It’s your first trip to the Century Regional Detention Facility, AKA Lynwood Jail. It won’t be as easy to get there as you think. The directions look simple on your car’s map, but once you get off the highway you will get lost. The Lynwood exit empties into an industrial section of town: underpasses, streets splintering off into multiple smaller streets, hairpin turns. This urban labyrinth will confuse your car’s GPS, or more accurately, your ability to understand what it’s telling you to do. You’ll turn off one street only to meet up with it again two blocks later. Recalculating.
Don’t be late. Arriving late could mean losing your reservation, and you don’t want to make this drive more times than you absolutely have to.
The boy in the back seat will help you. ”Turn on that road,” Kevin will say, the boy who’s not your son, whose name is not really Kevin. Kevin will surface from his uncharacteristic silence in the car to offer you this advice. Take it. Swing your Highlander Hybrid around; backtrack your way onto the right street. Brown signs will soon appear along the road, confirming Kevin’s direction. Shortly after that, the car will announce that you’ve arrived at your destination, but too late—you’ll already have passed the jail. Kevin will point this out to you, too. Your mistake will have been that you were looking for some imposing, monolithic structure, with checkpoints and towers. Barbed wire, maybe. Instead, you should have been looking out for a group of buildings that appear, from the road, as unassuming as any other bureaucratic government facility—a post office, or DMV.
Make a U-turn at the next intersection and pull into the lot. Kevin will tell you where to park. Eleven-year-old Kevin knows his way around.
Your familiarity with the CRDF has previously only been from the pages of Entertainment Weekly. You remember the jail as the all-female detention facility that housed Lindsay Lohan for several minutes in 2007. Also in 2010 and 2011. You and your husband snarkily refer to it as “The Slammer” when you’re alone in your room. But never, of course, in front of Kevin and his little brother Nicky (whose name is not really Nicky). “When you say the word jail, it’s a hot button of mine,” nine-year-old Nicky explained once to you, in his charming, childish lisp. So, with the boys, instead of saying, “Going to the jail,” you simply say, “Visiting your mom.”
The two boys are just down the hall from your bedroom, sharing a room with your son, like they’ve done many other times in the past, only then it was for fun one-night stays and now it’s gone on for longer than a month. You’ve tried to make it seem like an extended sleepover party, but by this time no one is feeling that way; the atmosphere of your home has taken on the heightened, fatigued quality of a siege.
The boys will be staying at your home for the next few weeks, until the end of the school year, unless the courts determine that they should be placed somewhere else, or their mother is released. You and your husband have been designated as “friends or family of the mother,” by the Department of Child and Family Services. After one call from a Van Nuys police detective and a home visit you’ve somehow found yourselves temporary guardians to two school friends of your son.
(“Somehow found yourselves,” is not quite right; you know exactly how this has happened: the accumulated four years of playdates and shared martial arts classes and sleepovers and Spring Sing concerts have created a connection that borders on the familial—your son and hers have called each other brothers—and you found a fellow parent that you liked, a classic bonding of single mom with two gay dads, so common in private schools, someone who was easy and friendly, who shared your humor and was close without being intrusive, what a relief. But don’t think about that other person, that person who bears so little resemblance to this woman you are about to visit.)
Your husband is usually the one who drives. The trips happen on the weekends; a Saturday visit for one boy, Sunday for the other. There’s no bringing both at the same time, the jail permits only two visitors a day for each inmate, the guardian counting as one. Later, after the boys have passed from your hands, you will find out that there are other possibilities, other visiting permutations, but here in the beginning you follow the stern directives of the LA County online prison reservation system.
You had not, previously, refused to make the drive. You had simply declined to recognize any opportunity to participate.
This gambit was bound to fail in the long run, and it has; your husband needed a break. It was either yourself, or no one. You made the decision to drive to the jail the way you and your husband have made all of your decisions in the last month: for the sake of the boys. To deny them visitation with their mother because you personally did not want to see her would be unconscionable. Besides, the boys (including your own) were surely becoming suspicious of your absence on these trips; at least, you imagined they were.
You used to be inseparable from their mother.
So, at your desk at home, after an evening of wrangling the boys from their intertwined tantrums and enraged silences into bed, you logged in to the Los Angeles County Corrections Department and registered to visit. Filled in your information. Entered her name. This name, as recently as a month ago, conjured up a dedicated mother, a permanent fixture on the playground of your school and an active member of almost every PSO committee. This was the name of a friend who once shared a vacation rental with you in Ventura County, who has brought kale salad with mango to your Thanksgiving dinner.
Now, her name brings up “Case 383113.”
“Case 383113” (not really the case number) leads to her age, race, date of arrest, and arresting agency: “Bunco/Forgery.” Charge Level: F, for Felony. (You felt, at that moment, that this designation should have had more impact on you, a feeling of abject horror, or at least, bewilderment. Instead, there was only a sort of hardening, a grim validation of what you had suspected, but too late.)
You selected the name, added it to “My Inmates.” You entered her sons’ names and ages to “My Guests.” A few more clicks, and available appointment times were displayed. You selected one, added Kevin, and it was done. Confirmation by email. It was like booking with Travelocity, only the trip you’re taking is to jail, and for thirty minutes only.
You sat back in your chair, exhausted already. You had never before been so disaster-adjacent.
During the drive, you had some ideas about how you were going to use the travel time alone with Kevin: there was going to be an Opening Up: some mixture of heartfelt bonding, empathetic listening, and adult wisdom. You had prepared to dispense important lessons on the Long View and Strength Building and Personal Responsibility and Second Chances. Instead, with the boy in the back seat, the one who usually could not stop talking, who was admonished several times a day at school for impulsivity, you will get only one-word answers and silence.
You shouldn’t be surprised. He isn’t being open with you because he knows you haven’t been open with him, not really. On previous talks, you and your husband had given careful, simplified accounts of the situation. Your Mom is in jail. These people say she did this. She says she didn’t. There will be a court date to decide who‘s right. The judge wants to keep your mom until then. It’s a delicate tone you had to strike—measured and impartial, designed to explain, but not too much. Gravity and gentleness, with yawning gaps of information that offered a modicum of hope while simultaneously taking it away. This elliptical parsing of the truth was necessary, you’d told yourself. It limited the boys’ confusion—the facts on the ground changed daily, sometimes hourly, depending on whom you talked to. And whom you believed.
This confusion was not limited to the children.
You don’t give them the details of the police reports, or the outstanding bills, or the conflicting information you’ve gleaned from hushed phone conversations with supposedly close friends and colleagues of hers who have appeared briefly, only to ebb away and vanish. And you don’t, of course, mention to the boys the enormous sum of money you and your husband had blithely lent to their mother some time ago, a heartfelt stop-gap loan between friends when you were absolutely sure that she would get it back to you by the end of the month, just as you are absolutely sure now that you will never see any of it returning your way.
Your selective silences then explain Kevin’s silence in the car now. He’s wary. He knows instinctively you’re not going to be dispensing any of the answers he’s looking for: Everything’s going to be fine. Yes, your mom will be getting out soon. Yes, the judge was wrong. Yes, your mom is innocent.
The CRDF is made up of several buildings surrounding a central courtyard. There will be nothing dangerous or seedy about the environment; it will feel like an abandoned civic center. A family of three, child swinging on the arms of the adults, will walk out just as you enter. Inside, there will be a lone security guard at an information desk. Kevin will pull you towards a set of glass doors to the right, which open to a short hall, with lockers, and then a room about the size of a lecture hall, with rows of chairs facing a long counter.
The attending sheriffs behind the counter will all be women, their hair pulled back tight in buns. Severe, professional, but not manly. There will be a large clock on the wall behind them. One of them will ask if you’re here for the 11:30. “It’s not time to check in,” she will say. “Siddown, we’ll call you up.”
There’ll be a lot of families. It will look to you like the same crowd that might be found at an Amtrak station, minus the businessmen. Everyone is patient. Even the children are quiet. Kevin will start playing games on his phone, one of his mother’s that, surprisingly, still works. You will squeeze his head gently, so proud of his calmness, but worried about it, too. No boy his age should feel this comfortable visiting his mother in jail. Start to talk, but stop. Pull out your phone. Check your emails. Try not to think of the woman beyond the women. Repeat her case number in your head, like a mantra, until you’ve replaced her image with a tattoo of ones and threes.
A half-hour later Kevin will tell you that it’s time to stand in line again. Leave your row of chairs and join the queue that has suddenly formed. Next to you will be a room labeled “Outreach Services,” the reaching out apparently performed by Jesus, or his emissaries, or both. There will be a display of crucifix-adorned pamphlets for the adults, clipboards of black-and-white Bible pictures and crayons for the kids. Kevin will be tempted by neither. Advance steadily forward.
When you get up to the counter, you’ll stand in front of Officer Mendez, who checks out your reservation. Officer Mendez will have bright pink nail polish on each finger, with sparkles, and the smallest trace of a Mexican accent. “Have a seat,” she will say. She’s not unfriendly. You will sit, again, but only for a moment.
The spiel will begin exactly on time. One of the seated officers will bark out the rules—empty your pockets—lockers in the back—no food—wait until the name is called. The only things you will be allowed will be a driver’s license and your locker key. Nothing else. Forbidden items, your husband had discovered during previous visits, include artwork from school, photos and hand-drawn cards.
The litany of names will start up next. Soon, the one you’re listening for will be called, and you’ll stand before Officer Mendez, again, to be checked in one last time. “Red line, first floor,” she will say, pointing a pink nail towards the metal detectors. Once through those, you are on your own, following with other visitors a red line painted on the concrete floor, turning right, then left, towards a distant elevator. The red line will lead you down a long, long corridor, a span bridging the outside world with those on the inside. It will feel sinister in length, claustrophobic despite a row of windows to the left. Everyone will stick to the middle, close to the painted red line, like it’s a tether to safety.
Kevin will wave at each security camera as he passes them.
At the elevator, mass together and crowd in. Go up one floor, and out. There’ll be no guards to direct you, but nowhere else to go except through two sets of doors. Beyond those doors will be your destination: a narrow room, one with a metal counter running its length, against a wall of glass. The counter is segmented by partitions, ten in all. Between each partition are a stool and a phone. You will all stream in, like you’re at Disneyland, where guests finally advance to a slot for the next ride, but instead of a number to stand behind you’ll be looking for a face.
There’s a room mirroring yours on the other side of the double glass, and seated between each partition will be an inmate, waiting. They’re lit, on that other side, by a jaundiced light, and it’s this light, along with the blurriness of the glass, scuffed and smeary from a thousand hands held up and pressed against it, that will make the waiting inmates seem unreal, like they’re portraits on exhibition, or mechanical fortune tellers at a carnival, waiting for a quarter to be dropped in.
Four seats down the line your portrait will reveal herself, pony-tailed and hunched small.
Case 383113. (Not really her case number.)
Evangeline Barrows. (Not really her name.)
Vangie. (Not really the name you always called her, the name she used among friends, the name on her Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, the name that showed up on your cellphone almost daily after school drop-off or before pickup—Vangie, I just saw you two minutes ago!—It is not her, you will tell yourself. It could almost be a stranger. You don’t know who that is, pony-tailed and hunched small.)
Kevin will run to the partition, ahead of you. He will immediately push his hand against the glass in front, even before sitting. Her hand will meet his, in illusion. Her other hand will signal: pick up the phone.
“Hi Mom,” he will say. It will be the happiest he has sounded in a month.
When Kevin runs to his mother, recede to the back wall two feet behind him. Look anywhere but in front of you, appear as if you’re wanting to give them some privacy, even though you’re only avoiding eye contact. You needn’t worry: Vangie will have eyes only for Kevin. Without any signal at all, she and you will mutually agree to pretend you are not even there.
You have seen Vangie like this, in prison scrubs, twice before. Both times were in court: at the first hearing, when you believed she was just the victim of poor money management, and at the second, when you didn’t believe that anymore.
Look to your left and right. The inmates and their guests will have all paired off. Collectively, they’ll look like they’ve been assembled by a good casting director: teenage girls visiting mother; older mother visiting daughter (looking almost identical in age); husband visiting wife; blond hoochie-mama in lace and black stilettos visiting butch girlfriend. A married couple visiting their daughter, crowded around the phone so they can both talk to her, chatty like she’s away at college for the first time.
Steal a glance at Evangeline. She will fit in surprisingly well with the rest of the inmates—she too will look well cast: hair pulled back in a bushy pony tail, aggressive eyebrows, beaten expression. But she will look younger, too. The lack of makeup and the weight loss will make her appear almost girlish.
Phone conversations will burble around you, one-sided. What are you eating— Did you get what we sent— Yesterday we went to— Grandma says hi— Don’t expect any wailing, outbursts, or tear-choked confessions. Everyone will be his or her chattiest, most casual self. Visitors will bring to their loved one a gift of normalcy, unpacked in person—a conversation as mundane and inconsequential as everyday life. Only the identical mother and daughter will be quiet, looking at each other calmly but with miles of weariness between them. Everyone else’s chatter will surround them. I miss you— I love you sweetie— You talk now—
“I love you, too,” Kevin will say, for the fourth time. Kevin will be his old self, talking a mile a minute, eagerly offering up bits and pieces of his day-to-day. Elementary school graduation, end-of-the-year parties, assemblies and playdates, it will all spill from him in a steady, buoyant stream. Vangie will listen soberly; her face will have arranged itself into an expression of concern that never changes, no matter what Kevin is saying. She will look like she is both listening very intently and not listening at all.
Now. When Kevin says, “Hold on,” into the receiver, get ready. The moment you are dreading is about to happen. He will hand you the phone. “Do you want to talk?”
Give yourself a moment. Say, “Oh!” as if this were a surprise, something that you were not expecting; you are in the kitchen of your home, hurriedly rinsing your hands off and wiping them on a dishtowel while the phone is being held for you—who could it be?—as if you had not been leaning against a painted brick wall for the past fifteen minutes, silently urging—urging!—the clock to spin by faster. “Oh!” you will murmur, and arrange your face into its own expression of listening.
Take the phone. Sit down on the chair vacated by Kevin. Raise your head and see Vangie staring back at you. The look in her eyes may be sadness, or it may be calculation, or it may be shame. Your own eyes will reflect nothing back. They will be opaque, like marbles. Like the coins they place on the eyes of the dead, who see nothing.
Say hello slowly and carefully, as if you’ve just learned the word in a different language. You will find an immediate understanding passing between you and Vangie, an unspoken agreement that whatever conversation will happen, will happen for the sake of the boy leaning against the wall behind you, the boy who has retreated into his own silence but will surely be listening. Embark on a stilted reenactment of casual talks you’ve had with her scores of times before, something about the boys, something about school, something about some other neutral day-to-day. It will be like a community theater production of your former relationship, full of dull line readings and unconvincing gestures.
Two minutes later, let the curtain come down. Hand the phone back to Kevin. Tell him it’s time to say good-bye.
There will be a surge of conversation, a noticeable upping of volume, as the half hour closes out. Everyone will be trying to cram more talk into less time. The weary mother will stand up first. She will walk through the door without looking back. And then, one by one, phones will go back into their cradles. Everyone will want to hang up before they’re cut off. Everyone but Kevin.
He and Evangeline will be the last ones. The room will be empty, and they’ll still be holding the dead receivers in their hands, their other hand pressing against the glass. They will look at each other, mouthing words. Evangeline will say something that Kevin doesn’t understand. You will have to step in, make one more appearance.
“She says you have to go first,” you’ll tell him. “Come on, sweetie.”
And eventually he will turn away, your hand on his shoulder, following the others to the elevator, leaving Evangeline behind, still holding the phone. Walk back along the red line, out to the waiting room where the next group is assembling, and then out the doors into the daylight, where the sun will finally warm your face and arms. It will feel good. It will feel like something.
And that’s it. You’re out. The car ride back will be nothing at all.
Rumpus original art by Dana Schwartz.