Anyone who tell you that they don’t mind going to jail is a goddamned liar. Oh, they’ll tell you how much of an OG they are. They’ll try and convince you how real they keep it. But what they won’t tell you is how they lay on their back on top of their cot ever night silently crying in the dark as they stare up at the ceiling. Praying that tonight isn’t the night a 300lb monster decides they have a pretty mouth. No, they won’t tell you that. Jail is Hell on earth. And just like Hell it’s filled with lost souls who have become demons. If you get a chance to find a way out of that Tartarus, you take it. Even if it’s just to go see your mama laid out at the funeral home. You cherish those few hours like you’re Persephone.
The Coldwater Correctional Facility van pulled up to the side door of a brick building that looked less like a mortuary and more like a bank. A short brother who hadn’t missed a meal since 2003 opened the side door and spoke to Officer Hardy. I watched them through the corrugated steel grate that covered my window. The brother was nodding like his head was on a spring. Officer Hardy came back to the van and Officer Martinez turned towards me.
“All right,Turner, you know the drill. You straight with us we gonna be straight with you," he said. As prison guards go Martinez was all right. Hardy was a piece of shit who probably jerked off to torture porn. I nodded. Hardy opened the sliding door then unlocked the inner cage door. Martinez stepped out and helped me navigate my way out the van. I was shackled at my ankles and my wrists. They hadn’t made me wear the waist chain because I hadn’t had any disciplinary issues in the last five years. That’s what passes as an accomplishment inside.
“Don’t freak out when you see your dead mama, Turner.” Hardy said.
All heart that guy is.
We walked into a large chapel that was muted browns and deep greens. Brown paneling on the walls. Green valances that ran along the edge of the ceiling. Dark green carpet. Sixty or seventy brown wooden chairs. There was a small wooden pulpit to the right. A huge picture of a redneck-looking white Jesus was hanging on the wall behind the pulpit.
In front of the pulpit in a gray doeskin casket was my mama.
The brother, who I assumed was the undertaker, closed the door behind us. Hardy turned to him while Martinez held me by the arm.
“Just so we’re clear, there are no other family members here, correct?” Hardy asked.
“No sir. We followed your instructions,” the undertaker said.
“Okay. You got an hour Turner,” Hardy said. Martinez let go of my arm. I took a deep breath. At first, I couldn’t move. My feet didn’t want to work. I looked down at the rug. It’s so dark and green it reminds me of grass. I haven’t walked on grass in fifteen years. Do you know how unnatural that is? I ain’t no granola-eating non-bathing vegan hippie but even I know people are not meant to lose that connection to the earth. I think that’s why some people inside go crazy. They’re untethered from the world. if you were like me you’re never going to feel the grass beneath your feet again. I’m doing an all-day bid. Big time. Life.
“Go ahead, Turner.” Martinez whispered.
I took a few steps forward. My sister Wanda had made all the arrangements. I’m a little surprised she put her in such a cheap casket. Not for nothing, but doeskin is the human equivalent of burying a cat in a shoe box.
There is a sickly-sweet aroma coming from the coffin. Like strawberries that have gone bad. After a little while I recognize it. It’s the cheap perfume my mama used to bathe herself in before heading out to a juke joint called Sharkey’s with my father. When I was a kid it was the only place in our small southern town that catered to black folks. Every weekend they would leave me to watch Wanda while they went down to Sharkey’s. They would come back stinking of liquor and bad decisions. Sometimes they came back kissing and sometimes they came back fighting like a pair of wild dogs.
I don’t want to look at her. But I need to make sure she’s dead.
I peer into the box. She’s lost a lot of weight. The cancer has ravaged her body like a wildfire. It’s devoured the curves she was so proud of. Her breasts are two hard cupcakes under a pink blouse. Her hands are crossed at her waist. Her face is slack like she’s sleeping off a good drunk. I know what I’m supposed to feel. My mama is dead, and I’m supposed to be overcome with grief. But all I feel is a dull sense of relief. You want the long story? You won’t get it from me. I’ll give you the Cliff's Notes version. One night my mama stabbed my daddy and my dumb fifteen-year-old ass took the blame.
She said the police wouldn’t believe it had been self-defense. They had a history of violence. A long history.
“But if you tell them you did it, Javon, they’ll just think you was defending me. They won’t send me to jail and we won’t get split up. We all we got,” she’d said to me as we sat on the floor near my daddy’s still-warm body. A butcher knife stuck out of his chest like a flagpole. When I was fifteen her plan had made perfect sense. What could go wrong?
Everything, that’s what. I got charged as an adult by an overzealous prosecutor who had his eye on the governor’s mansion. It took the jury less than an hour to give me 25-to-life.
I ran my finger along her cheek. Her skin felt like candle wax.
The bible tells you to honor your mama and your father. But that big book of fairy tales doesn’t tell you what to do when your mother gets you locked up on a murder bid. The first two years I was inside I stuck to the story. She assured me I’d get parole. I told myself I had to protect my mama. During my first appeal I kept my mouth shut. It was like I could see a floating neon sign above the judge’s head that said, “PROTECT YOUR MAMA”.
On the anniversary of my third year inside I got a letter from my sister. I hadn’t heard from my mama in months. Wanda told me how CPS had put her in a foster home because our mama’s new boyfriend couldn’t keep his hands to himself. She also told me how my mom had collected on a life insurance policy for my daddy. She and her new boyfriend had moved into a brand new double-wide and were driving around town in a new truck.
I vomited in my cell after I finished reading her letter. I called my lawyer and told her everything. She filed a new appeal and this time I told the truth. And guess what? Nobody gave a fuck. Not the cops. Not the prosecutor who was now the governor. Least of all my mama, who was now married to her touchy-feely boyfriend.
As I stood next to the casket I felt the tears begin to fall. My whole body started to shake. I raised my head and looked at the picture of Gregg Allman Jesus. Where was he when a tiny fifteen-year-old boy was shoved into a cage full of beasts? I looked down at my mama again. She was wearing a pink blazer to go along with her pink blouse. Attached to the lapel of her blazer was a large papier-mache rose. I recognized that rose. It wasn’t a brooch. It was a hat pin that my mother used as a lapel decoration. She never wore hats. She liked showing off her long black hair that she swore came from our indigenous ancestry.
I stared at that pin for a long time.
They are never going to let me go. My appeals ran out a long time ago. I’d given up my freedom for a woman who played me like a fiddle. A woman who had abandoned me in life. Maybe in death she could rescue me. Raise me from the depths of perdition on the petals of a rose.
I collapsed onto my mother’s body. Hardy and Martinez didn’t notice. They were busy debating the questionable outcome of last night’s football game. My fingers danced over her chest. I slipped the pin under the handcuff on my left wrist. My orange jumpsuit two sizes too big for me. The sleeves nearly came down to my fingertips. I straightened up and turned to face Hardy and Martinez.
“Hey yo, I’m ready,” I said.
“You sure, Turner?” Martinez asked me. I heard he was a single dad of two little girls. Hardy is an ass at work, but I know he’s big into the Knights of Columbus because he talks about it all the damn time. I push that shit out of my mind. I make myself go blank.
Hardy went to tell the undertaker we’re leaving. Martinez took a position behind me. Hardy came back and opened the door. He had his back to me. I let the hat pin slip into my hand. Somewhere deep in my heart I hear the boy I used to be whisper “no.”
But I’m doing this for him. For us.
I whirl around and stab Martinez in the eye. Eight inches of cheap steel slides through his eyeball and into his brain. It feels like I’m skewering a gum drop. I hear a soft gelatinous pop as I pull out the pin. Martinez stumbles backwards before crumpling to the floor. Hardy spins around. His eyes are as wide as dinner plates as he reaches for his gun. He’s too slow. I leap forward and shove the pin into his throat just under his double chin. I shove him back against the door and it shuts with a bang. I pull out the pin and blood spews everywhere. Hardy puts both his hands on the wound but the blood seeps between his fingers. He slides down the door still clutching his throat. I grab the keys and unlock my restraints. I take Hardy’s gun out of the holster just as the undertaker is peeping in the chapel.
“Give me your clothes and your car keys,” I say. He nods enthusiastically.
He is one nodding motherfucker.
I lock him in a storage closet in the back of the mortuary. I put on his suit and leave through the front door. I never learned how to tie a necktie, so I leave it behind. I hop in the undertaker’s Caddy. I silently thank my cousin Tay for teaching me to drive the summer before my daddy died.
After some fiddling I lower the window and turn on the radio. I don’t recognize the song but that’s all right. I hit the gas and leave the Coldwater Prison van in my rearview mirror. I know I won’t get far. I know I probably won’t make it out of this alive. But it doesn’t matter right now. All I want to do is find a nice big field. I want to kick off these Sunday shoes and walk across that field barefoot. Feel the cool grass beneath my feet. Feel like I’m home.
At least for a little while.