FROM “ONE TO ONE”:
Sloat nodded and sat across from her, resting his folded hands on the table, which was wide enough so they couldn’t touch each other, even if they lunged. Meanwhile Valentine stood by the head of the table, between them, like a referee.
“You understand,” he addressed them both in his even, measured baritone, “that either of you may end this meeting at any point. The allotted time, if you choose to use it all, is an hour and a quarter. I’ll be back then, if not before.”
He nodded to them, turned away and left, and Sarah was alone with the man who’d raped her.
She made herself look at him, focusing on details of his appearance as she’d done throughout the trial. A triangular face, coarse pallid skin, receding chin. His most notable feature was a shock of reddish orange hair, almost as bright and garish as Ronald McDonald’s. Dark blue eyes, too close together. The eyes, avoiding hers, were sad and glazed now.
Not a handsome man, but not an ugly one. Tall and lanky, about 6’1” or 6’2”, weighing no more than 200. A nice enough body, under other circumstances. All in all, a man who could have found himself a woman without resorting to . . . that . . .
She kept on looking at him, holding her silence, trying to desensitize herself to him. There’s nothing he can do to me. I’m safe now. All I have to do is press the button. Slowly, discretely, she slid her hand towards it.
“Well. Here we are.” Her voice rang flat and stilted. The voice of a woman she didn’t know, the voice of a robot equipped with skillfully programmed but not quite human speech.
FROM “UNACCOMPANIED MINOR”:
I sprawl on my bunk, fully clothed, and doze off in a flash. The nap is shattered by Martinez banging his keys against my cell door. “Get up, Zwerling. Miz Andrews wanna see you.”
Odetta Andrews is a counselor attached to the hospital wing. She’s a fat black woman with the smallest eyes and biggest boobs I’ve ever seen, like volleyballs. Her age is hard to guess, anything from thirty to forty-five.
I’ve met with Odetta twice, and we decided right away we couldn’t stand each other. Too bad, because your counselor’s the most important person in your life in here. She gets you passes to the commissary and library, she runs interference between you and the COs, she puts you on suicide watch and takes you off (the shrink’s supposed to do this, but most of the time he does what the counselor tells him). She can goose the doc or dentist into seeing you right away, or she can slip your request to the bottom of the pile. They talk about another counselor who hated this one inmate. He complained about a toothache for a month but she kept losing his requests to see a dentist. By the time he got to see one, he’d already lost two teeth. Not to mention, he’d been in pain for a month.
Counselors will do small favors that make jail more tolerable. Find you a pad of writing paper or a magazine that’s not as old as you are, things like that. Sometimes they’ll really go to bat for you. They’ll advise your family on how to make bail, or talk to your lawyer, or even talk to the DA.
Martinez escorts me to Odetta’s office, and I vow to be polite and friendly despite myself. To charm her. But I know it won’t work. People who work in jails are charm-proof.
She waits for me in a windowless cubbyhole, squinting down at my file. There’s a folding metal chair and a tiny bookcase, the only furniture besides her desk. No decorations, apart from some postcards of New York City taped to the walls. The UN, the Empire State Building, the skyline at dusk.
“Sit down, Zwerling.” She motions me to the chair without looking up. When we met, I made the mistake of not waiting for an invitation. LISTEN, BOY, YOU DON’T SIT DOWN IN THIS OFFICE UNTIL I TELL YOU TO, YOU UNDERSTAND ME NOW?
She finally glances up at me, nods curtly. “You look better. Swellin’ around your eye is down, and it’s not so discolored.”
I touch my right eyelid, which still feels like it sticks out an inch farther than the left one. “It’s not so tender anymore.”
“Good.” Is she in a halfway decent mood today? Maybe, just this once, we’ll get along. . .
FROM “SOUL MATE”:
I met her on a Tuesday in April, when a light rain came & went all morning & the sun hid behind sheets of clouds. An ordinary day, at least that’s how it seemed at first. Not a day to turn our lives completely upside down, to bind the 2 of us together till the end of time. Six years ago it was, closer to 7, & it still seems as fresh & clear as last night’s dream.
We met in the post office, talk about ordinary. She stood in line in front of me. A thin girl, 5’5” or 5’6”— dressed casually — gray sweatshirt, jeans & sneakers. Red hair down to her shoulders. Since she stood ahead of me, I only saw her back at first. But the line formed a right angle just before it reached the counter. As she turned, I got to see her face. Which was finely formed, with high cheekbones & a thin straight nose that turned up slightly at the tip. Big blue eyes.
She wasn’t beautiful. Her eyes were too close together & her skin was a bit rough, as if she’d acne once, & her lips were too thin. Not beautiful but very pretty. I particularly liked the long red hair. It was all I could do to keep from running a finger through it, which is something I’ve never done before. To touch a girl’s hair like that, I mean.
So there we stood, this red-headed girl & me, waiting in line at the Post Office. In a few seconds she’d reach the counter, buy stamps or whatever, & she’d leave. I had to make contact with her. Had to. But I didn’t have a clue about how to do it. I’m not what you’d call smooth.
Without thinking, since I had no time to think, I bumped against her, very lightly. Excuse me, I said. She turned around, didn’t say anything, but she smiled. The nicest smile I’d ever seen.
Something sparked in me, like a small explosion in my brain. It was as if my whole life beforehand had only been a preparation for this moment. From the way she smiled at me, I knew we were connected. It went beyond that. This may not make sense to you, but I knew that she’d been put on Earth for me alone. I knew it on the spot, without the smallest doubt. The red-haired girl was my soul mate.
She came to the counter, bought a sheet of stamps. Then — this had to be fate, how else to explain it—she tore off a stamp & put it on a letter she was mailing. The letter had her name & return address, printed on one of those stickers you get from charities. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d never have known her name or where she lived.
Her name was Karen Marsh. We had the same initials (my name is Keith Mueller). More proof that this was fate! She lived at 81 W. Lincoln Ave., Apt. 22. That’s only about a mile from me!