They can’t shave their heads every day like they wish
they could, so their tattoos show through stubble. Little black hairs like iron
filings stuck on magnets. Big roundhead fool magnets.
The Chicano fools have gang names on the sides of their
skulls. The white fools have swastikas. The Vietnamese fools have writing I
can’t read. And the black fools—if they’re too dark, they
can’t have anything on their heads. Maybe on the lighter skin at their
chest, or the inside of the arm.
Where I sit for the morning shift at my window, I can see my
nephew in his line, heading to the library. Square-head light-skinned fool like
my brother. Little dragon on his skull. Nothing in his skull. Told me it was
cause he could breathe fire if he had to. ALFONSO tattooed on his arm.
“What, he too gotdamn stupid to remember his own
name?” my godfather said when he saw it. “Gotta look down by his
elbow every few minutes to check?”
Two names on his collarbone: twins. Girls. EGYPT and MOROCCO.
Seventeen and he’s got kids. He’s in here for eight years. Riding in
the car when somebody did a drive-by. Backseat. Law say same as pulling the
Ten o’clock. They line up for shift between classes and
voc ed. Dark blue backs like fool dominoes. Shuffling boots. Fred and I stand in
the doorway, hands on our belts, watching. From here, seeing all those heads
with all those blue-green marks like bruises, looks like everybody got beat up
big time. Reyes and Michaels and the other officers lead their lines past the
central guard station, and when the wards get closer, you can see all the other
tattoos. Names over their eyebrows, teardrops on their cheeks, words on their
necks, letters on their fingers.
One Chicano kid has PERDóNEME MI ABUELITA in fancy
cursive on the back of his neck. Sorry my little grandma. I bet that makes her
feel much better.
When my nephew shuffles by, he grins and says softly,
“Hey, Auntie Clarette.”
I want to slap the dragon off the side of his stupid skull.
Fred says, “How’s your fine friend Tika? The one
with green eyes?”
I roll my brown eyes. “Contacts, okay?”
I didn’t tell him I saw Tika last night, at Lincoln
Elementary. “How can you work at the youth prison? All those young
brothers incarcerated by the system?” That’s what Tika said to me at
Back-to-School Night. “Doesn’t it hurt you to be there?”
“Y’all went to college together, right?”
“Mmm-hmm.” Except she’s teaching
African-American studies there now, and I married Ray. He quit football and
started drywalling with his uncle.
“Ray went with y’all, too, didn’t he? Played
ball till he blew out his knee?”
The wind’s been steady for three days now, hot fall
blowing all the tumbleweeds across the empty fields out here, piling them up
against the chain-link until it looks like hundreds of heads to me. Big-ass
naturals from the seventies, when I squint and look toward the east. Two wards
come around the building and I’m up. “Where you going?”
The Chicano kid grins. “TB test.”
He flashes it, and I see the nurse’s signature. The
blister on his forearm looks like a quarter somebody slid under the skin. Whole
place has TB so bad we gotta get tested every week. My forearm’s dotted
with marks like I’m a junkie.
I lift up my chin. I feel like a guy when I do it, but
it’s easier than talking sometimes. I don’t want to open my mouth.
“Go ahead,” Fred calls out to them.
“Like you got up and looked.”
Fred lifts his eyebrows at me. “Okay, Miss
It’s like a piece of hot link burning in my throat.
“Shut the fuck up, Fred.” That’s what Michaels and Reyes
always say to him. I hear it come out like that, and I close my eyes. When I get
home now, and the kids start their homework, I have to stand at the sink and
wash my hands and change my mouth. My spit, everything, I think. Not a prayer.
More like when you cool down after you run. I watch the water on my knuckles and
think: No TB, no cussing, no meds. Because a couple months after I started at
Youth Authority, I would holler at the kids, “Take your
Flintstones, Mama, Danae would say.
Fred looks up at the security videos. “Tika still
She has a gallery downtown, and she was at the school to show
African art. She said to me, “Doesn’t it hurt your soul? How can you
I didn’t say anything at first. I was watching Ray Jr.
talk to his teacher. He’s tall now, fourth grade, and he smells different
to me when he wakes up in the morning.
I told Tika, “I work seven to three. I’m home when
the kids get off the bus. I have bennies.”
She just looked at me.
“Benefits.” I didn’t say the rest. Most of
the time now Ray stays at his cousin Lafayette’s house. He hasn’t
worked for a year. He and Lafayette say construction is way down, and when
somebody is building, Mexican drywallers get all the business in Rio
When I got this job, Ray got funny. He broke dishes, washing
them. He wrecked clothes, washing them. He said, “That ain’t a
man—that’s a man’s job.” He started staying out with
Tika said, “Doesn’t it hurt you inside to see the
For my New Year’s resolution I told myself: Silence is
golden. At work, cause me talking just reminds them I’m a woman. With Ray
and my mother and everyone else except my kids. I looked at Tika’s
lipstick, and I shouted in my head: I make thirty-five grand a year! I’ve
got bennies now! Ray never had health care, and Danae’s got asthma. I
don’t get to worry about big stuff like you do, cause I’m worrying
about big stuff like I do. Pay the bills, put gas in the van, buy groceries. Ray
Jr. eats three boxes of Cheerios every week, okay?
“Fred Harris works there. And J.C. and Marcus and
Tika says, “Prison is the biggest growth industry in
California. They’re determined to put everyone of color behind a
Five days a week, I was thinking, I drive past the chain-link
fence and past J.C. at the guard gate. Then Danae ran up to me with a book. They
had a book sale at Back-to-School Night. Danae wanted an American Girl
Tika walked away. I went to the cash register. Five days a
week, I park my van and walk into the walls. But they’re fences with
barbed wire and us watching. Everything. Every face.
“Nobody in the laundry?” I ask, and Fred shakes
his head. Laundry is where they’ve been fighting this week. Black kid got
his head busted open Friday in there, and we’re supposed to watch the
screens. The bell rings, and we get up to stand in the courtyard for period
change. We can hear them coming from the classrooms, doors slamming and all
those boots thumping on the asphalt. The wind moving their stiff pants around
their ankles, it’s so hard right now. I watch their heads. Every day
it’s a scuffle out here, and we’re supposed to listen to who’s
yelling, or worse, talking that quiet shit that sets it off.
All the damn heads look the same to me, when I’m out
here with my stick down by my side. Light ones like Alfonso and the Chicano kids
and the Vietnamese, all golden brown. Dark little guys, some Filipino, even, and
then the white kids, almost green they’re so pale. But all the tattoos
like scabs. Numbers over their eyebrows and FUCK YOU inside their lips when they
pull them down like clowns.
The wind whips through them and they all squint but
don’t move. My head is hurting at the temples, from the dust and wind and
no sleep. Laundry. The wards stay in formation, stop and wait, boots shining
like dark foreheads. I hear muttering and answers and shit-talking in the back,
but nobody starts punching. Then the bell rings and they march off.
“Youngblood. Stop the mouth,” Fred calls from
behind me. He talks to the wards all the time. Old school. Luther
Vandross-loving and hair fading back like the tide at the beach—only
forty-two, but acts like he’s a grandpa from the South. “Son, if
you’da thought about what you were doing last year, you wouldn’t be
stepping past me this year.” They look at him like they want to spit in
his face. “Son, sometimes what the old people say is the gospel truth, but
you wasn’t in church to hear.” They would knock him in the head if
they could. “Son, you’re only sixteen, but you’re gonna have
to go across the street before you know it, you keep up that
Across the street is Chino. Men’s Correctional Facility.
The wards laugh and sing back to Fred like they’re Snoop Doggy Dogg:
“I’m on my way to Chino, I see no, reason to cry . .
He says, “Lord knows Mr. Dogg ain’t gonna be there
when you are.”
The Chicano kids talk Spanish to Reyes, and he looks back at
them like a statue wearing shades. The big guy, Michaels, used to play football
with Ray. He has never looked into my face since I got here. My nephew knows who
he is. He says, “Come on, Michaels, show a brotha love, Michaels. Lemme
have a cigarette. You can’t do that for a brotha, man?
Alfonso thinks this is a big joke. A vacation. Training for
life. His country club.
I don’t say a damn thing when he winks at me. I watch
them walk domino lines to class and to the kitchen and the laundry and the
field. SLEEPY and SPOOKY and DRE DOG and SCOOBY and G DOG and MONSTER all
tattooed on their arms and heads and necks. Like a damn kennel. Nazis with
spiderwebs on their elbows, which is supposed to mean they killed somebody dark.
Asians with spidery writing on their arms, and I don’t know what that
“I’ma get mines, all I gotta say, Auntie
Clarette,” my nephew always said when he was ten or eleven. “I
ain’t workin all my life for some shitty car and a house. I’ma get
I can’t help it. Not supposed to look out for him, but
when they change, when they’re in the cafeteria, I watch him. I
don’t say anything to him. But I keep seeing my brother in his fool
forehead, my brother and his girlfriend in their apartment, nothing but a couch
and a TV. Always got something to drink, though, and plenty weed.
Swear Alfonso might think he’s better off here. Three
hots and a cot, the boys say.
We watch the laundry screens, the classrooms, and I
don’t say anything to Fred for a long time. I keep thinking about
Danae’s reading tonight, takes twenty minutes, and then I can wash a load
of jeans and pay the bills.
“Chow time, baby,” Fred says, pushing it. Walking
behind me when we line everybody up. They all mumbling, like a hundred little
air conditioners, talking shit to each other. Alfonso’s lined up with his
new homeys, lips moving steady as a cartoon. I know the words are brushing the
back of the heads in line, the Chicano kids from the other side of Rio Seco, and
I walk over with my stick. “Move,” I say, and the sweaty foreheads
go shining past like windshields in a traffic jam.
“Keep moving,” I say louder.
Alfonso grins. My brother said, Take care my boy, Clarette.
It’s on you.
No, I want to holler back at him. You had seventeen years to
take care of him. Why I gotta do your job? How am I supposed to make sure he
don’t get killed? I feel all the feet pounding the asphalt around me and I
stand in the shade next to Fred, tell him “Shut up” real soft, soft
as Alfonso still talking yang in the line.
I have a buzzing in my head. Since I got up at five to do two
loads of laundry and make a hot breakfast and get the kids ready for school.
When I get home, I start folding the towels and see the bus stop at the corner.
I wait for the kids to come busting in, but all the voices fade away down the
street like little radios. Where are these kids? I go out on the porch and the
sidewalk’s empty, and my throat fills up again like that spicy
meat’s caught. Ray Jr. knows to meet Danae at her classroom. The
teacher’s supposed to make sure they’re on the bus. Where the hell
I get back in the van and head toward the school, and on Palm
Avenue I swear I see Danae standing outside the barbershop, waving at me when
I’m stopped at the light.
“Mama!” she calls, holding a cone from the Dairy
Queen next door. “Mama!”
The smell of aftershave coats my teeth. And Ray Jr.’s in
the chair, his hair’s on the tile floor like rain clouds.
My son. His head naked, a little nick on the back of his
skull, when he sees me and ducks down. Where someone hit him with a rock last
year in third grade. The barber rubs his palms over Ray Jr.’s skin and it
“Wax him up, man,” Ray says, and I move on him
fast. His hair under my feet, too, I see now, lighter and straighter. Brown
clouds. The ones with no rain.
“How could you?” I try to whisper, but I
can’t whisper. Not after all day of hollering, not stepping on all that
The barber, old guy I remember from football games, said,
“The look, baby. Everybody wants the look. You always
working on Danae’s hair, and Ray-Ray’s was looking ragged.”
Ray lifts both hands, fingers out, like he always does. Like it’s a damn
sports movie and he’s the ref. Exaggerated. “Hey, I thought I was
helping you out.”
I heard the laughing in his mouth. “Like Mike, baby.
Like Ice Cube. The look. He said some punks was messin with him at
I go outside and look at Ray Jr.’s head through the
grimy glass. I can’t touch his skull. Naked. How did it get that naked
means tough? Naked like when they were born. When I was laying there, his head
laced with blood and wax.
My head pounding when I put it against the glass, and I feel
Danae’s sticky fingers on my elbow. “Mama, I got another book at
school today. Sheep in a Jeep.”
When we were done reading, she fell asleep. My head hurt like
a tight swim cap. I went into Ray Jr.’s room and felt the slickness of the
In the morning I’m so tired my hands are shaking when I
comb Danae’s hair. “Pocahontas braids,” she says, and I feel
my thumbs stiff when I twist the ties on the ends. I stare at my own forehead,
all the new hair growing out, little explosions at my temples. Bald. Ray’s
bald now. We do braids and curls or Bone Strait and half the day in the salon,
and they don’t even comb theirs? Big boulder heads and dents all in the
bone, and that’s supposed to look good?
I gotta watch all these wards dressed in dark blue work
outfits, baggy-ass pants, big old shirts, and then get home and all the kids in
the neighborhood are wearing dark blue Dickies; Ray is wearing dark blue Dickies
and a Big Dog shirt.
Like my friend Saronn says, “They wear that, and
I’m supposed to wear stretch pants and a sports bra and high heels? Give
me a break.”
Buzzing in my head. Grandmere said we all got the pressure,
inherited. Says I can’t have salt or coffee, but she doesn’t have to
eat lunch here or stay awake looking at screens. Get my braids done this
weekend, feels like my scalp has stubbles and they’re turned inside poking
Here sits Fred across from me, still combs his hair even
though it looks like a black cap pushed way too far back on his head. He’s
telling me I need to come out to the Old School club with him and J.C. and
Beverly sometime. They play Cameo and the Bar-Kays. “Your Love Is Like the
“What you do for Veterans Day? Kids had the day off,
right?” he says.
“I worked an extra shift. My grandmere took the kids to
the cemetery.” I drink my coffee. Metal like the pot. Not like my
grandmere’s coffee, creole style with chicory. She took the kids to see
her husband’s grave, in the military cemetery. She told Danae about World
War II and all the men that died, and Danae came home crying about all the
bodies under the ground where they’d walked.
Six—they cry over everything. Everything is scary. I
worked the extra shift to pay off my dishwasher. Four hundred dollars at Circuit
City. Plus installation.
I told Ray Jr., “Oh, yeah, you gonna load this thing.
Knives go in like this. Plates like this.”
He said, “Why you yelling, Mama? I see how to do it. I
did it at Grandmere’s before. Ain’t no big thing. I like the way
they get loaded in exactly the same every time. I just don’t let Daddy
He grinned. I wanted to cry.
“Used piano in the paper cost $500.
“What the hell is that?” Ray said on the phone.
Hadn’t come by since the barber.
I tried to think. “The kind against the wall, I guess.
Baby grand is real high.”
“For Ray Jr. Fooled around on the piano at school, and
now he wants to play like his grandpere did in Baton Rouge.”
Ray’s voice got loud. “Uh-uh. You on your own
there. Punks hear he play the piano, they gon kick his ass. Damn,
I can get louder now, since YA. “Oh, yeah. He looks like
Ice Cube, nobody’s gonna mess with him. All better, right? Damn you,
I slam the phone down so hard the back cracks. Cheap purple
Target cordless. $15.99.
Next day I open the classifieds on the desk across from Fred
and start looking. Uprights. Finish my iron coffee. Then I hear one of the wards
singing, “Three strikes you’re out, tell me what you gonna
Nate Dogg. That song. “Never Leave Me Alone.”
This ward has a shaved black head like a bowling ball, a voice
like church. “Tell my son all about me, tell him his daddy’s sorry .
Shows us his pass at the door. “Yeah, you sorry all
right,” Fred says.
The ward’s face changes all up. “Not really, man.
Mamere used to say, “Old days, the men go off to the
army. Hard time, let me tell you. They go off to die, or they come back. But if
they die, we get some money from the army. If they come back, they get a job on
the base. Now them little boys, they go off to the prison just like the army.
Like they have to. To be a man. They go off to die, or come back. But they
ain’t got nothin. Nothin either way.”
Wards in formation now. The wind is still pushing, school
papers cartwheeling across the courtyard past the boots. I check Alfonso, in the
back again, like every day, like a big damn Candyland game with Danae and
it’s never over cause we keep picking the same damn cards over and over
cause it’s only two of us playing.
I breathe in all the dust from the fields. Hay fields all dry
and turned when I drive past, the dirt skimming over my windshield. Two more
hours today. Wards go back to class. Alfonso lifts his chin at me, and I stare
him down. Fred humming something. What is it?
“If this world were mine, I’d make you my queen .
. .” Old Luther songs. “Shut up, Fred,” I tell him. I
don’t know if he’s trying to rap or not. He keeps asking me about
“All them braids look like a crown,” he says,
smiling like a player.
“A bun,” I say. He knows we have to wear our hair
tight back for security. And Esther just did my braids Sunday. That’s
gotta be why my temples ache now.
“They went at it in the laundry room again
Sunday,” Fred says, looking at the screens.
I stare at the prison laundry, the huge washers and dryers
like an old cemetery my grandmere took me to in Louisiana once, when I was a
kid. All those dead people in white stone chambers, with white stone doors. I
see the wards sorting laundry and talking, see J.C. in there with them.
“Can’t keep them out of there,” I say,
staring at their hands on the white T-shirts. “Cause everybody’s
gotta have clean clothes.”
At home I stand in front of my washer, dropping in
Danae’s pink T-shirt, her Old Navy capris. One trip to Old Navy in spring,
one in fall all I can afford. And her legs getting longer. Jeans and jeans.
Sometimes they take so long to dry I just sit down on the floor in front of the
dryer and read the paper, cause I’m too tired to go back out to the couch.
If I sit down on something soft, I’ll fall asleep, and the jeans will be
all wrinkled in the morning.
Even the wards have pressed jeans.
In the morning, my forehead feels like it’s full of hot
sand. Gotta be the flu. I don’t have time for this shit. I do my hair
first, before I wake up Danae and Ray Jr. I pull the braids back and it hurts,
so I put a softer scrunchie around the bun.
Seen a woman at Esther’s Sunday. She says, “You
got all that pretty hair, why you scrape it back so sharp?”
“Where I work.”
“You cookin somewhere?”
“Nope. Sittin. Lookin at fools.”
She pinched up her eyes. “At the jail?”
Then she pulls in her chin. “They got my son. Two years.
He wasn’t even doin nothin. Wrong place, wrong time.”
“YA wrong place, sure.”
She get up and spit off Esther’s porch. “I come
back later, Esther.”
Esther says, “Don’t trip on Sisia. She always mad
Shouldn’t be mad at me. “I didn’t got her
son. I’m just tryin to make sure he comes home. Whenever.”
Esther nodded and pulled those little hairs at my temple. I
always touch that part when I’m at work. The body is thy temple. My
temple. Where the blood pound when something goes wrong.
The laundry’s like people landed from a tornado. Jean
legs and shirt sleeves all tangled up on my bed.
“You foldin?” I say. Ray Jr. pulling out his jeans
and lay them in a pile like logs. Then he slaps them down with his big hand.
“They my clothes.”
“Don’t tell your daddy.”
“I don’t tell him much.”
His hair growing back on his skull. Not like iron filings.
Like curly feathers. Still soft.
Next day Fred put his comb away and say, “Give a brotha
“I gave him three years.”
“That’s all Ray get? He goin through some changes,
“We have to eat. Kids got field trips and books to
Three years. The laundry piled on my bed like a mound over a
grave. On the side where Ray used to sleep. The homework. Now piano lessons.
Fred says, “So you done?”
“With Ray?” I look right at him. “Nope.
I’m just done.”
“Oh, come on, Clarette. You ain’t but thirty-five.
You ain’t done.”
“You ain’t Miss Cleo.”
“You need to come out to the Comedy Club. No, now, I
ain’t sayin with me. We could meet up there. Listen to some Earth, Wind
and Fire. Elements of life, girl.”
Water. They missed water. Elements of life: bottled water
cause I don’t want the kids drinking tap. Water pouring out the washing
machine. Water inside the new dishwasher—I can hear it sloshing around in
I look out at the courtyard. Rogue tumbleweed, a small one,
rolling across the black.
“Know what, Clarette? You just need to get yours. I know
I get mines. I have me some fun, after workin here all day. Have a drink, talk
to some people, meet a fine lady. Like you.”
“Shut up, Fred. Here they come.”
Reyes leading in his line and I see two boys go down, start
punching. I run into the courtyard with my stick out and can’t get to
them, cause their crews are working now. The noise—it’s like the
crows in the pecan grove by Grandmere’s, all the yelling, but not lifting
up to the sky. All around me. I pull off shirts, Reyes next to me throwing kids
out to Michaels and Fred. Shoving them back, and one shoves me hard in the side.
I feel elbows and hands. Got to get to the kid down, and I push with my stick.
Alfonso. His face bobbing over them like a puppet. “Get
out of here!” I yell at him, and he’s grinning. I swear. I reach
down and the Chicano kid is on top, black kid under him, and I see a boot. I
pull the top kid and hear Reyes hollering next to me, voice deep as a car stereo
in my ear.
Circle’s opening now. Chicano kid is down, he’s
thin, bony wrists green-laced with writing. The black kid is softer, neck
shining, and he rolls over. But then he throws himself at the Chicano kid again,
and I catch him with my boot. Both down. Reyes kicks the Chicano kid over onto
his belly and holds him. I have to do the same thing. His lip split like a
pomegranate. Oozing red. Some mother’s son. It’s hard not to feel
the sting in my belly. Reyes’s boy yelling at me in Spanish. I kick him
one more time, in the side.
I bend down to turn mine over, get out my cuffs, and one braid
pulls loose. Falls by my eyes. Bead silver like a raindrop. I see a dark hand
reach for it, feel spit spray my forehead. Bitch. My hair pulled from my temple.
My stick. Blood on my stick. Michaels and Reyes take the
wards. I keep my face away from all the rest, and a bubble of air or blood or
something throbs next to my eyebrow. Where my skin pulled from my skull, for a
minute. Burning now, but I know it’s gon turn black like a scab,
underneath my hair. I have to stand up. The sky turns black, then gray, like
always. They’re all heading to lockdown. I make sure they all see me spit
on the cement before I go back inside. Fred stands outside talking to the shift
supervisor, Williams, and I know he’s coming in here in a minute, so I
open the classifieds again and put my finger on Upright. Z
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