A ranty, funny, dead-serious intersectional feminist blog.

Life Sentences

by Robert J. Howe

Note: This story may be upsetting to some.

“Life Sentences” originally appeared in Salon in March 2004 as “Miscarriage of Justice.” It also appeared in Aeon Speculative Fiction, Issue 9 (2006).  

Author’s Note:

This story is about how authoritarian regimes deform human relationships, even—especially—the most intimate ones. It is also a story about how people can’t be controlled, and the unintended consequences of trying to do so.”

via Aeon

via Aeon

Spring at the Phyllis Schlafly Correctional Facility in Broward County. I’m here to visit my mother, who will be fifty-eight in a week. This is no kindness to her, or me. It is a state-mandated visit. I am a living reproach.

I have never seen my mother when she was not in one phase of pregnancy or another, and today is no exception. She looks tired and done to death. The lines around her mouth have solidified since my last visit; they are set in the stone of her face. She looks—she is—angry. She has been angry ever since I can remember.

“Hello, Bryan,” she says. Despite her angry expression, this comes out almost gently.

I have spent a lot of time in therapy, ostensibly coming to terms with the fact that my mother didn’t want me. I am still required to check my weapon at the prison’s armory, lest I take revenge on her. This is absurd: she could not have had any feelings on the matter one way or another, as she didn’t know me then. What she didn’t want was to raise any children for whom she couldn’t adequately provide. The alpha and omega of her life problems revolve around what she considers adequate.

She has a crooked smile, when she smiles, from where her jaw was broken. The arresting officer stepped on her face to keep her from swallowing evidence. If her dead bolt lock had held three more seconds, we would not be facing each-other across the scarred wooden table.

“Hello, Elena,” I say.

She eases herself into a chair, unnaturally skinny except where she is unnaturally round. Half a lifetime of bearing rich women’s children has left her calcium-depleted and stick fragile, and her pale, sweaty face is made more unattractive by the reflection of the green visiting room walls.

We don’t talk much during these visits; it hurts less that way. It is part, too, of my mother’s strange Bushido. What we can do, is look into one-another’s green eyes without flinching. My mother understands, as do I, that between us there can be no feelings of guilt or regret. At least, this is what I like to think. Almost everything I know about my mother, I know from reading the official reports. Prison has a way of making everyone’s life into roman à clef.

There are no guards in the room, a strong reminder that every word and gesture is being recorded. This is another reason for our sphinxlike communion. It is harder, though not impossible, to get blood from a stone. All this notwithstanding, there is something she wants to tell me.

***

My mother was almost as old as I am now when she had me; that pregnancy was no childish fling.

“You have got to be kidding,” was my father’s sole, and last comment to my mother. He never came home from work that day. The Legal Aid lawyer told my mother it would cost more money than it was worth to have him skip-traced, so that was the end of that.

Abortion was still legal in a few states then, but Florida wasn’t one of them. My mother regretted the necessity of an abortion, both because she had wanted what she thought was her “twilight baby,” and because she’d have to have it done illegally; New Jersey, the closest free state, was as financially inaccessible as the moon, what with residency requirements and medical records transfer fees. The day my father walked, money became the big issue. My older sister and brother were just six and seven, respectively, and no one else was going to pay to bring them up. My mother couldn’t work pregnant, and they couldn’t live on what the anemic AFDC provided.

There was a doctor who would do it at Misericordia, in Pompano, and list it as a Dilation and Curettage, and her health plan would have even paid the bill. But two days before the operation a couple of suits from the National Reproduction Administration took the doctor away in the middle of the night. It seems she’d established a questionable pattern of performing D&Cs on women with no significant medical history.

That’s when my mother started answering the classified ads in the back of women’s magazines. She was careful. She was patient. She almost got away with it.

***

My desk is always heaped with paperwork, and today is no exception. So many case folders cover the tabletop that I can’t find a place to set my coffee. In those folders, more often than not, is all the information I need to do my job. By the time I have finished my coffee, I’ll have closed three cases over the phone. Three more anonymous buff folders will then take their place. It is a rare day that I go into the field.

I have been asked, more than a few times, how I feel about my job. The unspoken subtext is always, Does it bother you?

There is, I’m afraid, not much to be bothered about. It isn’t a case of not seeing the forest for the trees; I am so mired in the minutiae of the profession, that it is more like not being able to see the tree for the bark. It is all statistics: looking for the deviations from the norm. I wouldn’t know half my clients if I saw them on the street. What I know are their telephone bills, mortgage payments, medical histories, grammar school grades, even preferences in movie rentals.

Some would argue that it is easier to do my job thus insulated. They are right, but not the way they mean it. It is simply that there is less to remember this way.

***

My mother’s wrists are chafed from the restraints. Two years ago she dove from her bed stomach-first onto the floor. The D.C. lawyer and his wife who were waiting for the baby got a million-five from the Broward Special Corrections Department for mental anguish. My mother got padded leather handcuffs.

When I look at the raw spots on her arms, I notice that she’s tensing her muscles so hard the veins stand out like the surface of a relief map. Her face is completely composed for the cameras, however. I don’t know what to make of this, but I am careful not to stare, nor look away too quickly. I’m rewarded with the ghost of a smile too quick to register until it’s passed. So, I was meant to notice the flexing.

A guard comes in, they call them matrons here. This is a deliberate choice with 1950’s connotations, I think. She stands next to the table, stolid and dumb in her blue blouse and skirt, and signals us that the visit is over. It is less than half the time normally allotted to mandated visits. This is my mother’s small victory: our silence makes them too uncomfortable to endure watching for long. I think my mother would like to say that she is proud of me today, but cannot. To say that would be a tacit confession of her guilt. Any approval of me would mean she was wrong thirty years ago when she tried to flush my fetus out of her body. Still, it is this tacit understanding that allows me to go on with my life and my job.

Our eyes do not meet while the matron is in the room, and my mother is led away without looking back.

***

My mother finally narrowed it down to three advertisements that looked amateurish enough not to have been planted by the NRA, and were ambiguous enough so as to draw minimal attention. All three were for Riviera Diet Supplements—bootleg Roussel Uclaf pills—black market abortions being too dangerous, too easy to track, or both. She went to the library then, and looked up back issues of the magazines. Two of the ads had run for several prior issues, so it was a good bet that they were already under surveillance. The third was brand new.

The next step was a driver’s license under the name of a cousin who’d died as a child, with an SRO address. The rooming house address served two purposes. First, when it was time to get a post office box, it was less likely that an SRO address would trip a flag in the postal computer; it was entirely reasonable for someone living in a rented room to get their mail at a p.o. box. Post office boxes in middle-class residential neighborhoods, which ours was, usually alerted the Postal Inspection Service to a violation of the mail obscenity laws. The second reason for the SRO address was that, in Florida, there were far too many to register their tenants weekly, or even monthly. The annual, retroactive registration would turn up my mother’s nom de guerre, but by then she’d be just another desperate, half-remembered face in the clerk’s mind.

All of this cost money—a mid-quality forged license, (ones that could pass at a DWI checkpoint cost much more than paper good enough to fool a bored postal clerk), p.o. box rental—and the pills. They came in lots of six, packaged like vitamins. Some unlucky women had gone through all this, in fact, and had gotten nothing but vitamins. There were six to make sure the job was done. The feminist underground calls them étui, French for “small purses.” The NRA agents call them six-guns.

In the long run, of course, it was still cheaper than having another baby and staying home for the prescribed two years. That same week she found work as a secretary in an insurance company.

***

I come back from lunch and find that the pattern section has left a list on my desk. Only two names are in my area of responsibility; Evans, Theresa J, and Frawley, Taneka (none). Evans can be put off; I request a background jacket and set her name aside until it comes through. The Frawley folder is on my desk, so I will start with that one.

It is, as I recall, a fairly obvious case. Multiple postal flags, feminist literature subscription—cancelled fairly recently, unmarried, works as a B-girl in a beach club on the strip. Associate’s degree in accounting. Dangerous because she is smart enough to know she’s got a high profile. If at all possible I will perform the search while she is at work.

I bring the folder to the Warrants window, where an NRA administrative justice signs, dates, and seals a premises/vehicle paper. I kill fifteen minutes waiting for the warrant to register by Teletype with the local police. I use the time to check my weapon: I don’t often go into the field, and I go to the shooting range even less frequently. My Glock automatic has a seventeen-round clip, and I carry a spare clip in my jacket pocket. If this is not overkill, I am in the wrong line of work.

The folder stays on my desk—too many classified sources to leave the building—but I slip Frawley’s photo I.D. out, an enlargement of her Florida Driver’s License, to take with me. She is a common looking Black woman, over thirty, with an old-style “natural” hairdo. In the picture she is smiling.

***

The light in the visiting room is always bad—the cameras can record in the infrared if need be—adding to my mother’s washed-out look. She has just delivered the thirty-fifth baby of her sentence. There is no telling how many more she will bear; she has, in the grim double entendre of Special Corrections, consecutive life sentences.

Since she did not try to throw herself on her stomach to crush the fetus, drink her own urine to poison the fetus, or commit any other act of fetal assault, my mother is entitled to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee during her seventy-day recovery period. Then it’s back to a strict pregnancy regimen as an incubator for some other privileged couple.

She draws hard on her Marlboro. In the silence of the visiting room the stale, dry commissary cigarette pops and crackles like a miniature forest fire. We stare at each other through the smoke. Her arms are no longer raw from the restraints, but she’s built up a pad of callus tissue on the inside of each wrist. There are other changes, as well.

I suddenly realize that she has a facial tic, even though she seems otherwise composed. I have never, in fact, seen her other than utterly composed, so this pad of flesh twitching under her right eye seems the equivalent of a scream. I almost comment, but then the tic stops, and reappears under the other eye.

Could she, I wonder, be doing this deliberately? If so it is a phenomenal display of fine muscle control.

The tic stops again, and for a few minutes we sit in companionable, if absolute, silence. She stubs the cigarette out and sits forward, her arms resting on the table. After a moment, I realize that the flesh on the inside of her forearm jumps every few seconds. This reminds me of the last visit, and her vein-popping muscle tensioning. That will have to be enough for today, whatever it means. The matron, battleship-like in her stiff blue uniform leads my mother back to her dormitory area.

***

One of the most common mistakes women in my mother’s position made was using the p.o. box solely for their illegal transactions. As camouflage, my mother used the p.o. box for all kinds of things under her assumed name: she sent away for free recipes, subscribed to inexpensive magazines, ordered little things from mail-order catalogs, and wrote herself long, innocuous letters on her word processor at work, signing them with one of three fictional childhood friends’ names that she’d picked at random from out-of-state telephone books.

She said at one point, that if nothing else, assuming her whitebread, straitlaced, alter ego’s mindset had replaced her contempt for women on the rolls with sympathy. It was always the good girls who got into trouble; too timid to go through the NRA’s red tape to apply for birth control, and too afraid to buy on the graymarket. As a result, they bred themselves deeper and deeper into poverty, using their own loneliness and the scant infant stipend as justification.

On the day the pills arrived, my mother was careful to not vary her routine. She checked her box at lunchtime, as usual, and put the pills in her purse, then went off to lunch with her friends. After work, she picked my brother and sister up at daycare, took them home, made dinner, did homework with them, and read them their bedtime stories. She put the pills in a waterproof container and hid them inside the toilet tank float, a place, in her limited experience, she thought startlingly novel.

Two days after the pills arrived, my mother was ready to go through with the abortion. She waited until a Friday night so that she would have the whole weekend for the pill to work. She called the three girlfriends most likely to phone her, and said she was taking my brother and sister upstate to an amusement park (one she’d taken them to before—no break in the pattern there), and wouldn’t be back until Sunday night. She unplugged the phone and set the answering machine. Then she sat down at the kitchen table and tried to think of anything she might have missed.

All of this, she said later, made her feel as if she were planning her own suicide.

***

I swing by the bar where Frawley works, to make sure she’s there. There are enough businessmen in jackets drinking lunch so that I don’t stand out and spook her. It takes almost a quarter of an hour to find her, since she has changed her hairstyle and looks younger in person than she does in the picture. She is making change for a customer when I leave for her apartment.

I could just shatter the lock and walk in, but then, even if I find nothing, she will know her apartment’s been entered. Better, in all cases, to use finesse. It takes ten minutes of finesse to get the heavy tumbler to click over, during which time two neighbors have walked by. Each time I managed to slide out of their line of sight—not that they would interfere—but if Frawley discovers that there’s been a man in a jacket and tie at her door, it might spook her as much as finding the lock smashed.

Inside the house is neat and organized, but somewhat dirty. It is the house of someone who isn’t home a great deal. There are, however, clothes in the closets, half-used toiletries in the bathroom, and fresh food in the refrigerator, all indicating that this is her real address and not stage dressing.

The current telephone bill is on her desk, opened. I don’t need to look, however; I’ve seen it already. I look through the personal papers in her desk, then get down to searching the apartment. The key, more than cleverness or intuition, is method. In my mind, I divide the room into imaginary grids, and search each one minutely. This not only insures that no spot is overlooked, but that each square foot is seen with a fresh eye.

I turn up nothing. I resist the temptation to research the odd places first, and start at the beginning of my grid again. The first search was entirely non-destructive. I left everything the way I found it, and used only my fingers to probe soft objects like pillows and cushions. This time I cut open what cannot be easily palpitated, and I pry up any loose hardware, tilework, and woodwork I find.

Still nothing. I am about to start my third, deep search when I hear the door. As much as I dislike confrontation, this one seems unavoidable.

***

My mother’s recovery period has stretched to two months because there are currently no sponsors. Summer is always the slowest season for surrogate wombs, and increasing competition from the private sector has lessened the demand slightly in the Special Corrections system. Whatever the reason, my mother seems to be enjoying this period of relative freedom.

“Hello, Bryan. What’s it like in the real world, these days?”

This is more than she has said to me in twelve years of bi-monthly visits. I wonder if this hiatus in her sentence is wholly the cause of her good spirits.

“About the same,” I say. “You look well.”

The truth is, she looks better—she has put on some weight, and it makes her face look years younger. Anywhere but in here, though, she could pass for someone who has just overcome a serious illness.

She sits for a long time, studying me. It is not like our usual silent communication—it is as if she is seeing me for the first time. The scrutiny makes me uncomfortable. I feel it is somehow a violation of our tacit understanding.

It occurs to me, forced back on myself like this, that it is possible my mother has finally gone insane. I have always assumed she was harder than any person or institution she came in contact with, but insanity is the second most common cause for termination of sentence. Of course, the insane trade one kind of prison for another, and if they are cured, they are returned to Special Corrections. There are precedents, though few of them.

Her voice pulls me out of my reverie.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I asked if you’ve ever seen your father.”

This, of all things, I am not prepared for. In the six months from her arrest to conviction, my mother never once uttered a word about my father, or at least none that were recorded.

“No,” I say. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

You were never curious before, I want to say, but I can’t bring myself to break our unspoken agreement, even if she has.

The silence grows again, and though she doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable, I am. I begin to wish for the matron to come, silent and implacable, and lead my mother away from me. Instead I stare at the wooden tabletop.

“I wish I had gotten to know you better, son.”

That admission is shocking, in front of God and the cameras, as it were, but no more shocking than her calling me son. It is a word that has not passed her lips in my presence in thirty years.

“Your brother and Vivian were here to see me last week. Ed apparently pulled some strings. Do you know they have three children now?”

“No,” I said, numbed by this spate of information. It is as if Reagan’s face, carved into the South Dakota hills, had suddenly come to life: the oracle of Rushmore.

“Do you ever see them, or your sister?” she asks.

“No. I know I should…” I cannot believe I am saying this.

“I don’t really think they want to see you, anyway.” She says this seemingly without a trace of spite or malice. “You would make them almost as uncomfortable as I do.”

I don’t know what to say about this. I have never been so acutely uncomfortable in my life. Mercifully, the matron enters the room then and stands next to my mother.

“Well, Bryan, goodbye,” she says, looking me directly in the eye.

I fumble for a response, but by the time I can force out the words, she has passed behind the gray steel door.

“Goodbye,” I say for the cameras.

It occurs to me, as I collect my weapon from the prison’s operations room, that none of my mother’s feats of muscle control were in evidence today. I suddenly wish I had asked her what it all meant.

***

The last thing my mother did, before she took out the pills, was to call her National Health Clinic branch and complain about abdominal pains. The triage nurse asked the usual questions, including whether or not my mother was pregnant. She said she didn’t know.

The nurse told her to call back if the pains got worse, or if there was any bleeding, and to stay off her feet. My mother hung up and went to get the pills from the toilet tank.

She was drying her hands when they knocked at the door. My mother started to hide the pills again, then she heard the ram against the door. She ripped open the foil package too quickly, sending the pills scattering across the floor. By the time she retrieved one, the police were through the front door and searching the apartment. There weren’t that many rooms to search.

The bathroom door exploded in just as she put the pill in her mouth. The next second her head was crushed against the tiles and something in her face snapped. She felt the officer’s blunt, bitter tasting fingers probing her mouth as she passed out.

She woke up in Broward Special Corrections’ hospital wing, and has been in one part of the compound or another since. I was born seven months later, in the prison Nursery.

I was placed in the same home as my brother and sister—though they were moved out within a year of my birth. I stayed until I was eleven, then I was sent to a military boarding school because I had become a disciplinary problem. The state paid my scholarship to the private school, with the understanding that I would enter government service as soon as I was eligible. That was pretty much what happened.

I really don’t regret it.

***

Frawley has just set her purse on a table in the foyer when I turn the corner. She looks at me for a split second, then snatches the purse up again and dives out the door. We burst out of the building’s lobby, she several yards ahead of me. She is wearing black tights and running shoes—her off duty clothes, I gather—and is opening up the distance between us rapidly. I have to make a split-second decision: do I continue to chase her, or do I draw my weapon now, while I am still close enough to steady myself for a shot?

Had I known I was going to arrest her today, I would have brought backup. I draw my weapon and pound to a stop in front of a parked car. She opens the distance even further while I get my sights steady. I hold my breath, using the car’s roof as a rest, and squeeze off three shots.

The last one drops her. I’m completely winded by the time I am standing over her.

She is shot through the backside and lower stomach. Blood is everywhere, and she is vomiting weakly. A woman is screaming as I go through Frawley’s purse—sure enough, the pills are there. Two packets of them, in fact.

The ambulance arrives after the local police, but before my colleagues: if they are going to save the fetus, they will have to get Frawley’s body to the operating room very quickly.

Far from being over, this incident is just starting for me. I will be held over the next two shifts writing reports, having the pills tested by the lab, being counseled by the service psychiatrist, and making my obligatory appearance before a grand jury.

At least I will get the next five working days off.

***

“I heard you got one,” my mother says before she’s even seated at the wooden table. “You must be proud.”

I realize that it is going to be as difficult a visit as the last one. I did only what was necessary. I don’t relish the grislier aspects of my job, as do some of my colleagues—I prefer to avoid conflict, where possible. I decide the best tack to take with my mother is silence, at least until I can puzzle out her mood.

“I heard she bled to death right there on the street.”

Where, suddenly, is all this antipathy coming from? Who knows how these rumors get started? The paramedic said Frawley died almost immediately—from shock.

“Are you embarrassed?” she asks. “That would be something, at least.”

I see that this line of questioning is not going to wither away in silence.

“I’d rather not talk about my work.”

“Not to me, at least,” she answers. “So, what would you like to talk about, son?”

That word again. Inexplicably, I feel my eyes prickle.

“How come you’re not smoking?” I ask. My voice sounds perfectly level.

“I’m back on the production line again,” she says, laughing. “You know, I was beginning to think you’d actually thrown your weight around a little to keep me off the breeding line.”

“I can’t do…”

“No, no. Don’t apologize,” she cuts me off. “I’m not blaming you. It was a crazy notion to begin with.” There really is no rancor in her voice.

For the first time ever, I am uncomfortable that the cameras are recording all this. I cast around for a safe topic, then something occurs to me.

“I noticed that you had a facial tic, last—no—the time before last. Is it some kind of medical condition?”

“Your concern is a bit belated, I think. But no, you know it wasn’t a medical condition, I think.”

“Then what?”

“I was doing it on purpose…”

“Nobody can control their muscles like that.”

“You can, if you practice. I have nothing to do here but practice. Did you know Indian holy men could stop their heartbeats?”

I look at her blankly.

“No, I don’t imagine that’s the kind of thing you know much about. Well, it’s true. If you practice enough, you can control all the muscles in your body.”

“Why?”

“So I can control my body.”

We have, it seems, skated back onto thin ice again. The radical feminists have always referred to women’s reproductive offenses as taking control of their bodies.

“It’s all right,” she says, “you don’t have to say anything. I just wanted you to be here.”

“You know I come whenever…”

“No, I mean for this.”

“For what?”

She smiles at me, then she closes her eyes. When she opens them again, they are unfocussed and her face assumes an expression of unconscious concentration, if there is such a thing.

I see, suddenly, that the muscles of her abdomen are tensing mightily under her prison smock. It takes another few seconds for me to realize what she’s doing.

I knock the table over trying to get around it, but it is already too late; blood gushes from underneath the smock, making a crimson blotch from waist to hemline.

Guards rush into the room, and less than a minute later, the medical team.

“Christ, she’s bleeding out,” the doctor in charge says.

“What’s going on?” the guard supervisor, a man, wants to know.

“She’s got a massive hemorrhage—looks like a bad miscarriage.”

My mother’s eyes focus again, and she looks into mine. I am unable to look back without flinching.

She coughs, spraying flecks of blood across my face.

“Oh, man,” the doctor groans, “She’s bleeding from everywhere.” He’s young, and sounds afraid.

She is loaded onto an aluminum stretcher. I think about taking her hand, but the moment passes in a blur, and she is being bustled out the steel door, presumably to the prison hospital.

There are, I notice, bloody footprints left everywhere by the medical team and the guards. I right the visitor’s table before I leave.

***

According to the trial transcript, the triage nurse at the National Health branch—a fifty-year-old widow with the improbable name of Meredith Sanction—called NRA to report a possible reproduction violation. NRA, of course, already had a folder on my mother. Since they could not get an agent there in time, however, they authorized the state police to make the arrest.

Meredith Sanction testified that my mother’s call fit the classic self-abortion pattern. Meredith Sanction’s own marriage had been barren. It is on the record that the magistrate admonished the defense lawyer for pursuing irrelevant testimony during Mrs. Sanction’s cross examination.

The magistrate took less than fifteen minutes to reach his decision. Sentencing was delayed until my birth—presumably so that my mother would not self-abort in the face of a life sentence.

The minister concludes his ceremony over my mother’s grave, then hurries in out of the rain. My brother and sister stand as close to the grave as they can without having to look at me. My brother cries openly, and my sister stares, dry-eyed, at the brown rectangle in the turf. Only I can see the casket.

I still have two days off before I go back to work.


Robert J. Howe is a writer and editor whose fiction has appeared in Analog, Black GateElectric Velocipede, and other publications and anthologies. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop (1985). Learn more about him at his website.


Related:

Crimes of the Uterus: Imprisonment and Death in the US

Patriot Girls

3 responses

  1. Mags

    This was so intense and painful to read. It’s just so bleak, to know that this is the kind of world a large portion of the planet wants.

    May 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm

  2. Bob’s story was timely when he wrote it, and is still sadly timely today. I’m proud to have played a part in one chapter of its publication history (in Aeon Speculative Fiction), and I’m even more pleased to see it presented to a much larger audience here.

    April 1, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    • Hey look, an Aeon editor! :)

      April 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm

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