Authors: Tawni O'Dell
She didn’t ask me why I did it, and I was glad for that. She came and sat down beside me and laid her head against my arm.
“I can’t wait to see Mommy,” she said.
“Great,” I murmured.
She looked up at me, her smooth forehead puckered with adult concern. “What’s a rubber?”
“Hey,” I said quickly, glancing around for a distraction greater than a burning couch. “Where did Elvis get to? I haven’t seen him since I went to bed.”
Her face brightened. “I bet I know.”
She jumped up and ran over to one of the doghouses with my shirt flapping around her legs. She stuck her head inside, then pulled it out again, smiling and making a Vanna White hand gesture. Elvis slowly appeared, sniffed the air, and lay down in the dirt with a yawn.
I ended up taking Jody to see Mom after all but only after Misty and Amber agreed not to go. I realized the problem had always been taking the three of them together so I asked Misty at breakfast if she’d mind not going this time. She was still mad about Dad’s couch. She gave me a quick, dark glance and said I couldn’t pay her to spend two hours in a truck with me. Amber never came out of her room.
Before I picked up Jody at school, I put in two hours at Barclay’s unloading refrigerators, scrubbing them out, and setting them up in the showroom, and another three hours in their truck delivering washers and dryers and stoves with Ray, a guy who spent all his time bitching about his wife and kids.
I was in another foul mood and I felt bad about it because I knew Jody was going to need me to spout a bunch of phony optimism after she saw Mom. That was usually Amber’s job; and I admitted—no matter how much I hated everything else Amber did—she was good at comforting Jody.
Jody was standing by the school office window when I pulled up, wearing her backpack and carrying her pink spring coat that was too small for her this year. She had on a flowery dress, and tights with snags around the knees, and the
silver, little kid, army boots that Amber had got her for Christmas last year.
A lot of the kids dressed up for their prison visits. Some of them were forced by an aunt or grandma, but some of them made the choice on their own like Jody did. They were easy to spot. They were always preoccupied with keeping themselves wrinkle-free.
I didn’t understand the rationale behind it except to say to their moms, “Look at me. Look how cute and pathetic I am in my little dress. Look what you gave up.” It was probably the same kind of fanatic neediness that drove some of their moms over the edge in the first place.
Jody spent most of the drive prattling on about the Easter Bunny coming soon, and some girl bringing in a platypus Beanie Baby with the tag on and telling everyone how her folks were going to sell it in a couple years for a million dollars, and how the cafeteria served corn dog on a stick for hot lunch. She had developed into a real chatterbox lately, and I was glad despite how annoying it could get.
She didn’t talk for a long time after Mom shot Dad. She started wetting her bed and wouldn’t eat anything except red Jell-O jigglers. She had a different shrink than Betty. A guy with a beard who knew exactly nothing about everything. He wanted to put her away for observation. Amber freaked.
For the next month, every time I came home after another futile day of scouring the county for a job, there would be Amber on the couch with Jody on her lap, not doing anything or saying anything, just holding her. Then one day I came home and they were playing dinosaurs and eating a bowl of popcorn, and everything’s been fine since.
Through trial and error, I had discovered Fridays were the best time to go see Mom. Hardly anyone else showed up. Only an idiot wanted to start out his Friday night with a prison visit.
Weekends were the worst. The visitor’s parking lot was an
endless trickle of dressed-up little kids clutching homemade drawings and schoolwork.
I bet a man’s prison didn’t get as many children. I bet they didn’t have special visitation rooms—called Hug Rooms—where they could go to touch their kids. I bet their cafeteria walls weren’t covered with stick figure families in front of crayon houses, and spelling tests with stars on them. (Jody said Mom said they used oatmeal to stick stuff to the walls since they weren’t allowed to have things like tape or tacks or string. She said the tapioca pudding worked too.)
I imagined the visitors at a man’s prison to be mostly lawyers and whores.
It would make sense. Prison was a reflection of real life, and it had always seemed to me that once a woman had a kid nothing else mattered about her. Being a dad might describe a man, but being a mom defined a woman.
Jody didn’t stop talking until we approached our exit. The prison was easy to see from the interstate. It sat at the bottom of the kind of valley pictured in every local bank calendar except the calendar photos always had a big red barn in them instead of an enormous angular gray cement building that cast a stark shadow like a scar against the soft hills behind it. I was sure when the government built it they were just looking for an isolated area and weren’t trying to make a statement, but they had done a great job pointing out the difference between Man’s ugliness and Nature’s beauty.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to what Jody was saying but I was enjoying the excitement in her voice, the same way I had enjoyed listening to Callie Mercer at the Shop Rite. I found it soothing and distracting, like the hum of Mom’s vacuum, and once she stopped doing it, I felt strangely panicked.
I caught her staring out the window and tried to come up with a topic of conversation to distract her but before I could think of something, she said, “What’s a lethal injection?”
“Where’d you hear that?” I asked roughly.
“Tyler Clark at school. He said Mom’s going to get one.”
I glanced over at her. She was still looking out the window.
“Mom’s not going to get one,” I said.
“Esme said it’s what the vet gives old dogs when they’re having trouble dying. She said people don’t get them because they don’t need them. They die on their own.”
“Mom’s not going to die, is she?”
“I don’t want her to die. Even if she killed Daddy.”
My hands cut the steering wheel. Sometimes they did stuff like that; acted on their own. The truck swerved to one side, then jerked back into the right lane. Jody braced herself against the dashboard.
“I can’t talk about this shit while I’m driving. Okay?” I said to her.
“Okay,” she said back. “What’s the matter with you anyway?”
“You’re in a bad mood.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m . . .” I stopped myself. There was no way to win this particular argument with a six-year-old.
“You are,” she added.
“Jody,” I started grumbling. “You can’t understand.”
“Don’t tell me I’m too little,” she complained. “I’m not too little.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes . . . never mind.”
“You want to hear a joke?”
We got off the interstate and started down the county road.
The field on the right-hand side was empty now but by the end of summer it would be covered in sunflowers for as far as the eye could see. The inmates couldn’t see them from inside, but Mom was arrested in August so she would know they were out there.
“What does a vampire say when you do him a favor?” Jody asked.
“I don’t know.”
A big smile spread across her face before she even answered. “Fangs a lot.”
I laughed. It was a pretty good one.
She waited for me to open her door after I parked and when I did she said, “Fangs a lot,” and burst into giggles again. She grabbed the picture she’d made for Mom: a kaleidoscope of neon marker-colored fruit with the words FROOT IS GUD FOR YOU written at the top. She was studying the food groups in school. At the bottom she always signed them YUR DODR, JODY. She headed across the parking lot, throwing smiles at me over her shoulder. She wasn’t scared of anything.
I hadn’t been planning on actually seeing Mom this time. I had planned to sit in the waiting area like I always did and read a worn back copy of
. It was either that or
Better Homes and Gardens
. But Jody latched onto my arm and insisted I had to come too. She didn’t want to go by herself. I started giving her all kinds of excuses, and the guard who was standing nearby waiting to go over us with a metal detector said to Jody, “Don’t waste your breath, hon. Some people can’t handle it.”
And that was the reason I broke my vow never to see my mother again for as long as I lived. Because some stranger in a polyester uniform and rubber shoes made fun of me. Sometimes I hated being a guy.
Jody eagerly submitted to the detector after I said I’d go. The first time she had been subjected to one, she thought they were looking for candy.
The year before there had been talk about starting up body cavity searches for visitors going into the Hug Rooms after a woman had used her ten-year-old daughter to smuggle in pieces of a gun.
I didn’t believe in capital punishment as a rule but when I heard about where that woman made that little girl put pieces of metal all I could think was someone should take her out back and shoot her in the head. The ACLU could take a flying leap. Some shit was just very straightforward.
Instead they put in more surveillance cameras.
We went in first. The room had four chairs. One of them was a rocking chair. I knew right away it must be for women with babies. I should have left then but the door opened and there she was in a crappy cheap smock like a hospital gown. And it was yellow. Faded sunflower yellow. Somebody’s idea of a joke.
Jody went running up to her. The guard stepped away and closed the door behind him. Mom bent down and scooped Jody into her arms before she noticed me.
She didn’t recognize me at first or maybe there was a part of me that didn’t want her to recognize me, a part that wanted her to mumble an apology for the misunderstanding so I could go back to not knowing her anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I wanted her to say. “For a second there, I thought you were my boy.” “That’s okay,” I would say back. “I could’ve sworn you were my mom.”
Actually, she didn’t look much like my mom at all. Not at any age or stage in her life I could remember. Not the anxious girl in the wedding picture fighting off dry heaves. Not the pretty, untroubled, ponytailed mom from my baby years. Or the exhausted, short-tempered mom she became later. Or the skittish, worried mom she became recently. Or the untroubled mom—back again—driving away from her home forever with her wrists in handcuffs and her clothes stained with her husband’s blood.
She was thinner now. Older. She looked disturbed but not in
a bad way. A sort of worn haunted calm hung about her as if she had finally reached some divine female plane where concern and disappointment were necessary and good. Her rusty hair was chopped short like mine. I couldn’t believe Amber hadn’t freaked out and ranted for days about her hair.
“Harley?” she said.
It was a statement of fact even though it sounded like a question. I had been identified. Spotted. Caught in her sights.
She released Jody and slowly stood up.
“Harley,” she said again, and her eyes filled with tears.
She came at me. I thought she was going to hit me. I didn’t know why. She had never hit me before. I stepped back but she cupped my face in her hands, gazed at it like it belonged to a newborn, then hugged me with all her might.
“My baby,” she said against my exposed neck without sounding stupid or sappy or phony. Another statement of fact.
The voice was what got to me. I could convince myself I was looking at a stranger or being held by one. But the voice was the only voice that had ever been kind to me without wanting anything in return. I had absorbed it into my consciousness before I had even formed ears.
I tried but my arms wouldn’t rise to hug her back or push her away. All feeling left me except for a dull pain between my eyes. My free will had been crushed to bits between the rush of love I felt and the wall of hate that rose up to meet it. It occurred to me too late that seeing my mom for the first time since she started serving a life sentence in prison was probably a big deal.
She finished hugging me without seeming to notice or to care that I didn’t hug her back. I was a grown man after all. I had never seen my dad hug anyone back besides Mom and Misty.
She moved aside and Jody came up between us and put her arms around Mom’s middle.
“You cut your hair,” I said, surprised at how easily I found my voice.
“Awhile ago,” she told me, looking as pleased at my ability to speak as she had been at my ability to finally hit the potty without spraying the wall behind it. “Do you like it?”
I squared my shoulders like she was a beatable foe.
She just laughed. Jody held up her picture to her, and Mom took it and raved about it, then her eyes traveled quickly around the empty room before landing on me, full of concern. I thought she was going to touch me again but she asked urgently, “Where’s Misty?”
The question stumped me for a moment with its irrelevance. I shrugged. “She decided not to come,” I said.
“Harley asked her not to come,” Jody corrected me.
I glared at her.
“Well, you did.”
“Why?” Mom asked.
“Because they fight,” I blurted out, and then felt stupid. “They fight in the truck and it drives me crazy.”
Mom smiled warmly at my confession, her obvious pride and fondness for me robbing me of all the hard-ass points I had earned over the past year and a half. I was glad Amber wasn’t there to see it.
“Well, how is she?” Mom persisted.
“Harley,” Mom lightly scolded. “What’s wrong with you?”
What’s wrong with you? I repeated to myself, trying not to laugh out loud. My aching head filled with irate four-star generals stepping onto body-strewn battlefields and asking survivors the same question.
“Nothing,” I answered her.
“Why would you say, ‘who cares’?”
“Because I’d like to know.”
“I care about her,” Mom said firmly. “And so do you.”
“And me too,” Jody piped up.
I looked from Jody to Mom and back again. I thought about Misty and Amber being here too and how the four of them had been meeting here together for a year and a half now, privileged members of a Hug Room secret society. I could picture them laughing and gossiping. Talking about clothes and hairstyles and Beanie Babies. Never once bothering themselves with the facts of where they were and what had happened. Not caring about blame and shame and paying bills.
Then it suddenly hit me: the girls hadn’t taken any of this shit personally. They didn’t feel abandoned by her.