Published on June 20th, 2017 | by Sosha Lewis1
Plumes of black smoke stuttered up from the muffler of my grandmother’s abused Buick Riveria as she rocketed down the unfamiliar winding road. Zack and Angie, my much younger brother and sister, squealed gleefully as they tumbled over every each other in the back seat. I yanked my head phones off and swiveled around to glare at them.
“If you two don’t behave, I’m gonna whip you when we get out of this car.”
At this, Gran flicked the nub of her Lucky Strike out the window, assumed her single malt voice and said, “Sosha, who do you think you are, little girl? You will do no such thing. I know you’re hurting, darlin’, and I know you’ve got a lot on you right now, but those babies haven’t done a thing to you and I suggest that you cut this shit right now.”
When we got out of the car I glared back at it. The front grill and the passenger-side light were missing and the hood was crimped like 80’s mall hair. Two weeks after getting my license I had driven it straight into the back of a tank-like Chevy Nova when I was cruising down College Avenue, one of the main streets of Bluefield, my coal-dusted hometown nestled deep in the Appalachians. My cousin was riding shotgun and we were blasting The Chronic by Dr. Dre. Gran and I had argued about me taking the car. She said that she didn’t think I was ready to drive with a passenger.
There was only liability insurance and certainly no money to fix it. But, it still ran – most of the time. So, we drove it, a mobile manifestation of our busted, crumbling lives.
On this day, we had driven it to visit my mom.
Angie and Zack ran ahead, holding hands, giggling. Gran, with her long, graceful strides, quickly caught up with them. I lagged behind; kicked a stray rock. Gran stopped short and turned back, her face weary. I was waiting for her to yell at me, but she just waited quietly. When I pulled up beside her, she threw her arm around me and said, “Come on, darlin’! Let’s just get this show on the road.”
I looked up at the sign hanging over the door of the cheerful brick building with neatly manicured landscaping. I shoved my hands in my pockets and clenched my jaw as I walked through the doors of the Alderson Federal Prison Family Center.
We signed in. Gran fished quarters out of her purse so that Zack and Angie could get something out of the vending machine. She asked me if I wanted a Coke. I did, but I mumbled, “No thanks, I’m good.”
I fidgeted in the slick plastic chairs and flipped through a magazine so quickly that I ripped one of the pages out. I glanced around and then folded the torn page and slid it into my back pocket.
After a few minutes, we were led back to the “family room.” It had comfortable couches, a TV, and a playroom filled with toys, books and games for the kids.
Angry, incredulous tears sprung to my eyes and I clenched my jaw until the sharp metallic taste of blood hit to fight them back.
This was where she got to live? This was her punishment?
A few nights before this visit, a rat the size of a poodle ran across my feet as I sat on the couch watching Law & Order. We obtained hot water in the shower by clamping a pair of pliers on a bare screw and turning— hard. After making a sandwich, I hid the black and white labeled welfare peanut butter in the back of the cabinet so that no one would see it.
However, my mother, Starr, who had been sentenced to 11 months for buying narcotics from an undercover informant, got to live on a beautiful college-like campus nestled in the protective embrace of the mountains. She had every meal provided for her, cable, a library—even movie night. She was allowed to take walks, exercise. She worked in the bakery.
She had never baked for us.
Mom walked up to us, slightly nervous, but as she drew closer her mouth spread into the mega-watt smile that could make the darkness dance away. She had looked hollowed out when she left, her face pockmarked with stress zits. On that day, her 5’2 frame was holding a few extra pounds. She looked whole. I held my breath as she walked toward us, knowing that it would only be seconds until I felt her again. Breathed her in. Went home.
Zack and Angie pushed past me, ran to her. Screaming, flapping their little hands in the air. I stayed, using Gran as a barrier. When she made her way to me, her two younger children still clinging to her waist, I was stone-faced. She hugged me tight. I wanted to fall into it, let her cover me up like a favorite sweater. Instead I stood plank straight. Only bending my arms and patting her on the back when I caught Gran’s side eye.
We stayed most of the day. We tried to play Monopoly, but it didn’t last long. We had never played a board game together before and though it was unspoken, we all quickly realized that it wasn’t something that we need to start that day. I wanted to go home to my friends, my boyfriend—all of whom thought I was being forced to spend my Sunday visiting a sick great-aunt.
Around 3:00pm, Gran said, “Well, Starr, I guess I need to get these children home before it gets too late.”
I jumped up, “Yeah, John is picking me up at 7:00. Let’s go.”
Gran replied, “Sosha, we haven’t discussed you going out tonight so I wouldn’t be banking on it if I were you.”
“What? I had to come up here all day and now I can’t get to see John ? Why? Why am I being punished? I didn’t do anything wrong.” I wiped away the tears that were again threatening to leak out of my eyes.
Mom said, “So-So, listen to Gran!”
She tried to put her arm around me but I shrugged it off and walked out of the building. For the first time in 15 years, I didn’t fear that she would come after me and whip me until my knees buckled. The temperature had fallen dramatically while we were inside and a light but persistent rain had started to fall.
I pulled John’s letterman jacket tight, breathed in his Drakkar cologne.
Zack and Angie were both weeping when we climbed back in the car.
I still think about how I wish I’d turned and held them.
I looked straight ahead. I refused to look back.