Gertie McDowell, a naïve young girl from Turkey Roost, Kentucky, is serving five years in the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia. This came about because Gertie inadvertently distributed powdered meth throughout several states. Believing herself to be a dress designer, she was in fact delivering dresses that a drug dealer had laced with meth. Gertie remains optimistic and harbors a crush on Agent Jackson, the personable DEA agent who arrested her.
Hi, it’s Gertie McDowell again. Guess it’s time I got back to you. Yes, I’m still at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia—the place they call Camp Cupcake ’cause Martha Stewart once stayed here. I’ve served three months of my five-year sentence, and they moved me into one of the cottages. They put me in a two-person room along with Bertha Jean. Bertha Jean she’s a great big woman who’s doing time for mail fraud. And she allowed me to join a buncha women inmates that she calls her family. Bertha Jean she’s kinda the father and a woman named Wanda Sue is the mother. And there’s five younger women who quarrel like sisters, but they do what Bertha Jean says. I’m the youngest one of them all so I guess that makes me the princess.
I’m working in the sewing shop, making clothes for federal inmates. And Bertha Jean works in the kitchen where she dishes out food during meals. Whenever I get in the serving line, Bertha Jean gives me a wink. And she gives me extra servings of pork chops, mashed potatoes, and collard greens.
In the evening after dinner, we all meet at some picnic tables. We do a whole lotta chatting there and some of the women cry a bit. Most of my prison family are mothers even though they’re really young. They say the worst thing ’bout being in prison is that they can’t be with their kids.
We play a whole lotta checker too, and I’m really good at that. My dad, he taught me how to play checkers before he took off for Branson, Missouri, to join a country band. My dad’s a really good checker player—he used to play for money—but it got so I could beat him four games outta five.
When I play checkers with my prison family, I also win most of my games. We don’t got much money to bet with so we usually play for tampons. I’ve won a whole lotta tampons and I used to just give ’em away, but Bertha Jean she told me that I hadda stop doing that. Bertha Jean runs her own little store that sells tampons, cookies, and soap. She said nobody will buy her tampons if I’m giving mine away for free. I charge fifty cents for a tampon now so’s to not undercut Bertha Jean. And when no one’s looking, I turn over my profits to the prison library fund.
Almost all of the women here are in relationships with one another. You see ’em holding hands on their beds and fixing each other’s hair. A coupla women told me they’d like to be my squeeze, but that sorta stuff don’t set too well with a girl from Turkey Roost. ’Sides, I’m saving myself for Agent Jackson, the cop that busted me. He sent me a really nice card on Christmas and I sent him a box of ginger snaps. I mailed it to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Office in Louisville ‘cause I don’t got his home address. And I told him to come see me in Turkey Roost once I get outta prison.
Sometimes, at night when everyone’s sleeping, I have a bit of a cry. That’s ’cause I get kinda lonesome in spite of my new family. I do get letters from Ma, but she ain’t come to visit me yet. Dad he ain’t come to visit me neither—he says he’s on a mission. He says he’s gonna find the drug dealer that set me up and beat the shit out of him. So when I get to feeling sorry for myself, I think about Agent Jackson. I think about what a gentleman he was when he arrested me. About how he put on the handcuffs real gentle and made sure the strands weren’t too tight. And when he was driving me to jail, he told me he how misses his daughters. That’s ‘cause his wife divorced him last year—it seems she couldn’t handle the face that he’s got a real dangerous job.
When I think about Agent Jackson, I feel kinda weak in my water. When he booked me in the Warren County Jail, he said he’d like to have coffee with me some day. And who knows what coffee will lead to with a gentleman that fine? I might end up giving him a loving home and maybe a coupla children. Shucks, I’m sure I could make him a real devoted wife.
One evening when I was playing checkers, the warden walked up to our picnic table. His name is Warden Jordan and he’s a sociable kinda fella. He looks sorta like John Candy and he’s always cracking jokes, and it’s funny when he looks at you ’cause he’s got a lazy eye. Bertha Jean says we’re lucky to have a superintendent like Warden Jordan. She said serving time is a bitch if you got a prick for a warden. I guess Bertha Jean oughta know ’cause she’s been in three different prisons.
Well, Warden Jordan he stood by the table and watched me crown a king. And then he rolled back on his heels and gave me a real strange look. But it’s always strange when he looks at you on account of his lazy eye. “Sweets,” he said in a voice fulla fun, “is what they’re telling me true?”
“I ain’t sure what they’re telling you, sir,” I said to him real polite. “If I don’t know what they’re telling you, I dunno if the telling is true.”
Warden Jordan he smiled at me then he patted me on the head. “What they’re telling me, Miss McDowell, is that you’ve been putting on airs. They say you’re calling yourself the checker champion of all of Alderson prison.”
Well, if I was gonna call myself something, it wouldn’t be a checker champion. ’Cause winning a buncha tampons ain’t nothing to brag about. So I said to Warden Jordan, “Sir, I ain’t never put on no airs. Even when I was designing dresses, I never put on no airs.”
Warden Jordan, he shuffled his feet like maybe his bunions hurt. All the time, he kept staring at me with his creepy lazy eye. He said, “Sweets, it doesn’t matter if you call yourself a champion or not. Other women are calling you that, which only makes matters worse.”
Well, I said to Warden Jordon, “Sir, I’m serving five years for drug sales. I don’t see how playing checkers is gonna make matters worse.”
“It’s not about playing checkers,” the warden said with a laugh. “It’s about people treating you like a queen when you haven’t earned your crown.”
“Whatcha mean by that?” I said as I capped another king.
“What I mean by that,” the warden said, “is that I’m putting a bug in your ear. Unless you can beat me four games out of seven, your glory days are over.”
“You wanna play checkers with me?” I said ’cause I couldn’t believe what I heard. For a moment, I thought he was telling me he was gonna give me lice.
But the warden he said to come to his office the following afternoon. He said it was high time I learned a little humility. And he told me that he’s the best damn checker player in all of Monroe County.
After the warden waddled away, Bertha Jean said to be careful. She said Warden Jordan is a pretty good guy, but I oughta keep my distance. She said if I spend too much time with him, some of the women might think I’m a snitch.
Wanda Sue, she just flared her nostrils like maybe I farted in church. Even though she’s doing time for robbin’ a bank, Wanda Sue got a streak of religion. “Don’t be crossing the Jordan”—that’s what she said to me. It weren’t ’til three weeks later that I figured out what that meant.
Well, the following afternoon, I reported to Warden Jordan’s office. He has a real nice office over in the administration building. It’s got a fancy mahogany desk and a leather executive chair, and there was pictures all over the walls of fashion models showing off dresses. There was pictures of models in tunic dresses and baby doll dresses and kaftans. There was pictures of models wearing flit and flare dresses and even some mini sheaths. I have to admit it was kinda weird to see all them fashion photos, but I gotta say that when it comes to dresses the warden has real good taste.
Warden Jordan said to have a seat on the opposite side of his desk. He had already set up the checkerboard and he told me I could have the first move. He said that to make it interesting, we could have us a little wager. If I beat him four games out of seven, he’ll give me a new pair of shower shoes. And if he took the series offa me, I would have to make his wife a dress. The warden said he was kinda impressed that I was a dress designer. And he said he was sorry I weren’t more careful in screening out my clients.
Well, I ain’t too sure how smart it was to bet with Warden Jordan. But we shook hands on the bet and we played the first game and I beat him in just twenty-one moves. Warden Jordan said I took unfair advantage ’cause I waited too long to move. So he put an egg timer on the desk and set it for ninety seconds. He said if I took longer than that to move, I would have to forfeit the game. Well, I kept my moves to under a minute and I won the next game even faster. And Warden Jordan he looked at me like I was some kinda haunt.
“Miss McDowell” he muttered, “have I underestimated you?”
Well, I didn’t want to rub it in—I could see his pride was hurt. Shucks, I felt like I did the day Ma caught me swipin’ her coconut-scented shampoo. “Don’t fault yourself for putting me down,” I said to Warden Jordan. “If you’re be best checker player in all Monroe County, that’s gotta be easy to do.”
Warden Jordan he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a handkerchief. And he cleaned off all of his checker pieces as though they were covered with ants. “Miss McDowell,” he said with a sneer, “you have to two more games to win. I don’t want none of your sympathy until you’ve won another two games.”
Well, I pretended to be confused and I lost the next four games, and that was kinda hard to do ’cause the warden made some really dumb moves. But I didn’t throw them games ’cause I was scared of Warden Jordan—he’s a really sociable fella and he’s got great taste in fashion. I blew them games ’cause it didn’t make sense to be playing for shower shoes. Not when I could be making a dress for Warden Jordan’s wife.
After puttin’ away the checker set and grinning like a raccoon, Warden Jordan told me to make his wife a fancy carnival dress. He said him and his wife was going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and his wife wanted a dress so colorful she could march in the parade. He said to make her a purple dress with a tangerine-colored bodice, and to also make her a carnival hat that was fulla ostrich feathers. The warden hadn’t mentioned no hat when we made ourselves our bet, but I told him he’d won our bet so well that I’d throw in the hat for free.
The warden wrote down some measurements, and I gaped like a carp outta water. Shucks, his wife was as big as a stud hog and she didn’t have much of a bust, and I was gonna need a whole lotta fabric to whip up a dress that big. I said to the warden it might cost him less if she wore a tent instead.
Well, the warden he ordered some cotton fabric and it took ’bout a week to arrive, and when it arrived I began work on the dress in the prison sewing shop. I made the dress real careful ’cause there weren’t no fabric to waste, and I put some pleats and ruffles in it to give it a carnival look. The time it passed real pleasant while I was working on the dress—’cept that the other women in the shop kept interrupting me to ask me what I was doing. Well, I couldn’t tell ’em I was making a dress for the warden’s wife to wear. Shucks, even in Camp Cupcake you don’t wanna look like no snitch. So I told ’em I was crossing the Jordan—it was all I could think of to say.
It took me a week to finish the dress ’cause I hadda use a whole lotta stitches, and word about what I was doing got back to my prison family. Bertha Jean said that something weren’t right and she told me I better be careful. She said Warden Jordan musta found a way to take advantage of me. Wanda Sue she just shook her head and called me a foolish child. She said whatever I was up to, I was gonna reap what I sowed. But Warden Jordan he beamed like a bride when I finally gave him the dress. He said I could have them shower shoes even though I lost the bet.
When the ostrich feathers arrived in the mail, I went to work on the hat. And them women in the sewing shop looked at me like I was crazy. They wanted to know why I was making a hat that only a stripper would wanna wear. “I’m crossing the Jordan,” I told ’em, and I didn’t say nothing more.
After I gave Warden Jordan the hat, he planted a smooch on the knuckles. And he said he was gonna write the Federal Parole Commission and tell ’em I was a model inmate. He said he was gonna ask the Parole Commission to grant me an early release.
When I told Bertha Jean about this, she snorted like a mule. She said federal parole was eliminated more ’an forty years ago. She also said Warden Jordan was running a con on me. Either that or he hadda be six fries short of a Happy Meal.
Well, I didn’t have no reason to be doubtin’ Bertha Jean. Bertha Jean’s been good to me and she made me part of her family, and whenever I go through the serving line she gives me extra helpings. Even so, I wrote Agent Jackson and told him what the warden promised. I said it might not be too long ’til I could have coffee with him.
After I gave Warden Jordan the hat, he stopped showing up at the prison. At first, I thought that he had gone to New Orleans so his wife could be in that parade. But a coupla days later the women were told to report to the prison chapel. That’s where we was introduced to this fella who was gonna be our new warden. His name was Claus Von Becker and he looked as mean as a miser and he made us all stand at attention while he gave us a really stern speech. He told us the prison had gotten too slack and he was gonna tighten things up, and when he was done it wouldn’t be known as Camp Cupcake anymore. There would be no more public displays of affection or running private stores, and no one was gonna be allowed to play checkers for tampons no more. When Mr. Becker was done with his speech, we walked out of the chapel like zombies. All of us was wondering what happened to Warden Jordan. Bertha Jean she speculated that Warden Jordan had found greener pastures. She said running a prison was no kinda job for a fun lovin’ fella like him.
A coupla weeks later, I found out what happened to Warden Jordan. I was watchin’ television in the cottage—me and my family—when an exposé on Warden Jordan popped up on the six o’clock local news. He was in a bar called Swinging Moses’, which was somewhere in downtown Charleston, and he was sashaying around on a stage and singin’ “I Gotta Be Me.” He was wearing the hat I made for his wife, the one with ostrich feathers, and he also had on the carnival dress his wife was supposed to wear. It looked like Warden Jordan had found him the promised land, but I wished I had hemmed the dress ’cause it was draggin’ at his feet.
Well, it don’t look like I’m gonna be gettin’ no early release from prison. Maybe that’s ’cause I reaped what I sowed—that’s what Wanda Sue warned me would happen. Shucks, I ain’t even popular with the other women no more. Don’t none of ’em wanna play checkers with me—not even if I spot them two pieces. But Bertha Jean she told me I was still part of her family. She said it really weren’t my fault that we now have a prick for a warden. And Wanda Sue said I weren’t to blame for being as dumb as an oyster. She said the good Lord would protect me ’cause I know not what I do.
When I wrote Agent Jackson and told him what happened, he sent me a really nice letter. He told me I was a good-hearted girl who keeps getting led astray. He said to hold my head up and to keep my good intentions. He said when I get outta prison, he’ll be proud to have coffee with me.
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