Walking Through Walls – First 3 Chapters


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Chapter 1

Waking up has gotten tougher. I lie in bed and watch my morning dream dissolve. Sometimes I feel as if I am active in my dream, while other times it seems as if something vague happened but I can’t recall any details. I know when it’s a bad dream, because I feel stiff in my body and slow in my head. At least three times a week, I wake up and feel the gut punch of losing my twin brother, who got blown up in that stupid mini war Desert Storm. When that happens, I tell myself to touch my heart and breathe deep. Rather then ruminate on my loss, I pull my sweatpants on and slump into the bathroom to pee. Afterwards, I look in the mirror. It’s not time to pluck my eyebrow or put on lipstick. I’m thirty-eight—old enough to make a realistic assessment of my looks. Neither pretty nor ugly, just plain.

I brush my teeth and leave the prettying up for later. Right now I want my coffee. It’s freshly brewed because I set the timer last night for six. It waits like a liquid lover, ready to bring me alive.

For sixteen years I was the business manager for an old-fashioned, caring internist. It was a small office—just me, the doctor, and our nurse, Juanita. I liked the job and respected the way my boss actually cared about our patients, and I really enjoyed Juanita, a no-nonsense gal who loved to laugh. Twice a week we would go out for dinner and a few beers. Our limited friendship means a lot to me.

My life is about to change radically. I feel as if I had walked into a storm and got blown into a parallel world. I’ll be going to prison in a week. That scares me. I don’t know if I can live locked up like an animal. I don’t know if I have the strength or the self-discipline to conform. I don’t know if I can become hard enough to tolerate the cruelty that prison breeds. Truth is, I don’t know shit about life in prison except that it scares me to death. So, can I survive being behind bars? No one knows yet.

I might be ordinary, but I’m a good person, and the idea of sitting in a locked jail cell seems like a faraway nightmare. The thought that I did something bad enough to be put away makes me feel an unfamiliar shame. I wish my brother were alive and could guide me, help me, love me. He was always my protector, and now, without him, I’m more alone then ever.

I killed someone in a rage and what felt, at the time, like self-defense. My lawyer bargained it down from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

I can still hear the judge’s words echo in my head: “You have been guilty of involuntary manslaughter. With good behavior, you can be out of prison in two and a half years.”


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Chapter 2

It was about four thirty in the morning and cold outside. I arrived at the prison in a white bus. I wore a maroon sweatshirt and could feel sweat under my pits.

I’m nervous—maybe frightened would be more accurate.

That first night, before locking me away, they put me into a room for a strip search. The room had one overhead light bulb, a metal door, and a big mirror on one wall. The guard, a tall brunette with long braids and oddly large, plump earlobes, had the broad, muscular back of a swimmer.

“Take off all your clothes,” she said.

She put on rubber gloves, then started probing my orifices as if she were pushing quarters into a parking meter. She twisted my head up and around so I was forced to watch us in the mirror. Strapped on her belt were handcuffs, mace, and a big black stick. As she caught me staring at myself, a thin smile crossed her face, revealing pointed bottom teeth. She grinned at my humiliation. I tried to look down at the floor, but again she forced my face into the mirror. I felt the shame of no longer being the master of my own body.

What pissed me off the most, though, were the braids, which sweetened that otherwise brutal face. They seemed such a lie.

“You know why we search you?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because you can have drugs or money or a cute little weapon up your pussy. You wouldn’t believe what we pull out,” she said, smirking in the mirror. I decided her eyes were dull gray, not dull blue.

She wanted to provoke me to squirm, scream, talk back, get angry. Her finger twisted inside me, and I suppressed a shudder of revulsion and fear.

I bent my head over my right shoulder to hide my face from my tormentor. “You’re good at this,” I said.

“You fucking with me?” she replied as her finger went another 180 degrees.

“Never.”

“Good. Now, move on and pick up your uniform.”

As I touched the blue denim pants and shirt, I had the unmistakable sensation of not getting enough air into my lungs. I had never had asthma, never come close to drowning, but in that moment, I couldn’t breathe.

She looked at me and while her belly shook with laughter. “You little fuck, what a performance!” she said when she caught her breath. “You acting like I’m big and bad and hurting you, when all I have is love for you. Now, get out of here.”


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Chapter 3

After I put on the prison-issue blue jeans the first guard said, “Take her, Martha; I’m done.”

Martha took my left arm and walked me through two steel gates, into the prison interior and down a walkway lined with cells. It was like walking down the painted cinder-block corridor of a cheap motel, except that these were metal bars, and everything—floor, walls, and ceiling—was a dismal, depressive gray. The noises and smells of fear and hostility were palpable, taut, like the muggy, static-charged air before a storm. My tongue felt dry, and my jaw clenched.

I remembered a scene from a National Geographic TV show. A bright-green viper struck a mouse, which staggered off a few steps and keeled over. The snake’s tongue flickered, and then the mouth opened impossibly wide and slowly engulfed the mouse until it was just a big lump sliding inexorably down into the snake’s belly. As I walked into the center of the cold, gray structure, I felt like some dead, limp creature being swallowed.

Martha, the guard who walked me to my cell, seemed to smell my fear. The other women prisoners must have, too. They hissed and laughed and jeered, “Welcome to the house of love, babe.”

“Don’t wet your pants,” Martha said. “Not yet, anyway. Listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you. Don’t get caught with drugs, make few friends, don’t fight, but don’t take any shit—ever. If you’re smart, you’ll exercise when you can, or you’ll blow up like a blimp eating this crap. Never diss your bunkie, or you might not wake up some morning. Love me like a sister, but don’t show it or say anything. You understand what I’m telling you?”

“Yes.”

“Good. One more thing. I know what goes on in this place. I have friends on both sides of the denim. Don’t approach me for help. You need help, talk to your bunkie—she knows how to reach me. That’s it for now.”

She stopped at a cell and opened the door with the sort of big, round keys I’d seen in old prison movies. Inside was a tiny room with two narrow cots. I wondered how a fat person could possibly sleep on one without sagging off the edge. There was a sink and a plastic wall mirror so small you could see only a piece of your face in it. A small writing table of dull gray metal filled the corner. The bars on the door were as thick as my wrist.

As the door clanged shut behind me, a black woman in her mid-thirties looked up from the far cot. At this miserable hour of five thirty a.m., she was already dressed.

“Hello,” I managed to say, staring into compelling black eyes that sparkled like obsidian.

“You staring at your new bunkie?” she snapped.

“No, no. Sorry, I didn’t—”

“Don’t apologize so quick. And tell me what you’re staring at.”

“Your eyes, they’re amazing—so dark and shiny.”

“You battin’ for the other side?” A look of disgust crossed her face.

“No, are you?” I quipped, then instantly regretted it.

“You being cute with me? I live for my boneyard visits.”

“What’s that?”

“A conjugal visit with my husband, once every four months, in a little cabin on the other side of prison—one hour.”

“That enough time?”

“It’s never enough time when you want it to last.”

“I’m Nina,” I said. I tried looking her in the face again, but my eyes fell.

“I’m June.” She looked me up and down. Though she seemed relaxed, she had an inner intensity that made me feel nervous and exposed. I hated the feeling.

“You been in here long?”

“Three years, with one to go. You don’t look like you been around this house before.”

“No, never been in a prison.”

“Well, you’re in a swamp now, and you could survive, get eaten, or end up crazy.”

“Thanks for the scare.”

“It’s not about being scared. It’s about staying alive, so you don’t end up depressed and a love hustler to some gang motherfucking asshole. This is serious, what I’m trying to tell you.”

“What kind of gang?”

“Watch out for Alice,” she replied.

“Who’s Alice?”

“She’s not a person. Alice is all the white punks. The Aryan sisters into pain and hate. They love new white girls—not quite blond, innocent and scared, ready to hide in their tit.” She paused, then added, “They love tattoos. Most in here do. But these Aryan bitches are about as dumb and ruthless as it gets. They enjoy giving and receiving pain. Makes them feel alive. They’re twisted, and the most twisted one is always the leader.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked.

“When I came here, my new bunkie did the same for me. She took my naive mind and taught me how to survive. Call this payback.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Good. Don’t say anything—just listen up. Here’s a few dry facts: This prison houses about five hundred women. Most are in for assault, some murder, mostly robbery. Recently a lot more white-collar crime, accountants and bookkeepers embezzling company funds.” June paused, looked at me thoughtfully, and continued.

“At first you can’t trust anyone—maybe not even me. The good news is, the prison authorities try to remove the really violent women who’d disturb the harmony of this shit house. But it would be a mistake to think they’re successful. That’s why you could easily get killed here for showing disrespect to the wrong person. Violence and the fear of violence are as ordinary as eating. You can see it and smell it. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

“Yeah. This place is dangerous, and I should watch out.”

“Good. Now I’m going to read. Not a stupid romance so I can rub myself—it’s history.

I glanced at her book. It was about Eleanor Roosevelt. “Why do you read about her,” I ask.

“She reminds me of my mom: smart, strong, and serious. My mom became frail like Eleanor as she got older, but you never saw any weakness, only tremendous energy. Don’t ever underestimate me, either,” she added, darting me a serious glare.

“I won’t,” I stammered. “Promise.”

June reached over to the small shelf above her cot and took down a worn hardcover book, then flopped down on her stomach with her head propped back just nches from the book. She never looked up at me or said another word—just stayed in that position like a dark goddess frozen in place. All of a sudden, a shrill, harsh whistle went off.


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