The Death and Rape of a Michigan Corrections Officer
Based on A True Story in Seven Parts
Note: Each part will first be separately published, followed by the entire story published as a single piece.
“The way in which I have come to the conclusion that human nature is lovable — the way I have learned something of its deep pathos, its sublime mysteries — has been by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar.”
— George Eliot, Adam Bede
No girl grows up telling he mama she want to be a prison guard, but it’s where Roxie McFadden found herself after twelve years with a dead-beat husband, an exhausted marriage, and Robbie, a twelve-year old son she would never give up.
Her husband was considerably older, rattled by insecurity and hostage to his emotions; Roxie had only enough energy, desire, and willingness to raise one child. Their marriage was a mistake made to escape a brittle father and abusive brothers in a house where anger was like oxygen.
Roxie had a vision of a future but until now no plan on how to achieve it, so her vision continually brightened and faded, coalesced and evaporated due to the uncertain life she lived as a captive of a social class labelled the ‘working poor’: too many addresses; too many part-time jobs: too many men.
Though there never was time to fall in love with any one place or job, she always liked something about each so that when she inevitably left to deal with one crisis or another, involving one man or another, there always followed an acute sting of loss and small period of grief. Like major blows, cumulative small losses and pains form psychic callouses that muddle your thinking and erode your trust in the future. Still, what were her alternatives? Like so many women in her circumstances she wanted stability instead of a life buffeted by the random consequences of decisions made by semi-literate men. She desired stability but knew to get it required yet another change, this time a big one, and Roxie was determined that for once she would be in control.
Politicians decided they could build their way out of a crime wave and so the Department of Corrections (DOC) was erecting and opening prisons with alacrity to win politicians the hearts and votes of a citizenry scared shitless by Detroit crime: suburban, rural, and small-town white people envisioned clouds of Blacks rising locust-like from distant cities commencing to rape and pillage and demand chitterlings. Courts ruled women could not be denied jobs in prisons that housed men and this allowed the DOC to tap a labor force segment with massive pent-up demand; they hired women guards as if they stationed recruiting teams in maternity wards, pediatrician waiting rooms, and outside divorce court doors.
The corrections officer education requirement was fifteen community college credits in approved courses, but the need for officers was so great that applicants could enter the corrections officer academy as long as they completed their associate’s degree within two years of being permanently hired. This meant Roxie would have a job with good pay to support her and Robbie while she went to community college…and meant she could file for divorce.
The corrections officer job offer came as a salvation and resurrection that got her a third-floor two-bedroom walk-up apartment over a bankrupt hardware store with whitewashed windows in a seedy Michigan auto-industry town that had few three-story buildings that weren’t government offices. But it was her place, with good locks to keep Robbie safe; it had windows overlooking an alley where quiet was disturbed only by a weekly trash pick-up; where she could safely open the windows and let the dusty-rose colored lace curtains she was going to sew flutter and float above the alley high enough to keep out the smell of garbage cans christened with dog pee and tomcat spray.
There were two bedrooms, both furnished with a chest of drawers and double bedframes and box springs so Robbie would have his own space; a living room with a serviceable wine-colored couch, matching Lay-Z-Boy easy chairs that saw better days, but what the hell, it was large enough for Robbie to invite a few friends over for pizza and TV; and a kitchen-kitchenette area equipped with used but functional avocado-colored appliances. She would need to buy mattresses, kitchen utensils, a dinette table and chairs, and a shower curtain, but that would be easy because she lived near a college town with an abundance of used furniture places where graduating students sold cheap the stuff they no longer needed. And there was hope: a sign, hand-printed on cardboard on the empty hardware store’s door announced the future: “Darlene’s Second Chance Shoppe” to offer “lightly traveled women’s fashions.” What more could a gal want?
Roxie’s classmates at the corrections officer academy, Sylvia and Areta, said Roxie hadn’t told her husband about the divorce; she wanted to take Robbie to the apartment…wanted to involve him in her excitement…but knew he loved his dad as kids do when shielded from a marriage’s sordid underbelly. Roxie knew Robbie would be upset when she told him she was going to divorce his father, and she didn’t know if Robbie would keep his mouth shut long enough for her to move him into the apartment.
When Robbie was an infant Roxie bathed and baby-oiled him, then put her nose close to him to smell his sweetness. But Roxie realized that at twelve Robbie was nearing an age where he would be allowed to make important decisions, like who to live with, so she needed to make a move now to get him away from his dad; to give Robbie the space and experience he would use to make an informed choice. Roxie wanted to keep Robbie smelling sweet and couldn’t, so the next best thing was to make him smart; she knew Robbie was already dealing with the lost laughter of infancy.
Areta said the plan was to pick a time when the “the husband” was away to move Robbie and her stuff out of “that shithole where she lived” and into her new apartment, adding the caveat, “It might be a while ’cause he’s always there.”
Neither Areta nor Sylvia knew Roxie before the academy but the ordeal of being women in a predominately all male class, destined for a job historically reserved for men, was a fillip to their defensive huddle. Sylvia said “the make” was last thing Roxie was on, but like any woman excited by the thought of leaving a husband, men smelled an opening as if Roxie emitted a feral odor. They both agreed that Roxie had an imaginary lover that she talked about with just enough reticence and discretion to keep the academy hounds at bay. Sylvia said this worked pretty well most of the time until they went on the job and met an obdurate Lieutenant (as I recall, Sylvia said “monumental jerk” and Areta concurred) who wouldn’t leave Roxie alone. They both also agreed that the Lieutenant was a “looker”, but with predatory eyes. But Roxie insisted her imaginary lover was patient as well as handsome, and that she endowed him with that attribute because she’d never met a patient man, just like she’d never met an angel or unicorn. And the Lieutenant didn’t fill that bill. He was no different than her husband, father, and brothers: all irascible once their ‘nice’ wore off.
They were all of them that way: bright girls whose high school boyfriends impregnated them just before or right after graduation and were sent to ‘Nam; or left out of boredom, casting these girls adrift and vulnerable to the next guy with a velvet line and hint of security — guys you and I would take one look at and immediately see a one-story drunk in the making. The girls got married and had kids and somewhere along the way the lucky ones formed a crust of maturity that made them realize their life was an ouroboros, a snake devouring its tail.
Like Roxie, Areta and Sylvia were attracted to the corrections officer job as something that gave them the cash, health care, and security to actually frame a future, yet they agreed that it was more than that with Roxie. Being smart, Roxie did well at the academy and for the first time in her life saw helping others as a career instead of indentured familial servitude. Roxie saw herself as a drug program counselor, or even a parole or probation agent; she marveled that she was even able to think such thoughts could become reality.
She couldn’t have known what was to come.