Issue 22 / Summer 2020
Pouring myself another cup of coffee, I scanned the letter I’d just pulled from its envelope. “Dearest Melinda, love of my life, salvation of my soul,” it began. This prisoner really was laying it on thick. Five pages of hackneyed declarations of love, outsized promises, and periodic pleas to “please move up here so you can be close enough to visit all the time.”
They ought to pay me more for having to read this kind of crap night after night, sitting in the housing unit office, struggling to stay awake.
Steam heaters belched in the background; the wall clock read 1:45 a.m.
I’d been working as a correctional officer—prison guard—for less than a year, but I already had a jaundiced view of most of these letters. Part of my job was to “censor” outgoing inmate mail. From what I’d seen, inmate correspondence often fell into one of four categories: complete lies (“I’m living in a mountain camp”); the dear mom letter (“Hey, send some stamps next time and check out my quarterly package list so you can get started buying the stuff to send me”); X-rated descriptions of the incredible sexual acts the prisoner would perform on his woman once he hit the streets; and the romance novel promise—“You are the only woman I’ve ever loved…when I get out I’ll worship you, treat you like a queen.”
I wasn’t crossing out stuff with a big, black Magic Marker; my task was to set aside anything suspicious—coded messages about hits or drug deals—and send those letters off to the security squad to investigate. Mostly it was a guessing game. Did “Aunt Mary will be here next Thursday, so be sure to bring snack money and talk to Big Bob before you come” refer to an innocent visit by an elderly relative or a scheme to bring in dope?
But some messages were clear. I remembered a letter to an inmate’s mother, sent from his unnamed “friends.” It read in part, “Bad things happen in prison—men get thrown off the tier, stabbed, beaten. Even raped. As your son’s friends, we can protect him. Of course, we expect to be compensated for our services.” This was followed by instructions on how to send money to the anonymous “protectors” via a post office box on the streets.
Proud to have caught the extortion scheme, I’d hoped the gooners—the security squad—would interview the inmate victim. Maybe he needed to PC up—ask for protective custody. Score one for the green team—us prison guards—or at least for me.
Not every cop read the outgoing mail very carefully. Some cops might press the little numbered ink stamp on the back of each envelope without slogging through the contents. My natural curiosity kept me reading. Plus, it was my job.
Muted sounds of a late-night talk show drifted down from the tiers, along with fake Swahili incantations from the huffer in cell 2-24. He must’ve gotten his hands on cleaning solvent from the furniture factory again. That guy was gonna be down to four functioning brain cells if he kept up the huffing. Too bad. He was pretty decent—polite, even smart—when he wasn’t ricocheting off his cell walls with a solvent-soaked rag to his nose.
Looking again at the “Dear Melinda” letter, I rubbed my eyes. The penciled scrawl, the lined yellow paper, the words so familiar.
Hadn’t I seen that same letter—an exact duplicate—an hour ago? Only the names and addresses of the intended recipients were different.
OK, where was that first letter I’d seen?
Someone cranked up a radio, the music floating through the cell block. “Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing goin’ on, we both know that it’s wrong…” Swaying in my seat, I searched the stack of letters I’d already read. There it was—the first letter from Mr. True Love. But it wasn’t addressed to Melinda. It was for Sandra, pleading with her to move near to the prison.
Flipping through the “Dear Sandra” letter, I shook my head. Spreading out the five-page Melinda letter, I compared the two. Exact copies except for the names.
For each woman, this would mean selling the house, quitting her job, and taking her kids out of school to move to San Rafael.
What a crock. Trying to con two different women to upend their lives. Both women lived in the Central Valley, hours away. These two ladies should know what lover boy was up to.
Why am I so pissed? Was it because I’d let myself be conned more than once by a two-timing, no-good man, as that old country-western song went?
My mind scrolled back to Stephen Rose. In my twenties, I’d fallen for him big-time, even though I knew he was an unrepentant womanizer. When my housemate told me he’d crawled into her bed one night while I was fast asleep in my bedroom across the hall, when she accused him of “touching” her twelve-year-old daughter, I only half believed her. After all, she’d never liked Stephen; maybe she was making this up. Some part of me knew she wasn’t lying. But in my desperation for love and adoration—no matter how fleeting and unlikely—I’d clung to Stephen. Finally I’d found a lover whose passion was straight out of a supermarket romance novel—the ones with the cover illustration of a bare-chested outlaw crushing a swooning lady to his muscular torso, her hair cascading across her half-exposed breasts…
Stephen would jump through my bedroom window at night like a modern-day Romeo. Once he’d hopped on a table in our favorite fish restaurant, announcing to the startled diners, “I love this woman.” He’d recited bad poetry, wrote love notes on scraps of paper. But all of Stephen’s declarations of eternal fealty were like autumn leaves, drying and crumpling to the ground, blowing away in the first strong wind.
I’d known better than to fall in love with him but that hadn’t stopped me. I was a prime example of just how foolish a woman can be when she wants to.
I scrutinized the letters one more time, the envelopes lying side by side on the desk. Most inmates who tried to con several women at least had the good sense to send out their letters at different times. There were rumors about letters being “accidentally” switched—staff putting them in the wrong envelopes. So Cherise got the letter intended for Jamie and vice versa. Then the shit hit the fan.
Showdowns happened in the visiting room too. Some inmates scheduled visits on different days with an excuse like, “You can only come on Wednesdays, that’s my day off.” But if the Wednesday-only visitor decided to surprise her sweetie by coming on Thursday, she’d likely encounter the Thursday girlfriend. There’d been catfights in the visiting room and the waiting line too.
This inmate made the mistake of putting the two letters in the unit mailbox on the same night. Just how stupid was he, anyway? Maybe not stupid but careless. He hadn’t counted on a vigilant officer reading his letters, discovering his con. Swirling the last bit of coffee in the mug, I reached out and fingered the two letters, staring at the envelopes addressed to Melinda and Sandra. My chest tightened, my gut clenched as I remembered how I’d let myself be conned by Stephen. Was I suffering from a case of righteous indignation?
I closed my eyes, tried to picture the women and their lives. Would either of them, or both, fall for the prisoner’s pleas? Apparently they had no idea that the other woman existed. If the letters were switched, they would both know. But that would be against the rules.
What was the likelihood I’d ever be caught? Zero. The little numbered stamp I’d place on the outside of every envelope couldn’t be traced to me. There was no tracking system—the stamps were handed out each night without a record of who got which stamp.
Setting the letters aside, I finished my coffee, considered my choice.
Wouldn’t I want to know if I was one of these two women?
Then I picked up each letter, carefully slipping it into an envelope before stamping the flap.
Mistakes happen, especially at 2 a.m.
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 or are forthcoming in Dime Show Review, Gulf Stream, The Gravel, Jet Fuel Review, The MacGuffin, The Penmen Review, Rougarou, Streetlight Magazine, Switchback, Stonecoast Review, Summerset Review, Two Cities Review, and others. After surviving riots, an armed escape, and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.