“I can’t be out here, this area is hot.”
B. has her hood up, sunglasses on, white gum in her mouth, hoop earrings. Her hands are in her pockets, her voice pitched low.
She turns and walks across the gas station parking lot, ducks into her car. They know her car. And they're looking for her. They'll arrest her the minute they see her. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
She is concealed behind her tinted windows, which gleam in the blue afternoon sunlight. I stand by my car and watch her pull out onto the street and vanish behind a run down insurance office, which blocks my view of the road.
I wonder how much longer she has.
The last time she had a felony warrant here, she ran. She left the state. Left all her problems, went to stay with distant relatives way up North who made her do things like wake up early and do housework and go to church on Sundays.
Up there, she had a full-time job managing a busy diner. She would call on her lunch break, talk about her week-long string of double shifts, about going in to work at 4am before the sun was up. About how the owners loved her, how they'd given her a healthy raise. Underneath her words, and sometimes around a mouthful of french fries or coffee, her voice cracked with happiness, with disbelief.
“Can you believe how much I've changed?”
“You always want to chat on your breaks,” I'd tease her, disinclined to remain on the phone for long, with anyone. “If I were you, I'd be hiding in the bathroom stall on break to get away from everybody.”
She knows she has to come back. Her kids are here, in DCS custody. DCS there has been corresponding with DCS here, working out the process of transferring her case - and her children - up there, so that they can be transitioned back home with her. Forever.
“They're gonna grow up better than me,” she says. “I've got to get them out of there, though. I will, too. Watch. Those social workers don't even know how far I've come. I bet you they won't even recognize me when I turn back up.”
When the final okay has been given over the phone, when she has the green light to transfer her DCS case, back she comes to address the felony warrant that sent her away, far away, to a place where good dreams stay alive.
A place where there can be simple things. A job, a mortgage, nice schools.
A neighborhood with a wide, green park and no lost souls, homeless and drunken, passed out on the bench or in the slide, smelling like piss.
No cheap motels where the owners let you rent a room for the night in exchange for a dope sack if you don't have any cash.
Where robberies and stabbings are an almost weekly occurance.
Where bearded, filthy, dopesick men rummage through the hollow throats of huge dumpsters that edge midnight parking lots against sagging chain link fences hung with litter and discarded lottery tickets, a splitting trash bag of aluminum cans slung over one shoulder, torn shoes on the grimy asphalt which sparkles with tiny pieces of broken brown glass beneath the pale glow of the alabaster moon.
No police chases ever again.
No stealing to get by.
No neighbors calling 9-1-1 about the screaming, whispering about alleged domestic abuse into the phone. Playing the hero, but in secrecy.
No more being trapped in the cycle of poverty, jail, street, poverty, jail, street. The only cycle B. has ever known, since childhood. The only world she's ever felt safe in, for its familiarity.
No, things are different now.
Now she stands above it all. She sees the world she left behind for what it really is. She sees everything that it takes away.
She sees the lies it tells, for the first time in her life and with startling clarity.
It's time to face the music. She's proven herself, to herself. That she is so much better, so much more than her past.
She submits to being arrested. I know when it happens, because she sends me a Facebook message saying “goodbye for a little while” just before she goes in.
I respond, “Good luck, I love you.”
She says, “I got this.”
I say, “Stay strong, stay up.”
I wait for her to write back, but she doesn't.
“My probation officer already signed off on it!”
She is angry, trying to keep her cool. But they aren't listening to her.
“My probation is being transferred up there. Do you want my PO's number, so that she- what? Right, but I already discussed this with my case worker, and she said I- no, listen. Listen, she-”
The voice on the other end drones on and on over her, not listening. As if speaking to people in this tone of voice has become a thing of mastery.
After a moment, B. hangs up with them, throws down her phone with an air of exasperation that tells me she has gotten nowhere. She leans forward and her fingers rake her rebellious curls.
“They won't transfer my DCS case up there until I get a house down here.”
I frown, because that doesn't even make any sense.
But I stay quiet. Quietly disapproving.
She feels everything right now.
The house is roughly 18 miles outside of town, in the next town over. On the outskirts, really. It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, blank walls where she hangs up photos of her kids in frames she bought when she was on the run, when she was working.
I tell her not to get comfortable.
She tries to make light of the situation, clinging to the belief that she isn't really trapped here. Because they can't do that.
I notice she's lost weight. The gentleness that overcame her hardened features over the monthts of being clean, stable, and productive seems, ever so slightly, less.
She is wearing away, I think. And she was. She was.
She starts work at another restaurant, hoping the traction she gained over there will find its way into her life here as well.
Then she starts another job at another restaurant, this time it's closer to her house. So it makes more sense, she tells me.
A week later, another new job. This time at a gas station where her boss, a shrewd little Muslim man with an accent thick enough to cut with a butter knife, treats her like a pet.
She has visitation with her kids on Fridays. But sometimes the three oldest boys don't show up, because the case worker forgot to schedule the visit with the car service, or the driver got lost and spent hours wandering around, somewhere else.
Boxes of pizza hut cool on the kitchen counter, unopened, while her visitation block drains away minute by minute.
Looking at her face, illuminated by her phone screen in the dark kitchen, her forehead scrunched into lines of concentration as she furiously types another email to her case worker, her tongue clamped between her teeth, I notice the hollowness of her cheeks, the vacancy of her eyes, the way her hands shake.
Over months, she loses the job at the gas station, then the house. She vanishes back down into a pitch black hole, too dark to see out of, too far from any source of light to find her way back.
It ends with a severance hearing, where her parental rights are taken away by a judge who won't change her mind.
She flits in and out of my life afterward. Sometimes the silences span weeks.
Then there is news that she has returned to jail.
30 days later, I pick her up from there. I have been waiting for hours in the little parking lot behind the courthouse, and it is dark when the little gray door finally swings open and she appears, grinning.
“This time,” she tells me over Taco Bell 20 minutes later. “I've got to get this right.”
Two weeks pass.
I bring a hot meal of McDonald’s chicken nuggets to her, at an agreed upon location. It’s the middle of the night.
I sit in the passenger seat of her car, slam the door shut behind me, sucking cold air from the frozen night into the warm car.
She expresses that she doesn’t know where she will go, that her PO will be looking for her.
“I gotta leave town,” she says. “I gotta get out of here. I’m going to end up going to prison, like my dad, like my brother. There’s nothing left for me. Everyone’s gone, my kids are gone…”
Her phone rings. The name on the screen is a nickname belonging to one of her many wayward friends from the streets. It is plastered across the wallpaper image of her kids’ smiling faces.
She answers, the screen going dark as she holds it between her shoulder and her ear so she can dip a chicken nugget in bbq sauce.
I poke her and wave goodbye. Just as I'm stepping out of the car, a cop cruises by us, and B. scrunches down in her seat, visibly alarmed.
“I better get out of town,” she says to me as I go to shut the door. “Before one of those cops recognizes this car.”
“Be safe,” I tell her, even though I know it doesn't mean anything.
Audry Spade is an exceptionally pale writer and mother living in Arizona.