(Excerpt from Life Without)
Choosing, it’s like a pomegranate fruit. Maxine talked one up once and when she did, I could almost taste it, almost hold it in my hands, like this.
Daddy used to bring one home and set it down on the kitchen table. “Where’d you get that?” I’d ask him, and he’d chuckle in his belly, like he’d done magic, and then admit he got it at the farmer’s market downtown. “This fruit is like some kind of strange and wonderful news that’s waiting,” he’d say, “for us, buried just inside,” and I would study its dull skin, scratched and ordinary…ugly, even…turning it to find the flatter places, feeling its weight. I would close my eyes and picture the mystery under the skin, layer on crooked layer of red crystals. And chambers, like you find inside a heart.
We would wait to open it. Daddy said sometimes waiting made things better.
And then, when it was finally time and I thought I would die if I had to contain myself any longer, he’d spread the newspaper out on the table and we’d pry it open and undo it, peeling away the little seeded jewels from the thin, white membrane that ran all through it. We were just speechless from its strange beauty, the way each kernel gave a shocking burst of sour-sweet juice, the way it turned everything it touched a ruby red.
Well, that’s what choosing feels like in here. Something precious. A mystery. You know what I mean?
“I choose you,” Maxine likes to say that, “And you’re against the rules.”
Choosing, it takes some scheming, behind the walls. Reminds me of my youngest, Carl, when he would want something real bad, and he could make every kind of argument, saying, But…but…, and when you said no, he’d do it anyway. Willful, that boy. Sonia, she was different, she’d do just what you said and be real proud of that. I hate sneaking. It makes you feel dirty, and I know all about that, too. Sneaking out and around to do my…my drinkin’ and druggin’…hiding what’s going on underneath my skin. In here, though, there’s no way to keep alive inside just by the rules. Who, I ask you, who can live that way?
How can you make a rule against the little things that make your heart keep beating? How can you outlaw touch?
Every little thing’s decided for you in this hell. All the everyday stuff, the whats and the whens. Waking up and eating. Showering and working and going in and out. All those things that on the outside you do and pay it no attention, and behind these walls make up the high points, the action of your day, like with that German Shepherd my cousin had, King, that was his name, who used to live just to eat and go out and pee. It’s all ordinary and unless you’re looking hard, there’s nothing at all happening in here. And it’s all decided. Rec and visits and work detail, all day long sewing in the labels on those T shirts, one after another and then some more. Turning out the lights, standing up to be counted and going to sleep again. “Movement” they call it when we answer to the chow call, or whatever order we get, and it’s all planned, “Controlled Movement.” There’s a rule for everything, and you got to work at remembering there’s something left to choose.
Maxine, she chooses me, and I been choosing her for two years now. I noticed her and made it a point to speak and give her a smile. Intrigued is what I was, I couldn’t help it, with those locks all down her back and that free world walk she’s got. She seems to step above the bullshit here, a foot or so off the ground, proud and unfazed. And when she smiles, her face changes from fearsome to just plain beautiful. Even at the start, before I knew her, before it got deep, she deserved it more than most of them I’ve laid down with. The ones who just paid for me and the truly lowdown ones who just plain took what they thought was theirs. Me choose? I had no say in the matter, whatever age I was.
She’s got the gift of bringing things close. I haven’t got her way of conjuring things. Only thing I know that’s anything like that is singing. I can do that, or at least I could. But she can tell me pomegranates so that I can almost taste them, or grass, or feathers, or a place. Once we found we’d both been to the same little corner of Johnson Park in the same August of the same summer, and she just made me remember every part of it, so that we were just about there again, sitting on a bench in part sun and part shade while a bunch of kids played catch or flew a kite and the ice cream truck sang its way closer and closer.
Maxine, she’s not the past and she’s not the future. She is now.
She helped to make me see my heart’s like a ruby-red jewel, with every little thing that’s happened stored in layers and winding all through. And she made me to close my eyes and see my heartbeat, too, willful, lighting up the dark.
Those tattoos she picked for herself, I can see them if I close my eyes. I guess I looked and touched so much I got them memorized. The professional, tattoo parlor ones from the outside, and the thick blue, fuzzier ones she got in here. Color, signs and symbols, all the while underneath her clothes, they seem like small miracles to me. I wonder will I keep on seeing them, once I’m out.
Maxine, like I said, she imagined up close the park, its jungle of curbside wildflowers and overgrown boxwood and yews, I think they’re called. The green up above us and the kids running around without a worry, for that little bit of Sunday afternoon at least, wearing the grass thin with their bikes. No clouds. Little bit of breeze. The popsicle man in his truck just by the sidewalk. And the sun on bare arms and legs…well, bare legs anyway. I never could wear short sleeves, always hiding what my arms would tell.
So much for the way things were, the perfect Sunday afternoon. It’s always something, am I right?
Anyway, Maxine can get the good parts right, she can tell them close. The bad parts I can do just fine with on my own. One day soon I’ma ask her for ocean, that’s what I’ma do. It’ll make us some romance, some mystery. And then I’ll have one more thing stored in my pomegranate heart for when I go.
I been waiting six long years, but I’m gettin’ real short now, and come three months, I’ll be walking through the gate, back to the life I left behind. No, that’s not it. To something new I haven’t put together yet, except for in my head. Something new. Three months from now. It seems so far away, and so close, and I don’t mind telling you, I’m afraid.
Only one thing I know for sure: I’m getting my kids back.
I sit here playing solitaire or lie on my bunk at night and promise to do different, to keep building a positive character. Sometimes I even feel a song rise up inside me and almost come out my mouth. I promise them to set things right. I push away the hot disgrace I feel for being such a fuck-up. Junkie. Failure. Absent Mother. For all my secret crimes, the big ones and the little, too, I feel ashamed, for the bad name I gave my kids, and I could start listing my mistakes and never finish. I try to think of the good news, to say the program words, “I trust in my higher power,” “it works if you work it,” but I get to worrying that it’s all too much, too much to mend.
Only thing I did get right was all the love I felt for Sonia and Carl. Though you might not believe it, seeing me in here and them fostered out, I loved them fierce. But even then, I got to admit, I chose me instead of them.
I’m trying to forgive myself so I can start again. Everything else? We’ll have to see.
This bid, it’s almost over, and I pray I can keep it together when I get out. It’s been a bitch, this one, a whole different story than the string of short time lock-ups I done with the County. I got the meetings all planned out, two a day to start with, Thursdays in the St. Martin De Porres church basement and Mondays on 12th Street, upstairs from the Dunkin Donuts. I got the computer tech class to sign up for, and my Auntie Dede, who’s gonna take me in for a month, and then she says I got to get on my feet, her boy will be coming back from his posting overseas. I would have rather gone to my cousin’s, she’s been in NA, too, but these days, there’s no tolerance in the projects for even associating, let alone cohabiting with the likes of us; they find out you’ve done time and they kick you straight out. Good luck gettin’ on your fuckin’ feet, excuse my language. Judy’s got her own to think of, after all. There’s new rules on the outside, a new world order. No getting on the county, no food stamps either. But that’s okay, I’m still gonna be alright.
Just last week I saw Caprice Johnson, back inside after just six months. “Hey, Cherry,” she said, using the street name I’ve tried to leave behind, and then asked me who was holding, where she could get high. She told me Lisa got claimed by the monster, but even the virus doesn’t stop her from trying to fix. And Aquila, she overdosed her first week out. Died before she even found a place to live.
I wonder will I see Carl’s father, once I’m out? And will I hurt all over again for neither one of us being good enough to matter to him, in the end, or is that wound so grown over and keyloid-scarred that I’ll feel nothing at all? Sonia’s? I don’t even know who he is.
It’s hard to hang onto the good parts, to what’s yours that came before or in-between the bad. The ugly memories, they come back, and we all got plenty of those. You may just be laying down after lights out, and there you are, blinking in the lights of the courtroom, cuffed and so dazed you not even sure whose clothes you got on or what you done, or waking up in some hallway bloody or desperate to fix. Looking in the mirror at the face of someone you don’t even know who just stole money from her daddy’s purse or boosted from a store downtown or turned so many tricks she’s numb or worse down there. Or watching your kids screaming for you, kicking and fighting as they cuff you and take you off.
Why would someone figure that if they took everything from you, you’d have a reason to do right? Does the heart keep beating, when you got nothing to lose?
Yes. That’s what Maxine says, the heart beats on. But who will help me see it on the outside? Who will bring things close?
She asks if I’m gonna miss her, write her, visit after the six-month waiting time. As usual, I got no words. “I’m not good at talking, like you are,” I say, and kiss her instead.
Everyone needs touching, am I right? And who was here after I woke up, after I got clean and sober, and started to open up my eyes? Maxine, that’s who.
Tomorrow I could send her a kite, asking can she conjure me some ocean when I see her next. That could get me through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, too, and then I’ll be wrapping up.
But I got to be careful, what with shakedowns, things getting in the wrong hands and whatnot. Words on paper can lead to trouble, and this is no time to fuck things up, just when I’m short. I’ll leave it in our hiding place behind the microwave. That’s better than handing it over or just plain asking. It’s got some mystery to it, some romance. And write it so can’t nobody tell who wrote it, what it means. One day soon, I’ll do it, one day soon. “Tell me ocean,” that’s what I’ll put, and if they find it, they’ll probably think ocean’s some new name for the latest dope.
It’ll be nice for her to have some little thing she can hold in her hands and read as many times as she wants, once I’m gone. And even if she can’t hang onto it for later, nobody can erase things from your head.
I stare at the things my caseworker gave me on how to stay on the right path outside. First, I’ll do the meetings. Then the job. Then my own place to live. Then the kids. I know I can do it, even though the order seems backward. I can plan it out and do it. Can I? I can. I can.
I’ll be choosing, moving on my own schedule without anyone’s permission, once I get my own crib, that is. I’ll be keeping away from all those bad influences I used to hang with, avoiding my triggers, and wearing whatever I want, and getting my hair done, or cut off, or dying it blond, whatever the fuck I feel like. I’ll be eating healthy, fresh vegetables and fruit, and sitting down to a table with a cloth-type placemat. Eating any time I like, dinner at noon and breakfast at eight in the evening, if I decide that’s the way it ought to be. I’ll be taking a bubble bath, even if I got to use that pink dish soap, like we used to growing up. Sleeping in a real bed.
Going from zero to 90 all at once, though, all rules to none, I hope I don’t just crash. All that choosing I’ll be doing, I hope I get it right.
I try to picture myself in my own room, in my own apartment, even, but the hallway’s as far as I ever get. I try not to see the insides of the other rooms I’ve known, tornadoed with covers and clothes, roaches and spoiled food and the mess of cooked-up drugs. I try not to see the loser muthafuckas camped out on the sofa, or the empty bed where my girls used to sleep.
If I’m not careful, the whole, big past and present, too, they block out everything that might could be and everything pushes all together into a big fucking mess. I end up kicking and screaming, shouting, Hey, remember me? There’s a sista in here, trying to breathe her way through this suffocating shithole, into tomorrow. Remember me?
Maxine’s got six more years until she’s eligible, but she never bitches and moans. No regrets, she says, for either thing that put her here. Both things, she says, the one that happened on the outside and the one in here, were self-defense. Protecting your people and your body, those things are rights, she says. Those things you can carry in your heart, even if they cost the life you knew.
She’ll no doubt find somebody else to tell her magic things to. There’s plenty who need what she can do in here. And me? I wonder will I miss the softness. Breasts and hips and belly. And mouth, everywhere mouth.
I’m no dyke, I told her at first, even while we was in the middle of it, and I was moaning and calling out her name, and Jesus’s, too, truth be told. And I insisted on that for the longest, gay for the stay, until it didn’t seem to matter anyhow. “Whatever,” she would say, laughing, and pull me right on top of her, so that I could smell her smell and see the blood beating in her neck, and could just barely touch my lips to the softest skin in the hollow at her throat.
I say that’s the softest patch of skin, but Maxine says, no, it’s the inside of the upper arm or inner thigh. Spots that stay protected, hidden, like good news tends to be.
Maxine’s the one who’s loved me, in the now, the one who’s told me things, and when I start in to thinking about missing her, I just can’t go there. Like she told me, a heart holds lots of things, and every place you been, everyone you been, it’s all lodged in there. All the songs you’ve heard and sung and thought you might sing out loud. It’s been a long, long while since I’ve done any singing, and maybe it’s dried up, like a river that used to run in me, but maybe not. Maybe not. Stored in me there’s blues and spirituals and happy little songs I sang for my kids, soul and blues and R&B and gospel and even country, too, though I don’t usually admit to that. I like it all.
Anyway, wherever you are, there’s always something to miss. Your loving. Your dope. Your kids. Your life.
I turn my mind to something else, get out my cards and play some solitaire. I try to see and feel what’s stored inside.
Against my back is the metal of my bunk, printing me, feels like, through the thin-assed mattress. I can see my new cellie, Keisha, weighing down the slats of the bunk right above me. She’s the newest fish, mad as hell and just figuring out how to swim. I saw Eldora watching her at chow, probably planning to add her to her family, take her underneath her wing. When she’s awake, Keisha never talks, but I can hear her sometimes in her sleep, and I just close my eyes and try not to listen. It makes me miss my girls. It makes me miss Daddy, who would get up and soothe me with a warm washcloth on my face and neck whenever I had a bad dream.
He’s gone forever now, though. And the picture of me he took to his grave was a junkie behind bars, trying to finally, finally get it together and do right. He never gave up on me, even after I stole from him, dropped out, left my kids with him, disappeared and reappeared only to disappear again, embarrassed him, disappointed him, worried him sick and took his pain meds, left him to raise my kids again. And at the end, he still came to see me, and asked me if I couldn’t try to make something of my inside time. “Make the now count, Nita. Do something positive with your waiting time.”
I can hardly stand the disappointment in his eyes, and the thing he felt, but didn’t have the heart to say, I’m glad your mother’s not alive to see you like this. She died just before my tenth birthday, which was all forgotten in the flurry of getting ready for the funeral and the wake. Nobody ever talked about what she died from, and Daddy, for one, seemed to decide to remember only what was good. I can recollect her mostly from a distance, from across the table or the room, or through a kind of film. Geneva. Upright and proper and careful about every little thing, clothes ironed and starched and buttoned and hooked, hair pressed and tamed smooth, laugh small and ladylike. Unless she was drinking, that is, and then a Hurricane Geneva turned our home on end. It’s hazy, but I know that much. She was a hell-raiser. She was a perfect angel. She was gone.
Most of what I’ve done, I try to forget. And I try to blot out Keisha and all the others before her who’ve breathed the same stale air as me in here and shared that toilet seat and face bowl, if you can call it that, and cried the same guilty, lonely tears for our kids. Where is there to go, forward or back, sometimes I can’t decide. I try for something good that hasn’t got erased.
I remember Daddy leaving before morning with his fishing pole and tackle box, and me beside him that very first time I agreed to go along, eager to get there and catch something, so that I could hurry back to my junior high school world.
Can I get to that riverbank, from this dry place? I’ll practice bringing him close, I’ll try.
Here he is now, coming into view. It’s so quiet in the pre-dawn dark that I swear I can hear his drumbeat heart, steady and sure. He’s sitting by the water, his big-knuckled hands holding the pole so still, so…tender, really. Still and right there in what he’s doing, whether or not a fish gets caught.
The first time I nearly exploded because I hadn’t caught a single one. Then I finally hooked that itty bitty pike too small to eat, and I was bent on keeping it. He urged me to do the right thing, and let it go. “Suit yourself, then,” he said, when he could see that I’d decided on my path. “Have it now, instead of waiting. In the end, you’ll learn.”
The last time I went along with him his face was filled with worry, mostly for me, wondering where I had started going wrong. I could see it in his hooded eyes, his worry and something far away…apart… elsewhere, and maybe he was already getting sick and knew it, but kept it to himself. I was too loud for the place, talking about how I was gonna out-fish him. I was trying to tighten up my laugh and be quiet, make it suit the time and place, but I couldn’t seem to help running my mouth about how many fish I could catch. And he was looking old, his hands around the fishing pole all knotty, but still sure. And I can see the boy in his face, too, that youngish excitement that the line might tighten up and pull, I can see all that just underneath his worry and his doubt. He was old man and kid, both.
Here he is, his line disappearing into the dark water, and he’s made a pact with what will come. Fish or not. “It’s not a competition, Ranita,” he used to tell me. “It’s this,” he had said, spreading his open hand around him, “The point is this.”
Later on, he tried to get me to start fishing like it was some kind of medicine or a program that might work for me. It’s the plain old stuff, the ordinary, he would tell me, and all that can live underneath it. But I was after action. Dazzle. A firecracker life. Who wanted to sit by the river where nothing happened, in the dark, hoping something too small to keep would bite your line? I wanted to tear through the sky like a comet or a meteor, even if it did end up crashing and split the ground.
He used to say he would never stop fishing, and he kept on with it, right until the end. “I’ll be at the riverbank on the day I die,” he whispered when I called him from some pay phone, down and out and who knows where, in some fit of temporary shame. “And if you ever put me in one of those nursing homes, I’ll just escape, dragging my heart monitor and my oxygen tank to the water’s edge.”
“That would drive the fish away, Daddy,” I laughed through my panic and sorrow, but I really could picture the red blip…blip of the monitor in the morning darkness, before the sun came up. His heart, seen by everything that’s coming awake, beating on and on and on.
Oh Daddy, help me know the point when I get out. Help me to be strong.
My pulse races and tumbles around inside my skin at the clanging metal and the buzzers and the clashing voices. At the fact that I’m about to be returned to the world. I lie here, trying to forget myself backward.
If I can just get quiet enough, I might be able to stand hearing my own heart, and keep it beating even and strong.
When I get out I’ll buy a pomegranate in your name, Daddy. And instead of tearing it right open, I’m gonna try and wait. I’ll open it real slow, catching my breath at all the rubies I find inside. And I’ll close my eyes and go back to the riverbank with you, where we’re both growing old and young again, and where everything’s so quiet I can almost hear the good news beating underneath our plain old, ordinary black skin.