Leave My Heart At The Jailhouse Door
“Get out of the car!”
I reluctantly turned my head and looked at my mom. We were in the car on the way to visit my dad in prison. She had pulled over onto the side of the narrow road. I began nervously fixing the green bow in my hair.
“My dad is not a dumb jerk,” I muttered.
Her tiny eyes blazing with alcohol and anger, my mom reached over, opened the door and then shoved me out of the car. I landed in the dirt on my butt and back, with my feet flying up over my chin.
I looked up through the open car door. My mother’s sagging face was wet with angry tears. All morning she had been drinking and ranting about not wanting to visit my dad at the Lancaster Prison.
“You promised!” I had reminded her.
My hands and butt hurt where I had skidded in the dirt by the road. My mom flung my battered suitcase out of the car. Sitting, I ducked but the heavy bag banged against my shoulder. My mom was acting crazy again. I searched for hot words to hurl back at her.
“Don’t argue.” I heard my dead grandfather growl in my thoughts.
Grandpa Waters was right. My mom was in one of her black moods. I dropped my chin and pushed the bag off my legs.
I looked up when I heard the car door slam shut; then the car took off, the back wheels spinning and spitting dirt and little, sharp rocks into my face. My eyes snapped closed. I felt dizzy. My stomach was a hollow hole.
My name is Wilma Gotts, and I am eleven years old. I am smart for my age, and I have already jumped ahead two grades. I attend the Bobbi Humble Middle School. I am terribly tall and thin, and I run on the cross country team. I try to shower at school. My mom and I live in a little trailer and our hot water heater has a broken pressure valve. The kids at school call me stinky spider and other stuff. I try not to listen to them. I have one friend, Nora, but she only hangs out with me when we are not at school.
And, oh, sometimes I hear my dead grandfather talking. It’s not spooky. Anyway, I think he is mostly trying to help me.
Grandpa Waters moved in with us when I was five. He coughed a lot, and died before I was six. But by then I was used to his low, gruff voice.
“Come on, kid, let’s dig.”
Out in the garden I would chatter away about Lola the Lion Girl, one of my imaginary friends. My grandfather would listen, smoke and cough. When my parents shouted at each other in the house, he would direct my attention to a rose and ask me to smell it for him.
“I can’t smell flowers anymore,” he would growl, “Only dead fish.”
“Oh, grandpa,” I would laugh. After sniffing the rose, I put my little hand in his big, spotted hand, and we would walk down to the pear tree.
When I opened my eyes I saw that our battered blue car was speeding away down the narrow highway. It got smaller and smaller, and when it came to the sharp turn the rear end swayed back and forth. Then it shot straight off the road. Even from a distance, I could hear the terrible crashing sound.
I jumped up and ran along the side of the road. I was wearing my tan pants, dad’s old green and white high school jacket with the sleeves rolled up, and my faded running shoes. Behind me, in the weeds, was my suitcase. Inside was my one good dress and my purple sweater with the white trim.
Where the road curved I looked down and saw the back of our car. It had landed in the brush between two tall trees. I crawled down the steep slope, held my breath and looked in through the driver’s window. My mother wasn’t in the car! I glanced wildly around at the brush, boulders and mossy trees.
“Mom!” I yelled.
With my heart racing, I fought through the brush, searching the sloping ground in a large circle. I finally found my mom behind a thorn bush with tiny white flowers. She was on her back, moaning, but not moving.
“Mom!” I cried, sitting down next to her and lifting her head carefully onto my lap. “Mom...mom?”
She opened her eyes. I saw flecks of blood on her lips. Her face was gray like concrete. My mother had been beautiful once. Now she had deep, mean lines around her mouth and eyes.
“Go away,” she whispered.
Silently crying, I gulped and squeeze her hand. My mother’s eyelids slid closed, and I felt a shudder go through her body. Even in the loamy woods I got a whiff of her rose perfume. Watching, I realized my mother’s chest wasn’t moving under her orange blouse.
My shoulders began to tremble. Waiting, I closed my eyes and tried to remember the good stuff. That was a trick I played when things got really bad.
My mom and dad used to sing together on the back porch. Later, I would climb up on the railing, close my eyes and jump down into my dad’s arms. While I was in the air I would squeal—and that would make both my mom and dad laugh. I had been little then.
I was shivering and half-awake when I heard the sirens. I touched my mom’s face. Her cheek was as cold as stone. Gently I placed her head in the grass and then I got to my feet. I put my hand on a mossy finger branch to steady myself. I started coughing like I was strangling! Cough, cough, cough ... it was like a gun going off. Suddenly, I felt real scared.
“Look at the trees.” It was my grandfather’s voice in my thoughts.
I looked around at the trees. Cough, cough … . Then I noticed the Maple. It was over by a tiny pool of water. I had an urge to grab one of its clean limbs and pull myself up into the sky. The coughing stopped.
I remembered that my mom had always liked camping, not that we went very often. Now she would be in the woods forever.
“Goodbye, mom,” I choked, looking at her stiff body on the ground. “It was my all fault. I’m sorry.”
My mother could paint, draw and make little figures out of clay. When I was a little girl she once made me a doll out of a toothpaste box. It had a ping-pong ball for a head. She cut a snip of fur off our cat Sissy and glued it on for black doll hair, then wrapped her yellow scarf around the box for a pretty dress. She would walk the doll back and forth on the table and make her talk, fall over and then miraculously fly.
“More, mommy, more!” I squealed.
Through the trees I could see the long, gray prison compound on the other side of the river. I wondered if I should go and tell dad about mom.
From the top of the slope I heard voices. I knew I didn’t want to end up in another foster home. After my dad went to prison, every so often my mom would push me out of the house and I would end up living in a drafty building with a husband and wife and two or three other unwanted kids. I had always liked being with my own people, even if my mom passed out sometimes and I had to clean up her vomit.
Crouching, I made my way downslope through the tangle of brush, trees and rotting logs. I scratched my ankles in the vines; several times my face was slapped by branches. I whimpered and kept stumbling through the thick vegetation. What for? My mom was dead. She had often told me she never wanted to be pregnant with me.
“Your father was a bum, a jerk,” she insisted when she had been drinking. “Giving birth to you was a mistake.”
I had a terrible time before I finally got down to the beach and the river. In one direction I saw a woman throwing a stick for her dog. So I went the other way, towards the bridge.
I was halfway across the long concrete and steel bridge when I remembered my suitcase. I reached up and touched my hair; my green bow was also gone, lost! I groaned, then halted and looked over the railing at the blue, rolling water. I wondered what it would be like to be a fish swimming deep in the river. Were they happy? I felt tired. I couldn’t go back for my suitcase. I would get it tomorrow. I would have to find my dad in my old clothes.
My dad and I had always been each other’s favorite. But like my mother, my dad was a drinker. When he drank he did foolish things, so three years ago the courts put him in jail.
“You are my sweetie,” my dad would tell me when he was drinking his whisky. Unlike my mom, my dad was kind and lots of fun when he was drunk.
“Let’s us-s go to the park,” he would slur, “And see-e the ducks!”
I would hold his hand, and help him stay on his feet. We would both be laughing. My dad was a big kid and he liked to have fun.
“You are the best thing in my world,” he would tell me.
I started walking again. It was almost dark when I got to the huge parking lot of the prison. I was shivering from the cold. My mom and I had visited my father here once before, when I was nine. But now it was late, and I was afraid to look around for the visitor’s entrance in the dark.
In the parking lot I tried several car doors until I found one that was unlocked. I crawled inside, curled up and shivered in my father’s jacket. It was a long, cold night. When just a bit of light cracked the horizon, I opened the door. I was freezing. I had to move around to get warm. I walked between the cars as fast as I could, around and around the vast parking lot, until I could see the tip of the sun coming up over the hills.
I sat down in a tiny patch of sunlight near the big prison sign by the parking lot entrance. I dozed in the early morning sunshine. A rumbling sound woke me. When I turned around I saw a long orange and yellow bus swinging into the prison parking lot. The sign on it said: ‘Williams Family Singers.’
Wow! A smile hit my face. The Williams Family was my father’s favorite singing group. Their hit, ‘Leave My Heart at The Jailhouse Door’, was his favorite song.
What were they doing here? Were they going to sing to the convicts? Maybe my dad would get to hear them! I danced a happy step.
My stomach rumbled with hunger as I followed the bus to where it was parked alongside one wing of the prison. It halted by a high wire fence. People climbed off the bus, including some kids. Everyone was wearing bright orange and yellow outfits and carried a backpack or suitcase. One boy was eating an apple. I stood off at a little distance, watching. Suddenly a small purple bundle fell from one of the large wagons that was being used to transport the cases of musical instruments. It lay unnoticed on the sidewalk.
“Go get it!” My grandfather encouraged.
Startled, I rushed over and snatched the bundle up from the ground. Wrapped inside the purple blanket was a fiddle. The wood of the gleaming instrument was a dark orange color. I stood for a moment admiring its expensive beauty.
I shook my head; nothing like this would ever belong to me. I ran up the walkway to the huge, gray building. But I was too late. Everyone had already gone inside the prison. The large side door was closed. I tapped politely on the gray metal. A guard in a blue uniform flung it open and glared down at me.
“Hello,” I squeaked. With shaking hands I lifted the little blanket. The neck of the fiddle stuck out and I almost hit the guard under his nose.
“Oh, you are one of the singers,” he smiled, pulling his head back. “You had better hurry and catch up. The prison is a big place.” Then he pointed.
I hesitated, my legs trembling. Finally, I stepped inside, looked again at the guard’s large face, and ran up a long, gray sloping hallway of the Lancaster Prison. My heart was beating wildly in my chest. Maybe I really would get to see my father!
“No, dad,” I said pouting. “I don’t want to walk to school by myself.”
“You are my big girl,’ my dad answered. He was on his knees, looking me in the face. “Just go the same way we have been walking every morning.”
“But why do you have to go away? Don’t you like walking with me?” I was seven and a half; already I was in the fourth grade, and every morning my dad walked me to school.
“I am proud of you,” he would often tell me. “You are the smart one in the family.”
That was one of my memories of my dad before he was taken to prison. After that he wrote me letters. In one of his letters he said he got to play his guitar in the evenings.
“I always think about you when I’m singing,” he wrote to me. “Remember, study your school subjects. Someday I expect you to be president.”
I slowed down in the long prison hallway. Everything was gray and gloomy. Up ahead I could see the members of the singing family in their bright clothes. I saw all of them: the mother, two men and another woman, the three older girls and the two younger boys.
Walking, talking and laughing, they arrived at a high ceilinged room where they put their gear down on chairs and moved to a long table of food. I stood back along a bare wall. I was light-headed from hunger. But I didn’t dare let anyone notice me. When everyone was standing, talking and eating, I quietly slipped over and put the instrument in the purple blanket down on a chair.
The long room had a wooden floor, no windows on one gray wall, and high curtains on the opposite wall. I decided to slip into the curtains and become invisible. I passed a long mirror and saw my skinny arms and legs. I jumped, almost as if I’d seen an ugly ghost. No wonder the kids at my school didn’t like me. I stuck my big red tongue out at my reflection, then ducked behind the curtains.
Hidden, I could hear a low buzzing sound. I took a few steps in the darkness of the layered curtains and ahead I could see into a huge room with lots of seats. I guessed it was the prison theater. The seats were folding chairs. They were being filled up by men wearing gray shirts and gray pants. They must be the prisoners, I thought. They have come to see the show. The buzzing sound was the men talking to each other in low tones.
Then I saw my father! He was shuffling along in a slow moving line. He followed the other men, each of them sitting down in a seat in the front row. My father’s dark hair was cut very short. His long, handsome face was stiff. He wasn’t smiling.
My heart hurt. I wrapped my arms around my middle, squeezing myself. I wanted to run into my dad’s arms. I tried to choke back my silent sobs.
After a long while of waiting, the men began stomping their feet on the concrete floor. Their agitation scared me. I looked at my dad. His head was hanging, his forearms on his knees. He wasn’t stomping or moving at all. Was my dad the saddest man in the world?
Finally a little man in a brown suit marched to the middle of the stage. He stepped up to the center microphone. He talked about responsibility.
“Hearing the Williams Family Singers is a treat for each and every one of you,” his mean, high- pitched voice echoed in the large room. “We will not have any shouting or other incidents. If you get removed from this presentation, it will go on your record, and you will not be eligible for our next special event. Be good citizens. And now ... the Williams Family Singers!”
A hungry roar ripped loose from the throats of the convicts. Even my father had his chin up, and he was smiling. I decided he was the best looking man in the room.
Before I was born, my father played professional baseball for the Portland Beavers. They are triple A, that’s almost the big leagues. He played center field. In his best year he hit for a .309 average, that’s real good. My mom said he was a handsome devil. They met at the coffee shop across the street from where the team practiced. Mom held an important position as a fabrics representative. She gave up her job when she got pregnant with me. Dad quit baseball after I was born. He couldn’t make enough money playing center field to support all of us. My coming into the world changed a lot of things for my parents.
The Williams Family came out on stage looking like sunshine. Carrying their instruments they smiled brightly, then began to play and sing and hop around, like they did on TV. The three big girls stood close together out front on one side, singing harmony and smiling down at all the men. On the other side in the front were the two boys. They played their orange fiddles frantically fast, like the demons of hell were setting the beat. The boys didn’t sing, but at certain times they jumped around a lot.
Dead center was the mom. Everybody loved her, including me and my dad. She was a big woman, with dark skin, and she didn’t do anything but sing until you started to cry. Dancing and sometimes singing behind her were three more grownups, one woman and two men. It was a mixed family. Some black, some white and some a glowing brown.
They were so good, I watched transfixed, forgetting everything. Finally, between songs, the mom took out a huge orange handkerchief and swiped it across her forehead, grinning down at the watchful, forlorn inmates
“Now, before this last song before our break, I want to have a word with you men.” Mom Williams talked with a deep, sing-song voice, like she knew all about trouble and sadness, yet she chose to be happy and was going to try like blazes to make everyone else happy too. “I ain’t preaching to you all, I got a grandson of my own in lockup down in Georgia, and I know how you feel, you get lonely sometimes. Just remember, there is someone, somewhere that would do anything for you if we could. Maybe it’s your mama or daddy or a lost brother, but we are thinking of you and wishing you could get out of this hell … soon!”
The room erupted.
“You tell’em, mama!”
“Now,” she said, her voice sadder than Moses, “We want to sing to you our song, “I left my heart at the jailhouse door.”
The men cheered, some stomped their feet and shouted, breaking the rules.
The song was my dad’s favorite. I looked at him again in the audience. He was sitting down below the main microphone. I was glad he could see everything.
When the family of singers sang “I left my heart at the jailhouse door“, I could see tears streaming down my dad’s face. My stomach twisted in pain. I stood hidden, sobbing to the music.
When the singers left for their break I went crazy, I couldn’t wait anymore. I broke free of the curtains and ran to the center microphone where my dad could see me.
I could feel the hundreds of men staring at my thin arms and legs. Nervously I looked at my dad. Would he be mad at me for sneaking into the Lancaster Prison? Suddenly his face leaped alive, like he had been struck by lightning. Sadness and joy and tears happened all at once.
“Hi, dad,” I managed to say. I heard my voice echo all over the prison theater.
With his wet eyes bulging, my father got to his feet. Suddenly the enormous room of convicts erupted in a tremendous cheer. Everyone was looking at me and my dad, both of us frozen in place. The roar grew louder, and it scared me. I wanted my father.
“Jump!” my grandfather growled.
Without another thought, I left the microphone and raced towards the front edge of the stage. Running, I leaped, closing my eyes and loving my dad with all my heart.
I could feel myself go up in the air, and then I was falling. The sound of the men cheering abruptly stopped, as if they were worried. I was too terrified to open my eyes. In my glimpse before I had jumped, I had noticed that the seats were back from the stage much further than I had expected. The next stop for my face might be the prison floor.
Then I heard footsteps slapping the concrete, “I got you, Wilma!”
My center fielder dad did catch me, and he spun me around in a circle until we were both laughing. He put me down and I was still spinning. My dad’s smile was huge. Another ear splitting cheer went up from the room of convicts. Everyone needs family.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw guards in blue uniforms rushing towards us.
I heard Grandpa Waters growl, reminding me.
“Dad,” I said, “Mom died in a car crash yesterday.”
A streak of pain raced across my dad’s face.
He knelt down and held me.
“Oh, baby,” he cried. “Who is going to watch you now?”
I held onto my tall dad until they tore us apart.
The men in the prison were shouting and stomping their feet. A big guard lifted me off the ground and, clutching me to his chest, started carrying me out of the room. I screamed. I saw my dad struggling with three guards to get free to rescue me. From behind, one of the guards clubbed my dad until he dropped to the floor.
“Dad!” I shrieked.
“Be brave,” my grandpa encouraged.
I wiggled against the broad chest of the guard. Jerking me tighter, he climbed the steps at the side of the stage. Was he returning me to the Williams family? I looked below and saw my dad on the floor wrestling with one of the guards. The large room was in an uproar. Shouting convicts were out of their chairs. The guards were yelling and waving their sticks. I wanted to close my eyes and cover my ears. How could my dear dad live in this madhouse?
I got an arm loose, reached up and savagely clawed the face of the big guard. One of my fingernails caught him in the eye, and he swore and flung me onto the floor of the stage. When my head hit the wood, I saw lights. A sad, angry wail rose from the throats of the hundreds of convicted felons.
“Play dead,” my grandfather instructed.
“That big f___ing guard killed the girl!”
Several men rushed to the edge of the stage. My dad scrambled up and got to me first. With my eyes sealed shut, I hung like a rag doll in his arms. Holding me, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably, my dad let out a graveside howl of pain and misery.
Down below, the thrashing prisoners raved and howled back at him like hungry wolves.
Then the men went berserk. They wheeled around and attacked the guards. I heard screams, curses and pistol shots. The madness below was like a scary pinch. I wiggled and came back to life in my dad’s arms.
“I know the way out!” I shouted in his ear.
My dad squeezed me so tight my ears popped; then he set my feet on the stage. I grabbed his hand and we ran through the curtain.
We raced down the long gray hallway.
At the side entrance the guard was lying face down. We looked through the open door. Outside the afternoon sky was dark and rain was falling. Up in the towers, the guards were shooting at the men dressed in prison gray as they raced towards the parking lot and freedom. Not far away from us, arrayed in their bright colors, the Williams family was scrambling onto their bus. Littered behind them on the wet walkway were some of their instruments and a backpack.
I tore off my dad’s green and white jacket. He jerked his arms into it, covering his prison shirt, and we dashed out under the rain.
Running down the walkway, my dad grabbed a yellow pack. I picked up an orange fiddle from a puddle. No one shot at us as we hurried to the bus. The motor of the vehicle roared to life. The door was already sealed closed. We pounded on the metal, but the bus rolled away in a tight circle, turning around. We stood under the raindrops and flying bullets, watching our wild hope swing around and glide past our toes. I could see the faces of the wide-eyed kids in the bus windows.
“Sing,” my dead guide encouraged.
My mom and dad were good singers. I was terrible, and shy about it. But, my goodness, my dad and I were very nearly doomed.
“Oh dear, dear one,” I sang out in a nasally, twangy voice. “I left my hee-art ... at the jailhouse do-oor.”
Then my dad’s beautiful voice blended with mine; together we sang:
“Cause it ain’t no use, having jailhouse dree-eams...When your letters say you don’t lo-oove me no, no mo-ore!” Looking up at the windows, we sang to our rolling audience like real troopers.
Inside the bus the kids, and even the big girls, were pointing and crying. Finally the brakes squealed. My dad and I started running for the open door.
Laughing, my grandpa commented on my singing.
“You were flat.”
The prison was on lockdown. Mom Williams pointed to the floor, and dad lay down as the bus traveled the short distance to the armed gate.
“We’ve got to get these kids out of here!” the Williams Family bus driver said through her open window. Outside the man in the blue uniform lifted his arm, and the powered gate rolled open.
Of course we couldn’t stay on the bus for long. While the rig was rolling I ate a sandwich and then another. My dad was given a nifty shirt and pants. Driving, it wasn’t far from where I left my suitcase in the weeds. They dropped us off on the side of the road. Pulling away, the kids waved at us from the windows.
We crossed the narrow road. I could see the top of my suitcase where it had been abandoned in the tall nettles and dandelions. I also could see a beautiful woman smiling and waving.
That spooked my dad. He grabbed my arm. “Where?” he whispered.
I was used to being able to hear my grandfather when no one else could. Now I had to get used to seeing my dead mom.
“What do you want?” I said out loud.
Tears rolled down the lovely ghost’s face. “Can you forgive me?”
“Maybe,” I hissed.
“What does she want?” my dad whispered.
“Nothing,” I said.
My mother started to fade.
“Mom, wait,” I said, rushing my words. “I forgive you!”
My dad put his hand on my shoulder. I started shaking, then flung myself against his ribs and sobbed.
My dad hauled my suitcase. I carried the orange fiddle one of the boys had given me. We got off the road and hid in the trees whenever a car roared past on its way to somewhere.
We slept deep in the woods. My dad built a tiny fire. We made two piles of leaves for our beds. During the night I woke with a quick gasp. Where was I? Then I saw the embers from our fire.
“Don’t worry, Wilma,” my dad said when he saw that I was awake.
Talking so fast he stumbled over his words, my dad told me his plan. He had money hidden somewhere, he would dig it up. Then he would get us passports.
“We will take a ship to New Zealand. Do you want to go to New Zealand, Wilma?”
“Dad,” I said. “The police already have the money, remember?”
“You know, you’re right,” he said, laughing.
My dad was a storyteller. He liked to dream out loud, to formulate daring plans and invent stuff that could only happen on another planet.
My dad stopped with his oratory when he heard me crying.
He slid over and put an arm around me. He told me jokes about the guards, the food, and the one inmate who always turned the wrong way whenever the line formed for chow or the showers or to go outside for exercise.
After he got me laughing, my dad outlined his new far-fetched plan. This time we would be flying to a South American country. “People down there believe in ghosts, they will love you!” My dad clapped his big hand. It was settled.
Yawning, my dad covered himself in leaves. After a while he was snoring again.
I stared at the embers. Tears ran down my face and dripped off my chin. I waited for my grandpa to say something.
It wasn’t until the morning that I heard my grandpa clear his throat. Suddenly wide awake, I sat up shivering in my pile of leaves.
“They’re coming back,” my grandpa rumbled. I knew what he meant. I felt a thrill in my bones.
With his handsome head on my suitcase my dad was snoring like a freight train.
“Wake up, Dad,” I called, shaking his shoulder.
Startled, my dad sat up quickly. “What is it, are they coming, are the dogs after us?”
Stiff from the cold ground my dad jerked awkwardly to his feet, glancing around at the trees. Then, suddenly thoughtful, he put a protective hand on my shoulder.
“Listen, baby,” he said. “Maybe, I better go back…”
“No, come on,” I said, cutting him off.
Walking fast, I left my dad and practically ran in the direction on the road. After a minute, he caught up with me, carrying the suitcase.
Walking through the trees I didn’t answer any of his questions. I jumped over mossy limbs that were on the ground and raced around gray rocks. With the old suitcase banging against his legs, my tall dad followed.
When we got to the road, Dad grabbed my arm.
“Listen,” he said.
I heard it too, something big was chugging around the sharp turn far up the road.
“My god,’ my dad whispered, pointing, “It‘s the Williams Family bus.”
When the orange and yellow bus halted next to us, I laughed.
The big door flew open. Mama Williams stood at the top of the steps, frowning.
“You two had better come up in here,” she said in her deep, soulful voice. “We have got a lot to talk about.”
I remembered Mama Williams had said on-stage that some of her own were in prison down south.
“It is against nature and the laws of God to lock a creature away in a dark hole,” she had complained into the microphone.
I pushed my dad towards the bus steps.
When the bus was moving, everyone crowded around kissing and hugging. Our escape from the gray prison the day before had been a moral adventure for us all.
“My dad can sing real good,” I said, trying not to cry. “If you disguise him he could be part of the Williams Family Singers!”
Everyone on the bus glanced around at each other.
“Yes, we can use your fine singing father,” Mama Williams laughed. “But child, whatever are we going to do with you?”
As the swanky bus was humming along the winding highway, plans were made, and jobs were assigned. They dug out an orange coyote mask for my dad. Then everyone looked at me. Proudly smiling, Dad announced that I was smart. It was decided I would tutor the boys. And on-stage I would play the part of a squawking, skinny crane, splendid wings and all.
The bus rolled out of the forest, then up through the grassy hills and into the craggy mountains. The famous, soulful, wonderful Williams Family Singers had a weekend gig 1,200 miles to the west.
“Rejoice,” my grandfather growled.
Psychic Medium Jesse Austin can be contacted by email at email@example.com
Jesse credits his wife, Rita, for the story’s artwork