I had locked myself in with my thoughts.
The cell doors around me popped open and the cacophony of shotgun-like bangs lit the hallway with sound. The noise meant my fellow firehouse girls were home from work. I heard them stomping down the hall, our boots a trademark of the FireCamp program. They were wearing the fire-resistant monstrosities inside the unit because Mr. Ham was here, a substitute officer. If our regular was in, they’d have taken them off at the door.
When they were halfway down the hallway, my door popped open and I shook my head. Mr. Ham didn’t meddle like other officers, and there was a running joke about how little he liked me, but he had obviously decided I needed to talk to someone. So, just this one time, with just one button, he meddled.
Steph was already talking to me.
In a daze, I made my way to my doorway, and she was standing in hers. Our rooms were just four tiles apart. Neither of us had bunkies right now, but where my room was a sparse testament to my hope for a roommate, hers was as colorful and chaotic as her curls. Her hair bobbed as she filled me in on the day, politely avoiding the question of why I had left early. Then she paused, her eyes sharpening and tuning in completely to my aura. Her voice went flat, a reflection of her intuitive skills that we jokingly called “psychic network”.
What happened. She demanded.
I guess, I stumbled over my words. I guess he died. Dave died.
She reacted as if slapped, her face paralyzing. Her arms opened and I made it the four steps into her hug. I’m sorry, I explained over hiccuping sobs, I don’t know how to tell people yet.
It’s okay, she cooed. It’s all going to be okay.
I stepped back, trying to get myself under control, but she held me still. Mr. Ham was the first person I told, you know.
What did he say, she asked, primed to go after anyone for saying the wrong thing.
I imitated his wide-eyed expressionless face. He said, “Oh.” When I came back to my room the first time, I was a little hysterical, and he walked down the hall and pretended to inspect the door to the outside, until I got a grip. He was like a little bald eagle watching over his eggs. I paused. Reflected. I knew he’d like me eventually.
l snorted a laugh, and then the laugh turned into a giggle, and then I couldn’t stop.
Only you, Ra, she laughed with me, tears still streaming down her eyes from shared grief. Only you.
Steph was on full-best-friend duty at that point on, and made me remember the important things like eating and showering, even when I wanted to forget it all.
I don’t remember who first told me I might be able to go to the funeral.
The only times I had heard of people walking out of prison gates before their release were Firehouse girls like me who went around the main property to take out trash and mow the lawns. There was a Cambodian girl who was taken by Immigration, and an unassuming blonde who was picked up by the Feds. There was an 80-year-old woman who applied for early release on the basis that she was dying of cancer and wouldn’t live much longer. Her application was filed under something with a kitschy name, but had to be approved by the warden, who of course did not approve it. To those of us in PIA panties, it was pretty much a given fact that the warden only wanted us out those gates if we were going to mow her lawn, fight fires for the state, or die from a suicide attempt prompted by prison isolation.
But then the idea became more than just a rumor. Officers and lifers told me to see if I could go. It’s called “TCL”, they said, and it might be very expensive.
It ended up being about $300. I went under escort with a correctional officer I had only briefly met before. She was kind and patient. She made steady conversation in the car, the sort that exceptional dental assistants put into full effect after they’ve just removed a piece of you. It was appreciated, and the parallels were noted.
I was numb and the universe had just removed a piece of me.
His name was Dave.
“His name was Dave, right?” my counselor filled out a form.
“Yes.” I said, watching as she assembled the file of information she needed to give me approval to leave. She would have to obtain seven signatures, so it could be approved.
We were lucky because I already had a gate pass– I was one of the five inmates housed in the California Institute for Women who had a gate pass in good standing. It meant I could go outside the gates on occasion. It, like my firehouse job itself, meant I was mostly harmless.
My counselor had faith I would be able to go, though getting the overwhelmingly-bureaucratic paperwork processed while doing everything else already on her plate was a formidable task. If I had felt anything at all, I would have been worried.
The night before the funeral, I hadn’t heard any confirmation yet.
Normally, my counselor would have gone home hours before, but I heard her come out of her office and cheer.
I smiled. She had done it.
Now I had to do my part.
I had never been the widow at a funeral before. You know the moment where she collapses and cries in a big heap of human bones and heart aches?
It isn’t just for the movies.
It’s something that actually happens.
The morning of the funeral, I was anxious because I had no idea what would happen. I had borrowed Steph’s button-down blue shirt, a throwback from the old days of CIW where inmates could be trusted with buttons. Steph had gotten it from someone who got it from somebody else. They were coveted enough that a simple walk down the hall would have two or three women asking if they could have it once I left. I was a short timer. Everyone knew I was eventually going home.
Not everyone knew I was going home for a minute today.
I didn’t know when I’d be called, so I went to the Officer’s Station to ask what to expect. I knew our regular wasn’t going to be there, he had told me the day before. I was worried the substitute would be heartless or tactless, or someone I simply didn’t like.
I said my prayers silently as I clomped down the hallway in my boots. I hadn’t worn prison blues since the last time I saw Dave, just a couple weeks before. Even then, I was out of practice, used to my firehouse orange clothes, to pants with pockets and non-elastic waistbands. You couldn’t go to visiting or to funerals in oranges, though. That much, I knew. I don’t know how I knew, but after some time, the arbitrary rules of prison start to make a sort of premeditated sense.
I popped my head into the station and was greeted by a long groan of exasperation.
It was Mr. Ham.
I’m not sure when he started shaking his head and groaning every time he saw me. I think it was a week or so after I met him, back when I was housed in RC, all the way back in November. Mr. Ham was a fixture of my existence. The one C.O. who never warmed to me, not even a little. The one C.O. who wouldn’t call me anything but my last name– no matter how I pleaded the case, and no matter how many alternate name options I provided.
Is this okay? I said, pointing at my outfit. The navy blue elastic pants and the sky blue button-down shirt. The silver earrings and watch that Dave sent me in a prison box, that arrived the day before Christmas, and two days before my anniversary.
It’s today? he asked, not needing to be reminded that I was going to the funeral. That was Mr. Ham for you. The worst part about him was that he didn’t forget details. The best part about him was that he didn’t forget details.
I nodded and listened as he explained that they’d call for me, but no, I couldn’t wear the earrings or the watch. I wouldn’t be handcuffed and the officer wouldn’t hover. I’d have to UA on leaving, and of course I’d be stripped out on return. In freeworlder terminology, that means I’d have to give a urine sample for drug testing before walking out the gates. This is done completely naked, with your legs spread far enough to see the urine stream, with the door open. Being stripped out means removing all your clothes and the classic cough-and-squat, with the added bonus of being flashlighted. The female officers in charge usually make it a lighthearted experience, and are usually regulars to the job. It’s an experience that you quickly acclimate to. As a firehouse girl, we get stripped out every time we come in through the gates, so it’s a just part of the job. UA’s are less common, but I’ve done that a time or two as well.
I don’t even know why I’m going, I blurted to him. I’m just going to cry.
That’s what you’re supposed to do, he said gently. Then, Are you going to, I don’t know…. iron your shirt?
I burst into laughter, and he held back, but I knew he wanted to laugh so I smiled and gave him my ID so I could borrow the iron.
It was hours later and we locked in. I heard his steady, familiar cadence stalk down the hallway. Unlike every other officer, Mr. Ham doesn’t jangle. He glides. It was one of the things that drove me crazy about him. I relied heavily on the fair warning of jangles. My door was keyed open and he said, It’s time, Ra.
My life must’ve looked pretty pitiful if Mr. Ham was willing to bend his rules and call me by name.
I hurried out the door.
We were late. Officer Williams was worried and apologetic, because she met my sister before the event. People are always worried when they don’t run on my sister’s schedule.
I told her not to worry. I wasn’t.
I didn’t sit where I was supposed to, but then I wasn’t wearing what I was supposed to, and it struck me that this whole funeral was something out of those stories that Dave wrote.
It seemed full, but I didn’t count. It felt decorated, but I didn’t look around. Somebody’s God was there in full force, but it wasn’t Dave’s. His family didn’t speak words, but they were the loudest people in the room.
My sister read something she assembled about the dichotomy and juxtaposition of Dave’s character. The words didn’t matter so much to me because I could tell my whole family contributed, and I could hear her grief.
My boss spoke. reading his wife’s words, and for a moment, cracked through my sorrow and reminded me of how Dave and I sparkled.
And, if you’re reading this, then you were there too. AR spoke for you, and she spoke well. I don’t remember her words, but she spoke our tone. She said there was no way you all would not be there for me, and there was resonance, artistry, pride, and deeply-rooted cosmic consciousness in every word. I don’t remember her words, but she spoke our truth, and I carried the sound of it all the way back to my cell.
The cell I had started calling home a long time ago. It was a strange thing to do, but Dave understood. Not everyone understands me.
Not everyone understood my husband, I said at the podium. He was a peaceful man, even though he wasn’t obvious about it. He wrote a piece of his peace for me, once, for our anniversary. He captured what he felt being married was like– the comfort and peace he had in life– and I think he’d want me to share those words with you today.
Outside the sprinklers circle water onto wide blades of grass. The drenched soil raises the worm to the surface. In the air is the chatter of bird song. The small brown feathers hop to the music. Their feet bounce across the ground in search for food. Wary, they watch the lazy predator watch them.
From the window sill, the fat gray cat considers the tiny sparrows. Her age is as long as her tail that drifts back and forth lazily. Resting on her side, her head turns at a peculiar angle against the wall. She lets the sun warm her. The Beauty comes up behind her stroking her thick fur like her mother once did a time ago. It’s a comforting purr that makes her eyes struggle to stay open. The old gray cat loses the energy to swish her tail. The Beauty, she thinks, is always soft to be with and always loving. Her age appreciates the Beauty’s magic bag of food, the one that never empties. The food clinks into her dish like a dinner bell.
Sensing the cat’s contentment the Beauty pulls away to meander the house. She begins to sing again like she always does. The cat prefers the Beauty’s song to the sharp racket of the little browns outside. Reflecting that the Beauty’s voice is like the sun warming and soothing her body.
Amidst the Beauty’s chorus the Man comes home. Not interrupting her, he pulls the door closed. She hasn’t heard him and the song goes on.
The cat’s eyes follow the movement with a minimum of energy. The Man slowly puts his arms around the Beauty purring into her ear. The two lovers curl up onto the bed to talk about the day. Not about work or what the old woman across the street did but the important things. The Man mentions the way the sun rose this morning as he was getting dressed. The Beauty talks about how the sprinklers threw a rainbow over the lawn.
The cat jumps from her perch, the pads of her feet make a soft thud on the ground. Climbing onto the bed she tickles the Beauty’s nose with her tail and greets the Man with her whiskers. The cat chooses a narrow crevice between the two bodies to lie.
Outside, free to roam, the birds thank the Beauty and the Man. With the gray away they pull up worms to whisk them away to their families. The cat doesn’t mind, she’s too old to be chasing the little browns across the big green. Besides she has the magic bag of food, the Beauty and the Man. Yes, the cat thinks, there’s always comfortable warmth between the couple in love.
That was just approximate.
I don’t remember what I said, though I did read his words precisely. We drove back talking about miscellaneous things, and I went through one gate and then another. I stood naked over a toilet, legs spread as I urinated for a woman I met only hours before. A woman who took me to my husband’s funeral where I saw the ashes of him piled in a box. A woman who didn’t know me at all, who I’d probably never see again– a piercing perpendicular to the man who knew me better than anyone, who I’d also never see again.
I walked back to my unit, thinking about how he would have laughed. Everything about this story would have tickled his morbidity and caught his interest. He would have understood my pain at being called a widow, when really what I am is a girl who lost her best friend. He would have been annoyed that there’s no word for that, and then he’d have invented one because he never let me go without something I needed.
Going without, I told myself, was something I was going to have to get used to.
I closed my cell door, and curled up in the bunk with his picture. Outside, the sprinklers circled water onto wide blades of grass. It was cold in the room, but I was telling Dave all about the funeral, and I was warm.
There’s always a comfortable warmth between a couple in love.