If Mother Goes to the Penitentiary ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in The Bone Parade. This is a repost.)
Daddy Earl drove slowly on the night-time street, looking for an address. When he found the one he wanted, he parked the car under a street lamp and killed the engine.
“This looks like the place,” he said. “You two wait here. This shouldn’t take long.”
“What do you think Daddy Earl does on these calls he makes?” Freda said to Julian after Daddy Earl was gone.
“How should I know?” Julian said. He was lying on his back looking upside down out the window.
“Well, I hope this doesn’t take long. It’s boring just sitting here in the dark and it’s kind of scary.”
“I’m not scared,” Julian said.
“If anybody walking along the street tries to bother us, I’ll honk the horn to attract somebody’s attention.”
“What do you think mother’s doing right now?” Julian asked.
“She’s probably sitting on the bunk in her little jail cell in her plain gray prison dress, thinking about where she stashed those jewels.”
“The jewels she stole, silly. I just know she has them hidden away in a safe place and when she gets out of jail she’ll know right where they are and go and get them. Then we’ll have to go away to Mexico or Nicaragua or someplace like that to keep the police from locking her away in jail again.”
“Daddy Earl too?” Julian asked.
“No, I think Daddy Earl will stay here,” Freda said.
“Maybe mother and Daddy Earl will get married.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think Daddy Earl gives mother much of a thrill. He’s nice and everything, but he’s not very good looking and he’s kind of dumb. He sleeps in his socks.”
“How do you know he sleeps in his socks?”
“Mother told me, silly. It’s to keep his feet warm. He doesn’t have good circulation, so his feet are cold all the time.”
“I sleep in my socks, too,” Julian said. “Sometimes.”
“That’s just because you’re ignorant and you don’t know any better.”
“You’re just as ignorant as I am.”
“Yes, but I’m trying to overcome my ignorance, but you’ll go through your whole life getting more ignorant all the time.”
Julian yawned and then coughed. “Do you see Daddy Earl coming?”
“It’s only been about two minutes,” Freda said. “He wouldn’t be back this soon.”
“Why did they put mother in jail?” Julian asked.
“It was her third conviction, that’s why.”
“It means she was caught three times stealing jewelry and stuff. On the third time, they lock you up to try to teach you a lesson.”
“What’s the lesson?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s not to steal anymore.”
“I heard Daddy Earl telling somebody on the phone that mother’s shoplifting is a psychological addiction,” Julian said. “She can’t keep from doing it, even if it means she’ll have to go to jail.”
“Who was Daddy Earl talking to?”
“How should I know?”
“Maybe it was a lawyer.”
“He said she’s going to end up in the penitentiary if she’s not careful.”
“It’s kind of funny to have a criminal for a mother,” Freda said. “I mean funny in an odd way, not in a laughing way.”
“Hah-hah-hah,” Julian said.
“If mother goes to the penitentiary, I think I have a pretty good idea what will happen to us,” Freda said.
“Yeah, you and me, dumbbell! We’re minors. Do you think they’re going to leave us with Daddy Earl?”
“I don’t know.”
“Daddy Earl doesn’t want us for all the time. He’ll only let us stay with him until mother gets out of jail and then all bets are off.”
“All bets are off,” Julian said. “Maybe we can go live in the penitentiary with mother.”
“Do you think they let kids stay there?”
“I don’t know why not.”
“Well, that shows how much you know! You wouldn’t want to live in the penitentiary even if you could.
“They eat gruel and stale bread every meal. There are rats and cockroaches everywhere and the people roaming around there would slit your throat just for looking at them. If the guards catch you doing something you’re not supposed to do, they lock you up in solitary confinement.”
“What’s solitary confinement?”
“It’s a dark place where they lock you away from everybody else and they only give you a little sip of water and a crust of moldy bread, and that’s all you get for the whole day.”
“Do they have TV in solitary confinement?”
“Of course not, silly! What would be the point in that? You don’t have books or newspapers or music or anything. That makes the punishment worse. Then when they finally let you out, you’re so grateful to be out that you promise you won’t ever act up again.”
“I don’t think I’d like it very much,” Julian said.
“No, if mother goes to the penitentiary, it’s off to foster care for you and me.”
“What’s foster care?”
“It means they put you in a place with strangers where they watch you all the time to make sure you’re not going to turn out to be a criminal, too. They make you scrub floors and wash dishes and go to church.”
“Why do they make you go to church?”
“Why do you think? They want to scare you into thinking you’re going to go to hell if you don’t try to be a good person.”
“I try to be a good person.”
“That’s because you’re only a small child. When you get older, you’ll get into things like gambling and drinking and chasing after women.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“I’ve read a lot of books beyond my grade level and have watched a lot of TV. You find out about life from reading books and watching TV.”
“Like the Three Stooges?”
“No, I don’t mean like the Three Stooges. I mean real-life drama shows like detective shows and doctor shows and old movies that they show late at night.”
“Oh, I don’t like those.”
“You’ll never get past the Three Stooges phase, I’m afraid.”
The windows were starting to steam up. Freda swiped the sleeve of her coat across the glass.
“I wish he’d come on.” she said. “I want to get home.”
“It’s Saturday night and I’ve got a date.”
“None of your business, that’s who with.”
“I’m going to tell mother!”
“Yeah, she’s in prison. Do you think she cares if I have a date?”
“She’d tell you you can’t go.”
“I’ll bet you didn’t know I had a boyfriend, did you?”
“Who cares?” Julian said. “What’s his name?”
“His name is Mickey Littlejohn, if it’s any of your business. He’s in the tenth grade, two years older than I am.”
“Is he the one with rotten teeth?”
“No, that’s Harvey Greaves. They’re nothing alike.”
“I don’t know him.”
“Mickey Littlejohn and I are going to run off and get married. We’re that much in love.”
“Mother won’t let you.”
“I don’t know how she can stop me, since she’s in prison.”
“She’ll tell Daddy Earl to stop you.”
“Did you ever notice how Daddy Earl doesn’t ever look right at us? He looks through us like we’re not even there. It’s like he’s thinking about something else all the time.”
“What’s he thinking about?”
“I don’t know. He’s a sphinx.”
“What’s a sphinx?”
“You’re too young to know.”
“I don’t care, anyway.”
Freda took a comb out of her purse and began combing her hair in the dark, imagining she was seeing herself in a mirror. “Mickey’s not going to like it when he comes by to pick me up tonight and I’m not at home because I’m waiting in some old car on some old street with my little brother.”
“Daddy Earl would chase him away.”
“Daddy Earl doesn’t know anything about Mickey and that’s the way I want to keep it.”
“Mickey Littlejohn is the one person in the world who will keep me from having to go to foster care when mother goes to live at the penitentiary.”
“How is he going to do that?”
“If they see I’m married and am living with Mickey in his own home with his parents, they’ll have to leave me alone. They won’t make me go to foster care because I’ll be a married woman living with my husband. It’s the law.”
“Can I come and live with you and Mickey Littlejohn?”
“Of course not, silly! You’ll have to go to foster care. A newly married woman doesn’t take her little brother along to live with her husband.”
“I don’t know why not!”
“It just isn’t done.”
“I’m not going to foster care,” Julian said.
“Oh, yes, you will! You’ll have to do what you’re told to do because you’re a minor. When you’re a minor, you don’t get to make any decisions for yourself.”
“Oh. I’ll go and live with my father, then.”
“You don’t have a father, dope!”
“Does he live in the penitentiary too?”
“Nobody knows where he is. Mother doesn’t know. He was just a brief infatuation for her.”
“I’ll put an ad in the paper and I’ll find him that way,” Julian said.
“He doesn’t want to be found, silly. That’s the way it is when you’re a man and a woman you’re not married to has a baby by you.”
“Don’t we have a grandma or an aunt or somebody that I could go live with?”
“All dead,” Freda said. “It’s foster care for you.”
“I’m not going!”
“When the time comes, they won’t ask you. They’ll pack you off no matter how much you cry and scream.”
“No, they won’t. I’ll buy a gun and kill them.”
Freda sighed deeply and knowingly. “Oh, well,” she said. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Mother’s not in the penitentiary yet and maybe she won’t even have to go.”
“She needs to promise she won’t ever steal any more jewels,” Julian said.
“She should never have become a mother in the first place,” Freda said, “but these things will happen.”
“I think I see Daddy Earl coming now,” Julian said.
“No,” Freda said. “It’s only a tree moving in the wind.”
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp