Outside the gates and nothing changes. The same desert. The same heat. The same scorching shimmer and the same stretch of nothing going nowhere. If it weren’t for the sound of metal rattling into place behind her, there’s not much difference between standing here or in the yard.
Florida is dressed in state-issued civilian clothes. Her socks and underwear feel like sandpaper. Her jeans are stiff and too heavy for this heat. Her shirt looks prison pressed. Her state issued boots are a half size too big. She has a small bag with the clothes she came in with and basic toiletries. Her old jeans are way too big, her T-shirt stupid-cropped and useless. She has a debit card in her pocket that has her gate money plus the remain der from her commissary. Her parole officer’s phone number is printed on a piece of paper. But she doesn’t have a cell phone to call him. She couldn’t furnish the name of anyone who would be able to transport her to the designated motel for her two-week quarantine, so she waits for a ride from Wheels of Hope.
“Florence Baum?” The shotgun window of an early-model Prius rolls down. The driver is a middle-aged woman. It’s hard to tell much behind her scratched sunglasses and surgical mask. “I’m Maureen. You can get in back, please.”
Going out the way she came in-in theback, driven by a stranger to a destination not of her choosing.
Maureen hands Florida a mask, then douses her hands in san itizer that smells like cinnamon potpourri. “Welcome back. It’s a big day.” Her voice sounds tight. “A fresh start,” she adds. The car begins to roll away from the gates.
“So I’ve been told.”
Florida hates the quiet roll of hybrid vehicles-how they sneak up on you in do-gooder silence. Barely feels like driving at all.
“Life is full of setbacks,” Maureen says. “But we overcome.”
“Is that so?” Florida glances back, one quick look over her shoulder just to make sure she’s really on the move.
It’s bleak out—a bleached landscape of not much. Derelict strip malls, empty shopping centers, parking lots and parking lots and parking lots with no cars.
This isn’t the city. It’s a sub-sub-suburb-a no-man’s-land. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it with people. “Nice place,” she says.
“Do you want to hear the radio?”
“I want the quiet.”
“You’ll do fine at the motel for two weeks then,” Maureen says. “If you need help with housing after that, hold on to our brochure—if you need assistance reintegrating.”
“To society. To the workforce. We provide those services—job training, resumes. Housing.”
They pass a shuttered swap meet, a dust bowl trapped behind a sagging cyclone fence, some lost items lingering in the dirt.
“How does it work?” Florida asks. “Is there room service?”
“We only do the driving,” Maureen says. “The DOC feeds you.”
Pawnshops and rubble and the remains of half-built houses. Shuttered restaurants and cocktail lounges and movie theaters with letters falling from their marquees. They get on the 10 head ing in the wrong direction as far as Florida is concerned—not to ward the coast, where she imagined she’d go, but deeper into the desert state that has claimed her. Deeper into the hard-baked land punctuated by the same big-box stores and restaurant chains that punctuate everything. After a while a subtle city skyline, muted by the sun and dust, rises in the distance like a ghost civilization.
The freeway is empty. The shopping centers and service sta tions and retail clusters and fast-food joints are empty too arches dark, flashing neon at a standstill, current offers expired.
Florida stares at the sky and at the exit signs for places she doesn’t want to visit, at overpasses where banners assure her that WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS TOGETHER.
After thirty minutes, they pull off onto an access road that takes them into a city that strikes Florida as a Tetris game of sub divisions, unpeopled Southwestern-styled strip malls, and small business parks with dry water features.
Maureen heads north on a wide avenue where a slew of off brand chain motels face off for the scant clientele.
The motel is called Sleep Away—the sign shows a drowsy crescent moon dozing off on a fluffy pillow. It’s a motor court, which Maureen explains is preferable because of its lack of communal spaces. A study in distance and isolation.
The swimming pool has been drained. There’s a padlock on the pool’s gate. The lounge chairs are in a disorderly stack on the verge of toppling.
Maureen parks in front of the office but keeps the engine running. “This is where I leave you.”
Florida gathers her few possessions.
“Good luck,” Maureen says.
Florida enters the small office. A young woman with dyed black hair and so many piercings her face looks stapled together glances up from behind a plexiglass barrier. She’s got a surgical mask around her chin. “You have a reservation?” As if she can hardly believe it herself.
“If that’s what you call it,” Florida says.
“Oh, right.” The woman can’t be more than twenty. A weighty silver barbell through her bottom lip hangs heavy, giving her a bored expression. “Name?”
“Fl-Florence Baum.” ”
Florence. That’s a nice name.”
“It is,” Florida says. It’s her name once again. And yet dressed as she is, standing where she is, feeling like she does, she is still Florida—a dirty ex-con in a dirty ex-con costume.
The girl points to a rack of keys on the wall. “You’re number twelve. You can use the phone for local calls. They’re supposed to drop your food off.”
“None of you-all has complained even if they don’t.”
“All of who?” Florida asks.
“You know,” the young woman says.
How many steps away from becoming one of the you-all is this kid? A drug deal? A kited check? A skim from the register behind her?
“Oh.” The woman looks up, a dull light piercing her eyes. “You’re not supposed to leave your room.”
“What about in case of an emergency?”
“I don’t know anything about emergencies.”
The room is exactly as you’d imagine and not a whole hell of a lot more. Florida knows she should be relieved by the sight of a queen-sized bed and four pillows all to herself. She should thrill to a private shower. But the whole place feels stale, the rug and mirrors imprinted with the ghosts of previous guests.
As instructed, Florida picks up the phone and dials the num ber for her parole officer. She taps in her ID number and is transferred. She answers his questions.
“So that’s it?” she asks.
“Until next week.”
”And then what?”
“Then you call me the week after that and let me know where you’ve established residence.”
“I just keep calling?”
“Until it’s safe enough to check in face-to-face.”
“What about an out-of-state transfer?”
“What about permission to travel out of state?”
“You’re not supposed to leave that room and you want me to sign off on travel?”
“How about eventually?”
“How about I get to know you a little better before I start granting favors.”
Florida sheds her clothes. The shower is properly hot, a heat so intense and unfamiliar that it makes her flinch. She dumps the entire mini bottle of conditioner in her hair and leaves it in until the water runs cold. She shivers in the chilly, canned air as she wraps herself in a towel.
She winds her hair on top of her head and looks in the bathroom mirror, taking her time with the semi-familiar face that stares back. The years have worn on her. She’s tanned but you can still see the pallor of a poor diet. The sun has cooked and creased her skin, creating rivulets from her eyes and cracking something like smile lines into her cheeks. The prison’s industrial soap has been anything but gentle. The rough towels finished the job, leav ing a chapped, shiny patina. Her arms are a mess. She’s added scars to her unfortunate tattoos-real stories next to the phony and now faded ones written in Celtic and Japanese. She’s also added a tattoo-a Roman numeral cuffing her wrist, marking the number of days in her sentence. Her hair is burned blond, a fried, colorless color.
The shadows now have the voices of children. She peeks through the curtain.
Three kids—two boys and a girl dressed in T-shirts announcing cheap, cheeky cheer: I Was Made for This, Up2NoGood, Sparkle Hard. Are they ten, twelve, fourteen? The kids are scaling the fence to the pool. One of them hoists a sun-bleached big-wheel to the others.
Soon their voices are drowned by the echo of the plastic bike clattering in the bowl of the empty pool.
Florida backs away from the window, lies down, and closes her eyes.
The kids rattle and roar.
The air conditioner ticks and heaves.
The sky that slips around the curtains turns from white to yellow to pink.
A boy’s scream barrels out of the pool, followed by the sound of the tricycle crashing. A laugh follows the scream. The girl this time, Florida thinks. For a moment there is silence. Then another scream-this time from one of the rooms, someone yelling at the kids to be careful or she’ll kill them herself.
Dinner is dropped off-steam-tray food that got steamier in transit. Florida eats slowly, splayed on her back on the bed.
And time passes as it always does.
There’s nothing she can do to distract herself from the fact that this room isn’t all that different from the motel she’d retreated to with Carter after the desert rats had ripped them off, after one had stuck his hand down her pants and tried to pick her up like a six pack. Rolling and high, she’d listened-that’s it, just listened while Carter had ranted and rambled about how badly he’d been ripped off, never mentioning what that asshole had done to her.
If only she’d stayed put.
If only she’d let him rant.
There’s what happened and there’s the official story of what happened. The official story—she listened, just listened—as Carter raged against the desert rats, plotting his revenge. Then, careless and high, she’d followed his lead, driving him back to the trailer, unaware of what he was about to do. Because under the influence of Carter’s own MOMA—euphoric to the point of insensible how could she have known, how could she have understood, how could she have meant anything that she may or may not have said?
Carter, the leader. Florida his unwitting accomplice. The pretty rich girl along for the ride.
The truth—she’d been itching to get back behind the wheel. She’d been itching to get out of that hotel room. She’d been itching from the inside out.