Reflections Amid The Stardust

Singing Bones

Singing Bones

The Phone Room

Cynthia Collett

While I wait my turn in line for the phone, I can hear bits and pieces of conversation. It's not as if I'm eavesdropping. It's just that the phones are in a hard, empty room where the only soft surfaces belong to three women hunched in plastic scoop chairs at the telephones along the wall. The smooth, hard surfaces amplify the voices and throw them around the room and out the door for anyone to catch. It's more like an echo chamber than the place prisoners make their ritual phone calls to people who feel a need to accept collect calls from them.

"No, no, mi hija, Mama will be home very soon. I'm sorry I missed your birthday party. Did you have a pinata?"

"So, how long have you had this new secretary that you didn't bother to tell me about?"

"Yes, Mama, I got the money. It showed up on my books two days ago."

"Mi hija, is Papa there? Can I talk to him?"

"Just what the fuck am I supposed to think, huh? You don't answer the phone at 9:00, three nights in a row! I'm supposed to think you're just out with the boys? I don't think so. You just get your nasty little ass home and keep it there. I ain't comin' home to find out you got the clap, or something worse."

"Yes, Mama, I'm being careful.... No, Mama, nobody's tried anything with me.... Yes, Mama, I take my showers when no one else is in the bathroom."

"I'm sorry, Jose; I didn't know there would be no pinata for her, We always have the pinata for her birthday. I'm sorry; I didn't mean for her to cry.... Si, Jose, I know why there was no money for the pinata; I'm sorry."

"No, Mama, I don't talk to nobody like that."

"Si, Jose, I will tell her the fault is mine, not yours. I'm sorry."

"Carl, did you hear me? I said, you damn well better be home when I call you tomorrow night; and what about the money you said you'd send. I didn't get nothin' yet. How the hell am I supposed to make it if you don't send me no money? Shit, it ain't like you don't have it, now is it?"

"Mi hija, I'm sorry you didn't have the pinata for your birthday. Because I wasn't there to help with everything, Papa, he couldn't get one. The fault, it's mine, mi hija. You'll have one next year, this I promise you. When your brother gets home, por favor, you tell him I love him. I must go now. Next month I will talk to you again. Papa will tell you when I am calling. I love you."

Every time Luisa calls home she goes through the same thing. Of course Jose never mentions the fact that it was the marijuana he had arranged to have hidden in the trunk of his car while Luisa visited her mother in Mexico that got her arrested in the first place. Now, not only is Luisa doing five years for his dope, she acts as if it's her fault. Jose could have kept her from ever seeing the inside of a prison with just a word from him--that's all it would have taken.

Joan's next in line. I might get to the phone before Ana goes to bed. I'd hate to have to do this again tomorrow. The line is always worse on Sunday.

"Hi, Greg. It's Joan. Is Bill there?... Where the fuck is he?... Aw, shit. I just stood in this fucking line for the last hour. He knew I was calling tonight. Well, when he gets home, tell him I called and I need some more money. He was supposed to send 200 last time and it was only a hundred. I'm almost out of smokes.... OK, I'll talk to you later. Tell him I'll call again tomorrow and he better be there."

Debbie's next. She'd stay on the phone for hours if anyone would talk to her that long, but since it's Saturday night, I'll bet she's calling Joey. She'll need to make sure he isn't out with someone else. Joey, however, never wants to stay on the phone long. Barbara's behind Debbie. She'll talk exactly 15 minutes. Barbara takes the rules very seriously and there's a tattered sign on the wall opposite the phones telling us that:

  1. Federal regulations allow the recording of any part of any phone call made by inmates.
  2. Profanity will not be tolerated on the phones.
  3. Calls will be limited to a maximum of 15 minutes per person.
  4. Absolutely NO SMOKING in the Phone Room.

Next to number 2 someone has scratched "Fuck off" in the wall.

"Joey? Is that you?... I don't know who else it might be (nervous laughter). It just didn't sound like you, that's all. So, how you doin', hm?"

"Damn it, Carl, you lying sack of shit, I told you not to have anything to do with that skanky broad. She's bad news and next thing you know, you'll be in here with me.... Damn straight she's trouble. You just get your head outta your ass and get busy doing what I told you to do in the first place, OK?"

Kathy is sitting next to me on the floor. She'll be after me if it doesn't get too late. I like Kathy. She and Martha came in at the same time. It took us less than a week to decide they were nuns. They've never told us they are, but there's just something about them. I used to wonder how a nun would get arrested. I don't know about the others, but these two are protesters. Kathy and Martha have each been arrested over 30 times for various protests against nuclear weapons' production. They talk very freely about their crimes, but not much about their lives. Our unwritten rules are enforced more strictly than their written rules. Asking someone their crime is against our rules. If they want to volunteer the information to someone, then it's fair game and everyone will know within 12 hours. If they don't offer the information, we may never know. There are only a couple of people here whose crimes are still a mystery.

Kathy and I usually do some kind of hand work while we wait for the phone. Tonight she's making macrame covered hangers for Christmas gifts. I'm knitting another sweater to sell. I need new clothes.

"I know, Mama.... Yes, Mama.... Of course, Mama.... OK, well, Mama, I gotta go now. I've been on longer than I'm supposed to.... Yes, Mama, I told you, I am only supposed to be on the phone for 15 minutes.... I know, but that's so all of us have a chance to use the phone--there's only three phones, you know.... I know, but they're not going to put in more phones just because you want to talk to me for more than a half hour at a time.... OK, I really gotta go now. There's a line for this phone.... Yeah, I'll try to get a phone then, but it could be a week or so before the line's short enough again.... Yeah, Ma, talk to you later."

"Hi Jim, it's Barbara. How're you doing? How are the boys?"

I'm next in line. I may make it before Ana goes to bed.

"Jesus, Carl, you never listen to anything I say. Why the hell can't you just keep your Goddamned jeans buttoned and you mouth zipped? Listen, I can't deal with this any more. I gotta pee. I'll call tomorrow night and we'll get this straightened out. Hey! And don't forget to send some more money! I need shit.... Yeah, me too. Bye."

Finally, it's my turn."

"Of course I miss you, Joey. You know you're the only thing that's important to me in my whole life. I don't know what I'd do without you, honey."

I really hate sitting in the middle. It's noisy and lacks even the illusion of privacy.

"Sunny? This is Jennifer. Is Ana there?"

"Did you get the Christmas presents for the boys?... I know they're expensive, but the boys shouldn't have to pay for what I've done, now should they?... I'm sorry, I didn't mean for it to sound that way. Just get them what you can, OK?"

"Joey, when you gonna come see me again? I miss you. I don't get to have no fun here unless you come see me. I need you to bring me a present, Joey. Shh, don't say anything like that on the phone; just bring me a present, Joey, OK?"

"Hi, Ana, it's Mom. How've you been?"

"Jim, did you get the grocery shopping done tonight?... Well, at least that's taken care of. Oh, I looked at the calendar and Bobby's due for a dental visit. Call and make an appointment for that. And while you're at it, you might as well take Billy and Jason in, too. They'll be due to go in a month and there's no sense you missing any more work than you have to. You should be getting a check-up soon, too... I know, but you need to take care of yourself, too, Jim. Are the boys helping with the laundry and the cleaning?... Well, just make sure they change their sheets every week. My roommate's son got impetigo because he hadn't changed the sheets on his bed since she got here, six months ago. Six months, can you imagine? I can't think why she hadn't asked about it. Anyway, you take care of getting the appointments set up, OK?"

"Oh, I'm fine. Everything here is the same as always. How's school?... That's good. Are you going to be able to finish this year with your class or will you have to take the whole 10th grade over?… Oh, good. I didn't know they had visiting teachers. Do you still fit in the desks?… I know. By the time I was six months pregnant with you, I could hardly get behind the wheel of a car."

"Isn't it time for report cards, Jim?... Well, be sure to let me know when the boys bring them home for you to sign. I want to know how they're doing. Have you called the teachers lately to see how they're doing this semester?... Well, please do it as soon as you can. Oh, did you have time to put the pot roast in the crock pot this morning? It's so much easier to use the crock pot than to try to cook something after you get home.... Well, maybe you can do that tomorrow. You guys can't live on pizza the whole time I'm gone."

"Joey, do you still love me?... Are you sure?... I mean, you never really tell me any more and when you come to see me, you're just not as--I don't know--sweet as you used to be... I know it's hard to come here as often as you want but you still want to see me, don't you?"

"Ana, be sure you give Sunny the phone number here and the names of people to ask for. If it's at night she has to talk to the Supervisor. If it's during the week, she asks for my caseworker. Be sure to tell her to give them everything—the baby's name, if you picked one, how big, how long, hair color and length, how you're doing, everything, OK?… I know I've done this before. It's just that I'm feeling—I don't know—like I should be there and not here…. No, I'm not thinking about escaping. I just wish I could be there, that's all."

OK, Joey, I know you're busy. I'll call you tomorrow, OK?... OK, I love you.... Joey, do you still love me?... OK, I'll talk to you tomorrow. Bye."

"Jim, if you can keep some sort of routine going, the boys will do better while I'm gone. Oh, while I was looking at my calendar, I noticed that the insurance is coming due this month. Have you gotten a renewal notice yet?... Good. What else did we get in the mail today?"

"Hi, this is Kathy. Is this Agnes?... I thought it sounded like you. How is everything going?"

"So, Ana, what do you want for Christmas?... No, Honey, I know you don't expect anything from me, but I've been knitting for the baby and I wanted to do something for you, too. Now that you're going to be a mom you won't be getting as much for yourself any more…. Oh, I made a couple of sweaters and a little bunting that is really very cute. Right now I'm working on a sweater and pants set that's adorable. The pants have little feet in them. Well, actually, I'm working on one for pay right now, but as soon as I'm done with that I can go back to yours."

"No, time is still racing by. The women here are really very wonderful. If I had known prison was going to be this filled with so many fascinating people, I might have been less anxious about coming. It doesn't seem possible that we only have four months left. I'll hate leaving many of these women behind. Have I told you that we're not allowed to contact one another after we get out of here? I think that's barbarous, but then, it fits with the attitudes we've experienced thus far. Enough about me. What are you doing for Christmas?... Oh, I had thought you were going to visit your family in Missouri.... Well, I'm sorry you won't be able to go. Will there be someone there for you to spend the holidays with?... Oh that's good. Oh, we'll be busy enough. There's still so much to do before Christmas."

"How about a sweater? All this time and I don't think I've ever made a sweater for you. What size are you now?... No, not now, I guess. What size do you think you'll be after the baby is born?... Ana, are you really doing OK? I worry about you sometimes. I mean, you're pregnant, you have to finish school, you can't live on your own until you're 18. Your mother and father are both in prison. It's not like things are really going great for you…. No, Honey, I don't think you're a failure. I think I'm the failure. I think your father is the failure I think you're doing just fine. I just don't want you to think that any of this is your fault…. I'm sorry. I know you don't like talking about this, but it's important right now. OK, we'll talk about something else."

"You'd better call the lawyer about his bill. We don't want that to get out of hand. Did he have any more to say about whether or not we need to get a divorce?... Well, I don't want you and the boys to lose the house because of my restitution.... If that's the only way we can do it, then that's what we'll do. Just let the lawyer take care of it. Oh, Honey, did you water the plants this week?"

"Oh, Agnes, I am so grateful that I have as much as I do. The women here have so little and I have a whole community to depend on for love and prayers. I just wish there was more I could do…. No, we still think it's best not to mention that…. No, we're not ashamed, we just feel we might be treated differently and we don't want that. If we were ever asked we would, of course, tell them, but I've never seen people so respectful of the privacy of others…. Well, I believe I've probably said enough. I am sitting in a room with two other women and there's still a line in the hall waiting for the phone."

"Have you talked to Aunt Sally lately?… Oh, when did Grandma come to town?… She didn't even call you? I'm sorry, Ana.... No, it's OK. You don't have to feel guilty about not being close to someone who never comes to see you.... Yeah, that's pretty much what it boils down to.... Yeah, it sounds different that way doesn't it? So, have Sunny and Joe gotten any more foster kids lately?... Two more? What does that make now, 9 or 10?... It must be quite a sight at dinner time. Are you happy there still?... I'm glad. It's good to know you have a foster mom who cares almost as much about you as I do. It makes me feel better…."

"No, the priest won't be here for Christmas. He has his parish as well as us. The Baptist church will be here, though. We often go to that service when Father Joseph can't get here. I must say, the good reverend is a great deal more impassioned than Father Joseph ever gets. It's a refreshing change. It will be fine, but I'll be glad when I can get back to Father Peter and a real confession with a real mass. "

"OK, Ana, our time's about up. Please tell your lawyer that I said thanks a lot for his help in getting the judge to let us have these calls. It is so much easier to be able to talk to you. I don't have his address but you can tell him for me, can't you?… Thanks. OK, I've got my calendar here. Do you think you'll be home two weeks from tonight?... OK, remember to tell Sunny and Joe to refuse the charges if you're not there. I love you, Ana. I'll talk to you two weeks from now. If you're not home, I'll try to call the next night. Take care, Sweetie.... I love you, too."

As I leave the phone room, Elizabeth passes me at the doorway to take my place. She'll be calling her mother to see how her daughter, Michelle, is. Michelle will be a year old soon. Elizabeth calls her mother every Saturday night to hear about Michelle.

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