Even in my extreme anti-social style, I couldn’t resist fishing.
One night, about a year ago, I had tossed my note to the left and gotten a response almost immediately. His name was Orrin. I never asked for his state assigned last name, and he never had given it to me. The inmate directly to the left of our cell, along with the one just past him, were both male. I had no idea which one was Orrin. He said he was old enough to be my father, which didn’t help slim down the choices. To be honest, I didn’t even care. Orrin was good company to fish with.
Every time I threw a note his way, I would always start it with a simple question. One that any other inmate would either disregard or try too hard to answer. Orrin’s answers were always obvious. I never doubted it was he who had answered.
Can’t sleep. Have you met the new GF?
I tossed the note and waited. It didn’t take long to feel the tug this time.
I have. He has worked here for some time. Don’t know why he wanted to transfer to the day watch though. Used to be in charge higher up in Spokane.
I pursed my lips, then scribbled back.
He wanted to be here? Something must be wrong with him.
I could hear a low chuckle down the walk. Smiling to myself, I waited for the tug.
That’s what I heard. Guessing they think the Lifers are more fun to annoy. Since we aren’t going anywhere. Except up.
I never liked it when Orrin wrote like that. He was convinced that the only way out of floor B, out of Spokane, was death. I had tried a few times in the past to encourage him to file for parole. Orrin always said no, and left it simply at that.
Orrin, why are you here?
I paused a moment before tossing the note out the door.
There was an unspoken rule here. You didn’t ask about the crimes that had locked the people in. Someone could seem like the world’s most decent human being. You would sit there and wonder why they ever found themselves locked away inside this place. Then, when you found out the reason, you would want to smash their skulls in for the atrocities they had committed.
It was better to know the person that was locked in now, not the person they had been before. I had never even asked my own parents what their crime had been.
It was a long time before the shoelace tugged again.
Do you believe that not everyone in here is guilty, Millie?
I don’t know
, I wrote back.
I was living in a small town.
Had a beautiful wife and two little boys. Then some bad things started to happen in the town. People were being killed, brutally. There was one man who I had said some nasty stuff about, who later turned up dead. Everyone decided then and there that I was the murderer.
I had no alibi, so they took me in. And that was the end of it. They stopped looking for the killer, decided it easier to declare that I was him because of some careless things I had said. I was sentenced, and locked away without a second glance. That is why I am here.
Do you believe me?
I read the note over again, taking in everything he had carefully written. His handwriting was perfect, curved and clear. Every “i” was dotted. Every single “t” perfectly crossed. Something in the back of my mind told me to not believe him. There had to be a reason why the Nation had sentenced him. They wouldn’t have locked him away if he were innocent. There was always a reason.
I waited for the butterflies to take me over. For the fog to lick at my vision and dull my thoughts. Nothing happened. As I stared at his writing, I only felt my steady heart beat and heard my even breaths.
I believed him. I wanted to believe him. For some reason, I needed to.
Of course I do, Orrin.
Remember that when you are out, Millie.
Orrin wrote back.
Watch what you say. I never want to see you again.
A small smile spread on my lips. Carefully, in the clearest handwriting I could muster, I wrote back.
I never want to see you again either4
he lights flashed on. I jerked my hand over my eyes, groaning at the pain of the sudden flood of light. Outside my cell I could hear similar responses as the declaration of day jostled everyone awake.
Rolling to my side, I looked down over the edge of the bunk. Both of my parents’ plates were sitting on the floor, the lids pulled off and the food gone. Letting my head hang lower, I saw they had both already left for the day. My mother always had her appointments early in the morning. Usually the sound of the doors sliding open woke me up, but I must have slept deep enough to stay in my dead dreams, for once.
My body hurt. I could see the pad had completely flattened where my body had slept for the night. I stretched my stiff arms above my head and brushed my fingers against the low ceiling. Shaking my legs out, I dropped to the ground, landing hard on the cement. Pain shot up my legs, but I just shook it off.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the pile of clothes folded messily on the shelf, the unmistakable smell of dirty socks and sweat saturating the air of the small cell. Sighing, I walked over to my parents’ flat bed and pulled one of the pillowcases off the thin pillow. I quickly shoved all of the dirty clothes into the case then twisted it shut as I made my way out of the cell.
Others were walking down the walkway, obviously still half awake as their feet shuffled and dragged them along. I saw a few in the passing crowd carrying pillowcases heavy with clothes. I could smell their sweat, already permeating the morning air. At the last minute, I remembered my towel. Ducking back into the cell, I snatched it from the shelf, then joined the crowd as it moved toward the single doorway at the end of the walkway. Below and above me I could hear the same hustle of sleepy footsteps.
The prison was awake.
I made my way to the women’s showers. It was still early enough that the line hadn’t grown too long. I quickly walked in, making my way back to one of the changing stations closest to the shower stalls. Shoving the pillowcase into the cubby hole, I peeled off my clothes and folded them neatly then placed them on top of my little pile. They smelled of sweat and dirt, but would have to wait to be washed until the next laundry day.
I grabbed my towel and wrapped it around my naked body, shivering in the morning air. They never seemed to keep any room warm enough here. Even in the dead of summer, a strange chill hung in every corner of the prison.
A female guard waited at the entrance to the showers. Opening my towel, I spun in a circle. She half watched, obviously not wanting to be on naked shower duty. After proving that I hadn’t tried to sneak anything in with me, she let me pass. I hurried to the back stall and hung my towel on the small hook. It always ended up damp by the end of the shower. At least in the very back of the shower room the towel avoided most of the water as it danced off of the bodies and walls.
I cranked on the water then braced myself. The water gushed out. It hit my skin hard, already warm as it beat into my tightened muscles. Most times the water shot out so hot it felt as if it had come straight from the boiler, heated in Hell. Other times it was ice cold, instantly locking your body up as it froze every inch of your exposed flesh. It was rare to have it come out warm in the shower. Just warm. Relaxing, I let a smile spread on my face as the water covered me.
The guard impatiently cleared her throat. Cracking my eyes open, I saw she was looking directly at me, a scowl on her thin face. I snapped out of it, grabbing the soap and quickly rubbing it all over my body and through my short hair. I hated my hair. Most women in here kept their hair short. It was easier to manage and harder to pull. Even though it seemed practical, I hated how short the barber always cropped it. It barely reached my chin, and rarely stayed when I tucked it behind my ears.
I rinsed off, then wrapped the damp towel around myself and scurried back to my cubby. Modesty wasn’t a luxury. Naked women stood around me, some waiting in line, others drying themselves off. A few younger girls stood nervously away from the others, casting their eyes down as they tried to avoid the crowd of nakedness that pressed around them.
I toweled off, then threw my dirty clothes back on and shoved the towel inside the bag. Without pausing a moment longer, I made my way through the crowd and out the door.
The Commons already teemed with inmates, most leaning against walls or slumped in chairs as they waited for their assignments for the day. There had once been a time when there were limits on how large a gathering could get before a guard rushed in to break it up, or site them for an unauthorized assembly. In the last few years, crowds had been getting larger, and the guards rarely broke them up. It was pointless. There were too many people. The doorway across the room finally came into view, and I ducked inside.
Just past the door a narrow staircase shot down into the shadows below. Its steps were cracked from years of disrepair. The handrail, always grimy from the hundreds of unwashed hands that grasped it each day, hung from the dark wall. I carefully positioned myself in the middle of the stairs and made my way down.
Nearing the bottom, I could hear the bustle of the laundry room. I pulled open the door and was instantly overcome with the distinct smell of soap and wet clothes. The room was already packed with people, most of them women, casually talking as they scrubbed clothes in the large bins full of water or waited in line to use the worn-out drying machines that always left your garments damp.
Nodding politely at the few women who smiled limply at me, I pushed through to a free spot along one of the bins. Here in the washroom, women who would usually glare and yell always seemed to mellow down. It was as if the act of scrubbing and washing the dirty clothes brought back traditions of old, and the women escaped into those adopted memories. The laundry room was one of the only places inside Spokane where you could hear women laugh and sing, with no intermission of anger.
A woman, her face blank as if lost in another dream, mindlessly passed me a bar of soap then went back to her slow rhythmic scrubbing. I watched a moment as she scrubbed over and over at a spot on the white shirt in her hands. I couldn’t see anything on it, but she didn’t seem to notice as she bore her weight into scrubbing.
Pulling a shirt out of my pillowcase, I dunked it in the warm water and quickly rubbed the soap through it. I hated this soap. The smell stung my nose, and it always left my hands red and chapped. Over the years I had become the only one in my family who remembered to wash our laundry. Occasionally my mother would seem to snap out of her strange world, gather everything, and wash it until it shone. But those days were getting fewer and fewer. If it weren’t for me, our clothes would be stiff with stink. Gritting my teeth, I rubbed the soap harder into the dirty shirt.
I let my mind relax, settling into the mindless task of dunking the clothes: rubbing the rank soap across their surface, scrubbing, then squeezing out as much of the soap as I could manage before draping them in a pile on the edge of the bin. If I made it a point to not think, this chore didn’t seem too tedious. I had heard there were worse assignments out there. I never bothered to ask what they might be. I didn’t want to find out what could be worse than soap that rubbed your flesh off and burned your sense of smell until tears stung your eyes.
Finally ringing out the last sock, I quickly dunked the pillowcase into the sudsy water, scrubbed it, then gathered the soaking pile in my arms and hurried to join the line for the drying machines.
The machines were ancient. A single row of them lined one wall, their circular metal doors rusted and cracking. As they spun, they banged against each other and the wall, giving the laundry room a steady washing rhythm that would continue the entire day. The beat of the machines sounded like the heart of the prison, steadily keeping it alive with every thud.
The line inched forward, one inmate at a time being allowed to find a free machine and throw their contents inside to hopefully dry. My pile of wet clothes pressed against my body. I could feel the dampness saturating my still dirty set of clothes that I wore. A shiver ran down my body, the air suddenly feeling even colder as I wrapped my arms around my wet load of worn laundry.
My turn finally came. A guard standing near the front of the line pulled out the small device and scanned my bracelet. After it lightly beeped, he waved his hand, motioning me forward. I ducked my head and scurried to a machine, its rusted door still swinging from the last load that had been pulled out.
Throwing my armload in, I slammed the door shut and pressed my thumb down hard on the button. The machine seemed to gag, then slowly spun up until it joined the others in beating itself against the wall. I watched intently as my load of clothes began its spin behind the thick glass.
The smell of smoke drifted into my nose. Startled, I jerked my eyes from the load and looked around. Down the row, a line of smoke flowed out of a machine. The inmate standing in front of it started to panic, her eyes wide as she watched more and more smoke billow out. Desperately she yanked on the handle of the door, but it didn’t even budge, locked shut in mid-cycle.