KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 8: August 2017
Flash Fiction: 961 words

No Offense

by Nancy Ludmerer

No offense, Mr. Richards, but saying you have to let me go for lying, that’s a lie too. “Letting me go” make it sound like I wanna go. Bedford Hills, now, they let me go, right through that door I went and never looked back. But you’re making me go. And for what? You wouldn’t have hired me if you knew about Bedford? But Bedford was only three years out of twenty-seven. For the other twenty-four years I was just like you, walking round, eating pizza, eating lots of pizza to judge by the 250 pounds I got on me. But let’s face it, that’s why you hired me, scare the customers a little, keep ’em in line. I’m good at this job. I show up every day. I’m even nice to them. I’m big but I can be real soft-spoken. “How can I help you?” “Anything else, sir?” Matches? Straws? I don’t forget. Always call a lady miss, even if she’s sixty. My momma said to me, “Carla, you’re big. You can’t be both big and loud. One or the other, you can jes’ get by. But not both.” She tried to beat it out of me, my loudness, my badness when I was a kid. Always causing a disturbance. The Board of Ed sent me to Special Ed, gave me Thorazine. Momma didn’t like that. She’d rather beat me. But I needed the drug sometimes. A nice lady doctor at school, she gave it to me when I said I needed it, and sometimes when I didn’t know I needed it.

Me telling you a fake name—that ain’t so bad. What’s in a name, anyway? And the one I told you ain’t so different—you got Carla and Carol, Ward and Word. I happen to like Carol Word better. At Bedford after my cousin, whose name really was Carol, had passed, this old Jewish guy came to see me and said how a person has two names, the name they get when they’re born, and the name they get when they die, that they’ve earned. Maybe it’s the one the angels know or something. Well I figure I earned another name after three years in the Box. I earned it, to be Carol. Same way I curl my hair now and didn’t before, and started wearing nail polish and stopped wearing bandannas.

Bottom line, Mr. R: you know better than some snitching ex-prisoner who waltzes in here by chance one day what goes down. At Bedford we called her “Woody Woodpecker” cause she was always pecking ’round the dirt, for something to use against someone. When she ask me, “You got your daughter here somewheres, Carla Ward? The one they took away?” she was trying to make me knock her down. And you said, nice as pie, “I didn’t know you had a daughter? That’s nice. What’s her name?” And when I said “Rowena,” you ask, “How old is she?” You didn’t blink or say nothing bad.

So Woody tried again: “You miss Bedford Hills, Carla? You miss the Box?” She was only in the Box twice—a real Teacher’s Pet. I was never Teacher’s Pet. Only one who liked me was that lady doctor back at school. She’d tell me magic words to say when I was losing it, make me look them up. Words like “lavender” and “haze.” Words like “column” and “quench” and “fragrant.” She didn’t preach —good, bad, right, wrong. I heard enough from everyone else how bad I was, about the wrong I done. Instead she gave me them words and tried to get me to hang onto them when things got rough. It was a fine idea. It just didn’t work at the time.

Those words come back when I was in the Box, late at night. The Box is solid cement all around, with a feed slot so they can give you your meals and your meds. At night it’s real quiet because the other prisoners had their nighttime meds, I’d had my meds, and the yelling and screaming and banging was over. Sometimes I tried to read a book, and sometimes I thought about them magic words.

When I first come out, I just sat in a room in the dark. My other cousin, Carol’s sister, the one who took me in, says, “Carla, you got to go out. You got to do something.” To somebody else the gas pump is just a gas pump, the broom to sweep with just a broom, the glass panes you look through at the sky ain’t worth noticing, the shelves with everything all neat and nice don’t mean nothing. But when I cross the road to put garbage in the dumpsters and smoke my cigarette, and look back at them gas pumps shining in the sun, early morning pink haze all round, light glinting off the glass, it look like paradise. The smell of gasoline is lavender and rose petals all in one. Even how the numbers jump when folks fill up, is like magic. To smoke cigarettes on break, that’s magic, too. Inside, cigs is the only pleasure and you gotta do it on the sly. You give some of them girls their cigarettes, leave ’em alone, they might even stop cutting. But Bedford never figured that out. Or they figured it out and didn’t care.

You care, Mr. Richards, I know that. You, Mister R—you my Mister Rehab, Mister Redemption, Mister Rent, Mister Get-My-Daughter-Rowena-Back. You all that. But you don’t let me work here, you don’t let me do this, I gotta express it somehow, I’m gonna incinerate like some overheated engine.

Folks with nothing to do—they turn crazy. Nah, I ain’t threatening nobody, specially not you.


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