ILL NOT IN THE MIND
Sonja looks up on the way to the bodega and sees a prison transport bound for the courthouse downtown, sees the dark figures of inmates through the tinted windows and knows they are handcuffed, some chained feet-to-floor, and knows at least one guard is aboard, armed with a shotgun good at close range and a belt of shells long enough to sustain a rush of prisoners intent on escape.
San Diego County Sheriff.
She sees the bus and recalls a trip in the car with her sister out in the Carolinas where they passed a group of convicts by the side of the highway—a dozen or so male inmates unchained and walking single-file toward some menial cleanup task, bookended by potbellied prison guards holding big rifles down but at the ready, the gloomy, cold steel barrels reaching well past their knees.
Run, won’t you.
Make my day and make a break for it, clay pigeon.
Take a picture.
No Nina. Doesn’t seem right.
Sonja stumbles on the curb now, looks back and the bus has made its turn onto Fourth Avenue. She enters the liquor store. She knows another bus will come through tomorrow, full again with prisoners wearing the same uniform and chains she wore not a week previous, lurching along like a toppled monolith gliding on well worn railroad tracks.
“My god,” says Jason from behind the counter. “Jail made you even prettier.”
“Stronger too,” says Sonja. “Marlboro Reds.”
“No stoli, my love? Don’t tell me you went straight in the pen.”
“Not completely,” she says, then rolls up her sleeve to flex a bicep. “Did pull-ups and push-ups all day. Still criminal though, Jay. Don’t think I haven’t already cased this shithole.”
Jason blushes and rings her up. She looks him in the eye and lights up a smoke.
“You can’t smoke in here,” he says.
“Okay, Jay.” She exhales. “Alright.”
Sonja I am so glad you’re out. That is what Sonja’s mother says to her daughter when her daughter shows up at the door. And then she asks how did you get here from the jail? And when her daughter says the bus she replies come on, Calipatria is out by the Salton Sea. You’re right, Ma. No direct flights on a Sunday so I had to find a way. And her mother says never mind it. Don’t start. Are you hungry? You must be hungry.
“You’ll not believe the story I heard about the artist down the street,” continues Ma. She begins to fuss in the kitchen with supper.
“Ma, I’m just out. Tell me about Nina and her boys.”
“Oh your sister. She’s fine. Out in Chicago. Isaac and David are in middle school now, sixth and eighth grade I think. She was so mad when I told her about the weather here! They’re snowed in. So the artist—”
“Hush, honey. Let me tell it. This artist lives on the twentieth floor in a real nice studio, walls lined with canvas and everything. Real eccentric. Eats marijuana is what Genie says, then stays up all night at work painting things. I guess he’s known in Los Angeles. Except he can’t—oh, what’s his damn name, Gary Watson or something. Anyway, he’s all affected and touchy, says he can’t sleep among his work or he wakes up and goes nuts like those Viet Nam flashbacks your father used to have.”
Sonja opens the fridge and there are two two-liters of Mello Yello she wishes were beer. She wishes for club soda and a quart of stoli and a tray of ice in the freezer. She wishes for anything but fucking soft drinks.
“So he wears an eye pillow, this Gary artist something or other, so he doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night and flip out.”
“You said that.” Sonja turns on the television and listens to her mother go on from the kitchen.
“Anyway. I guess this Gary gets around on his woman and whatever else. So the other night he puts on his eye pillow and boom, there’s a sewing needle tucked into it. Puts his left eye out. We heard him shrieking all the way down here.”
“Jesus, Ma. Please.”
The phone rings and Sonja’s mother answers.
“Oh hi, Nina. Yes. Yes. Here Sonja, say hello to your sister.”
On Friday afternoon, Sonja sees the prison transport again and wonders if this time it is filled with females. She wonders if they might be headed out to Calipatria after sentencing at the courthouse downtown. She never liked the bus because it was dusty and quiet and uncomfortable, but the girls could be a gas no matter where they were. Look Sonja, Billie would say while they waited in the bread line. Don’t these stripes make my ass look fat? I think some of the newbies will definitely want me now. During visitation, while waiting in line for pat-and-search, Debbie would say I hope you didn’t try to smuggle any cigarettes in your cooter. I’ll check if the guards miss it. And after the one time Nina came in to visit from the east coast, that one goddam time two years ago, Lillie said heard your sister brought you a dildo. New or used and where’d she hide that shit?
Sonja gets her smokes and a pint of Stolichnaya to go with it.
“That was quick,” says Jason.
“Quicker than you during a lap dance at Deja Vu?”
The woman next in line sniggers and Jason blushes again.
To prove I can, Sonja says to herself when she is back in the halfway house. She stashes the bottle in her closet, wrapped in a sock and tucked away where someone like her would never think to find it.
To prove I can have it around, she thinks. To prove I can sleep with it ten feet away and not run to fuck it in the morning.
“Well that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” says Israel on the following Saturday. “That’s like an open relationship, sweetheart.” She empties a line onto the glass table. “Doesn’t work.”
“This is a halfway house, Iz.”
Israel takes a fat one and sits back, reeling and floating in the lining of her nostrils and then in the space between her synaptic bridges.
“So?” she finally says. “No one’s here and you never touched the stuff.”
“Impenetrable bitch logic.”
“Come on,” says Israel. “Let’s grab that bottle and make a day of it. We can celebrate you getting out, all the big words you learned. Everything.”
“By getting me kicked out and put back in? Goddam you. Goddam you, Izzie.” Israel arranges another one on the table. “They’d tear you up, you know that? Grab your hair and shove your face down until you turn blue.”
“Yeah, well fuck you, Sonja. If I’d have known they made a square out of you I’d have never come to see you in the first place.” She gathers the excess powder from the glass table and licks her index finger before leaving. Sonja turns on the television and finds some cartoons like they used to play before school, back when Israel and Calipatria weren’t anything that existed in her mind.
Three years ago, Israel and Sonja were just out of high school and they shoplifted a quart of Wild Turkey to hold them over until the blow came through. No junk today. Need to score. What do you think, Iz? Let’s ask your sister to lend us the money, she said. No, come on. Nina would never go for it. True. Bottle’s out. What if we ask Jay front us a couple lids? Wouldn’t take us long to turn it around.
He did it too. And like any good coward shitbag small time hustler he seemed a long way away when the dog sat down next to Israel while she and Sonja were waiting in Santa Fe station to go up the coast where the work was. That’s what they do, the dogs—they sit down.
“Who gave it to you?” asked Sergeant Such-and-Such.
“It’ll be worse.”
“That’s a lot of weight.”
“It’s hers,” said Israel.
“Fine. You, you get the fuck out of here. And you. Don’t you want to go with her?”
“Give me a name.”
“Or you could come closer and put your hand here. Right here. See it?”
Jason. Jason. JASON, you hear? Sonja wanted to scream at this man.
“—that’s it? Nothing? Okay. I gave you a chance.”
Israel was already gone then. That was three years ago.
“Okay, sir. “
“Ink your finger then put it there. Sonja. That’s S-O-N—”
“None to speak of, officer. None to speak of at all.”
There was a Christmas party on Monday. Nina came in with her husband Marek and the boys.
“Auntie Sonja,” asked Isaac. “Where have you been?”
“Oh just away a while, sweetheart.”
Ma was returning to the box of wine again when Sonja saw her sister stretching her blouse back and caressing her belly. Marek came over.
“Three years I haven’t seen you, Sonja.” He finished his wine.
He went to the fridge and took out a Budweiser. He came back.
“Listen. You know we love you. Nina loves you and the kids do too.”
“Don’t tell our kids you went away. Can you not tell our kids you went away?”
Sonja looked off toward her sister, pregnant for the third time and talking with Ma. The kids had run off to play games in the basement where the pool table is. More family was arriving. She could smell the ham in the oven and the potato salad was already out on the counter.
“We don’t think it would be good for them to know,” continued Marek. Sonja leaned in.
“That I was handcuffed and taken away?” she whispered. “That it was really a pound and not twenty-four lids like the district attorney said? Okay, Marek. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
Marek sipped his beer.
Sonja didn’t laugh.
“Okay, Sonja. Welcome home.”
Sonja never felt more uncomfortable than she did in business attire. Business slacks and business jackets and business make-up. Business hair. Business face. Business watch. Look at your business watch. It’s time.
“State is a fine school,” says Mr. Washington. “Literature is a favorite area of mine. What have you been up to since graduating?”
And she thinks about involuntary cunnilingus and pull-ups—about picking books out of the lending library and reading them to completion and then tearing her hair out and then no one really came to see her so she read the Bible cover to cover and she read and she read and she stared at the wall and then read Anna Karenina again. She read Anna Karenina again and stared at the cinderblock wall and then read it again.
“Excuse me. I’ve been rebuilding.”
“Sonja, have you ever been incarcerated?”
“You’re not allowed to ask me that.”
“I’m asking you that.”
And now she knows she has read everything he has twice. She looks at him and thinks about how she watched freeway traffic so long she wanted to run into it and hug it. How she showered naked every day with fifty other women for three years, some of them killers. Some of them rapists. Some of them accused of making designs on fast food franchises, maybe even this very location. Some of them would string you up, do you know that? Do you know that there are vipers out in this world that would come in here and string you up for all the cash in the register? For double-cheeseburgers. For an order of fries. A large soda. Those are the people you want to hire, Mr. Washington. They’ll trade you most of what they have for something stable, something they can count on. A paycheck and some benefits for their kids. They’ll trade you their loyalty. That or they’ll string you up.
“I’ve been far afield, Jack,” says Sonja. “I’ve eaten one million cheeseburgers.”
“That’s Mr. Washington.”
“And Calipatria, Jack.”
The bus is back again and Sonja is saying to herself so what if you didn’t pass your little test? So what, Sonja? Did you think you’d be perfect back on the other side? Plus I think you’ve earned it. Hell, Izzie practically shoved your nose in it. And no, she’s not vindicated. She’ll know vindication someday soon and it won’t be hers.
Easy, girl. I wouldn’t cross on red . . . if you get picked up . . . if you get picked up . . . say, there goes the bus again. Stop! Stop, you steely bastard! Open the goddam door you fat pigs! I want in! Let me the fuck in.
Back on it, eh Sonja? That’s what Jason says standing behind his counter, answering anonymous calls on his mobile phone from a guy that knows a guy that needs a guy to come through.
“You would say that, Jay. You know you could be on that bus? You know you were this goddam close? You and that bitch Israel. Hey driver! My stop! Let me on with the others! Is that Deb in there? Deb! How much longer Deb? Oh me? I’m out but found where I was hiding it. I’ll dry out back on the inside. You know!”
“Them chains do look good on you though. Goddam, girl. The new ones must love you.”
“And you, Jay. You quit that. Shut your mouth. What’s it to you when a bitch hollers? Ever been deloused? You don’t know how close you came. Chained to the floor, Jay. They make shower fodder of backwater immigrants like you. Just another bitch when it’s hollering. And how about them Marlboro Reds, Jay? Do your part. Go to the shelf and make it the usual.”
“Shut up, Jason. Shut up shut up shut up SHUT UP. Shut up and hand it over, Jay. Can’t you see the bus is waiting?”