ROSE

Rose drove the rusted Plymouth across the state, the highway rolled out like a flat, gray carpet. She travelled northeast, moving toward Joliet, toward the Stateville Correctional Center where her father lived. She tapped the ring, heavy and foreign on her finger, against the wheel. Drops of rain beaded along the windshield, the wipers moving slowly back and forth. She felt herself harden—muscles tensing, jaw grinding—under the weight of her father’s enormous absence, that overwhelming silence of fourteen years in which she hadn’t heard from him except at Christmas when a card came with his name scratched at the bottom, except for one collect call that her mother refused to accept so all Rose heard on the extension was the tired voice of a woman telling her father that the charges were denied and then the soft click as the operator disconnected.

Nearly four hours after she’d left Hayes Corners, as the Valiant motored along Route 53, Rose’s eyes followed the thick trees that dropped leaves onto the asphalt road, dotting the black tar with reds and yellows, oranges and browns.  Closer to the penitentiary, she passed a few houses here and there, a gas station, a tire-repair shop.  The grass was green, the ground swollen from the rain.  In the gathering sunlight, Rose softened, her spine easing into the seat, her fingers no longer woven tightly around the steering wheel, as the image she had of prison—dirty and stark, barren and alone—became a more friendly, more hospitable place.  As the car rolled down the long drive and stopped in the parking lot, she stared at the limestone walls the color of wet sand rising up against the light gray sky, at the guard turrets on each corner making it look like a castle from one of those books she’d read as a child, at the slow arc of gleaming razor wire spiraling away in a long wake of silver.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” she murmured.  Then she glanced at the ring, splayed her fingers, and turned the diamond this way and that.  “Now I got news.  Now at least I got a reason to talk to him.”

Almost an hour and a half later, after leaving her purse and her necklace in a locker, after being patted down by a guard with stiff hands, after waiting in a long line filled with impatient women, Rose was finally directed into a large room filled with round tables.  A guard guided her to a hard seat with no back connected to a small metal table and told her to sit down.  She waited there, sweat trickling down her back and pooling against the elastic of her underwear, and tried not to notice a few of the other inmates ogling her with their mouths open and their tongues darting out to lick their lips.  She was wishing for nearly the hundredth time that she would’ve worn sweatpants instead of tight jeans and a less form-fitting top when her father finally came in.  Rose blinked at the sight of him, tall and thin and almost gaunt, because he wasn’t at all who she remembered.  His hair was cut so short she could see the curve of his scalp.  He shuffled with his head down, staring at his feet, his hands limp at his sides, the muscles of his arms, the ones that Rose remembered, long since withered and the skin gone flabby around his biceps.  He was wearing blue pants that were at least a size too big and an equally dismal-colored button-down short-sleeved shirt that hung loosely over his narrow chest.

“Daddy?” she said.

“Hey, baby girl,” he replied, sinking onto the seat opposite her, sitting wide-legged with his elbows on the table, then leaning forward, reaching out to touch Rose.  “You’re looking good, Rosie.”

Instinctively, Rose yanked her hands into her lap.  She looked down at the paleness of her skin against the navy color of her jeans then felt heat rising in her cheeks.  Fourteen years since she’d seen him.  Fourteen years when all she’d had was the memory to live with.  Fourteen years and she hardly recognized him anymore.  Finally, she mumbled, “What happened to you?”

“It’s been a long time.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I was glad to see I got a visitor.  I got to say I’m surprised it was you, Rosie.”

“You thought it’d be Mama?”

When he didn’t answer, Rose stiffened.  She could feel the heat of his stare, could feel the faint shudder in her own body from those eyes boring into her.  She looked at the edge of the table, the strip of metal glistening under the florescent lights, the edge of her face shimmering back at her.  Finally, she said, “What, Daddy?”

“Look at me, Rosie.”

Her fingers scooped up the hem of her sweater, and she gently pushed the tip of her fingernail through the knit weave.  So slightly that had you not been looking, you would’ve never noticed it, Rose shook her head.  “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

She gnawed at her bottom lip then gave a loose-shouldered shrug.  She breathed in deeply—stale tobacco, old socks, the faint smell of bleach—and closed her eyes.  Her stomach clamped down and the eggs she’d had for breakfast churned, rising and scuttling into her throat, filling the back of her mouth with a nasty, sour taste.  She swallowed hard and when she opened her eyes again, her father had slumped away from her, studying a spot somewhere above Rose’s head.

“You ashamed of me?” he said.

“Did you think it’d be Mama?”

He pressed a finger to the metal strip on the table between them, the heat warming the surface for a moment before he pulled it away, leaving a slight hazy print that faded as it cooled, as if a ghost had touched it.  “Naw.  She don’t come here anymore.  Too much of a hassle she says.”

“You got parole coming up, she says.”

“Fourth one’s supposed to be the charm.”

Rose poked her pinky finger through the brown wool of her sweater and said, “It’s gonna be four already?”

“Yeah.”

Finally, Rose’s eyes traveled up to her father’s face, pale and drawn with nicks around his jawline and a streak of blood near his ear.  “What happened?”

“It’s good to see you, Rose.”

“What happened?”

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Uh-huh.  What happened?”

“Just shaving my whiskers.”

Rose glanced to either side of her, at the visitors and inmates talking in low tones beside her, and leaned in toward her father.  Her voice dropped a notch, and she said, “You all right in here?”

“Wish I wasn’t in that cell anymore.”

“They denied you parole three times already?”

“Yeah.  Fourteen years and three parole boards and still I’m here.”

“That woman keep coming to the hearings?”

“You know about her?”

Rose touched a finger to the table, dragging the pad in long, slow circles.  “Mama said she comes every time.  Says she gets the sympathy vote on account of her face.  Mama says anybody with that many keloid scars don’t have to say a word, their face’ll do the talking for them.”

“I didn’t cut her up, Rosie.”

“I know, Daddy.”

“They said I tried to kill her.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t try to kill anybody.”

Rose nodded but didn’t say a word.  She had seen his excuses coming just as surely as she saw yesterday’s thunderstorm moving across the far horizon, dark as a bad bruise.

“I was just defending myself.  She came at me first.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your mama didn’t say I did it, did she?”

“No.”

“Then how come you haven’t come to see me sooner?  You’re all grown up now.  Last time I have a good memory of you, you was just a little thing, wearing a red dress and dancing barefoot across the grass at Uncle Tommy’s picnic.  Jesus, Rosie, I miss them days.  I missed you growing up.  Christ, I’m sorry.”

Rose shrugged again.  “Ain’t your fault.”

“Still.”

The quiet between them held for nearly a minute.  A memory flitted into Rose’s head of the last time she saw her father: that warm courtroom; the snow smelling cold and tinny; how she had not understood the verdict but had understood her mother’s piercing cry; how she had put her little head down and ran toward her father, who was moving away from her, his back wide and stiff; how her mother grabbed her wrist, pulling her back; how her father had vanished though a heavy wooden door without ever once turning around.  Rose could feel a knot swelling in her throat, thinking of her little legs pumping for just a few seconds, the cry she herself had let out, the fat tears that fell in round plops and darkened the floorboards between her shiny dress shoes, then her mother’s voice in her ear, Lord have mercy, Rosie, you’re breaking my heart, too.  Finally, Rose plunked her left hand onto the table and splayed the fingers.  The diamond caught the florescent light, the sparkle making something quicken inside her.  She cleared her throat and said, “I’m getting married, Daddy.”

“To who?”

“To whom?”

“What?”

Rose laughed, a high jittery sound that did nothing to calm her nerves.  “He’s always correcting my talking like that.  Says it makes me sound smarter if I use big words and talk like my English teacher back in high school.”

Rose’s father leaned forward, and with a quickness that belied his shriveled appearance, his hand shot out and latched onto her wrist.  All the gentleness leaving him, he barked, “Who, Rosie?”

Rose startled, a thin cry escaping her.  A guard peeled away from the wall and moved toward them as she blurted, “Danny Turk.”

Her father cut his eyes to the guard, dropped Rose’s wrist, and said, “Danny Turk?”

“Uh-huh,” Rose said, nodding so much that her head felt wobbly like a dandelion gone loose on its stalk.

“Everything all right, miss?” the guard said, his hand on a black club attached to his hip.

“Fine,” Rose mumbled.  “I’m fine.”

“No touching,” the guard said, staring her father down.  “You know the rules.”

“Won’t happen again.”  And when the guard turned, moving slowly away, her father said, “How do I know that name?”

“His daddy owns the Texaco station in town.”

“Hal Turk?”

“Yeah.”

“We used to go to the VFW on Saturday nights.  He was in Germany same as me, fighting the Krauts during the Second World War.  We was near Munich at the same time near the end in ’45.”

“I don’t know,” Rose murmured.  “He don’t talk about it.”

“He was there.  Got a little messed up in the head if you ask me.”

She glanced at her father’s fingers curled around the edge of the table, at his forearms smattered with dark hairs, at the short sleeves of his blue shirt that were frayed along the seams.  She followed the line of his arm to the curve of his shoulder, then the stubble on his chin to the deep lines edging his eyes and creasing his forehead, noticing how he looked old now, like a long-ago promise that nobody cared anymore about keeping.

“I know him is all I’m saying,” her father muttered.  “He was a good man.”

“Danny’s a good man, too.”

His voice softening, he said, “I’m happy for you, Rosie.  You always was a good girl.”

She stiffened then pulled her hand back into her lap again, feeling the weight of that diamond ring pressing against her finger.  She felt something inside her cracking, like fractures in a frozen pond radiating out across the ice.  She knew it would break soon, knew it would make her cry when it did.  “Thanks, Daddy,” she said softly.  “I just wanted you to know.”

“Thanks for coming all this way.”

“I wanted to see you.”

Her father dragged his eyes to the clock on the wall, its face covered with wire mesh.  “I still got time.  We can still talk some.”

“How long do they give you here?”

“An hour.  We got more than half left.”

Rose fiddled with her sweater again, pulling at the hem, trying to smooth out the misshapen bumps in the knit where she’d pushed the tips of her fingers through.  “I don’t know as I got thirty minutes worth of something to say.”

“Rosie, I think about you every day.  I wonder how you’re doing out there in the world and if you’re happy and what you wish about your life and—”

A strapped-down feeling, a tightness just before the burst, squeezed her chest, took up residence in her throat.  “Daddy, I—”

“No, honey, I want you to hear this, I do.  I know it can’t a been easy growing up without me there and everybody knowing what happened at PJ’s and how I got sent to prison ’cause of it.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“That don’t change that it was hard on you.”

Rose’s face went still as it always did when her mouth was about to frame a lie.  “I don’t think about it much.”

“I took that woman’s money.”

Rose moved her attention from her sweater to her fingernails, picking at a few flecks of dirt beneath her thumb.

“Are you listening, Rosie?”

She nodded and a faint umm-hmm rolled out from the back of her throat.  The tears were there, swimming in the rims of her eyes, and she blinked them back.  She thought of that night he’d come home spattered with blood, how she’d been in her favorite bunny pajamas when she found him washing up in the sink, how he casually lied to her so easily, telling her it was paint, how his words and his thin voice—“I was helping Homer.  You remember Homer down the road?  We was painting his barn.  It’s just red paint, Rosie, nothing to worry about.”—still echoed in her head after all these years.

“She gave me four hundred bucks,” her father leaned forward and whispered, “because I told her I’d invest it for her.  I told her that she could make double her money back.  She believed me because she seen when my buddy gave me money and I gave him back double, but it was just a con, Rosie.  Just a con to get her to part with her paycheck.”

Rose traced the veins in the back of her hand; she let one finger circle a brown mole near her wrist.  In reaction to his confession, she quietly slunk away from him, pressing the backs of her knees into the metal seat, sucking in her stomach, inching her heels closer together.

“I’m guilty of stealing.  I ain’t guilty of attempted murder.”

Softly, so soft she wasn’t even sure she’d said it out loud, Rose whispered, “Then why’d you cut her?”

Her father wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead then snapped his wrist, the perspiration flicking off his fingertips and sailing toward the concrete floor.  “She pointed a gun in my face.  I grabbed a beer bottle and swung it.  I didn’t mean to break it across her face.  I didn’t mean for her to get all cut up like that.  I didn’t mean for it to nick the artery in her neck, for Chrissakes.  How was I supposed to know all that was gonna happen?”

Rose could smell the fear in him, that something thick and sour, just like she had smelled it that night when she was five years old.  More to her lap than to him, she said, “It wasn’t loaded.”

She heard his sharp intake of breath.  She felt the air around her shift and flatten.  The hairs on her arms lifted as if something electric sizzled in the space between them.  The smell around him intensified and Rose took tiny sips of air through her mouth, trying not to breathe in the scent of him.  Her father’s voice, when it finally came again, was thin and laced with anger.  “How was I supposed to know that?  You got a gun in your face, you gonna ask somebody if it’s loaded?  If you got to be worried?”

Her knees ached from pressing so hard against the seat.  Her thighs trembled from being held so tight.  Her lungs burned from the air she wasn’t breathing.  She blinked and blinked then finally closed her eyes.  Quietly, she said, “She just wanted the money back.  How come you just didn’t give her the money back?”

“I didn’t have it, Rosie.  I just didn’t have nothing to give her.”

“So you left her bleeding on the floor.”

“Four hundred bucks and I’m doing thirty years in prison.”

“Why’d you run?  Why’d you leave her to die?”

“I don’t know, Rosie.  I was scared.”

There was a long quiet that pressed against Rose’s ribcage, that thundered in her ears.  She heard the low mosquito-like drone of conversation from the visitor beside her but couldn’t make out what he was saying.  She heard someone cough.  Someone else walked across the room, the soles of their shoes making a raspy noise against the floor.  Her father cleared his throat and said, “Say something, Rose.”

“I don’t know what to say, Daddy.”

“Can you look at me please?”

Rose opened her eyes to see her father fiddling with his hands, moving them from the table to his lap and back again, not knowing what to do with them.

“Don’t ever do this, Rosie.”

“Do what, Daddy?”

“Don’t you ever end up in prison.  This ain’t a good place to be.”

“I ain’t thinking about doing anything illegal.”

“Don’t end up in one of your own making either.”

Rose’s voice wavered, the pitch going a notch higher.  “What’s that mean?”

“That woman got all cut up ’cause I got trapped and I couldn’t figure a way out of it.  I locked myself inside my own cell by telling myself I couldn’t tell her the truth.”

“I don’t want to be in prison, Daddy.”

“Just make sure you’re happy.  Always do stuff that makes you happy, okay?”

Rose glanced behind her at the rubber tree plant in the far corner near the exit, at the leaves that were green and waxy, at the few that had started to yellow, curling at the tips.  She turned back and said, “Okay, Daddy.”

“You got to go now, right?”

Rose nodded.  “I think it’s time.”

“Have a happy life, Rosie.  That’s all I want for you now.”

Then he was rising and moving away from her, and she watched his sloped back as he shuffled toward the edge of the room, as he disappeared through the door, as he left her life once again like he did that winter day in a warm courtroom when she was five years old, without looking back.

Copyright 2011 Shelli Johnson.  All rights reserved.