© 2018  Laura Jean Baker

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Chief Oshkosh's Lonely Hearts Club Gang

February 13, 2018

Women flock to see their lovebirds at the Winnebago County Jail. Inside the visiting booths, they perch as if nesting against the partition windows, seeming to gaze at the man on the moon. A revolution of mug shots stares back – a robber, a felon, a hustler, a thug.

 

How many lunar cycles can these lovers possibly endure before lunacy settles into their hearts like a sickness?

 

*

 

“And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.”
 __ Jane Hirschfield (“From What Binds Us”)

 

*

 

“I just don’t get it,” Ryan says. “How is being incarcerated not a deal-breaker?”

 

“Do they have children with these guys?” I ask the obvious; mothers make exceptions to all kinds of rules.

 

“If we’re talking about my clients, the answer is ‘no,’ not always. Being incarcerated has just been normalized. For some of these women, it’s like these guys are just going away on business.”

 

“When I go away on business,” I ask, “will you stand by me?”

 

“That depends,” he says, laughing. “In this scenario, are you legitimately on a business trip or are you actually in the slammer?”

 

In our first years as a verifiable couple – and not just “best friends” – I’d often put Ryan to a ridiculous test of physical strength. Without warning, I’d wrap my arms around his neck, kick up my feet, and hang my dead weight from his shoulders.

 

“If you drop me, you don’t love me,” I’d say. At 17 years old, I was light as a chickadee. Ryan scooped me up in his hotshot talons; I guess he loves me, after all, I’d say, but what if dead weight was a ball and chain?

 

*

Ryan has turned away dozens of sexual deviants by now; August 2018 will be the ten-year anniversary of Ulrich Law Office. A decade’s worth of experience affords him the luxury of being selective about which criminals he defends, but choosey as Ryan may be, criminal defense is still the crudest of constitutional guarantees. Even worse than the grit, though, is the gloom, as in the sad sides of stories.

 

Joseph Conrad’s simile – “lonely as a crow in a strange country” – fits a guy name Dada’s story more than any old Valentine’s poem. He spoke very little English and was seeking a “talking companion,” but landed inside a pay-for-sex chatroom instead.

 

“Sting” is the wound a bee makes, not a covert operation conducted by police. When he materialized, in the right place at the right time, the police officer disguised as honeypot was disappointed he’d arrived empty-handed. How could she arrest him if he wouldn’t pay for the favors she’d been scripted to promise? She urged – begged, pleaded – for him to leave and return with cash. When he finally agreed to drive to an ATM, he was arrested.

 

You have the right to remain silent.

 

Ryan says I’m a sweet kid. Until recently, I didn’t realize that Craigslist Personals or Backpage.com offered up fleshly goods for the loneliest of customers. Nearly everybody he defends for soliciting prostitutes turns up in his office, not creepy or disgusting but simply put: lonely as an old crocheted afghan, disheveled and unkempt, their forlorn yarns dangling loose.

 

How does he evaluate which basic need comes first: criminal or emotional defense? A lot of people in the system were lonely on the first hand, reckless on the second.

 

Am I so naïve to think love might fix them?

 

I’m sentencing you to eighteen months of human connection. Imagine that.

 

*

 

“The eye
is the most deceptive
organ in the body.
Followed closely by the hand,
which refuses to accept
that touch comes down
to the repulsion of electrons,
so that when I hold
the hand of the person I love,
mostly I am pushing
him away.”
 __ Ruth Madievsky (“Electrons”)

 

*

 

In a battle of patron saints, who might win: Saint Leonard of Noblac, Patron Saint of Prisoners, or Saint Valentine of Rome? Sure, love conquers all, but legend says prisoners who beseeched St. Leonard while squatting in their dank cells witnessed the miracle of their chains breaking free. Bars on their stockade windows ruptured; nothing but glass – easy to shatter – stood between them and their moonlit freedom.

 

Since the middle ages, we’ve listened for the warbling of the first song birds mid-February. After the dense burden of winter, black birds and blue birds and yellow birds – more elegantly than groundhogs – tweet the inevitability of spring. Birds pair, then mate, some of them for life.

 

On our twenty-third Valentine’s Day together, I still test Ryan’s love. If I nudge my bird face into the soft spot of his armpit, how quickly and fully does he wrap me in his big swan’s wing?

 

 

*

Even my eighth-grade daughter, Irie, bought a box of Paw Patrol Valentine’s this year. I really dig you, Valentine. Have a pup-tastic Valentine’s Day. You’re the pick of the litter, Valentine. Who can resist such ridiculously delightful plays on words?

 

What struck me even more than her single-minded effort at human connection was how she troubled over spelling out her friends’ names. When names are programmed into her phone, a simple text (or Snapchat) frees her from the need for the direct address. This Valentine’s Day, ink on paper is the young hipster's gesture, a note written, sealed, and delivered by hand.

 

Maybe this Valentine’s Day, like Irie, those women visiting their outlaw lovers will slip hand-written notes into the slats of vents where they otherwise whisper sweet nothings.

 

“Come on,” Ryan says to me, his ridiculously-helplessly-pathetically romantic wife. “Drugs maybe, but not love notes.”

 

Securus, a company that installs video visitation systems in jails nation-wide, is becoming the new normal in county jails anyways. Spouses, girlfriends, partners, lovers – they visit their Romeos Skype-style at a cost of $1 per minute or more. According to a report on NPR, video visits are a real money maker for jails, who exploit love and loyalty for every penny it’s worth.

 

Though the Winnebago County Jail has not phased out in-person visits yet, Ryan, still a young lawyer by lifetime standards, remembers, not so long ago, when visitors and jailbirds co-mingled in a cafeteria-style common area.

 

It won’t be long now. Visiting hours will be but a row of empty nests.

 

*

“It’s neither red
nor sweet.
It doesn’t melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can’t feel
pain,
yearning,
regret.

“It doesn’t have 
a tip to spin on,
it isn’t even
shapely—
just a thick clutch
of muscle,
lopsided,
mute. Still,
I feel it inside
its cage sounding
a dull tattoo:
I want, I want—

“but I can’t open it:
there’s no key.
I can’t wear it
on my sleeve,
or tell you from
the bottom of it
how I feel. Here,
it’s all yours, now—
but you’ll have
to take me,
too.”
__ Rita Dove (“Heart to Heart”)

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