CLARA, THE PRISON GHOST
By E. Gail Chandler
She had lived in the cell block, the segregation unit — or whatever they were calling The Hole these days — since 1940, a half century last October if she was figuring right. When she considered the alternatives, which wasn’t often, there were worse ways to spend eternity. Dante’s Inferno, for example, seemed especially unpleasant. All that hell-fire and torture.
Clara hadn’t counted on going the other way. Prostitutes like her who boosted on Sundays, robbed their Johns on Saturday night, wrote bad checks on their days off, didn’t have much to recommend them to St. Peter. And segregation wasn’t boring, you could say that for it.
But spending forever in prison had its downside, too. All that whining, the endless days, the cigarette smoke and the clack, clack, clacking of that jailhouse lawyer’s typewriter. And probably the worst feature in the design of her afterlife, she couldn’t leave the prison grounds. What could He have been thinking?
Mornings, she usually snooped on staff. She’d check in on the warden first thing, find out who was getting fired, what torment the commissioner was inflicting on the good lady today. There seemed to be a pattern. Life was worse for the woman when her political party wasn’t in power.
Each new governor would appoint his commissioner. The wardens would have to educate a new batch of politically appointed bureaucrats and fools. The warden’s party was in office more often so their pen pushers were easier to train.
Clara vowed that if she ever got another chance at living, she’d register as a Democrat. The warden had been here for over thirty-five years, did the best she could and deserved a little peace.
Watching her, Clara realized that staff were people just like convicts. They did not plot to cause misery; they usually tried the best they knew how. This provided a completely new perspective. The incarcerated didn’t discern this about guards and the staff hadn’t realized prisoners were just humans either. At least Clara could float around and know all.
She knew, for example, that Captain Gillicutty on the midnight shift took a dose of Phillips when he arrived at work. He’d start his first perimeter walk at one AM and arrive at the visitors’ bathroom behind the entry tower at one-twenty. The bathroom was not in use at this hour and he seemed assured of privacy.
Clara also knew that a certain male lieutenant and a blonde floozy murderess arranged to meet in the couched office of an unsuspecting counselor. Oh, yes, and there was the second shift nurse who swiped the inmates’ controlled medication every time she got a chance. And these secrets didn’t begin to compare with the convicts’ whose outnumbered the grains of wheat in Iowa.
For starters, Clara discovered how marijuana flowed from the visiting room to distribution on the ball field; where Susie and Janie kissed every night just before lockup and who made the hooch on New Year’s Eve, 1987.
Perhaps this was the Hell part, that she knew all this stuff and couldn’t tell anyone, at least not anyone sane. Clara learned early on that she was one of the voices Rhonda could hear, followed later by Lucy, Sally Jo and now Ruthie Faye. It seemed there was always someone, until or unless the shrink on call dicked around with the woman’s medication and made her deaf to Clara’s secrets.
On a Thursday evening at the beginning of October, Clara could think of nothing to occupy her time. In the beginning, she had not missed sleeping, those hours lost to oblivion. But as the years passed in slow motion, she began to miss it. Well, not so much sleep but a vacation from deciding how to pass time. She swooshed back and forth in the cellblock walk creating a breeze in her wake. She moved faster, concentrating her movements on the middle cell where Wilma lived.
“Who’s got their damn window open?” Wilma yelled, her voice bouncing around the concrete and tile surfaces.
A loud throat clearing came from Patty’s cell at the south end. “I’m trying to sleep, bitch.”
“You having hot flashes again, old woman?” Wilma asked.
Clara slowed down. Patty would deliver a racial epithet next. On some nights, it might be entertaining to throw some more fuel on the feud but on this night, the mess she had already started made her tired. She flew through the barred door, down the stairs, by the captain’s office and out the front of the building. From the lawn, she could hear Wilma’s screaming, hear the officers pound up the concrete steps, smell the smoke from Patty’s paper fire.
Clara felt ashamed. They were both nut cases and she’d had them in four point restraints earlier in the week. To clear her head she flew toward the stars until the prison lights fell behind her. An invisible force blocked her path, so she dove toward earth like some celestial bungee jumper. She repeated the exercise ten times; then she hovered above the yard. She spotted a group of women walking across the grass toward the recreation area, a renovated dairy barn, not a bad place for a prison ghost to hang out.
Clara remembered that AA met on Thursday night. What the hell? She would join them. She followed a woman with a big ass through the door. After considering a spot near the ceiling, she nixed hanging in the air and settled lightly in a chair on the back row.
The guest speaker talked of making amends for wrongs committed while under the influence. Clara figured this couldn’t pertain to her as she wasn’t a drunk, never had been. He was like all mortals, full of shit. She snickered. Full of shit. That was a good one. Ruthie Faye hadn’t taken her medication lately and might enjoy the little pun.
Clara stuck around until the end of the meeting as she didn’t have anything better to do. She followed the women back across the yard to the big main building and back up the stairs to their dorms. She left them and returned to segregation alone. Patty and Wilma were still in restraints, still cursing. She slipped to Ruthie Faye’s cell, taking care not to swoop.
Ruthie was sitting up in bed filing her nails with an emery board. She glanced up when Clara entered the cell. Ruthie frowned. “You really did it this time,” she said.
Clara floated down and rested on a pile of books at the foot of Ruthie’s bed. “What do you mean?”
Ruthie blew emery board dust from her nails. “Like you didn’t know.”
“I want to talk about something else,” Clara said, floating to the window and looking out. “I went to AA tonight.
“Did you learn anything?”
“That mortals are full of shit. Ha ha.”
Ruthie rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
“Don’t you get it?” Clara asked.
“I would if there was something to get. What caused this revelation?”
“Some dry drunk talking about making amends.”
“If I’d been floating around here for fifty years — not up, not down — I might pay attention.” Ruthie laid down her file. “I’ve decided to be sane. Get out of my goddamned cell.”
Clara swooshed out. She spent the night in dry food storage, sniffing powdered milk and counting number ten cans. Were there more or less of them than her transgressions? The transgressions would probably get it, even if she skipped all her ghostly sinning. If she wanted to make amends, how could she possibly do it? She didn’t want to anyhow. Besides, most of the injured were long dead.
At ten, she crept back to Ruthie’s cell. Ruthie was curled in her bed snoring. Clara swooshed down close.
Ruthie Faye’s eyes flew open and she sat up in bed with a start, pointing at Clara. “I said get out of my damned cell.”
Clara wanted to beg, to argue, to clear what was left of her mind but she faded out through the wall into the chill October air. She spent that day sitting on a tree branch blowing leaves.
The next Monday, Clara was in the same foul mood. Ruthie still hadn’t talked to her and the notions of transgressions and amends fluttered around her like a nest of yellow jackets. It was her day to visit the warden. Perhaps that would clear her head.
She had no sooner settled on the credenza than the warden looked straight at her. Clara, unnerved, looked to both sides.
The Warden peered with a steady blue-eyed gaze. “You’re Clara, aren’t you?”
“Can you see me?”
The lady nodded.
“Only crazy people can see me.”
“Darling, I’ve been at this job a long time. I’ve fired one too many persons, been sued one too many times. And the Republicans just got voted in again.” She straightened her ink blotter. “What would you expect?”
“You know about me?”
“Everybody knows about you. I’ve just never seen you before.”
It all made sense. The warden talked to women every week, even the crazy ones, had for thirty-five years. “Did you know I’m having problems?” Clara asked.
“Sure did. Ruthie Faye told me you’ve been setting off Wilma and Patty. And now, you won’t leave her alone. Having some kind of crisis of conscience?”
“Can you help?”
“Want to make up for your evil ways, huh?”
The warden cleaned her glasses, then gave her a clear-eyed stare. “Do you think you can scare the sin out of a politician and a bureaucrat?”
“Sure. If you can get me out the front gate.”
“I’ll pray to The Man with the security code.”
“You have connections that high?”
“Wardens know everybody that matters.”
Two weeks later, Clara was standing before St. Peter. And the week after that, she was settled in and learning to play the harp.