[Readings] | The Mission, by Joy Williams | Harper's Magazine
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By Joy Williams, from Little Star #5. Williams is the author of several works of fiction, including Honored Guest.

A Mr. Hill was doing my paperwork.

“What will you take away from this experience?” he asked me.

I looked at him, a little wildly, I guess.

“What do you think you will learn from the incarceration experience?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Mr. Hill wore a pink shirt and looked tired. His eyes were bloodshot.

“Have you been swimming?” I asked.

“I haven’t been swimming,” he said frankly.

I thought of Mr. Hill doing a strenuous butterfly in a blue, cool but overchlorinated pool deep in the earth beneath the Mission.

I had been in jail but a single day and night when they realized they had overlooked the wedding ring on my hand. I wasn’t married anymore but I couldn’t get the ring off. My knuckles were swollen possibly because of the prednisone which I had been taking because I was tired, so tired. It was just a cheap gold band but I made a terrible fuss when they said they’d have to cut it off. Some of the girls had gathered around.

“They’re gonna cut off her wedding ring,” they muttered with amused awe.

I asked for Mr. Hill. He might tell them not to bother, I thought. I was only in for nine days.

But they couldn’t find Mr. Hill or he had in the meanwhile sickened or died, I don’t know.

They were determined to cut off my ring and after several attempts with a variety of implements they did. They took pictures. First the little ring was on my lumpish hand, then the poor broken thing was lying on a baggie into which it would be placed for safekeeping and future retrieval. I didn’t regret the mangling of the ring as much as the disclosure heard throughout the dorm that I would be there for a mere nine days. Most of the girls were serving ninety or a hundred and eighty days. One girl, Lisa, who even with my paucity of instinctual knowledge terrified me, had been here since September and it was now June.

It was Sunday evening and on Sunday evenings there was Snack, which was a bottle of Pepsi and a packaged cookie. Usually you had to pay for this stuff out of the machines. Two inmates with magnificent hair distributed Snack, which was allocated by bunk number. Everyone except the guards had the most astonishing hair. I didn’t want to call any more attention to myself so I lined up with the others but someone had already used my number to double-dip.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.

“You didn’t pick up Snack already?” one of the gloriously maned girls demanded.

“It’s perfectly all right,” I assured her.

“Somebody take her cookie?” the other said, her eyes darkening.

“Some bitch took her cookie.”

“Really, it’s fine,” I said. “I didn’t . . . ”

“I’m gonna find the bitch took her cookie!” She looked about with unsettling purpose.

“Please, please, please,” I said.

“She doesn’t want to get the bitch in trouble,” the first one said, not altogether approvingly.

They pushed a warm soda and a cold cookie into my hands.

“You can give me them if you don’t want it,” the girl behind me said.

I was DUI which was so boring in the vast scheme of things and particularly in the louche gray world of the Mission. DUIs were beneath interest and I had already experienced girls looking right through me in a practiced way though this would change if the particulars of my case became known. I had been drinking manhattans all afternoon for reasons that remain obscure and returning home had driven off the road and into the city’s largest cemetery, demolishing seven headstones before my old Suburban stopped. If one of those girls had a friend or family member whose marker had been desecrated even God wouldn’t be willing to help me.

The first policeman on the scene said, “You’re lucky you didn’t kill somebody.” Naturally, he was laughing.

This happened four months ago. I didn’t go to jail right away. First they took me to a place called the Pit, where more or less endless processing is conducted. There’s a water fountain and a phone. My only companion was a woman saying into the receiver Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom. Mom. Mom? I don’t think anyone was on the other end. I think she was just trying to pass time in the Pit.

Do you know that Kafka is buried with his mother and father in Prague? Their names are on his stone. He couldn’t get away from those people, not in life and not in death. I have never been to Prague but had I been and by some misfortune demolished Kafka’s headstone the rage of the people there, indeed the rage of people the world over, would not exceed that of the kinsmen of those whose rest was disturbed here in our little city’s largest cemetery. The families Dominguez and Schrage and Tapia and McNeil and Byrne and Pennington . . . they hated me. They howled for my ruin. I’d been told their anguish was existential and therefore without limit or promise of closure. Reparation would never be enough.

They let me go after twelve hours to deal with all the horrid things that would occupy me for years — the sentencing and community service and judgments, the lawyers and lawsuits and probation officers and trials and plea bargains and financial penalties and loss of privileges and rights. Nine days at the Mission might very well be the least of my burdens.

In the bunk next to me there was a girl whose eyelids were tattooed. I had never seen anything like it. She was a vandal. She went out into nature, into state parks particularly, and hacked whatever she could to pieces. She hacked up trees and spray-painted soma on boulders and petroglyphs and interpretive signs. She had misread Brave New World, maybe in high school I thought, but I wasn’t going to mention that to her or anything else.

“Have you ever read Brave New World?”I asked.

She turned her head in my direction, closed her eyes, and very, very slowly shook her head.

“Okay,” I said. “Cool.”

You’re better off if you don’t count the days in jail. Never count the days. Time served does not go Monday Tuesday Wednesday and so on but Monday to Tuesday, Tuesday to Wednesday, in that manner. It’s longer that way, which is how they want it.

One girl said that when she got out there was a job waiting for her decorating cakes. But she did not have high hopes for the position. “You can’t be real creative,” she said. “It’s not as creative as you’d think.”

I just overhear these things, no one ever speaks to me. For example I heard Lisa was in for armed robbery and three of the five fathers of her children had restraining orders against her. One afternoon Lisa said to a girl who had left her boyfriend for dead with a knife in his head as they were traveling by bus to Key West — just left him in the seat when she exited in Key Largo — Lisa said to this girl, “Do you have anything you’d like to share?” Most of the girls had food they’d bought from the machines in the drawers under their bunks. I was very frightened but the girl gave Lisa Snickers and Skittles and even a little bag of that Smart Food popcorn all of which Lisa accepted in a gracious manner.

The next morning I saw Mr. Hill standing by the front station with some folders.

“Mr. Hill!” I cried.

“Hello, N. Frame,” he said.

“I’m not N. Frame,” I said, somewhat hurt, “unless she’s to be released today.”

“She is to be released today.”

“Then sure I am,” I said.

“No,” he said, studying me with his bloodshot eyes, “I see you are not.”

“Have you been swimming?” I said, trying to resume our old intimacy.

“You’d better go back to your bunk now,” he said, “and tuck your shirt in.”

“But it’s been nine days! I know you’re not supposed to count.”

“Who ever told you that?” he said. “Of course you’re supposed to count the days.”

Not long after, the girls who distributed Snack were released and the girl who would have the job at the bakery and even Lisa. She strode away, her mighty bronze and black hair swinging.

I started counting the days.

When I counted a certain way I had not been there anywhere near nine days.

New girls arrived. They didn’t need to know me either because the reality is DUIs will never be among the elite at the Mission. One of the new ones — she was just in for violating probation — managed to hang herself. No one could figure out how she got away with it. Like everyone else she had been asked a dozen times throughout the admission process if she harbored suicidal thoughts but she must have lied.

For a while afterward there were more guards, even men, boys really. The boy guards always looked uneasy. There’s a shitload of girls in the bathroom, we heard one of them say anxiously. Somehow the numbers had gotten away from them. There are supposed to be only seven of us in the bathroom at any given time.

The girls gave each other facials at the picnic table in the little concrete yard where we were allowed to go at erratic times. The times became even more erratic, if that were possible, after the hanged girl. Her name had been Deirdre though no one mentioned her by name. It was just too weird to call her by her name.

A facial was just squeezing blackheads and whiteheads. Even so, I was not invited to participate, neither as extractor or extractee. I felt so isolated and alone though no more than usual.

My lawyer said, “You’re better off where you are for the time being. The environment out here is not conducive to . . . ” She paused.

“To what?”

“Conducive to your privacy, to your ability to come and go.”

“I want to be able to come and go out there.”

“Don’t we all,” the lawyer said. “I mean in the deepest sense.”

From the very first I had found her annoying.

“But I didn’t hurt anyone.”

“A felony’s a felony,” she said.

I spent my days attempting to read a little pamphlet entitled The Room. It was about file cards and Jesus. It was pretty depressing. It was trying to provide hope but I did not find it hopeful. Too, the problem might have been with the lighting, which was deliberately terrible. It took forever to read anything.

Then I saw Mr. Hill again. I rushed to the red line painted on the floor. He nodded to me to advance.

“Hello, N. Frame,” he said.

“Hello!” I said. Thinking quickly, I added, “I am to be released today.”

Then I wanted to take it back because N. Frame had been released many days before by my calculation.

“I’m afraid not,” Mr. Hill said. “You’re a recidivist and your time with us starts all over again.”

Despite myself I thrilled to his use of the word “recidivist,” which is a lovely sounding word.

“I’m really not N. Frame,” I said. “But for my own actions I take full responsibility. I am so contrite.”

He looked at me wearily.

“I am,” I said.

“Nothing you do will be enough,” he said. “No solatium will suffice.”

“I know, I know, I know,” I said.

He shifted the folders he held from one hand to the other. “ ‘ . . . enhanced punishment . . . ’ ” I heard in part.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, for “enhanced” was a lovely word as well though I believe in this context it wasn’t as nice as it sounded. “Am I a recidivist or did my sentence just get worse regardless?”

Even before I finished I felt the unworthiness of my question. I retreated to my bunk and I thought of Mr. Hill returning to his residence beneath the Mission where the light was good and where water moved as if it were alive and where possibly dozens of the pressed pink shirts I admired were in orderly rows. Our clothes smell of metal — our soap and socks and even the candy that we keep. It all smells unconsolingly of metal.

It was very late and all was quiet. There wasn’t a dream moving.

The girl with the tattooed eyelids said to me, “There is no Mr. Hill.”

I felt better immediately.

Her eyes were shut of course. There was a design on her lids but I had always felt that any attempt to determine what it was would be most unwise and I feel that way still.

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