Authors: Karelia Stetz-Waters
New YorkÂ Â Â Boston
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For my parents, in celebration of their fiftieth anniversary.
You taught me to believe in happily ever after,
and you showed me how to live it.
And, always, for Fay
Writing this book has led me on many adventures, from having lunch with a paroled murderer to enjoying an inmate-organized poetry reading inside a maximum-security prison. Many things surprised me. My image of prisoners doing push-ups in their cells was shattered when I stepped inside one of the cells and realized there wasn't enough room to do a push-up. At the same time, the prisons I visited weren't dungeons. They were brightly lit and exceedingly clean. The maximum-security Oregon State Penitentiary was peculiarly windy inside, while the medium-security Oregon State Correctional Facility smelled like dryer sheets and contained a room full of cubicles in which inmates answered the DMV call line. It looked a lot like the offices I worked in when I was in college.
What surprised me most in the end was the cost. To remand a parolee back to prison costs an average of fifty thousand dollars, money that can be levied at the behest of a single parole officer for infractions as minor as crossing a state line or failing to report. As an educator, I can't help but wonder what the country would be like if teachers had that kind of money to spend on troubled and vulnerable students before those students landed in prisons, jails, or juvenile detention facilities.
I'd like to thank the parolees, inmates, and correctional staff who shared their experiences with me. A big thank-you also goes to my wife, Fay Stetz-Waters, for answering my never-ending stream of legal questions. More importantly, thank you, Fay, for making my life a true happily-ever-after story. Thanks also to my wife and my friend Scott McAleer for taking me to eastern Oregon to get a look at the real-life Tristess County. Thank you to Chris Riseley for helping me work out plot points by the river and showing me that the answer is “whiskey and welding.”
Thank you to all my friends and colleagues at Linn-Benton Community College and to all the friends, near and far, who make my life rich.Thank you to Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich for opening the doors of the publishing world for me. Thank you to Madeleine Colavita and the staff at Forever Yours for making this book the best it could possibly be. Finally, thank you to my parents, Elin and Albert Stetz, for providing a beautiful model for marriage and for life. Happy fiftieth anniversary, Mom and Dad!
Marydale Rae had never been in this part of the Holten Penitentiary, with its high windows and bars painted the same dull yellow as the walls. A uniformed guard sat behind a desk, reading. Marydale waited for a long time, watching the top of the guard's head as he studied his paperwork or ignored her. She couldn't tell which. There had been a time when she had known how to lean on a desk or a lamppost or a rangeland gate. She would have said,
Whatcha doing, cowboy?
and the man would have coughed and stuttered. Now Marydale said nothing. Finally the guard looked up.
“Damn parole board.” His lips pulled into a tight grimace. “After what you did. Six years with good behavior.” He glared at the paper before him. “Ridiculous! Some people don't know right from wrong.”
“I was told to report,” Marydale said, keeping her gaze on the ID badge pinned to the guard's shirt.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” he barked. “A written invitation?” He took a clear plastic bag from beneath the desk and pushed it across the table. “Bathroom's back there. Make it quick.”
In the bathroom, Marydale opened the bag. She pulled out her jean jacket, the one with the pattern of hearts embellished in rhinestones, the one that had belonged to her mother. There was her Tristess High seniors T-shirt, too, and a skirt of some light material with tiny pink flowers printed on it. There was a name for that fabric. Six years ago she had known it and every word in her SAT flash card deck. She pressed the T-shirt to her face, but everything in the bag smelled of mildew. She changed quickly.
When she came out again, the guard tapped his desktop with an accusing look, as though Marydale might try to steal her orange jumpsuit and he had cleverly caught her in the act. Marydale dropped the folded prison-issued uniform on the desk, and the guard glared. Marydale lifted her eyes to his chin. He slid a piece of paper across the desk.
“You have forty-eight hours to report to your parole officer. He'll go over the conditions of your supervision, but it's pretty simple. No drugs. No guns. No fighting. No dating. No burner phones. Don't leave the county. Don't change your address. Don't fraternize with felons or other deviantsâ” He picked at his tooth, staring directly at her. “Sign here.”
The guard pressed a button beneath his desk, and behind Marydale, a set of metal gates rattled to life and drew back slowly. She turned without speaking and moved toward the exit. Her sandals felt like a foreign country.
At end of a long outdoor walkway, she arrived at a tiny kiosk. Inside, she heard a radio crackle. Another guard eyed her, or at least he directed his mirrored sunglasses at her. Marydale presented her release papers.
“I know you,” the guard said.
She felt his eyes on her. The guards were always looking, but her orange jumpsuit had hidden her body. Now she wished she had gone into Holten Penitentiary wearing jeans, but six years ago she wasn't thinking about release. Six years ago she had just turned seventeen.
“If I had my wayâ¦pretty girl like you. A waste,” the guard said.
The last gate rolled open, its wheels grinding on loose gravel. Beyond the gate, a two-lane highway stretched into the vast rangeland of eastern Oregon. Marydale could almost hear her friends inside yelling,
Just go, girl, before they change their minds!
She turned to the guard. “I wasn't expecting to get out until Monday.” She tried to pitch her voice low and soft. It didn't help to demand. “May I call my friend Aldean to come pick me up?”
“I don't have a phone,” the guard said, although Marydale could see one on the desk in front of him.
“But how do I get to Tristess?” she asked.
The penitentiary was at least twenty miles from town. Around her the land was motionless. Only the heat rippled. The guard's sunglasses traveled the length of the empty horizon.
“Guess you'll be waiting a long time if you hitchhike.”
Kristen Brock was quickly realizing that her glamorous move from adjunct professor of legal writing to deputy district attorney of Tristess County was only glamorous as long as no one in Portland actually knew anything about Tristess, Oregon. She poked at the pile of iceberg lettuce and steak strips in front of her, the Ro-Day-O Diner's take on
The leaves were almost white. The steak had thought about visiting a frypan. If
, she had gotten what she ordered.
“You like the salad?” the waitress asked, gliding by, a pot of not-so-fresh coffee dangling from her long fingers. “I think the meat's from Dan Otto's ranch out by the quarry. Slaughtered a week ago Thursday.”
Kristen approved of locally sourced food, but something about knowing the animal's date of death made her feel like a cannibal. Before she could reply, her phone buzzed on the table.
Kristen's friend Donna Li greeted her in her usual clipped tone. “How's Tristess? How's living in the outback?”
“It's all right,” Kristen said.
“You're practicing real law,” Donna said. “Do you know what I'm doing? Rutger Falcon's mother's
divorce! She's decided she's a lesbian. The husband's run off with some thirty-year-old. They're both in their seventies. And they're fighting over a time-share in Lubbock, Texas. I mean, is there anyone who wants to go to Lubbock, Texas, on vacation?”
Kristen frowned. Four weeks living in a town the size of her graduating class, stuck at the far southeastern corner of Oregon, was making Lubbock, Texas, sound pretty good. The waitress passed by and shot Kristen a smile, as if to say,
Donna must have been driving because she added, “Is this your first day on the planet, Prius?” To Kristen she said, “The Falcon Law Group. What was I thinking taking this job? You're actually doing something. You're practicing law!” To an unnamed traveler on the road, Donna added, “Stop maximizing your gas mileage and drive!”
Kristen heard Donna's turn signal. If there was one thing she could say about Tristessâand there really was only one thingâit was that she got great cell phone reception. Some entrepreneurial spirit had wrecked the view of the Firesteed Summit by leasing space to every cell phone provider in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. Now the Summit bristled with towers.
“I guess,” Kristen said modestly. After almost two decades of intensely courteous competition, at which Kristen almost always failed, she had finally earned a hint of resentment in Donna's voice. That was something. “How's Elliot?” she asked.
“Elliot!” Donna said. “Gorgeous. Horrid. Wedded to the army. What am I doing with him?”
“Your mother would set you up with a nice accountant.”
“God! Yes, she would. How's your sister?”
“She started community college.” Kristen rested her chin on her upturned palm. “On her first day she made friends with some guy named Frog. Apparently he's a pansexual or polyamorous or something. She's decided she's a vegan, and she's already dropped her math class. I told her I'd tutor her on Skype, but she's mad I left Portland.”
“She'll be fine.” Donna's other line beeped through. “That'll be Lubbock again. Gotta go.”
Kristen set the phone down and spread out a battered copy of the
. The newspaper wasn't even online. The whole place made her lonely.
Kristen felt someone at her elbow.
The waitress hovered her pot of stale coffee over Kristen's cup. Kristen glanced up. Way up. The woman's head barely cleared the little chains that dangled from the ceiling fans.
“You looking for a used gun?” the woman asked, peering at the
FOR RENT/FOR SALE
“Do I look like I need a used gun?”
The womanâwho was probably Kristen's age, although it was hard to tell with women in Tristessâstepped back and looked Kristen up and down.
“No. You look like you can handle your own.” The waitress's long blond curls hung almost to her waist. A silver cross dangled in the low-cut V of her blouse. And she was missing a front tooth. “I'm just playing with you.”
“I know. The girl from the city.” Kristen pushed her glasses up on her nose.
Almost everyone she'd met in Tristess had said itâ¦in so many words. Kristen was from the city. She didn't understand their good, old-fashioned country ways, but she sure was lucky to have escaped Portland, not that she'd have the good sense to stay in Tristess. She might as well have had a bumper sticker reading:
HELLO FROM SODOM
. But the waitress's smile was kinder than most, and while Kristen expected a sneer, she just looked rueful. “Deputy DA Kristen Brock,” the waitress said, confirming what Kristen had already guessed: everyone knew everything in Tristess. She probably knew Kristen had killed the potted palm from the Chamber of Commerce. “You're looking for an apartment.”
“You're actually going to stay?”
“That's the plan.” Kristen touched the ads with the tip of her pen. “But this one had a bucket full of cat litter in the heating grate. This one smelled like a dirty diaper. This one had a hole in the bathroom wall. And this one had a live squirrel.”
“That's good eatin','” the waitress said, with a smile that said,
Believe that, and I'll tell you another.
She set her coffeepot down on the table and leaned over to look at the newspaper, her long curls almost brushing Kristen's hand. Kristen caught a whiff of perfume. She tried to lean away without looking like she was leaning away. The waitressâwhom Kristen had seen every day at breakfast and dinner for the past monthâwas the friendliest person she'd met in town, even if it was just her job to be nice to abhorrent out-of-towners.
“Try this one?” The waitress tapped an ad on the page.
“Rented,” Kristen said.
“There aren't a lot of nice places. Not the kind of places you're used to in the city.”
“There're some rough places in the city, too.”
“But you must make a bundle.”
“Hardly,” Kristen said.
“Not like on TV?”
Across the street, Kristen's current residence, the Almost Home Motel, looked like a postcard from the apocalypse, the faded sign flashing
on and off in the hot September sun.
“Nothing in my life is like TV,” Kristen said.
“I know that story. I live off Gulch Creek Road. It's not much, but if you're looking for a place and you don't mind something a little rusticâ¦”
Kristen leaned back so she could take in all of the woman's corn-fed tallness. In Portland, the waitress would have been a hipster, an ironic version of the person this woman actually was, a Roller Derby girl with some cowgirl pseudonym who bowled over smaller women on the track. The waitress was big, Kristen thought, but all that blond hair and those large breasts just made her size more of a good thing. The thirty pounds Kristen had put on during law school made her more of a humanoid pear. She felt a little twinge of jealousy, but the missing tooth and the woman's wry smile made her hard to dislike.
“The rent's cheap. Really. A couple hundred dollars and you chip in for utilities and a cord of wood in the winter, and we could call it even. My name's Marydale.”
A few tables over, Kristen saw one of the other waitresses watching them, her cherubic face registering both awe and disapproval.
“That's nice of you,” Kristen said. “But I'm looking forward to living alone. I've had my sister with me for years.”
“Of course,” Marydale said, and ducked her head as if remembering the missing tooth.
“I mean, it's notâ¦” Kristen didn't finish the sentence. Something about the way the waitress looked away made the refusal feel personal, and Kristen wanted to say,
It's not you.
But of course it wasn't her. Kristen was the one from Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the back of the diner, the chef hit the order-up bell.
“Marydale!” he called out. “If you wait long enough, this burger will get up and walk itself over to table four, but I don't think anyone wants to wait.”
“Sorry, hon. That's me.” Marydale picked up her coffeepot.
Kristen watched Marydale stride toward the kitchen until her phone vibrated on the table. Her sister, Sierra, had texted her a photograph. For a sickening second, Kristen thought it was a crime-scene photo: Sierra's pretty blond hair snarled around a blunt force trauma to the head. Only there was no blood, just a rat's nest of hair. The text below read,
I'm growing dreadlocks. I am the Lion of Judah.
Kristen typed the words,
You're white! How are you going to get a job?
Then she paused, deleted, and texted,
How are classes going, sweetie?
Marydale glided by her table on the way to another customer. Kristen waited for her to turn around and give her that smile that seemed to say,
Life! What are you going to do?
But she didn't, and Kristen tucked her phone into her briefcase and headed to work, stopping at the Arco Station to buy a Snickers bar to make up for the fleshy salad.