Today people shared that the word of the year for Collin’s dictionary is lockdown, and I wonder what other dictionaries will pick. It seems like a reasonable choice even though lockdown will always mean something entirely different to me.
In California state prisons, lockdown refers to the time when the prison effectively closes, and all incarcerated folk are back in their room. Lockdown happens at the end of every night. It can happen for a few hours in the day after a fight, or a few days when the feds decide to look around, or any length of time for any reason. On lockdown, there’s no library or classes, or yard time, or dayrooms, or even work for most people. If you leave your cell at all, it’s to meet a specific task while under a fairly watchful eye.
We were on lockdown when I got a pass to go see the prison captains. They were going to tell me that my husband had died, but I didn’t know that yet. Firehouse girls work through most lockdowns, by nature of our job, but correctional officers like to exert the full extent of their control during lockdowns so I got stopped every minute on my way to their offices anyway.
I wish I could explain everything that happened between being issued the pass and actually getting to the officers station. Not because it’s important, but because it shows the unnecessary bustle of a life lived by the consent of others, and how it wears you down. If you haven’t served time, it wouldn’t make any sense even if I wrote it out in detail. Imagine a pinball machine themed to bureaucracy.
No, imagine a small mouse getting through a maze guarded by cats of various personalities.
Mouse gets a notice to get to the center of the maze. She smiles at City Cat who looks down on all the country cats. She is a mouse but he sees the city in her and give her a ride in his cart. They talk about education and tall buildings and people with many many letters after their name. She arrives at a gate protected by Goofy Cat. The one who likes to play dead and play fetch, and doesn’t care if you are a mouse or a cat so long as you are willing to play. But it is lockdown, and Goofy Cat is conflicted. He looks at Mouse for a whole minute or two. She shows him her papers but doesn’t plea or beg favors, and she sees the moment he realizes how he likes that about her, so he opens the gate. Distracted Cat hisses at her, but offers no real set back. Burly Cat looks at her papers and has her turn in circles like a piece of rotisserie chicken at the grocery store, but Distracted Cat calls her over, and Mouse continues on. At the office she reaches a cat she once likened to a red panda. Did you know red pandas have no real living relatives? They look like so many things, but belong to none of those groups truly. Red Panda is having a bad day, and sends her back to the beginning. He tells her to find her Fire Captain Cats and have them properly sign the paperwork she holds. She scurries past everyone, smiling apologetically at Goofy Cat, who seems disappointed in her. Through the gate, she begins the search for the Fire Captain Cats, but they are the sort that like to hide. The sort that edge close to walls and then disappear behind bushes. She is in their care, though, and they come out to sign the paperwork, and then slink away. The walk back is long without City Cat’s cart, but Goofy Cat lets her through, and she avoids the gaze of at least three cats on the way back to Red Panda who lets her in.
She sighs in relief. She smiles as she enters a room so full of badges that all the light seems to come from the groupings of cat eyes.
“I’m sorry for this unfortunate news, but it seems that your husband was found dead.”
There it is.
The center of this lockdown maze.
People and memes like to think that all cats are the same. People who haven’t been to jail or prison tend to write all officers the same, all inmates the same, and this culture seeps into prison itself. It’s easy to forget that we are not transformed into an amalgamation of an inmate specimen upon arrest.
I wasn’t watching myself, so I don’t know what my little mouse body did, or how my little mouse body squeaked, but I remember that it was something they were not expecting. I saw the shift, in their stance and eyes. It shifted something.
This room of strangers bore witness to my deepest shock, and for a minute or two, I remember there were no cat eyes anywhere. Just wide, pained human eyes that were as befuddled as I. Just a roomful of people remembering that people die, and it rips a hole in the universe, and the only thing for it is uneven stitches that take a lifetime to dissolve.
Just a roomful of people thinking — how many stitches will I leave?
Just a roomful of people remembering old stitches, fearing new ones, wondering if they’ve loved enough in this life.
But the bureaucracy pinball game pings on, and when it was time to be moused again, it happened instantly. My steady human gait turned into a scurry before I reached the door, my aching human heart almost glad for a tiny mouse body to hide within.
My shoulders crunched together, and I headed back into another maze.
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