Jeez, another handsome dickhead, setting my pants on fire.
When I’d first heard the scrape of his boot against the cement floor, I glanced up from the San Quentin housing unit logbook where I’d been recording details about a fistfight on the third tier. As the inmate leaned on the door frame, his body was backlit by sun radiating through the barred upper windows of the prison housing unit. He could’ve been a TV star or a tennis pro. Not a single prison tattoo—no devils or bare-breasted women in chains tarnished his lightly tanned skin. Definitely my type. Normally I sent away any prisoner who interrupted my work. Not him. Whatever he wanted, he could come on in. I studied his face, his muscular forearms. He appeared to be thirty or so, my age.
“Close A count in ten minutes.” The PA announcement ricocheted off the concrete walls.
The man-smell of sweaty gym clothes and semen, the odor of yesterday’s putrefying sack lunches, and steam from the group showers billowed in through the open office door, following the prisoner as he sat down opposite me, the desk the only thing separating us.
“Officer Holmstrom, hello.” Eyeing my name tag, the inmate leaned in close. Or was he checking out my boobs? Maybe he had Superman X-ray vision, able to see through my starched, beige uniform shirt. I loosened my clip-on tie, letting the fake knot tumble to the tie bar at nipple level. Stuffy in here.
He settled into the chair, spread his legs slightly, the corners of his mouth lifting in a smile. “I’m Thomas Gentry. Thought you could use some company.”
“Really?” How fucking presumptuous, but—confident and manly. I pushed aside the sergeant’s moldering cup of coffee, put down my pencil, grabbed a raft of memos, began fanning myself. Like when I was thirteen at a school dance, waiting for a boy to ask me to join him in the Bossa Nova, my face felt feverish. But I was a grown woman now, not a geeky teen. Heck, I could handle this, couldn’t I? Just act professional. Ignore the tickle running up my thighs.
“Did you know that Mount Tamalpais is called the Sleeping Lady?” Gentry cocked his head toward the clerestory windows facing the mountain. “Legend is that she was a lovely Indian maiden whose sweetheart died in battle. Grief-stricken, she lay down and never arose again.”
“Grief-stricken?” Wow. This man was more romantic than my last four boyfriends combined. Running my eyes over Gentry’s neatly pressed prison blues—clean and fitted to his body, unlike the baggy pants favored by some prisoners, I imagined him in tennis whites, ready to loft a ball over the net. The scent of his aftershave drifted across the desk—one of those pricey designer brands. Not the cheap Old Spice they sold in the inmate canteen. I stared at my fingers. Gentry’s hands were inches from mine—powerful hands that could protect me, slam a drunken creep against the wall, hurl a rock at a rabid charging Rottweiler, pull me to safety.
Looking out at Mt. Tam, I sighed. “Such a sad story, reminds me of an opera heroine dying for her lover…”
Gentry closed his eyes. “When I’m on the lower yard, I can see the Sleeping Maiden so clearly. That’s when I feel free; the walls and gun posts disappear. I become a bird. Fly away.”
I thought of an inmate I’d seen pressed against his cell bars, gazing out an upper story window at windsurfers bouncing along the waves. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? This lousy old prison surrounded by such beauty—the bay and mountains.” Wait a minute. Was I flirting with an inmate? Naw, that could be hazardous. I’d never be one of those vulnerable bimbos duped by prisoners who wrote the same baloney to four or five women at a time. Monitoring outgoing inmate mail, it was all I could do not to crumple up the letters filled with the worst bullshit—“If I’d only met you first, I never would’ve ended up in prison”; “When I get out, I’ll take care of you—treat you like a queen, love your kids like my own”; “You are the woman of my dreams, the one I’ve always waited for.”
Gentry’s hands stretched toward the logbook lying between us. “I’d love to see an opera. What are your favorites? And the singers—the divas, is that the word? They must be beautiful…”
“Oh yes, the costumes, the drama, the music. Heavenly.”
He pointed at the logbook. “You going to write about me?”
Easing the logbook closed, I shook my head. Nope, I’m keeping this to myself. Hot inmate chatting me up. I imagined Gentry in a tailored suit, sitting in a waterfront restaurant, two glasses of Veuve Clicquot champagne on the table, his hand reaching for mine. Glancing down at my olive-drab polyester pants, fingering the sharp edges of my badge, I wished I was wearing a Joanie Char silk shantung dress instead of an ill-fitting regulation uniform.
What was he in for, anyway? It had to be something minor. I couldn’t ask—one of the many unwritten prison rules. But Gentry appeared to be a white-collar criminal, clean-cut and well-spoken, different from most other white-boy inmates—buffed bikers with flowing locks or the perpetually nervous, wiry druggies. My mind scrolled through an imaginary Rolodex of nonviolent, low-level crimes. Bad checks, bank fraud, growing marijuana.
What had he said? “Grief-stricken maiden…her lover dead…fly away like a bird.” Such words could only come from a sensitive, nonviolent man. Gentry had to be a loner, not part of the prison hierarchy where the shot-callers—gang leaders—ruled. Aryan Brotherhood, Texas Syndicate, Black Guerrilla Family. He ran alone, kept clear of trouble.
But he was a convict, and I was a correctional officer. I fiddled with a strand of hair. Maybe he’d be paroling soon. Could I hook up with a parolee without endangering my job? I’d have to check the regulations. I pictured us lying on warm sand, the slap-slap of waves against the shore, our bodies intertwined, his smooth skin firm against mine…
The metallic clang of the housing unit door boomed through the unit. The PA rumbled to life. “Next in and out in twenty minutes.”
Flicking a bit of dust off my shirt, I glanced at my correctional officer badge. I’d been at Quentin for over two years. Jesus. What was going on? Fantasizing about a hot convict? I had to get a grip. And this wasn’t the first time.
A couple months earlier, when I’d been serving coffee in the Adjustment Center—the lockup unit that housed down-for-the-cause gangsters, the most troublesome condemned inmates, and general bad actors—I’d made my way down the tier serving breakfast. “Good morning, would you care for coffee?” If my fellow officers had heard me, they would’ve thought I was nuts. This was prison. Why talk nice to a bunch of dirtbag prisoners? Well, I’d been a coffee-shop waitress during college, and that morning greeting was tattooed in my brain. The words just popped out. Besides, why not be polite? No one was calling me bad names or trying to stick a spear through my innards. Too early in the morning for that kinda crap.
At the fourth cell from the end, tired from seven hours of graveyard shift, my eyes barely registered what was before me. Words evaporated as the inmate turned and faced me. Naked but not masturbating. No erection. He wasn’t a flasher or a jack-off artist like other inmates. He was a Greek statue—the sun god Apollo—perfect in form and very much alive. I could almost feel his breath on my skin. The man’s hands hung gracefully at his side. He reminded me of my ex-husband when things were still good, when we cuddled for hours as the morning sun tiptoed across our bedroom.
I stood rooted, unable to raise the coffee bucket to pour. The bars disintegrated and I stepped inside to meet him. He reached out, brushing my arm with his fingers, running his hand up to my cheek, tenderly dancing his index finger across my lips. I sighed, closed my eyes to focus on the feel of his hand on my face. Then he took my hand, pulling me gently toward him.
As a shiver crawled up my spine, I shook my head, forcing the images from my brain until I was back in front of the man’s cell, the steel barrier still there. He was inches from me, thick cell bars the only thing separating us. Energy pulsed between us. I’d smiled at him as if my expression could say, “Too bad.” But we didn’t speak. By the next day he was gone. Thank God.
Looking at me, a person might think I was an ordinary, middle-class woman who’d accidentally stumbled into this crazy prison guard job as one of the first female correctional officers in a men’s maximum security prison. Someone who dined on homard a l’americaine in fancy French restaurants, donated to the Humane Society, belonged to the fine arts museums, adored the San Francisco opera production of Wagner’s The Ring. While all that was true, what wasn’t visible was the woman who was waiting for an alpha male—an outlaw—to rip away the civilized veneer and unleash the wild woman within, uncover my most primitive instincts, free me from society’s silly rules. I would howl under the Death Valley moon, run naked through the churchyard, fling myself into ecstasy’s hungry arms.
And now here was Gentry, inches away. Not nude. But I could imagine.
His voice deepened. “I shouldn’t even be here, you know.” His hand, squeezing the edge of the desk, left indentations in the soft layers of ancient wax coating
What? Maybe it wasn’t a white-collar crime? Did he take the fall for someone else? Save his wife or kid brother by taking the blame for a stash of drugs?
Then he had to ruin it.
“I’m back on a parole violation ’cause of my ol’ lady.” Gentry’s fists clenched, the veins in his neck tightened.
I pulled my hand back toward the armrest on the office chair.
“Got into it with my ol’ lady when I was out on the streets.” Gentry stiffened, the muscles in his arms taut. “The bitch fucked with me. I slapped her around a little bit. They charged me with all kinds of assault and battery and BS, and here I am, back in the joint. I hardly hurt her. But she ran crying to the cops. I was railroaded.”
Great, a fucking wife-beater. How could I not have guessed? I was always getting it wrong. Look at the boyfriends I’d picked on the outside. James, with his construction-worker hands around my throat, pushing me onto the bedroom carpet, growling, “Don’t ask God to help you, you don’t even believe in God.” And philandering Stephen, who smacked me full in the face—sending my new pair of Ray Ban sunglasses skidding across the pavement, bits of asphalt embedding in the lenses—mad because an old high school beau had phoned me.
Sucking in a deep breath, redolent of Gentry’s fancy aftershave, I flipped open the logbook. “Nice talking to you. I’ve gotta get back to work.” When I reached for my pen, my hand knocked against the sergeant’s two-day-old cup of coffee. The black liquid sloshed against the side of the chipped mug, exuding an odor of dirty gym socks as Gentry walked out of the office.
A month later I spotted Gentry in the visiting room, sitting beside an elegantly dressed, fiftyish woman. Petite, slender like a ballet dancer, she was out of place in the overheated, margarine-yellow visiting space crowded with whimpering children, worried mothers, wives and girlfriends in stiletto heels and push-up bras. I pegged her as an Atherton matron or the wife, maybe widow, of a Pacific Heights investment banker. She belonged at a symphony guild luncheon with smoked salmon and caviar, not sitting at a rickety plastic table near vending machines that dispensed stale sandwiches, powdered coffee in small Styrofoam cups, and canned sodas.
Their fingers intertwined, the woman leaned into him. The scent of her Parisian perfume mingled with his fancy aftershave. She placed her arms over Gentry’s shoulders. He embraced her, lifted the woman to her feet, pulling her in close. Her brown wool, I. Magnin suit crumpled under his arms.
There was no way to warn the woman about Gentry. “Drop him—lover boy beat the shit out of his ol’ lady, he might do the same to you when he gets out.” It was against the rules—illegal.
There was another problem. Did I want to protect the wealthy visitor, or did I want Gentry for myself? I took a breath. Actually it was time to ask the real question: who was going to protect me?
I knew the answer.
Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in Bernie Siegel’s book, Faith, Hope, and Healing. Several of her essays and nonfiction stories have been published or are forthcoming in Evening Street Review,Drunk Monkeys, Gulf Stream, The Penmen Review, and Jet Fuel Review. After surviving riots, an armed escape and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.
If you enjoyed Ladykiller, leave a comment and let Christine know.
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