by Lela Fox
Chapter 1: THE END BEGINS
I remember stealing the ashtray from the bar; an oversized, white ceramic one with random splashes of bright-orange glaze. We’d been to a classic-rock bar on Highway A-1-A in West Palm Beach, Florida and we were both drunk, hardly able to stand or communicate. I’m guessing it was around two AM when we got home, thankful for the air conditioner’s cooling of the early June heat.
Happily obliterated, I sat on the sofa looking at the birthday card from my husband of five months. “Happy Number Forty,” it said. He signed it: “Have a good one, old bitty.” What an asshole. He seemed to always find a way to mess up a good thing.
As I smoked a cigarette, I sang the classic-rock song Fly Like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band in my typical key of flat and awful. Yona, our live-in Jamaican nanny, came out of her small bedroom to shush me. I supposed she thought I’d wake my stepson Jeremy, six years old and a light sleeper.
Just to piss her off, I quit singing but hummed the same song as loud as I could, louder than the singing had been. Yona stood with her hand on her right hip and bounced.
I thought it was hilarious and threw my head back for a long Tennessee laugh. The two of us had become friends, more than nanny-to-supervisor, but she disapproved of my “excessive drinking,” she had said many times. I ignored her shit and her Goody-Two-Shoes judgement.
I stood to dance on the tile floor of the rental house, still humming. Barefoot, I wore a flower-print mini skirt and no underwear. Golden-brown curls bounced to the beat in my head.
Stuart Weinstein, my husband number three, was in the bathroom and walked out zipping his fly. His beer belly was more prominent than usual in the profile view, I noticed, and his hair grayer in the shadowy light. In his brash New York accent, he said something smart-ass about how my “fat thighs” jiggled as I danced, and I yelled at him to shut the hell up. He yelled something back as he passed the French door to the back patio.
The next thing I knew, the stolen ashtray was in the air, sailing toward Stuart’s head. He ducked, and the ashtray crashed through the patio door.
The rest is a blackout.
Suddenly, though it must’ve been at least an hour later, I was in the driveway, overwrought and jittery. A pudgy hand held a Polaroid showing Stuart’s scratched and bleeding face, pushing it toward me accusingly. With a smartass chuckle, the cop said, “I hear what you’re saying, Ms. Fox, but he said you did it, and it sure looks like you did it, so the call is… you did it.”
Then he snapped handcuffs on my wrists. Tight.
On the way east, I wondered how the Palm Beach County jail would differ from the others I’d seen. Maybe the floor would be sandy? The inmates would be more ethnically diverse, with less East Tennessee rednecks, I reasoned. Those thoughts came before the big questions: What have I done? And how am I going to get out of this?
The charge was domestic assault. After the fingerprints and mugshot downstairs, they threw me in the drunk tank. The cage was full of Haitian women, speaking their melodic language, laughing at nothing funny I could see. Miserable, I sat on the cold concrete bench, speaking to no one.
So who can I call? Who can post my bail? I tried to ignore utter defeat, but I knew there was nobody to call; I had no friends except Yona. My work friends were just that: nine-to-five friends and I didn’t like them worth a shit, anyway. Though I was groggy and still drunk, I was sober enough to know I was in big trouble. How can I get out of here?
An overweight female officer with a shock of frizzy black hair called my name. On our way to a cell downstairs, passing through four clanging cages of bars, I could smell her body odor. It added to the ugly reality of what I faced. I shivered in the heat.
When I asked for my phone call, I learned the bad news: there would be no easy-out tonight. That was for DUI arrests and minor things, not for domestic abusers like me, she said. I’d see the judge the next day, and he’d set my bail. Not only that, I’d need a proper home address before they would release me. Stuart had filed for a restraining order. I couldn’t go home.
I continued to think of somebody to post my bail, but there was no one to call. For the past six months, I had isolated myself with the high-tech electric juicer and backyard grapefruit tree as my only friends. Oh, and of course the vodka, which was my main friend. The thought came: “my main squeeze” and I chuckled. Who says a washed-up writer can’t still make a good pun?
The echo as we walked down the hall of cells deafened me, the smell of shit and vomit grew as we walked further into the cell block. Then the officer grunted and pushed me to the left, into the smallest cell I’d seen outside of a Hollywood movie. Like any cell, it had an eerie sense of coldness and the austerity of sharp angles, but this one proudly emitted the distinctive smell of solid human waste.
The flip-flops they provided caught on the wide crack in the concrete floor, a diagonal crack that divided the tiny space into two triangles all the way across.
As the guard removed the cuffs, I saw the bare and dark-stained mattresses on the bunk beds. No blankets, no pillows. In the corner, the toilet leaned questionably to the left.
No cellmate. I sat on the bottom bunk and put my head in my hands. That sonofabitch has thrown me under the bus – on purpose! How could he treat me like this? His very own wife! Wouldn’t my LOVE stop him from this kind of cruelty.
I peed on top of the existing poop, and knowing it wouldn’t help to flush, I didn’t. A squeaky voice in the next cell shouted, “Flush your stinky pee!” I mumbled an apology and flushed, but the toilet gurgled a few seconds and stopped.
Great. A stopped-up toilet in a jail cell. With a half-chuckle, half-belch, I blew a laugh at the irony of it all. What the hell, Lela, you crazy drunk! You’ve really screwed yourself this time. After a few sobs, which only hurt my head, I decided to sleep it off. Trying to avoid the biggest, grossest stains on the mattress, I closed my eyes. Maybe you’ll think of something in the morning.
I woke with my contacts stuck to my eyeballs, as expected, and my head pounding, which surprised me. I wasn’t usually one to have hangovers; Lela Fox was too adept at drinking for such kindergarten things.
I closed my eyes after the lights came on and willed the headache away. It returned with the faceless delivery of a cold-egg, raw-bacon breakfast. With a sigh, I ate the toast and the bruised apple. The germ of an idea formed in my mind.
Mid-morning, they led us to the courtroom, shackled together at the ankles and waist. A damn chain-gang, as if I’m a common criminal! The bailiff called my name first, and I stood, rattling the chains. The charges were now official: misdemeanor domestic assault. Bail was $5,000. In 1999, that was a lot of money.
Though I was antsy to set my new plan in motion, I had to wait for the other inmates’ hearings before I could leave the courtroom. About an hour passed, and I needed to pee. After the last gavel fell, the deputies led us out in the same chain-gang. Complete humiliation, I thought, being treated like a criminal when I was innocent.
As I passed the District Attorney, I caught his eye and tried to garner a smile, but he looked straight through me. I wanted him to know I was somebody special within this chain-gang, somebody with sense, but his look of disdain burst my bubble of hope.
With a hard swallow, I accepted the truth. I was just a number in the system and my number was low, near the bottom. Yep, I was in big trouble, bigger than ever before.
My toilet was still clogged, and I complained to the deputy who deposited us back in our cells. She said she’d “get right on it.” Yeah, right.
An hour later, she took me upstairs to make my phone call. The fat deputy slid the phone book across the counter and my shaking hands found the number for the liquor store in Wellington, Florida – the liquor superstore around the corner from our house in the upscale suburb of West Palm. Friendly Wine and Liquors, where they sold lottery tickets, too.
“Frank! It’s Lela, your favorite customer.”
“Hey, Lela! What can I do for you, hon?”
An upbeat voice will relax him, Lela. Don’t let him think it’s a big deal. “Frank, I’m in a little trouble. Can I use your address as my address so I can get out of jail?” A silent reply, so I continued. “And I’ll pay you back two-fold if you bail me out.”
“What? Wait! I’m not getting this… you’re in jail?”
“No big deal, Frankie. But Stuart said I beat him up and he filed a restraining order against me. I can’t go home and I can’t leave jail until I give them an address where I’ll supposedly live.”
A gasp from the other end of the phone. “Wait, no! I’m not asking to stay with you. I can stay at a hotel until I find a place. It’s just… I need you to bail me out and give your address. Can you? Will you? Please?”
“Let me get this straight. You got arrested for beating Stuart up?”
“But he was in here this morning and he didn’t look beaten up! Bought his regular bottle of Crown and about a hundred scratch-off tickets. Honestly, I think he has a problem with the scratch-offs.”
Not giving a damn what the fidgety Stuart bought, I made sure I heard Frank right about the other. “No scratches on his face? No blood in his beard?”
“Just the same ol’ donkey face?”
Frank spoke through his chuckle. “That’s right.”
“Dammit! I knew he set me up! The cops showed me pictures and stuff, but I don’t remember a thing except those accusing steel-gray eyes. He probably scratched himself!”
“Whoa Lela, I don’t want to get in the middle of something like th−”
“No! It’s not like that! There’s no ‘something’ to get in the middle of!”
“Just a favor. And we can go straight to the ATM, Frank. I’ll pay you back, twice the amount. No shit.”
“How much is your bail?”
“Five hundred. Any bondsman will work. Have you done this before?”
“No, and I’m not really interested in doing it now.”
“Frank! Hey! It’s me! Your favorite customer! Do you think I’m the kind of person who would jump bail?”
“Uh, Lela…” It was a scolding voice, and I panicked. I interrupted the objection I assumed was coming. “Frank, paying bail is easy. Just look in the phone book, the yellow pages, under bail bondsmen. They’ll be dozens listed there. A simple phone call, a dude will meet you at the jail, you sign some bullshit papers, and it’s done. Then I’ll need a ride to my van. Piece of cake. Surely I’ve given you enough business to pay for doing me this favor!”
“Please, Frank. I’m desperate. This is my one phone call. I have nobody else.”
“That’s why Lela… I mean, your only friend is the liquor store owner?”
With a chuckle, I said, “Pretty funny, huh?” My eyebrows pushed together as it hit me. No, this was not funny at all. With more humility, I begged, “Frank, please. I’m in a tough spot. And I’ll pay you back immediately! You can count on that! We’ll go straight to the ATM!”
The officer glared at me and cleared his throat. His double chin creased as he nodded. “That’s enough time, ma’am,” he spat.
“Look, Frank, I’ve got to go but I’m depending on you, begging you. I’ll write a good review for the Better Business Bureau about the store, write a good article for the Wellington Shopper, maybe produce a professional radio spot. Anything!”
Still twitching, I stopped, knowing there was nothing more to say. The pause was unnervingly long. Frank sighed. “Okay, Lela, dammit. I shouldn’t, but I will. But I don’t want to hear another word about it. Nothing! I don’t want to be in the middle.”
“Frankie-baby, you are a good friend.”
“Well, I try. But this is really cra−”
“Thank you, man. I’ll make it up to you somehow. Oh! Wait! One more thing…”
“What?” He sounded irritated now.
I squinted one eye and gritted my teeth, knowing I was pushing my luck. “Can you call Stuart and ask him to put my purse in the van?” I said it fast, hoping to diminish it.
“Jeezus, Lela! This is beyond the scope of my−”
“But you won’t have to talk to him, just leave a message.” A hmmph exploded from Frank’s end. “Please! I only get one phone call!”
“Okay, dammit! What’s the number?” Thankfully, I had committed Stuart’s number to memory, even the foggy memory of the day after.
The officer took me back to the cell to wait for bail. Would he come? Is my only shot at freedom going to come through? Then I said aloud, “Frank, my dear Frank, please help me. And hurry!”
An hour later, a lunch tray slid through the bars. A bologna sandwich, or at least I thought it was bologna. A warm chunk of fat-speckled meat of an unknown variety on plain white bread, a side of equally warm applesauce, and another bruised apple.
As I gnawed on the apple core, a skinny black girl arrived to be my cellmate. In cuffs, nervous as a whore in church, or hopped up on something, maybe.
“Don’t mess with me,” she said as the deputy removed the cuffs. She held her menacing glare and, once free from the cuffs, put her hands and braced her feet as if ready to throw a boxing punch. She repeated, “Don’t mess with me, Curly Bitch.”
I rolled over to face the wall, seeing a road map in the rubberized paint, a road map I hoped Frank would soon follow.