CHRISTMAS DAY 2002
The lean, wiry woman let the door of the central dining room bang behind her, taking in big gulps of clean, cold air. Not a moment too soon. If she had to listen to the kitchen “super” gripe about one more thing, she might do something that would land her in solitary. Nag, nag, nag—that’s all she ever does. I cain’t do nothin’ right. It’d be easy to take down that cow, big as she was—but she couldn’t go there. Had to stay cool.
Four months down . . . 116 to go.
The woman hunched her shoulders against the sharp bite of the wind, wishing she’d put on a couple more layers—but it was sweltering working the big steam dishwasher in the CDR kitchen. Digging in a pocket of her jean jacket for a cigarette, she turned her back until she got the thing lit, then she leaned against the building, blowing smoke into the wind, watching it get snatched away.
Beyond the squat, two-story “cottages” sprawled in an awkward line from the CDR to the visitors’ center, she could see the ten-foot wire fence rimming the perimeter of the prison yard, topped by rolls of razor wire like a great, wicked Slinky toy. Humph. That fence might keep them in, but it sure didn’t keep the bone-chilling prairie wind out.
She switched the cigarette to her left hand so she could warm up her right one under her armpit inside the jean jacket. Christmas Day . . . so what? Not enough to do. Any other Wednesday she’d be in the prison school. She was going to get her GED if it killed her—not that it would. Maybe college too. If she could survive an addiction to the lethal Big Four—heroin, methadone, vodka, and Valium—surely algebra and Illinois history weren’t going to waste her.
And “Christmas dinner”—what a joke. Yeah, they’d been served slices of pressed turkey, blobs of mashed potatoes covered in greasy gravy, sweet potatoes smothered with melted marshmallows in big metal pans on the steam table, along with “the trimmings”—jellied cranberry sauce, Jell-O salad, rolls, butter pats, and canned cherry cobbler. Okay, it was one step up from the usual “mystery mess” and seasick-gray canned vegetables. Still, the long tables of sad women hunched over their trays, spearing food with plastic forks, served as a painful reminder that they weren’t home for Christmas.
Only two food fights had broken out, though—chalk that up to the holiday spirit.
“Wallace!” A sharp bark from inside the CDR caught her like a watchdog on the prowl. “What makes ya think we done with these dishes? Get yo’ butt in here, or I’m gonna cut yo’ pay hours.”
The woman named Wallace deliberately took a slow drag on her cigarette before dropping it on the ground and grinding it out with her Nike. Cut my pay hours—big deal. At fifty cents an hour, it wasn’t a big loss. Still, the job added to her credit in the commissary and helped fill the hours. But she was going to quit this lousy kitchen gig—tomorrow, if possible. Already her hands looked like pale pink prunes. Even piecework in the factory would be better than this. Maybe they needed somebody to shelve books in the library . . . or do garden-and-grounds. Yeah, that was it! Garden-and-grounds. Physical work. Outdoors—
Well, come spring, anyway.
Finally rid of her soaked apron and the sour-hot breath of the kitchen supervisor, Becky Wallace made her way back to C-5, one of the minimum-security cottages at Lincoln Correctional Center, a cement-and-wire fortress sitting on the Illinois prairie. The rec room on the lower level of the CDR was open seven to nine tonight, like most evenings. But maybe the pileup at the pay phone in the cottage had dwindled. She fingered the scrap of paper in the pocket of her jean jacket, making sure it was still there. A phone number . . . some woman up in Chicago had sent her a number last week. She’d been afraid to call, afraid to hear the voice on the other end. Afraid not to.
Today, though, she was going to suck up the courage. Surely her baby’s foster parents wouldn’t refuse to accept her collect call on Christmas Day.
A Department of Corrections truck sat in front of the door of C-5, piled with parts of the standard-issue metal bunk beds and a stack of narrow mattresses. She peppered the truck with a string of cuss words. Were they sticking more new arrivals in her cottage? The dorm on the first floor was already packed to the max. Maybe they were going to double-up the single rooms upstairs. Her name had moved up on the list for the second floor. Man! She’d give anything for a single. Yet if she had to have a roommate, that’d still be better than sleeping like cordwood in a woodpile.
Even walking to the bathroom was like playing Russian roulette, never knowing who was going to hit you up for your last cigarette or bust you one for “dissin’” her in the food line. And just when she got everybody figured out—who to watch out for, who to stand up to, who to give a wide berth—they stuck in some newbie who upset the whole social order.
The TV was babbling in the day room, and a game of Bid Whist was going on at one of the card tables. But the phone in the hallway was free, screwed to the wall facing the front door of the cottage like a one-eyed mole planted there to spy on their comings and goings. Behind that wall—squeezed between the day room on the left and the dorm on the right—was a small kitchen with a hot plate and a fridge, and an even smaller room with a washer, dryer, and ironing board.
Becky stood looking at the scratched-up black phone a moment. Finally she picked up the receiver and punched zero, then the numbers on her scrap of paper. One ring . . . two . . .
“Operator. How may I assist you?”
“Wanna make a call. Uh—collect.”
“State your name, please.”
“Becky Wallace.” Andy’s mommy, she wanted to say. But didn’t.
The line seemed to go dead. A long stretch of silence. Had she been cut off? Two men in service uniforms came clattering down the stairs, followed by a female guard, arguing about the double bunk that had just been delivered as they went out the door, leaving it standing open. Becky slammed it shut with a well-aimed kick, then she turned back to the phone as a tinny voice spoke in her ear. “I’m sorry. That number does not answer. Please try again later.”
Becky swore, fighting the urge to rip the phone right out of the wall. Not home? Where were they? Didn’t they know how much she needed to talk to her baby? On Christmas, for—
“Hey, Wallace!” A tall girl the color of light caramel came in the door. “You got a package.” She held out a brown box, neatly taped.
Becky stared at it. “Ain’t no mail call today. It’s a holiday.”
The girl shrugged. “Musta got lost in the mailroom. Somebody asked me to drop it off.” She grinned. “Maybe it’s food.”
Not likely. “Thanks.” The tall girl was all right—kept her nose clean. Athletic. Maybe they could form a volleyball team when the weather loosened up. But the girl was too nice. She’d have to make sure she covered the girl’s back if anybody ever messed with her.
Becky took the package and headed for her bunk in the dorm room. A quick glance told her that five women were already sitting or lying on their bunks, ready to be done with Christmas Day. Kneeling beside her lockbox, she twirled the combination lock and dropped the package inside. Later.
The lights-out order had been given; the front and back doors to the cottage locked. Muffled snores slowly coursed through various parts of the room like belly rumbles after a meal of chili beans. Still Becky Wallace waited. Finally, she slid a hand under her pillow and drew out the package. She sat up, slowly, quietly, so as not to wake her bunkmate above.
Light filtered in through the barred windows of the dorm room from the floodlights in the prison yard, and she peered at the sending company: Estée Lauder. What kinda business was that?
The tough packing tape had been slit open for inspection and retaped with ordinary office tape, which easily gave way under her sharp thumbnail. A whiff of something fruity—melon?—spilled out of the box as she lifted the lid. In the dim light, she felt inside the box. Nestled in a bed of shredded, crinkled paper lay long plastic tubes of various sizes . . . a small round jar . . . a spritzer with liquid inside. Carefully she lifted out one of the plastic tubes, unscrewed the lid, and squeezed. A delicious squirt of creamy silk fell cool and soft into her hand.
Hand cream. Rich, velvety hand cream. Slowly she spread it over her hard, cracked knuckles and worked it into the chapped skin on the backs of her hands. Then she silently began to weep.