before they cart you out of here yo keep up that mess. Yore time will come. Yo gonna get your day in court for true.”
“I’m not so sure any more. I haven’t seen a lawyer and I still don’t have clothes like the rest of you. My panties are nearly in shreds and my support bra isn’t so supportive anymore.”
“They gets to you. Ain’t nothin’ to be happy ‘bout. They still feedin’ yo. That sumpin’.”
“How could they not? I get in line. I go through the motions.”
“Be glad yo gots a cell to yo’self.”
“I am, but I miss Tamara. Imagine that.”
Three weeks without a word. Why had Cap not come to visit?
He had promised to follow the night the police picked her up. He had said he knew where they were going, so she had given him all the money and her purse and told him to use it to get her out. And she was still here.
The longer she waited the more afraid she was he had spent the money and thrown away the purse. The only thing she had left was her driver’s license and that was in a bag somewhere in the bowels of the building with what little jewelry remained after pawning everything of value. The only thing of value was the birthstone ring, a gift from her grandparents when she turned sixteen. The rest was costume junk, not worth hocking, things she kept because she liked them. He’s gone and the money’s gone, too. Might as well face it. Can’t trust anyone.Just one more man out to get what he can as long as he can.
What else did she expect? He worked for Lucky Dogs, too. From all accounts, his wife did not work—or leave the apartment, except to buy a weekly lottery ticket with the money Cap earned. They were barely making it. The small amount of money in that purse was found money.
Maybe it was for the best. With no one on the outside looking for her or caring what happened, it would be easier to concentrate on making do with what was left. Like everything else in life, she would find a way to deal with it.
“You goin let me see what yo been writin?” Betty wiped the tray clean with her toast.
“Yore writin. Yo goin show me?”
“If you’d like.”
“Sho I’d like it. Been cravin’ sumpin’ to read.”
“I’ll go get it after I take the trays up.” What would you like to read? Your story?”
“You wrote ‘bout me?” Pearl nodded. “Naw, Boo, I know my life. I wants to know ‘bout yo.”
“It’s not all that interesting.”
“Readin’ ‘bout you be fine.”
Downstairs, she ripped the pages from the pad and straightened them out before returning to the quad. “Here, Lainie. It’s all there.” Lainie picked up the pages. “Except for what was in the trunk. Cannot write what I don’t know.” She turned to walk away.
Martha touched her shoulder. “I thought you were writing a letter, but didn’t see you buy no envelopes.”
“No, I was just writing about being in here.”
“For true? You a writer?”
“Not really. I write, but I would not call myself a writer. I haven’t written anything for publication since I was in school. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I wrote about all this.”
Martha stroked her belly. “I wish I could write. Never did have the knack, but I love to read.” She offered Pearl a book. The cover and first few pages were curled and the binding was frayed between crisscrossed layers of tape. A few pages fell out. Pearl stooped to pick them up then handed them back. Martha rearranged them, straightening them on the rounded edge of her belly before putting them back in the book. “You like romances?”
Martha put it back on the table. “Me, I’ll read anything.”
Martha grinned, a flash of white teeth. “For true. I got a few other books if you want them. I read them two or three times. I’m ready for something new. Seems like months since anybody brought in any kinda book and my mamma forget when she brings my babies. Said she got more important things on her mind. If I know Marcus and Anthony, she got plenty on her mind keeping those boys out of trouble.” She shook her head and giggled, the sound girlish, completely at odds with the heavy mass of her body and the thick, blunt fingers. “Boys are wild enough. Twin boys? Well, they be too much and mamma don’t run so fast no more. She outta shape.”
Pearl sat down. Martha lowered herself to the bench and talked in a heated rush of words. Usually surrounded by card players and gossip, this gregarious and gossipy side of Martha was strangely appealing. She was almost as popular as Maureen for her experience, ready smile and belly shaking laughter. Martha knew how to milk a joke and tell a story.
“The boys run Mamma ragged, but she settle them down. She’s good with kids.”
What surprised her most of all was the way Martha spoke.
At first, Martha seemed as little educated as Betty or some of the prostitutes who had taken to the streets without graduating high school—or junior high school in some cases. The persona she had adopted fell away little by little until she caught the cadence and tone of conversation, matching her tone and manner to Pearl's. It was fascinating. Martha was more cultured and educated than she pretended, a chameleon slipping easily in the patois of the streets when the other women were around and just as quickly adopting a more downtown tone and vocabulary.
As soon as she was transferred and the baby was born, Martha planned to continue with the college courses she had begun and get her degree.
“I tell you. I’m so tired of living hand to mouth on Welfare. It’s not enough, not enough at all. My children need so much I can’t give them without college. I do not want my boys selling drugs and putting gold on their teeth, not as long as I can do something about it. They are not going to end up on the street. I’m gonna see to that. My mamma didn’t raise no fools and I won’t either. I get to the Feds and everything going to be all right.”
According to Martha, prison was more like a college campus. Good books were freely available. If you ignored the bars and the steel fences topped with razor wire, and the armed guards manning the towers, it sounded idyllic.
All the inmates worked at some job or other, going to work at specific hours just like on the outside. Three hot meals, a salad bar, or sandwiches and desserts, where college courses were available. What more could anyone want?
When Pearl thought about all the prison movies she had seen, it did not sound like an idyllic life. How good could it be when you had to watch your back all the time? Someone might stick a stolen butter knife honed to a killing edge in your back or beat you up when you refused sexual come-ons? “What about being stabbed, beaten and raped? Doesn’t that go on?'
“Boo, you got it all wrong. I was in the Fed before and they treated me real good.”
“What were you in for?”
“Same as now, shoplifting. I only got a year that time. It’ll be longer this time since it’s my second trip.”
“How much did you take?”
“Enough.” Martha’s full-throated laugh was infectious. Pearl smiled. “They ruined Christmas for my babies. Took everything. Got a search warrant and come into my house, carried it all away. That no account, good for nothing husband of mine made sure of that. We are done. I don’t want that low life around my children. He’s a bad influence.”
“How could he be responsible?”
“That fool hid drugs and jewels up in my house. Search warrant was for his narrow black ass, but the po’lice took everything. All my children’s toys and games gone ‘cause I didn’t have no receipt. How many white folks you know keep receipts?”
Pearl shrugged her shoulders. “I tear the tags off pillows.”
“There you go. Some of them things they took I bought with my own money. Didn’t matter. They took it all regardless. Stupid fool ruined Christmas for my babies. Man ain’t paid a dime of child support all these years. Been in Angola more times’n I can remember. Got out long enough to get me pregnant and went right back in, like he was out on vacation. Wasn’t no vacation for me. Don’t get me wrong. I love my children, but life’d be just a little easier without one or two.” She folded down the flap on a small brown bag of sugar.
Her mother put money in Martha’s account every two weeks, trading food stamps for cash, so Martha could buy what she needed. She had a small portable black and white television and a radio, but they would not let her have it in the parish jail. It was locked up until she was transferred.
She did not have the wear the light blue chambray shirt or the dark twill trousers either; they probably could not get any to fit her. Instead, she wore blue chambray shifts. She was well spoken and had an earthy manner and talked about shoplifting like it was the most natural thing on earth. “You do what you gotta do for your children.”
As Martha talked, Pearl realized she wanted to know more, not just about Martha, but about all the women.
She looked up to see if Lainie had finished. The pages were scattered around the picnic table, handed from one person to the next.
“Ain’t you finished yet?” A thin brunette held out her hand. “Hurry up. I want to read the rest.”
Lainie finished the last page and handed it to Maureen. Eyes focused on the page in front of her, Maureen handed a page to Joo-Eun next to her.
“Looks like I’m getting behind.” Martha took the pages someone behind Pearl handed her and started reading.
Lainie whispered in her ear. “Let’s take a walk. I’ll tell you what happened after I ran out of gas.”
Pearl nodded, watching the yellow pages going from hand to hand from the picnic table where she sat to the next table. “Uh, sure. After I take these pages to Betty.”
“That can wait.” Lainie motioned Pearl closer.
“Well, I be. Ain’t never read nothing like this before. You shore you ain’t published?” The thin brunette leaned over, elbows on the table and her chin rested in her hands.
“You have not read anything like this before, stupid cow.” Maureen snatched up the papers, straightened them and held them up to read. “It’s impolite to read over someone’s shoulder.”
“I ain’t readin’ over yore shoulder, you uppity bright bitch.”
Maureen looked at the brunette from under her lashes and smiled, a slight curve of the lips like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but with a hint of poison. The brunette wilted to the bench and refused to look up.
Feeling like a goose walked across her grave, Pearl shivered and then looked around for Lainie. She was gone. Lainie was not going anywhere. She would catch up to her later and she promised the pages to Betty. She looked up at the clock just as lunch was called. Where had the morning gone?
Before she could sit down at Betty’s table, Martha brushed her arm.
“This is really good. Would you mind writing about me? I’d like to send it to my mamma to read to my children. Might help them understand what I done.” Before Pearl could answer, Martha said, “You can use my paper. They don’t open letters going out, just coming in.”
“All right. I’d be glad to.”
“When you want to start?”
“How ‘bout afta she eat sumpin?” Betty set down her tray. “Girl gotta eat.”
“Sure, sure.” Martha handed Pearl a few pages. “I’ll get the rest when they’re done reading.” She patted the papers. “You are a good writer.”
Betty glanced up and Martha nodded. “Right after you eat. All right?”
As Pearl went through the line, all she could think about was figuring out the logistics of getting a television between her legs and walking. Martha was a big woman and her dresses were voluminous enough to accommodate her belly, but not much more. She had thick, muscular thighs; she had seen how thick one morning when she glanced into Martha’s cell as she walked past. It was not intentional and she was not in the habit of being so nosy. It just happened.
Martha’s thighs were like tree trunks, big, solid, substantial tree trunks, and no doubt capable of holding a portal television standing still, but walking? She must have been wearing a tent.
Pearl hurried through lunch, barely tasting the food.
“Slow down, Boo. Yo goin choke like that. Girl ain’t goin nowhere. She wait.”
Yes, Martha would wait. Pearl slowed down a little, finished the sandwich, scooped the lettuce onto Betty’s plate without asking and hurried over to dump the tray on the cart.
She had work to do.
“I’ve been waiting.” Martha slid across the bench, leaving enough space for Pearl, then nodded to the other women. Begging different excuses, every one of them left. Some of them found places at the other three picnic tables near the showers and the others followed Maureen and Joo-Eun to the stairs where the hair-braiding gang scurried to the upper steps.
“I’m ready whenever you are.”
Martha handed Pearl a sheaf of paper. “Will that be enough?”
“More than enough.” Pearl took a couple sheets and offered the rest to Martha.
“No, you keep them. You’ll find something else to write about.”
“Are you sure?”
“Girl, I would not be sitting here instead of taking a nap if I wasn’t sure.”
Even though the women at the other picnic tables looked busy playing cards, reading and chatting, Pearl knew they were straining for every word—obviously leaning in their direction. She stifled a smile. There was nowhere else to go since the cells were off limits during the day, not that it stopped the more persistent inmates from stealing a few moments alone whenever they could.
She had no sexual interest in any of these women—or any women—only in writing . . . and sleeping some of the endless hours away. The last thing she wanted was for anyone to think she was catching a little something on the side. So far, Lainie kept to the hallway, but not Joy. She was still a little shocked at the furtive way Joy had snuck into the cell. Betty was right about that one. Better keep an eye out. Joy was up to no good and she did not want to get noticed that way.
A glance at the table directly opposite was all she needed to see Lainie was not far away. She wanted to find out what was in the trunk and there was no doubt Lainie would drag it out as long as possible, sitting on the side and dangling the bait in the trap. Just like crabbing.
Cap had taken her crabbing once on the West Bank after a ride on the Algiers ferry. He tied a few bits of gizzard, liver or chicken necks to the center bottom of a trap made of wire circles connected by cotton netting. The mesh trap had been lowered to lie flat on the riverbed and they waited. Once the crabs nibbled at the bait, a quick jerk on the string brought the sides up and the trap out of the water, and there had been crab for dinner. One of Cap’s friends had a house near the ferry landing and added the crabs they caught to the boiling pot. That had been a meal to remember.
No, Lainie would take her time. Pearl hoped she would not take too long. She did not want to alienate her or provoke her into a fight, not after what had happened with Tamara, but she wanted to know what was worth running for. Cerebral
palsy or not, the hippie girl was a formidable foe.
“You ready now?”
Pearl put all doubts and conjecture and fears away. Time enough to deal with it later.
“Sure, Martha.” She folded her hands on the table. “How did you get caught? You mentioned something about the cord and duct tape.”
“Well, girl, I was in too much of a hurry. Weren’t but a couple days to Christmas and I couldn’t disappoint Marcus. He’s usually a good boy, but got a temper like his daddy. Couldn’t get his daddy’s fine hair or his straight teeth and my calm nature. No, that boy got the temper.”
Martha leaned closer. “He don’t pull that mess on me ‘cause he know I light up his narrow behind, but, Lord, he be so mean with Anthony and Danielle and so moody. Whooee, but he get like a sore boil about to burst, so out I went.”