by Phebe Jewell
Diane’s sure she’s the first visitor through the prison security, but a skinny guy already waits on the bench while she puts on her shoes. Face like a tackle box. Pierced nose, eyebrow, ears. Bet if he opened his mouth to say ‘ahhh’ she’d catch sight of a metal slug dead center in his tongue. Her daughter Jackie used to look like that. Hooks and rings shoved in every possible hole she poked in herself.
If she hadn’t landed in prison, Jackie would have died long ago. Diane’s two hour drive here from the coast sucks, but it’s better than leaving flowers on a grave.
Skinny Guy nods as Diane sits on the bench across from him. She smiles at his ‘I Used to Be a People Person Until I Met People’ tee shirt. She knows the type. Thinks he’s fooling everyone with that I-don’t-give-a-fuck look. Tough guy wannabe with gold Black Power fists in his ears.
‘Here for the Black History event?’ Skinny Guy’s voice is surprisingly deep.
Diane nods. ‘Every year if I can.’ He’s really asking Why are you here? You’re not even Black. Leaning down to tighten her shoelaces she adds, ‘My daughter’s been behaving herself, so she was allowed to invite me.’
Skinny Guy leans toward her. ‘What’s it like?’
‘I don’t know.’ She shifts in her seat. ‘Each year it’s different. Poems. Famous Black women. Music. A special lunch with chicken and greens, red beans and rice. Cake and ice cream too.’
Skinny Guy grins, and Diane glimpses silver in his mouth. She knows he’s dying to ask What did she do? How long does she have? How do you cope? Diane stopped thinking that way years ago. She points at the two fish swimming in opposite directions on his forearm. ‘Nice tattoo. Pisces?’
He nods. ‘Birthday present.’
The benches are filling up with people. Black. White. Mixed. Conversations buzz in English and Spanish and Tagalog. She gets up and sits down next to him.
‘When does it start?’ Skinny Guy asks as they move closer to give an old woman in hijab room next to them. Portraits of prison superintendents, past and present, scrutinize the visitors from the opposite wall.
‘Ten. But you never know. The schedule can always change. Hope they don’t start late. I’m heading to Ocean Shores after, digging for clams.’
Skinny Guy’s voice drops to a whisper. ‘I’m here for my sister.’
She holds out her hand. ‘I’m Diane.’
‘Kenny.’ His calloused hand is moist but warm. ‘I do what I can. Let her know I haven’t forgotten her. I’m all she’s got.’
He’s in his late 20s, just a kid. She turns to face him. ‘My daughter’s getting out soon. She’s got me and her grandpa. Lots of women have nobody.’
Now that she’s sitting closer to him, Diane sees thin lines crease his forehead. His braids are a mess and his mouth needs a dentist. The eyebrow piercing is puffy and red.
‘You know you can put money in her canteen and JPay, don’t you? A little makes a big difference.’
‘I’ve done that,’ he says in a low voice. ‘Feels like I can’t do enough for her, you know?’
After seven years Diane knows it’s never enough. The best anyone can do is show up. Diane pats Kenny’s arm. ‘Your sister’s going to be all right. She’s got you. Keep letting her know you’re there for her. You working?’
‘Some construction here and there.’ Kenny leans against the back of the bench, shoulders wide. Pride will only take this boy and his sister so far. She saw too much of that growing up on the rez. No one can do it alone, inside or out. ‘I get by.’
I get by. Sounds like something Brie, Jackie’s friend in the unit, would say. Brie’s already done twelve years, thirteen more to go. Abandoned by family right after her arrest. Once Jackie’s out, Diane will visit Brie when she can, maybe send her money.
As the guard arrives to escort the visitors to the gym, Diane touches Kenny’s shoulder. ‘It’s not going to be easy. Don’t be afraid to ask for help,’ and slips him a piece of paper with her name and number. The visitors follow the guard through two barbed wire gates. The duty sergeant barks at a woman for covering her visitor badge with a sweater. Squeezing through a narrow hallway bordered by airlock doors, they enter the courtyard. Kenny shivers in the cold and grins at Diane. He’ll be ok. After the celebration she’ll head back to the coast. If she’s not home too late and the tide’s out, she’ll fill a bucket, maybe two.
Phebe Jewell’s recent work appears or is forthcoming in XRAY, Ellipsis Zine, Writers Resist, Crack the Spine, Bad Pony, and The Citron Review. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison.
Read her work at http://phebejewellwrites.com.