Scuffed floor tile, peeling paint, crumbling cinderblock; every edge broken with time and abuse. County jail is depressing, as jails are meant to be.
To get there, you go to the third floor, above the courthouse, past food machines stocked by someone with no interest in nutrition. The walls are covered with NO SMOKING signs and invitations to join recovery groups for all the standard kinds of human misery. There are ads for bail bondsmen and one smiling woman, who wears a strapless evening gown, as if she’s rushed from a fabulous soiree to spring someone from the slammer.
You walk through the corridors, past lawyers, legal secretaries and the others. Three hundred-pounders in butt-sprung sweatpants, dragging dirty toddlers, sullen, zitty teens with jeans as big as parachutes and vacant-eyed straw-haired girlfriends with tattoos on their ankles. These are your people now. They’ve come — just like you — to visit their own (presumably) presumed innocent (choose one: violent, non-violent) criminal.
Still walking, you overhear talk of money woes, diets, funny things that happened in court, plans gone awry, car trouble, dog bites and plenty of she-done-him-wrong. These aren’t private discussions. When you’re in jail — even as a visitor — there are no secrets.
The first time you step inside the double doors and see the battered cubicle where a bank of TV screens form a backdrop for the jailer on duty, you know your life is forever changed. Something’s been taken away. Even though you’re not guilty and even though your particular criminal might be innocent, nobody believes it, not for a minute. Everybody knows he wouldn’t be in this mess if he weren’t guilty and you are his (choose one: mother, sister, whatever). Right? Ipso facto, you and his whole damn family are guilty as hell, which explains why they keep you waiting so long, even after you’ve filled out the little form that tells them who you are and proves you have some purpose in visiting the dab of shit they keep in a cell somewhere.
So you stand and wait, or there’s a bench, a rickety wooden thing where you can sit, if it’s not already crowded with other lowlife scum waiting for their moment to visit their personal dab of shit. And if you’ve still got some notion that you’re not like them, because after all, you have a college degree, your husband has tenure, and your middle son is on the honor role at Berkeley. Furthermore, you’ve got two platinum Visa cards in your wallet and you’ve never committed any kind of crime in your entire life. Well, honey, that’s not what counts in this neck of the woods. Because the skinny babe next to you with the black eye and the weird scars on her forehead? She’s your equal here. In fact, she’s got an edge, because she knows the ropes and you’re just a penal system virgin.
The jailhouse is a world of buzzers. Get used to it. A nerve-shredding ZZZZzzz! sends you inside the visiting area. Once the heavy steel door clangs shut, you cannot leave until your time is up, not even if you’re sick or have to pee. Not even if the person you’ve come to visit refuses to speak to you. You’re stuck here, for at least thirty minutes, divided from your (choose one: child, husband, whatever) by a thick glass partition. So thick this might as well be a TV transmission from the moon. So thick you can only talk through a phone that smells like a sewer. A phone, which may or may not, work.
He hasn’t seen the sun for a year and a half. There are no windows in his cell. The light is all fluorescent. And he is so pale, so white–like the sheets he tried to hang himself with. But you try not to think of that now. And you’ve forgiven the friend who said maybe it would be better if he had killed himself.
His hair is greasy and matted. Maybe they won’t let him have a comb yet. Maybe he’d sharpen it and do himself (or someone else)harm. There are worse things than uncombed hair. The orange, jail-issued jumpsuit means he’s considered dangerous. His medication makes him jumpy. They haven’t got it fine-tuned for him. The jailhouse doctor isn’t really any good, otherwise why would he be here? Surely, he didn’t grow up dreaming of ministering to criminals. He’s here because he isn’t good enough to be anywhere else. But who are you to have such thoughts? After all, you’re not good enough to be anywhere else either.
If you’re lucky, you have an upbeat chat with your kid. Or husband or boyfriend or whatever the relationship is. Was. You try to keep a mental list of safe things to talk about. Maybe you’ve even jotted a few ideas on the back of an envelope while you were waiting. Things that won’t upset him or you. Because there’s nowhere to go in here, no private place to shed tears. Still, it happens. Grown men sob and smash their fists — or their heads — into the wall.
You don’t want to waste the talk on weather. What does he care about that? His weather’s the same every single day.
Is the phone tapped? Someone (the 1st lawyer) said Yes. Someone else (the 3rd lawyer) said No. Do you take the average? Sometimes you think, just go ahead. Ask him “Why? Why did you do it?” Let’s finally have The Goddamn Truth! Let Big Brother or the phantom phone-priest — whoever’s there, lurking in the wire-y void — hear those explanations, expiations, permutations, of guilt, innocence, or whatever lies between.
But you don’t ask why. You’re afraid to hear the answers, afraid to tip the scale. You cannot be the cause of whatever happens next.
And long before the trial begins, this is what you come to know: There’s no absolution for insanity. Truth is irrelevant. His life is over. Only the penance matters.
Linda Stewart-Oaten’s other fiction and non-fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Eureka Literary Magazine, The Chattahoochee Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Sun, CollectedStories.com, Prime Number and elsewhere. She’s currently working on a sprawling novel.