Birgette Hansen's Old Eve
I am here, again. Pushing the beady black button under a spotty speaker. “How may I help you,” scratches a voice born of hourly cigarette breaks and diet cherry cola.
“Book Club,” I say. Open sesame. A deep clutch of locks operate within the massive frame.
Without fail, upon the metallic jolt, I am reminded of the significance of that sound–a sound of contempt and incarceration, the sound of a night that went wrong, or an encounter that escalated. But it is also the sound of long-awaited freedom, a mother’s sigh, and a brother’s pat on the back.
Of course a jail has several of these metal beasts stopping mid-hallway, cutting off the circulation of bodies with more spotty speakers and scratchy voices, chaining together the loose-ends of G-dorm with Z-dorm, and connecting all extremities to the heart of booking. There are no books in booking, only piles of mistakes and the faces they belong to.
A man in holding holds his head in bandaged hands. His orange garb names him a jester, but no one laughs. Visitation separates a mother from her child and replaces an embrace with a black phone damp from another’s clammy grip. These are the ironies of being behind bars: there are no bars, only shatter-proof glass. I’m standing a sadistic zoo of sorts. All the animals clammer when I walk by, for I am an animal, too.
Tonight, it was Jimmy Johns. If there is a microwave in booking it is buried under carry-out receipts. My guess is that they draw sticks to be the lucky go-getter. They may even choose to order from more distant franchises in hope of a few more minutes of Beaver FM and the open window. My participants, fresh from their cots, eye the greasy hoagie with wanton bellies. The Baliffs pick up the schrill of a call and mumble words. Click. The ring keeps them from their next bite–damn phone.
Someone in the drunk tank gags into a spotty hole in the floor. The hole gargles the message into a drain, but no one replies. I scan my finger like an inmate. I am patted down like an inmate. But I don’t hunger quite the same. Feral bodies, feral bones, yet we sin like humans and pay the price for the apple.
The faces glitter with the sweet moisture of sleep; I have awoken many with my arrival. They smile between yawns, and I yawn between smiles. We greet each other as something slightly different than equal. We ask about the in-between time but we never chat about their unseen weather. Many are from other cities, other states, pinned down for a crime in a place they see only in the upper-left-hand corner of documents. Do they know that the leaves paint the hills in mid-October? Do they feel the same chill through their worn sheet in December that I feel when I awake at three to a dead fire? Where are their skies, their heavens? Are their stars stains looming in the tiles overheard of an optional Sunday Service? Is heaven really seven steps away?
We gather in the center of a blank room. Burgundy chairs relieve the mono-chromatic scene. I pass around the role, and the women excite themselves over my pen–the permanence of my ink. The faces are new, save one. She asks me about my summer, about working at camp, the trees of Maine, and planes. I fear the possibility of gloating, so I keep it simple, keep it light, and a tad untrue. I say that the pine tree is Maine’s saving grace. They all sort of chuckle. We move on.
The book I chose to turn the leaf of the club is a collection of Z. Z. Packer’s short stories entitled Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. One of the five at tonight’s meeting had read the first story as instructed, so I do what I can do. They aren’t receiving credit, they are missing some sitcom or murder mystery series. So we got chatty. Women that see in me the face of their daughter, their social worker, or maybe that of the hussy that stole their husband from their bed, but never the face of an equal, makes getting chatty quite a challenge. So I play the game until we get closer to the same.
My freshman year of college, I read a book by Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. The book was about one-fourth as lengthy as the title. Tannen speculates that women use sympathy to make themselves equal through the act of story-telling.
So we tell stories, sometimes they are written by others. Sometimes it is easier for someone else to give voice to the joys and the sorrows. Most times, though, the stories are our own. They swell inside us and ripen with time. As one quickly learns, jail doesn’t encourage linear thinking. Routine, gray, gray, gray, asks for sleeping pills and the narrative of memories. We are human, all too human.
I want to hold these women like a mother, like a daughter, like a friend. I want to tell them that I do care, that I know it has been hard, even when I don’t know–how could I ever know?
The door’s guts cringe: our time is up. I will tell them to read the next story. I will clean up around the watercooler of our gab session. Some give me hugs; others stack chairs. They thank me, thank me, thank me. One is beaming, she leaves tomorrow morning. We beam together for a moment. Yo-Yo asks if I will be back next Tuesday night. I reassure her yes, of course, I will. I love you ladies, I say. Keep on reading, and if you don’t like the story, then read something else.
Yes, Ms. Meagan, we will. We’s always reading, Yo-Yo says, all of us is, ain’t we?
21-10 Book Club leaving. The Bowling Green air is wet tonight like the faces of the women curling up in their cots, thinking of a story, maybe one of our own.