One Day in the Life of Maggie Hodginova

by jkatejohnston

This is a chapter from my alleged book. I’m including it here because I feel guilty for neglecting my dear diary, and also the chapter is short and pretty much works on its own. The title is a joke that has to be explained. How depressing. The main character/narrator’s name is Maggie Hodge, and this chapter covers the twenty-four hours or so that she spends in jail, having been remanded for contempt of court. The discerning reader will recall Solzhenitsyn’s short great book about living in a Soviet labor camp: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And the super duper discerning reader will have no problem with gulag jokes.

Booking. I’d heard about this of course, but not the waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the picture, snap, snap, my absurd desire to look pretty, a wristband coming out of a machine with name and X-ref and photo, not pretty, I looked like I was about to cry. Filling out the forms: allergies (none) disabilities (none but stupidity) affiliations—that was so rival gang members could be housed separately. I started to write none and then changed it to California State Bar—ha!—and when I saw it written down, I knew that I did feel a sort of allegiance to it—allegiance and pride and something like love, not for the State Bar of course, but for the law. I knew Judge Bell would be calling in my ethics violation. Hodge shall not be disbarred, I thought, trying to cheer myself up, no, no, Hodge shall not be disbarred. [check quote and credit Life of Johnson]

Time to change out. Two female deputies were whispering together, and I heard the words, arrested and lawyer. A spurt of pride and defiance. I was still a lawyer, at least for now, might as well advocate for myself. “Are you trying to figure out if you have to strip search me?” They hesitated and then said yes, they were waiting to hear from a supervisor, who was calling County Counsel. “You can only strip search felony arrestees. I haven’t been arrested. I’m being held in contempt.”

“We have to verify all that.” More waiting. Time assumed a new aspect. It stretched and yawned and ticked. There was no clock. Jill had probably already come to see me and been turned away because I was still in booking, but she’d come back, probably that night. And she’d already have seen Michael to deal with whatever urgent delusion he had on his mind.

The feeling that I might cry and absolutely must not cry faded away, diluted by boredom and a bit of shame. Michael had been facing life in prison most of the time he’d been in here, and he was still looking at around fifteen years, and maddening as he was, he’d never cried or whined. He kept his chin up, and I thought now of that proud, ticcy jerking of his technically handsome chin, his urgent demand for us to come see him—Oh Michael, what now?

And what about Josh? I’d never seen him cry—though I knew Jill had—and God knows he had reason to. It felt strange not to know where he was. This foster placement, was it even in Sacramento?

The shift changed. Since it was a new batch of deputies, I tried again. “Look at me,” Gesturing to my clothes (pinstripe pantsuit; men’s oxfords, white shirt), “Do I look like I have crystal up my ass?”

“No, not really,” said one of the new deputies.

“We don’t have a procedure for this,” said the other. “We’re waiting for a procedure.”

“And a code,” said the first one, “We put in 001 for a felony arrestee, which triggers the DNA procedure, and 002 for a misdemeanor arrestee, which doesn’t.”

“So put me in as 002.”

“That’s up to County Counsel.”

“Haven’t they gone home yet?”

“I guess some people are staying late to deal with this.”

“It shouldn’t take them long. It’s not a hard question.”

I passed another long stretch of time daydreaming about how much to sue for if County Counsel got it wrong—the emotional distress of having to spread my cheeks and cough and open wide for the DNA swab, knowing that, at least for a short time until it got straightened out, I’d be in the database, searched every time they uploaded another evidence profile.

But if all that happened, surely the prospect of a payout would cheer me up so much that I wouldn’t actually experience emotional distress—I might even experience glee—in which case where would be my damages? I’d have to lie, that was all, but I knew I couldn’t. That really would be contempt of court, and while I might have contempt for the occasional judge, I could never have contempt for the law. Then the deputy handed me a packet of clothes wrapped in brown paper and told me to change, no strip search, no DNA swab, so there went my lawsuit.

As soon as I put on the clean orange scrubs I knew that my scorn for shopping was wrong. Clothes are powerful. Of course they are. That’s why the judge wears that ridiculous robe and my young clients belt their pants below the butt, even if it does make it harder to run from the cops. And in this case, they were powerfully depressing.

One of the deputies walked me down a long hallway: concrete floor and walls and ceilings, cameras at regular intervals, a metal-floored elevator, up to the fourth floor, more hallways, through doors and more doors, deeper into the beast. Then a large concrete- floored room with a small kiosk-like thing in the middle. Looking up I saw the visitation tier, the phones separated by glass for social visits, the attorney booths, startlingly familiar.

“Name and X-ref?”

“Margaret Hodge,” and I read the X-ref off my wristband.

“Show your band, Hodge.” I did.

Then the deputy at control said to the deputy who brought me, “4-320.”

“Wait. Has anyone tried to visit me? While I was in booking?”

The deputy at control checked the computer. “Nope.”

“What about my phone call? Aren’t I supposed to get one phone call?”

“Tomorrow.”

As we passed through the common area we went by a low table covered with books and magazines.

“Can I get something to read?”

“It’s not day room now. You can choose something when you have day room.” We stopped in front of a door that said 4-320. Ca-chunk, as it was unlocked from some remote location. The deputy pushed me through the door, ca-chunk behind me.

A woman lay on her back on the bottom bunk reading. She was tall, African American, and her long bare feet hung off the bottom edge of the mattress. She looked up and held out her hand, “Marcelene.”

“Maggie.” We shook hands, a gesture that I hadn’t expected in here, and she went back to reading. It was a Nolo Press book: Every Dog’s Legal Guide. Must be slim pickings. I climbed up to the top bunk. From there you could just see out the high narrow window: Seventh Street, the County Administration building with the Public Defender’s office stuck in the basement, the new light rail line, all absurdly remote and familiar. Darkness coming. Street lights coming on. I pressed close to the window and cupped my hands around my face, shielding it from the bright overhead light that turned the window into a mirror. The glass was cold.

I saw one of the young public defenders whose name I couldn’t remember leave the office pulling a heavy wheeled briefcase. He wore a parka and knit hat and matching scarf, and he hunched his shoulders against the cold as he waited at the light rail station, reading the paper. The train came. He was gone. I realized that I was looking for Jill, in her long brown wool coat, her tall-looking stride, even though she wasn’t really tall.

The overhead light went out. Marcelene sighed and put her book down. I slid off the top bunk and peed. The toilet was metal, without a seat, just a narrow rim to balance on, and motherfuck it was cold. Marcelene was lying with her back to me. Flush. I went to wash my hands, and Marcelene’s voice said, “Watch out for my kicker.”

“I’m sorry.”

“My kicker. It’s in the sink.”

“What?” She got up slowly and took what looked like a severed hand from the sink. Then I saw it was a latex glove tied off at the wrist and full of what looked like industrial sludge. It was beginning to inflate.

“I keep it in there in case of leakage. Just take it out when you wash hands. And be careful.”

She was making Pruno. I remembered with a kind of wonder my fantasies about going to jail: that I’d lose ten pounds and be popular, not just because I was a lawyer and could help, but because I was so funny and real. I’d come up with a new recipe for Pruno: quicker and stronger, a life-changing improvement. And I’d read and read and read. So far, jail wasn’t living up to my dreams, though I was horribly hungry: no dinner, no lunch except that Chili Pomegranate cocktail, which seemed to exist in another universe. Maybe I should go on a hunger strike. That would show Bell. But I hated being hungry.

There was a patch of bright moonlight on my bunk, coming in the narrow window.

“Marcelene,” I said softly.

A grunt.

“Is it okay if I read that book you had?”

Another grunt and then a hand holding the book appeared beside my pillow. “It’s not about dogs. I thought it was going to be about dogs.”

“That’s okay.”

“You the lawyer?”

“Yeah.”

A deep chuckle. “I heard we were going to be getting a lawyer. That book’s about perfect then.”

I read it by moonlight, moving across the bed with the patch of light, knees drawn up and two thin blankets pulled tight over me, as the night got colder and colder, until the light travelled up the wall and was gone. Like any law book, it was about life and a set of rules colliding. What to do? Have a trial. Do some rough justice. Write it down. Next time, you can check what you did last time. The common law. I remembered a quotation carved into the stone archway of the courthouse in my hometown: REASON IS THE LIFE OF THE LAW —LORD COKE. How wrong. Life is the life of the law, including dog life. Lord Coke probably wasn’t even a lawyer. He was probably a judge, hence the Lord, poor fucker, and what a name.

I tried to remember something about the law that had landed me here: contempt of court, the judge’s scary power to control the courtroom and protect the legal process. All I could remember was that domestic violence vics who refused to testify could be jailed for contempt of court, but only after such an incredible rigmarole that it almost never happened. Jill would figure it out. And get me out. She must have come to see me that afternoon while I was in booking, even if they didn’t have a record of it in the computer. She’d try again in the morning. I was in good hands.

*

Lights on. Dark outside. “What time is it?” I said.

“Four-thirty,” said Marcelene.

“What time is breakfast?”

“After pill call.”

“How long does pill call take?”

“Half an hour.”

“And what happens after breakfast?”

“Day room.” More like middle-of-the-night room.

I waited, head under the thin pillow. “Marcelene, do you think it’s possible to ask for another blanket?”

“You can ask.”

Finally the door ca-chunked. Hands and a tray appeared. Marcelene took the tray and said, “We got one more in here now.” Marcelene set the tray on the bottom bunk. Another tray, which she handed to me. Scrambled eggs, a rectangular biscuit, a whole orange, steaming black coffee, a carton of milk. Tears of joy came into my eyes. There were even two tiny paper envelopes for salt and pepper. I used both on my eggs and they were the best thing I’d ever eaten.

“Can I have your orange?” said Marcelene.

“Um. I’m kind of hungry.” Silence. Her waiting hand. I handed over the orange.

“I’ll give you some of the product.”

“You use oranges in Pruno? I thought you used prune juice.”

“Naw. Orange juice and apple juice. And it has to come from fruit. The other stuff is pasteurized.”

“Then how come it’s called Pruno?”

“Tradition.”

Day room. There were no windows in the common area, so it didn’t matter that it was still dark outside. Women, most of them young and not-white, were sitting in clusters, watching the weather on TV: last night had been a near-record low, twenty-five degrees [check this] and clear, a real cold snap with more to come.

“Hope they hand out thermals,” said someone.

“We don’t change whites till tomorrow.”

“Shit, what day is it?”

“Thursday.”

How strange that one week ago today I’d been putting on the defense case—such as it was— in People v. Michael Merrick. And now I had a jury out. It was nine o’clock. They’d just be starting up for the day, but the usual low-grade dread was gone. It was all so far away: law through the wrong end of a telescope. I waited for the phone. It was like payphone but you didn’t put money into it; the woman ahead of me showed me how to dial out, call the operator and place a collect call. I dialed Jill, one of the few numbers I knew by heart, even though it was in my phone. It went to voicemail and I listened to the familiar message, even her recorded voice was comforting, and then the jail message in turn, asking if the recipient would like to accept a collect call from a Sacramento County Inmate. She didn’t pick up. She was probably driving, and I thought of all the times I’d lectured her about not answering the phone while she was driving. Sister Liz? But I didn’t know her number. I wanted to call my parents and just blubber, but how to explain?

I went over to the table where books and magazines were piled: Time, Glamour, months or even years old, a few tattered paperbacks: legal thrillers, bodice rippers, Nolo Press books (Patent It Yourself; Plan Your Estate; Beat Your Ticket) and, near the bottom of the pile, Great Plains, coming apart at the spine and held together with a thick rubber band.

A jet of pure greed and I snatched it up and hid it under my shirt. Back to my cell, under the two cold blankets, and the trance-like reading of childhood came back to me like a gift. If I’d been facing more than a few days in jail it would have driven me crazy to read this portrait of the wide open Great Plains and the people in it and Crazy Horse, the free-est man who ever lived. But Bell couldn’t keep me in forever, and Jill was surely working on getting me out, and whatever the State Bar was going to do with me, there was nothing I could do about any of it now, and I read and read and read, with just enough mind left over to wonder whether I could bill for all this, and where the hell was Jill? Such is the multipleness of consciousness.

Lunch came: peanut butter and jelly—perfect—and I vowed in future to respect the classics. I handed my apple over to Marcelene, and she showed me how to grate it onto a paper plate using an empty shampoo bottle cut in half with holes poked in it. Then she looked through a bundle of her things, cursing softly.

“You got any commissary coming?” she said.

“Um, I guess so.”

“Money on your books?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m sure I do.” Jill must have at least done that when she tried to see me the night before.

“We need a pair of new socks.” The door ca-chunked open. Time for Program, and those who had commissary could go, including me. But in the little commissary shop (a closet, really) when I handed the white-shirted trustee my purchases, she checked the computer. No money. I put back the trial-sized deodorant and the ten Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, thinking, really? Jill was always putting money on our clients’ books—so what about me? Maybe she figured I had money on me, and they’d put that on my books. But I’d handed her my backpack with my wallet in it. She knew I had nothing.

I came back to the cell empty-handed, and Marcelene shook her head, seeming to confirm what you always heard: it didn’t take long for people on the outside to forget you. Twenty-four hours, to be exact, if you started counting from when they rolled me up in court. Marcelene left and was back quickly with a clean white sock. She carefully slid the grated apple into the sock and suspended it over a paper cup. Drip drip.

Oh Chili Pomegranate!

And Oh Jill!

 

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