“Officer Holmstrom, can I please talk to you a minute?” The voice was smooth like butterscotch, sweet and oversugared.
Inmate Gary Phoenix stood at his cell front, his figure barely illumined by the light of an underpowered reading lamp on the shelf above his single bunk.
I glanced at my wristwatch: Two a.m. Slipping my Maglite police special out of the ring holder on my duty belt, I stepped closer to the cell, flicked on the flashlight. Phoenix had been laying a story on me the past couple nights, claiming to be eager to reconnect with his teenage daughter.
Dressed in a dark blue robe, Phoenix looked like he’d just given himself a birdbath using his cell sink. Pushing back a damp clump of wheat-blond hair, he leaned into the bars. “I need your advice. How I can be a good dad.”
What was I, a therapist? Nope, I was a correctional officer, aka prison guard. My job was to count West Block inmates during First Watch, the graveyard shift, making sure they were all still breathing and not up to some form of evil or forbidden activity like butt-fucking, sharpening a knife, or brewing up a batch of pruno—prison hooch. The men on the upper tiers were double-celled, but Phoenix was on Lifers’ Row, the first tier, where the prisoners were single-celled and allowed extra perks like pet goldfish and improvised furniture.
My innards felt heavy, as if I’d swallowed a pound of steely marbles. I knew that I should keep walking, yet I stood planted in front of the cell while Phoenix reached for a small framed photo. From an upper tier, the sounds of a late-night talk show mingled with a Neil Young song—“I’m a miner for a heart of gold…”
I breathed deep, lulled by the music. The smell of salsa picante and fried tortillas permeated the housing unit’s air. The burrito man up on the third tier must’ve had a big night. San Quentin’s West Block housing unit was like a miniature town filled with entrepreneurs—the laundry man who’d starch and iron your state blues so the pants had a crease as sharp and straight as a newly chiseled shank, the guys who concocted tasty treats out of purloined state food, the tattoo artists inking devils and buxom babes on their clients’ torsos.
“This is my daughter.” Phoenix pushed the picture through the bars, inviting me to examine it. “I’m making her a special gift. It’s almost finished.”
Reaching out, I grasped the cardboard frame. A young woman of fifteen or so, blond-haired like Phoenix, a bit prettier than average.
“She’s cute.” I handed the photo back, retreated a step, eager to leave. Phoenix hadn’t done anything overt, so why was I so uneasy? He was polite, soft-spoken, respectful. Not a weenie wagger. Yet whenever I came near his cell, my gut tightened, the sensation like a knitting needle yanking out a bad row. The feeling was familiar, reminding me of a long-forgotten scene I’d grasped at over the years, always just out of reach.
Looking down at my watch, I turned to go. “Gotta make my check call.” That was a lie. The other unit officer would phone to let the four post officer know we were all right, that the inmates hadn’t cut out of their cells and taken over the unit. Not that such a thing was likely to happen to us. It was different on death row and in the lockup units—the hole. I thought of the bloodbath in the Adjustment Center in ’72, the throat-slit bodies.
We were safe here. Relatively speaking.
Who was I kidding? This was still a max security prison. Bad shit went down, even in mellow West Block. Like the lifer who’d been group-shanked in his cell during evening shift a month ago, a regular Julius Caesar takedown, the blood oozing across the cell’s concrete floor, flowing onto the first-tier walkway. Decades later, the man who’d lived in the adjacent cell would tell me how he’d heard it come down, the muffled screams, the rhythmic swoosh of steel into flesh, the squish-squish of shoes slipping on the bloody floor, whispers as three or four men emerged from the dead man’s cell. “Horrible,” the former inmate, now discharged, would say. “I listened to a man die not three feet away.” Of course, he couldn’t have snitched or he’d have been equally dead.
Still, there hadn’t been any staff assaults in the unit. Except for the counselor who’d been raped in her office, forced to the floor, overpowered, her pants pulled down… After he was done, the inmate walked out of her office and went back to his cell like nothing had happened. Now he was in the hole, had a court date. The counselor still came to work, but she looked deflated, like a half-filled balloon.
No need to worry about Phoenix knifing or raping me. There was a set of solid steel bars between us on First Watch. It was another inmate who was the problem, the twentyish guy who shadowed me whenever I worked overtime during Second Watch, the day shift, when inmates were out of their cells, running around. He’d brush my jacket sleeve, claiming he was “just knocking off a piece of lint,” nearly cornering me on the end of the third tier.
Maybe I told myself that Phoenix wasn’t a threat. But he was playing a different game than the daytime stalker.
Why didn’t I say, “I don’t want to talk to you; I can’t help you,” and keep heading down the tier? Why was I so stupid?
A few nights afterward, Phoenix asked to show me his handiwork. Cradling a small black cardboard box, he extracted a pendant; let it rotate in the light. A chunk of cream-colored plastic, shaped into a heart, dangled on a thin gold-colored chain, twisting slowly like a hypnotist’s pendulum.
“I made this for my daughter; it took days to shape and smooth. It’s a symbol of my love, a gift from the heart.” He raised his eyebrows. “What do you think? Will she like it?”
The clunky heart reminded me of the trinkets they give as consolation prizes at county-fair game booths. A five-year-old might be thrilled by a bloated-looking piece of plastic. A teenager would either hurl it in the trash or shove it into the back of a drawer.
What could I say? And why should I care about Phoenix’s feelings? I hesitated. “I’m sure your daughter will appreciate the effort you put into this.”
Phoenix stared at me in silence, his eyes locked on mine. The scent of his aftershave floated through the bars, battling with the unit’s pervasive stench of rotting food, bird droppings, and rat excrement, the odor of discarded socks and T-shirts stiff with sweat. The air was stifling, heavy like a net flung over my body, pulling me down. I willed my feet to move—to escape.
Why do we fail to heed the obvious, disregard our instincts? When I was nineteen, I’d handed three hundred dollars in cash to a used car salesman who’d said, “I’ll get you a great car at the auto auction this weekend.” No receipt, no witnesses, just a whispered transaction.
My feet immobile, a clamp twisting my innards, I’d opened my mouth, eager to say I’d changed my mind. Instead, I’d walked out the showroom door, too embarrassed to confront the salesman. Never saw him or my money again.
Why did I trust the wrong people? Fail to follow my intuition?
Later that night, Phoenix was at the back of his cell, his robe loose. “Officer Holmstrom, I need to talk to you a moment.” A warning thumped in my gut. Still I stayed—trapped in that old pattern.
Rather than coming to the bars, Phoenix remained by the rear wall, ten feet from me. The little reading lamp framed him in light as he talked. He shifted slightly, and then I saw his penis, dangling free between the open folds of his robe. The scene was oddly familiar, calling forth a memory I couldn’t quite drag into consciousness. I dismissed it as unintentional—an accident—and walked on without confronting him.
Then came the love note, two pages of declarations of adoration and respect, of how I was the only woman who’d ever understood him, who’d taken the time to help him. I ripped it up, told him never to bother me again. Why didn’t I write him up? Save the note?
Returning to the West Block office, I sat at the desk across from the other graveyard-shift officer, longing to tell him about Phoenix putting the moves on me. No words came. Was I too ashamed to admit an inmate conned me? I reached for my thermos, poured a cup of coffee.
In the morning, I went up to Records and pulled the file. Phoenix was a rapist. He couldn’t rip apart the cell bars like Superman, so he was trying sweet talk and bullshit to reel me in.
Phoenix didn’t give up easily. Said the plastic heart really was for me. Handed me another love note. That time, I said I’d write him up. His face twisted into a gargoyle snarl. “I’ll say we had sex.”
Through the cell bars? That wasn’t unheard of; other female staff had quit or been fired for being intimate with inmates.
My supervisor told me to forget about the write-up; I was up for promotion. “There’ll be an investigation. You’re about to take the sergeant’s exam; don’t let this get in your way.”
I took his advice, balled up the draft disciplinary and flung it in the wastebasket. Yet I couldn’t get the picture of Phoenix and his open robe, his exposed penis, out of my brain. Why?
Two years later, sitting in a therapist’s office, complaining about my lousy romantic escapades, the failed marriages, it came to me. Like a movie trailer, I saw my dad sitting nude in bed, his left leg raised enough to lift the sheet draped across his lower body, exposing his flaccid penis. It reminded me of a large, ugly earthworm. I’d looked away. Said nothing. This had to be an accident, unintentional. After all, he was my father. Church deacon, choir member, industrial engineer, faithful husband.
Then I remembered more incidents: the invasive looks he gave me when I walked by in a bikini, how he ogled my breasts.
“He was grooming you for intercourse,” the therapist said.
Dad had made his move one afternoon when the rest of the family was gone. How old was I? Seventeen, maybe. The scene was clear, although I couldn’t remember how it started. I was sitting on Dad’s lap, his left arm clasping me tight against his chest, his right hand rhythmically rubbing my Capri pants, pulsating against the floral fabric covering my crotch. I heard his hurried breathing, smelled his aftershave, felt the pressure between my legs. Frozen, immobilized, unable to speak or flee, I was a trapped animal. Then he’d stopped; let me go.
I never said anything. No point—no one would’ve believed me, the “troublemaker.” If anything, it was my fault.
Dad never acknowledged what he did, never apologized. No explanation—just the fallout, the years where I lay down with men I barely knew, when sex was an ordeal rather than a pleasure. By the time I was twenty, I’d found a caring lover, had abandoned unfulfilling anonymous sex. But some part of me remained paralyzed, unable to recognize or confront a predator.
Then came Gary Phoenix with his plastic heart. That cured me.
Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in Bernie Siegel’s book, Faith, Hope, and Healing. Several of her essays and nonfiction stories have been published in Gulf Stream, The Penmen Review, Jet Fuel Review, and The Sophia Foundation Starlight Journal. Christine’s personal journey took her from naive UC Berkeley student to prison guard at San Quentin—where she was promoted to supervisor, and later, counselor for condemned inmates.