Seraphic Disclaimer: This post contains some language that is a bit, actually, a lot more graphic than is normally found in Seraphic Secret. So if you are young, under 18, religiously modest, or secularly modest, the following, which deals with life in a women’s prison, might not be appropriate reading matter for you.
EXT. PRISON – DAY
The Screenwriter, alternately known to the inmates as Mr. Hollywood, Mr. Screenplay Writer and Mr. Clueless, sits with Eden, an attractive prisoner who is: mother to three children, a lover of Jane Austen, and a fine dog trainer. She also committed murder and has agreed to talk about it. One long take. Think Orson Welles deep focus photography, meets Anthony Mann’s movement within frame.
“The thing y’gotta know is I’m not the same person I was back when I did what I did. But I still take full responsibility for, uh, what happened.”
In prison I keep hearing three tedious words: It. Just. Happened.
I have learned that when dealing with inmates, women who have killed their parents for insurance money, women who have killed husbands because the toilet seat was down, women who have killed their children because—
There are no words, there is no comprehension, there is only a terrible rip in my consciousness.
—your brain has to go through some pretty strange convulsions to process the twisted information.
Eden and I are outside the dog training shed. Her dog, Scout, is lazing in the sun, tail thumping contentedly on the grass. A few minutes earlier the extremely bright and eager-to-please mutt ran through an amazing series of exercises: grabbing a rag tied to the door of a refrigerator, opening the door, and bringing a quart of milk to Eden who was sitting in a wheel chair.
I watched, amazed, as Scout opened a dryer, took out articles of clothing with its teeth, and dropped the laundry into a basket with far greater dexterity than I could ever manage.
Scout opened a clothing drawer and with great tenderness brought some clothing over to Eden.
Holding open the front door with its body, the dog waited ever so patiently for Eden to maneuver her wheelchair through the narrow doorway.
Of course, Eden does not need a wheel chair. She’s an inmate playing the role of a disabled person. The program trains dogs for disabled people, and Eden is one of the best trainers.
I am here researching a film, Within These Walls, for the LifeTime cable network.
Now, C.O. Cindy has called a break and Eden and I are outside on a small patch of grass, surrounded by a chain link fence, crowned by coils of barbed wire.
Every once in a while a clot of prisoners walk by and throw angry, very angry glances our way.
“What’s their problem?” I ask.
“They’re jealous, buncha skanks.”
“This is a good gig, huh?”
“Hey, what would you rather do, mow the lawn, pick up the garbage, do the prison laundry, or work with the pooches?”
Eden lights a cigarette, the sleeve of her blouse rises and I glimpse thick white scars, like worms under her skin, testament to her former life as a junkie.
“Here’s the thing, I’m not saying I wasn’t responsible for what I did, I was, I was a bad person filled with sin and evil, but that’s not who I am anymore. You understand what I’m saying?”
Eden’s riff is a vast improvement over what I have heard from the majority of the other inmates. Over and over again I hear them automatically regurgitate the language of the therapists who infest the prison like new age locust.
Basic Prison Litany 101, choose your favorite:
a) ”I lack self-esteem.”
b) “I am learning to love myself.”
c) “I have to be less oppositional.”
d) “I have no impulse control.”
e) “I have abandonment issues.”
The inmates repeat these cozy phrases like mantras, magic formulas without true emotional inflection. They tell me that they love their therapists because they don’t judge them, nor judge the crimes the women committed.
It’s only the religious ministries who insist on bringing good and evil into the mix, thus Eden, a born again Christian, admits to committing an evil act and seems truly contrite.
Or am I being manipulated by a master sociopath?
A very real possibility.
“It was me and Billy Ray, my husband—well not really my husband. He was my suitcase pimp. I danced, he copped drugs, and, well, turned me out when we ran low on cash. Which was pretty much all the time. We were in El Paso, in really bad shape. I was shooting speed to dance and junk to come down. You couldn’t even imagine what I looked like.”
“Skin and bones and the teeth were rotting in you’re head.”
“How’d you know?”
“Film I once wrote, had to research addiction.”
Eden hits me with a knowing look. Maybe I’m not so dumb after all.
“Billy Ray tells me about this biker who’s a major dealer. Billy Ray says he’s been coming to watch me dance every night. Got a thing for me. Wants a private session, willing to trade lots of dope for a big night. I’m like fine. For dope, I’m up for anything. That’s who I was. Then Billy Ray says, thing is this biker owes him money. I go, what? This is a new twist. Billy Ray says this biker is like bad news, ripped off Billy Ray for tons of money. I’m like so confused. Where the f**k is this going?”
“Did you love Billy Ray?”
“Love,” she says, her tone flat and contemptuous.
Eden takes a long drag on her cigarette. She shakes her head.
“He copped for me, pimped me out, beat up on me. I called it love. What does that tell you, Robert?”
I say nothing.
Eden continues: “I’m in the motel room. The biker comes in. Billy Ray has arranged the whole thing. The biker’s this typical beer-gut slime ball dealer. All’s I gotta do is keep his back to the closet. Billy Ray’ll take care of the rest. I do what I gotta do. Get biker’s attention like I know how. Suddenly, Billy Ray’s behind him with this huge ball-peen hammer and I hear this sickening sound, like a melon getting crunched and the biker goes down. Billy Ray said he was just gonna knock him out. But this guy’s skull was just all caved in, I mean…”
Eden takes a series of deep breaths.
“We go through his pockets, come up with a little dope, and a couple of bucks. Right then and there we fix. Meanwhile, the biker’s still breathing. You have no idea how hard it is to kill a man. His breathing’s really labored. I’m so high, and all I hear is this rasping sound and it’s driving me crazy. I tell Billy Ray to make it stop, but he’s nodding. Useless.”
Thick tears cut silvery channels down Eden’s cheeks.
“So I take the hammer and put him down.”
I look at her long and hard. How far do I push her?
“Eden, that’s the language you use for a dog.”
Eden looks surprised, then thoughtful, then she nods her head and mutters:
“Yeah, yeah, I guess.”
She takes a long pause, wipes snot from her nose
“I did it,” she says, “so I could enjoy my high. Re-store quiet. I still hear the breathing.”
Is this woman playing me?
The product of a sheltered yeshiva education, yours truly is no match for a talented inmate slash actress.
“How’d you get caught?”
“Billy Ray turns me out. We need what we need and I’m the one feeding the need. Undercover cop busts me. They find blood stains on the bottom of my shoes. Like brilliant police work, huh? I turn state’s evidence, make the best deal I can. Like I give a s**t about Billy Ray.”
“You’re in for life, right?”
“I’ll be up for parole in fourteen years with good behavior.”
“What would you do, on the outside, I mean?”
“That’s easy. I have a skill. I’ll be a dog trainer. Like I am now. Train dogs for the disabled. Eventually open my own shop. Join a church. Find a guy. He won’t be just a square, but a total cube,” Eden draws a sharp square in the air, “with a really normal job. He’ll wear white shirts with what’s it called, that plastic thingee in the front pocket?”
“Right. He’ll wear that and I’ll tell him everything, and he’ll forgive me, and we’ll live in a nice house with a little fence and we’ll watch television together and we’ll read the Bible at night and nothing exciting will ever, ever happen.”
Eden has to go inside and continue the training session.
I stay and rewind our conversation. I think about the ambush, the murder, the cold-blooded nature of it all.
What to make of Eden’s fantasy of life after prison? I hear her spitting out the word love. I imagine this fantasy man, this cube she plans on marrying. What will she feel for him? What can she ever feel for any man?
Could she actually live a life where nothing exciting ever happens? Is such a life possible for Eden?
C.O. Cindy exits the shed to check on me.
“You can’t let these women get to you.”
“They don’t get to you?”
“I don’t quite believe you.”
“That’s because I lied.”
“Now you know why they call this home.”
“Because home is where it all started, home is where all the bad stuff happened to them. Home is where the ladies feel most comfortable.”
“And you, where do you feel most comfortable, Cindy?”
Cindy plays with the wooden baton looped to her thick leather belt. She ponders a long moment, then looks up and says:
“I wish you wouldn’t ask me those kinds of questions.”
Her voice is tinged with a simmering mixture of anger and resignation: “’Cause one way or another I end up on the wrong side of the answer.”
“This place is filled with sorry.”
Feeling out of my depth, I mumble that I have to go inside the shed and watch the inmates and their dogs.
I take a few paces and Cindy calls out:
“Mr. Screenplay writer?”
I halt, look over my shoulder.”
C.O. Cindy throws me a contrite smile: “Somebody’s a total bitch, huh?”
I shrug, tell her not really.
“Now you got me doing it.”
“For Chrissake sake, Robert. I’m f*****g sorry, okay?”
I smile: “Okay.”
Stay tuned for Part VI. Thrills and chills galore!
Copyright © Robert J. Avrech