A tough as nails underground classic, this prison novel is narrated by Morgan—a 26-year-old woman convicted of breaking and entering—who works in the prison’s law library, offering shoddy legal counsel to other inmates. Morgan however, has plenty of enemies, like Johnson, the lesbian-hating warden; Alex, a lawyer who doesn't appreciate the jail’s free legal advice; China, a Latina convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; and Rosalie and Birdeye, serious rustlers whose loyalty lasts about as long as their cigarettes hold out. Gritty and filled with a wide spectrum of vivid characters, this novel is a riveting account of life inside a female prison.
About the Author
Sin Soracco is the author of Edge City. She lives in the Mission District of San Francisco and on the Lower Russian River in Sonoma County, California.
Read an Excerpt
By Sin Soracco
PM PressCopyright © 2010 PM Press
All rights reserved.
The first shot went wild.
Thin and sharp as barbwire, bleached as an old bone, Lily kept climbing the chain-link fence. State issue blanket tied around her waist, state issue gloves covering her hands, up and up she went, her pale hair ribboning in the wind. She knew the fog would hide her until she was over the top. And away.
She stretched the blanket over the razor wire, pressing her weight on it delicately, twisting to see the highway.
The second shot ripped her off the fence. She hit the dirt running zigzag through the winter bare field at the edge of the prison yard, bent double aiming for some nonexistent shelter.
She collapsed with a small scream, her ankle snapped clean from a final misstep into the abandoned weasel burrow.
The guard came up on her cautiously, nervous pistol drawn.
She didn't look at him, just tipped her head back and howled her rage at the sky.
* * *
The next day Johnson, a sweaty new guard, escorted me past the red brick housing units to the law library for my afternoon shift. I noticed her uniform was tailored so tight her face ballooned strangely from the starched collar of her beige shirt. I didn't mention her missing neck because I wasn't feeling so good about myself, a result of representing Lily in that morning's conferences with the administration.
I leaned over, whispering, "I've got a knife." Stepped out briskly.
Officer Johnson hustled to catch up. "What did you say?"
"Ai! What a night."
She tried to step in front of me. "That's not what you said."
I slid primly around the panting guard. "I whored all night."
"What did you say? Stop! I got to escort you!"
I looked back at her over my shoulder. "Said, 'Snored all night.'"
Johnson squinted her eyes, hustled to catch up. "Are you trying to provoke me, young lady?"
I stopped dead, Johnson ran up over my heels. I didn't remark on it, I'm a tolerant sort of person. "Me? Provoke you? Oh come on."
I watched with detached professional interest as Officer Johnson fumbled with the lock on the law library door. She stepped into the tiny windowless room first, probing for something amiss among the book-lined clutter.
Johnson was always bitching about the law library, how it was a major cause of trouble, no good ever came from it. She started up again, "Makes you think you got rights, as if you were somebody. You people aren't special." She paused for effect. "Just nasty thieving murdering bitches. Devious."
"Dykes." I knew she didn't like dykes. Unnatural.
She didn't quite look at me. "Morgan! I expect this place to be tidy and clean when I come back for count. You never see a broom or what?" She shut her mouth so tight she swallowed her lips.
"Sure thing, Johnson. Sure thing."
I'd already turned away from her to dig my way through a tower of grimy files. I moved volumes stuffed with papers from the tables to the chairs, others from the shelves to start new piles on the tables. The floor, every flat surface, was littered with crumpled papers, cigarette butts, law books with torn pieces of paper sticking out; my typewriter held a typed sheet, the second draft of an appeal, covered by untidy green inked corrections. Between my successful cases the layers of chaos built up. There weren't many successes.
Prison time is chicken bones, something to be sucked clean. Time is a thing, abstract, made of interlocking gears, everything connected. I scowled at the mess. My notes on a couple of sadly inadequate habeas corpus writs were mixed in with the divorce papers for half the women in general population. The newest craze.
Officer Johnson stood on one foot, then the other, trying to demand more of a commitment. Ignored, she huffed out the door, muttering pointlessly that she'd be back.
Everyone would be back. I wondered how much longer Johnson would last. What sort of shit she'd stir up before her inevitable departure. The possibilities were staggering. I pulled my coffee cup out of the lowest drawer of my desk, filled it from the hooch jar, took a long necessary swallow.
Prison exists to serve one purpose: locking people away from life's good things, usually other people's good things. A temporary solution at best. The combat continues unabated behind the walls. A regular knockdown drag-out with the administration and the guards in here whaling away just like the convicts. Everybody fighting over the good things no one ever gets enough of.
I sat there after Johnson left, counting cigarettes, trying to figure out what my next move should be. So far I'd managed to make a royal mess of things.
I had been convicted of nighttime residential burglary with (unproven) use of force. The DA elaborated, fancifully, I thought, how no one could have gotten by that particular citizen's massive security apparatus or into his expensive new safe without force. The judge gave me four years. So much for independent thinking in the judiciary. Four years. The courts have no appreciation of my skills. Probably a good thing.
I didn't consider that job exactly a failure, more like an embarrassment. I usually worked alone, did my own research, my own setup — just that once I went along as backup on someone else's job. Little things just clog up the works sometimes. I try not to take it personally.
Wearing cascades of Spanish lace, tinkling bracelets, tight black jeans, China swiveled her way into the law library, clicked her tongue and unceremoniously dumped a stack of books off a chair. "Got to get some discipline to your habits, girl." Her voice was musical, seductive.
I moved my eyes a fraction of an inch to look at the newest pile on the floor, back to her. I wasn't thrilled to see her.
China had a warm brown triangular face, full lips, great slanted eyes, a long mane of black hair, and a heart of endless larceny. "You know that guard woulda killed 'er if she was anythin' but a ver' white girl. Crazy gavacha, tryin' to escape like that."
I, like all of us, tell lies and still sleep pretty well. "Lily wasn't tryin' to escape."
"Sure she was."
"Nope." I ruined my morning in conference with the administration about just that thing. Reality can be bought or sold in prison. It's strictly a futures market. We decided, the administration and I, that Lily hadn't been escaping, the guard hadn't shot at her. Those things made unnecessary complications under the circumstances.
Lily never did anything right, poor kid still got cards from the bastard she tried to kill. Postmarked Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City: "Havin' a wonderful time, girl. Placed some bets for you — you always lose. Hahaha."
"I be glad when he's finally dead," she said, "even if it ain't me what does it."
If Lily was charged with escape she would become a three-time loser: attempted escape, aggravating a guard into using his weapon, the commission of a felony in the course of which bodily injury occurred, her own, but that was just the way things went for her. Other charges could be arranged. Time piled up on time; once it's started there's no way to stop the process, as if punishment feeds on itself growing bloated obese succulent.
I'd made a couple suggestions at the hearing this morning. Only thing the administration and I ever agreed on. Gave me serious doubts about myself. "It's a bad time to be shooting women, you know. This a model prison here."
I didn't want to go over it. "They aren't filing escape charges against Lily."
"So? The asshole shot at her. She broke her damn ankle. Why don't you file against him for her? You gone let that guard get away with it?"
"Get away with what? Takin' a shot at some broad climbing on the fence? The man be doin' his job."
"No he ain't. Oh no he ain't. We ain't no live targets here."
I stared at the books lining the walls, floor to ceiling, spread around the tables the chairs the floor; not an answer in a one of them. I was at a loss for answers, not a new experience, but the magnitude of my present ignorance appalled me. No wonder the classification officers let me work in the law library so willingly: I hadn't the smallest idea how to do any of the things that needed to be done.
I struggled for equilibrium, frustrated. I was searching for something to ease my thoughts, open my mind to the flow, like a fisherman coaxing a fish in the currents. I took pride in my small catches. But no fish were biting.
I pointed with my cigarette, inadequate. "You know how many cases get heard in court on these things? Exactly none." China still wasn't satisfied. "We ain't goin' to court because there's nothing to it. It never happened. No escape attempt. No shooting."
China sat there unmoving, waiting me out.
"They put Lily back in the nut ward." I lit another cigarette from the butt of the first one, tried once again. "Actually, she put herself there. Damn. Nothin' nobody can do."
"Look, China, this isn't doing you any good. Stay out of it. It's none of yours."
"I just found out she knew him, you know?"
"Lily knew him. My husband. She knew he was rotten, rotten to the core."
"Great. Nice you found someone to support you in that. You still can't get her out from under this one no matter how much you both agree Roland was an asshole."
I never knew what China had in mind, sometimes I wasn't sure China had anything at all on her mind, but I didn't care, she was soothing to look at. "You got to realize that even if the police do find whoever killed your husband it won't shorten your time by one bloody day."
"I hear you, Morgan. But I was hoping maybe Lily — well, I guess it's gone beyond that now. I got to find who killed him on my own." She looked out of the corners of those wondrous eyes, pulling me into her charmed circle. "It's gone way beyond doin' this time. Beyond this funky prison, beyond justice — ain't none of that."
"A matter of money."
"Right in one. He was collecting big that night." Close. Confidential. Candid. "Morgan, listen, there was an easy forty thousand dollars." China paused. It sounded like a nice round sum to me. "Seem like no one have it now though."
I blew smoke rings the way Narcisse the Silent taught me. Buying time. I hadn't seen three inches of money in years.
China smiled, her smooth face confident. "That is, don't no one have it but his killer. I want it. You can help me get it."
I didn't fall over dead. Second mistake of the day. Third, if you count teasing Officer Johnson.
* * *
Old Norah was one of those jailhouse legends, make a hit, then vanish; the cop who chased her coast to coast for ten years finally busted her for torching a hotel to cover her last job. I don't know why we were impressed with that sort of thing, but there might be something to be said for thoroughness. No one ever figured out which one of those eleven corpses was her target.
She seldom talked to the rest of us, just walked the perimeter fence, a pigeon-chested old Italian woman doing her holiday shopping: a prosciutto bone for soup perhaps, a nice chubby salami. She found that weasel burrow out by the fence, squatted patiently in the scrub until one of the babies ventured out, then she snatched it quicker than an ordinary old woman could, big fast hands, zip into the pocket of her faded housecoat.
Alone in the solemnity of her cell, she dedicated her victim to the nameless gods that lived before Latin. She held the trembling creature, her thick fingers pressed on its windpipe in a lock-bone grip.
Then she snapped its neck.
* * *
When Lily's ankle healed and she finally admitted that she must have been crazy to be walking around in the fog at that time of the morning, they let her back into general population. By that time she was Thorazine-fat, one-thought-bitter: Old Norah was personally and solely responsible for everything that had gone wrong in her life.
Lily shuffled around sort of smiling, planning her next assault. On the fence. On Old Norah. On herself. Promising to set things right. There be time enough.
"I woulda got over if I'da known how to get over but even though I know how now I didn't know how then so I couldna done it. Right? Even if I woulda done it. And I woulda. Let me tell you. But I didn' do it. Now."
I recognized it. Happened to everyone after awhile, talking to hear the sounds pour out.
Lily said to me, "You know you're finished when there's more behind in life than in front." She'd slap her Thorazine ass, laugh high and sad.
Dislocations of minds and bodies start from little shifts: the straight four four of prison time and the internal rhythm of convict time start to conflict. Right at the edge of perception. Bellies pushed forward, women in thong sandals slipped like fish up the green corridors: looking goooood mamma. Hey mamma and your red-hot mamma smile, can you do it for me, can you walk another mile? Swing those hips. Dance back and forth in your exotic robes, reeking of mail-order perfume, curling irons and gloom, Dixie Peach bleach, stale cigarettes; check it out mamma, got to get it got to get it got to get it move so smooth you can barely see the hand snatch for it.
How it is.
Women with clipped wings, sitting, just staring, hearing but no longer listening, chirping about the streets and how it is. How one day always follows one day.
I was bloody sick of it.
Locked up with liars. Screamers, schemers. Deceivers.CHAPTER 2
When someone over in the administration building called for a couple hamburgers no mustard ketchup on the fries three strawberry shakes, no one bothered to search the pale idiot-eyed delivery girl.
The police thought of Narcisse the Silent, when they thought about her at all, simply as the deaf and dumb woman who worked in the officers' canteen; she had been chosen for the job because she couldn't hear, kept on when they discovered she was a quick creative fry cook.
Narcisse the Silent was no longer young but she had a lightness that served, a glint of something sly, funny. Between burgers she kept an eye on things, most often the police's things. They never looked behind her blank expression, but then they weren't supposed to. They didn't realize that Narcisse could hide a four-head VCR on her person, slide past a metal detector, go back for the camera if she had the mood. Our cell was very comfortable.
When we talked she could be as animated as a dancer, her body expressing what feeble vocal chords never could. I was learning to finger sign, still awkward, but I was getting better. Sometimes trying to communicate with her was the single thing that kept me sane.
It was a lazy taste for luxury that put her in prison, she said, her long hands caressing the words, "Lapis lazuli, fire agates, South American emeralds. I loved them, the rich glitter. Didn't even set them in jewelry —"
I understood that. A set stone brought more money, but it was easy to identify.
She shook her head at me, understanding my incorrect agreement. "No. I just loved the stones themselves, I even wanted to learn gem-cutting, but no one would teach me." She touched her useless ears, shrugged. "My interest in drugs just sort of happened. Incidental. Accidental. Not important. You know."
Even her drug use wasn't ordinary. A lot of addicts have a fascination with the needle, but I never saw her doing the blood-balancing ritual in/out with the dropper; she preferred to fall into the arms of Morpheus with tea. She melted down that black tar, adding hot water and lemon as it started to fragment, then transfixed, she sipped on the strange amber liquid, swaying, latched onto some bright elsewhere road undistracted by the noisy everyday after day.
I wondered if this was Narcisse's own music, soundless, a drug like pure mathematics — rhythm, color? Maybe the way she thought was itself different, wordless. Loaded. Whatever it was, it worked well for her. Stubborn, generous, seeming wise beyond her time, she was remarkably content, even in jail. A placid floating junkie Buddha.
Then again, perhaps she was so serene because she was deaf and loaded all the time. Simply couldn't hear the racket.
It all got away from me at about that point. I noticed a lot of things getting away from me, I tried not to mind, failure is the common language of prison.
Around the middle of November I needed to send someone with a message up to Narcisse in the officers' canteen. Old Norah could slither half invisible anywhere on the prison grounds, but I knew that when she'd finally get to the canteen, her mind centered on salami and cheese on rye, she'd forget her errand in the thrill of sandwich dreaming. Narcisse would remind her.
Excerpted from Low Bite by Sin Soracco. Copyright © 2010 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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