page contents

FICTION / Contact Visit / Ace Boggess

matthew-ansley-ihl2Q5F-VYA-unsplash.jpg

The guard’s voice over the speaker startled me awake. “Mr. Vance, get dressed. You have a visitor. Make sure you’re clean-shaven. You’ll be called downstairs in fifteen minutes.” It was one of the female correctional officers—C.O. Paige, I thought, but couldn’t be certain, her voice too tinny on the intercom and my brain too full of ashes and mud from whatever pleasant dream of somewhere else I had been having.

I wasn’t expecting a Saturday visit, or I would’ve been up and ready, nervously pacing the POD. No friends came to see me. My parents showed up, but not often—who wants to see their drug-addicted felon of a son all dressed up in flimsy khakis with a number inked across his chest like a scarlet A, except for arson? My lawyer dropped by once a year to tell me I was still screwed and that the Circuit Judge in Pocahontas County had yet to rule on my long-overdue motion for reconsideration, despite the fact there had been no evidence I intended to start the fire. I’d been hiding out from my wife at the time, smoking meth in an abandoned house. I somehow managed to burn the place down. I had been tweaking for days at that point, and couldn’t be sure what happened or how I made it out alive.

“Mr. Vance, did you hear me?” the voice on the speaker box clanged.

“Uh, yeah. I’m awake. Give me a minute.”

The box buzzed, but no words came through.

I sat up, then lay back down when I felt the sleep boner stretching my sweats, a black poly-fiber blanket the only thing shielding me from embarrassment. Must have been a good dream, I thought, hoping this visit would be worth losing my quality time away from Boone County Correctional Center.

Glancing around, I saw only two of my cellmates present, both in their bunks trying to sleep, one with a sock tied around his eyes and ears to block out light and mute the POD noise. Relieved, I rolled over and rifled through my clothes bag for a clean set of khakis. Then, when my dick softened enough to be unobtrusive, I stood up, stripped off my sweats, and got dressed, fumbling with the buttons on my shirt, missing holes, cussing as quietly as I could.

A look in the distorted metal mirror showed me a day’s worth of scruff. Had to take care of that. The guards wouldn’t tolerate it. So, I performed rapid facial surgery with the disposable blue razor, trying not to leave a scar.

“Mr. Vance, go to contact visitation,” the voice on the box said.

“I’m coming,” I shouted, regretting it when my cellmate lifted his sock-blindfold and glared at me from a blood-red eye. “Sorry, sorry.”

The cell door whirred like a dentist’s drill. Pushing it open, I stepped through and headed for the main POD door.

I’d been right. It was C.O. Paige at the desk, pink-cheeked and pale-lipped. Her blond curls rode her head like a motorcycle helmet. “Have a good visit,” she said, her voice softer without the intercom’s crackle and static.

She buzzed the door, and I went through, tearing down the three flights of stairs so fast I felt as if I were falling. By the time I reached the bottom, I had lost my breath, so stopped long enough to suck in air that smelled of old mop water and feet. After patting down the wrinkles in my shirt, I eased through the next door, walked down the long hallway, turned a corner, passed the control room with its shiny two-way mirrors, and arrived at the door to the education wing, which served as the contact-visitation area on weekends.

C.O. Hendershot stood by the door, his tall form so thin and rubbery in the blue uniform that he looked like Mr. Fantastic from the comic books. He held a clipboard in one gloved hand, sliding it under his arm when he saw me coming. “You know what to do,” he said.

I pressed my palms against the yellow cinderblocks and spread my legs while Hendershot half-assed the pat-down, not as concerned about inmates sneaking stuff into a contact visit as out of one. “Any idea who’s here for me?” I said over my shoulder.

“You don’t know?”

“Wasn’t expecting anybody,” I said.

“Let’s see.” I turned and watched him scan the clipboard until he found my name. “Randal Vance,” he said. “Looks like Shelly Vance.” He checked his watch and wrote down the time.

“Shit,” I said. My ex-wife.

“You don’t want to see her? She’s on your approved-visitors list.”

“Never thought to have her taken off,” I said. “Didn’t expect she’d ever come back here.” We had been divorced for two years. “She met a guy.”

“Jody?” said Hendershot, trying not to laugh.

“Yeah, Jody.” It was a running joke. Jody was the name inmates gave to anyone, real or imagined, who might be sleeping with their wives and girlfriends. Better not call her, one of the cons would say. One of these days, Jody’s gonna answer. Jody really got around.

In this case, Jody had another name: John Head. He’d been my meth dealer for years by the time I got locked up. Shelly’s, too.

“No law that says you have to go in there,” Hendershot said. He was one of the friendlier guards. Never hassled anybody. Overlooked as much as he could get away with. “I’ll send you back to the POD and have C.O. Grossman escort her out.”

I thought about it. “Thanks, Hendershot, but if she came all this way, I probably should go and see what she wants.”

“Maybe she wants to reconcile.”

I scowled. “Too late for that shit.”

He chuckled, stopping himself. “All right, go on in. You know the rules, but I gotta say them anyway. Hands above the table. No yelling. Stay in your seat. One hug and one chaste kiss at the beginning and the end.”

“That’s not gonna happen.”

“Well, I had to say it. It’s like your … your Miranda rights, you know?”

“Sure.”

He reached for the levered handle and opened the door. “Anyway, have a good visit. I’m supposed to say that, too, just so you don’t think I’m being facetious.”

“It’s cool,” I said.

“You got two hours.”

“Thanks,” I said, then walked past him into the visitation room with its dirty-white tile floors and windows facing the rec yard where sweaty cons were already lifting weights or shooting hoops.

C.O. Grossman sat a table by the windows, her brown hair pulled back, her face straight as always so you couldn’t tell if she wanted to help you or stomp on your face, though usually you could assume the latter. She didn’t leave her seat, but met my gaze and nodded toward the table where my ex sat, squeezing her hands together as if trying to crush a walnut.

I tried not to look at Shelly as I walked toward her. I avoided eye contact, instead checking out the two dozen cons seated on opposite sides of round tables from their mothers, sisters, lovers, children. The air smelled like a greenhouse from an assortment of different perfumes. It was bright in there, too, with the ten-a.m. sun coming through the windows at an odd angle. Everyone seemed happy today. There were smiling faces, laughing faces, slightly-shifty faces that told me at least a couple folks in this room would be smuggling drugs or tobacco back to their respective PODs. I saw my buddy Jaquez on one side of the room, holding his mouth as if trying to swallow a key, and a guy we called Shorty bouncing his blond-haired infant daughter on his knee. At the other end, I spotted Dean, one of my former cellmates, who swore after every visit that his old lady jacked him off under the table, although at the moment he and his visitor both had their hands in plain sight on the white wood. It seemed like no one was miserable today, which worried me. It’s like that rule about sitting at the poker table: if you look around and can’t spot the fish, it must be you.

When I finally worked up the nerve to face Shelly, I saw skeletal cheeks, teeth biting hard on her lower lip, and eyes squeezed like a gunfighter’s. She had cut her hair short and dyed it brown, though gray tugged at her roots like corpse hands clawing their way from a grave in a zombie film. She resembled her mother more than ever, I thought, as though she were wearing an expression of pain and constant dying. She had on a plain white tee with her bra showing through, and I imagined that if I looked more closely I could see her ribs.

She didn’t stand to greet me, not here for the one chaste kiss.

“Shelly,” I said, sliding onto the hard plastic chair.

“Dickhead,” she said. It wasn’t a pet name.

“Not a friendly visit, I guess.”

“Fuck you,” she said.

I should’ve gotten up and left. Honestly, though, I was glad to see her. I still loved her in whatever way a man like me can love. Though for her two years had passed since she divorced me, it had all been one long day in here for me. Time was like that on the inside. It passed quickly, but didn’t seem to pass at all. “Why are you here, Shelly? You didn’t drive all this way to cuss me out.”

“You son of a bitch, I…”

“Watch it,” I said coldly. You never insulted a guy’s mom in here. That guaranteed trouble coming.

Shelly knew that. “Sorry. I … I didn’t drive at all.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“John drove me. He’s in the parking lot, waiting on me to finish up.”

“God, I hope he’s smoking meth out there. Guards’ll call the real law on him quick.”

“We don’t do that anymore,” she said.

I studied her for a moment. She looked skinnier than ever, frail and sort of weathered. I didn’t believe her. Besides, I had known John Head a long time. He pedaled as much crank as his brother could cook. I didn’t see him giving that up, and if he was still dealing, he was still smoking. I didn’t call Shelly on the lie. Instead, I said, “Why did John drive you? Why are you here? Why you cussing me like I’m a punk? I haven’t done anything to you. Haven’t even spoken to you in, what, a year and a half?”

“Because you need to call somebody and get this sorted out. The goddamned Sheriff’s deputies came by and seized the truck.”

“Man, that sucks. I loved that old Ford. Had it since I was eighteen, at least until…. Anyway, what’s that got to do with me? You all have dope in it?”

“No, we didn’t have no dope.”

I glared at her, waiting for an explanation.

“Deputies had some kind of paper from the court. Said they could take the truck.”

“And?” I said.

And it had your name on it.”

Things cleared up when she said that. I’d gotten legal mail from the Circuit Clerk about six months ago. It was a copy of an order for the Sheriff’s Department to seize any and all assets of mine in Pocahontas County to pay for restitution and court costs I owed after the trial. I freaked out when I got it, then took it down to the inmate legal rep who mocked me with his doughy, dumb face and said, “Calm down. You got any property in Pocahontas County?”

“No,” I said.

“No land, no vehicles, no bank accounts?”

“No,” I told him.

“Farm animals?”

I didn’t reply to that.

“Nothing at all? Maybe a rich uncle left you an inheritance you haven’t collected yet?”

“Nada. Zip. Zilch.”

“Then don’t worry about it,” he said. “Nothing they can do to you, and nothing you can do about it. You might have to find a lawyer and deal with it when you get out, but otherwise…” He shrugged. “…you’re good.”

That was all I needed to hear. I stuck the letter in my envelope full of legal stuff and forgot about it.

Shelly saw me thinking too hard and said, “You know something, don’t you?”

“Maybe,” I said, “but it doesn’t make sense. Shelly, that was your truck, your property. The judge gave you everything.”

“That’s what I told the deputies. Think they gave a shit?”

“They can’t take your stuff. Not unless … Shelly, did you leave the title in my name?”

“Judge Hazelett said it was mine.”

“But you didn’t change the title.”

She looked away as if I had scolded her.

“How’d you keep the sticker?”

“Paid the taxes,” she said, still not facing me. “They weren’t much.”

“You paid them in my name?”

When her head swiveled back, her eyes held the glint of steel again. She refused to make this about her. It was like every argument we ever had: it didn’t matter which of us was right, as long as it wasn’t me. “You need to square this,” she said. “Fix it.”

“How do you expect me to do that? You know I’m in prison, right?” I waved my hands around as if pointing at everything and everyone like she wouldn’t have noticed them otherwise. “It’s not like they’ll let me out of here so I can hitchhike over to Pocahontas County and tell the Sheriff, ‘Hey, you all took my ex old lady’s Ford.’ Even if I could do that, you think they’d listen to me?”

“Why you gotta be like this?” she said. “I need some help here.”

“Honey, you need a lawyer.” She hated it when I called her Honey. It wasn’t a pet name either. I only used that word when I knew I had won.

Shelly stood up and slapped her palms on the table loudly enough that the other cons and their families looked over their shoulders at us.

C.O. Grossman barked, “Hey!” from across the room. Not good to get her vexed.

“Why? Tell me why it’s gotta be like this. I came all the way over here to ask for your help, and you’re just…”

“Miss, sit down or I’ll escort you out.” I felt those words as much as heard them. C.O. Grossman was standing a few feet behind me, and I hadn’t sensed her approach.

Shelly looked at the C.O., then at me, then back at Grossman. I imagined a battle of stares that could start a holy war.

“Last warning,” Grossman said, her tone full of broken glass.

“It’s okay,” Shelly said with a sigh. “I think I’m done here.” As she came around the table, she turned to me and added, “Have a nice rest of your life, prick.”

Unable to resist a final jab of my own, I said, “Hope you at least got the title to the trailer switched over to your name … Honey.”

Her hand shot out so fast I didn’t have time to duck. The impact of her palm against my face sounded like someone dropped a heavy book from a balcony. It left my ear ringing and my cheek ablaze. My eye went numb at the cheekbone, and I knew it’d bruise—another black eye as if I had thrown down on the rec yard. Folks on the POD would tell this story for weeks, laughing at how I got my ass beat at a contact visit. At least it was contact, I thought. I had felt so little of it over the last couple of years. Sometimes a blow to the face can be as good a touch as any. It was my chaste kiss, the most chaste kiss of all.


Ace Boggess is author of the novels A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016) and States of Mercy (forthcoming from Alien Buddha Press). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Lumina, Belmont Story Review, and Superstition Review. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.