Saving Sarah

By Dein Sofley

You meet Mary after they confiscate all of your personal stuff then tell you to bend over and spread your ass cheeks apart while they look for contraband. Here’s what you give up: lip gloss, three dollars, eighty-seven cents, a matchbook from the FlatIron lounge, denim shorts, a Coke stained Kansas City T-shirt, your dignity and your name. In return, you get a pair of elastic waist white cotton panties, blue scrubs, athletic socks, slip on sneakers, and an inmate number. They take your picture and fingerprints.

“Smile,” your booking mate, Stella, says. “Smile.”

You laugh a little still trying to act tough when the flashbulb bursts and tiny yellow lights dance in your face. You think of the glare against the windshield as you drove across New Mexico with your bare brown feet thumping on the dash singing Born to Run with Sarah over miles of open road leading you home.

Stella’s still laughing when they put you in a six-by-six holding-tank with two junkies that slur sexual epitaphs at the guards.

“Give them hell,” Stella says, high on methamphetamines, inviting misfortune. She is your muse.

You put your head to your chest and run your fingers through your hair for comfort. Try to stay cool. You look up and lock eyes with the one sitting across from you. Rashes run in herds around scabs on her cheeks and chin. She handpicks each one. And you can’t help but stare because you were never so close to mapping tragedy as you are right now, looking at her face.

“Fuck you,” she says, and looks the other way.

“Collect call,” Stella says into the payphone, standing between the junkie and the door.

“Collect.” Her hips sway back-and-forth while she speaks, head tossing her small, bird face side to side. Big green-eyes hang heavy, too close to her nose.

“Hey Stevie, baby. Yeah, I’ll be out in two days. Of course, I’m being a good girl. Aren’t I always a good girl? A naughty girl?” She laughs.

You look out the bullet proof glass toward bookings. Eight women face forward, toes touching a worn red painted line outside the door. One of them is twitching. It’s past midnight. Everyone wants sleep.

You sit in the harsh blue wash of fluorescent light with your back pressed against the brick wall and bite your fingernails. They taste like iodine from the hospital where you stayed overnight. You look around. Everything is muted.

You think of Sarah, can see her bubblegum pink toes flashing in the sunlight by the motel pool while she signed postcards addressed to Troy, and you think about the interstate highway that’s led you here, to this prison, on this night after twenty-three years of freedom and how a lot of people say that life’s strange, a long and winding road, but you think it’s more like a stretch. Providence.

Early that morning, in the dark, a police officer wakes you, tells you to follow her. One hand rests on her gun. Here’s what your Uncle told you about prison: There you’re no better than the illiterate Cuban whore. Be respectful. Be humble. Keep your eyes forward. Never collaborate. Never stare. And fight. Fight hard.

He knew, dealt cocaine, got arrested, served four years in the state pen. Your Aunt, his wife, Sarah’s mother, is dead. Shot in the head during a police raid. Sarah still looks like her mother. Sarah still looks the same. Uncle Bob looks tired and weighted, stuffed with all the dreams he let die or suffocated.

You walk through a maze of corridors, into and out of an elevator, around another circle, down hallways, past two doors and another. You carry a green, fire-retardant mat and a cardboard box large enough to case a microwave oven, light enough to know that it’s not. Stella’s gone.

“Pod B,” says the officer. You follow her index finger. It points past a steel door. She goes, “Bunk 22,” orders you on.

You tip toe with no certain direction into the dingy gray light, past several metal frame beds. You stop and squint to read the black adhesive numbers on each one. There’s numbers on the cell doors too. Locked beige metal where you’re not welcome.

You hold your breath to wake no one. You fear their faces. Fear what monsters wait for you in the dark.

“Anyone got some Tylenol?” Someone says in the shadows. You think of what’s rattling around inside the cardboard box: a roll of toilet paper, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap, a hand towel, a comb, a flannel nightgown, white cotton panties, a pencil, the inmate handbook, booking papers, and two tabs of Tylenol.

You take the pills to Mary, but you don’t know her name, not yet. You look into her dark eyes for a second. They’re big, tender, decent, downcast. You feel hope. She takes the pills. Her fingers touch the palm of your hand. You want to hold onto the warmth a minute longer, you want, but when she grabs them, turns away to say, “Thank you, ma’am,” it’s gone.

The first bang came over your shoulder from the right rear tire and Sarah screamed. You shoved the wheel to the left and spun the tail end of the car into an oncoming semi headed for Ohio—airbags bursting, soda cans bursting, cylinders bursting, something bursting behind your eyes, bits of glass spray in the blue sky, Sarah screaming. Sarah screaming. Bang! And again. Sarah stopped.

You tried putting pieces of her back together—Sarah, your sweet Sarah—strewn across the highway, blond hairs wrapped around tire, but there were too many parts missing, so you crossed the yellow line and walked into the desert, not sure how, not sure why, blood streaming down your face, the bottom of your bare feet graded, an anvil on your head, your eyes burning, tears burning, a sun burning so bright and savage that not even the shadows could shade its light.

“Wake up for chow ladies! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” A speaker box says.

You look around the room, dazed. There are other women dressed in blue scrubs, like you, standing in line for food.

You have to pee, but you’re afraid to pull your pants down in front of more strangers so you wait. Wait in line for chorizo and eggs that you give to Mary. You drink the coffee with milk and meet Janie, the late arrival, in Bunk 21, then Terry, Heather, Mary, and Joan. They start to ask questions. Some you can’t answer. Others you remedy with a slur of indifference. Say it as though you robbed a convenience store, stabbed a security guard, smoked crack, lived in the streets and got the shit kicked out of you over and over again. You say it like it’s nothing, so they will have you.

Sarah has you. You love Sarah. It hurts to remember Sarah in your car and Sarah in the summer and in the Pizza Hut crossing Gallup, happy, in love, her deft hands rolling cigarette after cigarette tamed by her tongue. You heard her laughing late at night talking to Troy on the phone, heard her snoring after and woke up to watch her drool meet the pillow, her eyes flutter, asleep. You kissed her then, gently, on the forehead, goodnight.

“I’m here on possession,” Heather says. “I was livin’ in a van that belonged to a pusher for a while. It was better than livin’ on the streets. I gave him head. He gave me a snack. We shared a few STDs.”

“Pill call ladies! Lineup for pill call!” The speaker box says. Heather gets her Paxil. You see Mary standing in line for the payphone, wants to talk to her children. Calls her sister collect.

“Lockdown! Lockdown! Everybody to your bunks!” Speaker box says. Feet shuffle to bunks. You fall asleep until speaker box says it’s chow time again. This time you give your grub to pregnant Martha.

There are thirty-one women in Pod B. Twenty-seven have been here before. Twenty-two drug addicts, eighteen mothers, two pregnant. Martha will give birth in jail. They meet, braiding hair, writing letters, playing cards on bunkbeds and at tables, eating Fritos from the commissary. It’s so human to need other people.

“I want Deputy Stewart,” Heather says.

“Girls are fools, always kissing on each other, never knowing whose germs they got, being anybody’s bitch,” Mary says.

“I’m not gay!” Heather yells. “It’s more about how a person captivates you. Their smarts.”

“My ass!” Mary says. “I don’t want no jive talking man after twelve years of living with a fifty-four-year-old fool. No more dick!”

Today is the Sabbath. You go to chapel with Janie and Deborah. You need something to pass the time, maybe Jesus. Two white provincial soccer moms greet you. You hold hands and pray. Deborah thanks God for passing the GED, asks him to heal her heart, her daddy. She smears the Covergirl mascara running down her cheeks, misguided fingers leave marks.

Your mother was a Covergirl model. She died when you were twelve. You sit up at night trying to find her face in pictures, but you can’t see her at all, just the makeup that she was wearing. Sometimes you’ll get a glimpse of her hand, the freckles on her arm, her soft breasts, her painted brown. Sometimes you can almost touch her. Almost.

Usually it’s somewhere in between. You see a smile she gave you in the mirror, the smile she gave everyone, and then it’s gone. See the big diamond ring sparkling on her frail finger. See it shiny as she trembles, IV fluids rushing into her veins, her deep blue eyes inching out, her mouth open, dry tongue trying to sound words outs. Then she disappears and all you can see is the white wall. And the ring.

The wedding ring was kept in a safe deposit box until you turned eighteen. Then you asked your Aunt to keep it. She cried and put the ring on her finger. Wore it until she and Uncle Bob moved to Las Vegas. Then it got lost, or stolen, or sold before the police came and accidentally shot her. Lost with the letters your mother wrote you and your baby album. Lost with the fading affections of your long-gone drunk father.

When you were eighteen, you left home. Thought that somethings might always be missing. Thought that somehow it was all your fault. That’s when Sarah said, “Bullshit. You were just a kid. A good kid. Our parents fucked up.”

And with Sarah you were always good enough. You didn’t need to be clever or chaste as long as you were honest, as long as she believed that you were good then you did too.

You hear Janie’s voice humming, saying everything the ladies do. She prays when she really wants vodka.

You find yourself running through a California meadow. A meadow that will cultivate tract homes. You’re twelve years old. You learned to ride a bike on the cul-de-sac near here. Scraped your knees hitting a parked car, then the asphalt. You’ve seen vacation resorts in lush tropical places with your mom and dad. Touched black and white sand. Skied Snow Valley for Christmas when you were five. Tasted icicles there for the first time. Tried to bring one home in your pocket. Wet is all it was.

Dad was an angry drunk. So, you went to boarding school for four years. You can read, do algebra, speak Spanish, a little French, know American and some European history, play volleyball, basketball, swim, observe Christian and Jewish holidays and even though you were raised without religion, when you were nine, you read the Old Testament with a flashlight in bed alone at night. You keep trying to understand.

You’ve learned that everybody has different ideas about how to live life and that most people aren’t really paying attention anyhow. They’re watching television. You’ve learned a lot of people do judge on appearance and that people who say they’re smart really aren’t. You’ve learned that people who ride the bus sometimes aren’t poor, but come from big cities or foreign countries. You’ve learned having lots of money only makes you want more. You’ve learned that every white lie is made to prevent a little hurt and every hurt is made worse by a little white lie. But you’ve told so many to save yourself.

You’re twelve years old in that meadow, a long way away from prison, when someone sees your ugly hurt and assures you you’re good.

The afternoon breeze smells of ragweed and tar hardening the tears on your cheeks. A rolly-polly bumps into an ant trudging through the wild grass at your feet. An abandoned tractor waits at the lea’s periphery. Car engines drone past in the distance. You remember everything about that day because it’s when your mom died and Sarah came to stay.

“I’m so sorry,” Sarah said when she found you crouching in the tall grass.

You thought if you hid there long enough everything would go back to the way it was, that you could go home and find your mom still in curlers, sitting cross-legged on the floor, humming Neil Diamond songs, folding Tide scented clothes.

Sarah’s hand rested on your back. Warm weight against your spine, against your softening bruised heart. She stroked the hair off your stiff cheeks. The scent of the cookie dough you ate for breakfast still on her fingers. Then she wrapped her arms around you, held you tight and whispered, “I love you,” with an aching in her voice.

“Bad boys. Bad boys. Whatchu gonna do? Whatchu gonna do when they come for you?” All the girls in Pod B sing the theme song to their favorite show.

You look away from a chase scene and see Mary on the phone with her daughter. You hear her voice, her need, her longing, over the song. Next on, America’s Most Wanted, but the TV always turns off before nine.

Later, you sit on your bunk and listen to Mary read a letter from her husband, Truman.

Dear Mary,

I’m sorry things went the way they did. I wish I never asked you to take the blame for what I done. I just wanted to make things right for Dominique and little Mary. I wanted to give them a good life. Stuff we never had. I didn’t know no other way. But, I’m gonna make things right. Don’t you worry none, baby. I’m gonna to make things right. I’ll take real good care of the girls while you’re gone. I’m sorry for what I done. Everything’s gonna be okay though, I promise.

I love you.

Mary folds the letter, wipes the tears from her eyes and says, “Goddamn stupid ass Truman! That ol’ nigga could never get things right. Went right around all right. Right around and died four weeks later. Heart attack my ass! Dumb ol’ fool left me here. No money. And my babies with people I don’t like.” She starts to cry, gets mad at Truman. “Stupid ass fool.”

You lay your head down on the pillow to sleep, but you think about what Truman wrote—little white lies to save love. You wonder if he knew, if he had any idea that he would die soon.

Your mother died, but you never imagined life without Sarah. You were twenty-two when you planned the road trip you would take across country after you graduated college, before she and Troy would marry. Over Interstate 40, through California, Arizona and New Mexico, then up to Colorado, Wyoming Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey on Interstate 80, across the turnpike to Manhattan, then back home.

After eight thousand, sixty-two miles in the car Sarah says, “Where’s the Cheetos?”

You looked up from Salinger, ahead, into the distance. Irritated, you looked at her. She looked at you. You went “humph,” unbuckled your seatbelt, put the book down and reached over the driver seat, tossing aside CDs, magazines, notebooks, a sweatshirt, a Yankees hat, a six-pack of soda and shells of sunflower seeds to find them. You put the bag in the center consul, near the e-break. Postcards for Troy, safely tucked under it.

“Could you hand me a Coke too?” Sarah said, just as you picked your book back up. You glared at her this time.

“Don’t start with me, Alexandra. You and your humph.” She said your name. That’s your name, Alexandra. You got a thrill hearing her say it when she was mad. Her face contorted by a grimace.

You couldn’t help laughing. Sarah started laughing. You grabbed a can of Coke and shook it up fast. Opened the top and let it spray all over the both of you. Sticky, caramel coating on the windshield and the dash, on Salinger, the seats and your skin.

Sarah was still laughing when you took a swig of Coke and it shot out your nose. A gushing brown liquid stream fell over your chin and down your Kansas City T-shirt, as the hot wind rushed into the car, whipping the ends of your long hair into Sarah’s and she was looking at you, and laughing, strands of her hair in her teeth and she was seeing you—really seeing you. Nobody, not since your mother, has ever done that. Nobody.

And The Boss was singing his heart out on the radio and Sarah leans over to turn it up, her face an inch from yours, her hair hitting your mouth, her voice getting louder at the chorus and she says, “Take the wheel.” So, you reach your hands around her to steer and she reaches her arms up through the sunroof to hoist herself up into the open air. You feel the coarse hair on her unshaven calves brush up against your arms as she rises. You look up while she’s dancing. You see her long blonde hair twirling in the amber light and feel as though your heart’s about to burst because you’re happy, happier than you’ve ever been. Looking up at Sarah, you see an angel. You’re laughing and Sarah’s singing. Laughing and singing so loud that you can’t hear the wind. Laughing and singing so loud that your bones vibrate. Laughing, looking up, and singing so loud that you can’t hear the horn. Laughing and singing when the back tire bursts and sets the car spinning. Laughing when Sarah screams.

You watch her body fly across the orange twilight, pink peonies on her sundress rustling against the wind, see her flip-flop-fall in another direction, the gold heart bracelet that Troy gave her shimmer in the sun, smell burnt rubber in the air, jasmine perfume and cheesy corn on the empty seat beside you and scream, “Sarah,” just as the car crashes into an oncoming semi and her body hurls through the truck’s wide windshield. Tiny bits of blood and glass spray the sky just before the world is turned upside down and black.

You open your eyes and feel a burning sensation in your skull. Something in your head must’ve come on done. You breathe, but it hurts too much to speak.

The highway patrol found you walking west, just outside of Winslow on Interstate 40, two days later. They asked you a few questions, then took you to a nearby hospital for treatment. They knew it was your car they found ninety-seven miles back. Sarah forgot to tell you about the ten pounds of cocaine she stashed in the trunk, under the spare tire. She didn’t want you to know. It was a favor for her dad. You don’t care. You just want to keep walking.

The police came and asked you more questions. Some you can’t answer. Others you remedy with a slur of indifference. No more white lies. You just want to keep walking, to feel your heart beating. It’s all you can do to stay alive, but they put you in handcuffs and took you to prison. You met a lawyer, but you don’t understand what he says. Don’t care. All of your family’s missing, long-gone, or dead.

And then you met Mary, hurt, and started to hope again. Hope that maybe the Tylenol will take her pain away. Hope that maybe if you go back to sleep, hope that if your heart’s beating, there will still be time to save Sarah.


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