Cell Block, 2013 First Place Adult Division
By Eric E. Wallace
Here’s Mae’s problem: at age 78, though otherwise in vigorous good health, still slender and unstooped—after all, she’s from deep-rooted Idaho stock–her mind seems to be unraveling, bit by bit. She finds herself grasping at memories, agonizing over failures of recall, worrying that whatever afflicted her mother decades ago has now awakened and is slowly uncoiling in her brain.
Some memories are bold, oddly-fresh and vivid, while others are faded and blurred. It’s glum, chum. Dumb.
These days unasked-for rhymes dance around her, amusing and annoying. Cloying, toying.
The doctors have no easy answers. Perhaps a dementia. Maybe Alzheimer’s, Mrs. Tolliver. We can’t be sure. They fall back on that popular mantra, too-soon-to-tell. Tell, swell. Hell.
At least Mae and her husband can laugh about it. Sometimes. They heard the only way to confirm Alzheimer’s is post-mortem, dissecting brain tissue. “I’m sorry,” Mae smiles with unwrinkled radiance, “but I need every cell. Especially now. No autopsy, no cutting, thank you.” Cutting, tut-tutting. Rutting. Where did that come from? she wonders.
Mae’s not been sleeping well either. And now there’s this wandering thing.
Many a summer morning, Henry still dozing, Mae stands at their small kitchen window and looks up at the tawny Boise foothills. The dawn sun paints the rimrock. The shadows move, the dark rough edges shift into astonishing shapes, impossible animals, jagged demons.
Below those sandstone ridges is the Old Idaho Penitentiary, the biggest puzzle in Mae’s slowly-reassembling life. This summer, for some reason, she is strongly drawn to the prison. She wanders over there, sometimes cognizant she’s doing it, other times finding herself in the cool confines of the women’s building, not recalling the journey.
It’s an easy walk. Mae can go out the back door of their red brick cottage, open the garden gate, step onto the trail, cut through Quarry Park and the adjoining fields and soon be at the massive outer sandstone wall of the Women’s Ward, which sits at right angles to the penitentiary proper. Not that the penitentiary was ever proper, she thinks—a hundred years of anguish, guilt, fear, toil and death. History tries to put a dusty haze on it all, but she can almost feel it. Haze, glaze, maze.
Why does she need to go there, she wonders? Why does she step through the fortified doorway—conveniently open for tourists—cross the scruffy garden with its forlorn rose bushes, and slip into the dim prison building with its seven barred cells, its poignant photographs and stories of women long lost? Bossed. Tossed. At what cost?
Henry sometimes finds Mae sitting on the long wooden bench under the thick-barred central skylight, or standing motionless in one of the small side rooms, or leaning on the coarse metal grating of a cell, staring in. She simply doesn’t know why she’s there.
The family has started discussions. The most worried is Samantha, their daughter, who theorizes a long maternal line of dementia. Sam’s grandmother, her great aunt and her mother’s sister all had mental issues of one sort of another. Nuts, she thinks, but never voices that word. She fears she’s the heir apparent.
Sam tries to focus on Mae’s wandering. “Maybe it’s that damn Lady Bluebeard,” she says, twisting strands of her long black hair.
“You think Mom identifies with a serial killer?” scoffs their son Frank. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly.” He doesn’t say this with any admiration.
“What about those coincidences?” Sam persists.
Years ago, taking a tour of the Women’s Ward, Mae and Henry discovered that Prisoner 3052, Lyda Southard, the infamous husband-poisoner, shared Mae’s birth names, Anna Mae. And 3052 was the phone number of the farm where Mae grew up.
“How bizarre is that?” said Mae, scrutinizing Southard’s face, hunting for—what, she wasn’t sure. The prisoner stared bemusedly into the camera, looking almost pretty, not very penal.
The family is still discussing Mae’s wandering. Sam’s husband suggests that Mae is attracted by the huge lighted cross hovering on Table Rock above the penitentiary. He proposes the cross is a steeple, the Women’s Ward a cathedral.
“”Moth to the holy flame,” he says. “So what if Mae’s never been religious? She’s at the age when people turn to God.”
“If that’s true, I sure hope she’s not required to go to prison to meet Him,” says Henry, mildly.
Mae’s condition concerns the family, but apart from her wandering, oddities of speech and memory quirks, she functions fairly normally. Everyone’s happy she’s spending much of this summer in her garden, nursing vegetables, tending roses.
One rose in particular, a hybrid with complex, fiery blooms, draws Mae’s attention. She loves touching the supple petals, relishes smelling the buttery musk, contemplating the intricate layers, orange and red.
Red was her mother’s favorite color. Belle always wore something red. A cherry dress, a scarlet sash, a ruby hat, a pair of crimson gloves. You could spot Belle far out in the pasture, brilliantly aflame amid the dusty greens and browns.
In contrast, Mae’s Dad, Charlie, a quiet man always quietly attired, was a genius at blending into the landscape, right up to the day the tractor accident made him part of that landscape forever.
Even as Belle lost more and more of her always-frail grip on reality—and Charlie’s death sped that along–she constantly wore red, clinging to her defiant signature.
Mae thinks of Aunt Ada, Belle’s sister, always in black, her long dark hair in a very tight bun. Belle and Ada. Rouge et noir. They’ll go far. Har har. Mae frowns at the rhyming.
After Ada married Uncle Snapper, Ada supposedly panicked on their wedding night—did he snap at her? They didn’t stay married long. Ada soon holed up in the Idanha Hotel, living under one of the curious turrets. She rarely came out. Dear Aunt Ada, trailing a whispery aroma of cinnamon and the past.
Uncle Snapper surely earned his nickname, Mae thought, from his protruding jaw. It thrust absurdly forward, the prow of a dugout canoe. What was his real name? Arlon, Arlie, Arlington, yes. Arlington Davis. After Charlie’s death, because of Belle’s diminishing capacities, Arlington leased and ran the farm. He was good at it, keeping things going until he retired and the first of their land selloffs began.
Thinking of the farm tugs Mae back into the hayloft, the summer Dad died, where she lost her virginity to a young man—no, a boy, really—about to be shipped off to the police action in Korea. She can’t recall his name. But she remembers the soft scratchiness tickling her back, the low laughter, the swell of desire, the peculiar mingling of pleasure and pain. She remembers rolling to the side and seeing a wide-eyed mouse staring at her,
a complicit sister. Gorgeous eyes, that mouse.
And Wayne—yes, that was his name, Wayne! Pain, slain—Wayne donned a splendid uniform, proudly departed for Korea and promptly got himself killed. Then there was…
A breeze blows the rose sideways. Mae blinks, her reverie disturbed.
Henry is doing volunteer work at the food bank. Mae freshens up, decides to eat a half sandwich and a candy bar. My last meal, she muses, then wonders why she would think that.
Nibbling her food, she glances out the window. The foothills are sere and golden.
She steps into the back garden, filled with thriving vegetables. Each bed has signs identifying the plants. A carryover from her library career. Always lining things up, everything in its place. The system, what was it called? Duty? Dewey. Yes, Dewey decimal system, Admiral Dewey, Huey, Dewy, and Louie. She giggles. I’m so screwy.
She notices the spreading broccoli. “Hey! You’re crowding out the baby squash. Read the sign: B-A-B-Y!” She turns to find her gardening gloves. But suddenly there’s something else to do. She has to go. Immediately.
She unlocks the garden gate and walks toward the penitentiary, her fine white hair aglow, ruffling in the afternoon breeze.
Grasshoppers leap ahead of her. Mae thinks of the Mormon crickets her Dad would take her to watch, the creatures swarming across the country lanes, jiggling rivers of oily black, peppered with reds, purples, greens. Something fun to share if I have ever have kids.
If I ever have kids. God, she clearly remembers thinking that so many decades ago. What else? But other memories bolt. Even my own brain denies me, she thinks, my own mind keeps secrets from me. Secrets. Regrets. Egrets.
Two white dogs scampering through the grass in front of her have transformed into lovely white birds. Mae is filled with delight, but a burst of barking brings her back. In moments she’s by the high, worn stone prison walls.
The place seems almost welcoming. Mae stops at the outer gate and touches the dirty tan surface of the wall. It’s rough, gritty, yet improbably soft.
Tourists burst out, waving camera phones, making jokes. As Mae walks through the small garden, she feels depressed at the irreverence of such people. This isn’t a shrine—no, not a shrine, fine, mine–but it deserves something, maybe respect. It has meaning. Meaning. Greening. Oh, these roses need attention.
Mae is fairly tall, but several of the rose bushes dwarf her, reach long straggly arms down toward her. Could Lyda Mae have planted these? Lyda Mae, Lida Rose. So long ago, who’s to know? Go, now go. Lida Rose, I’m home again.
Mae enters the squat, cheerless building. Once more she feels as though she should be here to… Her mind rebels. She walks to the first barred cell, puts her hand on flat grimy steel and peers through the gray slats into the shadowy recesses. A tiny space, sagging bunkbed, miserable toilet, small grilled window, yellow glare beyond.
Escape. You want to escape, don’t you ladies? Lyda Anna Mae, you escaped, didn’t you? I needed to escape.
Mae was smart, and college and a professional career were her way off the farm, though many years later, with Belle dead, Uncle Snapper retired and the property much smaller, Mae convinced Henry they should return to live in the farmhouse.
Her mind takes her there now, and, oh, there’s the barn, and the hayloft and Wayne breathing softly in Mae’s ear, promising wild huckleberries for breakfast, and they lived happily ever after, and Grace Rose was with them. And. And.
Mae Day. Mae Day.
Her memories buck violently and throw her back into a puzzled present. She drops her hand from the grating, and turns to look for Henry, who at this moment is crossing into the stale shade of the prison.
“You OK?” he asks.
“I had a thought,” she tells him. “But it’s gone.” Mae Day.
After supper, Mae is her old self. They sit on the back patio and savor the warm, sweet grassiness of a slow summer evening, drink tart lemonade, and watch ravens lazily hunt for thermals.
“It fascinates me how the inmates quarried sandstone and built much of the penitentiary themselves.” Mae said. “I wonder if my mind has done that, built my own prison, locked secrets inside.”
“Hm. That’s possible,” says Henry, scratching at mosquito bite. “But what secrets could you have, Mae? They’d need to be pretty serious for your brain to do this.”
“Let’s face it, these days my brain is highly suspect.”
“You’re doing great, Babe.”
“But one minute I’m me, here, and the next my memory’s off on a wild goose chase. It’s frustrating. Scary, hairy. And those stupid rhymes haunt me. Haunt, taunt. Whoops! It’s become a habit, rabbit. See what I mean?” The trademark Mae Tolliver giggle floats into the air.
Henry lights his pipe. “Can I suggest something?” A puff. “Just a small theory.”
“Sure.” A whiff of cherry tobacco draws Mae back to the early years of their marriage, when she’d moved eons away from the traumas of her teens.
Henry takes another puff. “I wonder if you’re beating up on yourself because we sold the farm. Could your subconscious feel guilt, think you need to be punished?”
Mae smiles. She loves it when Henry’s usual linear thinking gives way to insight.
She muses, half to herself. “That’s possible. But I don’t think it’s the land, even though I do feel guilty about all the development. It could be something else that my mind’s locked up in the slammer, in solitary.”
Henry chuckles. “Well, not to worry,” he says. “Just feed it bread and water and leave it there.”
They sit contentedly, take pleasure in the rising of the ghostly summer moon, the crickets singing.
The next day Mae decides to bake a surprise for Henry. Sticky buns, she thinks. She bustles about the kitchen, pulling out bowls, spoons, flour, sugar. She opens the spice drawer. Everything’s carefully labeled, stored alphabetically. “Once a librarian, always a librarian,” she tells the fragrant yellow roses joyous in a heavy green vase. “Librarian… Marion… Carry on!”
Humming, she selects a new jar of cinnamon, rests it on the counter, crackles the plastic ring, opens the lid, shakes out a spoonful.
The synaptic leap is palpable. Aunt Ada is comforting, counseling, sure of herself, no hint of old maid except her feathery aura of cinnamon and must, Aunt Ada is taking care of things with such efficiency and grace. Oh, Grace, my dear little Grace Rose.
And the bars swing open, Mae remembers the baby she gave up, Wayne’s child, rosebud pink, barely seen but instantly named, and crazy ancient Aunt Ada, Rapunzel come down from her tower, kind, understanding, arranging.
Spilling the cinnamon, Mae weeps for Ada, loving, sobs for Daddy, crushed, Belle, drifting, Wayne, killed, for the impossible decision, for Grace Rose, gone, gone. Done, done. Spilt, quilt. Guilt. No wonder I seek a place of shame. Shame, blame.
She’s ashamed, too, that she’s never told Henry. She meant to tell him, then life moved so away from those difficult years, and her secret slid into an old chest of memories, locked and hidden away.
Could she tell Henry now? Perhaps he needs to know, she thinks, before my flippery slippery mind disintegrates more, before it slips into a fragmented world and I can’t come back.
Mae slowly collects the spilled cinnamon, stands there, inhaling the velvety scent of roses, citrus and fern, love and loss.
That afternoon, she walks through the fields, stands for a moment outside the lumpy sandstone wall, enters the modest garden before the Women’s Ward.
She crosses to a stubborn old rosebush with smoky purple blooms. The largest blossom greets her with a warm fragrance, honey and anise. Mae puts on her well-worn red gloves, pulls out her favorite clippers, and begins to prune the plant, carefully, lovingly.
Grace Rose, I hope you are alive, and happy. And free. Free. Be. Me.
Mae pauses, looks up from her pruning, surveys the prison garden.
There is much to be done.