The shit never ends. And truth is irrelevant. First, I’m kidnapped at gunpoint by a guy wearing a dime store Afro wig who’d smeared his face with ManTan, the orange gel pooling in his pitted skin. He’d shoved my butt into the back of the prisoner van along with Ruff, the medic, who was practically passing out on me. Thompson, the meth addict prisoner that Ruff and I had been set to haul back to the joint, had his manacled hands on the wheel of the rusting transport van, backing out of the medical office parking lot. Everything was too bright, the color of the sky wrong, a flashback from a bad acid trip. Sunlight broke into jagged shining shards, spilling through the windows of the old van. My breath quickened, my gut felt like I’d swallowed ice cubes. Somewhere above us, a crow cawed, a warning cry rattling in its throat. The transmission clunked and churned like a spoon caught in a garbage disposal as the van rolled toward the street. I immediately thought, Fuck. Onion Field. You know, the one where the two night shift LA cops get kidnapped by a couple low-life robbers who drive them to the middle of a frickin’ onion field out by Arvin or one of those godforsaken San Joaquin Valley towns where the kidnappers plug one cop execution-style, but the other one runs off and hides between the furrows and survives only to have such a horrendous case of PTSD and survivor’s guilt that his marriage disintegrates, gets fired by the LAPD, and becomes a quivering mass of nerves for the rest of his life. Except in my case, I was pretty sure our two abductors were gonna drive us out to some deserted back road in West Marin where they’d head-shoot the medic and then rape and sodomize me. I could almost feel the cold metal of the gun barrel against my scalp, hear the pull of the trigger, see the final blaze of light. That ugly scenario galloped through my brain as I was staring into the business end of Mr. ManTan’s shotgun—which poked through the grates in the metal barrier separating the front seat from the secure compartment where Ruff and I were imprisoned. I should’ve been worrying about how to escape (well, I was but my ideas all sucked) instead of listening to my monkey mind that was currently shouting, Why did I ever take this job? I meant both the prison guard job and this particular assignment—the community medical transport—the one that was about to get me raped and killed. “Easy money,” the sarge had said as I was scooting out the front gate at 7 a.m. after eight hours in the AC—the Adjustment Center, where Quentin’s badass prisoners whiled away their time thinking of ways to kill or maim staff when they weren’t busily sharpening shanks on the concrete floor of their cells or rolling up magazines and newspapers and tying them with torn state-issue bedsheets to make a spear handle so they could zap you as you pushed the breakfast cart past each cell, taking orders like you were still working in that coffee shop back in college. Once again, I’d made it out of the AC unscathed. No one had even tried to gas me, although a couple mornings before the guy in 1-29 threw a milk carton of urine fermented shit through his cell bars just as I was approaching. His timing was off and he missed both me and the cart’s open metal trays of congealing eggs and grease-coated hash browns. The sarge’s offer, “Two hours overtime—transport a low-custody inmate—I can pay you for four,” stopped me. I’d been working extra shifts so I could join my boyfriend in Europe the next month. All I wanted to do was make a little extra money, and now I was not only going to die, but get fucked at gunpoint. And I’d never see Paris. Turned out that luck was on my side; our abductors were more interested in fleeing than fornication. They stopped in the rear of the medical building parking lot, tore out the van’s two-way radio and ordered us to hand over our whistles before they skedaddled. The medic and I were locked in the prisoner compartment like a couple doofus Keystone Kops for a half hour until we were liberated. Back at Quentin, in the middle of writing the escape report, an idea zipped into my brain and popped out of my mouth. “I’m pretty sure the accomplice, the man with the gun, is a recent parolee,” I told the chief deputy warden. Don’t ask me why I thought that—feminine intuition, I guess. Not that I could ever mention “intuition” in the macho world of a men’s max security prison. Turned out I was right about the prisoner’s rescuer—a biker-looking white dude named David Hunt who must’ve spent a good ten bucks of his gate money at the local discount Halloween shop buying that pathetic disguise. I probably had PTSD after the abduction, but I was pretty good at denial. What I wasn’t good at was dealing with the crap I got when I showed up at work the next day. Say what you will, the rumor mill at Quentin is better than a Hollywood gossip column. People have the dirt on you seconds after something kicks down. The story line was frequently garbled—but that hardly mattered. So I’m scuttling across the chapel yard, when two male cops holler at me. “Say, Holmstrom, we heard what happened the other day.” For a second I deluded myself into thinking I might be getting a little sympathy after my brush with death. From the looks of those two beer-bellied good ol’ boy types, that seemed unlikely, but some Pollyanna part of me was hopeful. The taller dude eyeballed me. “So why didn’t you shoot the guy?” Huh? I exhaled. “I didn’t have a gun.” Was this jerk blaming me for my own kidnapping? “Well, I would’ve shot him.” “Hard to do when you don’t have a gun.” Somehow this was my fault. I shook my head, trying to eject his absurd notion. “Not to mention that he had his gun pointed at me.” “Well, I would’ve fought.” The second guy chimed in, “Yeah, I never would’ve gotten in the van.” “Well, you two would’ve ended up dead on the pavement.” I walked away, wondering if testosterone poisoned men’s brains so bad that they invented ridiculous ideas they were compelled to share with others. A few months later, back from my European adventures, I got called to the chief deputy warden’s office where seven stone-faced silverbacks, the prison honchos, informed me that the escapee and accomplice had been apprehended after a robbery spree in Washington state—apparently putting the Discount Mart disguise to good use—and were now in the local jail. A snitch told one of the jailhouse sheriffs that Hunt had ordered a hit on me, was offering fifteen hundred bucks to have me eliminated so I wouldn’t testify against him about the escape. I guess he wasn’t worried about the medic, figured he’d fold. That was the start of six months of hell, waiting for some contract killer to pop up from behind a trash can or whip out his Glock in the middle of Petrini’s while I dodged bullets by ducking behind a display case of Belgian chocolates and Veuve Clicquot champagne. My mouth broke out in sores; I had insomnia and night terrors. I moved into on-grounds housing and was given a gun tower job—all for my own protection I was told—forbidden from revealing the reason why I got a water-view home with cheap rent and an assignment with weekends and holidays off. In the minds of my fellow cops, I must’ve been carrying on with one of the suits—the administrators—to get all those goodies. Swell, not only was I in mortal danger, I might be nominated for Quentin’s Slut of the Month. Then came the lineup; turns out I wasn’t going straight to court on the Hunt case. The medic and I had to ID the sucker first. Let me tell you, it wasn’t anything like those TV police dramas where the victim stands behind one-way glass peering at a series of perps, picking out her assailant. Nope, we were in an auditorium amongst scattered chairs, the medic and I far apart so we couldn’t influence each other. Eight jail inmates shuffled in, no cuffs or shackles, lined up in the front of the auditorium about thirty feet away. I’d been mere inches from the accomplice during the abduction, would never forget his ice green eyes as cold as a Dakota winter road. Or his acne-scarred face. But I couldn’t see shit from where I was seated. This was like one of those eye tests where the bottom lines resemble a column of crawling ants. How could I tell which one of these guys was Hunt? I stared, trying to make out eye color, discern pitted skin. It didn’t occur to me to ask to get closer. Was I afraid Hunt would attack me? Nah, too damn mad about the whole death threat and the gun in my gut. After all, if I was allowed to get out of my seat and inspect these clowns face-to-face, the DA would’ve told me. Wouldn’t he? Despite the distance, I eliminated everyone except a guy in the middle—that had to be Hunt. “It’s that one,” I told the DA. He nodded, crossed the auditorium to talk to Ruff, the medic. Then it was over, the inmates walking back to the main jail. Sinking back in the flimsy folding chair, I focused on mindful breathing, grateful to be finished. I’d be a great witness at trial, I could remember every detail about the abduction, Hunt’s bright green outdoor jacket, him arguing with inmate Thompson about whether to tie us up, the kidnappers yanking out the van’s two-way radio, the mike dangling on its frayed cord like a corpse swaying from the gallows. Imagining Hunt shrinking in the defendant’s chair as the judge imposed the maximum sentence, I barely heard the DA return. Ruff was gone—out a side door. The DA asked me, “How sure are you of your identification?” Turns out the medic and I picked different people. I guessed Ruff hadn’t picked Hunt. I hesitated. I could’ve been 100% sure if I’d been closer, but it was too late. “Seventy, maybe eighty percent.” I should’ve lied. Telling the truth wasn’t working for me. The DA shook his head. “That’s not enough. We won’t prosecute.” I wanted to scream or cry, maybe grab the DA by his starched Van Heusen shirt collar and demand he bring Hunt to trial, give me a chance at a better look. But I didn’t. Instead, I just turned and walked out, pissed at myself that I’d let Hunt get away with nearly killing me—twice. The auditorium door thudded closed behind me with absolute finality. Even the escapee’s trial was a fiasco. Inmate Thompson got some fancy lawyer who waved his ten-carat pinky ring around like a hypnotist’s pendulum. He mesmerized the jury, insisting the prisoner had been abducted. “My client had a gun pointed at him, he had no choice—he was forced to flee.” The state attorney wasn’t familiar with the case, failed to refute the absurd argument about Thompson being kidnapped. How come the truth kept getting buried under piles of horseshit? Thompson got a reduced charge and a measly couple more years tacked on to his sentence. This was really pissing me off. But the drama was finally finished—no more PTSD, no more death threats, no stupid rumors or bullshit comments from my fellow officers. It had taken a year, but it was all over. I was wrong. BJ Madden body-blocked me one day on the way down to the staff parking lot at the end of my shift. “Hey, girlfriend, we’d heard you were involved with an inmate.” She gave me that “you can confide in me” look—the one women use when they want a friend to ’fess up. Except BJ wasn’t my friend, just another woman prison guard. Nearly dropping my lunch pail, I’d stumbled backward. “What are you talking about?” Not that I couldn’t guess—this had to involve the death threat last year—the “secret shit” I wasn’t supposed to talk about. BJ put her hands on her hips. “Come on, you know.” Below us, seagulls squabbled over a gutted Styrofoam container that once held a lunch special—a lard burger and soggy fries. BJ cocked her head. “Back last March, when the security squad drove you off in the back of a car, everyone figured they were hauling you to Marin county jail for booking.” “Jail? For what?” “Overfamiliarity.” She smirked. “Getting it on with an inmate.” The metallic grinding of gears of a nearby car made me flinch. I laid a nasty face scowl on BJ. “Oh please. Gimme a break.” “Well, you were in the back of a cop car.” This was like being on the receiving end of an inept lie detector test. “Look it, girlfriend,” I drew out “girlfriend” like a piece of wet chewing gum, “I drove my own car home; the goon squad was following me for protection.” Nearly choking on “protection,” I recalled the three gooners stomping around my apartment like they were checking the floorboards, saying “OK” and driving off into the deepening night. There was nothing OK about sitting alone waiting for some contract killer to crash through my back door. “Honestly, everyone was sure you’d been busted.” BJ threw me that skeptical big sister look she probably used on inmates when they were trying to play her. “Well, they were wrong.” I slapped my thigh with my free hand. What was this crap? Didn’t the truth count? “It sure looked suspicious.” “Look it, BJ,” I dropped the girlfriend pretense. “You know perfectly well that if I’d been busted, I wouldn’t have shown up at work the next day. And my picture would’ve been at the count gate with a poster saying ‘Administrative Leave, not allowed on prison grounds.’” “Well, no one knew where you was.” Sighing, I let the bay’s salty scent fill my nostrils, erasing the day’s sensory memories of sweat, shit, and state food. True, last year after the suits told me about the death threat, I’d been hidden out in an isolated perimeter gun tower, far from any inmates, mysteriously gone from my prior assignment on the upper yard, then sent to headquarters in Sacramento for safekeeping. Except for the higher ups, no one really knew why or where I’d gone. “I wasn’t in jail. That’s for sure.” I poked at a hunk of broken concrete with the toe of my boot. Why was BJ asking all this if she wasn’t gonna believe me? BJ stepped closer. “Like I said, it looked bad. You can understand that, can’t you?” I snorted. “No, this is all bullshit.” Just wonderful—my fellow cops thought I’d been fucking an inmate, when a parolee had been plotting my death. Sometimes I hated this place. Aside from the stickings, harassment, general filth, and persistent weenie whackers, the out-of-control rumor mill was enough to give me a permanently jaundiced view of the human race. The death threat had evaporated, the trial was over, but the absurd gossip wasn’t going away. Apparently, the half-life of a good rumor was infinite. Truth be damned.
-- Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in Bernie Siegel’s book, Faith, Hope, and Healing. Several of her essays and nonfiction stories have been published in Gulf Stream, The Penmen Review, and The Sophia Foundation Starlight Journal. Christine attends a weekly critique class with poet Rae Gouirand. She is currently working with writing coach Susan Sutliff Brown. Christine’s personal journey took her from naive Berkeley student to prison guard at San Quentin—where she was promoted to supervisor, and later, counselor for condemned inmates. Now retired, Christine is writing a memoir about her prison years.