It starts with a joke, as all good stories do.
You're reclining on your rack in P pod, the women's housing section of the Walton County Jail, reading a fairly new copy of some poorly written and even poorer edited romantic thriller whose name you hope you'll never recall. That's not the joke.
Your new cellie stands in the center of your house — one of eight open cells, designed to hold eight — you do the math. She has stripped off her jumpsuit and wears only tube socks, boxer shorts and a ratty long john top.
"What do you say to someone with two blacks eyes?" she asks, raising a brow, pausing for the punch line. "Nothing you haven't told her twice."
The other three girls cackle and howl. You smile and nod. She goes back to stuffing her bed bug resistant plastic mattress into a handmade fitted sheet. You notice how the joke teller said her — not him. You admire her thriftiness and ingenuity, the time it must have taken her to rip, shred and tie all those knots to make her wriggle-free cocoon.
Time. It's the one thing you have a lot of in here, the single commodity that is endless. The one thing you will not be able to track until your release. There are no clocks in P pod.
Only time. Abundant, plentiful, copious. It's all the things freedom is not.
You notice that most of the jail workers are obese, even the doctor — a man who stares straight ahead reciting form questions, barely noting the answers until he gets to HIV, positive or negative? His boredom is catching. He spells Xanax with a z. When he gets to lice, hair or body? You think he's kidding, then shudder involuntarily when you realize he isn't.
You're issued two hand towels, one pair of ripped plastic shower shoes, a drinking cup, two thread bare sheets, sized for a toddler's bed, one small, scratchy, synthetic blanket, an extra jumpsuit — it matches the one you're wearing with your Bobo's (canvas slip on shoes) and a hygiene kit similar to airline overnight kits, although the toothbrush is short, smooth, not shank-worthy.
Everything is precious. From empty deodorant tubes to the stickers of shampoo bottles, there is no garbage, it can all be used for something. It's like ultra-light backpacking with gram counting pals. You'll learn how to survive with less, how to stop needing.
When the meal comes, your stomach turns. You think of POW stories, of cannibals, of quietly starving to death. You figure you could stand to lose a few pounds.
Books, lovely, hopeful, sexy, old, torn, sad, cheap books are passed around, but the tallest ones stay on the shelf, as these are what short inmates use to extend their reach to the TV controls. You think of your house, all the electronics. But this TV is small, old, mounted too high. You think about how cheap flatscreens are now, how one TV is not enough for 64 people.
Later, you count the showers. Two of the four work. Sinks? Three of the four work. Toilets? Four. All working, none have doors, or lids or rolls of toilet paper.
It's the little things you miss — tissues, hand soap, paper towels, salt and pepper, pen and paper, and of course... your smart phone. Eventually your hand will reach out for it less, the idea that you need that answer will fade.
It was like staying in a really bad hostel in Germany, you tell the deputy when you leave. When you're outside the building, waiting for your cell phone to wake up, watching the deputy light his cigarette. He laughs, "Yep. That's a good way of looking at it," he says, and you wonder if he's ever been to Germany. Or spent the night in jail.
Linda Sands of Atlanta is an award-winning author and the founder of Write By the Water retreats, based in Blue Mountain Beach. During a recent incarceration in the Walton County Jail, she wrote a series of stories and obtained valuable research for her mystery series featuring tenacious trucker Jojo Boudreaux.