My son knows his way around the county. He could practically do a visit himself, while first-timers are over at the lockers struggling to figure out which one is available or where to put the money. They do every single wrong thing, getting chastised by the COs talking about, “come on a kid could do it.” That’s my kid who can do it. He knows to go to the lockers with an orange key. He puts two quarters in before closing the door like you’re supposed to do. He knows that the metal detector needs to be walked through alone. He knows which elevator to take. He reminds me that we’re standing in lava when we’re on top of the orange tiles, waiting for it to come. He knows to press the button to the right of the number four, not the left. He knows we’re going up not down.
He can’t open that first door on the fourth floor by himself, but once I open it, he runs full speed down the hallway. A group of COs are waiting for people to come wait in the waiting room. They all peek over at him. Every time I think someone might say something like stop running, but by now I guess they’re used to it. He knows I always sit in the last row, stage left. The one time I didn’t, he kind of got frustrated, so I sit there even if I don’t really feel like it. He learned his father’s full name in that waiting room. He gets excited when he hears it get called and jumps up from his seat. Then he runs down the ramp towards the next elevator. He makes a sharp turn into the right room where we wait some more for this one CO to come let us upstairs. We both look down at our feet on the ride up there. Then we hand over the yellow slip of paper with everyone’s name, plus 1 child. The white copy is stacked up already with that group of COs. Not sure what the pink one is for. A souvenir? An alibi? Something to play with during the visit?
Anyway, in the little visitation room, my three-year-old knows to look through the big glass window and then through the glass window on the door. He stares downstairs. We ask ourselves out loud: is that him? No. Is that him? No. Then it finally is him. He tells us not to touch the black shit around the window. He mentions that his dad is stuck. He wants to hug him, but he knows he can’t. He talks about how the craters in the walls match his father’s bullet-scar-ridden stomach. Sometimes he wants his dad to stand up and lift his shirt so he can see it, but otherwise he barely even needs us there. He knows how to slide the metal chair in and out. He pretends to push the walls or lift the window up. He’s figured that space out, and there’s no way out.
Plus, he knows two knocks on the door means it’s time to go. Time for a pound through the glass or a high five and an iloveyouseeyoulater. He knows on the way out we have to wait again for that CO. He runs up the ramp, through the waiting room, and down the hall again. He presses the elevator button before anyone else has a chance. He knows not to get on the elevator to the right that’s always there sitting like a mouth wide open. That one won’t take you anywhere without a key. He knows to stop at the lockers again before we can actually leave. He drinks from the water fountain before we go, knowing that some always spills on his shirt. Then he runs down the hill away from the green monster and steps down its steps to rescue his toys from the car.
Rachel Wagner is a writer and university instructor from New Jersey. She wrote Back Like I Never Left, a book about dating as a single mother. More of her work can be can be found at Rachel-Wagner.com.
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Art modified George Romney Howard Visiting a Prison Public Domain