Ready to Run

After Dennis Linde and Natalie Maines

 

What I noticed first about prison was not necessarily the cement walls or the loud air conditioning, and I certainly didn’t pay much mind to the crude (and, to be quite frank, obscene) comments I heard from the guards as they led me to the visitors’ area. What I noticed first was how unscathed I felt passing by the thick inches that separated me from truly dangerous women. Despite the erratic stumbling of my heart beneath my breast, I felt downright fine (not to imply that I was feeling good).

Now, I’m a generally nervous woman, always back and forth cataloguing every possible thing that could go wrong in any given situation. I had been sure to get a bottle of Liptons Diet Green Tea at the gas station on the way to the prison—kept it in my purse, next to my trusty bottle of Benadryl (it helps warm my nerves when I’m on edge, makes me feel softer). However, as I marched down the hall to the humid little room where I would finally see Mary Anne again, I found myself a little bit thankful that I had ended up having to leave my pocketbook in one of those 25¢ rent-a-lockers. If Mary Anne had seen me counting out those tiny pink pills, I would never live it down; Mary Anne had a nasty habit of teasing me past my point of comfort, and I had an even nastier habit of letting it happen. No matter, I wasn’t nervous in the slightest. I was serene as could be.

The guard stopped in front of a thick pair of double doors and held his I.D. in front of a small keypad mounted on the wall. With a flicker of a tiny green light, I was in like flynn. The guard gestured toward a table in the back left corner of a room, not far from a ten-ton hunk of a lesbian weeping in the arms of a preacher. I gave the two of them a snide look and took my seat. They were definitely breaking the limited contact rule I had read about on the prison website. You can get away with it,  I figured, if you’re a holy man. Or maybe the guards were just happy the woman had finally found comfort in a man. I bit down on my fist to keep myself from harsh laughing.

The door opened again—a terrible scraping sound. Mary Anne, radiant in khaki pajamas, was led into the room and shoved in my direction. Her face was almost more feminine without makeup, her thin eyebrows growing in natural. I bit my lip. Maybe not so serene after all.

Mary Anne took a seat across from me. “Took you long enough, Wanda,” she said. Grinned with her tongue pressed against her two front teeth. I had missed that.

“Sorry,” I answered, then I laughed, but wasn’t quite sure why. “I guess I just let time get past me.”

“What’s that even supposed to mean?” Mary Anne propped her elbows on the table, rested her cheek against her hand. “Don’t try to wax poetic none. I won’t stand for it.” She gave me a daring look.

I tapped my fingers rapidly on the table, clenching and unclenching my fists so I wouldn’t try to reach over and grab Mary Anne’s hands. “Honest, I didn’t want to see you. Didn’t want anything to do with you—you know, after everything. I didn’t know if it was really you.”

“What? You think I’d let Atlanta change me?”

“That’s not what I meant. Or maybe it’s not.” I couldn’t meet Mary Anne’s gaze, could barely take staring at the lines in her fingers. Mary Anne smelled different, but her skin was still freckled and thick, just weather worn enough to make her something to hold onto.

“Why did you finally come, then?”

This surprised me with a fresh wave of heart palpitations. I absent-mindedly grabbed at my breast, stumbled to get my words together. It had been so easy rehearsing in the car. It had been so easy without Mary Anne and her hair so light it almost wasn’t there and her open hands still waiting to be held and her infuriating smirk. I wanted so badly to squeeze her. “It’s Lloyd,” I finally said and let out a sigh. It was all I could do to not cry.

Mary Anne’s demeanor changed automatically. Her shoulders tensed, her teeth slightly bared. She was a pride cat ready to pounce. “The hell did he do this time?”

My smile was like a last-minute dam against an oncoming flood. I was sweating from the small of my back, from between the crease of my knees, like summertime sweat when me and Mary Anne, fresh-faced teenagers, had camped out on the bank of the creek with nothing but our t-shirts for a pillow. “That’s the worst part—he’s been doing it. I—I didn’t wanna tell you.” I bit down bitter on my tongue.

Mary Anne’s eyes rounded, more serious than I had ever seen her. Maybe scared. “What’s he doing you can’t tell me about?”  Her tone was urgent and pleading.

I stood and walked across the room. I went to the coffee machine by the door, was disappointed that there was no tea. Bought a bottle of water from the vending machine. I leaned against the wall and steadied my breath between cold sips, didn’t once look back at Mary Anne until I was ready to sit back down. Sighed one more time  and gave her an apologetic grin. “You wouldn’t believe the money I’ve spent on hospital bills—dental bills, too. By this point, I’m looking at you with an all-new smile.” I gave her a grin to show it off.

“I—I don’t understand.” Mary Anne’s mouth was slightly parted as she searched me for some answer. It snapped shut when she found it. “Wanda,” she whimpered. “He didn’t do that to you.” She reached across the table for something to hold.

I was forced to collapse into my own arms, damn no contact rule. Just like that, I was ugly crying, quick uneven breaths like when I was a child. “I don’t know what to do,” I sobbed between gasps of air. “I think he’s going to kill me.”

Mary Anne’s lips were pressed into a grim line. “Wanda—“ she tried. She didn’t know what to say. “We can do something.”

I sat up and pushed my hair from my face. “You can’t do a damn thing for me. You’ve got yourself all locked up in here—else maybe you would have known a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Mary Anne’s voice was barely a whisper.

“Yeah. I’m sorry too.”

***

Fourteen years ago.

Mary Anne sixteen and drunk, lying across my bed. Windows are open. We’re sweating through our clothes, sticking to each other and the sheets. Mosquitoes buzzing in and out of the room. She tries to snap at every one of them. Don’t mess with them, Mary Anne. You’ll catch a fever. That’s all bullshit and you know it, Wanda. I wanna do something fun. Mary Anne sixteen and drunk, peeling her dress off, shedding her skin, shaking her hair out. Leaning out of my window, bare topless and tasting the breeze. What do you wanna do? Mary Anne pulling me into her arms, sneaking out onto the yard. Conway Twitty cassette tape. Putting the blunt in my mouth and showing me how to inhale. My chest growing fuzzy. Alcoholic laugh. When I can’t breathe the smoke, falling down onto her bare chest. Her hands smooth against my back, helping me cough it all out. She’s been with every boy in Liberty County, but I’m the only person who’s ever held her so bare, she whispers in my ear. You’re crazy and drunk, Mary Anne. Waking up nuzzled against her breast, covered in morning dew.

***

Lloyd’s truck was in the drive when I pulled into home. I put the car in park and sat a bit with my forehead against the steering wheel. A forty minute drive and Mary Anne still had me worked up. Tried as I might, I couldn’t shake the look in her eyes when she’d realized what I was telling her. She was a real hoot– thinking she could save me.

Before I realized it, I was crying all over again. I groaned and reached into my pocketbook for a napkin to wipe my face with. I found my Liptons tea, barely a sip missing, dripping with condensation. I downed half of it in the car before heading inside.

“Wanda, that you?”

I’d only just stepped in when Lloyd called me from across the house. The place reeked of something like body sweat and cheap wine. I hung my purse by the door, first pocketing the bottle of Benadryl before he could get my nerves to frying. “Yeah, babe. I’m home,” I called back.

Lloyd emerged from the back hall, wifebeater stuck with sweat to his chest. In the back of my mind, I wondered what came first: the wifebeater or the wifebeater? His hair was slick against his skull, matted in the back. He smelled like he hadn’t been out of bed all day. “Did you have fun fucking your girlfriend– or whatever you drove all the way out to Gretna for?” His tone was teasing and harsh, thumb hooked in the band of his boxers.

“You can’t be mad at me for visiting Mary Anne. She was my best friend when we were kids.”

He came up behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist. “I’m not mad at you,” he whispered against my neck. “I just don’t think you should still be wasting your time on some bitch you haven’t spoken to since high school.” He placed a sloppy, scratchy kiss on my collarbone. “Especially a dumb bitch got herself put in jail. What was it she’s in for? Shooting up a convenience store, right?”

I pulled away from him. “Don’t do this please. She was real important to me. I should have gone to visit her sooner.”

Lloyd worked his mouth a bit in thought. With a farmer’s tan and a repulsive beer belly, he didn’t seem much more than another tonkey tom. But I saw the muscles in his calves twitch, saw the grip in his square calloused hand. My stomach lurched with a sickening flutter, and I felt my jaw ache from the last argument we’d had.

“I’m sorry. I won’t go back– I’m done with her.”

He smiled, then. Beady eyes lost in the folds of his frown lines. “That’s my girl.” He ran a hand up the back of my neck, gripped a handful of hair lightly. He smothered me in another kiss, then left me for his recliner. It was time to fix his supper.

***

Ten years ago.

Little gold ring heavy on my finger. Mary Anne hungover, hair greasy, tight ponytail. Lloyd doesn’t know I’m here. And when am I gonna meet this famous Lloyd? Stop that, Mary Anne. Outside Atlanta sharing fast food fries. She’s missing work. He thinks I’m visiting family. She’s nervously picking at her scalp. My hands on hers to keep her still. I’m glad I could get away to see you. Sweet laughter, her kiss on my palm. Wanda, why don’t you move up here with me? Mary Anne hungover and barely twenty, left home so quick she hardly had time to grab her diploma. I’m dizzying myself with the thought of staying in Atlanta with her. Just don’t go home, Wanda. Mary Anne, you’re crazy. She looks away out the window, watching interstate traffic go back and forth. I could use the company. Leaving lipstick stains on her coffee cup. Things are getting rough up here. Rent’s so damn high. Putting my hand against her heart, counting the beats. Don’t do anything stupid, Mary Anne. Her eyes are closed, looking older than she’s ever looked before.

***

Lloyd had his hand in my pants but couldn’t look me in the eye. It was easier for me to pretend he wasn’t there. In my mind, I was back in high school. Leaving notes in  Mary Anne’s locker. All the gas money I’d spent taking her to the store for pregnancy tests, Plan B, and frozen pizza when she was too shook up to drive. We heard my oven timer ding from in the kitchen, and he pulled out of me with a shove. Never once took his eyes off the TV. “Can you bring me a beer with that?” he grunted.

We ate dinner in mostly silence. Every now and then, he would ask me for something or comment that the meat was a little undercooked. Usually by now I would have asked him all about his day, and my silence really rubbed him the wrong way. “What’s got you in such a mood?” he asked.

I shook my head and started collecting the plates to go wash them. “You’re just being so rude. It wasn’t easy for me to drive up there today, and you don’t even care.”

He stretched out on the couch like a beast testing out its claws. “Fine then,” he said, angrily reaching over to turn off the TV. “Tell me about your Goddamn trip to the prison.”

Lloyd made me feel so stupid. I stopped in my tracks, feeling ugly hot tears lining up my eyes. I stammered, regretting having said anything. He leaned forward and pulled me back into his arms. I folded up until I was too small to be anything, and he overtook me with his ripe stench, his handyman’s grip. His mouth was on my neck again. “Bet you had a good time,” he said, compressing my body against his. “Tell me about what you saw up there.”

The way he was babying me buttered me up. I allowed myself to laugh. “Prison’s everything TV’d make you think it is.” My voice was somebody else’s, coming at me from down a long hall. “There was a big ugly lesbian in there, crying to a preacher.” I felt his chuckle against my throat. Felt myself relax. So much safer  with him happy and laughing it up. Loosening my lips. “She was making such a scene, wailing like you wouldn’t  believe to be so tough-looking. Bet that preacher was the first man she’d touched in years.” It felt so good to laugh with him.

“See?” he said. “You won’t even have to keep visiting that bitch. Plenty of dykes up there to keep her busy.” Guffawing like a madman, close to getting red-faced.

I froze up cold. “Lloyd, don’t say that. Mary Anne’s not like that.”

He rolled his eyes at me. Shoved me off his lap. “God, how stupid are you?” A hand against my throat. “Gonna keep defending that whore, huh? Bet that bitch really did fuck you. You disgust me.”

The tears falling down my face felt heavy enough to be bullets. I wanted to bash his stupid face in right then and there, son of a bitch talking down to me so high and mighty. I felt my stomach grow tight and red. Raging like never before.

I didn’t do anything, though. I just sobbed against his chest and let him hold me while I for his forgiveness.

***

Twelve years ago.

Dixie Chicks album in the player, windows of my Toyota rolled down. Two week countdown to graduation and a pre-finals date with Mary Anne. Holding onto her tight as a child. Know she’s gonna float out of reach as soon as she’s got the money. Pulled up to the diner, parking lot panic attack thinking of a life without her.  Ordered burgers for the both of us, going through rounds of tea waiting for her to show. Boy back at the grill keeps coming by to check.  She’s just running late. Mary Anne is the kind that’d be late to her own funeral. He laughs like something golden. Just eighteen with a body untouched. Laughing over milkshakes with the boy from the grill at the end of his shift. Eyes heavy on my chest. Heavenly collarbones beneath a white t-shirt. Boy sure is ugly, but the son of a bitch can make me laugh. It’s dark out. Let me walk you to your car. Stubbly chin against my face. Sloppy lips coming in on mine. Coming home to Mary Anne passed out in my bed. Curl up against her like a big spoon. Wake her up with a whisper on her neck.  His name is Lloyd. Nothing but a nine day wonder.

***

The next time I saw Mary Anne, I didn’t warn her with a letter. When they pulled her into the visitors room where I was waiting for her, she had a face so bewildered she’d never own up to it. Realizing it was me come to visit, she tried to shake it off fast. I bit my lip in a bit of a jest.

“Bless my eyes, Wanda,” she said, sitting down, “you sure are on the make these days.”

“I wish I was here for antagonistic banter, but we gotta talk quick.” I felt a pang of shame at talking to her so harshly.

It was almost like she winced. “Guess you gotta be back home soon. Lloyd’s real jealous of me, I reckon.” She twisted her mouth up into a smirk, but she didn’t look happy to me.

“I miss you, Mary Anne.” The words tumbled out of my mouth without a warning. “I– I’m sorry I stopped coming. I’m sorry I left you. I should have been there– an– and I wasn’t.” I hid my face with my hand, red hot and ashamed. “I was too busy fawning over some abusive bastard. I’m sorry.”

Mary Anne didn’t know what to say. She was more quiet than I’d ever known her to be. Muttered something like, “Who can blame you? You didn’t desert your best friend– you deserted a convicted felon.” Tried some miserable laugh. Finally, she just reached over and took my hand. “You don’t have to be sorry, Wanda. I would have left me, too. I’m happy you’re here now.” She squeezed it tight.

I sniffed with some semblance of a smile. “Staying in Liberty with you gone was the worst mistake I ever made.” I wiped my face with my shirtsleeve, not caring how slobbery or snotty I looked. Deep breath. “I came here to ask you for something.”

She really did laugh, then. “I’m not sure what I can get you,” she said, “from in here. Perhaps a nice shiv for the lady?” She pulled away from me, laughing so hard at her own joke she had to hold herself.

“Mary Anne, when you moved to Atlanta, you left your brother’s gun behind. I need you to tell me where it is.”

Her laughter cut off sharp. “What the hell are you talking about?” she hissed, motioning for me to keep my voice down.

“You said you’d leave it in Liberty for me, in case of an emergency. Well, the time has come, my friend. Where is the gun?”

“What are you gonna do with a gun?”

I sighed, closed my eyes. “I don’t need you looking out for me. I’m a big girl now.”

She leaned close to me, eyes darting about the room. “You sure you wanna do this?”

I gave her a wan smile. Full to the brim with anxiety I hadn’t felt since we were young, and she had coerced me into her petty crimes, like breaking into a church or convenience store. “Mind’s made up.”

Mary Anne leaned back in her chair, stuck somewhere between concern and pride. “Buried back behind Dad’s old house. Near the shed.” She let out a big sigh, and we both got to laughing, the real and sweet kind. Felt like coming home.

As I got up to leave, Mary Anne called after me, “You realize how this will end, don’t you?”

I gave an affirming nod. “Pros and cons, baby.”

She held her breath, heavy with acceptance. “See you on the other side, then.”

***

Six years ago.

Met me in the middle, somewhere in Alabama. Sharing the hours of driving, sharing the motel room. Fucked up proper on an assortment of grocery mart beers. Holding onto each other’s bodies like it’s the last thing we got. Think Lloyd knows he’s got competition? Shush. It’s been too damn long. Scared her body will start to feel foreign to me. I wish you’d come home, Mary Anne. She’s quiet. Stuck together in the humidity. Finally,  I wish we didn’t have to be so goddamn secretive about it. I know, but Lloyd wouldn’t like it. He’d blow up. Right the fuck up. I don’t want to wait so long again. Her frame is so sure, she feels like a worn mountain path. I’m so lost. Clinging to her every step. I wish I could be more like you, instead of being so scared all the time. Wanda– I wish you knew how scared I was. Rose petal lips on my forehead. Sweating. Beating. Rising. Mary Anne’s face against my mine. Want something more. Mary Anne, we have to stop. You know what people say about you– or, about us. What if I’m a sinner, Wanda? No, no– stop. You’re not. Could you love me still? Could you love me if you’re the earth and I feel stuck like a moon in endless orbit? Could you stand to be near me? I don’t realize that she’s sobbing. Throwing my coat on over my nightie, running down the hall. Only thought away away away. Scrubbing her face out of my memory before her mugshot can appear in the papers.

***

Getting back home and digging up the gun didn’t take up too much time. I’d called Lloyd and let told him I’d taken my mother out for dinner, and I wouldn’t be home til late. I’d left him plenty to eat in the fridge. In the meantime, I drove around Liberty while I waited for the sun to go down. Passed by the diner where I’d first met Lloyd without a second look. I wanted past the buildings and the cars, away from the high school and the pharmacies and the train station where Mary Anne had left me for the first time.

Followed old winding roads and kept my windows rolled down, tracing the path of the creek. This is not crazy. I am not crazy. I pulled over onto the bank and stopped the car beneath a big willow tree. I was pretty sure Mary Anne’d lost her virginity here with some nobody. I imagined her pink and out of breath, bare against the bark. Only fifteen and leaning over for a smoke. I let out a bitter laugh.

Sour breeze hit me when I stepped out of the car. Hit me so hard I wanted to cry. It’d been years since I’d been back out here– water pollution has gone out the roof since then. There isn’t nothing nice I can have in this world. I lowered myself onto the bank, briefly hoping I’d get stuck in the mud. The mosquitoes were something fierce, crowding round my head like a crown. Thought the buzzing would drive me mad. I thought about picking up the phone and telling Lloyd everything. Mary Anne’s done and messed me up again, and now I’m thinking of doing something bad. He’d say, “Typical dumbass Wanda,” and we would both laugh, and then he’d come pick me up, and he’d forgive me like he’s always done.

I fell back against the tree and closed my eyes. I felt the ants crawling across my thighs, heard the crickets all around me. Like high school camping trips, just me and Mary Anne swapping stories in the dark. In my mind, I saw myself in a jumpsuit, falling into her arms. Murderers locked up for life, a jailhouse love affair. Then, Lloyd’s voice: Regular fucking prison wife.

Opened my eyes with an unexpected groan. More like a scream. I got up and into the car. It was dark out, and I had places to be.

***

Five years ago.

Starched my best dress. Not bothering with makeup—I weep it all off anyway. Lloyd silent with his jaw tight. Feeling so unreal. Back of the courtroom, heads down hoping she won’t notice us. Hours of agonizing wait, thigh bones stiff and heavy. Eyes glued to the back of her pretty blonde head. They’ve gotta go easy on her. She’s clearly not in the right state of mind. Lloyd in a huff, brow furrowed deep. I’m just glad I finally get to meet  your best friend. Shut up. We’re leaving soon as she’s sentenced. She’ll never know we were here. Acting so calm and nice. Gotta be the big girl for Lloyd, tantrum about driving up all the way up here. Too cheap to fly. Feels like my heart is lost in fluid. She’s never been so far away. Jurymen filing back into the box. First instinct, stand. Hold her head and cover her ears. But I grab onto Lloyd. Please don’t let go. Slow to speak.  We find the defendant guilty of manslaughter with a firearm Like that’s it. Takes years for their words to reach my mind. Thirty years imprisonment. Imprisonment. Guilty. Screams stuck in my throat, reaching out to keep her behind. Lloyd is holding me tight like he’s the only thing in the world that can protect me. Calm down. It’s not forever. Mary Anne pulled out by a uniform man, her eye glazing right over me. Like she’s looking me in the eye but can’t see me, and I know this is the end.

***

 

***

Eleven years ago.

Blushing bride like a magazine dream. He’s leaving little kisses all over, and I’m so happy I could bubble over. It’s your last day as a bachelorette, baby. Go forth with your freedom. Oh, Lloyd, there’s only one place I wanna be. Taking his big-veined hand. Gotta take you somewhere important. Twenty minute car ride, can’t keep our hands off of each other. Baby, you’re too good to be true. Straight out of school and into my fairy tale wedding. Pull over by this tree. Tumbling down into the grass, scritchy-scratchy kisses all over. Mosquito bites blooming on the backs of my thighs. Leaves stuck to my sweater. Baby, let me show you something. Pulling back the weeds at the bottom of the tree. Mary Anne and Wanda carved into the wood like an old cliche. Laughing at the sight of it. The hell is this? Can’t believe I haven’t told you this story, Lloyd. Mary Anne carved it to spite some boyfriend. Said I was the only forever she had in mind. Tickled me pink. Lloyd making a face. Didn’t she move up to Atlanta? Why in’t she in town for the wedding? Oh. Folding into his chest like I can find an answer. Holding me like something small and sacred. Gentle back and forth. Wanda, when I say forever, I mean it.

 

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