Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Robin Devereaux-Nelson
Jemma takes her time with the wrapper. She likes the way the candies are all individually wrapped inside the big bag. Like they are special. Fo’special, her grandmomma used to say. Jemma’s thumbnail bites into the dark brown and orangey-red plastic. It crunches in her fingers as she slowly rips into the Dove candy.
The chocolate is sugar-free. Jemma is not supposed to have sugar. She has the diabetes. Not that it matters much now. Sugar-free is what they brought her because it’s what she asked for. Jemma’s used to asking for the sugar-free. She chuckles to herself. Coulda just asked for the reg’lar candy, couldn’t she? But this is okay. She’s accustomed to this kind. The smell is the same as the sugary chocolate, deep and sultry and exotic. It reminds her of her Bo.
Jemma’s current repertoire of smells is pretty thin- stale air, piss, astringent soap, and the gut-wrenching, cabbagey smell that comes through the vents from the kitchen. Compared with these, the chocolate smells like heaven in a bag. Jemma wants to sit a while and focus on its silky darkness.
She slides a candy out of its wrapper and brings it close. After a moment she sinks her teeth into the dark nugget. She rolls the candy around on her tongue, lets it rest there to melt. She closes her eyes and blows a breath out through her wide nose. The candy’s scent wafts through her nasal passages and out onto the stale air, surrounding her head with its sweetness.
“Takin’ your time, eh?” Shelly says.
“Mmmmm-hmmmm.” Says Jemma.
“Don’t matter none, how much time you want to take.” Says Shelly. “When it’s up, it’s up.”
“True, dat.” Jemma says. She pops the remaining bite into her mouth, then reaches for the bag and pulls out another piece of the Dove candy. She is not so leisurely with this one, ripping it open and stuffing it into her mouth, chewing, swallowing. She goes on to the next piece, and the next. In less than five minutes the bag is empty. Chocolate wrappers lay on the floor under Jemma’s slippered feet like so many autumn leaves.
Jemma leans against the hard wall. It’s cold on her bony back. “What time is it?” She says.
“Don’t start that already.” Says Shelly.
“Is it time for Thatcher?” Jemma wants to know.
“Is if you say it is.” Says Shelly. “You get as much time with him as you want today.”
“Call ‘im then.” Says Jemma. She watches Shelly pick up the phone on the back wall. Shelly talks low so Jemma can’t hear her. When she turns around, Shelly says, “About twenty minutes. Okay, Jemma?”
“Got to be.” Jemma says, closing her eyes. She starts to hum softly. That gets her thinking how Bo used to like her to hum a little at night. Helped him get to sleep he said. Jemma’s grandmomma used to say how men are just like little babies wanting their mommas. Bo sure could be like that. But he could be other ways too. Real bad ways. Jemma doesn’t want to think about that right now. She’ll save that for Thatcher. Right now she wants to savor the chocolate residue in her mouth and hum Bye, Bye Blackbird without thinking about things.
She dozes a little. She comes awake when Shelly clangs the gate open for Thatcher. He shuffles toward Jemma’s door, five miles tall and skinny as a rail. Some of the girls call him The Pole, but not in a mean way. You’d have to work hard to not like Thatcher. He stands in the doorway and scratches the stubble on his face. He looks tired and used up. Jemma supposes he is. He’s told her a little, but mostly he just listens. It’s his job he says, but Jemma knows it’s more to him than that. He really likes her and the other girls. He’s always decent to them, even when they cuss him. He just tells them to get it out. Get it all out.
Jemma doesn’t have any more of that poison in her, that anger. And at this point, it really wouldn’t matter if she did. No use wasting any more time being mad. The mad has done got took care of, now hasn’t it. And look where that got her. Later today she will be marching down The Aisle and the other girls will sing Here Comes The Bride. It’s frightening, but Jemma is a little bit glad too. What’s done is done.
Thatcher comes in and kicks at the chocolate wrappers. “This all you had?” He asks.
“All I wanted, really.” Says Jemma.
“Sure?” Says Thatcher. “I can get you something else. A real meal. You know you can have anything you want.” “No point.” Says Jemma. “I’ll just huck it up anyhow.”
Thatcher sits down on the bunk across from her, his long, bony legs poking out into the center of the tiny room. He sighs a great, long sigh.
“I’ll never get used to this part.” He says.
“Me neither.” Says Jemma, and they both laugh a little.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Says Thatcher. When Jemma doesn’t say anything right away, he says, “I have to ask you that, you know.”
“Yeah.” Jemma says. “I know.” She looks him in the eye. “You’re a good man, Thatch.” She says. “Prolly the only one I ever knew.”
“Thanks, Jemma.” He says. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Tell that to them put me here.” She says.
“There’s no more I can do about that.” Thatch says, and his eyes tear up a little.
“Cut it out.” Jemma says, leaning forward and patting him hard on the hand. “You supposed to be the one keeping this situation straight.”
“Not much of a pastor, am I.” Says Thatcher.
“You okay.” Jemma says. “For a hippie.” They both laugh again. They sit for a few minutes, listening to the whispery sounds coming through the air vents. Then Jemma says, “You don’t mind just sitting here with me, do you Thatcher?”
“Not at all, Jemma.” He says. So they sit, sharing the silence for half an hour or so. Then Jemma breathes out a rattled sigh.
“Did you bring your Book?” She asks.
“Of course.” Says Thatch. “Would you – like me to read a little?”
“I would.” Says Jemma.
“Any section in particular?” Thatcher says.
“Just open it up.” Says Jemma. “God know what I need to hear.”
Thatcher opens the Bible and begins to read Ezekiel 7. Jemma puts her head back and breathes through it. “Now is the end come upon thee, and I will send mine anger upon thee, and will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense upon thee all thine abominations.”
Thatcher gets choked up and stops. He swallows hard. “Wow.” He says, leaning back on the bunk.
“Go on.” Says Jemma calmly. “It get better.”
“Indeed.” Says Thatcher.
“Sure.” Jemma says. She quotes without looking. “The morning is come unto thee.” Jemma winks at Thatch. “It seem bad now, but morning’s comin’, my friend.”
“Is that really how you see it?” Thatcher asks.
“It’s how I gotta see it.” Jemma says. Then after a moment, “It’s the best way.”
“Why didn’t you ever say you were sorry, Jemma?” Thatcher says.
“Because I wasn’t.” She says.
“You took a life.”
“No one knows that better than me.”
“I understand why you did what you-“ Thatcher says.
“If you did, you wouldn’t ask me why I ain’t sorry.” Says Jemma.
“But it might have gone better for you.” Says Thatch.
“Ain’t no might or maybe at this point.” Jemma says. “What I got to stay here for? Bo’s gone and for all purposes, so my baby girl. Things the way they are.” She settled back against the wall and let the coolness of the bricks sink into her bones. Might as well get used to the cold, she thinks. Only gon’ be cold from now on.
“I tried to get her to talk to you.” Thatcher says.
Jemma leans forward and puts her hand on his arm. “I know you did, baby. And I appreciate that. She always did love her daddy more. No matter what he do to her.”
And that part, that part is always the one that gets to her. She turns her face away as a single tear sneaks out of her eye. She doesn’t want Thatch to see, but he does. When she looks at him, her face is raw with emotion.
“Why she lie, Thatch? Why she lie?” Jemma chokes a little on the words. She lets Thatch fold her in his gorilla arms.
“I don’t know.” Thatcher says, stroking the back of Jemma’s head.
“I caught him, you know.” She says into Thatcher’s shoulder.
“Yes.” Says Thatch. “I know.”
“She was just a girl.” Says Jemma. “I didn’t want him to hurt her like my daddy did me.”
“I know.” Thatcher says.
“I thought she’d be glad.” Jemma says. “I thought she’d be glad her daddy couldn’t hurt her no more.”
“Jemma, there were other ways.” Thatcher says.
“There ain’t no other ways!” Jemma says as she sits up suddenly, and Thatcher’s hands drop helplessly in his lap. “You don’t understand that! There ain’t. Not for us!” Jemma grinds at her eye with the heel of her hand. “Not for us.”
She wipes her nose on her shirt sleeve, and swallows down a big breath. “Ain’t nothin’ for it.” She says. “Carlee says he never touched her. How she cried over him. He took her chil’hood away. And she just cried over him. And hated me.”
“I’m sorry, Jemma.”
“Me too, Thatch. I am too. For that.”
They spend the next three hours listening to old Motown tapes on a tiny recorder Thatcher brought in his backpack. They split his last granola bar and wash it down with tepid water.
“This what it like in the hole, boss.” Jemma teases. “Bread and water for you, man.”
Thatcher reaches over and takes her hand. “I think this has been about the best meal I ever had.” He says.
“Fine time to be courtin’ a gal when she about to walk down The Aisle.” Jemma tells him. As if on cue Shelly comes and stands by Jemma’s door.
“Ah, Jemma.” Thatcher says.
Shelly says, “It’s time, babe.” Thatcher’s and Shelly’s eyes are both shining with unshed tears.
Jemma stands up and stretches to crack her back. She pushes her kinky hair off her face. “How I look?” She asks the two.
“You’re fine, Jemma.” Says Shelly.
“Real fine.” Says Thatcher.
Jemma laughs a little, real low. “Ain’t I just.” She says. She comes out of the cell and stands in front of Shelly. She holds her hands out for the cuffs, and Shelly snaps them on. Jemma turns to Thatcher. Unabashed tears are flowing down his scruffy cheeks.
“Quit that.” Jemma says. “I ain’t sorry I kept my baby safe. Everything in the world is worth that. No matter how she feel about me. Never forget that, Thatch.”
“I won’t, Jemma.”
“Will you- when it’s the right time- will you tell Carlee I love her, that I always loved her.”
“I will, Jemma. I promise.”
“Okay then.” Jemma says. “Then that’s all.” She looks at Shelly. “Let’s go, Shel.”
Shelly walks Jemma through the first set of doors. Thatcher hears women start singing Here Comes the Bride soft and slow. He sits down on Jemma’s bunk and folds his hands. Thatcher begins to pray.
Down in the mail room, a package addressed TO: JEMMA JACKSON, FROM: CARLEE JACKSON in the loopy handwriting of a teen-ager sits unopened. From the package wafts the unmistakable scent of dark chocolate.