Rocky Hirajeta

Poems and Penitence

Written in response to the following from Reedy’s story prompts: “Write a story about someone looking to make amends for a mistake.”

Juvie wasn’t hell.

It was bearable. Barely. Everyone—her momma and her sister and kids from school who’d never given a damn about her before—had approached her with shining eyes and earnest voices, telling her to be careful, keep her head down, don’t get on anyone’s bad side. Like it was a state penitentiary or somethin and not Poskins County Junior Jail.

Junior Jail wasn’t the real name. Duh. But juvenile was a juvenile word and detention sounded too much like school. Like they were in time-out.

It was time out, all right. Time out from her classes, which was okay the first couple days, until she started to miss them too; time out from home, her bed, her window-side succulents and her stupid poetry; and time out from her sister Marla, from her momma. Like she hadn’t endured enough of that already.

State penitentiary. That was a good one. Did she feel penitent? Was she sorry? Alynn figured she should. After all, she’d broken the law, and her civics teacher Mr. Rook always said the law was the foundation of all human rights, or some other nonsense.

But wasn’t the people’s safety the most important law? She’d heard that somewhere too, or a thing like it.

Anyway, it didn’t matter what she thought because she was here, and like her momma said about stubborn things, she couldn’t change it for all the wishin in the world.

Had she bent the rules? Had she hurt people? Yes, she guessed so.

But she was here, and Alynn had weeks to learn what penitence felt like. Three weeks until the trial.

“Man, if you don’t get yo fat butt out the way.”

Alynn heard this so much, she didn’t even notice that this time, it was directed at her. She wasn’t fat—woulda never thought so, anyway—but everyone became a fat butt as soon as they were on The Inside. In this side of juvie (she never saw the boys’ side, nuh-uh, no sir), “fat” was the cruelest insult girls could think of, and they hurled it often.

Funny, the girl saying it now had such a deep and slow voice, the words rolled off her lips like thick drops of honey. Fa’ bu’. Alynn tried not to laugh, just kept moving down the lunch line for some cornbread, which was about the only thing worth eating today.

The girl wrapped her hand around Alynn’s arm, making her tray jerk. The plastic spoon clattered to the floor.

Alynn turned back. “Why’d you do that?”

The tall girl—who Alynn remembered was named Breyanna—had two shoulder-length braids and the kinda jaw you wanna punch. “’Cause you wasn’t listenin,” she said in her drawn-out speak. “I said get yo’ butt out the w—”

“I’m in line. I’ll get outta line when I’m done.” She had never hit anyone, but as she looked at Breyanna, she could imagine digging a good one into her. The sound her teeth would make clapping together would be mighty satisfying.

“You done now.”

“Ain’t,” Alynn countered, as the lunch lady piled on overcooked green beans.

Faster than you could blink, Breyanna tipped her tray over, spilling it onto the floor, over Alynn’s white shoes. “Guess that’s what happens to fat, slow butts.”

Alynn looked around the cafeteria. None of the girls looked her way. And she knew the guards were far enough that they could pretend they didn’t see anything either.

Breyanna had stepped around her and was getting her own tray filled. But she threw a look back as Alynn knelt to pick up her tray, an evil grin.

She imagined whacking Breyanna in her right eye. In her mind, she leaned in, hocking a big loogie onto her food. But instead of these things, she felt her eyes welling up. “I don’ know why you did that. I was only gettin my lunch.”

Breyanna ignored her, but Alynn kept at it.

“You think ’cause you’re tall and mean, you get to go first in line? That don’ make no sense. It ain’t fair. You know that, right? Hello? It ain’t what’s fair.”

The other girl just gave Alynn another look, less mocking and more pitying. “You in here, and you still waitin for things to be fair? Nah. Get real.”

Alynn made herself move. She still had to eat.

I should’ve punched her right in her stupid face, Alynn told herself some time later, when she had space to think things over. She was always saying this, resolving to fight back next time. Only she never did. Maybe she didn’t have the violence in her, even here. It hadn’t rubbed off.

She’d always known she was different from other folk, even if she couldn’t say how. But she still couldn’t understand how people could be so mean. Breaking the rules for no good reason.

Juvie had a program called “Hands That Hold.” First, Alynn thought it was one of those optional things, but later she realized it was required. She didn’t want to go holding anyone’s hand. Only that wasn’t what it was about, not really. It was kinda like group therapy, or support group, or one of those anonymous meetings her momma went to—only for a few weeks—when Alynn was ten.

They assigned you one of the time slots through the day, and she hadn’t gone yet, but through the grapevine she’d gathered that everyone talked about what they did to get here. Only they didn’t say crime. That word was basically illegal in the meetings. They liked the word choice; everything was a Negative Choice or a Positive one. Alynn didn’t think life was so black-and-white, but she knew than to voice that opinion.

She didn’t want to talk about her choices with these people, but she knew she had to do something, so she’d started throwing together a little poem. Just like all her other ones, it had seemed better in her head than after she’d written it, but she would still rather this than spout answers out of nowhere.

When Alynn sat in one of the cushy blue couches—there were six of them, all arranged in a circle—Miss Pryor gave a small speech.

“Remember, you’re all here because of a choice you made. Blaming someone else or feeling victimized is pointless and is only going to stop you from growing. It begins with being honest about that choice, examining it, learning from it. Then, once you leave, this place will be more than a blip on your radar. It’ll be where you underwent tremendous change and growth.”

Alynn liked Miss Pryor fine, with her pearl earrings, short crochet curls, sleek blue-and-violet outfit, but she was talking some B.S. In a cause-and-effect kind of way, Alynn had made a choice and the choice led her to juvie, but she didn’t like all this about her taking on the blame. It didn’t feel right.

Alynn was staring down at the tiled floor when she realized everyone had stopped talking. When she looked up, they were all staring at her. Miss Pryor had asked her something. “Huh? What’s the question?”

“I said, what’s your name?” she said in that gracious voice of hers. “Is it your first time with us?”

Like they were in a yoga class or somethin.

“Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “Yeah. Alynn.”

“Alynn, welcome.”

Everyone said hi, all quiet.

“Thanks.” She wished she could go back to staring at the floor.

“Would you like to share with us, Alynn?”

“No. No, thanks.” Her poem wasn’t done anyway.

“Are you sure? Just a little bit will do. Tell us about yourself.”

Alynn told them about Harver High, her friend Gerry who was as goofy as they come, her sister Marla and how she loved Looney Tunes, and her own amateur poetry.

“Poetry, you said? Did you bring any with you? We would love to hear some.”

“Maybe next time,” Alynn muttered. She could just imagine everyone laughing.

And after that, Miss Pryor left her alone.

The best and worst part about juvie was Alynn got her own room. Good, because at lights-out, she could escape the other girls and not hear fat butt or any of the rest; bad, because she got real lonely. At home, she shared a room with Marla, one bed on each wall. Her sister passed out early, but Alynn would wake up at least once a night. It had been nice to look over and see Marla’s sleeping face, and it hurt to not see it here.

There were visiting times, one hour each day and two three-hour slots on the weekend. Alynn’s momma was busy working two jobs, so she didn’t get to come much, but Alynn tried to stay in touch with letters. Her first one was short, describing the place and telling her it wasn’t too bad and not to worry, that she would be home soon. Her momma’s reply was even shorter: nothing, no response. Alynn kept writing though, and her second one went into more detail, talking about Breyanna and Hands that Hold.

Then, on the second Saturday, Alynn had visitors.

In the recess yard, Alynn was sitting on a bench by the half-court, working on her poem when a shadow fell over her. She looked up, blinking in the sun.

“Delacott?” the guard said. “Alynn? Someone here to see you.”

Alynn followed into the air conditioning and down the long hallway, turning toward the front and the visitors’ area. It wasn’t like you see in jails. No dividing glass or phones, just tables and chairs and ugly lighting. But a dozen guards made sure no one got rowdy.

Alynn’s momma and Marla were sitting there, but they stood when she walked in. Alynn didn’t know what to do.

“Alynn!” Marla rushed around the table and hugged her tight around the middle. She felt like crying but she couldn’t, somehow.

Her momma spoke up. “Hey there, sugar-bean.” Alynn didn’t know what a sugar-bean was, but she’d always liked how it sounded coming from her momma’s lips.

“Hey, Momma.” Her voice was quiet.

Marla let go now, her face shining up at her big sister. “Miss you. When you comin back?”

Alynn ran a hand through Marla’s long cornrows and tried to smile. “Soon, booger.”

Marla laughed and started picking a fake booger now, to mess with her.

Alynn couldn’t remember the last time her momma had stared so long. “Alynn, I …” She swallowed. “I’m sorry you in here, baby. I’m so sorry.”

“What you sorry for?” Alynn said, sharper than she meant to. “Ain’t your fault.”

Marla was going on and on about some new show she was watching, and Alynn wanted to listen, but all she could do was lean in toward her momma’s face and catch her quiet words.

“I shoulda seen what was happenin, shoulda stopped you, but I—”

“Momma, you couldn’ta stopped it, you know that. It’s me who did it.”

“But if I just worked harder, tried more, I—”

“Stop it.” The force in her voice surprised her.

Tears slipped down her momma’s face, and she didn’t bother to wipe them. Alynn hated that it made her think of sweat, of hard work. “Baby, it’s just …. Seein you in this get-up”—she gestured at the light-blue coverall all the juvies wore—“it’s ’bout more than I can take. It ain’t right.”

“No. It ain’t,” said Alynn. “But you can’t change it, and neither can I.” When her momma said nothing, Alynn knelt down to Marla. “Now you take care of momma while I’m here, aight? And eat all your food, every bite. I’ll be back ’fore you can blink.”

When Alynn went to Hands that Hold three days later, a different group greeted her.

Breyanna was there.

Someone named Darren finished telling them about tagging a bank downtown with High Intrest for Crooks, and Miss Pryor turned to Alynn.

“So—Alynn, right? We would all love to hear from you. Did you say you had written something? Anything you’d like to share today?”

Hell no, she wouldn’t. But Alynn took the folded sheet of paper from inside her coverall, the one she’d looked over a million times last night, and cleared her throat—

“We don’t wanna hear from no crybaby,” shouted Breyanna suddenly.

Alynn threw her a poisonous look, her face feeling like an allergic reaction.

“Excuse me, Breyanna,” said Miss Pryor before anything could happen. “We don’t speak to each other that way here. This is a place of respect. Everyone deserves to be heard, including Alynn.”

Breyanna scoffed, but sat back, her long legs spread wide like she was home on the couch, arms folded. Alynn tried to ignore her, but the paper was shaking in her hands.

“Wasn’t sure what to say,” she said softly, “so I wrote this poem. Might make sense to y’all. Or maybe not.” She gave a half-shrug.

Alynn had never been the biggest reader, but poetry she soaked up with ease: Rita Dove, Alice Walker, Angelou, and Langston Hughes, but also Sylvia Plath and some older ones.

This was her clumsy attempt.

She cleared her throat, moistening her lips.

Thou shalt not steal, they say

But sometimes rules get blurry

Hard to read, the letters hurry

The sound muffled—

Someone speaking from the next room

Or whispering them

They tumble in your brain and let go of each other

They become separate, don’t make sense no more

Rules are here to protect us—

Ain’t they?

Well, protect who? Protect me? Protect you?

Protect the little girl who’s missing her food?

The man on the corner who’s missing a tooth?

Nah, that ain’t right

I said it ain’t right

That if a momma gets a little more cash

The money from the food is gone just as fast

As you can blink

And all the wishin in the world can’t bring it back

Sister longs for her favorite snacks

It’s an attack against the spirit

All she wants is to eat, you can hear it

In her stomach

Rumbling in the night

She got food but it’s the kind no one likes

You lay awake and the shadows of nighttime

Pass over you like secrets

And the rules don’t feel like protection no more

They feel like chains

So you break them and you run to the store

You don’t clean the place out

Just a snack or two

A loaf of bread, a gallon of tea

A few of sister’s favorite things

You make a mistake but it don’t feel like one

Feels like caring for the one you love

Drawing from a well and giving her a drink

The rules don’t protect me, and they don’t protect you

When you break the chains, they slither back

And wrap around you, draw you close

Into the darkness

Don’t matter what you meant

Don’t matter what you thought

All that matter’s the rules, and they ain’t going nowhere

Alynn looked up. No one said a thing for a long time, not even Breyanna.

A week later, Alynn went to her trial. An adjudication, they called it. There wasn’t a jury or anything, but there was a lawyer with her, a white lady with sleek black hair.

They named her crimes, and everyone gave statements. The room chilled her arms, and Alynn kept looking back at her momma and Marla sitting there, and they would smile and wave, like she was onstage at school doing a play.

Finally it was her turn. She stood and looked at the judge, trying to block all the images from juvie, the ones of Breyanna and everyone with their namecalling, from her mind.

A breath in, a breath out.

“I did commit a crime. I stole food from Henry’s Grocery, two blocks down from our apartment. It was late at night, and I did it.

“I’ve been thinkin ’bout if I would do it again, if I did the right thing. I never stole a thing before in my life, you know? Never. Never hit anyone, nothing. Momma had food stamps, but she got a promotion at one job. Only we didn’t realize it would put her havin just too much money. Too much for the government. So the stamps went away, and we still weren’t rich, so it was back to rice and beans, pasta. No more steaks or nothin. Marla’s little, she couldn’t understand. Maybe I was imagining it, but she seemed sadder then. Hungrier, every night.

“I couldn’t stand it. So I went to Henry’s and took some stuff. All these weeks, I’ve had people telling me that I couldn’t do that, it wasn’t right. Even had Miss Pryor saying it was a Negative Choice. But it didn’t feel so bad, and it still don’t.

“I just wanted what’s best for Marla. I’m … I’m sorry to Mr. Henry if I caused him any trouble. He was always nice to my family, but I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again. I can’t say I wish I never did it. I’d be a liar on top of bein a thief. So I’m telling the truth now.

“I ain’t gonna go out to a life of crime, not on purpose. But I’m being punished for wanting my sister to eat good, and that …” Alynn blinked hard. Her throat was tightening. “That ain’t fair. That’s what I kept saying while I was in juvie. ‘This ain’t fair, this ain’t fair.’ It ain’t, but I have to live with it. I’m facing my choice, just like Miss Pryor taught. And I’m learning. What I learned is, the world don’t care if you’re doin the right thing, or doin somethin for love, or helpin someone. It only cares how you look, and if you’re black and you’re taking things, you’re a thief. So I guess that’s what I am.

“Is that fair? You tell me.”