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Meg Worden Meg Worden is a mother, master of complications and manifestor of abundance. She has been a columnist for the Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs AR and placed first for Ascent Magazine’s text writing contest in 2008. Meg believes a sense of humor is far more important than a sense of direction and knows for a fact she can laugh wildly amidst severest woe. Currently Meg is living in Portland, OR where she stays up late at night working on her memoir project about the two years she spent in Federal Prison. Find her at megworden.com

Recent Work By Meg Worden

My finger pushes into the number two hole of the round dial on the wall telephone that hangs in the kitchen. I have to stand on this chair to reach it. Sometimes when I pick up the receiver I hear my neighbor talking. My mom says I have to hang up when that happens, but I don’t always do that. I listen because I hope I will hear a secret.

Swallows in Midair

By Meg Worden

Memoir

Watching the towers, like two roman candles all lit up and waiting to take flight, we tense for the whistle, the earsplitting boom. The air is a sweltering buzz of fiberglass and dissonance, it’s full of walls that no longer protect anyone from anything and it clings to my skin. I breathe it in and it singes my lungs. Someone says the words asbestos and attack.

The absurdity of our direction is becoming painfully apparent.

Standing at the top of the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we are bookended by two very different sorts of skies. One is so black and the other so very, very blue. It’s a glass marble sky. A circular world sky. We are walking forward with the intention of going into Manhattan to check the office, but the way we are pressed into this crowd it’s just too hard to move. This direction is absurd.

Old stone and new people span the bridge from arch to arch, suspension wire to suspension wire, an exodus of phantoms no longer angry at co-workers, spouses, not thinking about the raise, the stockholder’s meeting, the diet, the myriad of ways they fail themselves. They are now The Great Witnesses Of Gravity, a sea-of-faces, marching on solemn feet this way. Not that way.

The sound is an unearthly roaring – internal, tidal, absolute – and the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise. The-sea-of-faces, masked in white dust and marked with fear, swivel back toward the city in unison like swallows in midair. Swoosh. The collective intake of breath.

Everyone knows someone who is still there. And the marble spins, the sky upends.

A cloud of dust precedes the collapse of the first tower. It crumbles in a sort of slow motion effect. A special effect. A summer blockbuster, alien and unbelievable. It slips and spreads, down and down and down, until it is swallowed by its own insides. Ashes to ashes, and it’s gone. The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding. When the faces reappear they have open, screaming mouths. They are all eyes, throats, tongues, tears.

I have a thick handful of Drew’s jacket as we are backed up to the railing and carried into the current off the bridge, where we spill onto the grass, a little under-the-bridge park scattered with sitting and waiting and seeing. Witnesses telling witnesses where they were when the planes hit, how they got out, where they lived, not here in Brooklyn, but in Long Island, New Jersey, Queens, somewhere where they couldn’t reach their family, get their car out of the  garage because there was no more garage, or car.

Drew and me we make nervous jokes about the grassy knoll, under this strange sky with asphalt-gray clouds punctuated by paperwork liberated from files, desks, inboxes. Pavement clouds. World-turned-upside-down clouds. I still have a handful of jacket, his hand rests on my shoe. But we don’t notice these things. We also don’t say the things we usually say. This chaos is sufficiently trumping our own. And maybe we’re just sick of ourselves and our redundant, self-perpetuating problems. Or we’re scared. Yes, we’re definitely scared. I don’t know whether or not we notice these things. Too stunned to cry, too tight to collapse, we laugh about grassy knolls and their cliched connection to American tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” the interested parties would inquire.

“On the grassy knoll,” we would reply, stifling inappropriate hysterics.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha and we aren’t really as funny as we were hoping. We notice this and become quieter than quiet. Dense quiet. Asphalt cloud quiet. We would have to completely rethink our plan, change direction. Swoosh. Just like that. Swallows in midair.

There is nothing that wouldn’t require a new perspective. The fabric of our reality has been irrevocably unravelled.

“I finally get clean and the world falls apart.” I say, mostly to myself, but loud enough for him to hear. Last night in Brooklyn, in the basement of Grace Church, they were different than before. They asked if my life was unmanageable, which was an entirely different question than, “Are you an addict?” They sat in a circle, drinking the coffee that Hazel I’m an alcoholic made. They were kind of funny. Mostly, they didn’t make me feel like crap and they didn’t annoy the crap out of me.

Swoosh. Just like that.

Hazel with the coffee pot said I should make no major moves, no big changes for the first year. Just don’t use and come back. She said quitting wasn’t the end of the world.

I woke up the next morning to a city on fire.

Drew pretended to ignore my getting clean comment and, instead, was starting a conversation with a man who’s eyebrows hung low over his narrow eyes, who had stopped in front of Drew and I on the grass, set down an armload of books and asked if they were letting anyone into Manhattan. “I have to get in, to school. A test. Important.”

Confusion was pandemic and all directions seemed absurd. Because no one really knows how to go swoosh, just like that. Because we aren’t actually hollow-boned swallows, covered in feathers, light as air. We have bodies, heavy, fleshy, burdened. It takes an act of Congress, God, Terrorists.

We ordered Reubens with extra Russian dressing at a diner a few blocks up on Atlantic Avenue, iced tea to drink. I can see us growing old together, drinking iced tea. Problem solved.

The pastrami sours in my throat when the waitress announces the second collapse. I notice her tired legs in compression stockings, the way her shoulders strain under an invisible burden. I don’t notice her take Drew’s order for a vodka tonic. Worlds ride high on apron strings.

Two days later dust covers unclaimed bicycles and the witnesses wander the streets, chanting the names of the missing and the dead. Two days later, we shield our faces from the smell, sweet and acrid, identified by the Vietnam Vet on the subway as “Burnt flesh, man. I know that smell, I smelled it before and I swear to you it’s burnt flesh.”

Two days later over styrofoam cups of Hazel’s coffee,  someone asks what would you do if you stood between fire and a seventy fifth floor window? Who can imagine a choice like that? To fall or to burn. Opinions split among us, as they were split among the ones that actually had to make that choice. We knew this for certain: too many burned and too many jumped.

And it was two days after the bridge and the grassy knoll and the reuben sandwiches, all of us still trapped under mortar and glass and grief, that I got pregnant. Swoosh. Just like that.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Ladies”, Mrs. G’s voice rang out strong and southern in the cavernous prison unit, where two hundred women were waking up far away from their babies.

Her voice hit me hard in the chest and I thought of my brown haired boy. His second birthday a month away and there was nothing I could do to get back to him. This is an unimaginable kind of powerlessness. Even when it’s happening to you.

The Visit

By Meg Worden

Memoir


It’s visiting day, and somewhere my son, Aidan, who just turned two, is getting ready. They drove twelve hours to get here and my mom said they were staying at the La Quinta in Bryan, but that means nothing to me. Confined to the walled eighteen acres of this prison, I am completely ignorant of the size or layout of the city I live in.

Going to visit Mommy they’ll be saying and in my mind I see him raise his arms so my grandmother can pull his shirt over his head, his thick hair standing up from sleep. I imagine the strain of keeping him still to redress him, tie his shoes. It’s seven forty-five.

My stomach is twisted up in bittersweet knots while I pull on my khakis, tie my own steel toed shoes, tuck and button and make certain I’m visiting-room-regulation-ready. I look at my watch. It’s seven fifty-two. Five minutes later I check my watch again. It’s still seven fifty-two. Time is moving slower than usual. It feel like I’ve been preserved. Embalmed.

I sit on the tight, tucked edge of my bunk, I’m longing to see him and wracked with the anxiety of how, after six months, I might go about being a mother for half a day. I have to focus to hold my body still while gale force winds arc up over my heart, through my throat and crash like waves into my belly. It’s seven fifty-nine.

“Attention! Attention in the Unit! Inmate 15894-045, you have a visitor.” The sound comes crashing in and though I expected it, I am startled and so is my roommate, Boobs, who turns onto her side and adjusts her earplugs, causing the metal bunk bed to shift and hit the cinderblock wall with a thud. The springs beneath her plastic mattress let out a shrill and painful squeal. A voice across the building screams at the intercom, “Shut the fuck up!” another in response to the first voice, “Naw! You shut up!” and “For real! I’m sleeping here!” The fact that addicts are so naturally adept at self-destruction makes the shouting, the general din of this place, reeks of overkill.

“Attention in the UNIT! Inmate 15894-045, report to the visiting room ASAP!”

Another blast through the sleeping unit stirs another chain reaction of groans, shifts and protests. A few room lights switch on as I gather my courage and head for the door. He is here. He is waiting to see me.

Dark pavement recedes under my steps, it plods away under the swollen sky as I walk the length of the compound towards the visiting room with its little playground, board games, vending machines and tears. The humid morning steams and softens the wrinkles in my clothes; heavy doors loom large. What lies beyond them, looms even larger. In a couple of minutes I’ll be with him. I’ll be able to hold him. The empty ache of separation has made him seem like a dream. A sweet, but fleeting, dream.

I watch my hand reach out and grip the solid door handle and pull it towards me, I smell the acrid years of microwaved ham sandwiches and pizza rolls and hear hinges whine my arrival. The officer looks up, and, even though she knew I was coming, she’s clearly annoyed to see me. “It’s about time,” she says. “Do the Dance.”

The dance is legs wide, arms to either side like wings while she pats me down. Later I will strip naked in the bathroom, and I will be searched more intimately, but, right now, I don’t care about violation or my lack of civil rights. There is no periphery, there is only the point. My son, all legs and black hair a-blur. He is here and he is running.

When his thunderclap of a body collides with my own, the impact takes my breath. He clings, face buried in my collar where he will stay for thirty full minutes. I wrap my arms around his heartbeat, his warm weight, and I know he is real.

“We were first in line,” my mom says.

“Im glad,” I reply.

“We miss you,” says my Grandma.

“Thanks for coming,” I say.

No one really knows what to talk about. There’s no language for this, no points of common ground. My grandmother holds her purse close, a silver cross hangs around her neck. I consider telling her how I’ve learned to say the Hail Mary in Spanish, but reconsider when words fail me. It’s superfluous information. Like I’m talking about making ashtrays at summer camp. My mother just stares, her head cocked. She comes up close and starts petting Aidan’s hair.

“Are you glad to see Momma?” she asks this rhetorical question an octave too high, and a head too close to my ear. She keeps staring, keeps drinking us in, shaking her head and smiling a smile that threatens to melt into tears, threatens to spill over, to fill the room and leave no space for anyone else to feel anything. I turn away. I want this moment to be mine. I don’t want anything to interrupt me and my arms and this boy growing sweaty in the curve of my neck.

“Let’s find a table,” I suggest.

We sit near the indoor play area, next to the vending machines and I close my eyes for a minute. I want to cry, am desperate to cry, but don’t.

“See that man over there in the cowboy boots, Meg?” Grandma says, nodding toward the exit door. “He was next to us in line. He visits that blond lady there.” She nods again in the same direction. “He told us her story, it’s so sad. She’s innocent, got framed.” Now the head nodding gets rhythmic, matches the tsktsk of her lips while she contemplates the injustice of this place. It’s weird to hear my Grandma say “framed.”

While I appreciate her ability to believe, her desire to see it all as so unfair because I’m here I’m socially inept and out of practice making small talk. I don’t want to be the center of attention, don’t want to have nothing to say, don’t feel like I have the fortitude to explain the inexplicable. My answer comes out sharper, more sarcastic than I mean it to.

“Yeah, right. Her and everyone else here. I wonder how much he puts in her commisary account every month.”

My grandma’s face falls. She looks tired, sad and stricken. I wish at that moment that I was a gentler, more patient human being. I don’t know how to right what I’ve said because It’s true, about the woman using her cowboy, but who cares, I just feel so out of words, so incapeable of talking right now. I inhale the smell of his hair. I want to contain it. To keep it in my lungs, to float with it up and up and up until we both dissapear into the wide Texas sky outside of this room, away from everyone and everything awkward and all the things said and unsaid.

I get it, I’m here, It’s what happened. I sleep with regret, I practice faith, surrender, I do my best to make it all worth something, accept it, be grateful, blah, blah…but, Goddamnit, I think. This is my baby and I want to go home.

Home. The word dissolves, transforms as I think it. It becomes abstract, loses meaning, wrings out the weight of what’s lost and washes it in wretched isolation. My tears spill onto Aidan’s salty hair, onto his uncharacteristic stillness, his tiny high-top shoes. He squeezes in tighter, our hearts pound together. Louder, like the volume in the room as families continue to navigate security procedures and wait in turn for their particular inmate.

Our story, The Story, repeats itself. Children cling, mothers weep and we all become participants in the same heartache, playing our very best games of everything-is-alright, wishing we were anywere but here. I look around and it feels like I’m standing between mirrors, witness to the infinite reflection and mine is in every khaki uniform in the room. I feel the lines of separation become blurred and my raft of isolation is temporarily beached. The desolate city fills with people, and the flames subside.

As the day wears on, my Grandmother, my Mother and I, we talk more freely, even laugh while we become weary trying to wrestle with the minutes, knowing it will be months before we see each other again. I push Aidan in the swing, buy him strawberry Pop Tarts from the vending machine. I rock him in a chair while he naps, whispering, “Soon, little man, I’ll be back with you soon.”



I swat at a mosquito flying near my ear and feel it hit my palm. It flies off toward the window and joins the black throng of mosquitoes there. The window is nearly a third covered with a vibrating mass of hungry little bloodsuckers. Far more mosquitoes than I’ve ever seen in one place, breeding in standing puddles of brown water outside the building. It smells like a burst sewage drain, and every so often there’s a gurgling noise and bubbles surface through the thick grass. Texas is still hot in September and it might reach a hundred today. The heat serves this vile stink to us on a dripping tray of humid air.

Almost everyone has her shirt pulled up over her nose.

This is where we inmates line up to eat.

“Hey Roommate! You gonna eat your wings?” Peaches shouts past the women between us in line, her face surfacing from the folds of her shirt only long enough to get my attention.

Wings. The main course of today’s menu. Through a process called “Bastard Brokering,” large institutions, like this prison, are able to purchase lesser quality food for a cheap price. Apparently, if a factory turns out a load of chicken wings, seasoned and packaged, for say, TGI Fridays, and for whatever reason they’re rejected, they hit the bastard market. A glut of something on the market means cheap prices for the government, means wings are for lunch today.

“No,” I say to Peaches, “I want eggs so I can’t get them for you.”

Everyone knows you can’t have two proteins. But they ask anyway. You know, The Hunger. It trumps reason.

Sara, who’s my life raft, my best friend here, stays close as the line edges toward the door, closer to the window where through the mosquitoes we can see women at tables that have already gotten their trays.

“What’s in the bowl?” I ask Sara. “Can you tell?”

“Looks like cous cous,” Sara says. We do this wishful thinking joke.

“Yeah, probably has roasted garlic and fresh herbs,” I say and we laugh as the slow moving line continues its snake towards the steam tables.

In front of us, a group starts loudly comparing shoe sizes.

“I got the smallest feet,” says Renee, a very young Mexican woman, can’t be much older than eighteen, her long dark hair a mass of curling iron ringlets, her eyebrows tweezed bare and replaced with a thin lines.

“Yeah, that’s why you my lil shawty,” says JoJo, the tall black woman next to her. JoJo has been down for more than ten years and is infamous on compound. She makes a nonchalant effort to press her body close to Renee without drawing officer attention, though the closest C.O., Officer Partyhair, loves JoJo and is known for being right in the middle of inmate drama.

Partyhair is an albino black woman with just a few strands of this light-reddish hair that she combs straight up and shellacs to her head, on the very crown she pins a large fake hair-bun thing. All loopy like one of those stick-on gift bows.

“I got some big feet,” says JoJo, lifting her chin kind of up and sideways while she winks. “An d’you know what that means, Mami.”

Renee blushes, looks down at Jo-Jo’s feet, and nods as if she agrees that Jo-Jo might actually be packing.

“What was it like in the unit when that whole thing went down with Jo-Jo and Sylvia?” Sara whispers, referring to the recent fight between Jo-Jo and her ex longtime girlfriend. Apparently Sylvia found out about Renee and she sneaked into Jo-Jo’s room and shredded the afghan she’d crocheted for Jo-Jo. It was black with a huge playboy logo. This is a big deal. Crocheting a blanket for someone is serious.

Actually, crocheting is kinda serious.

Everyone does it. Probably because it’s an effective consumer of hours. I make bookmarks. Tediously crafted with a tiny hook and thread, each one takes exactly a half hour. I timed it. I need to know exactly how much time each one represents. They are tangible increments of this experience. I was sentenced to seventeen thousand, five hundred and twenty crocheted bookmarks.

“There were pieces of yarn everywhere,” I tell Sara, “It was fucking crazy, she threw it down from the second floor into the common area. Jo-Jo had to clean it all up and I think they put Sylvia in seg.”

Lesbian drama is about as interesting as it gets around here. I mean, as far as cliché prison experience goes. This is a camp. The lowest security style of the Federal Institutions. Not much fighting here, no shanks, no riots. The only way to get your ass kicked is to mess with somebody’s girlfriend.

Nothing gets a women riled up like love.

***

I see there are are fresh tomatoes on the cold table and make my way over while Sara is contemplating peanut butter. I am thrilled to find fresh food and start to pile them high next to my two white eggs when the unmistakable accent of Lieutenant Quejano shouting behind me halts my tomato piling.

“HEY, INMATE! YOU TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT THERE! SHOW SOME RESPECT!”

I freeze and become conscious of only the fold of my shirt between my waistband and the skin of my waist. Only once I determine beyond doubt that my shirt is intact do I dare to turn, ever so slowly, as if I am not really looking towards the vocal tirade but maybe just checking the soup over here. I don’t want any soup, but I can now see who’s scrambling to tuck her shirt in. One handed. Tray in the other. It’s Facelift.

Facelift came from New Orleans, but hasn’t said why she’s here. I suspect she is in her mid fifties, although she might have another decade in mind. Her hair is unnaturally dark, and her face is pulled so tight towards the tiny scars above her ears that her eyes have permanently narrowed, her cheekbones stick out and her lips are just two thin straight lines that strain to open when she talks. Today they are painted red. I’ve only had a couple of short conversations with her, but she managed to bring up her lack of having a facelift both times.

“My family has really great genes. Good hair, good skin, no wrinkles…” and once, even less subtly, “I’ll bet you think you’re older than me.”

I didn’t.

Strange, the things we try so hard to hide become the most glaring, the most obvious things about us.

I attempt to return to my tomatoes, but am again interrupted.

“ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE, INMATE? WHY ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE?” Quejano shouts at another woman, a woman called Princess, who turns pink then a traumatic shade of red.

She’s short, probably five foot three, but she still has several inches on the extremely diminutive Quejano. Looking at his “package” would be both a physical and emotional stretch for any of us.

“ A cockroach…” she starts.

“WHAT?? ARE YOU CALLING ME COCKROACH?”

“No, sir. A cockroach. I saw a cockroach behind you, sir.”

“YOU DIDN’T SEE NOTHING THERE. THERE ARE NO COCKROACHES HERE. YOU GO!” His straight arm raises and his miniature hand shoos her toward the door she was only trying to get out of anyway.

Even after a year here, it’s a struggle for my brain to process this shit, I still try to make it make sense, complete the picture with logic, like those emails you can read even though there aren’t any vowels in the words. But it doesn’t work here. There is way more missing than just vowel sounds.

I realize now that I’m foolishly standing, mouth agape, looking right in Quejano’s direction. I’m no longer even trying to look at the soup having been so completely aghast at the fact that he actually just saideyeballing my package.

Just as he’s a second away from eyeballing me, I whip my body around as if I had been in motion this whole time and turn my head to find Sara, who is sitting and waving like mad for me to join her at the table.

“What the hell was that all about?” she comments more than questions. “That guy is fucking insane.”

“I know, right? It would be weird to run into him on the Outside.”

“He probably lives alone in some tiny basement apartment, never throws away his newspapers and puts together model warplanes when he’s off.”

“Yeah, I bet he looks at clown porn,” I add. “And jerks off in his uniform.”

“Oh yeah, definitely that,” Sara says, “he definitely does that…and we’re beside ourselves laughing as four women slide into the table next to us and hold up their hands, palms out to pray.

“Oh, Lord Jesus, Master Lord Jesus,” one begins.

Sara and I look at each other with artificially straightened up faces that threaten to crack up into total hysterics. The newly saved like to pray loud, like to be seen praying. It’s the other side of the social spectrum here, the opposite of the dating scene. But not so different, there’s still the latching on, the need for completion.

“We thank you oh, Lord Jesus, Master Jesus, for this bounty…” she continues at top volume. The others nod their heads and emit moans of concilliation.

Here’s how Sara and I give thanks: By laughing instead of crying and by pretending that we are eating Al Fresco in SoHo instead of here in this revolting cafeteria.

Sara acts like she is going to flag down Partyhair to bring us a couple of macchiatos. We start howling again at the thought of even saying “macchiato” to Partyhair. She would probably think we were calling her a derogatory name and we would end up in seg.

We diligently wait until Quejano is gone before we try and leave. Just incase. We scrape our plates and stack our trays not far from where Jojo and Renee are sitting, Partyhair perched on the edge of their table whispering conspiratorially like she’d rather be an inmate. “I always thought you could do better than that Sylvia,” we overhear. So does Facelift who looks up from where she sits, alone in a far corner, spooning soup through red lips that barely open.

Me and Sara pull our shirt collars up over our noses before we push open the door to brave the mosquitos and the rest of the day.

When my roommate, Oatmeal wakes up and climbs down from the top bunk, I am shaken into a squeaking morning alacrity. The lights have been turned on in the common area, and I reach under my pillow for my watch and make squinty eyes at it. Seven. I am meeting Sara at Indoor Rec for yoga in half an hour.
Morning unit activity is a discord of its own relentless style. The restroom now echoes running showers, hairdryers, and “How you gonna leave water all over the sink like that? Your momma ain’t here. You in prison!”

What? We are where? In prison? For a minute there I forgot that I didn’t actually forget where I am. For a minute there, I forgot that it was not at all possible to forget where I am. No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget. How could I? God, I am so fucking sick of hearing inmates telling other inmates You in prison!  I mean really. I know. Everyone knows.

More room lights flicker on and lockers clank open and slam shut, combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam. Beds are being made, grey blankets tight and tucked. Over not under the pillow or else. Even if you don’t have to go to work you have to get dressed, full uniform, bed made. A few khaki bodies are already curled on top of tip top tight bunks

“Attention in the unit. Morning pill line is now open.” The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy. Several hurry toward the door and out to Medical for their meds in a cup with a sip of water and then tongue out and up and ahhhhh and yes I swallowed it, even though there will still be contraband Seroquel for sale later on. The speaker continues its calls for Inmate So and So to report here and another to report to another place and lots of action ASAP. Always ASAP. Not, A.S.A.P. Never the acronym. Always the word. ASAP. In all caps because it is always shouted, and just a little louder than the rest of the shouted announcement. “Report to the Lieutenant’s Office! ASAP!”

Microwaves heat margarine-smeared honeybuns and instant oatmeal packets. The robot sigh of the hot water dispenser is steam out, shift gears, water in, steam out, sigh. A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water to plastic mugs ready with Folgers Instant, chocolate or tea. I am in that line with my own red and white mug, a cheap plastic abomination that looks like something I would get for an extra dollar at the gas station to save in the long run on Big Gulps. My disdain is painful, but thirty-two ounces of caffeine is the perennial start to my day and porcelain with a powdery matte finish is not an option.

I brew my Bigelow Tea variety pack, like I like to eat Skittles, in a very specific order. Earl Grey first, English Breakfast next, Constant Comment third. I trade the Peppermint with the woman across the catwalk who cuts my hair. She loves the peppermint and hates Earl Gray. We do these deals. We go room to room to do these deals. “Hey, know anyone who wants to make a trade?” Nothing goes to waste here. There is always someone who has nothing. I am down to my third to last Constant Comment this morning and make a mental note to make a list when I get back upstairs to my room, with my hot tea, which is exactly two teabags and two heaping spoonfuls of nonfat dry milk with one packet of Splenda. Stirred eleven times to the right, and eleven times to the left, and an estimated fifteen calories, which I will also write down in my little notebook that I carry around for keeping track of eating. And to make lists. Like what I need to add to my commissary sheet, new vocabulary words, workouts, Things To Do while I am here as well as Things To Do when I get out. Movies to rent, books to read, music to acquire, parenting ideas…things I read about in magazines, stuff. I have a lot of lists. My notebook is one of my lifelines.

I repeat “teabags” in my mind as I stir right and then left and walk back up the stairs that lead to the catwalk that leads to my room, trying very hard to not make eye contact. And I don’t. It’s a little game I play with myself to see if I can get there and back with no interaction. Friendliness invites invasion and I am cautious about these things. I make it to my room where Oatmeal is now gone, Boobs is probably in the shower and Peaches has made her bed and gone back to sleep in full uniform on top of it.

Weekdays here are called Programming Hours. Programming Hours, of course, refer to the time that the “programs” that have been  instituted to “rehabilitate” are active. And by “rehabilitate” I mean, project a façade that such things as rehabilitation happen here, contrary to recidivism statistics. However innocuous the aphorism may sound, it  still sits very Orwellian with me. If you met anyone who has been here for ten or more years, you would totally understand what I mean. It is little challenge to spot-on tell if someone has been down a long time by their obsessions with, most predominately but not limited to, floor wax and ironing.

The phenomenon of prison style dictates ironing deep creases in shirts, pants, pajamas, sometimes even sheets and towels. One of many ritual attempts to bring a sense of order to this bizarre world. Survival Tactics. Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture. Love is boiled down to the ability to muscle polyester into a stiff, knife-edge pleat. Women risk The Hole by stealing sugar for homemade fabric starch. Irons and ironing boards turn dark and sticky with years of caramelized starching. Iron clothes. Iron will. Iron shackles, fetters, chains and handcuffs.

The Long Timers, the repeat offenders and the mindless followers who actually aspire to a mastery of prison culture, approach a tidy floor shine with equal compulsion, often buying floor wax off the contraband market, hiding it in Downy Fabric Softener bottles and seeing to it with a kind of reverence for the sacred, that a coat or two goes on each week. On the floor, and sometimes, for good measure, on the window sills, chair and wooden desk. Waxing. Ironing. Programming.

As much as I loathe this new language, and am righteous in my suspicion of its ineffectual nature, I use it whenever I can, in facetious fashion. For example, “Should I write this letter during or after programming hours?” and “This weekend has felt far too long. Sure will be nice to get back to programming hours.”  Semantics aside, it does keep everyone busy. Like a workday. These “programs” make the time seem structured and keep everyone moving. We even get paid for our “jobs”. Starting salary is twelve cents per hour.

I have to insist that words like “jobs” and “programs” and “rehabilitation” really do require all of these quotation marks. When I use these words in  this context, they are a weak facsimile of their intended meaning and no confusion is intended between them and the scads of signs around the compound that use these poor little marks, not to emaciate the meaning of words, but to “emphasize!” them.

Officer Maestas: “Unit Manager.”
Phone calls “15 minutes.”
Be “Quiet” in “Study” Areas.
I really “hate” it here.

I work for the education/recreation department grading tests for college level classes, teaching yoga, and occasionally before “Regional” comes to visit, I clean someone’s office. Filing, hole punching, and inserting things into three ring binders so that when said “officials” arrive, they can easily see whether or not the facades of the “programs” are still in place. The three-ring binders are the proof. Programs are determined successful by the proper alphabetizing of documentation in  a three-ring binder. A three ring binder in a three ring… circus.

Mostly, my job consists of sitting in the library, writing letters, reading magazines, and making lists. And since the yoga classes that I teach are in the evening, I am not required to be “on duty” until after lunch, which means I have the morning hours free to go to Indoor Rec with Sara and practice yoga. It took me seven months to work into this job. I paid my dues mowing grass, shoveling dirt, and washing garbage cans. After two raises, I make forty nine cents per hour and am one pay grade away from maxed out. One grade from the equivalent of being in the highest tax bracket on compound. The coveted Grade One pay grade is seventy nine cents per hour. My paycheck almost, but not quite, pays for my phone time each month. I rely heavily on the generosity of friends and family for shampoo, notebooks and tea. Asking for money is not easy. I am fortunate to have enough.

Because of yoga, getting dressed in the morning, like many simple acts here, is more complicated than it should be. I read recently that rehabilitation is achieved despite of, not because of our prison system. I couldn’t agree more.

See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.

The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them.
You get the picture.

Or you are completely lost, in which case, you are really getting the feel of this place.

So I pull on my thinnest pair of commissary gray shorts and thinnest tee shirt, and over that, my baggiest khaki shirt and pants. Once I get into the room I can peel off my top layer and voila I’m in my grays with no real breaking of laws. Sara and I have decided to take turns doing the honors. Today is me.
I pass Ms. Maestas: “Unit Manager’s” office and push open the heavy glass door to the fall morning, still warm, still humid. The enormous Texas sky is cream and silver and silk and, for me, an infusion of life. It’s omnipresent and continually reminds me that there is still beauty, that my little boy and I are connected somehow by the ephemeral brushstrokes of this wide Texas sky. I want to inhale it. I want to fit this whole sky inside my lungs.

I want to go home.

Come Monday

By Meg Worden

Memoir


We stood outside The Copa watching drag queens pull suitcases tied with feather boas, smeared with lipstick and glitter into the infamous nightclub. The air was thick and still. Instead of moving around, it pushed in and down on us, like gravity.

The barometric pressure drops lower than low before a hurricane.

My boyfriend, Jimmy, and I took a final breath before dragging our own things, two suitcases, sleeping bags, our cockatiel, Sonny, in his cage along with the tension of our precarious relationship through the doors of the Italian restaurant where we would be riding out Hurricane Georges – a category three hurricane headed directly for our island home of Key West.

Fourteen people, four dogs, two cats and our bird gathered in the restaurant to wait out the storm. While most of the residents and all of the tourists had evacuated the island, we’d opted to stay, and in little groups of threes and fours we listened at the back door and peeked through the cracks in the plywood covering the windows, waiting with a combined excitement, dread, for the forces of nature to remind us of our particular human- ness, to demand that we relinquish ourselves, powerless before the face of God as it surged forth from the heavens.

Dining tables were transformed into activity centers. Someone had set out puzzles on one, and another had a couple of guitars, and a harmonica. Another was covered with paper, scissors and paints. That’s where Maggie sat. The beautiful girl from Queens that Jimmy was falling in love with.  It was obvious how much he was into her, preferred her company to mine. He told me he liked the way she said “Moms.”

“There’s a whole group of people here that get up in the morning and go kayaking and biking and aren’t hung over everyday.” He had said to me when he first met her.

I responded by looking at him like he was crazy talking.

While some sat around putting the puzzles together and strumming the guitars, others filled the bar stools sipping wine, rolling joints and giggling through hazy, gray smoke rings.

I was one of them.

The part of me that could deny my own rampant infidelity and nurture monster-sized jealousy of Maggie could fill the room, hang off the edge of the island, spill onto the reef and impale itself on the jagged edge of a wrecked ship.

I drank to that.

Jimmy said I should come home before dawn once in awhile.

I said, Don’t cramp my style.

By the time the storm hit, it was demoted to a category one. But it was still strong enough to bend palm trees in half, send rooftops flying like carpets down the center of Duval street and blow thousands of terrified little birds with bright orange and electric blue wings all the way from Cuba. One would land shivering underneath the Bougainvillea bushes outside the back door.

I tried to save it, cupping it in my palms and nestling it into a box with water and some of Sonny’s birdseed. I tried to save it by sheer-willing it to live. It was lying all cold and stiff the next morning, its tiny legs curled like telephone wire on its chest.

The parallel was completely lost on me.

We were fortunate to be connected to a small generator and propane tank and we heartily took to the task of emptying the walk-in refrigerator before the food spoiled and wasted.

By candlelight, the chefs prepared buffets of cheese and berries for breakfast, antipasto for lunch and for dinner we pushed tables together, set them with linens, silver and crystal stemware for family-style Italian dinners; heaping trays of medium-rare filet mignon, baskets of crispy carta de musica, toasty brushettas, pomodoro pasta and spicy arugula salads dripping with truffle oil.

Afterwards we sipped creamy cappuccinos till nothing was left but the sweetest, foamiest bits to mix into our tiny glasses of grappa. Like jet fuel, we joked. Drinking grappa made our eyes become glassy little slits, caused our laughter to break out in gusts.

As I worked my way to the back door to smoke my mind burned with the image of  Jimmy, at dinner, leaning in to Maggie’s every word, unabashedly held rapt by her perfect bone structure and bright, salty eyes.

It was obvious.

I held onto the door jam for support, my legs, full to the thighs with Barolo and Aquavit, and lit the wrong end of my cigarette while the wind blew the whole entire sea right up onto the island with a howl, a force, a screaming gale that shook the walls, ripped holes in the rooftop, sent briny rivers down the sidewalks.

Cayo Hueso shook and rattled its long dead bones.

I’d like to scream that loud, I thought. I’d like to blow the whole world down.

I imagined Jim and Maggie would be caught in my outburst and be thrown out into the atmosphere until they were just tiny specks that eventually disappeared. Like debris.

During the ethereal eye of the hurricane that passed directly over us we cautiously opened the doors and took intrepid walks through an atmosphere, heavy and silent as a wool cloak, a vacuum. We said Hey to the drag queens peeking their stubbled chins out of the Copa before we all had to hide away again from a wind that blew in from the opposite direction, bending the palm trees over to the other side. Their fronds would be left vertical and askew, like wild, punk rock hair.

The giant banyan in the front yard of Shel Silverstein’s house on Williams Street fell over during this backhanded wind. Rumor said it was the tree that inspired The Giving Tree, a beautiful book about a tree that loves, unconditionally, a selfish little boy.

Its enormous root ball lay wet on the sidewalk, exposed and vulnerable, its trunk, cracked and broken.

I would read in the Miami Herald about the death of Shel Silverstein seven months later, an event that lay to rest a powerful piece of my childhood. He was downed, like his tree, by a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-eight.

We became goldfish in a bowl, swimming circles around the dining room during the second half of the storm.  The novelty worn, everyone wanting a shower, some privacy. Round and round we passed, wearing expressions that said, “You again?” The smell of wet leaves, algae and unearthing seeped in through the leaking ceiling, dripped with a plipplipplip into plastic bus tubs on the floor.

Georges raged on by his own set of rules.

The great storm ended, as all things do, even trees, and birds and poets. Even love. It eventually dissipated, melted into driving, then drizzling rain, and moved up into mainland Florida late on a Sunday night. The next morning, as the sun peeked through the cloud cover, the DJ’s on the crackling transistor radio that had kept us connected to the world that week chose Jimmy Buffet’s Come Monday as the first song since the evacuations began.

Someone, maybe even Beautiful Maggie From Queens, turned up the volume.

Come Monday, it’ll be all right.
Come Monday, I’ll be holding you tight.

To this day, that song transports me.

And, of course, we were all right. We had survived the storm and would come, over the years to survive many other things.

But it was she, not me, that he was holding tight.

That Monday.


“We’re moving,” I tell my dental hygienist when she tries to set up my next visit, six months from today.

“Oh! Wow! Where to?” The inevitable next question.

Honestly, I really don’t care much for dental friendliness. I like clean teeth and gingivitis tops my pet peeve list, right along with things that involve a seething crowd of fans, but I am not here to make friends. Perhaps it’s the vacuuming of my spittle that makes me feel so vulnerable and mean, or the lead vest, I don’t know. I shut my eyes behind my colossal sunglasses and run my tongue across the polished surface of my incisors for strength.

I do not explain how we are planning to pack our family into our Honda CRV, drive ourselves to Lincoln Mortgage, sit for our property closing, hand over keys to our house and then drive out of town. It’s a long story.

I also don’t tell her that I wish she were a robot.

“West,” I say, not so helpfully, and only because she’s blocking my exit with her Care Bear scrubs and confusion I add, “Seattle maybe.”

We really don’t know, I don’t say.

We are among the millions that have been directly affected by the recession. I hate that word, that euphemism. It’s an insult to eupha-mizing. It’s a euphemism that needs euthanizing. We have been unemployed for a year, our house is under contract and we simply have no reason to stay, so we decided that we might as well be in a place we love and we love what’s west of here, so we’re going there.

When we tell people this, the responses vary from interest, excitement to sadness and heartbreak for the missing that comes with leaving. The dental hygienist is easy. The good friends are definitely harder. It’s one of those all-inclusive-full-spectrum kind of experiences.

“Fear not!” I say to the friends, but not to the hygienist. Actually, I probably don’t really say, fear not to my friends either. But I certainly do imply it when I assure them that although we may not have a firm destination, we do have a plan, we do have faith, and we do have job prospects, talent and are unabated survivors. We will land.

In the interim, relieved of the weight of our things (having traded them for garage sale cash) we will be light and expansive! With a loose itinerary and a sense of adventure we will zig zag! We will take the long cut! We will have spitting contests with our son over canyon lips and notice the difference in the shape of the sky, the varied species of clouds over Wyoming, Montana. We will get cricks in our necks from gazing up the to the peaks of the Rockies, the tips of the Redwoods. But most importantly, we plan to laugh in the face of our homelessness and bestow onto it, with an avowed sacristy, ineffable calm, hearty and appropriate euphemisms. We will not undermine it like that “recession” crap. Instead, we will enhance! Transform!

We will not be Homeless. No way.

We will be Nomadic. We will be Gypsies. Vagabonds. James Bonds. Free Willys. Rolling Stones. Pigs in Zen. We will be Superbad and coming to a town near you. We will be cruising with the windows down, making terrific wave formations with our arms and we will be shaking our heads at the naysayers and the game players because we will know we are indestructible.

We will pretend we are flying, we will know we are free.


We decided I should buy a girdle in Brighton Beach. It became part of the plan. Drew’s Yorkshire accent had taken a hit after years in New York. He slid through the specifics with fast, slanted a’s and round Brooklyn o’s. How I would fly it in, how I would meet up with The Guy, how I would get the money, “Don’t tawk to no one, raht luff?” He said for the thousandth time while we walked along the Coney Island pier.

“No, I won’t. I can do this. Don’t worry,” I responded. He continued detailing how we’d call the fugazi travel agent, the I’m just a man with a computer, the guy who would get us a fourteen-day-advance fare for a same-day ticket. I’d heard about this agent, sure, but had never laid eyes on him. Drew saw him once, said he looked like Igor in Young Frankenstein. Abby Normal. We would drop off the cash, folded over and rubberbanded, with the agent’s doorman on the Upper West Side .

“No problem.” I said.

The Coney Island sun is mustard flavored. It’s hot sweep fades the signs advertising sword swallowers and Nathan’s hot dogs, and softens to a cold pastel those painted clowns with gaping holes for faces. Disembodiment photo ops. Splintered reds and blues ran right off the old wooden coasters and onto the boardwalk. Past the black haired Italian boys taking deep pulls off stolen cigarettes, past the Russian women, their calloused feet balanced precariously on tall Lucite shoes, and past the three elderly Jewish ladies in their wide-brimmed hats, unwrapping knish on towels in the sand. Coney Island is a diaspora-layered cake and I felt like I fit right in.

“Vatsa little ting like yous aneeda dees for?” asked the store clerk, as she folded the slick, skin-colored girdle and slid it into a plastic bag. I probably smiled and pretended not to understand. I absolutely didn’t say it was so Drew could tape thousands of ecstasy tablets around my waist, so I could subdue the plastic-wrapped pills underneath a loose shirt and trench coat. It was before the towers fell so you could still just walk right through security with coat, shoes, everything. All we really had to worry about was the dogs, but even then, not really. The odorless pills with their price per square inch made it a pretty easy act of espionage.

 

***

 

A week later, Drew walked me up to the metal detector, kissed me goodbye, saw that I made it past the badges and I descended, a few hours later into the agri-circles and low buildings of Springfield Missouri, my bladder bursting and my adrenaline on volume ten.

It wasn’t as easy as we planned it out on the boardwalk. It wasn’t just in and out, I had to wait. A lot of waiting. For This Guy and That Guy to come up with the cash because I couldn’t give it on the arm and someone was always out of pocket. I acted annoyed when I talked to Drew on the phone, told him I couldn’t wait to get back, but secretly, I loved the urgency. I possessed, or was possessed by, an unprecedented power. It was in me. Rather, it was in my backpack. But I felt it, all brilliant and scary and intoxicating.

I had something people really wanted. I sat still, I occupied a seat, I took up space in the world and they came to me.

In physics, power is the rate at which energy is converted. In politics, power is the ability to exert control. My perceived ability to exert control grew at the rate those tablets converted from tiny white circles, stamped with little stars, into stacks of cash. But power is problematic. Perceived power even more. This was a kind of gratification that eats through rather than inhabits. Like drinking acid. If I felt spare before…the dive into the world of buying and selling drugs pared me down even further, sucked the marrow.

I associated with a s/gr/n/eediness that manifested as a Hunger of insatiable proportions. I stayed up for days doing lines off the cover of a Roxy Music cd, and when I’d finished that, crushing the ecstasy tablets and cutting them up, while I waited for the money, the arm, the pocket; while I waited and wilted. Drew called daily screaming, “Where is my money?” and “Are you high? Don’t fucking lie to me, I know you’re high!”

I made sure I was horizontal when he called to make my voice sound sleepy.

“No, I swear I just woke up. I am not high.”

As if I could actually turn down that level of chemically induced adrenaline before answering the phone and then force my voice to sound tired. But you couldn’t have convinced me of invincibility’s fallibility for a million cocaine-covered dollar bills. I was on fire. I was an arrogant Secretariat with a heart the size of two, so full of pumping blood, I still thought I could outrun the demons pounding their hooves into the dust just twenty lengths behind me.

 

***

 

I was looking for a Klonopin or some Xanax bars when I found Jason lying on the floor of my rented room. Jason had originally introduced me to The Guy and was also my coke dealer. He was short and prematurely balding and he always wore these old green cargo pants full of drugs, full of money. I was on my way around the bed when I tripped over the soft mass of Jason’s leg.

His eyes were pressed wide open, squeezed open instead of shut. Like they were frozen in fear, popping out in cartoonish surprise. A string of clear drool trailed his mouth to the carpet. My knees disappeared and my liver rose up into my throat and lodged itself with a bilious fortitude. “OhmyGodOhmyGod,” I heaved. “OhmyGod.”

I knelt down.

I checked his breathing with my cheek.

I set my hand on his chest and felt the slow rhythm of a heart.

I stood up.

I kicked him a little in the ribcage.

Jasonwakethefuckup. I pushed his leg with my foot. Jasonwakethefuckup.

What I didn’t do was call 911. Aside from the rib kicking, I did absolutely nothing to help him. Even though I thought he was dying on the floor.

Instead, I grabbed my sunglasses with the red lenses, and because it was an emergency, and I was sure he would understand, I searched his pockets and stole what he was holding before I ran downstairs and vomited in the kitchen sink.

I didn’t want Jason to die.

But worse, I didn’t want to ruin this feeling, I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to get caught, I didn’t want to disappoint Drew, myself, I didn’t want to stop.

When I stepped outside to sit on the concrete step that led to the parking lot of that low-rent, low-key-location apartment building, and I dipped my little finger into the baggie I’d lifted from Jason’s pocket, the air swelled. It became a swirling torrent of thick black dust and I was deafened by dissolution, by the malevolent thunder of forty-eight hooves.



 

I’m standing in a kind of spontaneous Tadasana, feet on the bare wood floors of this, our ninety-year-old house, arms at my sides, before I step outside.  These soft floors have held countless feet and now mine stand among them. My heels press down, making an even deeper footprint, my toes spread apart.  I take a full breath, inhale and lift my spine, each vertebrae, as I exhale away from my center and back in. The storm’s center is it’s softest point. That’s where I need to be.