Brenner’s mother used to restore old dolls—specifically, American compo dolls. Madame Alexander, Amberg. One of her last memories of her mother must have been of a Sunday afternoon, the day she would invite Brenner to stand at the sink with her and watch while she worked. It was such a careful process. The doll would be covered in plastic wrap so it wouldn’t get wet. Each strand of hair was massaged in the soapy water, then brushed with a metal comb. She’d fill cracks, airbrush their faces, paint their eyes and mouths, so gentle, and her strokes clean, but then she’d scuff them. “No one wants a doll that looks new.” The dolls were sent to her in the mail. She cared for them as if they were the owners’ children. Brenner always wanted to play with them, but it was her mother’s work, and she wouldn’t have dared. In this memory, maybe the last before breast cancer took her, her mother took the green out of a doll’s mohair wig, then made up the doll with charcoal eyebrows and magenta cheeks, and though Brenner couldn’t remember her mother’s face well from that day, the doll’s remained with her.
Inside the property room, Brenner was changing out a junkie, pupils pointed down, thick red lipstick cracked and smeared, still groggy from whatever she’d swallowed or stuck in her arm before her arrest. The woman was young—younger than Brenner, and Brenner was twenty-five. Lt. Hobson called her a whippersnapper, though she didn’t think he knew what it meant. Nashua had scooped up six women in a prostitution ring, and Brenner was sure to spend her entire break searching holes for bags.
“Fishhook your cheeks,” Brenner explained, miming the action. “Straighten up. I said straighten up. With your fingers. Fishhook.”
The new admit was nude, her skin bruised in all sorts of places, deep blue marks in her armpits. She stumbled and caught herself against the brick wall, then leaned there. Behind her were shelves of bagged and boxed inmate property: shoes, jewelry, clothes, suits dropped off by loved ones or good lawyers for court. The whole room smelled like wet sneakers. There was a shower where the inmates rinsed, like at a public pool. They’d dry off and get walked through the unclothed search procedure. Other than the Bubble on Max, which was a boys’ club for male officers to pack dips and nap, Property was the only room not under video surveillance.
“Hon, you need to get this over with,” Brenner said. Brenner took the few steps that were between them and helped the woman stand up. “I’m going to inspect your mouth. Then I’m going to bend you over at the waist and check you. Can you do this with me?”
The inmate nodded, her dry tongue between her crusted lips. Brenner had been working at the jail for a year and had learned a lot about people. How bad people’s teeth could get. The inmates—the hookers and women with gangrene arms—their teeth could get rocklike, gravelly.
The inmate’s breath smelled like cigarettes. Brenner grabbed her around the waist with her left arm and pushed her into a bow with her other hand. The inmate let all her weight collapse in Brenner’s grasp and her arms hung limp. Brenner struggled to hold her up. She spread her feet to get a stronger stance, then inspected the inmate’s vagina and anus as respectfully as one could.
Brenner was the only female officer on first shift. Radio calls all day: “Brenner, 10-11 Property.” Tully was the property officer, but as a policy men couldn’t change out the women. Strip searches gave Brenner an affinity for the inmates. She didn’t like that. She wanted to be hard on them. But if one was in distress, or agitated, the male officers would call her down to U1 or Booking, and she’d be expected to calm them. The male officers were never expected to calm anyone. They’d move right past verbal de-escalation and straight to force, and they could mistake Brenner’s professionalism for sympathy. The men called her an inmate hugger. And maybe she could be guilty of sympathizing with them. Some were pregnant, or thought they might be, or missed the children they had. But sympathy inside the House was a weakness. She thought of her father. He couldn’t understand her decision to work at the House. “You’re obviously trying to prove something,” he’d said, working over his eggs and Tabasco, “but they’re going to eat you alive.” Did he say that? It felt like something he’d say. No one had eaten her alive. She’d look in the mirror before muster each morning and say, “Fuck you.” Best softball pitcher in Merrimack Valley history. Dominated in D1. Graduated summa cum laude in criminal justice. Signed on at Securitas and patrolled the old mills now turned apartments. Bided her time for a real law enforcement job. Where did he expect her to work? It was always going to be a badge.
Outside the Property Room, Tully took over and escorted the inmate to the large holding tank. Tully was stocky, prominent brow with black hair combed to the right. He lent Brenner his leather gloves when she had to dig into pockets, would sometimes tell her, when an inmate seemed strange or agitated or drunk, “I’ll be right outside this door if you need me.” She never did need him, didn’t need coddling. Or the other way, the male officers who raised their voices, postured, pushed her aside. It took her most of her first year to figure out how to be. She requested a bigger, baggier uniform. She stopped smiling and saying thank you to officers who held doors for her, wrote more D-tickets for violations of 3.1 of the inmate handbook, Disrespect to Officer. As much as she wanted a drink after work, she didn’t join the first shifters at Willie’s.
Tully was married. She looked forward to their interactions each day. They shared a sick-humored small talk. He’d ask her how the fish market was today. She’d tell him clammy. He’d laugh and spit cherry Skoal juice into his cup, tell her the girls in the tank asked if she was single. “You be the judge. If they’re cute…” she’d say. He looked forward to seeing her too, she knew. He was the kind of officer who treated the job as a penalty, but he perked up whenever she came into Property.
When Tully came back from the holding tank, Brenner was digging through a trash bag, attempting to fulfill a request from an inmate on U9 who wanted his court clothes released to his mother for dry cleaning, a common request.
“You’re a perfect soft-ass with the inmates,” he said.
“I was sick of looking at her scabs.”
“You doing my job now?” Tully asked, and picked up the inmate request form off the counter.
“I can’t find the forty-five hundreds. You’d think they’d be right after the forty-fours.”
“It’s like some shitbag taught you how to work the room,” he said.
He’d shown her the CCN groupings, the specific bags that held certain items: black bags for suits and coats, boxes for shoes and jewelry, trash bags for any other clothing. She found the system crude, but it worked for Tully and there was no reason for him to change it. After a few days, he’d begun to quiz her. He’d call out a CCN and she’d walk to the grouping, find the bag or box, and pull out the item requested. She was excited by how easily she picked it up. It wasn’t difficult, but she didn’t want to look stupid in front of Tully—or show him up by making it look too easy. She would play dumb, grab the wrong bag, ask him for a hint.
Now she was searching in the wrong spot. She only had one strip-out, and she wanted to linger a bit. “Can you help me?”
“You don’t need to do this anyways,” he said. “But I’ll help. You’re six or seven feet in the wrong direction.”
Tully walked behind her down the line of bags and pointed to where she should have been. “Here,” he said. “Since you insist, I’m going to get lunch.”
After he left, Brenner wanted to call him back. She abandoned the search and left to return to her unit. She walked down the west hallway toward the elevators outside Central Control and listened to the chatter on the radio, officers calling for doors to be opened, Hobson putting out a call for overtime takers to no response, it being a Saturday. She stayed close to the wall and walked upright, knowing she was being watched by the two officers in Central, most likely making comments about her demeanor or if they would bang her. The male officers were judged by their size: the big ones were dumb; the skinny ones were pussies. Pigs.
She took the elevator alone, then walked down the second floor east hallway, through the sliding doors, and entered U4’s sally port, a small enclosure surrounded by windows. There was an outer magnetized locking door to get in the port, then another into the unit. The first door secured behind her. Through the windows, she could see Menser, her partner on the unit, idling on the mezzanine, watching the inmates lift weights. The inner door wouldn’t unlock until he strolled down to the control panel and let her in. But the door had some give so she ripped at the handle, enough to force the magnet to bang it back shut. Nothing from Menser. An inmate sat inside the door at the first dayroom table and watched her. He had a hairy mole on his chin, tattooed neck, bedhead. She banged the door again. Menser noticed her but wasn’t budging. She returned Mole Face’s stare and, in the air, drew a 3 1. He rubbed his groin. The minute she got on the floor, Mole Face was getting locked in. But her eyes combed the dayroom, and she saw more men staring. And now she was stuck in the sally port, smothered by the weight of all the stares. Couldn’t write them all up. It triggered a feeling inside, like she was a model for them, an animated magazine cutout. She’s seen their jerk-off material: Victoria’s Secret catalogues, photos from chubby girlfriends, escort ads from the phonebook, newspaper clippings. They could get off to anything, and they were staring to pack away her body for later. Recently, when she’d left the Property Room, she had stood outside the door and put her ear to it. After only a few seconds, she’d heard Tully turn the radio on to sports talk. She could hear long zippers and then boxes tumble, like he was rushing.
End of October. A month of Brenner’s visits to Property. It was yet another New England fall that could be mistaken for winter, the air damp and cold. Tully had become less talkative. Brenner decided to tell him about her curb shopping. When driving through Nashua and Hudson, she would pull her RAV4 over when she noticed furniture left on someone’s curb that looked like something she could work with: armoires, desks, dressers, pub tables, stools and chairs, whatever was small enough to cram into the trunk. At home after shifts, she would change into an old T-shirt and jeans. The carpeted floor in the second bedroom was covered with a tan canvas drop cloth, spattered with a year’s worth of work. Her joy was in the sanding and painting and staining, she told him; repurposing something someone else no longer had any use for. In the apartment, her coffee table was an antique chest. The two side tables next to her couch were wooden chicken crates. The bookshelf in her bedroom was three coffee tables stacked on each other, stained chestnut. She didn’t tell Tully about her mother’s dolls, how sometimes she asked her dead mother if the finished product looked all right.
They were searching bags and laying out the day’s court transit attire. It was early, and Tully sipped from his coffee cup. He closed his eyes before each sip, like he was afraid of the heat. He didn’t say anything about her hobby. His pleated pants were tight on his thighs. He hadn’t shaved in days.
In the way of Tully’s happiness seemed to be his marriage, but he would never say. It could be as simple as falling out of love with his wife, trying to keep her happy in the aftermath. Or maybe he had never loved his wife. Brenner watched him over her shoulder. She liked watching him, with his arms at his side boyishly, smiling, his hair loose from the part and curled down his forehead. And then he turned and looked at her like so many of the inmates did.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Don’t make this something.”
“You started it,” he said, and moved back to the bags.
She had her reasons for not wanting to get involved with Tully. There is no worse person than a man who’s received what he’s been aching for. She remembered Dylan from high school, his bony body, his weed-smelling hair, his disregard for the power she had given him. She slept with him on Saturday and Sunday of that weekend in a tiny beach cottage, and his proud casualness made her want to forget his spit, the taste of cinnamon liquor, the laughter outside the bedroom door. Dylan disappointed her, not in the usual first-time way. She was new and he was seasoned, had a method during sex that was practiced. And he was rough and adamant on coming on her breasts, her neck.
She needed to change the subject. “I once found a gun rack, more like a cabinet. It had a glass window in the door and the glass was spidered with a hole the size of a fist,” she said.
He pulled down a box and slid it across the brown-and-white-checkered floor toward her feet.
“Farquhar is requesting his silver wedding band,” he said. “It should be in there.”
Brenner rummaged through: a rough-bristled comb, a gold chain, a leather wallet torn on the seam, held together by a safety pin.
“It’s funny. No, it isn’t. I mean it’s funny that you fix stuff up. Trash. I’ve imagined what you do outside of here but I’d never imagined that.”
She kept looking in the box but stopped searching for the ring.
“I mud wrestle in bars,” she said. “I’m a shopaholic. I go to movies alone, but I buy two tickets so the teller doesn’t think I’m weird.”
“Not like that,” he said. “I imagine you making coffee in the morning. What TV shows you watch at night. If we’re watching the same thing.” He unzipped a black property bag, then stood still in front of it.
“I could be guilty of thinking about you,” Brenner said.
She bent back down and ran her hands through the box. She heard him walk toward her and she kept her back to him. Though she was pretty certain he was going to kiss her, it might still be a gag, and when she turned he would be wearing underwear on his head. But he put his hand on her shoulder and she stood up and he turned her and he kissed her. The turn was forceful, so was the stubble on his chin against her chin. He kept on her like he wanted to get the most out of the kiss before she pushed him off. But she did not push him. She held her eyes shut and he turned his chin and continued the kiss on the other side of her mouth. His aftershave and deodorant were both a cool spicy wintergreen. When she felt his chest against hers, then his excitement against her, she pulled away. He pulled her back and kissed her again and his hand went to her breast, then to her neck. His hands were strong. They untucked each other’s shirts and Brenner started to unbutton Tully’s. He pulled himself out and she touched him and he put his hand down her pants and touched her.
“No,” she said, turning her face.
He kept rubbing her, kissing her neck.
“I know. I know.”
He turned from her and fixed his uniform.
He said, “I’ve never done this before.”
Brenner didn’t want to allow him the satisfaction. She wanted to leave the building and stand outside and breathe.
Back in U4, Menser seemed annoyed at the length of her absence, all intentional huffs and groans. She feared she smelled like Tully, her sense of smell heightened by awareness, like when she hid her cigarettes from her father. But Menser didn’t look back at her, just bent into the control panel, opened the inner door 4018A, and let himself off the unit for lunch.
The toothless new admit stood before her in a ragged pink Juicy Couture shirt, silver-jeweled, ripped Juicy jeans, and high winter boots.
“Show me your hands. Good. Wiggle your fingers. Now run them through your hair. Mouth. What’s that?”
“A tongue ring.”
Brenner had started to dread the searches, maybe more than the inmates. She hated the monotony of ceremony, the stripping down of another woman to nothing. There, in their nakedness, Brenner could make them feel violated, feel any number of ways.
“You need to remove the ring,” Brenner said and held out her gloved hand.
The woman fumbled with the rod but got it out. After she placed it on Brenner’s hand, a string of saliva hung from the inmate’s fingers to Brenner’s. The inmate shook her hand, disconnecting the two of them, and wiped the saliva on her leg.
After dismissing the inmate, sending her back to the tank in booking to await her transport, Brenner waited in the Property Room for Tully. All those black trash bags of dirty clothes, last worn by people losing their freedom.
Tully came in and quickly looked away from her.
The first week in November, Menser’s mother died. Brenner had worked with him for a few months, and it was the custom anyway to attend any wakes regardless of how well you knew another officer. The day of, she put on a dress she hadn’t worn in a long time, not since starting at the jail, and straightened her hair.
But she rushed through the funeral home and the wake, suddenly aware that seeing Tully with his wife was a possibility. Tully had made her feel wrong and not herself. And now, on her short drive home through Nashua, she decided she wouldn’t let him make her feel that way.
The late afternoon sun glinted off the cars parked along the sides of roads. Brenner glanced at curbside freebies: a lawn mower, a toy kitchen, a mattress leaned against a chain-link fence. At a red light, she noticed a bench with a cracked laundry basket on top filled with paint cans. On the next block she pulled over, and in her black dress and heels walked back down the street for the bench. The wind blew heavily, leaves twisted past her. The traffic at the light was stopped, and she tried not to think about the people watching her. She placed the laundry basket on the sidewalk. It was a Santa Fe-style bench, a child’s bench. She dragged it, walking backward, feeling the vibration of pine on cement. When she reached the crossover, she heaved the bench clumsily into the trunk.
When Brenner worked on pieces, she took her time. She sanded off the name Abigail in red paint from the yellow pine, driving her shoulder and wrist into the bench along the grain, the bottom of the g giving her the most resistance, each stroke taking off more layers, deeper into wood.
When she was done sanding and stripping it, she decided to paint it a bright red. It took her two hours for the first coat. While it dried, with a dust mask hanging from her ears, she sat at her computer table, a Chatelet writing desk she’d bought at an estate sale in Salem for eleven dollars. She ran her fingers over the wood. She could make money doing this. She looked over her accent chest, its curved legs, the ginkgo-leaf pulls she’d taken such care with. The Biedermeier armchair. The maple dough box end table. That had taken her most of February. But what kind of career was that? Releasing something you worked so hard on? Carrying Officer Kelley on her back up six flights of stairs during the academy, not quitting, not crying, though she’d wanted to, meant something. Her swollen thighs after hundreds of prisoner squats. Being pepper-sprayed in the showers. Captain Dixon’s face when he pinned the badge on her chest, how she knew he never thought she’d be beside him on the podium.
She searched Facebook for Joe Tully, and on his profile page clicked on Married to Kathy Gaudette-Tully. Tully’s wife had a chubby face, brown hair, a profile picture that cropped her out from the neck down.
The next night, the bench dry with two proper coats in the back, Brenner drove toward 10 Hanover Road, easily found on BeenVerified, a website she hadn’t known existed. Hanover was a dead-end turnoff from Miles Road, which ran all the way back into Massachusetts and north right up to the jail. Brenner found the house, drove past it, spun around the cul-de-sac. She looked for any signs of activity, but it was cold and dark and Tully was probably putting his kids to bed or helping with homework, fumbling over math problems. Or maybe the kids were really young, she didn’t even know, and Tully was making love to Kathy while thinking about Brenner. Tully could just be doing dishes, or watching TV with his feet up, biting his fingernails because he couldn’t dip in front of the kids. Or maybe Tully was the kind of father who could dip in front of the kids. A master of his home.
She pulled along the front lawn, which was lined with a dozen filled leaf bags. Brenner was a hiccup, a reprieve from Tully’s domestic indigestion. With the car running, she got out and pulled the bench from the trunk, dragged it slowly so as not to make a sound, and abandoned it in the center of Tully’s lawn.
Brenner kept her distance from Tully for the next couple of weeks. She still saw him every day during her shift, but she did the strip searches and then went back to her unit. He didn’t prod her or hang around outside the room when she left.
Then in December, Lt. Hobson approached her before a shift and asked her if she could reacclimate Officer Tully to unit work.
“I noticed he taught you the Property Room,” Hobson said.
Brenner must’ve looked odd because Hobson said, “You signed off on some property request forms.”
“Sure,” she said. “No problem, sir.”
On the unit, Brenner took the lead. She took the radio, did the head count, and wrote out the opening log. Tully walked around, peered into the showers, fiddled with a pair of nail clippers that had been broken for some time. He was quiet, nodded to Brenner at times, refused to make eye contact. He alphabetized the inmate ID tags. Outside the Property Room, he looked new and unsure, like a freshly booked inmate.
Brenner didn’t need a lot of help. It wasn’t like there were heavy bangers up on U4. And she had been there for six months, knew every inch of the triangular two-tiered unit. She could rattle off all of the sixty-eight inmate bunk assignments from memory, started to remember laundry bag numbers, surprised herself when things she hadn’t even tried to memorize popped into her head when needed. “Inmate Hanes? Bottom bunk, cell 17. Bad back. Upper bunk restriction. I believe he’s in the shower.”
At lunch she asked Officer O’Brien what was going on with Tully’s move. O’Brien told her Tully’s marriage problems had proceeded to an ugly divorce. He’d recently gotten his third DUI, maybe a week or so ago. If O’Brien had to guess, one DUI was a mistake, the third a career killer. She wanted to un-hear the news. She didn’t see Tully as a drinker. She couldn’t really imagine what he was.
At least Menser hadn’t put up with catcalls. It was as easy a D-ticket as they come, easy even for him, and they all had to make the monthly quota Hobson had laid down. Brenner kept her 3.1 D-tickets colorful, made sure to get the exact wording. Bitch gives me porn dick. Tully was so checked out, he didn’t write any tickets, and it was hard for Brenner to write up each infraction. But there were more important tasks than a handful of tickets: chow, cleaning details, nurse call, programs, pat downs, cell searches. It was starting to be too much for her to handle alone. She would normally call out each asshole, knowing if she let one get away with it, she’d be back to the beginning.
After making a routine round, poking her head into a few cells, she gloved up and approached Tully and told him she needed assistance searching 2327. He followed her up the metal stairs. The unit was active with dominoes and TV, showers and phones. Inside the cell, they began searching, left to right, top to bottom.
“I’m losing control of the unit,” she said as she flipped through sheets of paper from the desk cubby. “I need a partner.”
“There’s nothing in this cell but crispy socks,” he said.
“I’m not playing around.” She stopped searching. “What is this, punishment?”
“What did you do that was wrong?”
Brenner left Tully in the cell.
The next morning, she ironed one of her older, tighter uniform shirts. She put on a light coat of blush, some eyeliner. In muster, she kept her head down, hoping Hobson wouldn’t call her out. No makeup. No piercings. Jail bun, that’s all. She walked down to the unit with Tully next to her, and he didn’t say anything. The silence between them had gone on so long that it was comforting. But if she didn’t say something now, they’d be on the unit, in front of the inmates, and it’d be another day she’d.… She stopped him with her arm.
“I’m sorry about everything happening to you,” she said.
Tully took a deep breath. “It’s happening because of me.”
They were standing outside the unit outer door. The hallway was quiet; the artificial lighting above them faint; the walls bricked and bare.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” she said. “But it can’t be good for you to keep this up.”
He looked around but not at her, like he was anxious. “What about you? What are you doing?” he asked. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”
He turned and pushed the door open into the sally port. She followed him. After head count, with the doors unsecured, she made her rounds. Inside an empty cell, she dropped her hair down into a ponytail. The inmates let her pass carefully; she didn’t need to turn around to know they turned to watch her walk on. A few seemed unsure. Some of the older ones gave her disapproving looks from their tables. Back at the officer station from her round she saw Tully watching her, crossing and uncrossing his arms with an uncomfortable shifting of shoulders on the wall, like he couldn’t find a good side to sleep on.
During noon lockdown and head count, she told Tully to go to lunch break first. Partners switched off, and she’d gone first the day before. She sat down at the table in front of the officer station. Instead of going on break, Tully came over and sat with her.
The unit was quiet except for some toilets flushing, then an occasional laugh from a cell. The unit always smelled terrible after lunch. The inmates claimed the food was laced with laxatives. Tully sat across from her and he laid his hands out on the table.
“I wouldn’t take back what I did,” he said.
He looked at the clock on the far wall. His sadness was enough to make her afraid for him. She couldn’t understand the way he let his face get, close to collapsing into a sob. The silence of the unit was everywhere around them but not between them. She wasn’t against him. If they weren’t on the unit, if they were anywhere else, she’d put her hand out. She imagined doing it.
His chin was tucked into his clip-on tie. He still wouldn’t look at her. She wanted to be back in the Property Room.
“Did you happen to see Wilkerson fall coming down the stairs?” she asked.
He laughed. “I did. Poor bastard’s leg keeps getting worse.”
“It’s like his leg stutters.”
He laughed again and this time looked up. His mouth was natural again, lips spread out, cheeks heightening. His eyes were squinted and raw, like he’d been in a dark room and someone turned a light on him.
“Maybe he’s running out of batteries,” he said.
She checked her watch.
“You left that bench on my grass,” he said. “My daughter thinks it was the tooth fairy. She’s got it up in her room.”
“The tooth fairy has it too easy. No work and all the credit.”
“You should go to break. Wash up.”
“I’m not done yet.”
Head count cleared over the intercom, and they both stood and walked to the officer station. The inmates opened their doors, came out, sat at dayroom tables for TV watching; some pulled off their shirts and started pulling at the weights, others circled the officer station and control panel, eyeing the partners.
Brenner rolled down the cover of the control panel, slowly bent at her waist, grasped the long silver handle with a deliberately tender grip, looked up and smiled toward a group of inmates sitting at a table.
Inmate Robinson, under his breath but loud enough for her to hear, said, “I want a bite of that.”
Brenner straightened and looked at Tully. He walked out from behind the control panel and stood in front of Robinson.
“A bite of what?” Tully asked.
“I didn’t say nothin’.”
“Too pussy to say it again?”
Robinson pretended to watch TV. Brenner knew where this ended, and she wasn’t about to stop it. She saw life in Tully. She wanted him to have this moment.
“That’s what I thought. Lock in, inmate,” Tully said.
Robinson shook his head. “It wasn’t me.”
“You have two seconds. Lock the fuck in.”
Robinson sat tilted on a stool, leaning on the table. Inmates were hanging over the railing on the top tier; some had come halfway down the stairs. Tully pointed up to the crowd, told them to get the fuck off the stairs. He had his hands out in front of him, his sleeves tight around his biceps, his chest squared on Robinson. Brenner held her hand over the radio mic clipped on her shoulder. She knew she wouldn’t need to make a call. But she didn’t want to seem like a bystander.
Robinson slowly got up and walked up the stairs and stood in the threshold of his cell, 13. Tully walked backward to the panel, and, without looking away from Robinson, unrolled the cover and released cell 13 from its lock. Robinson closed the door in front of him. Tully turned to Brenner and winked at her. He rolled the cover back up and then he made a round with long strides, the inmates letting him pass with enough space for two of him.
David Moloney is the author of the forthcoming novel Barker House, and the recipient of the Lynn Safford Memorial Prize. He worked in the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections in New Hampshire from 2007 to 2011.
Image: “Prison Cell Entrance.” From The Smithsonian.http://si.edu/object/prison-cell-entrance:chndm_1978-146-520