a hook for a hand

i wake up on my side on the concrete floor, my blanket curled around me, my spine pressed against green cinderblock.  breakfast.  limp and i pull ourselves up and stand against the wall with everyone else, ready to recite our wristband numbers and get in line for food.  a prison employee shoves a box of sanitary napkins through the slot in the cell wall.  i wonder if jail food is as bad as everyone says.

my wristband number is twelve or thirteen digits long.  i don’t know what the numbers mean, but they’re handwritten in black sharpie.  the band itself looks like the ones you get in hospitals; white plastic that you have to cut with scissors when you get home.   the last time i was in the hospital they misspelled my name on my wristband.  i thought maybe they’d do allison headly’s surgery on me by mistake.  i’d wake up with a hook for a hand instead of a bandaged knee.

a hook for a hand would be considered a weapon in jail, i suppose.  but how could they take it away from you?  would they have to put you in solitary because of your lethal body parts?  how could you get through airport security?  what if you went to jail and you took out your glass eye, shattered it on the floor, and started cutting people with the shards?

limp and i sit down at a table to look at breakfast.  there are two hard-boiled eggs, a lump of what looks like soiled silly putty, a cube of cornbread, and a carton of orange juice.  “ooh, i don’t trust these people in jail,” someone says, tearing the lip from her orange juice carton before taking a swig.  mine’s already finished, i’m so thirsty.  i debate filling the carton with water from the sink, but decide against it.  the sink looks awfully dirty, and anyway if i drink lots of water i’ll eventually have to use the open toilet in the corner of the room.  the idea of having to publicly remove any shred of my clothing, however briefly, makes me pull my blanket tighter around me.

my blanket.  maybe limp and i can band together on this whole toilet thing.  after all, who knows how long we’ll be in here?  eventually one or both of us will have to pee.  she can hold my blanket up in front of me while i go, and i can do the same for her.  that should work, right?

no, it’d be too conspicuous.  everyone will look over and know that we are weak and scared, that we are easy targets.  i will not use the toilet.

“you should eat something,” limp says to me.  “it’ll make you feel better.”  i try to pick at the cornbread with my spork, but it’s too blurry and wet.  everything is.  i put my hand up to my face.  it’s damp and hot, swollen.

an inmate worker puts a breakfast tray through the slot in one of the nearly-empty inner cells.  through the bars i can see just one woman lying motionless on a bunk, her arm sticking out from underneath the blanket.  her wristband is red.  someone asks about her, and the warden says that she is quarantined for sickness, is also diabetic.  apparently that’s what the red band is for.  if i got sick somehow i could be alone in one of those cells, have a bunk to sleep on instead of the floor.  but i don’t know how to get sick.  and i don’t know what my white band means.

“hey!” someone yells at the warden.  “if she diabetic, she can’t have that cornbread and fake juice!  if she sick, she can’t eat them eggs!  what she gonna eat?”  the warden walks away, the door slams.

this is when i get it.  this is when i realize exactly why jail is so frightening.  it’s not the silly putty breakfast.  it’s not the fact that this blanket is the only thing i have to hold onto and it’s probably never been washed.  it’s not the sleeping on the floor or the pissing in the open.  it’s not the weirdos or the confinement or being shoved around or good god when will i get out of here it’s not even the accident or the charges because i can deal with all that.

no.  jail is scary because, until now, i’ve never been in a place where nobody cared.  nearly everywhere else i’ve been–school, work, bars, airports, homes, even sidewalks–if i am punched in the face, someone will come to my aid.  if i collapse to the floor and can’t stop shaking, someone will ask if i’m okay.  if i am sick, someone will try to take care of me.  if i am harassed, assaulted, harmed in the presence of other people, at least one of those people–even a stranger–will express concern in some way.  but if those things happen to me in jail, i am on my own.  limp will stay out of it.  the other girls will pretend not to notice.  even prison wardens won’t come to help me.

this, i figure, is why the returning inmates use the toilet.  this is why they eat all of their food.  they need the strength to fend for themselves.

it makes your brain swell

i am the observer.
i am the bearer of facts.
i am the documenter of events.
i am the corroborator of stories.

i am the one who knows.  when the evening becomes diluted and dark and you can’t quite recall, i do.  i remember what you said; i know how much you drank.  i know your clumsy movements, your slurred speech, your loud laugh.  i know why your head hurts today.

the party itself is the same as it was last year.  dripping-wet ice chests.  citronella candles.  the same people, the same music and food, backyard and patio, sweat and insect repellant.  the bare-bulb porchlight glaring at guests flitting about in clusters.  i’m in the living room on the couch, drinking soda and watching a nine-year-old play video games.  he is an excellent player and an excellent nine-year-old; he’s answering all my stupid questions about the game.

“so where are you going now?”
“which character are you?”
“is that the gun you have?”
“how do you get your health back?”
“oh, no!  did you just die?”

i divide my time between watching him play video games, watching my friends paint the canvas outside, and listening to kitchen conversations.  when asked, i talk about my arrest and jail and probation.  when asked, i share some of the fun facts i’ve learned in my court-mandated education classes.

“did you know that the reason you have a headache the morning after you drink is that alcohol makes your brain swell, and it’s literally pushing up against the inside of your skull?  when they do autopsies on alcoholics, their brains are perfectly smooth on the outside.”

“when your liver oxidizes alcohol, it converts it into H2O and CO2.  but it eliminates alcohol at a rate much slower than you can drink it, which is why, after your last drink, you’ll get drunker before you start sobering up.”

“did you know that 80% of alcohol is removed through your liver, 8% through your breath, 2% through sweat, and less than 1% through urine?”

“my instructor told me that the absolute quickest way to get drunk is to give yourself an alcohol enema.  nothing absorbs alcohol faster than your intestines.”

outside i move from chair to chair, watching swarms of people sip and smoke and talk.  i’m not a part of this or any other gathering the way i used to be.  i used to be the funny girl who flew about from group to group, talking to everyone, introducing herself to all the strangers.  i used to be the one who made great drinks for everyone, whether they asked for them or not.  i used to be the first one to sing along when someone pulled out a guitar.  i used to be the last one awake.  as i will say to erica later, “you know you’re the party girl when you crash on the sofa not when you’re done partying, but when the last conversation available is boring.”

it’s not the party that’s different, i decide as i sprawl out on a papasan chair by myself at the edge of the patio.  it’s me.  alcohol ate away at the parts of my personality that kept me from watching video games and sitting in silence.  alcohol doused me in fun and threw me into the center of things.  without it, i’m the one who backs away from the group because there are too many people.  i’m the one reading a book or taking pictures of the ceiling.  i’m the quiet girl you didn’t meet.

i miss drinking, sometimes.  sober turns the volume up on everyone until they’re all shouting.  sober is wary of new people, and eats all the guacamole and chips because there’s not much else to do.  sober gets jostled, shoved by accident.  it knows which beer belongs to which person.  it knows who is in the bathroom.  it knows where you left your purse and why there’s orange juice on the floor and who has a crush on whom.

drunk alison and sober alison seem like two different people, and i can’t decide which me is real and which is fake.  for now, though, i am sober alison.  the bearer of facts.  the documenter of events.  the corroborator of stories.

the observer.

more people than mattresses

i wake up again, and i assume that it’s noon, because the warden is here.  “everybody up!” she screams.  “stand against the wall!  when i call your name, tell me your wristband number!  after i call you, get in the lunch line!”

limp and i, wrapped in our blankets, stand up against the cinderblock wall together.  i have to call her limp because she walks with a limp and, even though we’ve stuck together so far and she’s the only person i’ve spoken to, i still don’t know her name.  this jail-survival tactic of mine, i later realize, is the same one my sister and i used in day care when we were little.  both painfully shy and none too comfortable with the other children, my sister and i would stay together at all times.  we would eat lunch together, sit next to one another, do all the day-care activities side by side.  since we didn’t get along then, staying together was not fun.  in fact, i think we hated it.  but it kept us from having to eat lunch alone, it helped to have an ally in case other kids tried to mess with us, and it passed the time until our dad arrived from work to take us home.

limp and i get along well enough.  she is here for resisting arrest.  someone in her apartment called the police because her music was too loud.  when the cops showed up, she turned the volume down, but didn’t answer the door.  to draw her out, they shut off her electricity.

“my baby got scared,” limp told me.  “he was crying, he got so scared.  i had to open the door.”  she showed me the bruises on her arms and wrists from where the police had grabbed her and cuffed her.  luckily, they allowed her to leave her son with her sister, who lived in the same building.

i am not sure i believe this story, but limp and i stay together all the same.  she is friendly and sympathetic, and reassures me when i tell her that i’m sure my boyfriend and his family will never speak to me again.  after retrieving our lunch trays, juice boxes, and brownies, we sit together at one of the tables.

there are four compartments.  one contains rice, one has cornbread, one hot lettuce, and the fourth is smeared with what appear to be layers of beans and tortillas.  the beans are the same color as the tortillas.  i take a few tiny bites of rice, but i’m too upset to eat.  i’m on the verge of crying again, but i decide instead to think about how funny it is that in jail, they give you a spork.  it’s not a spoon.  it’s not a fork.  it’s a spork!  the hot lettuce, though terrifying, is also hilarious.

limp is eating the cornbread.  “how is it?” i ask her as she tries to eat it with the spork.

“the same as it was this morning,” she says.  “how’s the brownie?”

“i dunno,” i say, “but it looks better than anything else.  here, i’ll try it for both of us.  i’ll be the tester.”  i break off a small piece, chewing it slowly.  “it’s okay.”

“i’m going to save mine for later,” limp says, and i follow suit.  i’m reminded again of day care, when my sister and i would save the granola bars from the lunches my mother packed for us.  curiously, i am also reminded of the day my mother dropped us off at the ymca day care on her way to work, and i realized i’d forgotten to wear a bra.  not that my nine-year-old breasts were that big, you understand, but i was still accustomed to wearing one, and it felt strange to be without it all day.  here in jail they’ve taken jewelry and hair ties and shoelaces and personal effects and anything that could be considered a weapon.  why don’t they take anyone’s bra?  i’m sure you could fashion some sort of weapon with the underwire, if you ripped it out.  you know, they could have done a lot more with that show if macgyver had been a woman.  door locks stuffed with tampons, mechanisms greased with lipstick and hand lotion.

“holy shit!” someone yells.  all the girls stand up and lean over their lunches to see what’s going on.  a few people rush over to the girl who has fallen backwards from the bench to the cement floor.  her eyes have rolled back in her head.  blood is running from her mouth onto her t-shirt.  she is having a seizure.

now everyone is yelling.  “lay her on the floor!” someone cries.  “put something in her mouth so she won’t bite her tongue!” someone else says.  a few other people have run over to the foot-wide slot in the wall of the cell and are yelling for help.  the rest of us are still staring.  two girls using the phones have not even looked up.

the girl is still shaking violently when the doors slam open and someone comes in.  it’s the same long-haired girl in the prison uniform, the one who frightened me earlier.  apparently, she’s an inmate who works here.  grabbing the seizing girl by the arm, she drags her away from everyone else, towards the garbage cans.  blood smears across the floor.  the warden runs in, someone with a stretcher following behind her.  “everybody!” she screams.  “throw away your trash and get into cell one!”  she points towards the inner cell, the one we were in before.  i toss my trash into the garbage can, grab my blanket, and race into the inner cell to save a bottom bunk for limp, who couldn’t possibly climb into an upper one.

after limp makes it over to the bunk i’ve saved for her, i grab a top bunk for myself.  once we’re all inside, the inner cell doors slam, and i watch through the bars as the woman with the stretcher loads the seizing girl on and rolls her away.  the inmate worker picks up the rest of the trash and she and the warden leave, the outer cell doors slamming, too.

it hadn’t bothered me to be locked in this inner cell before, but now i don’t like it.  it’s too small, and there are too many people in here.  it’s so small i can’t breathe, can’t stop shaking.  i’m glad these bunks are made of cement and attached to the wall, otherwise my shaking would bother the girl below me.  and i can’t seem to stop shaking.

there are more plastic mattresses than bunks, more people than mattresses.  a few girls are sitting together on extra mattresses on the floor, leaning against the bottom bunks.  they are talking loudly, laughing about drugs, about faking injuries to get out of prison, about punishments for felonies or possession.  limp gets up and sits with them, abandoning the bunk i saved.  she tells them her resisting arrest story.  i watch them from my top bunk and am struck by how much the scene below me looks like summer camp, when all the girls would be close friends after the first few days, and we would sit together on each other’s bunks late at night.  the food wasn’t much better there, but the toilets were private, we could be outdoors, and i wasn’t afraid.  i didn’t shake uncontrollably.  i didn’t want to die.

limp seems to be enjoying the conversation they’re having, but i can’t.  i can’t talk about lawyers or prison terms or fines or community service.  i can’t even think about it.  i want them to shut up, i want to go back to sleep, i want to stop the what ifs (what if we didn’t, what if we hadn’t, what if i hadn’t), i want to stop seeing your face, looking at me from the other squad car.  i want out.

they’re talking about the seizure girl now.  “she in here for crack possession,” says one of the girls, whom i will later know as wax that ass.  “she told me that when they found one rock on her, she swallowed the other fifty.”

“shit, i’d be throwin’ up blood, too,” another girl says, and they all laugh.

somehow, i manage to fall back asleep.  when i wake up later, limp will be gone.