James Hanna spent twenty years as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and another fourteen years as a probation officer in San Francisco. Because of his background, much of his writing is about the criminal element. James has had over seventy story publications and three Pushcart nominations. His books, three of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.
I am not in the habit of picking up women in bars. But habits are expendable when your life is topsy-turvy. So when I spotted her sitting alone in a corner of the Castleberg Lounge, I knew I was going to dispense with the tyranny of habit. She was blonde, slim and finely-boned—much like a young Helen Mirren—yet she did not seem out of place in the seedy local bar. The band was playing “Broken Lady,” a Gatlin Brothers favorite, and this mournful ballad made her look accessible to me. As I walked towards her to ask her to dance, I hoped she was truly broken. If I could provide her with the illusion of support, we might share a few moments of touch. “Madam,” I said theatrically. “Would you spare this poor traveler a dance?” She put down her drink and studied me in a manner that made me blush, and I prayed that her dating standards were as charitable as her looks. My recent divorce had all but convinced me that women expect too much. “I don’t like this song, but yes,” she murmured. “I wish you had picked another.” When she rose from her chair, I felt as though I had passed a critical test, but she wanted to know more about me after I followed her onto the dance floor. “Please state your name and business,” she said in a teasing voice. She was obviously a regular, accustomed to getting hit on, and I knew it might be a challenge for me to outshine her pack of suitors. “Tom Hemmings, soldier of fortune,” I said as I carelessly stepped on her toes. She winced and patted my shoulder. “I have an uncle named Tom,” she said. “He got picked up for kiddie porn last year. He’s locked up in that penal farm out on Highway 40.” “I start work there tomorrow,” I said. “They hired me as a guard.” She arched her eyebrows. “How exciting,” she said. “So what do you want with a small-town girl whose name is Sally Potter?” “I’m new in town,” I replied. “I could use a bit of company.” “A bit of company,” she said. “Is that all you think I’m good for?” Was she good for a one-night stand? I wondered as we stumbled around the dance floor. Ever since breaking the lockstep of a short, confining marriage, I had been feeling spontaneous, a rush that had led to my applying for a job at the prison. But the fruits of divorce offered more than the thrill of starting a new vocation. I saw no harm if my bounty included a tryst with a barfly as well. Reading my mind, she squeezed my fingers. “Don’t get ideas, you fancy talker. I don’t sleep with idle strangers.” “I’m not that idle,” I told her, hoping to disarm her with my wit. “Why? Did your wife just dump you?” she asked. “How did you know that?” I said. She laughed. “I can spot a self-absorbed man. I was married to a cop.” Some empathy seemed called for, so I nodded thoughtfully. “I’m sorry he didn’t make time for you.” “You’re not sorry at all, Tom Hemmings,” she said as the song droned to an end. “Besides, if I’d spent more time with him, it would only have made things worse. Cops are good for heroics, but they’re pretty hopeless as husbands.” We left the dance floor. She again squeezed my hand. “Thank you for the dance,” she said. “Sorry I picked the wrong song,” I replied as she sat back down in her chair. She fished a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her mascara. “I enjoyed our chat, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “Please ask me to dance again.” * I sat at the bar for an hour, pretending to nurse a beer, and I watched as half a dozen patrons invited her to dance. She politely turned each of them down, and my hopes began to rise. I decided my chances of bedding her were considerable, after all. I did not attribute this to my appearance—I’m a plain-looking man who at thirty was probably five years younger than she was. But I had convinced myself that the bar’s dim lighting made me look like a tall, mature stranger. The band was playing “Not Fade Away,” a classic hit from the fifties, and I abandoned my stool at the bar and approached her once again. The jaunty lyrics spurred my courage as I strolled across the dance floor. “I’m a gonna tell you how it’s gonna beee.” Bumpa bumpa bum bum. “Yer gonna give yer love to meee.” Infused with the magic of Buddy Holly, I once again asked her to dance. “What took you so long?” she said. “I wanted to give you some space.” She frowned. “I have plenty of space, Tom Hemmings. I don’t need any more.” “Would you like to dance?” I repeated. She shrugged. “I don’t think dancing’s your thing. Please sit down, let’s finish our chat. I’m not going to force you to dance.” We talked for almost an hour, and she told me about herself. Her story seemed rather provincial and maybe a little trite. She worked as a records clerk at the Castleberg Hospital, she had been married and divorced three times, her hobbies were going to the movies and reading romance books. She mentioned only briefly that she had run away from home at sixteen, an event that led to her having an early-term abortion. I did not ask her why she had run away—I suspected she had been abused—so I kept our conversation light and was encouraged by her easy laughter. When she asked me why I was talking a job at the Indiana Penal Farm, I said, “For the hell of it.” This response more than adequately describes the milestones of my life. It applies to why I had dropped out of college and backpacked all over Australia. It applies to my short-lived marriage to a woman who had wisely discarded me. It pertains to why I had worked so many odd jobs while trying to make it as a writer. If my life needed more introspection than that, I did not want to make the effort. “For the hell of it” was even the reason I was trying to pick her up. “Tom Hemmings,” she said, “you impress me as a rather shallow man.” “Would you prefer somebody profound?” I asked. She smiled and sipped her drink. “I don’t know about that,” she joked. “You’re too good at playing the clown.” “I’m not trying to sleep with you,” I lied. “One-nighters aren’t my thing.” She smiled. “Oh, how disappointing. I adore a one-night stand.” She crossed her legs and eased back in her chair. She seemed to be getting bored. “So where are you staying, Tom Hemmings, if you’re so new in town?” “The Holiday Inn near Highway 40.” “The Holiday Inn,” she parroted. “I find that a little depressing. But if you’ve managed to keep your room tidy, you’re welcome to take me there.” * She held my hand as we walked to my room. There was no one around and the hallway was quiet, but she flinched when she heard the clanking of a noisy ice machine. I escorted her into my hotel room, and she sat down on the queen-sized bed. Noticing a pile of books on the nightstand, she picked up one of them. “The Canterbury Tales, my goodness,” she said. “So that’s why you talk like an actor. I had to read this in high school, and I haven’t touched it since.” “It’s a masterpiece.” “That’s the reason,” she said. She placed the book back on the nightstand. “I wouldn’t survive in this boring town if I broadened my horizons too much.” She placed a pillow under her elbows then leisurely kicked off her pumps. Her shoes made a hollow clatter as they landed on the floor. “A prison guard that reads,” she laughed. “You are full of surprises, Tom Hemmings.” “Does that impress you?” “A little,” she said. “but I’m not very hard to impress.” I sat down on the bed beside her. She rubbed the back of my neck. “I fall in love very quickly, Tom Hemmings. I hope you can keep up with me.” “Tell me about your uncle,” I said. “The one who’s serving time.” She interlaced my fingers with hers then rested her head on my shoulder. “He’s where he deserves to be,” she said. “But I could say that about us all.” “Was he the one?” I asked her. She nodded. “His bedroom was right next to mine.” She told me about the incident as though she were describing a movie. Her voice was monotonic and without a trace of self-pity. It had happened only once, she said, after which she had run away from home. She had never reported the matter because she didn’t trust cops or lawyers. “The system would have raped me again,” she said. “One rape was all I could handle.” “I’m sorry.” She sighed. “Stop saying that word. It’s terribly depressing. How can we enjoy what we came here to do if you’re going to feel sorry for me?” I touched her breast as though fondling a kitten. She pushed my hand away. “Let’s be neat about it,” she said. She rose from the bed, slipped off the dress and suspended it on the coatrack. Returning to the bed, she opened her purse and handed me a condom. After we finished coupling, she shucked the condom off me, then she retrieved a towel from the bathroom and meticulously dried me off. She seemed more intent on cleaning me than she had been on making love. “Thank you for making me laugh,” she said before falling asleep at my side. * I awoke to the clatter of the ice machine that was still laboring in the hallway. It was morning—she was already dressed and was perched on a chair sipping coffee. She looked like a commuter impatient to board a train. “Will I see you again?” she asked. “That might prove untidy,” I said. She handed me a hotel postcard on which she had scrawled her address. “I’m inviting you to move in with me, stud.” “Are you sure?” I asked her. She blew on her coffee. “No, but that makes it exciting.” There was no time for discussion, so I simply nodded my head. I was scheduled to report to the prison farm to begin my orientation. “Some coffee before you go?” she said. I nodded a second time. “Cream and sugar?” “Black.” She laughed. “You’re such a basic man.” She manipulated the hotel coffee machine then brought me a cup of black coffee. “Don’t look so shocked, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “Haven’t you shacked up before?” “I’ve known you for just a few hours,” I said. “Maybe that’s for the best.” “So why invite me to live with you?” She placed her cup on a nightstand then sat back watching me dress. “Must everything have a reason?” she said. “All right, I’ll give you a reason. The first thing I noticed about you is that you have nice fingernails. I’ve never been able to resist a man who takes care of his fingernails.” “That isn’t much of a reason,” I said. “Well, I don’t live in much of a place. It’s a bungalow on Mulberry Street. The walls need a coat of paint. Maybe if you move in with me, you could give them a fresh coat of paint.” “Maybe you should shack up with a handyman.” She threw back her head and laughed. “You’re handy enough for me, Tom Hemmings. Just keep taking care of your nails.” * After I walked her to her car, I drove to the Indiana Penal Farm: an expansive penitentiary alongside Highway 40. I was in an especially buoyant mood after spending the night with her, and as I parked beside the arch gate, my cheerfulness endured. The barracks beyond the wire mesh fence reminded me of red-bricked fraternity houses, and the watchtowers hovering above them made me think of giant mushrooms. I was even seduced by the lettering painted on the arch. The message read, “Let he who passes through these gates renew his hope.” My orientation was held in a cramped conference room in the administration building, and I sat with a dozen strangers who had also been hired as guards. A short, excitable captain of the guards introduced himself to us, then he paced back and forth like a wolf in a cage while he gave us a prepackaged talk. He told us his name was Harold Hawkins and he didn’t tolerate fuckups, and if we expected to keep our jobs, we would have to learn how to say no to inmates. “Ya can’t be friends with these lowlifes,” he barked. “They’ll just take advantage of you. If I catch any of you cozying up to them, I’ll fire you on the spot.” He went on to say we were all on probation, so we had better tow the line. “If I catch any of ya sleepin’ on duty, I’ll fire you on the spot. If I ever smell alcohol on you, I’ll fire you on the spot. And if any of you sneak in contraband, you know what I’m gonna do?” “You’ll fire us on the spot,” I said. He gave me a withering stare then he hooked his thumbs behind his belt. “I saw ya last night in the Castleberg Lounge. You was bird-dogging Sally Potter.” “She know you?” I asked. “I know her,” he snapped. “The whole town knows Sally Potter. Son, didja come to your senses, or did you cross the line with her too?” “I’ll be living with her,” I said. “Is that any business of yours?” “It ain’t,” he replied. “I’m just doing you a favor. You need to know there ain’t no percentage in messin’ with Sally Potter.” During our lunch break, a shift sergeant approached me in the officers’ dining hall. He said he’d heard about my altercation with Captain Hawkins, and that the captain was full of shit. “He ain’t no judge of women,” the shift sergeant assured me. “His wife ran off with one of the inmates a coupla months ago.” * We spent the rest of the day watching some video training tapes. When the matinee was over, Captain Hawkins gave us some final advice. He suggested we go to Walmart and buy portable TVs. He said we were all going to spend two weeks at a correctional academy up north. “There ain’t no entertainment there—just classrooms and a shotgun range. If ya don’t wanna sit in yer room jacking off, ya better have a TV.” He said the next training cycle would start up in a couple of weeks, so we’d better start working the flab off and learn how to stay awake. In the meantime, we would get some on-the-job training at the Indiana Penal Farm. Tomorrow, each of us would be paired up with a seasoned officer, and if anyone showed up with booze on his breath he would be fired on the spot. After checking out of the Holiday Inn, I felt restless from watching tapes all day, so I took a jog along Highway 40 before driving into Castleberg. That I was about to act out of character did not seem important to me. There were probably a dozen good reasons not to shack up with Sally Potter, but the censure of a cuckold was certainly not one of them. Castleberg, a gutted factory town, was as barren as a moonscape. As I drove past the abandoned IBM warehouse and a dozen empty storefronts, it seemed sad that practically all of the streets had been named after popular trees. Signs like Oak Lane and Cedar Road did nothing to salvage the town—no more than a Ouija board séance might rouse the Ghost of Christmas Past. She lived in a small house on Mulberry Street, a cottage with gray panel siding, and I felt as though I were trespassing as I pulled into the driveway. She answered the door on my very first knock—she was barefoot and wearing cutoff shorts, yet her smile was rather formal as she invited me into the house. It was a taut, reflexive smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes—the kind of acknowledgment one might expect from a hostess at a chain restaurant. “You’re sweating,” she said. Her voice was cool. “I’m a jogger,” I replied. “Well, you might have jogged to a flower shop and picked up some roses for me. What kind of man sleeps with a woman then doesn’t bring her roses?” “A self-centered one,” I joked. She frowned. “You’re such a primitive man. I guess I’m a sucker for primitive men, but some roses would also be nice.” “How about I go fetch some?” She stiffened and shrugged. “How about I just fetch you a beer?” Stung by her passive-aggression, I sat down on a cream-colored couch. How could Ihave failed to bring her flowers? I thought as I surveyed the room. The room lacked plants or artifacts, the carpet was threadbare and torn, and except for a crucifix ornament, there was nothing on the walls. The barrenness of the room compounded my sin of omission. She padded into a kitchenette then returned with two cans of beer. Sitting the cans on a coffee table, she curled up on the couch beside me. When she interlaced her fingers with mine, it seemed like an act of concession; the tension in her body suggested she had not gotten over her sulk. “How was work?” she asked politely. “I fought for your honor,” I said. “Oh really?” she laughed. “How medieval of you to think it was worth defending.” “Well the training officer trash-talked you, and I told him to mind his own business.” “That must have been Harold Hawkins. He’s the laughingstock of the county.” “Is he?” I said. I managed not to smirk, but the news did not displease me. She snorted and wagged her head. “You call standing up to that miserable gnome fighting for my honor? How can anyone take a man seriously whose wife eloped with an inmate?” “Has he hit on you in the Castleberg Lounge?” “What do you think, Tom Hemmings? He’s a desperate little man. Cops and guards.” She sighed like a kettle. “They just can’t hang onto their women.” Using a remote on the coffee table, she turned on a television set. She flipped to a rerun of TheMary Tyler Moore Show then put the remote back on the table. “Will you watch it with me, Tom Hemmings?” she said. “I never miss this show.” “I never miss it either,” I fibbed. “Stop teasing me,” she muttered. “I don’t find it funny at all.” We watched as Mary Tyler Moore’s character broke up with her latest suitor. As the episode ended, Sally let go of my hand and finished drinking her beer. “I’m glad she kicked him out,” she said. “He was nothing but a beast.” “Mary lets all her men go,” I said. “She’s never satisfied.” “Maybe not,” she replied. “But at least she has standards. I wish I could say the same.” “Is that why you let me pick you up?” “Must you put it that way?” “Well, why did you tell me you adore one-night stands?” “Why did you believe me, Tom Hemmings?” “I found you pretty convincing,” I said. She folded her arms across her chest as though she were guarding her breasts. “How easy it was to convince you of that. I think you had better leave.” * Bruised by her sudden mood change, I headed back to the hotel but not before parking at a KFC and picking up a box of fried chicken. In spite of my lack of etiquette, I was starting to ache for her—after all, she had offered me sex and affection with no punishing expectations. How could I have forgotten roses? I thought as I drove past the empty storefronts. How could I have hurt such a beautiful woman when she had been so generous to me? I was hoping a change of solitude would get her off my mind, so I asked the clerk for a different room, and he handed me another key. But the total sameness of the room gave me little comfort. I could even hear the familiar clunking of the ice machine in the hallway. Not feeling particularly hungry, I set the chicken aside. I wanted a stronger distraction than takeout, so I turned on the six o’clock news. Jimmy Carter, running for president, was addressing the American public, and I felt that he was scolding me when he promised he would never lie. I dozed for several minutes then awoke to the sound of thunder. On top of that, a Brady Bunch rerun had replaced the six o’clock news. The canned laughter from the program made me feel like an unwitting clown, so I grabbed the remote from the nightstand and turned the TV off. Only then did I realize that someone was hammering on the door to my room. I answered the door. She was standing there. Her hair was matted and wet. “It’s pouring, Tom Hemmings,” she gasped. “I need to dry my hair.” “Why are you out in the rain?” I blurted. She sighed as though chastised then shook her head. “I missed you,” she said icily. “Is that some kind of crime?” She was still dressed in cut-off shorts, her blouse was untucked and disheveled, and swollen blots of mascara made her look like a panda bear. “Will you please let me use your bathroom? I know I look a mess.” “You look sexy to me,” I murmured, and I regretted the remark right away. Her rumpled appearance had too quickly awakened the carnal beast in me. “Tom Hemmings,” she snapped. “I will leave this minute if you don’t let me tidy up.” Not wishing to vex her a second time, I invited her into the room. Moments later, the bathroom door closed behind her and the hairdryer started to hum. My heart was racing like a sprinter’s and I wanted to feign composure, so I picked up my copy of Oliver Twist and pretended to be reading. When she shuffled out of the bathroom, she was running a brush through her hair, and she looked at me as though I were keeping her from an appointment. “What a bookworm you are,” she muttered. This time she did not seem impressed. “Books keep me from getting lonely,” I said. “How convenient not to be lonely,” she snapped. “Perhaps I should read more books.” Hoping to change the subject, I offered her some Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Is that what we’re having for dinner?” she said. “Can’t we go to a restaurant, at least?” “Of course,” I replied. She laughed mirthlessly. “No, let’s just have the chicken, I don’t want to be an expense. Oh, how I wish I had standards—I’m such a bargain date.” As we sat on the bed, eating chicken and coleslaw, she started to relax. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch,” she said. “It had nothing to do with you.” “I’m glad I wasn’t the reason,” I said. She bit into a drumstick and looked at me pensively. “Don’t get cocky, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “You’ll soon give me plenty of reason.” “How can you be so sure about that?” “You’re living life out of a suitcase, and you seem way too content with that. I know adaptable men when I see them. You aren’t once of them, Tom.” The accuracy of her perception demanded an honest reply. “So why did you invite me to move in with you? Why not an adaptable man?” She finished eating the drumstick then picked up a paper napkin. After carefully wiping her fingers, she said, “Why do you think, Tom Hemmings? Feral men excite me. I know that’s not much of a reason, but I don’t have a better one.” Later, I lay under the bed covers, watching her undress. I was impatient to feel her body, but she moved as though in a trance. She slowly snaked off her shorts and blouse and smoothed them out on the bed, then she hung them from the coatrack as though they were works of art. As she peeled off her bra and panties, she looked at me and smiled. “How come I want you so much?” she asked. “You’re just using me, Tom Hemmings. I wish I didn’t know men well enough to know that about you for sure.” “You’ve read me like a book,” I joked. Laughing, she slipped under the sheets and fitted me with a condom. She then snuggled up beside me and threw her leg over my thigh. “You’re more like a pamphlet, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “Just be glad I’m a very light reader.” * The following morning, I drove back to the prison to start my on-the-job training. Making love to Sally had exhausted me, and I did not feel up to being schooled. Why had she clung to me throughout the night like a cave dweller spooked by a storm? “Hold me, Tom Hemmings,” she kept repeating. “I want you to hold me tight.” After donning the dark blue uniform of a correctional officer, I reported to morning roll call to receive my first assignment. At roll call, Captain Hawkins assigned me to the dorm for laundry workers, and he introduced me to a short, wiry woman in her thirties who was going to be my mentor. Her name was Officer Dobbins, her hair was clipped into a buzz cut, and her alert brown eyes appraised me as though she were pricing a used car. “Keep an eye on him, Lou Ellen,” Captain Hawkins remarked. “He’s livin’ with Sally Potter, so his judgment ain’t too good.” “That true?” Officer Dobbins asked me. I looked at Captain Hawkins. “Why do you keep bringing that up?” The captain laughed and slapped my back. “Ya can’t do yer job if you’re pussy-whipped, son. That means ya dunno how to take charge.” “That true?” Officer Dobbins repeated. She seemed to be highly amused. “Just show me my job,” I replied. Officer Dobbins told me to pay attention as we entered the laundry dorm, a cavernous barracks where a hundred inmates were on their bunks awaiting count. The dorm had an air of austerity that made me feel like a tramp: the game tables were anchored like sentinels, the beds were tightly made up, and a four foot stone partition bordered each row of bunks. As Officer Dobbins instructed me how to take count, she kept trying not to laugh, and her chuckles caused me to miscount twice before our numbers matched. Later, she demonstrated how to shakedown the bunks and inspect the footlockers, and she showed me how to test the window bars by striking them with a baton. “Do that every shift, hon,” she said. “Make sure you hit them hard. That will discourage the inmates from trying to work them loose.” She also told me to keep my cool if inmates started to fight. She said to call for backup and to not get involved in the brawl. “Don’t let the inmates distract you,” she said. “Those fights are usually staged. That means they’re planning to knife someone on the other side of the dorm.” When the shift was over, Officer Dobbins asked me to cut Captain Hawkins some slack. She said if she could take him more seriously, she’d report him for sexual harassment. “But I just can’t do it, hon,” she said. “I feel sorta sorry for him. His wife ran off with an inmate, and he’ll never live it down.” * I spent a full week assigned to the laundry dorm under the tutelage of Officer Dobbins. She advised me to forget the captain’s advice and to build some rapport with the inmates. “Don’t get too friendly with them, hon,” she said. “That will make them look like snitches, but it’s okay to ignore minor infractions and to joke around with them some.” She demonstrated her humor one day when we were taking the mid-shift count—when an inmate tried to disrupt the process by meowing like a cat. “Will someone please feed that pussy,” she said as she finished circling the dorm. The entire dorm rippled with laughter while we tabulated the count, and a couple of inmates told the joker not to mess with Officer Dobbins. That evening, while sitting on Sally’s couch, I described the incident to her. We were eating takeout pizza while watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had waited for a commercial break before telling her the story. She stared at me and bit her lip. “Is she your new girlfriend?” she snapped. “Are you tired of me already?” “I think she’s a dyke,” I protested. “Stop lying to me,” she cried. “I’ve known Lou Ellen since we were in high school. She wants to get into your pants.” Her eyes teared up and she dropped her gaze and went back to watching the program, and I wondered if it were time for me to pack my bag and go back to the hotel. This woman iscrazy, I reasoned. This woman is out of her head. Why does she have to be beautiful? Why should that still turn me on? When the program ended, she stretched like a cat then switched the television off. “Are you going to lecture me, Tom Hemmings?” she said. “The way you’re looking at me, I feel a lecture coming on.” I chose my words as though they were pearls. “You’re wrong about me and Officer Dobbins. I mean that in a nice way.” She carried our plates to the kitchenette and dumped them into the sink. Turning around to face me, she drew a ragged breath. “All right, I’m wrong, you’re right,” she said. “You’ve set the record straight. Do you really think that matters when you’re just another man?” “I don’t want you thinking badly about me.” Shaking her head, she rinsed off the plates then shuffled back to the couch. She sat down beside me, picked up my hand and cupped it in both of hers. “You’re living out of a suitcase,” she said. “You’re employed as a prison guard. If you want me to stop thinking badly about you, you’re not making much of an effort.” “You told me I was exciting.” “Well, I’m telling you something else now.” “Do you want me to leave ?” She shook her head. “No, I don’t want you to leave. Whenever things get difficult, men like you want to leave.” She kissed me as though she were sampling a dish at a buffet. “You taste like anchovies,” she complained and turned her head away. In spite of her bewildering mood, I felt myself getting aroused. “Tell me what you want me to do,” I urged. “You should know what to do,” she muttered. “Why is it my job to tell you?” “I’m just a simple man,” I said. “Consider it charity.” She dropped my hand and rubbed her eyes. “Will you please stop talking above my head? It’s like you’re laughing at me.” “Did I say something funny?” “No, you just talk like you’re read too many books.” “I thought that impressed you.” “It does,” she said, “but not in the way you think. Talking with you is like meeting Mark Twain, and his writing is so blasé.” She rose from the couch and stared at me with wet accusing eyes. “Why do you need to impress me at all? I’m just the local tramp. Ask anyone in town, they’ll tell you the same. I’m only the local tramp.” “I’m sorry they think that.” She rolled her eyes. “That’s not why you need to be sorry. How little I care what they think about me. I’d just like to meet a man.” * “Count time,” Officer Dobbins called the following afternoon. The inmates retreated to their bunks, and we began the mid-shift count. Moving in opposite directions, we took individual tallies, counting each inmate carefully as we orbited the dorm. Our numbers matched on the very first go-around, and Officer Dobbins phoned the count in. When the count for the entire prison cleared, the inmates filed out for lunch, and Officer Dobbins suggested I stroll around the dorm to keep from nodding off. We were seated at the officers’ station, a horseshoe-shaped counter in the center of the dorm, and I could not ignore the severity with which she was looking at me. “Does it show?” I asked. “It shows,” she replied. “Sally Potter is tough on her men.” “She told me she has no standards,” I said. Officer Dobbins shook her head. “She’s a funny kind of woman, they say, if you want to know the truth. She’ll live with a man for a month or two and then find fault with him.” “She’s found fault with me already,” I said. “It only took her a week.” “So why are you still shacking up with her, hon. You trying to prove her wrong?” Before I could answer, a tall, tattooed inmate bellied up to the officers’ station. He had blue, piercing eyes, a Roman nose and a smile that seemed etched on his face. Apparently, he had skipped lunch so he could chat with Officer Dobbins. Leaning on the counter, he said, “Miss Dobbins, you look real nice today.” “Eddie Leach,” she replied. “You’re going to lose weight if you keep on skipping lunch. Didn’t your mama teach you not to be missing meals?” The inmate laughed, showing straight white teeth. “My mama taught me to watch over the ladies—make sure they get treated right. If any of these bozos start bothering you, I wantcha to let me know.” Officer Dobbins laughed and said, “Eddie, you’re the only one bothering me.” “Aww, Officer Dobbins,” the inmate drawled. “Why are you giving me a hard time today?” She waved him away as though shooing a fly. “Get out of here, hon,” she said. “Don’t tell me about your hard time. You’ll just have to find a Kleenex and take care of it yourself.” After the inmate ambled away from us, she glanced at me, shaking her head. “He’s trying to soften me up, hoping I’ll bring in drugs, but that’s not going to happen.” “Why do you let him keep bothering you?” I asked. She looked at me with serious eyes and replied as though addressing a child. “Hon,” she said, “if you’re going to work here, there’s something you need to know. It’s the inmates that run the place—not the guards. The inmates just let us work here. Now they’ll let you take count and do your inspections, they’ll let you enforce the rules, they’ll even allow you to bust them if you don’t get carried away. But they can take your life any time they want, so you don’t need to be a hard-ass. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re outnumbered fifty to one.” What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. Do I really need this much adventure? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Hawkins fired me. Aware of my thoughts, Officer Dobbins smiled and wagged a finger at me. “Just do your job,” she said, “and don’t be a hard-ass about it. Hon, your chances are much better here than they are with Sally Potter.” * I spent my next few workdays assigned to the visiting room, a sterile lounge with low tables, couches, and several vending machines. I was working alongside a fleshless officer whose name was Henry Yoakum, a short, fawning man in his fifties with a poached, misshapen face. We were sitting at an officers’ perch overlooking the room. The room was filled with inmates talking with girlfriends and family members. The first thing Yoakum said to me was, “I take my hat off to you, guv’nor.” I told him, “I’m only a guard in training.” “No matter,” Yoakum said grinning. “Hawkins told me yer living with Sally Potter, and that’s a wunnerful thing. You gotta be a hell of a cocksmith to be pleasin’ a woman like that.” “Why does that matter to you?” I said. “’Cause you’re way ahead of me, sir. I’ve tried to chat her up six or eight times, and she always sends me packing. She tells me she don’t fuck fossils, and I need to stay outta her hair.” “So why do you keep trying?” He cackled like a hen. “Guv’nor, she’s balled half the men in town, including some married fellas. So I figger it’s just a matter of time ’til she spreads her legs for ol’ Henry.” “Can we end this conversation?” I asked him. “You’re supposed to discuss this job.” “This job don’t need discussin’,” said Yoakum. “You can learn it in fifteen minutes. But holdin’ onto a beauty like Sally is somethin’ worth jawing about.” I insisted he show me the job instead, and he told me how to regulate visits. I was to check the inmate’s visiting card when a caller came to the counter, and I was to deny visitation to anyone whose name was not on the card. Once an inmate entered the room, I was to log his time of arrival, and I was to terminate the visit once an hour was up. “That’s ’bout all there is to it?” Yoakum said. “But time is flexible, guv’nor. If the visitor is a babe with a nice set of tits, I might give her an extra half hour.” “That sounds voyeuristic,” I said. Yoakum smirked. “This is a damn good job for a voyeur, sir, ’cause you’re supposed to watch the babes close. Some of them bitches stick crack in their pussies and sneak that shit to their boyfriends. Usually, they go to the lady’s room, so they can hide the balloons in their mouths, then they pass ’em off to their boyfriends by giving ’em a smooch.” “And that’s when you write them up?” Yoakum shrugged. “If I don’t have a hard-on, I do. Ya gotta fill out a real detailed report steada sizin’ up the babes, and if the inmate don’t shit a balloon, the brass will put you on report.” As I looked around the visiting room, I saw several attractive women. One of them was filing her fingernails while chatting with Eddie Leach. “Why so many beauties?” I asked. Yoakum winked like a firefly. “’Babes like bad boys—that’s why,” he said. “Don’tcha know nothin’ ’bout women? Show a bitch a bad boy, and she’ll stick to him like a leech.” Yoakum chuckled, pleased with his pun. “Now that fella you’re watchin’ got three or four broads, and he ain’t even much of a crook. Far as I know, all he done was steal some iron from a construction site. But women are so hard up for bad boys, they’ll settle for Eddie Leach.” * The following afternoon, I received my orders to attend the training academy. I was to report to Westfield Correctional Facility, a combined prison and training institute a few miles south of Lake Michigan. I was instructed to pack loose clothing, sneakers and what medications I might need. No mention was made of a portable television, but I picked one up at Walmart. Thanks to Sally, I had become addicted to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When I told Sally I was leaving for two weeks of boot camp, she looked at me stonily. “Boot camp?” she said. “How macho that sounds. And what am I supposed to do with myself while you’re learning to be a screw?” “It’s only for a couple of weeks,” I said. “I’ll call you every night.” “Make sure you do, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “I’ll suffer while you’re gone.” “You suffer when I’m here,” I said. “The break might do you good.” “So now you’re deciding what’s good for me. You’re so very presumptuous, Tom Hemmings.” Maybe it’s time this ended, I thought as I started to pack my bag. Or maybe it’s ended already and only my willfulness is alive. A few minutes later, she came into the bedroom and gathered my hands in hers. “I’m such a bitch,” she murmured. “I’m such a demanding bitch.” “Would it help if I were a bad boy?” I joked. She let go of my hands and laughed. “A bad boy?” she said. “Just what are you saying? You’re bad for me already, Tom Hemmings. You’re such a narrow man.” * The Westfield Correctional Facility, a sprawling grassy acreage surrounded by watchtowers and wire fences, did not stir my narrow soul. The prison contained dozens of Spartan-type buildings—barracks, vocational shops, a stern-looking chapel—but there was no sign of habitation anywhere on the grounds. I later learned that the buildings were connected by a maze of underground tunnels, and that all inmate movements were conducted within these passageways. I was assigned a tiny room inside the training building—a room that contained only a bed and a dresser, upon which I placed the TV. Training would not start until the next morning, so I had time to give her a phone call. Since I had some loose change, I made the call from a payphone in the hallway. “I miss you,” I said when I heard her voice. “I miss you too,” she said thinly. When I told her I’d be back in just two weeks, I heard a sharp intake of breath. “How nice,” she said. “Should that make me feel better? I miss you no less when you’re here, Tom Hemmings, so please don’t try to console me.” “I’ll try to do better.” “Please don’t,” she snapped. “I don’t want to be a bother.” “Would you rather I left you?” “Of course not,” she snapped. “I’m in love with you, you big dummy. But don’t pester me with phone calls. You sound so cold over the phone.” I wondered again why I longed for her touch, being such a callow man, and why I was desperate for our conversation to end on a positive note. “I miss you,” I repeated. “Oh, I miss you too,” she replied. The operator said, “Please deposit another fifty cents.” * I phoned her two weeks later to let her know I was coming back. Along with forty other recruits, I had received my training diploma, and I had found the regimen undemanding and rather superficial. Classes consisted of glib observations about how to handle inmates—comments that in no way measured up to Officer Dobbins’ sound advice. The self-defense coaching occupied just a couple of afternoons, and I cringed to think how such training might fare against muggers and murderers. And peppering cardboard silhouettes with shotguns lacked the element of fear, an emotion sure to grip anyone forced to fire upon rioting inmates. But if my liaison with Sally defined me, I had poor cause to complain. I should have grown used to embracing affairs I was unequipped to handle. When she answered the phone, her voice was so tight that I wasn’t sure I had the right number. “Is there something you want to tell me?” I said. “Yes,” she said flatly, “there is.” “What is it?” She paused then spoke as though she had caught me reading her mail. “I happen to be in love, Tom Hemmings.” “I think I could love you too,” I lied. “You’re not listening to me,” she replied. “Everything is not about you. I have fallen in love with somebody else, and he’s grown very dear to me. I believe I am truly in love for the first time in my life.” I felt no sense of betrayal as I processed this information. For a moment, I felt that my bogus diploma had made me unworthy of her. But her story seemed inauthentic—I had heard it many times. When women want to disown you, whatever the reason might be, they often say it’s because someone dear has come into their lives. Lacking a talent for outrage, I said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t enough.” “Tom Hemmings,” she said, “you were really too much.” Convinced that she was just angry with me—after all, she had dumped me before—I said, “Shall I drop by and pick up my things? There are only a couple of shirts.” “Don’t be so condescending,” she said. “Do you actually think I planned this?” “What I think is that you’re toying with me.” “Must you be cruel?” she murmured. “It really doesn’t suit you. I want to remember you fondly, Tom Hemmings, so please don’t pretend to be cruel.” “All right,” I said. “You have my blessing.” “Your blessing?” she laughed. “My, that sounds so passé, but thank you anyway. Considering my luck with marriage, I could use a blessing or two.” “You’re marrying him?” “Yes, I’m marrying him. Does that surprise you, Tom Hemmings?” “It would if I believed you,” I said. “Whether you believe me or not,” she snapped, “please drop by and pick up your things. Let me know when you’re coming, and I’ll leave them on the front porch.” * Driving south on Route 431, I decided not to pick up my things. This wasn’t because I wanted to pout, but because her story was too unlikely. What prospects could she possibly have in such a diminished town? And, given her reputation, who would choose to marry her? I drove past the Castleberg turnoff and went back to the Holiday Inn. I wanted her to know where to find me once she was over her funk. On Monday, I returned to the prison and met with Captain Hawkins. He had phoned the training academy to get my evaluation, and he seemed particularly eager to go over it with me. “You graduated at the top of yer class,” he said, “but the report they wrote on you is bullshit. The instructors say you’re capable of thinkin’ outta the box.” “Why is that bullshit?” I asked him. “Do I gotta explain it, Hemmings? As long as yer ballin’ Sally Potter, you ain’t thinkin’ outta the box.” When I asked him to stop projecting, he said he would give me a break. He said he had slotted me to work the laundry dorm on my own. He told me I would work the busiest shift, which was 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and that would give me a chance to prove that I wasn’t pussy-whipped. On my first afternoon in the laundry dorm, I remembered Officer Dobbins’ advice. Treat them fair and respectfully, joke around with them a little and don’t feel compelled to write them up for every infraction you see. My post orders stated I had to conduct three shakedowns every shift, so I selected the bed areas of inmates whom I believed would cause me no trouble. The first inmate I chose was Eddie Leach who had always been friendly to me. “Go ahead, Mister Hemmings,” he said, opening his footlocker. “You got a job to do.” His manner was so obliging, his face so kind and composed, that I felt like I’d been punched when I found a balloon of white powder. It was tucked inside the cavity of a hollowed-out King James Bible. “Eddie, what have we here?” I said, hoping to keep the matter light. Eddie smiled. “Ya caught me, Mister Hemmings, so I guess I’ll be losin’ some good time. But don’t feel bad about it, man. Yer only doin’ yer job.” “I’m glad you feel that way,” I said. “We’re cool, Mister Hemmings, don’t worry. Man, I hope you’ll still do me a favor.” “What is it?” I asked suspiciously. He laughed. “It ain’t nothin’ illegal, man. Didja know I’m getting’ married?” “After you get out of prison?” I asked. “Naw, I’m gettin’ hitched here,” he replied. “The chaplain he’s tying the knot tomorrow. Mister Hemmings, if you can manage it, I’d like you to be my best man.” * It was not until after my shift had ended, and I was driving back to the Holiday Inn, that the most sobering thought I had ever had popped into my head. Could it be? I wondered. I shook my head. No, how could it possibly be? I watched the late news on television then fell into an exhausted sleep. The next morning I took an extra-long jog alongside Highway 40. That afternoon, I arrived at the prison several hours before my shift. Eddie had actually given me an invitation, which he had printed on a scrap of paper. It said the nuptials would be held at 1:00 p.m. in the prison chaplain’s office. The invitation did not mention the name of the bride, so I wondered again, Could it be? This thought pounded my brain like a mallet as I entered the administration building. Walking towards the chaplain’s office, I grew acutely aware of my footsteps. My soles thudded so loud on the carpetless floor that it felt as though I were being followed. So sharp was the hammering in my brain, so explosive the sound of my footsteps, that I was already stunned when I entered the chaplain’s office and saw her standing there. She was wearing a formal, white dress. Her hair was done up in a bun. Her face was so glacially composed that she looked like a mannequin. Eddie Leach was standing beside her, clad in freshly starched prison blues, and the chaplain, a scrawny little man, was chatting with them both. When Eddie introduced me to his bride, she smiled and squeezed my fingers. “Thank you for dropping by,” she said then she looked away from me. Thankfully, her face did not betray a hint of recognition. The group was still waiting for Officer Dobbins who was apparently the bridesmaid. She showed up a minute later, carrying a bouquet of white roses. Noticing me, she blanched and clutched the flowers to her chest. Speaking to Eddie Leach, she said, “Congratulations, hon.” * I stood as though bound while the prison chaplain conducted the ceremony. That he seemed to be in a hurry was no consolation to me—after the vows were recited, after the rings were exchanged, he asked me to escort the newlyweds to the visiting room. The reception, if you wanted to call it that, would consist of a two-hour visit. I delivered the pair to the visiting room then hurried away like a thief. Having grasped the true worth of my passion for her—a mawkish thing at best—I felt like a tawdry specter at the shoddiest of feasts. I was therefore surprised when Captain Hawkins stopped me in the hallway. As a phantom, I did not feel I deserved the concern with which he looked at me. “I heard what happened, son,” he said in a voice that could be poured over pancakes. “I wantcha to take a coupla days off. I’ll arrange to cover your shift.” I did not want to suffer his sympathy. “She’s just the town whore,” I snapped. “Never mind, son, it happens,” he said, and he patted me on the shoulder. I did not need a sermon—I needed a friend—so I broke off our conversation. Too feckless for flight, I retreated no further than the officers’ dining room, and I felt that all eyes were upon me when I sat down at an empty table. I sat until Henry Yoakum, having finished his shift in the visiting room, came in, drew a cup of coffee and sat down on the chair beside me. “Guv’nor,” he said, “yer slippin’—there ain’t no two ways about it. There can’t be much lead in yer pencil if she swapped you for Eddie Leach.” “I’m one up on you,” I joked cheerlessly. Yoakum cackled and blew on his coffee. “I wouldn’t be too sure of that, guv’nor,” he said. “Eddie Leach has a year left to serve—he told me that anyhow. A woman like Sally won’t keep her legs crossed while she’s waitin’ for him to get out.” “And that’s where you come in, I suppose?” “Well, she ain’t no vestal bride—you know that as well as me. If I play my cards right, guv’nor, I’ll be wettin’ my turtle yet.” Since the room seemed oppressively warm, I told Yoakum I had to leave. The thought of sitting still any longer was more than I could handle, so I decided to take a cleansing jog alongside Highway 40. I planned to exhaust myself running and then watch Mary Tyler Moore. The shift change was beginning as I left the dining hall, and I had to push past a wave of officers showing up for the 4:00 p.m. roll call. Since I felt like a leper, I was relieved when none of them deigned to notice me, but after I got out of the building I discovered I wasn’t alone. Officer Dobbins was waiting for me at the edge of the parking lot. * “Hon,” Officer Dobbins said, “you look like you need a drink. There’s a bar a few miles from the prison—just follow behind my Jeep.” The charity in her eyes made me feel even worse. “It’s early,” I replied. “Well, I want one,” she said. “Will you keep me company?” I got into my car and followed her Jeep to a bar on Route 231. The bar was a dive named Flakey Jake’s, and its lot was filled with cars. I accompanied her into the bar. We sat down at a small greasy table. The place was packed with guards from the prison who had just gotten off their shift. A pot-bellied, beetle-browed fellow, who must have been Flakey Jake, automatically brought us a pitcher of beer and a couple of slippery glasses. “I come here a lot,” Officer Dobbins explained. She filled both glasses with beer. “How do you suppose they met?” I asked her. “Probably through a church group,” she said. “That’s usually how it happens. Women come to the prison to bring the men to Jesus and then fall in love with them.” We talked no more about the wedding. We talked about jogging and softball— she belonged to a coed league. We talked about playing tennis, and she challenged me to a match. We even talked about fishing—she said the penal farm had several stocked ponds. “Just watch out for escaping inmates,” she warned, and I laughed along with her. By the time I had drunk several beers, I was a little in love with her. When I invited her to my hotel room, she said, “Not in your wildest dreams, hon. In case you aren’t aware of it, that isn’t the way I swing.” I apologized for my fantasy. I told her I’d presumed too much. Officer Dobbins chuckled and said, “Dreams are dreams, aren’t they, hon.” * A week later, while browsing in Walmart, I ran into Sally Potter. She was pushing a shopping cart that was full of men’s clothing, and she blushed when she looked at me. Her face wore the glow of a newlywed—she looked stunningly beautiful. “Tom Hemmings,” she said to me sternly, “you never did pick up your things.” “Will they fit Eddie Leach?” I asked her. She laughed. “No, he isn’t your size.” I wished her luck with her marriage. She smiled and folded her arms. “At least I know where to find him,” she said. “Are you buying new jogging shoes?” I confessed that I was. She shook her head. “You’re such a runner,” she said. “So when is he getting out?” I asked. “Not for eighteen months,” she replied. “He lost six months of good time yesterday—that was because of you. Did you bust him just to spite me, Tom Hemmings?” “I was only doing my job.” She told me my scheme was not going to work—she would wait for him anyway. She informed me he was the sweetest man that she had ever met, and that when he got out of prison she would make sure he was well-dressed. She said a wretched visiting room was no place for a honeymoon. They would honeymoon in Vegas, she said, and stay at a Holiday Inn.