Her reboot began before the inmates awoke. The nod from a corrections officer meant get up and bring your shit. Allison had nothing she cared to bring, except the folded Certificate of Release in her jumpsuit. She shuffled out behind the CO. The slam of the steel door behind her sent rolling thunder down the cell block, waking women who now knew changes would be coming. A truncated slur and vacant eyes still followed her—even now, one day before the end of her prison term.
The guard passed her off to another, who led her across the sleeping prison yard. Each footfall on the gravel was a step closer to freedom. There was hope in the nudging breeze. She would finish her work free of the noise and mayhem of prison, free to write the best music she’d ever written. This was what opportunity felt like—but it wasn’t something she would want to repeat any time soon.
At the admin building, she quickly brushed the tears from her cheeks. She was getting out. The bench press guy at checkout fetched a box from the cage, which he smashed down on the metal counter. Allison sorted through plastic bags of stuff she’d had with her when they checked her in.
“Is there another one . . . another bag?” she asked. “My paper notes. They said I’d get them back. Can you please check?”
"Nope." The spat plosive landed on his lip. He glowered. He didn’t blink.
It was true—they did say she’d get them back, but they lied. She’d written out every chart on an imaginary keyboard. For three hundred and sixty-four nights she’d sometimes extracted a fleeting melody or a plaintive riff of chords falling out of the constant clatter of misery. Her snippets of musical ideas became dog-eared, wrinkled, and grubby. It took all her willpower to notate the mute chords on hand-drawn lines. The sheaf of pages tucked under her mattress had waited like a black widow for her release, ready to wrap her up in its web of unrealized mistakes, which would prevent her from sharing her work with the brave women or even the hopeless hard cases with whom she was incarcerated. But they had found her charts, and after taking them she’d spent nights staring at nothing, listening to the whimper, the chanting fluorescent lights, the quiet noise. Eventually, her short-circuited rage fizzled in tears, and she could sleep.
She emptied the plastic bag of what used to be in her purse. The phone her mother had given her was just as dead. They’d kept her own as evidence, and without it her world had collapsed, proving how hopelessly unprepared she was. A quarter and three cents from her emptied and battered pocketbook rattled onto the counter, along with six singles, voided credit cards, and her driver’s license.
As Allison gathered her things she tried to keep a level head and suppress the panic when she realized that Ira, her father, didn’t know this was going on and wouldn’t be there to pick her up—not today. He would urge her to see the big picture—she could hear him saying it was a rite of passage. Well, she could handle this humiliation, but she couldn’t handle what to do next.
“Please, man. It’s everything I’ve done here.”
“What did I just say? Make your phone call and then get the hell out of here while you still have an exit pass. Take your gate money. Go. Now.”
He pointed to a bathroom where she could change. What a dick.
Luisa, her hip-hop friend was in the bathroom tying back her shiny black hair. She’d changed into a loose-fitting white shirt—her husband’s, no doubt—the husband she’d shot when he beat her up for the last time. Allison had promised herself that her friend would be the first to hear her new music. Maybe they had given her the charts. But no—Luisa would have returned them. She had a righteous justification for her crime, which is what most inmates claimed, but Luisa’s made the world a safer place for women—and she framed it that way in the lyrics of her breakout song.
"Hey. You’re out as well?"
"That’s right, sweetheart," Luisa answered. "It’s Queenie—she’s out tomorrow."
Queenie’s gang had no time for Allison’s Upper East Side schooling, her Juilliard degree, her quiet, well-spoken manner. They’d flashed a shiv as a warning—of what she didn’t know, but they made her part with her toiletries.
"Hope you’re right," Allison said. "I was dreading seeing that woman on the street. Except, now no one is here for me."
“You want to use my phone, babe?” Luisa asked.
Allison shook her head, her jaw clenched shut.
“No? Why not?”
Allison took a step back. “Remember? Parole board, girl. No contact with inmates. We need to be careful."
Luisa stared at her with her hands on her hips. “Are you sure?"
Allison swatted her away. "Yeah, yeah. I’ll manage. You can’t take chances."
"They’re not monitoring my calls. We haven’t even blown this place yet." Luisa said.
"I’m going to miss you. You’ve been a good friend. Eventually, we’ll talk, but now you should go."
Luisa swung her canvas bag over her shoulder. She pulled Allison into a quick hug and whispered a phone number in her ear. "You take care, sister.”
Then she was gone.
Allison tugged and pulled on the spaghetti straps of her floral-patterned summer dress, which now looked oafishly ill-suited to the occasion. In the mirror she saw her ridiculously naive self, who had believed the lie about getting her charts back. She bent over the basin, splashed her face, and raked her frustrated fingers through her messy ginger hair. Digging for a rubber band in her purse, she pushed aside the two twenties from the Department of Corrections—a paltry sum that underscored the fact that, like the mirror, her future was pathetically tarnished.
Her free call went to Ira. She’d had her father’s number in her head since . . . forever. After the beep all she said was: I’m out. No need to explain, because she couldn’t. He had assured her he would pick her up—tomorrow. She’d call later. It was Thursday and he was in court. It would be hours before he would listen to her message and he couldn’t return the call. Although, now he couldn’t blow her off as he usually did, at least not while she was a parolee. The certificate Allison had signed stipulated she would be living at his new place on Long Island, in a "nurturing family home." Except, Ira didn’t do nurturing. Ira did self-reliance. Self-determination was his mantra, which was why the parole board liked him. She could go to his apartment in Manhattan, but the doorman there wouldn’t let an ex-con in without permission. It was that kind of place. Word got out.
Her parole officer, Mavis Washington, would have taken her call, but Allison didn’t like to beg. At twenty-nine years old Allison now had a supervisor—Mavis. It was humiliating. If the PO found out that Allison had not been met by family she would step in, before Allison supposedly fell prey to bad elements on the street. So tough—no call to the PO. In five days, when they would meet again, Allison would show her how well she had adapted. Mavis believed she would be rehabilitated, and that’s the way Allison wanted to keep it—she would make sure she wasn’t on an active parole list. Mavis would be able to confidently assure local police that her parolee was living a law-abiding life.
Allison didn’t need to be reminded: parole was a test, not to be confused with freedom.