By Lauryn E. Nosek
A buzzer sounded and echoed off of the concrete, steel, and razor wire that held the prison together. It was visiting day and the guards were in the process of reading off the numbers of those prisoners with people waiting to see them (there were more on the list than one might expect). Joe Wilson heard his number rattled off with the others and sighed.
He knew who it would be the same way he always knew who it would be. As much as she wanted to see him, he didn’t want to see her. There had been other times when he’d hoped to see Elizabeth or their son, Danny, sitting in the folding chairs on the other side of the bulletproof glass holding the telephone’s receiver up between them so they would both be able to hear him, eager to talk with him, see him with their own eyes, hear his son call him “Daddy” just once more. But he’d long since given up hope of ever seeing anyone other than his mother, or on the rare occasion his father, waiting for him on the other side of the glass.
At that same moment, Kim Wilson sat impatiently fiddling with the cuff of her shirtsleeve. She pulled on a thread making the cloth fray further. She would need to mend it when she got home later. Right now she was poking her fingers through the hole, slowly making it larger. As usual, she was feeling nervous about seeing her son. Each time she came to this place she hoped that when he was escorted into the room by the guard he would be happy to see her.
She remembered vividly the way his face would light up the moment he saw her come through the door of the daycare center at the end of the day, running and hugging her legs, and later the principal’s office when he’d gotten himself into trouble. He had been such an adorable child and she’d never been able to stand the look his features created whenever he was disappointed. The only expression that was worth seeing on his face was one of joy, and she would do just about everything in her power to keep that look from going away.
Joe stood in line with the other inmates as the guards frisked them one-by-one, a difficult task considering they never removed the handcuffs, but they had developed a system for dealing with the issue. One inmate, three men ahead of Joe, was found with a sharpened toothbrush sown into the lining of his jumpsuit. He was sent back to his cell near to tears. The guards were overheard discussing solitary confinement in loud whispers. The inmate would not be seeing his wife this time around and he may have blown his chances of ever seeing her again before his release.
Joe found himself wondering why he hadn’t done something like that. It was the perfect escape from ever having to do this again. He quickly put the thought out of his mind. After the first two visits, there had been many occasions when he’d contemplated putting an end to the torture. But he’d seen he needed to be punished for what he’d done, and had decided that these painful sessions would be part of that retribution. It was one of the few times when he felt a true sense of obligation towards something. All of his life Joe had been trying to make his parents really hear him. He’d given up on actually speaking to them about how he felt when he was still in elementary school.
Kim adjusted the Tupperware container of chocolate-chip cookies she’d baked for her son, rearranging the pile of discs so that the bottom was no longer visible where the guards (whose duty it was to search the incoming gifts for the inmates for incendiary devices and other inappropriate means for an escape) had swiped a few of the tasty treats for themselves to enjoy. Mrs. Wilson had been coming there for so long that most of the guards knew her by sight if not by reputation. She’d discovered the guards’ habit of testing the cookies by putting their own lives at risk and had learned to bake a double batch to make up for what they took and even encouraged them to take one more. The guards had to fight for the visiting days that they knew she would be coming in. They appreciated her efforts for making their days less dreary and always smiled as she went through their security gates, something they did not have the opportunity to do enough of while on duty.
Kim didn’t realize that the guards discussed her situation behind her back, smiled more from pity than from gratitude. They’d seen women like her before, coming to see an ungrateful relative, but it still pulled at their emotions when someone as nice as she was kept putting herself through that.
Kim could remember a time when Joe had been about five years old and was watching her make the same cookies. When he thought she wasn’t paying attention to the bowl he would stick in his small finger and pull out a gob of cookie dough to shove into his mouth. When he sensed her watchful eyes on his body, he would smile and beg for another warm cookie, pointing to one still on the tray. Each time he put a bite in his mouth she pretended not to see or gave her verbal consent, smiling as he took more and more. His joy at having tricked her was so innocent. Only seven cookies made it to the plate by the time the bowl had been scraped clean, the aluminum foil thrown away, and the dishwasher loaded. Joe had been sick and miserable all night. Kim felt as guilty as if she had sat there spooning the junk into his little mouth with her own hands; after all, how could she expect Joe to know any better. When John Wilson found Kim crying in the bathroom as she worked at washing Joe’s vomit out of the bathmats, he asked his wife why she hadn’t stopped Joe from eating so much, all she could do was shrug her shoulders. There were no words to make her husband understand what had been in Joe’s face that made her allow it to continue.
The guard had moved beyond Joe and began searching the man in line behind him, giving Joe a chance to readjust the orange jumpsuit as best he could with his hands so restrained, not that there was much that could be done about the appearance of a person in such an outfit. The shade of orange screamed at all who saw it until they needed to close their eyes against it. Running the linked hands through his hair only made it look like he’d been in a fight so he ran them through again.
He remembered one time in particular when he had been about fifteen years old. It was the first day of high school and his mother had gone back-to-school shopping for him (he’d been dragged along with her but hadn’t indicated one way or the other about any of the outfits she’d held up by their plastic hangers, so she’d bought all of them) and had spent more than two hundred dollars on the new clothes. Even though the bus stop was only four houses down the street (not even a hundred yards away), Kim insisted on driving him to the high school on this most important day, the first day of high school. He’d stayed up late the night before quietly dyeing his hair green, strategically ripping and fraying his jeans (even using a few permanent markers and some bleach on the crisp, clean denim). He used bike chain to make two bracelets (one for him and one for a girl he would find that he knew his parents would hate) and hooked a linked chain from one pocket to another on the destroyed pants in an eerie premonition of things to come. His alarm had sounded early so he had enough time to shave the newly green hair into a Mohawk using his father’s razor and a little of his mother’s hair gel (both of which he’d stolen from their medicine cabinet (an area which was supposed to be off limits and which required a trip through the off limits no man’s land of parental bedroom and bathroom).
His mother was waiting for him in the car when he walked out of the house to go to school. Kim’s shock was visible from the driveway but she didn’t say anything, didn’t make any gestures, no distinct indications aside from the shock. He walked by the car and headed down the street to meet up with the other teenagers at the bus stop. She pulled the keys out of the ignition as she saw the bus coming down the street. She opened her car door as the bus pulled away. She entered the house as the bus stopped at the next congregation of teens to collect them. She cried on the floor of the bathroom as her son got off of the bus.
When he got home from school his father finally saw what it was he was wearing, had been wearing. They waited until he’d gone upstairs and had turned on his radio, volume cranked, before they began arguing about it.
“I can’t believe you let him out of the house looking like that!”
“What was I supposed to do about it? He’s fifteen years old. He’s been dressing himself completely on his own for the past ten years.”
“You should have made him change into something halfway decent for school, something that wouldn’t have violated the dress code his first day. You should make him pay for the clothes he’s ruined.”
“Why don’t you make him do those things? You know he never would listen to me. Maybe if you were home more often instead of always going to the office before anyone else in the house is even awake.”
“You’ve always allowed him to get away with all of his completely inappropriate behavior.”
A guard called out to the prisoners to get a move on.
Kim wound and unwound the telephone cord around her fingers as she waited. She saw a spot on the window in front of her and pulled a tissue from her purse to wipe it away but discovered that it was on the other side of the glass, just out of reach. She’d always been a bit of a neat freak, cleaning the house from the attic to the basement over the course of the week, finishing the task just in time to start cleaning it all over again. She’d never questioned whether it was her place to clean her son’s bedroom up. He’d left his toys all over the floor and she’d pick them up. It started with his blocks and Legos and progressed to his clothes and school things. His clothes, she washed, his bed, she made. Kim found things she knew he was trying to hide from her (booze, cigarettes, drugs, and on several occasions, a girl’s underwear or bra). When she made these discoveries, she would clean carefully around them and put them back in their exact placements. She neither told her husband nor confronted Joe on her own. If anything, she only cleaned his room with more care and precision than before.
It was a few years after he’d moved out when it occurred to her that he must have known she’d found all of his hiding places. Since she’d never confronted him, he’d seen no reason to move the items and, in fact, grew bolder. He’d started to steal money from them. Oh, never from his father’s wallet; only his mother’s purse. She got into the habit of taking a little extra money out at the ATM and going to the hairdresser or a café, telling her husband that that was where the money was going.
She only felt guilty the first few times she lied to her husband for her son. As the lies grew, so did her ease in telling them. Whenever he went out at night, she would hurry her husband off to bed early and volunteer to stay up until he came home safely, often waiting until nearly dawn, resting on the couch with a book. She used make-up to conceal the circles under her eyes. She paid for damages and made restitution to neighbors, asking only that they keep the truth from her husband. She explained that it was for health reasons, something to do with his having an unsafe stress level. After lying to John, lying to their neighbors whom she hardly liked wasn’t such a great chasm to leap.
A guard led Joe to the chair and forced him to sit down, indicating that their time was limited. The officer recognized Kim and nodded to her. She picked up the plastic receiver using the torn sleeve to wipe at a spot on the handle. She started by explaining to the officer that she had brought him some extra cookies, had sent them to his office in fact.
Joe remembered the first time the police showed up at his parents’ house. He’d been upstairs watching from his bedroom window as the cars with their imposing blue lights pulled into the carefully paved driveway with the flowers planted and tended thoughtfully by his mother. He moved coolly to the stairs and watched his mother open the door in an apron smeared with flour, adjusting its strings as the lights cast their influence on her actions. Embarrassment played across her face, more from her appearance than from a lack of expectation. She quickly overcame it and smiled sweetly and innocently, playing her son up to the cops, called him down and chastised him in their presence. Later, when lawyers got involved, she would push for him to be given endless hours of community service and restitution, which she got a job to help him pay off. John wanted nothing to do with their son.
Kim held the rigid plastic receiver to her ear. She waited for him to pick up on the other side of the distorting and indestructible glass. She could feel the pitted handle warming in her hand. Gathering every ounce of psychic abilities she may possess together, Kim did her best to will Joe’s hand to move toward the phone, just a little flinch. But the man’s hands remained lying flat on the countertop; there wasn’t a single twitch in his fingers, not even a pulsing from the veins.
She remembered the day that he was sentenced to spend the greater part of his life in this cage, living this pitiful existence. His girlfriend had showed up late and sat in the last row next to the door, ensuring a quick escape. It was the only day of the trial that she’d managed to show up for. Joe didn’t even flinch when they’d found him guilty. The widow of the man who had died fainted. Other members of that family turned to stare at her where she stood crying, screeching, sobbing, whatever it could be called that she was doing; whatever it was, she was certainly making a spectacle of herself. She could hear them telling her things about her horrible son, justice, and her failings as a mother but none of them managed to stick. The DA was romancing the cameras, saying that it was another victory in the war on drugs.
She went up to him and tried to give him a hug but the officers were pulling him in the other direction. He wouldn’t even look at her but rather refused to take his eyes off of the tiles creating a checkerboard pattern on the courtroom floor. Checkmate. She called out, “I did all I could, Joe. I did all that I could.” Then he’d disappeared behind the doors and had been brought here, to this dungeon where she might as well have helped cement the foundation.
After things quieted down and the courtroom started to empty, she’d walked over to Elizabeth. The girl had been nothing but trouble from the time she and Joe had started dating in high school. Kim knew that she ought to have thrown the girl out of the house the first time she’d walked in to wake Joe up and had found the two of them asleep together; but no, Kim had snuck back out of the room and made plenty of noise the second time through to give them enough time to hide or sneak out. Elizabeth had dropped out of high school when she got pregnant and took everything Joe could give her, most of which belonged to other people.
Kim had only seen her grandson a handful of times. The boy didn’t know her from the woman behind the counter at the grocery store. She had started sending gifts from day one but never knew if Danny got them, or if he did, knew where they came from. This didn’t stop her from handing Joe money for the child support. Elizabeth had only shown up the day of the verdict to inform Kim that the checks would need to be sent to a different address, that she had taken Danny and moved to New York with her new boyfriend.
That was when Kim started going to see her son in prison. It helped her to feel better, helped her to feel that she was doing something to ease his pain, her pain. She refused to tell him about Elizabeth and little Danny. He would find out about that soon enough. And she’d never been able to watch him while he was miserable. It was part of what had landed him there in the first place. She’d always been able to find a way, not always the right way or the best way but a way, to fix these things. But this she had been unable to fix. It was too late. She had failed.
So she sat on the chair and listened to the silence of her little boy on the other side refusing to pick up the line and say anything, refusing to listen to what she had to say, all her apologies stuck in the wires. They sat there until the guard came to tell them that visiting hours were over and they took Joe away, returned him to his cell and locked the door. She drove home to her empty house and threw out the few remaining cookies after the guards had had their fill. Across the room hung a calendar she’d printed out with the day of his parole hearing circled using one of those thick red permanent markers usually used to make signs for junior high bake sales. It was still years away. Dozens of pages would need to be torn off before that day was reached. Joe’s birthday was circled each time it appeared as well as Danny’s, as if she might forget to send her only grandson a gift for his birthday. Kim walked over to the calendar and using the blood red marker, crossed off another day.