A Guest of the County
She’s been here before, Katie. And she’ll be here again. And every time, a little piece of her goes missing.
She comes back from wherever she has been, sitting in the back seat of a police car. “What time is it?” she says.
The deputy glances into the rearview mirror. He’s seen the scars on her wrists, seen correctly that they are recent. “Ten o’clock,” he says, “you’ve had a big night.” This is San Diego, which she knows because she used to live here, and that’s where we know her from, going back a lot of years. She’s been in Reno since January. The deputy has a friendly way about him, but she is pretty sure they aren’t friends. The handcuffs, for one thing.
Here is something she knows: the provocation tonight was not drugs or alcohol. Nothing manufactured comes into it. Tonight was purely rage. Pounding on the door of a wrong house, looking for an old boyfriend, then an argument, then pounding on the woman who answers it. The argument rolls from the doorway onto the sidewalk where the woman who answered the door is smashed into the cement and spends the next two days in the hospital. It does not help Katie’s case that the victim is pregnant.
Later, Katie recalls what she knows about the events of the evening—which is pretty much only what the deputy tells her—without seeming to take sides, as if the actors in the story were strangers to her, behaving strangely. In her version—if you can call not remembering anything a version—the kindness of the deputy is more important than the injuries to the victim.
The jailhouse for women is half an hour or so east of town. The deputy does not leave until he is sure that the jailers understand that she is a suicide risk. Consequently, protective custody. Protective custody is not as friendly as it sounds. She is handcuffed—one hand—to a railing in the wall and told to undress. She is a beautiful woman, but running out of canvas for new tattoos. Hidden beneath the tattoos are the scars. Who knows how many? Most of them would have been invisible by now anyway. She has been cutting herself since she was 14. The charges against her are felonies for now (but will be dropped later to misdemeanors), bail is $30,000.
She hesitates taking off her fundamentals and a short, stocky guard snaps at her. Stop fuckin’ around. Katie tells herself to stay quiet, to stay patient. They want her quiet.
She is given a garment to wear that resembles a throw rug, rectangular in shape, connected by Velcro straps over her shoulders. The protective custody outfit is one-size-fits-all and it slides open when she moves. On the other hand, you cannot hang yourself with a throw rug.
Katie is taken to a small, square room. Padded walls and floor, a hole in the ground for a toilet, with bars across the top to keep the inmates from reaching in. A very strange place, protective custody. The toilet is flushed from outside by the guard. The room is uncomfortably cold but Katie says nothing. She lies on her back in her cold, padded room and sings a song, Poppa Can You Hear Me?
Wide awake, wondering again what time it is.
The door to the room is just a door, solid, no bars, with a narrow window at the top and a slot further down where tortilla chips, a dinner roll and tiny cups of water are passed through. And toilet paper. You have to ask for toilet paper, you have to ask the guard to flush the toilet. It is a tenet of the justice system of course that you are innocent until you are proved guilty, but as Katie observes, “Nobody in here is not being punished.”
A psychologist appears on the other side of her door and asks a series of questions, bending down to the food slot for the interview. The interview lasts two minutes. A checklist of questions the psychologist has obviously memorized. It is humiliating, being someone’s chore.
How are you feeling? Are you going to commit suicide?
The correct answers are Okay and No, and in a little while Katie is promoted to the psych ward. Time moves at some unknown speed.
The new room is larger. Bars, five beds, one other inmate. A tiny, angelic-looking 20-year-old Filipino woman/child who could be mistaken for 16. Katie, relieved to be out of protective custody, nods hello.
The cherub says, “I let him f—- me in the a—, I could not s—- for three days.” Katie is no stranger to descriptive language but is momentarily lost for words.
“He gets this restraining order against me,” the girl says, “and then he calls me up to come over to f—- him, and I come over—this happens again and again, and still I go—and then when he gets sick of me and I won’t leave he calls the police, and they come take me in because he got a restraining order.”
The woman/child walks around to another part of the cell and tells the story again. It begins, “Three days I can’t s—- because I let him…” Down the hall a woman is singing the “ABC” song and somewhere else a woman is screaming and kicking the door in her cell.
Katie’s roommate lies down on one of the beds and seems to go to sleep. And then, with her eyes closed, it starts again. “For three days,” she says, “I can’t s—-…”
Down the hall the pounding and screaming stops, and in the quiet that’s left she hears a thin voice singing, “A…B…C…D…E…F…G…”
Her roommate is back on her feet. “He call me up when he want to f—- me, and then he get sick of me and when I won’t leave he calls the cops. You know what I let him do? I let him…”
And Katie nods along with the story again, reminding herself to stay quiet, to be patient. Whatever this is, it can’t last forever.
The soprano down the hall finishes up: Now I know my ABCs, what in the world do you think of me?
Katie is moved again, into a holding cell. There is a phone on the wall, a directory of bail bonds companies. The first two ask if she is prepared to make full payment (10 percent of the bond, in this case, is $3,000) and when she suggests $500 now and maybe a hundred a week, they hang up. On the third call she wises up and agrees to pay the full amount practically before the operator is done saying hello. She says, “Do you take credit cards?” And she is out.
She walks from the police station out into the night. Still cold, her hair is wet from a shower she was offered before she left. A man from the bail bond company is there to pick her up and take her back to the office to sign the paperwork.
It is eight o’clock at night. She sits still, looking out the window, still quiet and afraid to draw attention. She tries to remember the fight that the deputy told her about, but nothing comes. She remembers he was very sweet, but the time before that is lost.
And fresh from jail, with that piece of her life—of herself—still missing, she rides back into the world with a bail bondsman, from one bedlam to another, wondering what will be missing next.