Authors: Leslie Connor
'm sitting outside my bedroom door in the Upper East Lounge right outside Warden Daugherty's office. This is the smallest lounge at Blue River. That's because Big Ed and his Special Projects crew from the woodshop walled off part of it to make my bedroom. I know the story because Big Ed likes to tell it.
“The residents were so sore about it!” He laughs. “They grumbled about losing the morning sun.” (It sure does flood in on a clear day.) “Everybody said, oh, what's Blue River need with another broom closet? Or, is that warden going to hog the light to expand her own office? What's going in there?”
The story goes, the partition went up and Mom's belly grew out. Then a crib arrived. “I set that up myself,” Big Ed likes to say. “Soon everyone knew that a baby was coming to Blue River. We had ourselves a little-bitty prison nursery for one.”
Mom left Blue River to have me in a hospital. (She only leaves on medical passes.) She says that when she walked back through the entrance with me asleep in her arms in a blue blanket, Big Ed was beaming. He called out loud in the Blue River Common, “Oh boy, it's a boy!” He raised both his arms into the air. “Hey everybody, you can quit moaning about your morning sun.” He pointed to the Upper East Lounge. “We've got us a new Morning Son!”
This lounge shrank because of me. Mom says it's the best place to hold small meetings. Fo-Joe calls Mom the Blue River U-Hauler because she likes to circle up the chairs. He can be a little bit of a jerk about it. He makes her put everything back, and he'll make her late to supper if the job isn't done.
Today, I am here on my own. No homework on the first day of school. I'm sitting on the floor, dangling my legs over the common. I have permission. The railings, which happen to be candy-apple red, protect me. Mom says it was all anyone could do to keep me from licking them when I was little. These days, I just rest my chin on the low rail and watch everything that goes on below.
The rezzes are coming in from the woodshop and the greenhouse. Some have been to meetings or classes. The dinner bell will ding in ninety minutes. This is free time for the rezzes. Sort of free. Some will go take showers. There is a schedule for that. Some will go to the gym or to another meeting. The men and women can socialize before dinner.
But only in the common. Mom says it's hard for anyone to have a private conversation that way. But it's the rule. There's no dating and no getting married at Blue River. You can't kiss anyone. Well, Mom can kiss me, and I can kiss her back. But anyone else will get an infraction ticket. Their pay will be docked, and they will have less to spend at the commissary. Some rezzes sneak hugs and quick kisses anyway. I see it happen. I don't tell.
At this hour there is lots of handshaking and high-fiving down in the common. That's how the workday ends for everyone at Blue River. The warden says it's how you show your gladness. Some rezzes like it. Some, not so much. There are some that stand with their backs against the wall. They cross their arms over their chests and stay stone-faced. They are the Cold OnesâI think it to myself. I see ice in their eyes, and that tells me they have the kind of hearts that don't want to care. Mom tells me, “Steer clear, Perry.” And I do. But sometimes I see that even the Cold Ones go a little softer when they see meâa kidâaround the halls of Blue River.
Mr. Halsey and Mr. Rojas are like family. They look for me to be up here. They know I am usually in this spot at four p.m. Sometimes I call down to catch someone's attention. But I stay quiet if I see people who look like they might be having a heavy time of it. Almost every rez at Blue River has troubles that come upon them pretty hard from time to time. I don't go jiggling people out of their deepest thoughts.
“Perry, my man!” Mr. Halsey is looking up. He's been to the commissary. He's got a plastic grocery bag tied closed at the top. He hands the bag to Mrs. DiCoco. “Protect this for me, will you, Callie?”
She will. Just about everyone likes Mr. Halsey.
Mr. Rojas plays lookout for him. He checks the common to see if Fo-Joe or any other supervisors are watching. “You're clear, man. All clear.”
Mr. Halsey takes a few running steps and jumps up. He reaches high with one arm, like he's dunking a basketball. Only there is no ball and no hoop in the common. He's reaching for me. Easy-peasy. He tags my sneaker. “Check it out!” he says as he lands. “Perry's got fresh kicks! Woo-hoot!” He takes a look around to see if he is caught. He's not. He gives Mr. Rojas some skin. “Your go,” he says, and then Mr. Halsey is the lookout. Mr. Rojas is lots shorter. He jumps, stretches, and just misses my foot.
“Give that man a booster seat!” Mr. Halsey teases. Mr. Rojas shakes a finger at him for the diss. Some of the younger rezzes join them taking jumps.
It's a pretty good game. They are getting away with it. Everybody at Blue River likes to see a little bit of that. Meanwhile, I like the thumps on my feet. I like it when Mr. Halsey asks about getting me and my new sneakers out onto the track for a run. I love to run with him. But we only have Saturdays now that school started.
Mom comes up behind me. “What's going on down
there, Perry? Are those fools jumping again?” She looks into the common just as Mr. Halsey leaps and smacks the bottom of my foot. He lands, spins, and looks up at Mom.
“Hey, hey, Jessica!” he says. He's smiling but he sounds a little serious when he asks, “How's it going? You doin' okay?”
I see Mom nod. But she's got that worried, not-enough-sleep look. She rests her elbow on the railing and plants her chin in her hand. She gives Mr. Halsey a thin smile. “Hey, Halsey,” she says. “When are you going to play a real game in the yard?”
“I don't know,” he says. “I've still got some work to do.” He points to his own chest and says, “Gotta know that I can keep a cool groove.”
“Play your first game with me,” I say. “One on one. Whenever you're ready. We can keep it cool.”
“That's a plan, Perry.”
I look at Mom, but she has gone sort of blank. Maybe it's because crabby Mr. Krensky is skulking by at the top of the stairs on his way to the law library. He's a Cold One. We steer clear. But there is something else about Mom. She's not carrying the New Start file folder. This is the time of day that she usually sits in the lounge shuffling through it. She keeps lists of jobs she wants to apply for once we are out. She crosses them off if the positions get filled. “It's still early for me to be looking,” she will say. “But this way I know what's out there.”
The New Start file is also full of apartment listings. We'll need to rent. Someday. Those come and go too. I know her favorite: it's the whole second floor of a blue house on Button Lane in Rising City. That's the next little town, seven miles north of Surprise, where Zoey Samuels lives. The photos show a place with little rooms and long windows, wood floors, old radiators, and round knobs on all the doors. But the best thing about that one is that we could make it back on Saturdays to see Big Ed and the others. Week after week Mom checks on that blue house. “The ad is still there,” she'll say. “Maybe it'll wait for us.” She could be right about that. I get the feeling nobody else wants it. Mom's parole hearing is coming up. We'll be leaving soon.
Below us, Mr. Halsey takes his grocery bag back from Mrs. DiCoco. “Jess-i-ca!” he calls up to Mom. (He loves to say her name in three broken syllables.) “Think fast!” He comes rising up, the grocery bag sitting easily in his palm. He gives it a push to send it up over the railing. Mom comes to life. She reaches to catch it. She gives the bag a gentle, guessing-game squeeze. Her eyes brighten.
“Broccoli?” she says. “Did you buy me fresh broccoli?”
Mr. Halsey taps his long index finger to his lips. “Shh-shh-shh!” He looks over his shoulder then whispers up to her. “Don't get me in trouble!”
Mom covers her mouth. There's not supposed to be
giving or trading of goods from the commissary. But that's a rule that gets broken all the time.
“Thanks, Halsey,” says Mom. “Lookie here, Perry.” She says it with a smile. “Green gold!”
essica Cook had two weighty pieces of news on her mind all afternoon, and she carried them both to the dinner table. The first was the incident at Perry's schoolâthe business of the assistance card for his lunches. The school had called to apologize for what had happened. They said she should please know that the privacy of every student was of utmost importance to them and that Perry should feel no stigma or discomfort using the card.
Jessica thought she should say,
Oh it's fine! Don't you know I'm in jail? Being outed for an assistance card is nothing to my kid.
Instead she'd squelched her sarcasm and thanked them for the call.
Perry hadn't said anything about the card. He'd been fairly quiet all evening, watching the jump game in the common and then sharing the snack of steamed broccoli with her in the Block C kitchenette. They had joked about
how they were spoiling their supper on the healthiest thing they'd eaten all day. Sad truth.
But her boy was onto her. He sat close to her at dinner, his huge blue eyes searching her face for the big tell. Perry always knew when there was a stink in the clink. He just didn't always know the details, and he knew not to ask. He'd been raised to respect everyone's privacy at Blue River, including his mother's.
The second piece of burdensome news had come from Warden Daugherty, in another private meeting in her office just hours agoâand it was far more haunting. “I'm afraid,” the warden had said, “that we have finally come upon that one person who knows about my unusual arrangement as Perry's foster care giver and is unwilling to look the other way.”
Jessica's breath had collapsed into her chest.
But who? After all this time? Why now? How bad is this? She was certain she had pondered the words, not spoken them. Yet it seemed the warden had heard.
“We have to stay calm. I'm on this, and I'll keep you informed. I promise you.”
Sitting at dinner now with Perry and a cluster of female residents, Jessica struggled to be present. Sweeps of cold fear overtook her. She closed her eyes and let a deep breath slide over her lips.
Shake. It. Off.
Eat supper with your beautiful kid.
Jessica ran her hand
along Perry's back where he sat beside her. He was wearing one of the new back-to-school shirts she'd sent Maya Rubin to buy. It'd taken the better part of two prison paychecks, but oh, nice knit, nice fit.
At least something was in place.
can't believe we can't go,” Miss Sashonna is complaining at the dinner table. “It's not fair. Not fair. We made all the decorations. That's all us.” She pats her chest with the flat of her hand. Miss Sashonna has long, skinny arms and sharp elbows and she never stops moving. We leave a lot of space around her at the table. Sitting with her can be like sitting next to a pair of scissors.
Mom says Miss Sashonna is one of her biggest challenges here at Blue River. Sashonna thinks everything is “not fair.” Nothing bugs Mom more. When Sashonna first got here she mouthed off about everything from the shower schedule to the sporks in the cafeteria. “You see this, you all?” She held her spork up high. “Know what this is? I'll tell you what. This is unnn-necessary, that's what. They can give
me real flatware. I'm no stabber.”
Mom told her, “We're all nonviolent, Sashonna. Sporks are practical. One utensil. Easy to wash.” Then she added, “And isn't it your job in the kitchen to wrap napkins around sporks?”
“Two hundred of 'em a day,” she answered with a waggle.
“That's a lot of sporks,” said Mom. “You better find some love for those until you get promoted.”
“Yeah, I find some love for my big eight dollars a week,” Sashonna said. “I can't even get a little jar of that chocolate spread at the commissary. It's not fair.”
One day Miss Sashonna brought up the fact that Mom got to have me with her at Blue River. “What's up with that?”
But Warden Daugherty was quick, saying, “Sashonna, if you know of a facility where you think things would be
, you let me know. I'll get you transferred.” That shut her down in a blink. She's no dope. Anybody would choose Blue River in a heartbeatâanybody who has to be in a prison.
Tonight, Sashonna's whine-o-meter is all cranked up because of the Dads and Daughters Dance. It's the first one ever. Warden Daugherty has decided to try it for the men at Blue Riverâthe ones who are dads. Everyone is going to knock off work early on Friday afternoon to get ready.
“We should all get to go. They got a suit for every guy. Did you hear that? All donated. Shoot, we never get to see them looking fine like that. I'm so sick of blue shirts,” she says.
“I don't care so much about them,” says Mrs. DiCoco, flapping her hand. “It's the little girls I want to see. Little ones like my grandbabies. They are going to come in wearing their dresses and looking adorable. Like tiny princesses.”
“Well . . . ,” Miss Gina says. She has dark crusty eyelashes that look like they will break when she blinks. “I wish it could be a dance for all of us too.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Sashonna whirls her knobby fist in the air.
“That could happen someday,” Mom says. “You never know. The warden is always working on newâ”
“Jessica! You're just on the other side about everything around here,” Sashonna says.
“Hey. No, I'm not,” Mom says, shaking her head. “It's hard as heck, but I try not to think about sides in here.”
“Well, that's because you're due to get out.” Sashonna curls a lip at Mom. She sits back hard in her chair. Folds her arms. “It's two years since I've seen a guy all dressed up nice.”
Mom makes a tiny sound in her throat like she's kind of agreeing with Sashonna on that point. “Well, I'd love to have eyes on that event too,” Mom says. “But the dance is for the guys. To remind them what's waiting on the outside.” She sounds drifty. “Remind them to keep on doing the right thing, keep on rising upâeven on the bleak days.”
“I'm glad one of you gets that.” Warden Daugherty has done that thing where she rolls up out of nowhere like some life-size wind-up toy. She stands at the end of the table with
her clipboard tucked in her elbow and her pen in her hand.
Miss Sashonna straightens her spine and puts both hands up. “I get it! I get it too,” she says.
Miss Gina rolls her eyes. Mrs. DiCoco lets out a laugh and pushes at her silver hair.
“That dance is going to be emotional,” Warden Daugherty says. “And emotions are fine. We are human. But for this, the fathers deserve some privacy.” She looks over the tops of her eyeglasses and pokes her pen at the group like she's popping a balloon. “End of discussion,” she says. Then she looks at me. “So, Perry. Good day at the new school?”
“Yes,” I say.
“I'm glad to hear it,” she says. “If you need anything, you come see me. Any problems, just tell me.” I'm guessing someone told her about my unswipeable lunch card. When something like that goes wrong for me on the outside, the warden gets it fixed in no time. But the only thing I want to know tonight is what's up with Mom. I can't ask that question right here and right now. Besides, the warden is already motoring through a turn. Then she is gone.
Miss Sashonna plunks her elbows on the table. “Okay, so we can't go to that dance.” A grin creeps across her face. “But Perry can.” She jabs a finger at me.
Mom says, “First of all, don't point at my kid. Second of all, he's not a dad or a daughter.”
“But he's a photographer! He's got that camera.” Miss Sashonna is pointing at me again. Mom gives her a wicked
look, like she'd like to grab that finger.
“Pictures would be nice,” Miss Gina says, and Mrs. DiCoco likes that idea too.
“So do it, Perry!” Miss Sashonna pumps her skinny arms and dances in her seat. She sings, “Have a party! Be a dancer!”
“Perry does have a nice camera,” says Mom. She makes a rectangle with her fingers and thumbs. “It's tiny, and I love how you can view the shots right on the screen. It's the most brilliant thiâ”
“That's called digital,” says Sashonna. She puts a long bony finger in Mom's face. “Don't you know? Digital.”
Mom looks up. “Right. Cameras are one of those things that have changed a lot in twelve years,” Mom reminds her.
“What do you say, Perry?” Miss Gina pretends to hold a camera to her eye. She clicks down with one finger and shuts one furry eyelash.
“Can I, Mom?”
“If the warden says you mayâand if you want to do it.” She always lets me decide. I am the guy with the most freedom at Blue River.
I try to deliver.