Nobody said anything outright but there was always some insinuation. Maybe their eyes wouldn’t blink, or their voices went high as they tried to sound like they weren’t at all alarmed to be in her presence. She knew they saw her as a fount of evil. Neighbors, coworkers, clerks – even the ones who never gave her a second thought seemed to ask, “What did you do to that boy that made him turn out the way he did?”
Every Saturday Gail Deaver left before sunrise to make the four-hour drive upstate to the penitentiary. She had asked the lawyer to ask the judge to incarcerate him nearer to her, but Everett Colin Deaver, Jr. had to be sent to a maximum-security prison and that meant Titusville, a windowless complex of gray-brick walls topped with barbed wire and watchtowers at every corner. The drive back was four hours as well, of course, which made for an exhausting journey that Gail nevertheless looked forward to. She made four salami-and-American cheese sandwiches and wrapped them in plastic. She poured an extra-large thermos of coffee, leaving enough room to sweeten it with chocolate milk. She had bought the thermos for Everett for the time he worked in construction. It had a decal of a smiley face on it.
Otherwise Gail spent all her time inside her small house on the fringes of the city. The looks from her colleagues at the hospital, where she had worked as a nurse’s aide, had become too much to bear. When a patient refused to let her change his bedpan, screaming that she had “birthed the anti-Christ,” it was decided that she’d be allowed to retire a little early and take her pension. It was a relief not to have to face people anymore, but it made her days and nights long and lonely.
By the time the sun came up, she usually made it to the tree-lined parkway that took her directly to Titusville. When she first started making the trip, she felt as if she were driving into nowhere. But now she found the greenery soothing. The asphalt was smooth and deep black and seemed to have hardly been driven on. Sometimes a deer sprinted across it far ahead of her. Once, when it was still dark, she saw an armadillo in her headlights, but she could not react fast enough to keep from running it over.
Halfway through the trip, she pulled over on the parkway and nourished herself with two of the sandwiches and some coffee. On the way back, she would do the same. Sometimes a state trooper pulled up next to her idling car.
“No. Just taking a break.” She held up the sandwich she was eating.
“Awful early to be out for a drive.”
Gail smiled. “I’m going to visit my son,” she said.
The trooper looked ahead through his windshield. His wrist was draped over his steering wheel. His mirrored sunglasses were pushed up high on his nose. Gail was sure he knew. Maybe he had seen her in the paper or on TV. Even if he didn’t recognize her, why else would someone be heading north on this road at six o’clock on a Saturday morning?
“I miss him a lot,” she said.
“You have a good morning,” said the trooper. He drove off.
When she finished eating, Gail pulled down the sun visor and checked the mirror that her mouth was free of crumbs. A picture of Everett was paperclipped next to it. It was his fourth grade school photo. His hair stuck up in strange places and she never knew how to cut it right. He wasn’t smiling exactly but his lips were open like he had just thought of something funny to say. Gail pressed her fingers to her lips and touched them to the photograph. She flipped the visor back up and put the car in gear.
The hours alone on the parkway sometimes lulled Gail into a dreamlike state. Sometimes she started to talk to herself. Sometimes she spoke to Everett as if he were there in the car with her.
“Remember how you used to pretend to be sick so you could stay home from school? You’d put your head in lap my and I’d stroke your hair and we watched The Price Is Right together. Remember how sometimes you’d nod off and start snoring? I’m still not sure how a noise like that could have come from such a sweet little boy! That was only time you ever reminded me of your father. When he snored it was like the roof was falling in. I know you don’t remember much about him, Everett. Believe me, we were lucky when he ran out on us. He couldn’t hold a job. He never had a kind word to say. He punched a hole in the drywall in the kitchen once just because I forgot to buy ketchup.”
“I never told you, Ev, but I knew the reason why you didn’t want to go to school. I knew you only got into those fights because the other kids were so rotten to you. I knew they made fun of you for being kept back a grade. I’m sorry, Everett. I should have spoke up more. I should have marched down to that school and told them ‘I’m not letting you hold my son back a year.’ I should have…done something.”
“I worry about you. Sometimes I wander around the house wondering what’s happening to you in that place. You looked so sick the last time. Your skin was so thin. I could see the blood rushing around inside your face. And your eyes had these black rings around them. Are you sleeping? Are you eating? What are they doing to you in there, Everett?”
Gail fell silent. She remembered how Everett had refused to look even look at her the last time. He had turned to the side as much as his bolted-down chair would allow. He had not said anything, so she just kept talking, saying whatever came to her mind – her lumbago, the cute new potholders she bought, how she waited on the phone with the cable company for an hour before she got to talk to a real person.
The only thing Gail couldn’t talk about to Everett was the crime. She had sat through every day of the trial. She had heard the words they used to describe him – “depraved,” “junkie,” “remorseless.” Despite herself she knew every detail. How Everett had worked in the lumberyard behind the convenience store he visited several times a day for coffee, food, and lottery tickets. How he had gotten to know the young couple that ran it and their routine. How he became friendly with them and stopped to chat with them about the weather or the Red Sox. How he had made them laugh with his almost dirty jokes.
“Say Tom, how do you find the time to watch all the tapes from that video camera over the door?” Everett had asked.
Tom, the husband, had testified to this. He had said he laughed and told Everett that the camera was not even hooked up and was there just for show. Tom had been through much grief and self-loathing that he had been the one to say that to his wife’s murderer, and that he could have been so blind to what Everett was really asking. He had testified about the morning he woke up with a cold, which he caught from their baby daughter, and how his wife Jean said she would open the store by herself. When he had gotten off the witness stand and walked past the defense table, Tom lunged at Everett and had to be restrained by the court officers, but he did get close enough the spit in the killer’s face.
By the time the trial was over, Gail felt as if she’d been dosed with some lethal poison that she nevertheless, somehow, survived.
Gail never asked Everett why he had to kill the young woman — why, if he needed the money to buy drugs, he didn’t just rob her. She couldn’t ask him why, after forcing her to open the safe and then strangling her, he had to pull her pants down. Or why did he had to put that boxcutter inside her and turn it until blood poured out of her, then why he had to use the boxcutter to slice the throat of the man who showed up to deliver the morning papers. She burned to know, but she decided it would be too upsetting for Everett to have to rehash the whole thing. Still, it stood between them thicker and clearer than the plexiglass in the Titusville visiting room.
When their sixty minutes was up, Everett stood up to be shackled for his trip back to his cell. He finally opened his mouth to speak, and Gail’s heart leapt a little.
“Why do you keep coming up here?” Everett said to his mother. “You can deposit money into my commissary account over the phone. You don’t have to come all the way up here.”
“Don’t come back anymore. I don’t want to see you anymore.” he said.
But that didn’t upset Gail. Everett had said that to her before, many times. She knew that since he was small Everett had a tendency to say things he didn’t really mean. That time he slammed the car door on his young cousin Brian’s fingers, Gail could see he was on the verge of apologizing and saying it was just an accident. But as Brian’s mother bitterly accused him something stopped him and he said instead that he hoped Brian’s fingers were broken. Gail knew he didn’t mean it, she knew he was just lashing out and really wanted to say he was sorry, but he struggled and there was something in his struggling that touched her very deeply.
Gail, on her way out, had turned the guard and said, “He doesn’t look good. Is he alright?”
The guard, who had heard everything Everett said, shrugged. “I don’t know anything about it, ma’am,” he said.
“You’ve always had a temper, Everett,” she said as she turned onto the exit that would take her to the prison. She smiled. “I guess that’s another way you remind me of your father.”
She arrived at Titusville and went the through the routine check-in. She was scanned for weapons and the guard asked for the processing number of the inmate she was there to see, which Gail knew by heart. The guard was one she had not seen before and from the long time it took him to look up Everett on the computer, she could tell he was new. The prison was the only place where she didn’t feel stared at. Even the new guards had a detachment that was a mercy to her.
The guard led her to the visiting room. She took a seat on her side of the scratched plexiglass. She stared at the pocked, white-painted cinderblock behind the empty chair on the other side. A couple of minutes later, the guard returned to say the inmate did not want to see any visitors.
Gail said, “That’s okay. I’ll just stay here in case he changes his mind.”
The guard flipped through several pages on his clipboard, looked at her, and then returned to his station at the far end of the room, where an older, burlier guard had shown up.
“Every Saturday,” the older guard said. “She keeps showing up but the inmate has refused to see her every Saturday for the last eight years.”
Every minute of that hour Gail sat in the fold-out chair, waiting. She didn’t make a spectacle of herself. She didn’t start to cry, at least not anymore. By the end of the hour, her lumbago would be worse and her butt would be numb, but she was content to be silent and still. She never looked at the clock but knew when it was time to stand up, go the guard’s station, reserve the same hour for the following Saturday, place twenty-five dollars in Everett’s commissary account, and go out to her car.
On the drive back, she laughed as she recounted how the can opener broke so she had to open a can of tuna fish with a hammer and a screwdriver. Then she fell quiet for the rest of the trip.
She never slept better than she did on Saturday nights.
Daniel Scott has published three books of fiction (Some of Us Have to Get Up in the Morning, Pay This Amount, Valedictory) and has received numerous writing awards including from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony.