The Shelby county jail allowed relatives, friends, well-wishers or whatsoever name they were called to visit inmates once in a week. It was called visiting day. Each inmate had their own visiting day, with their own visiting schedule.
Since the inmates were in for one petty offence or the other, security wasn’t too stringent. Crimes like murder were dealt with at the Memphis city jail.
I and Nina tried our best to be at the jail every week for the visiting day in order to see father. For me, seeing him neither made me feel melancholic or joyous. I felt the same, maybe even angry or just indifferent.
The story was different for Nina, though. The days when we went to see father were Thursdays. Hence, every Thursday I had to be prepared for Nina’s emotional breakdown. She would be excited in the morning of that day, brimming with excitement that she was going to see her father, and then in the evening she would sit sadly outside, bemoaning her poor father’s state, and how she wished for him to be the old father she knew.
I knew that could never happen.
Yet I didn’t want to upset her hopes, I didn’t want to ruin my sisters’ faith in her father, this male figure around which her love centred. I would leave that job to her future husband, fiancé or whatever.
Some man who would fill that father-space.
It was a chilly day in October, just a month away from Thanksgiving. The snow at this time of the year in Memphis made one feel like they lived at the North Pole. It was not unusual to see everyone in trench coats, snowboots and hats, as they fought tooth and nail against the harsh weather.
Another Thursday was here. Nina had just returned from work at the diner where she still worked. She was draped in a heavy set of overalls Bernice had given her when he was here last.
‘Remember we’re going to see Father today’ she announced like the prospect of seeing father was turkey served for breakfast.
‘I haven’t forgotten, Nina. I still have to return to do some more work for Mr Green at his shed. I’d try to be back in time so we could go.’ I replied with fake sympathy.
I returned in time and we went together to the county jail. Upon our arrival, we were met by the Chief Warden who we were familiar with by now. He checked up on our records for Father as he usually did. What surprised me was that he constantly treated us like we weren’t the same pair that came along every Thursday. Another reason I had to hate the white man.
We were handed over to another of the faceless jail officers, who began leading us down a hallway. I was disturbed, because we had just passed the usual place where visitors met with inmates. It was the place where we had always sat to see Father. This place we were going to now, I hadn’t been to these parts of the jail before, and I never even knew they existed. I exchanged a silent look with Nina and her eyes told me she was confused too.
‘Where are we going sir?’ I managed to ask the young officer, whose name tag read ‘Brooke’
No reply. He moved along like he hadn’t heard me. I didn’t bother asking again.
We soon came to an open area. The stench of medications and hospital equipment hit me hard.
We were at the infirmary. Something bad had happened to Father.
I stole a glance at Nina. Her eyes were dilated. She was apparently more worried than I could ever be.
Please let him not be dead. For Nina’s sake.
Dead people are kept in the mortuary, not the infirmary. He is sick then. Or wounded.
We got into the infirmary and Officer Brooke spoke in low tones with a white nurse there. She immediately took notes on the notepad that she held in her hand and led us to the far end of the room. Before we got there, I saw Father. Father wasn’t sick, he was injured.
‘He’s your…?’ the white nurse asked
‘Father’ I answered. Nina was already by his side
‘He was stabbed yesterday in his cell by some cellmate. A brawl of some sort. He’s lucky to be alive. The knife went through and through, didn’t hit any vitals.’
‘What happened exactly?’ I asked
‘I can’t tell. He was brought in here bleeding profusely. He lost a lot of blood and required so much on our part to save him. He’s recovering now. He can talk, at least’
‘Why didn’t anyone try to reach us?’ Nina asked, frantic as she stared at Father, who was sleeping
‘From what I heard, the warden lost your details. Tried to reach you through some other means, but hit a dead end’ she spoke like she had been programmed to say it
‘Can we wake him up?’
‘Feel free. He’s able to talk now. Besides it’s already time for his medications’ she glanced at her watch ‘Don’t just keep him up too long’
We promised not to and she left us with him, saying she would come back soon with his medications.
I looked around the small room that served as the infirmary. Bodies of sick and injured inmates were huddled together. I noticed all the people in here were blacks, and I heaved a sigh. Father was stretched out on a bunk, sleeping. He looked peaceful, different from the drunk I had come to know over the last few years.
Nina shook him lightly, willing him to wake up. He stirred, and with some effort opened his eyes. He winced at the pain that he felt in his abdomen where the stab wound was plastered. He saw us through hazy vision, then as if his mind had just registered we were his children, he rubbed his eyes with one hand and attempted to sit up. Nina held him down.
‘It’s us Father, what happened to you?’ the emotion in her voice could not be hidden
‘The white guy’ he took a short breath ‘In my cell…says we blacks are polluting America, had a thing against all of us.’ He looked from Nina to me ‘I swear, I didn’t make no trouble. I didn’t fight him. I have changed.’
Father had really changed. The person I used to know would not have said ‘the white guy’. He would have used any of the other offensive variants he had cooked up to use when referring to them.
I just kept staring at him
‘We believe you father, we know the white folk are just unbearable. We’d make an application for them to move you to another cell. Who knows what could have happened if you had lost so much blood?’
‘Don’t bother yourself Nina, the white man runs this prison, and they’ll think it overbearing if you make such application. They may even move me to ‘Solitary’. You don’t want that. It is my cross to bear.’
Nina and Father talked for a while as I went off to drop our address again with the Chief warden, though I didn’t so much as believe the story the nurse had told. I also wanted to see if I could get a transfer for Father to another cell. It was the best I could do.
When I returned, he and Nina seemed engrossed in their conversation. He squeezed his daughter’s hand and asked her to excuse us a bit, that he wanted to speak with me.
‘Chap, I want you to get an education’ he said as soon as she was out of earshot.
To say I was shocked would be a ridiculous understatement. Father, who had vehemently opposed us getting an education because he felt the little money we made could be used for something better. Father who had fought with mother because she wanted to send us to school, now saying this?
I wanted to hear some more
‘Get an education, and find Uncle Terry. Find him and make him pay, then stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the white man.’ He peered at me
‘I know how you gave your mother some of your savings when she made plans for you and Bernie to go to school. I know that you love school. Now get an education and find me Terry. He brought all this on us’
At that moment the nurse came with his medication. The jailer boy Brooke came along too. We had to leave.
As I turned to go, I silently wondered if Father knew also that Mr Green had been teaching me to read, and that I had started saving to get into evening English classes at Memphis High. I wondered also if he knew that I had since begun my search for Uncle Terry. I even had leads. As for the white folks, let them just wait.