Denver Juvenile Hall
The cabin is in Big Sur. Tucked in the woods. After a long day of hiking and a hot shower it’s so warm and cozy to sit around and drink hot chocolate by the fireplace. There’s no TV in the Big Sur cabins but who needs TV when you got a view like this? Of the sea and the sky and the woods. You can even see whales. Smells like a fairy tale must smell. Clean, but with a bite to it. I bet there’s fireflies too, on late cool summer nights. I think they have fireflies there. I’ve never been there.
I’ve never been to Big Sur. I’ve never been to any cabin in the woods. I’ve never been hiking. I’ve never seen whales. I found this picture in a magazine in the day room. Tore it out, stuffed it in my pocket. I make up stories inside my head. There’s not much to do in Juvenile Hall. The days are long, really long. I call them Same Days. One damn Same Day after another. The nights are even longer.
I’m sixteen and I’ve been here for three months, two weeks, four days, six hours, and twenty nine minutes. I stare at the clock in the day room a lot. There’s a TV in the room, but I hate it. They have this stupid point system, where you earn points by being good, but you lose points by doing bad stuff, like fighting or swearing. So, whoever turns the TV on loses points, but if you’re just sitting there and you watch it you don’t lose any points.
What’s really stupid about the whole system is the stuff you get to do, say when you earn a couple hundred points, it’s all stuff I can’t do anyway. Like you can buy candy bars from the commissary, but you still gotta have money on your books. Which means you gotta have family or someone on the outside to go buy money orders and put money in there for you. I don’t have any one to do that. You can also earn the privilege of making a phone call, but I don’t have anyone to call. So there’s no reason for me to earn points. I just keep pissing them off and breaking the rules and losing points. Right now I’m down to negative one thousand, two hundred and fifty. Who cares? I sure don’t.
I don’t care about the stupid TV because all the girls in here watch is soap operas. I hate soap operas. All they do is gossip and dance, there’s a little radio they dance to. One of em earned enough points to get to buy a stupid little radio. Her aunty put some money on her books so now she’s got a radio. The other thing they do is fight. I don’t care about gossiping and dancing but I sure do love to fight. I’m little but I’m tough. I’m fast too, and I’m sneaky as Hell. My daddy taught me to use my fists when I was little. When I went to middle school, it was a real rough school with a lotta gangs and shit and my daddy gave me a knife, taught me how to use it and told me if anyone messes with me and I think I’m gonna lose that fight just stab em. My daddy’s a pretty cool guy. I know I’m lucky cuz he taught me how to survive.
I did pretty good in grade school. I got by with Bs and Cs but the funny thing is, I coulda got all As because I loved to read and write and draw and all that shit, but I didn’t want anyone to know it. I wrote an essay one time about Martin Luther King and it won a prize and I got twenty five dollars. I split the money with my daddy but we didn’t tell Mom. She woulda bought pills with it. The principal wanted me to read the essay out loud over the intercom. I wouldn’t read it. The kids all started teasing me about being a goody-goody til I said, “I just copied it out of a damn book so I could get the money.” And they left me alone after that. And I was careful to drop those grades.
Then in middle school I quit doing the work and started skipping classes a lot and then skipping school. One thing about school was I made some money there, playing cards and shooting dice and selling weed and white crosses. My mom does a lot of speed, so I used to swipe some of her little white pills and sell em. There was a lot of fighting in school too. I didn’t mind it if it was one-on-one but sometimes you got jumped by gangs and that was really fucked up. My daddy used to box and said anybody who can really fight, they gonna fight one-on-one. You gotta fight in a gang, then you can’t really fight.
So I had no choice but to stab this bitch. They jumped me in the bathroom. The bathrooms were too dangerous to go into anyway, I used to sneak out and go to the diner down the street if I needed to use it. But I took a chance that day. The walls were covered with all this gang tagging and half the doors were pulled off the stalls. One of the sinks was pulled off the wall. Girls I didn’t know were drinking beer and laughing and smoking cigarettes and weed. It turns out there was a rival gang in there from another part of town looking for someone from the East Side to jump. Just my luck it’s me, and there’s a lot of em and they’re older and bigger than me. So I fought back the best I could and remember what my daddy said before he went to prison, what he said about the knife. See I always kept a small knife in my pocket. Just in case I had to fight for my life. So I stabbed this girl. There was a lotta blood, like when Jimmy Messina got a nose bleed in third grade. I fucked her up good but she didn’t die or nothing. Daddy was glad, the last letter I ever got from him said, Don’t end up like me.
They ain’t figured out what to do with me yet. I thought they’d make me go to school while I’m in here. I wouldn’t even mind cuz I’m so fucking bored. But they said I can’t go to classes in juvey until I go to court and get my sentence. Don’t know when that’s gonna happen. I only talked to a public defender once, for about five minutes when I first got here, but he never came back.
Most of the wardens here are women. I call them wardens like in the old movies, or guards, but they say we’re supposed to call them counselors. There’s a man who works here in the front office, he’s about thirty-five or so and he wears a wedding ring. He always smiles and winks at me, touches me on the arm. He grabbed me one time and told me that he could call me into his office and we could spend some time alone together. I said, “What’s in it for me?”
He said, “Little girl, don’t be stupid. I could let you use my phone, you could call Legal Aid, maybe you could get outta here. Self-defense, you could plead self-defense.”
So I’m thinking about it. They won’t let me write to my daddy cuz they said prisoners can’t send letters to other prisoners. There’s a girl here who said the best way to do it is to put a letter for him in another letter, like I could write to my mom and slip a letter for daddy in there. She could send it on to him. That sounds good except Mom is so wasted all the time she’d fuck it up for sure.
I remember seeing this movie where the guy who was the hero said, “You always gotta have a Plan B.” I figure this world’s so crazy you need a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C.
So I’m making all of these plans, while everyone else is watching soap operas and gossiping and dancing.
Plan A: Fool around with that man guard from the front office and call Legal Aid. Or maybe get that guard to drive me outta here.
Plan B: Escape from this joint and run away to that cabin in Big Sur. Even if I gotta hurt somebody.
Plan C: Kill myself.
I keep that picture in my pocket and I think about that cabin a lot. Drinking hot chocolate by the fireplace. Those cool summer nights on the porch. That clean clear air. The whales in the ocean. I sure hope there’s fireflies. There’s gotta be fireflies.
4 thoughts on “Cool Summer Nights”
Sara, I love this. You’re a brilliant writer and you’ve always been a brilliant writer. I always wonder how much of what you write is autobiographical. I know it isn’t all true and I remember your story telling abilities from the time we met but I sense there is a lot that is true. You describe it well with the comparison of smelling like a fairy tale with a bite to it. Start working on your novel, oh oracle.
I’m so thrilled that you like it! I just read the story at a local reading. It’s fiction, but I did take some elements from real life. The narrator is a composite of teen girls I met in Juvenile Hall, although I wasn’t there for very long. It is true that we had nothing to do all day, so I made up stories “inside my head” since I did not have a pencil/pen or paper to write with or a book to read.
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Bukowski would have really liked you. Thanks for sharing this little life vignette.