His voice is comfortable with itself, the kind of calm authority you develop when people count on you to say the right thing. He is a reverend, and the food has just been set down, and we are new friends so he looks up from across the table and asks, “I’d like to say grace, if that’s alright?”
I’m nodding my agreement before I think about it, yielding immediately to the gentleness in the ask. The prayer begins and I bow my head.
This is the first time since county jail that my food will have been graced by prayer.
My hand reaches out to the side, where it is engulfed by a larger pair of hands. Warm hands with velvet skin and bold silver rings. The hands adorn my own, covering my shaking fingers with a royal brocade of skin and bone and strength and love.
Grace is easy, uncomplicated, beautiful.
I’m eating with my other hand, already, smiling already, because I’m decent at the performance of being alright. It’s an accent I can hold long enough to get through a few minutes, one that only really sounds fabricated if you’ve known me for awhile.
The reverend, his wife, and I are new friends. They don’t know me, yet.
I want them to like me.
I want this night to be about how I will live, how I am living, not what I have lived through.
In the safety of the hand that is holding it, I fold my fingers into a cup-shape. I pretend it is filled with grace, and the laughter between best friends, and the joys of freedom, and love after love.My hands are cup,
the cup runs over.
My fingers stop shaking.
The whole process only takes about three minutes.
We get three minutes to eat, starting from the second we sit at the table.
They have made getting to the table as complex as possible, stopping our single file line to rearrange us at random. The goal is to shift the order enough that no one sits with a friendly face. I am new. The order doesn’t matter. There are no friendly faces yet.
Every time a cop walks by, we stop and face the wall, noses pressed against the paint so she will have enough space to stroll down like the Queen of Hearts. The lesser cards flanking her, avoiding her, bending themselves into no shape at all.
I remember from the book that the spades were gardeners, the diamonds were courtiers, the clubs were soldiers, and the hearts were members of the royal family.
The paint smells like old milk, but sickeningly sweet.
I wonder what my suite is, in here.
This is day two of my time in a shared cell.
For the last couple months, I lived in a single person compartment and ate food that was pushed through a slot in a door. I am nervous and shifting more than I should.I catch the attention of a Queen, and am pulled out of line. She inspects me from head to toe, silently, and I will my face to blankness. The girls around me freeze in their place in line.
“Your clothes are too big.” she announces, finally.My clothes are assigned uniforms. I have no say in their size, delivery, or cleanliness.
I don’t say that.
I also don’t explain that my very first bunky was pregnant and we managed to get me XL sizes, too, so that she could double-up on shirts if needed on cold nights. I don’t explain that the automated system replaced my XLs with more XLs for months, even after my bunky was released.
I don’t say anything.
She asks if I’m stupid, and the question is so startling that my eyes raise to meet hers.
I don’t know what she see in my eyes, but she takes a full step back and puts her hand on her baton.
I will my face to blankness again.
She indicates I should get back in line, and I do, and it continues.We go down a maze of hallways and doors, and I think about how this is the way we lead cows to slaughter.Finally, we reach the cafeteria, and I am handed a milk, and a tray full of mushed rice, covered in grey gravy. On the side of the tray is a scoop of canned pears, I think. It’s four in the morning.
We hold the trays until we’re directed to sit. I don’t know the other three women at my round table, but I tell them I’d like to say grace, if that’s alright.
They beam smiles at me, and I begin.
“Thank you for the food before us, the faith within us, the love around us. Amen.”
On the last word, I am hit in the face.
I didn’t see it, but the Queen of Hearts from earlier had slammed the metal tray upwards. Later, the girls and I would discuss if she actually meant to hit me or just meant to startle me.
“If you have time to pray,” she says, “Then you’re done eating.”
I am directed to leave the table, and I do, covered in gravy, standing in line with the girls who finished their meals already, and are waiting to be led back through the maze to the 40-woman-cell we call the Tank. The Tank we call home.
By the time we get back, I have spent almost two hours not eating breakfast, and my face is bruised.
One of the strangers comes over to my bunk with a pack of cookies from who-knows-where. She leans against it and starts humming a song I don’t know.
She shares her snacks and song.
I am grateful.
I am humming the song I still don’t know, waiting to leave county jail and go to prison. I’ve had to send my letters and books home already. I can only take blank envelopes, a few stamps, a pencil, the clothes I am wearing, some hygiene products, a picture, and a bible. I’ve made sure that is all I have.
The cop who processes me is the Queen of Hearts from before. She says I can’t have the Bible.
I’m not surprised. I know better than to assume they have read the guidelines.
I also know better than to argue.
She takes it out of my hands, and rips at it until it’s too torn to be readable.
When I leave the room, I am fully shackled, and the word of God is in a trashcan next to banana peels.
The priest tells everyone at my husband’s funeral that, in the end, he repented to God.
That holy man is a goddamn liar, I whisper to my sister.
When he talks to me before I leave, I will my face to blankness.
He puts a hand on my shoulder, and my eyes raise to meet his.
I don’t know what he sees there, but he takes two steps back.
I turn and walk away.
I attend a poetry open mic. The host ends the show with a reminder that the stage is open to everyone, but that it is open at all because of God. He says if anyone wants to walk across the street, join them at the bar and talk about faith, they’d be as welcome as they were on the stage.
I consider it, but my face only knows how to be bruised now, only knows how to be blank now.
I only know faith as the thing I walk away from.
Someone posts a meme.
It’s a picture of a jail cell, similar to the first one I had. Two bunks, a toilet/sink combo, almost enough room to stretch your arms out. The picture says, “If you’re lucky, they’ll give you a two bedroom apartment with free food and all bills paid too.”
If you’re lucky.
I think of breakfast. The grey gravy on the rice at 4am. I think of my pregnant bunky, cuffed during contractions.
I think of the strip searches, and the hunger, and the smell of a wall when you press yourself against it and try to disappear.I think about how my husband disappeared.
How the priest held the dust left behind and lied,
and how it sounded like pages being ripped from a book,
how it looked like the Bible sitting on a pile of trash.
I block the person who posted the meme,and walk away.
Nose to the wall, I think of the Queen, and how if I have time to think of bullies and bruises, I certainly have time to pray.
It finally occurs to me, years later, that I am probably a spade,a gardener.
I pray for a garden.
I look up, stare up straight at God, and I don’t know what He sees in my eyes, but I feel as if He comes in closer and holds my hands into a cupshape.
I imagine them full of soil and seed: the reverend’s grace, the song I still don’t know but can’t stop humming, the big warm hands adorned with bold silver rings and love.
Somewhere in my wilderness and desert, off a stage, away from church, my grace is growing back.
Easy, uncomplicated, beautiful.