SEPTEMBER 12, 1973
I parked on Tomlinson Avenue, close to the intersection. There wasn’t much room at the end of the curb. Luckily, the little Volkswagen Paul bought me would fit just about anywhere. I put the key in the handle on the outside and twisted it. He’d told me time and time again to always lock the door. And I always did.
He also told me to always check beneath the car for a bomb before getting in. I never did that. I wouldn’t know what to look for. I don’t know why he even thought I would. I don’t know why he thought anyone would put a bomb under my car.
I walked toward the giant green hill that popped up out of nothing. A huge Indian burial mound. They named the entire town after that thing. I thought about it every time I saw it. Once every year on the exact same day, starting back in 1953 and still going two decades later. Moundsville. Who thought that name would be a good idea? It was definitely something only a man could come up with.
I turned right, onto 10th Street. As I walked toward the prison, I took out my chewing gum and put it in a tissue. I tucked the tissue into my purse.
I looked at the houses and the stores and the normal life happening in a place that was anything but normal. Paul called it the world’s largest collection of live cowboys and dead Indians. Everywhere else, it was just like anyplace else.
My father, my real one, was serving a life sentence for what the lawyers called felony murder. Basically, he was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, when someone got killed by someone else. The law didn’t care who did the actual killing, so Francis diFrancesco would be living behind bars in Moundsville until the day he stopped living.
I crossed Jefferson Avenue and turned left. The place looked like an old castle, except most of it was long and low and covered nearly all of three blocks. The only entrance was right in the middle. I never could get used to the sight of it, like it had been dropped out of the sky from some other time, or maybe even from some other planet. No, I never got used to seeing it there, even if the people who lived and worked around the place never seemed to give it a second thought.
The closer I got to the shack outside the door, the faster I walked. My heels clicked against the concrete. I moved as quickly as I could without running. The sooner I got inside, the sooner it would start. The sooner it would start, the sooner it would finish.
There were two guards in the small wooden hut. They tried to flirt. They always did. I gave them a polite smile, same as usual. It was easier that way. If it would get me inside a little faster, so be it.
After the shack, I walked to the front door. I could feel their eyes on me as I walked away. I wanted to turn around and give them the finger.
The wind was blowing my hair over the back of my jacket. I was glad I remembered to grab it. It was colder than I’d expected it to be. Fall was here. Winter was on the way. In more ways than one, I guess.
The guard standing outside the main door ran his eyes over me like they were connected to a metal detector. I knew not to react to him.
Yes, I’ve been here before, I told him. No, it hasn’t been very recent. Yes, I know the rules. No, I don’t have any contraband. Yes, I understand the risks of meeting face to face with a convicted murderer who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
I held my breath before I walked inside. It didn’t help. That smell was inside my nose and mouth again. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t want to think about it. All I wanted was to get it over with.
Another guard led me to the room where they’d bring my father to meet me. This one was younger. He looked familiar. There was more flirting. I dealt with it, even if I had the urge to ask why he thought I’d come to this godforsaken place in search of a man. But I still just wanted to keep things going. So I fluttered my eyelashes a little. I flashed a smile. I told him who I was visiting. It seemed like he was pitying me for a second or two, but then he slipped right back into flirting. He said he’d be a holler away if I needed anything. I thanked him. I said I’d be fine.
I really wanted to give him the finger, too.
I sat down. The table looked like it came from a school lunchroom, something they could fold up and roll against the wall. Other people were meeting with prisoners at some of the other tables. The inmates didn’t wear uniforms. I always thought that was strange.
I tried not to look at anyone else. I didn’t have a book or anything to read. I sat there, staring at my hands. Then I heard him from the doorway, talking to a guard with that deep voice of his. It always scared me a little bit during the years he lived with us, before he got himself in trouble.
I watched him move my way. His ankles were chained together and his wrists were connected to a thick belt around his waist. When he looked at me, I made myself smile at him. He didn’t smile back. I was sort of glad he didn’t.
“Took you long enough to come back.” He said the words before he even sat down.
“I’ve been busy,” I said, still forcing my lips into a smile. His attitude confused me, because he knew I only ever visited him once a year.
“Busy.” He twisted his mouth around the way he always did when he was just starting to get upset.
I saw a pink mark on his face. It looked like a scab had just been there. His hair was cut so short I couldn’t tell whether he’d lost much more of it since last year.
“What made you not busy today?” he asked.
“It’s your birthday. I always visit you on your birthday.”
“Birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, every other day. They’re all the same. You think they’re baking me a cake in here?”
“I would have brought you a cake if I could.”
“What I want I ain’t ever getting,” he said. Then he looked at me. He squinted one of his eyes as he did. “You’re getting older. You ever going to bring a baby in here with you?”
“Never mind. This ain’t no place for no baby. Plus, I don’t want you having no baby with the guy you’d be having it with.”
“I thought you two were friends.”
“We been over this, Leslie.”
“He always says you were friends.”
“He’s right. We were friends.”
“Is it because I’m with him?”
“That don’t help. But there’s way more to that one.”
“He’s never said anything to me about any of that.”
“Of course he hasn’t, Leslie. If he did, there’s a chance you’d climb right out of his second bed.”
I looked down so I wouldn’t start crying. “And you wonder why I don’t come more often.”
“Sorry I got a problem with being inside here when he ain’t.”
“Why would he be in here instead of you?”
“I never said instead. I guess he’s just luckier than me.”
“What’s luck have to do with any of it?” I said.
“It has everything to do with it. In that life, you live long enough to end up in here or dead. In here, you’re already dead while you’re waiting to die.”
“It’s your birthday. I just wanted to see you on your birthday.”
“For who, you or me? You checked the box. Your conscience is clear until next September.”
“Do you think this is easy for me?”
“You think it’s easy for me? When this is over, you’re walking through that door. I’m only ever leaving this place in a sack.”
“I’ve never done anything to not leave.”
Then he smiled, but it wasn’t a happy one. He’d lost at least two teeth since the last time I saw him. “You’re still part of it. I never dreamed you’d be part of it.”
“I’m not part of it.”
“Oh bullshit, Leslie. You’re living off it. You get the best of both worlds. And once a year you get to see the worst of mine.”
My bottom lip started to shake. I don’t think he noticed. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“You’re not sorry. You’re just saying it now so you won’t spend much time thinking about it later.”
“I should go. I wanted to cheer you up a little. I didn’t want to make things worse.”
“Don’t worry. You can’t make things worse.” He stopped for a second, looking at me. Then he exhaled. I could feel his breath on the edge of my face. It smelled the same as the rest of the place. “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say I appreciate you trying to make things better. And to forget about what a miserable bastard I am. And to think long and hard about the choices you’re making. If we do this next year, I’ll be forty-seven. You’ll be twenty-eight. It’s too late for me. It ain’t too late for you. But it’s getting there.”
He stopped talking and got up. He walked toward the guard without looking back at me.
I waited until he was gone. I hurried out of the room and out of the prison. Fresh air never tasted as good as it did whenever I left that place.
I walked past the guard at the main door. He tried to say something. I just kept going. I made my way through the shack. The guards there tried to flirt again. I didn’t smile. I didn’t even look at them. I just went as fast as I could back to the car. I unlocked the door. I got inside. I remembered Paul’s stupid advice about checking for a bomb.
When I put the key in the ignition and turned it, part of me was hoping there was one.