prison: the magic words

May 2015

I run up the Captain’s room at the firehouse, and peek my head in the door. My team lead comes up beside me and shouts into the room: “Wood pussy!”

The captain looks at me for clarification and I repeat joyfully:

“Wood pussy!”

I put my hands up in the air like claws and make a hissing sound. My team lead plugs her nose. Our giggles are silent but palpable. We’re shaking with enthusiasm.

The oldest captain is on duty today. He retires this year. He looks at us silently and I can almost hear him counting down the days. He sets his spoon back down in his cereal bowl, wipes his mustache as he walks towards the door, and shuts it in our face.

We burst into little riots of laughter and head back to read the dictionary some more. We’re keeping a list of archaic or obscure names for things, and sharing our knowledge with our unwilling captains.

A wood pussy is a skunk. The dictionary is mine, mailed in by a blog friend, and it’s already been dibbed for when I go home and leave it behind. Here, we can only own six books at a time, and two of mine are always dictionaries because we don’t have the internet. Sometimes I need a map, or a guide to measurement equivalencies. Sometimes I need a synonym or a translation.

Two weeks ago, my husband died.

Sometimes I just need a distraction.

____________________________________________

November 2019

I’m in the hospital again, this time in the waiting room to talk to the people who want to talk about money.

There is a woman next to me.

She’s grandmotherly in appearance, and nervous. She smiles at me and points to an engine outside. “When I was little girl,” she says, “I wanted to be a firefighter.”

I smile. “I did, too,” I tell her. “And not just any firefighter. I wanted to work for the fire station in Scarry Town. Do you know thoes books?”

She smiles and nods. Before she can respond, a man comes out of the room and hands her a folder full of papers, and a clipboard of papers that need signing.

She looks down and sighs, softly and sadly.

I have a folder like that, too. It’s a strange thing to hold. To know that the papers in your hands, and the paper they represent, can bury you before you die.

She isn’t looking anywhere in particular, and I interrupt her reverie.

“I became a firefighter, you know.”

She looks at me then, curious and delighted.

“In prison.”

She puts the papers to the side and scoots closer to me. “Did they let you ride on the truck?”

I laugh. “Yes, the engine was my favorite part. And my Chief was my second favorite part.” I paused and winked. “He looked exactly like the captain from Scarry Town.”

Her laugh was joyful and for a second, she didn’t seem worried at all.

“I learned something important in prison, something I think about when I have to do things like this.” I lean over to whisper dramatically.

“Wood pussy.”

She reacts to the absurdity of the word, but a man interrupts by appearing out of nowhere and handing me a stack of papers. I squeak, a peek of laughter sneaking out, and the man looks carefully at us both.

We’re trying to keep it together. Though our giggles are silent, they are palpable. We’re shaking with it.

When the man finally leaves, through laughter, I explain, “It means skunk!” I tell her about the dictionaries and my ever-tired captains, and she snorts along with the tale.

It’s not really that funny and it never has been, but sometimes you just need someone to share a laugh with you. Sometimes you just need to know there’s more to do, more to learn, just… more.

And sometimes, sometimes, you just need a distraction.

.

.

(Tis the season: 🌶️🎉)