When the young man she'd been dating for two years applied for a scholarship to an out-of-state school, then got in the car with his packed bags, kissed his weeping mama and drove off to major in Economics without asking her to marry him first, Judy said, Fine.
She walked down to the pawn store to look at diamond rings. There were twelve. Several were three-stone, or trinity, as the shopkeeper explained. Those looked too extravagant. The few small marquise weren't her style, but there was one tiny, round stone ring that fit the bill. She bought it for fifty dollars and placed it on her finger. Sitting the neighborhood's screaming, teething children 3-4 evenings every week since she'd turned 12 had earned her that, at least.
She went to the grocery store and unzipped her wallet with her left hand. She filed through the bills there carefully, her fingers crawling like a drugged centipede. She pushed back her hair with her left hand when the wind blew at the bus stop. She tucked her hair behind her ear, letting her ring finger linger at her lobe.
She took a job at the five and dime as a cashier, where customers were treated to flashes of brightly manicured nails, a hypnotizing effect as her fingers flitted over the register's keys. One old woman complained of the immodesty: red color is for whores. Judy went out and bought a gold band.
Men tipped their hats lower, longer. Young girls gave deference. There was an embarrassment at the bank when she presented a check and gave her own name to open the account.
Eventually, the shine did wear off. Judy appeared at the pawn store again. This time, one of the trinity rings. At work, she received congratulations. Oh, how sweet! For your anniversary? I wish I were so lucky.
The trouble and the luck was that no one really cared enough about Judy to ask about her husband, or invite the couple over for dinner. Judy was one of those people others seemed happy to let remain unknown.
Aging didn't bother Judy very much. There was no shift for her, no loss. Other women panicked. That's when they noticed Judy, and came to her for advice. She seemed smart, happy, careless. For the first time in her life, Judy was able to play coy.
She settled into the role of mysterious sage. It was assumed that her husband died. Widowers flirted with her at the five and dime. A bouncy, bright-toothed reporter from the local station came to do a human interest piece on the "bejeweled" cashier who had worked at the same shop for over 30 years. Apparently, she was an attraction for small children who begged their parents to bring them in to see "the lady with all the rings." Judy kept looking down at the huge foam microphone held in front of her during the interview. On television, she looked like she was crossing her eyes. The pawn shop owner refused to comment for the story, or even confirm that Judy was among his regular clientele.
One haggard mother was interviewed outside the shop who said that when she brought her daughter in crying after a difficult dentist appointment, Judy took off an emerald and handed it to her, just to make her feel better.
Judy was generous, and trusted to be honest. It got to the point that, if someone lost, or sold, a valuable ring, and wanted to see if they could get it back, it was a toss up whether they would check with the pawn shop or Judy first.
Judy would stand at the door, smile, then disappear inside, leaving the visitor to wait on the stoop. You stood a 50/50 chance. If luck was in your favor, she would return with your ring, and ask nothing as payment. Not even the amount she gave for it.
Late in life, when her generosity accelerated to the point that she was known to strip an entire finger bare on a whim and drop it into a stranger's hand, or the collection plate at church, people around her would look at each other and shake their heads. She was a lunatic, or lonely.
Pity, either way.
It wasn't until after she passed away - peacefully, and in her sleep - that an attorney discovered among her possessions many lost items, including the class ring of a local veterinarian who often drove drunk, a known philanderer's military signet, and a ruby from a woman who repeatedly undertipped waitresses. There were dozens. All had been reported, and everyone claimed to have knocked on Judy's door. The thief in her grave, there was no explanation other than luck and punctilious piety. These qualities are often overlooked in light of a pickpocket's flashy fingers.
Mrs. Whitmire wore a cardigan for their walk together that evening. It was her favorite, and she wondered if Mr. Whitmire liked it, but he didn’t say one way or the other. Instead, Mr. Whitmire brought up his favorite topic of conversation: finances.
The Whitmires lived in the most modest house on a street of decidedly immodest houses. Luxury was flaunted in every way possible: extravagant architecture, shiny cars, exotic and intricate landscaping. Mr. and Mrs. Whitmire had lucked up on purchasing their way into the neighborhood, but just barely. “A steal,” Mr. Whitmire repeated, at random intervals, for the first six months of their occupancy.
The house may have been a theft of fortune, but everything else was at cost. Mrs. Whitmire struggled to find her way with the neighbors. They were lithe, competent, ambitious. She was older, quieter, plain. She liked it that way. She felt no need to run two miles when walking one would do.
In fact, while Mr. Whitmire stomped beside her, crackling twigs under his feet, Mrs. Whitmire began to notice how her ankles ached, and her calves already burned. They hadn’t even climbed the first hill yet.
She was considering whether she should speak up and cut the walk short when something caught her eye. In the shadow of dusk, feathers. White belly. Descending.
“Robert, is that a hawk?”
Mrs. Whitmire made the mistake of asking a question to hide a command: Look! Look at that! Mr. Whitmire had warned her to work on her confidence, to be more assertive, especially over the phone, with customer service. But truth be told, Mrs. Whitmire preferred her shy, roundabout ways.
Ask a question and you get an answer, however. Especially of Mr. Whitmire.
In the dimness, Mr. Whitmire said to his wife, “It’s a cat.”
Maybe it was the quick dark of the oncoming night, or the warmth of the cardigan, but Mrs. Whitmire felt something strange to her. She felt sure. Her mind clicked smoothly.
She answered, “I watched it fly down from the sky.”
The triumph of this statement cannot be overestimated.
Mr. Whitmire was silent. He was no longer interested in the animal if it wouldn’t be a cat. Mr. Whitmire was annoyed by things that weren’t as he said they were.
Mrs. Whitmire, however, was fascinated. Her pupils expanded as if she were prey, her survival dependent on assessing the size and shape of all around her. Finally, she decided the bird was an owl. The body was too small, and the head too large, for a hawk. A calm, feathered professor, perched high and quiet on a thick limb, rather than shrieking, darting sharpness.
Mrs. Whitmire declared her determination to her husband. Mr. Whitmire jerked the leash as their large mutt, Maximus, yearned toward a stalk of hyssop, his snout quivering.
They walked on, Maximus sufficiently heeled, Mr. Whitmire back to the topic of interest rates, and Mrs. Whitmire mulling her secret enchantment.
They had gone half a block when Mrs. Whitmire heard the frothy beat of feathers a few feet above their heads. She looked up, but saw only branches, black against periwinkle. A few more steps forward, and she felt a rush of air against her skin. More ghost than animal, but there was a beating heart to it. The threat of substance. Mrs. Whitmire felt the horripilation of a weak beast in an open field, under attack.
She was about to call out to her husband when suddenly he was lifted from the ground, dropping the leash he’d yanked. As he rose, his little pink paws searched the air, and his tail curled weakly.
Mr. Whitmire was a mouse of a man.
As the owl’s wings expanded, Mrs. Whitmire studied. She marveled at the soft white of their undersides. Mr. Whitmire let out furious, frantic squeaks of terror, but they faded to a pinprick of sound, swallowed up by the owl’s swooping ascension within the troposphere.
Any that are safe, tame and fed may feign the repose of Buddhists. Maximus stood at Mrs. Whitmire’s side, no more alert than he would be watching a squirrel in a distant yard. Mrs. Whitmire bent and claimed the loop of his leash. The owl, and her husband, were gone.
First, scent was restored to her. Or, remembered. Or, noticed. There was a fire burning three houses down. Early leaves. Somehow she heard the neighbor’s rake, a talon gently scraping and gathering. Mrs. Whitmire closed her eyes. She imagined, she re-imaged, all that was around her, in the dark. She let herself float in a sea of unseen creatures. Peace with them. Peace with herself. All animal.
Mrs. Whitmire walked on. Maximus trotted easily alongside her. When he stopped, Mrs. Whitmire stopped, too. She closed her eyes or kept them open. She focused on one sense, then another. Life. Miracle. Gratitude.
Rounding a corner, she heard a rustle in the brush to the side of the walkway. The rustle took on a start-stop pattern. Footsteps, searching. Hesitant.
Mrs. Whitmire waited. Maximus laid himself back on his haunches.
Out from the brush, Mr. Whitmire burst forth, his mouth open to a deep breath of air. His knees were skinned. He held one arm close, lame. His thin hair was sweaty, and mussed. He reached for the leash with his good arm, but Mrs. Whitmire held it back.
They were understood. Mr. Whitmire took his place alongside his wife and, after lifting his glasses and pinching his nose bridge, took a look around as if gazing up from a profound map. He noted the hour to Mrs. Whitmire, and the pace of the night. He asked if she would like to return home.
Mrs. Whitmire, refreshed, replied, “Yes, Robert, if that is what you would like.”
Bonus: Listen to this...
In prison, privileges are up to the warden. No facility is exactly the same. Just like when I was a kid switching schools all the time, there's some uniform basics, but you have to spend the first few weeks laying low and learning the particulars of your new place when you get there.
Here, I got a cassette player and a pair of headphones that I kept on me at all times. The commissary charged $5.50 per week to rent. I made $20 a month from my job assignment putting together bed frames, and the rest I scraped together mostly by selling fruit cups off my plate. I didn't let anybody borrow the headphones. First thing any new cellie learned: Don't bother asking.
The library had audio books on tape. A grand total of 11 books. Imagine how quick you could get through that with nothing but time on your hands. No roof to shingle, no lawn to mow. No bowling alley. No bar.
The reason I rented the cassette player was Lisa. Lisa Machelski, from my hometown. She found out about me when she read the local newspaper.
After a few letters, she said she was bad with writing and preferred to talk. Phone calls cost too much, so we worked out that I would write, because that’s the way I prefer to communicate, and she would send tapes.
For the first one, she sent a mix tape with a bunch of songs, and in between she recorded herself talking about how she liked the song and what it made her remember.
As soon as I heard her voice, I knew she wasn’t from Gladewater. She said she’d moved down from Ohio in 7th grade. We discovered that neither one of us got along with anyone, her because she was always an outsider, even after 20 years, and me because that’s just my way.
She could rattle on. About her mother, about the neighbors. About anybody she passed in her day, and their dog. And their children. She hated everybody, but she smiled and sweet-talked like God’s own ray of sunshine to get what she wanted.
She put her tape recorder in her bag and walked through the mall with it on. She shoplifted a watch from a kiosk then went to the bathroom and told me all about it, sitting on a toilet. She giggled and said she felt like I was her accomplice. She asked me how much time somebody could get for that - emotional support of theft.
Lisa and I had been exchanging letters and tapes for three months when I went to the canteen to extend my rental and the guy there said no-can-do. He said he had to collect what I had and turn it back in. Privileges on all electronics had been revoked. I made the point that the cassette player runs on batteries. He said it didn’t matter.
A C.O. followed me back to my room to make sure I didn’t have another set squirreled away somewhere. A week later, they did a sweep and took my tapes, including the last one which I didn’t get to hear.
Lisa and I went back to writing letters, and she joked that she was going to get one of those messenger pigeons and feed it until it was big enough to carry a cassette player to me that I could hide. I told her if we were talking trained birds, I wanted a falcon. Something that could claw up rats.
Lisa said that letters took too much time, weren’t as much fun. It reminded her of essay assignments in high school, when they made her write two full pages like everybody else, even though she was dyslexic.
The letters gradually tapered off from once every other week to once a month, and then a two month stretch before one last letter where she mentioned a neighbor she met at church. He was divorced, with two kids he got every other weekend. He was turning his life back around from alcohol and needed a friend.
Find someone who feels trapped, and nine times out of ten they’ll start comparing themselves to a bird in a cage. But the thing is, most of those birds have been held and petted since birth. A bird in a cage is about as close to a wild animal as a puppy is to a wolf. Forget natural habitat, home is what you’re used to.
Every now and then, a wild bird will fly into the rec area here, or the green house, and can’t get out. Always a small bird, like a sparrow or pine siskin. It freaks out when it realizes it’s got a roof over its head. You never see a crow make that mistake. Too smart. Crows gather out in the open, squawk like they’re shooting the shit, laughing at us. One day it looked like they were trying to get a pick-up game going with members of the 211 Crew out in the yard.
A couple weeks after suspending electronics privileges, the warden visited the warehouse while I was working my assignment. He spoke to a lieutenant for a couple minutes then exited through a side door. I took off through the front, running to cut him off and confront him about the cassette player. When I caught up with him, he was alone. I stopped running. Two things the warden wore at all times: a bull horn bolo tie and a firearm. Before I could get a word out, he had his hand in the air motioning me over. He called out loud, “Bring that claw hammer over here.”
I forgot I’d had it in my hand. Set one foot outside of the warehouse, and tools are contraband. I tightened my grip and walked over.
He pointed down, at a vent. Something was trapped behind it. The warden told me to wrench it off. I pushed the claw behind the edge and pulled. The vent popped off, and there was the sparrow, grounded, but doing its best to raise its wings at the sight of us.
The warden knelt down and put his hand toward the bird. The bird opened its beak and stepped further back into the vent, but in a scoop he had it out.
Crouching down, the warden rested his arm on one bent knee, like a soldier at a comrade’s grave. He touched a finger to the back of the bird and said in a low, sure voice, “Come on, darlin’. Go on. You’re out from where you don’t belong.”
I stood staring at the back of the warden’s head, saw a large liver spot he had under a few sparse hairs. I wasn’t thinking about the cassette player, or Lisa’s neighbor, or crows that laugh and fly off.I raised the hammer I still had in my hand and, like any creature without wings, let gravity work.