Ruthie Mae stared across the street at the State Fair of Texas. She lived close enough to see and smell the smoke when Big Tex had burned to a crisp. Some days she imagined her husband was still around, coercing her to ride on the Ferris wheel, trying to recapture their youth. She shook off the nostalgia and picked up the lunch she had packed for her daughter, Shontaye. Every Monday through Thursday for over a year now, she fixed a chicken sandwich, mixed salad, potato chips, cookie, and orange juice and stuffed it in her soft-sided cooler. Dialysis made Shontaye so weak that she needed to eat and take a short nap before she returned to her job training people at the gym. “Whipping them into shape,” she’d said.
Her phone rang as she headed toward the front door. Telemarketers. But wait, maybe it was Shontaye. Ruthie Mae knew she was running an errand with one of the trainers before meeting her at dialysis.
“Mom,” Shontaye whispered. “Don’t panic. Just listen.” Ruthie Mae pushed the speaker button and eased down onto the brown leather recliner that had belonged to her husband before he passed away. “Call my parole officer and tell her I was riding in the car with another felon when the police pulled us over. It’s a parole violation.”
Ruthie Mae interrupted her. “Lordy, Jesus.”
“Mom, listen. They’re going to hold me. My P.O. can tell you what to do. I’m at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, the Dallas County Jail.” Ruthie Mae picked up the pencil from the end table and wrote Dallas County Jail onto the calendar. “Mom. You there?”
She remembered years ago when Shontaye had called and said she was in jail. That day she handed the phone to her husband to let him handle it.
“I didn’t know he was a felon,” Shontaye said.
Beads of sweat appeared on Ruthie Mae’s forehead. As she searched for the P.O.’s number, perspiration dripped down her armpits and thighs. By the time her call went into voicemail, she realized it was the afternoon of the day before Good Friday and government offices may have already shut down for the holiday. She sat on the side of Shontaye’s bed knowing she would get deathly ill without her dialysis treatment. Then her eyes landed on the row of pills lined neatly on the nightstand. Ruthie Mae gathered the pills and put them into the soft-sided cooler. She decided to take the pills with her to the jail and see about getting Shontaye out before Easter.
When Ruthie Mae arrived at the jail, she signed her name on the 33rd line of the sheet of paper. Then she stood against the wall of the overcrowded room that smelled like fear and hopelessness and waited. She overheard a middle-aged woman like herself plead to no avail with the officer for information about her son. He ignored her pleas and called the next name as he looked past her into the musty room. A woman next to Ruthie Mae with red hair and nails continually stooped down and stood up as if she couldn’t figure out the most comfortable position. After the officer pushed the middle-aged woman aside, she struck up a conversation with Ruthie Mae.
“You see how he violated her? If he put his hands on me, I’d sue his ass off.” Her name was AJ.
“You a lawyer?” Ruthie Mae asked.
“No, honey. You couldn’t pay me to be that sleazy,” she said. “You need a lawyer?”
“I don’t quite know what I need. My daughter was picked up on a parole violation, and I can’t reach her P.O.” Ruthie Mae spilled her story to AJ as if she was her pastor.
“Ohhh,” AJ said.
“What you mean, oh?”
AJ leaned closer to her ear. “She have to wait at least 10 days before she see the judge.”
“How you know all this?” Ruthie said, getting irritated.
“Honey, please,” AJ said. “But maybe since she need her pills and dialysis, they’ll let you bail her out today.”
Ruthie Mae gained a smidgen of hope. “You really think so?”
“Nah,” AJ said. “I don’t.”
Ruthie Mae lowered her head and looked down at the floor. “Should I talk to one of these lawyers?” She showed her two business cards.
“Hell, no,” AJ said, and tore up the cards. “Don’t believe nobody in here except that officer. Write down your three question ’cause he only giving you a minute. You want to know when she going before the judge, how can she get her dialysis treatment and meds.” AJ tapped on the wall with her long red fingernails, which drove Ruthie Mae up the wall. “Look, they can’t take your medicine. Their doctors have to prescribe it for her. She is a ward of the prison not the jail, so she’ll have to follow prison rules.”
Ruthie Mae wanted to hit AJ, smack her up and down the hallway, but deep inside she believed her, knew she was telling the truth. “I’m worried about her health.”
“Ain’t no place for worry in here. Buck up and demand answers. You saw what happened to that other old church lady.”
Ruthie Mae’s wobbly legs could barely hold her up, so she sat on the floor. A dark cloud saturated her mind, and she couldn’t breathe as she read the three questions repeatedly. She called the parole officer again. The last time she had done every second of Shontaye’s time with her and swore she wouldn’t do it again, but here she was waiting as if she was a criminal. The officer called AJ’s name, and she switched up to his desk as if she owned the place. Ruthie Mae’s head hurt, and her armpits and panties were soaked. Later, AJ tapped her on the shoulder before she exited the room. Then Ruthie Mae unzipped the soft-sided cooler and opened the bag of potato chips.
She was alone.
Sanderia Faye is on the faculty at SMU and is a speaker, activist, and sommelier. Her novel, Mourner’s Bench, won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, the Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit for fiction, and the 2017 Arkansas Library Association Arkansiana Award. She hosts the LitNight reading series, held every second Tuesday of the month at Chocolate Secrets.