“You can’t wear that,” the guard says. “It shows too much skin.”
“Wah? I’m not showing no skin,” the girl says. She raises her arms in protest and flashes her midriff.
The guard points at her bare skin with the electronic wand. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “We told you last time, too. You have a jacket?”
“Over here,” the guard at the desk calls, pointing to the jacket jumbled at the end of the table on the other side of the metal detector.
The first guard picks up the jacket and holds it out the girl. “You have to wear this.”
“No way! It’s too hot!”
He doesn’t budge. “Wear it or go home. Your choice.”
She snatches the jacket out of his hand and, grumbling, puts it on.
“Don’t even think of taking it off, either,” he says to her. “This is your last warning.
Next time, dress right or don’t bother coming. I’m getting tired of telling you.”
She stomps off in a huff and flops into one of the sofas in the waiting area.
I’m next. I’m not showing any skin. I wouldn’t dare break the rules, or argue, or stomp off.
“Step up, ma’am,” the guard says, and points with the wand to a spot in front of the metal detector. His tone is entirely different to me, but signing in, emptying my pockets, having my coat examined, walking through a metal detector, stepping out of my shoes, being wanded—all of this makes me feel like a criminal. I’m not a criminal; I’m just the mother of one. Which, to a lot of people, is pretty much the same thing.
I step up and place my feet in the black shoeprints painted onto the floor. In my peripheral vision, I see the desk guard check the pockets of my jacket then fold it and place in on the table. His face looks beyond bored.
“You’re good. You can have a seat,” the guard says after wanding me. “We’ll get going in a few minutes.”
I pick up my jacket, zip my keys in the pocket, and hang it up. I have a seat in the small waiting area. Hot air blasts over the bright orange vinyl sofas. For a minute or two, it feels good. I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison. Every time someone came in, a frigid blast whipped through the space and all the women, simultaneously, shivered. Now, the hot air blasts hard, and I’m almost sweating. I don’t envy the girl in the jacket.
We’re all women. It’s a men’s prison, but it’s also the middle of a workday. Not that lots of men show up on the one weekend day prisoners are allowed scheduled visits. I haven’t been at this long, but I’ve already learned: If you go to prison, there’s a good chance your sole visitors will be your mother or your grandmother. Maybe your sister. Maybe your wife. Maybe your girlfriend. Maybe your brother. Maybe a male friend. In that descending order of likelihood.
I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison.
Somewhere in the mix are lawyers and cops, but they don’t count. They’re not visitor-visitors. I also don’t count kids. They don’t get to choose whether or not they get to see their relatives who are imprisoned.
We wait longer than a few minutes. I wish I had a book, but we’re not allowed to bring one in. I think of the work piling up at home. It’s a twenty-minute drive here, a thirty-minute wait, an hour visit, thirty more minutes before I get home. The whole thing should take roughly three hours, but the truth is, the day will be a wash. It’s too emotionally devastating to be creative after going to visit a loved one in prison. I’m losing income every second I sit here. I will lose a whole workday.
And more. I think of people complaining about prisoners who get free cable TV and exercise rooms and Internet and a law library. Three hots and a cot is the expression. None of those things applies to this place.
If I was allowed to bring my checkbook in—which I’m not—and used the sitting time to balance my checkbook, this is what would factor in:
$20 a week for the money order so he can buy extra food, vitamins, pay for a health checkup, get stamps, a pencil and an envelope, buy a warm sweatshirt. Prison prices are exorbitant. He confessed last week he spent a dollar on a small candy bar. He sounded apologetic.
$50 a month for books, ordered through Amazon only, five books of less than 1,000 pages, paperback only, so it can’t be used as a weapon. Nothing lewd or inappropriate. The prison has no library. Having a book to lend out is a good thing, I gather.
$25 increments to a telephone service so he can make collect call to us. Each nine-minute call costs about $5. If we’re not home and the answering machine picks up, there’s still a charge. When we leave home, we have had to disable the machine and voice mail.
I hear some states are starting to charge families for visit. $15 per person for the privilege of seeing your loved one for an hour behind a Plexiglas partition. That hasn’t happened here, yet. Give ‘em a chance.
I don’t expect any sympathy—maybe because I know there won’t be any—but it feels like someone is putting the screws to us. I try not to think of the college fund we used for lawyers and bail, for counseling and rehabs, for—
Stop. I make myself stop. It’s not about the money; that’s not important anymore. People who have never been here don’t know my son, a growing teenager, goes to sleep hungry every night. People who have never been here probably think he deserves that. And maybe he does. But he’s still my son. Going to bed hungry.
It’s all material, my writer friends say. You can write about it someday.
They’ve never been here, either, I think when I hear this advice. As if I’d ever write about the shame that has fallen on our family. Why would I do that? For whom?
Despite these things, I don’t dare complain, not out loud, and certainly not here. It’s as intimidating as hell, and we’re still in the waiting area.
“You all right, baby?”
The lady next to me is probably younger than I am, but she looks worn out. Poor. Her jeans are worn, her dark red sweater dull from washings. Her face is full of sympathy, and for a minute I get choked up, which is not allowed. Don’t cry. Don’t show emotion. That’s the worst thing you can do.
“Thank you, I’m okay,” I say. Lie.
She puts her hand on my arm anyway, and pats it. “You stay with me, you’ll be all right,” she says. “You here to see your boy?”
I wonder if she’s seen me before. Who knows? I tell her yes, and her face lights up.
“Me too! I couldn’t come last week, I had to go see my mama up in New Jersey. She had surgery. I had to take the bus to get here, but I couldn’t go two weeks without seeing my boy.”
I don’t understand how she can be so excited, how she can smile. We’re in a prison. It is terrifying. Every time I visit, my son and I can barely look one another in the eye through the Plexiglas that is scarred, worn and dirty, and God knows I don’t want to think about how often, if ever, the phone I hold is cleaned. The first thing I do, every time, after every visit, is get in my car and douse my hands with Purell. I feel like drinking half a bottle of it, too.
“Is your mother all right?” I ask, because I don’t want to ask about her son. I don’t want her to think there is something wrong with me because I dread being here, instead of being excited.
Before she answers, the guard unlocks the first gated door and says it’s time to get going. There are about a dozen of us. We stand and get in line. We know the drill.
The lady stands beside me. “You’ll be all right, you stay with me,” she says again. She hooks her arm through mine. We walk together into the elevator. It’s crowded. The lady leans toward me, speaking low. “At least you know where he is. When my boy was home, I never knew where he was. At least you know where he is.”
She means them to be words of comfort, and I am touched beyond anything I can express. I can’t speak. Literally. I am left speechless by her kindness.
That does not stop me from feeling terrified. Yes, I know where he is, all right. He’s in prison. There’s a part of my brain that still can’t wrap itself around that reality. But it is reality, because I am here, too, going up one floor in a stone building where nearly 2,000 adult male criminals are housed. I try not to think of every prison movie I’ve ever seen. Luckily, it’s not a genre I’ve ever liked very much. I can’t imagine, now, ever watching one for entertainment purposes.
We leave the elevator and stand in a small interior room with no windows and another locked gate on the other side. I try not to feel claustrophobic. The lady next to me is jiggling with excitement.
“I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I’m gonna see my boy,” she chants. Even the guard, when he opens the gate and waves us through, smiles a little when she goes by.
He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.
I take a seat at one of the cubicles. The room is painted green and is shaped in a semi-circle of three-sided cubicles. On the other side of the Plexiglas the wall is orange. There’s no one there now. After a minute or two, we hear a clanging. A guard walks swiftly by, and then the prisoners start filing by. Each one peeks at the cube—not mine, not mine, mine!
My son sits down. He’s dressed in a white jumpsuit. His hair is very short. He’s very thin, getting pasty now. He’s been here a few months and it’s starting to show. He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.
He picks up the phone. The last thing in the world I want to do is hold this sticky, grungy black telephone receiver close to my mouth, but I do it anyway.
“How are you?” he asks.
We talk for an hour. It’s hard to come up with things to say. He doesn’t ask this time if we are going to pay his bail. We’ve already said no a million times. He asks if we got him a money order. I say yes. He says he’ll pay us back someday. We both know this will never happen.
We don’t talk about anything of substance, because anyone can hear, or maybe our conversations are recorded. It’s just like letters; I write once a week and though I write for a living, after I put together a two page letter to him, I feel like I need a blood transfusion.
He asks about relatives. I say everyone is fine, which is true, but if it was not true, I’d say fine anyway. Why say that Grandma went to the hospital with the flu, or his brother caught the cold whipping around his dorm at college? My son would have to be deathly ill, I think, to be sprung to go to a hospital, and college…we don’t talk about college anymore.
He tells me he’s learned to cook some concoction with Ramen noodles. I’m not sure I want to know where or how he does this, but I let him talk. He gets animated talking about food. I look at his wrists, so thin, while he does a stirring motion. Having money in the prison store account is cachet, I know. I’m glad I didn’t scold him about the candy bar.
But I also don’t say that I have started shopping at a grocery store out of town, so I don’t have to run into people we know who saw his mug shot in the newspaper. Or that the day it appeared, I returned home from shopping and found the newspaper, folded with the police blotter blurb about his arrest, circled in black marker and stuck in our front door. As if we’d want an extra copy for our family scrapbook, so one of our longtime neighbors put it where we couldn’t miss it. Or maybe it was some friend of his who thought it was funny. Or perhaps that cop he stupidly kept calling “Baldy.” Or who knows, it could have been a victim aiming his anger at my son at me.
Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.
I pay taxes, too, I could say. I could add that I was a homeroom mom and stayed at home during his pre-school years; that his father and I were married and gainfully employed; that we did PTA, Boy Scouts, Sunday School, and soccer camp; that we never missed a school open house. That we vote, volunteer, and respect the laws of our nation. I myself have never even received a speeding ticket. Somewhere in a bookcase is an accolade from the Board of Education for my hours of service and good deeds. Good Citizenship Award the certificate reads. It is signed, dated, and framed. On paper, we should have been the perfect family. But here I am—here we are—anyway.
Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.
Not all things are as they appear on paper, and not everyone is as kind, or forgiving, or understanding, as the lady who took my arm in the waiting room.
The visiting hour feels like it lasts for days. He’s told me, more than once, that the thing prisoners crave more than anything is a visit. It’s the only thing that breaks up the long days of sitting locked in the cell with two or three cellies, even though there are only two beds and the cell was built for two. Going to sleep early because there’s not enough to eat. Being locked in all day if the staff is short-handed. Having nothing nothing nothing to do.
I don’t tell him that I almost have to take a Valium just to make the phone call to schedule the visit, that the first time I went, the minute I got home I threw up. That this hour is like torture to me. That I want out of there so badly, my skin is nearly crawling with it.
So many things I don’t tell him. So many things I don’t tell anyone.
I hear the other lady laughing. I lean back and sneak a peek at her. She’s hugging the phone to her face, holding her hand to the glass. She’s laughing, happy to see her boy, comforted by knowing where he is, even if here is here.
I envy her. But she’s not me.
Finally, the hour ends. My son asks if I will be back next week. “Me, or Dad,” I say. I must sound unsure because he looks disappointed, so I add, “Me. I’ll come, I promise,” reassuringly.
He leaves. The other women and I go back the same way we came in: gate, room, elevator, gate, waiting area.
I get my coat. The lady is next to me. Her excitement is gone, and she is quiet as she pulls a heavy black cardigan, nubby with age, off its hanger and slings it around her shoulders. I touch her arm.
“I hope your mother gets better soon,” I say.
“Aw, thank you, baby,” she says. “Maybe I’ll see you next week?”
I say maybe. We walk, side by side, past the guards who don’t say goodbye, into the very cold but sunny day. She goes to the bus stop and huddles into her coat, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm.
I head to my car. I want to run as fast as my feet will carry me and never come back. Instead I walk into the wind that bites the tops of my ears and makes my face go numb. It feels good, though. It feels clean.
I didn’t bring gloves. I slide onto my seat and turn on the ignition, and let the heater run until I can flex my fingers again. I open the glove box and pull out my purse and cell phone. In the back is a journal I tossed there long ago, for reasons I can’t remember. I pull it out now and move my seat back as far as it will go.
I set it on the seat beside me and glance out the window, and I wipe my hands with a disposable, antibacterial tissue. The building is gray, with thin slats of windows cut into it, and razor wire looped over the edges.
It’s all material.
I shut off the engine and open the journal. I dig into my purse for a pen, rushing before the cold seeps back in. I don’t want to write about the cost, real and mental, or the fear, or who broke what rules and why. I want to put down on paper not what we should be, but who we really are as a family. I want to write about other mothers like me.
For other mothers like me.
I write about the kindness of a stranger. About the touch on my arm. About the question, “You all right, baby?” About my promise to be here next week.