I sit in the silence of the well-lit room. The lights hum above me in a constant gentle artificial song. A small squeak escapes from the guard’s shoes. The shoes, generic in form and cheap in manufacturing, hug the woman’s size ten feet. The guard, tall and muscled, must have terrible foot aches when she gets home at night. I wonder about her as my eyes drift over her imposing form. The straight line of her lips and knitted eyebrows add to the already impressive stature. Does she have a husband waiting? Kids? Do they see the angry straight line of her lips as she walks through the door? Or does her face lose the sharp edges when she is home? A soft mother who nestles her children to her large, albeit, hard breasts.
“Eyes front,” comes her bark, slicing the silence with two words, destroying the quiet world we have let coexist between us for the last twenty minutes.
My eyes snap from her and to a poster across from me. The fluorescent bulbs throw down a harsh light that has faded the poster on the cement wall. The poster’s art is of an orange fish with a hook holding a half-smoked cigarette reading: Don’t Get Hooked. The fish has eyes that suggest the cigarette might be a joint. The water the fish swims in with a lit cigarette suggests magic. I’m suddenly craving a magic cigarette.
“Ms. Carlson?” A voice asks as my attention is taken from the orange fish. I pull my eyes from the magic cigarette and see a doctor in a white coat come in. He is followed closely by a mousey-looking woman. Her brown hair forms a cap about her pale skin and tiny features.
My throat has become dry from disuse and the peanut butter-crusted thickness of a word escapes over my lips, “here.”
I am surprised by the word. It reminds me of school when a substitute would call out the list of names to see who was here and who had decided to stay home. My name, Xena, often gets an extra-long pause. My mom loved women who were self-reliant and on nineties daytime television. Everything she wanted to be but never was, pushing the name on her only child in hopes that her dream would be fulfilled by the next generation.
“You’re here for an exam on,” the white-coated man pauses and looks at the clipboard, “breast lump? Is that right?” He hands the woman behind him the clipboard, she takes it without a word and clutches it tightly. The doctor walks to the small counter and pumps two large globs of hand sanitizer into his palms and then rubs them with vigor.
I wonder what he did to become a prison doctor. I like to think that he had an opioid addiction that spiraled out of control and landed him here. The more likely, and the less exciting option, is that he is just shit at his job and this is the only place that will hire him. The thought underwhelms me and I decide he was addicted to opioids and was sent here as his last chance to practice medicine.
“Undo your gown in front. I need to see them before I lay you back.” I undo my top; my sense of modesty has somewhat returned in the last two years and I feel a little embarrassed. My breasts are still perky and small, even after everything they have been through. The many hands that have squeezed, pulled, and pinched them haven’t made them any worse for wear. I hear babies do boobs in, something I have avoided in the last twenty-seven years, birth control a modern liberator for women.
“That is fine. Please lay back, I am going to do a breast exam. Which breast is the lump located on?”
“The right,” I say, the crust of my throat still thick, blocking the words’ normal sound giving my words a wobbly and worried edge.
The man in white says nothing more and starts to work his large and cold hands across my right breast in search of the lump I found three weeks ago. His hands are gentle but firm as they look.
The nurse stays in the corner clutching the clipboard, her white knuckles standing out like snow-capped mountains on her tiny hands. I cannot see the guard from my spot on the paper-lined table. The reassuring squeak of her shoes from time to time lets me know she is still here protecting the good doctor and the mousy nurse from the dangerous inmate. I tilt my head to the side so I can see the faded orange fish on the poster.
The last man had paid, as they always do, before service. Always get your money upfront. The door swung open, and just as dramatic as one would think, the officers came in with guns held high.
I probably would have escaped jail time had I just let them take me but true to my name I am a fighter. The cop’s nose I broke did not take kindly to whores who fought back. A split lip and three years of corrections have led to this moment with the gentle doctor who feels my breast and pays me nothing.
He moves to my other breast and feels his way across it. I stare at the orange fish and that impossible cigarette. “Okay, you can close your robe now.” I do and he takes my hand and helps me sit up as if I don’t have ab muscles. Then he steps back to the nurse and takes the clipboard back. She seems sad to let it go, her eyes watching it leave her hands and move to the doctor’s hands.
“The lump is concerning. It is hard and deep in your breast tissue, it also feels attached,” he says, “I am going to order a mammogram and an ultrasound.” He coughs into his hand and continues, “any history of breast cancer?”
Do I tell him about my grandmother who died of breast cancer because it was detected too late or of a mother who might have died of it but before she could get her cha-chas looked at by a professional Ron decided she talked back too much?
I nod because the thickness of my throat probably hasn’t dissipated and I am done making sounds that betray me.
He nods and then he writes something on the clipboard. Computer systems are all in the private offices where the doctors stay, none where they see the prisoners. I guess prison doctors have twice as much paperwork as regular doctors, but that’s just a guess.
“Okay, I think that is all I need. I will get those other tests scheduled and then get you back here.” I nod and say nothing while waiting for the guard to tell me I can stand and leave and he then adds, “if it is cancer we caught it early, it is a good thing you got checked out when you did.”
He exits the room and the guard says, “get dressed.” I put my government-issued clothing back on and prepare to leave. I look at the fish again and wonder where I can get one of those magical cigarettes.
5 thoughts on “Orange Fish and Cigarettes ”
You excel at writing fairly about people who do not normally get fair treatment in life or fiction–who are usually vilified or stereotyped, and even over the top in the other direction. Very well done. Balanced.
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I liked how the characters came alive; the shoe size ‘ten’ for the female guard is an immediate image of a large stocky woman. The main character has a indifference to her situation and has strong defiant attitude. Good writing.
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This is left a bit up in the air but I think that was what you were going for. Unlike all the support and sympathy a person would get if they weren’t in jail, she was left with no support, no sympathy, just a ‘Come back when we tell you’.
This indifference is what makes this so powerful.
I always enjoy reading your work and hope to see more from you soon.
You only have a few more to go to get into double figures which less than 3% of our writers manage!
Really visceral, honest, and superbly descriptive writing. I admire writing that focusses on a matter of minutes in a life, but brings in a past and a possible future within those minutes. This mix of the humdrum with the philosophically major aspects of life works so well in my opinion, but is not an easy thing to pull off – in this piece I think you absolutely manage this.
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Drew me in and then left me wondering about the narrator’s future – nicely detailed and empathic.