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  • From Given
  • Susan Musgrave (bio)

Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient.

Henry Ward Beecher

Shoelaces are the most popular weapon in prison. With no elasticity and a high breakage point they can be used to hang yourself or strangle other people.

My shoelaces had been taken away from me when I was moved to the Condemned Row—the State didn’t want me turning myself into a wind chime before the warrant had been signed by the governor. I had grown accustomed to walking around with my shoes loose, flopping open, but standing beside the prison transfer van, I felt, in a strange way, naked.

“What’s the first thing you plan on doing, you get yourself freed?” Earl, my driver, asked as he unlocked my waist chains and manacles and helped me into the back. There were, I saw, no door handles, which was why he’d felt secure enough to remove my shackles.

I told Earl I’d always figured the first thing I’d do if I were ever released would be to return to South America to find my son. “Right after I get finished buying shoelaces.”

Earl, a big man with gray hair mussed up as if he’d been tossed out of bed, and everything he felt hidden behind chrome mirrors, hefted my prison-issue duffel bag marked property of california state correctional facility onto the seat beside me. “That’s a long way to go to look for somebody,” he said, giving me an opening, but I wasn’t about to tell him I’d had to look in a lot more farther away places since I’d left my son’s body behind on Tranquilandia; I’d had to begin the search in the shrunken rooms of my heart, to find myself first, the hard way.

“As long as you keep moving you can get anywhere you want,” Earl said, looking up at the sky. His view was that most people went from being alive one minute to being dead the next, without knowing the difference. “Half the people walking around, they don’t even know they’re already dead. The rest of them die before they ever learn to live.”

He turned on the radio, volunteering, over the static, that he had some [End Page 169] knowledge of my case. In his opinion “women of the female gender” didn’t belong behind bars; being locked up didn’t make them any easier to get along with. He said he believed prisoners of all genders should be set free and given jobs, so they could make themselves useful. In his country, for instance, during the ethnic cleansing, they had enlisted men serving life sentences for rape and murder, because they made the best soldiers. “There are men who like to see blood. Lots of it.”

Officer Jodie Lootine, the guard everyone called The Latrine because of her potty mouth, slid in next to Earl; it was her job to make sure I reached my destination without making a jackrabbit parole, the reason my destination remained a secret, surrounded by a bodyguard of lies. All I’d been told was that I was being transferred to a remand center in southern California where I would be held pending a new trial.

Years before, when I was first admitted to the Facility, I had been given a pamphlet called the Inmate Information Handbook. One of the first rules, right after “If you are a new inmate only recently sentenced by the courts, this will probably be an entirely new experience for you,” was “Don’t ask where you are going, or why, they will only lie to you anyway.” We had our rules, too, the rules of engagement with prison guards, wardens, classification officers, even the all-denominations chaplain who came to wish you sayonara in the Health Alteration Unit, a.k.a the death chamber. Don’t ask questions. It spares you the grief.

Something else I’d learned from the Inmate Information Handbook. You will feel completely alone, because you are.

I checked my Snoopy wristwatch—bequeathed to me by Rainy the night before she took her trip to...