If their father could run afoul of the law and be jailed, Michelle and Jude wondered what crimes might land me behind bars. Forgetting to sign a permission slip for school or letting a "shit" slip out when I stubbed my toe on the dresser were apparently minor infractions, but Michelle hollered at me when I hurried through a yellow stoplight because "You might get caught!" She reprimanded Jude for not wearing a seat belt, telling him it was a state law. When did a ten-year old ever care about state laws, or that her younger brother might get locked up?
Then there was the time I forgot to bring the cashier's attention to the case of Pepsi in the bottom of a shopping cart. I was unaware that I hadn't paid for it when we walked out of the store. Both children exchanged glances with each other as I loaded the soda into the back of the car, but I didn't think anything of it; they often gave each other strange looks. When we pulled into the driveway at home, Michelle burst into tears and Jude said, "They'll arrest you for stealing!" Once I realized what had happened, I tried convincing them it was an honest mistake, explaining that things like this happen all the time, but they wouldn't settle down until I went back to the store and paid for it.
Both of them cried over the simplest things: broken rings in a notebook binder, not being able to have a friend sleep over, all the cheese sliding off a piece of pizza with the first bite. Michelle became obsessed with our mail. Every afternoon, I watched her sift through the junk, opening everything and anything so that we didn't miss a cash prize or trip to Disneyland. No opportunity would pass us by. One morning, I found a rubber-banded stack of credit cards in her book bag when I put her lunch inside. Fearing she'd been pilfering cards, I collapsed in relief when I saw they were nameless samples that banks enclosed with mail solicitations. I never said anything to her, letting her think she could support herself and Jude if anything happened to me.
Jude played prison breakout with his G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles. He constructed army bases under his desk and in his closet, using cardboard, pencils and tape. He criss-crossed string from the bedposts to his dresser knobs and desk legs for his action figures to hang from. I couldn't walk to his bed for a goodnight hug without getting tangled, stepping on a bent paper clip, or hearing him screech at me for detonating a land mine.
The counselors at Safe Harbor told me, if regular visits were impractical, it might be good for the children to see where Gavin was staying, assuming he would straighten up and want a relationship with his children. I thought I could stomach seeing him if it was in their best interest, but the closer we got to Madison Correctional Center, the sicker I felt. We left at seven in the morning, allowing extra time to stop for lunch at Cracker Barrel and getting lost. I brought games and books for them to share with their father, which, as it turned out, we had to leave in the car.
Gavin looked as if whipped by a sandstorm. The lines in his gray face were deep, his hair was matted, and his clothes hung on his thin frame. Michelle and Jude were overwhelmed and acted shy, shuffling nervously at my side, flinching at the echoed voices and sounds in the room, eyeballing the other prisoners. Most of them looked like any other man you might see working behind the counter at the post office, stocking cans at Fisher Fazio's, or delivering a package with a smile to your front door. Some had bristled mugs or tattoos on their necks, or flinched oddly. A man with a face distorted by mountainous red spots cleared his throat every five seconds. I couldn't help but study their hands, wondering if they'd forced a woman to her knees, pulled a trigger, or had simply written a batch of bad checks.
The four of us sat at a table, falling into the same seating arrangement we used to take at the dinner table. At first, Gavin was unable to look any of us in the eyes. I was glad he'd dropped the smugness. There was no way he could clown his way out of this one—the damage he'd caused was as clear and tangible as the waxed floor and steel bars. In a weaker moment, I might have pitied him. With his shoulders clenched and hands clasped in fists, he cleared his throat and said, "Hey, guys. Thanks for coming."
I swallowed, staring at him for a few seconds, then said, "Thanks for having us."
He recoiled. After a few shuffling, awkward moments, he said, "So, yeah, this'll be my home for awhile, but it's okay. Don't worry. I'll be fine. I, um, I got a lot of time to think about where things went wrong. It's not so bad." He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing at me. I lifted my chin and glared. Did he even wonder what I'd told our children about his arrest? Why he disappeared a few weeks ago? I felt as if I'd sugar-coated things, explaining that the amphetamines helped keep him awake when he was driving, but then he couldn't stop taking them, and when they didn't work anymore, he started taking other drugs. I should have told them he was an abusive junkie.
Facing him now, Michelle chewed her lip. Jude wriggled in his seat, swinging his legs, then tucked one leg under and picked at the dried blood from a scrape on his knee. I pulled his hand away from the scab.
He looked up. "Dad?"
"What?" Gavin said. "Ask away. Ask me anything you want."
He wanted to know if they slid his meals under the bars in his cell, if his bathroom had a door, if he slept with a pillow and blanket, and if he wore leg chains when he went outside. Michelle asked if he had a roommate. I wondered if they'd expected to see their father in a black and white striped uniform, like in old movies, and his state-issued blue pants and shirt disappointed them.
"Hey, maybe I'll get out early. Just remember, I'm still your father," he said, his eyes catching mine. He needn't have worried that anyone would forget. "You guys be good, you hear? I love you both."
Despite the fact that I was preparing to file for divorce, I flinched—he hadn't included me in his love. Michelle wouldn't hug him and started to cry when we had to leave; the guard apologetically told us he couldn't give us extra time. She pushed my hands away when I tried to comfort her. Red-eyed, shaken, Gavin turned his head and coughed into his fist.
Once we were outside, Michelle told Jude he asked dopey questions. He punched her in the back and told her to "get real." On the way home, he asked in his high-pitched boy voice, "Can we put Daddy inside a big box and sneak him out next time we visit?" I shut my eyes and took a deep breath, having no idea what was going to happen to us. I told him, "Sorry, kiddo. It doesn't work that way."
Michelle asked, "We don't have to come here again, do we?"
I shook my head no. As I drove us home, I tried not to rage. I brought my right hand up, as if fixing my hair, so that Michelle, who was in the front seat, wouldn't see my tears of frustration. She stared out the window, hands clenched in her lap, forehead pressed to the glass. I reached across the seat to take her hand; she made a little grunt and pulled away. Jude was in the back seat, slicing his hands through the air while making terrible noises, screaming jet fighters and scudding bombs.
BIO: Linda's stories have appeared in A TWIST OF NOIR, the Cleis Press anthology FRENZY, and other magazines online and in print, and her poetry has been in numerous literary journals. She has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. This piece is a novel excerpt. She is represented by Maria Carvainis Agency, Inc.