After working graveyard Mcheko was just out of bed and sorry she'd picked up the phone. It was Monday afternoon. The assistant program director at her job wanted her to cover day shift on Tuesday and was blathering about holding the program together.
"Not my fault your husband up and quit. Not my concern you picked Zelna to take his place," Mcheko said.
Anna, the assistant director, was the left-behind-at-the-jail wife of Joe King, the mental health director Zelna had just replaced. Until the day before Zelna had been a jail therapist, just like Mcheko.
"I'm counting on you," Anna said.
"Not done 'til 5:00 A.M. Doing graveyard and coming back in three hours is too much at my age, especially with a commute. Anyway, don't know I'm inclined to cover Zelna's shift. She wants to be in charge, let her deal with it."
"How about 10:00 A.M.?"
"Maybe 10:30 A.M. But you gonna owe me big."
So when she got to the jail already doing a favor and Zelna went off on her, yelling and ordering, well naturally Mcheko reacted. Put her hands on her hips and breathed angry, looked down at Zelna with a sneer.
"You want me calling the hospital for you? When I'm already behind and have more inmate requests than I could see in a week? Besides, Bruce is your patient."
Bruce being a crazy white boy in the rubber room, a respiratory therapist at the county hospital. Boy was crazy enough to kill an old lady in his care. Boy was crazy enough to try to kill himself.
"I'm assigning Bruce to you." Zelna's voice was shrill and shaky.
"Don't take that tone with me." Eyebrows raised, forehead creased, a toss of her braids.
"What is your problem?"
"I will not tolerate disrespect."
"Fine, then. We'll discuss this later." Zelna was red-faced and wet-eyed. Not tough enough. No doubt of it.
And Bruce, he was on the floor in chains, smiling like the devil himself. From his tattoos another of them Satan worshippers. Always the white boys, wanting to be more than they were, getting themselves beat up or worse.
Mcheko stepped into the rubber room and bent down. Looked the boy in the eye and saw he was soulless. Looked at the black lotus tattooed on his heart and knew he was clueless. "You want to survive, you gotta learn about jail."
"I'm not like them," he told her.
Same thing her patient Harry always said. Those cracker deputies sure had it in for him, being black and an ex-cop, a supposed wife-killer. She'd been visiting him ever since he went to administrative segregation. Harry called it shooting the shit, said she reminded him of his mother. Mcheko called it therapy. They'd had a serious session, just the night before. Harry all depressed and talking about throwing in the towel, giving up the show.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Mcheko had asked. "Don't even think of doing something foolish."
"Fucking easy for you to say, fucking impossible to go on like this."
"You know my boy Arthur's about your age. Not that we're close. He's an Army sergeant major, something to be proud of I guess. But he's carrying a grudge. As if raising him alone was easy. We were supposed to go to Kenya a few months ago and he backed out last second."
"My mother visited the other day. She looked terrible, started crying. Said she failed me. I kept telling her I was sorry."
"You can't change the past."
"She did her best. Same as you, I imagine. So what happened to the Kenya trip?"
"Went alone and had the time of my life."
"Sounds like a man was involved."
"Hey boy, last I looked you was the patient and I was the therapist. Enough of this dilly-dally. I'm off until Friday and I want to hear you ain't gonna kill yourself."
"I was just mouth-talking, nothing to fuss about."
Despite Harry's assurances Mcheko left the session worried. At least being back for an extra shift she could check on him. Make something out of the day, despite Zelna.
Just thinking of that girl she'd taught and trained made her pressure rise. She felt it in her temples, the tight throbbing. Zelna promoted to boss. Ms. Rich Bitch, wife of a dentist, with her big airs and fancy clothes.
Even before she saw Harry she had to set Zelna straight. No good would come of letting her get the last word. Mcheko left the rubber room and walked out of Intake with her head high. Let Zelna wonder what she was up to. Let her squirm after getting Mcheko's message.
But nothing was easy in the jail. No cell reception and the closest private phone in the kitchen office. Off limits for civilian staff but the inmate workers wouldn't tell. Most of them brothers who owed her one way or another—Getting them on the medication list, saying they were claustrophobic for extra time out, lots of way for a sister to help, if she had a mind to. Not doing anything wrong, just doing her job, and maybe a touch more.
The kitchen was down the main hall from Intake, behind the Servery. The tables were already set with brown napkins in metal holders, salt and pepper in gray plastic shakers, Tabasco sauce. Lunch started at 11:00 A.M. for deputies, sergeants ate at noon and civilians were last. The bosses usually ate out.
Tuesday was fried chicken day. It was early but coming back after graveyard shift had messed Mcheko's clock up good. She was hungry enough to eat a lion, hungry enough to eat a wild animal, like in Kenya. Gamey but good, no lions though. No lions nowhere but on safari, sleeping in tall grass, yawning like big bad-ass pussycats.
Entering the kitchen was like going to another world. Inmates in stained white aprons talked and laughed over the loud rap on the radio. The steamy room smelled of sweat, disinfectant and grease. The stainless steel sinks were loaded with dirty pots. Mcheko nodded at an inmate who was mashing a giant vat of potatoes.
The office was intended for a civilian supervisor. But the position was axed from the budget years ago leaving the Food Services Director to manage the kitchen, sort of. He was mostly in meetings and had an office on the administrative floor. He never used the kitchen office so his workers moved in. Somehow the door got removed. Somehow it never got fixed. For inmates the kitchen was top of the heap, even their own office. Only smart and savvy players, usually with prison time behind them, finagled it.
Mcheko shooed out the inmate who was playing solitaire on the desk. Called Zelna and left a loud and clear message. "This is Mcheko. I will not deal with harassment, not under any circumstances. Just so you know where we stand."
"Right on. You tell 'em," an older inmate named Sly yelled.
He'd been coming to the jail, in and out, since Mcheko started fifteen years ago. She remembered talking to Sly after his wife died, when he said he'd kill himself if he couldn't go to the funeral, a long time ago now.
Sly was grinning as he cut up chicken parts. Big and dark-skinned with a shiny shaved head partially covered by a blue paper cap. "Want some to go?" he asked.
Mcheko left carrying a paper plate with two legs and a thigh, thinking about Lusala, the man she met in Africa. "Dark meat is the best," he'd said.
Harry had guessed it right, though she'd never tell. No one knew about the Nairobi professor she met when she was touring the university her second day in Kenya. Lusala had called her that night and took her to dinner at Carnivore, told her to order wildebeest steak, instead of white crocodile fillet.
"The dark is the best. But not for women, not always," he'd said.
Mcheko had felt her blood run hot. She was light-skinned for Kenya, cocoa-colored with hazel eyes. When Lusala put his hand on hers, almost ebony-toned, warm to the touch, she'd shivered.
"I'm all about being straight," she said. "Haven't been with a man for years and don't know that I want to. Don't have this gray hair for nothing."
She spent her fourth night in Kenya in his bed, listening to the wind rustling through the open windows, sweating in the humid heat and not minding.
Ah, her time with Lusala. Mcheko ate her chicken on the bench in front of the jail, remembering. But when she went back inside she was all business, ready to see Harry.
Ad-seg, short for administrative segregation, was the only module where the deputies stayed in a control room. Instead of one deputy manning a large open dayroom with sixty to eighty inmates under direct supervision, ad-seg was like high security prison, a super-max unit.
Standing in front of the outer door Mcheko could just see the locked glass-walled deputies' station. One deputy would be inside checking camera images from each inmate's room. A second deputy would patrol the tiers, up and down, round and round. The inmates were isolated, just one hour out every other day, minimum jail standards. Only hard-ass deputies volunteered to work ad-seg, the kind that got off on brutality and didn't believe in humane treatment, never mind rehab.
Most mental health staff hated ad-seg. Being locked in interview rooms with violent criminals, at the mercy of deputies who thought mental health shouldn't be in the jail. Everyone had a story of pressing the intercom to leave and being ignored, trapped in a small room with a bad actor with nothing to lose, laughed at by sadistic deputies. But Mcheko didn't mind. Before the jail she'd worked at San Quentin. Nothing scared her, or so she said.
"Deputy, this is Mcheko, mental health," she said into the intercom.
"Had an incident here."
"Don't recall asking for mental health."
"I'm here to see Harry Woods."
"Well, you're out of luck."
"He's my patient."
"Last I looked, this was a jail. We got felons here, not patients."
"You got inmates who are entitled to mental health service."
"Up to custody, meaning me, to decide."
"Let me on."
"Lady, you looking for trouble?"
"This communication is fucking over."
Mcheko pressed the intercom again and again, waited for a response that didn't come, waited until Central paged her to the mental health office.
Shit, one thing, then the next. Stopped by some dumb-ass from seeing her patient and it could be that Harry was out to court, or chained to his bed after trying to kill himself. Didn't she have a goddamn right to know what was going on?
And the call to the mental health office, that had to be Zelna. Wanting to meet and discuss. Bullshit. Fucking bullshit, like there was something more to say. Who'd Zelna think she was dealing with?
Mcheko thought back to Kenya, how everyone treated her with respect. To the life she wanted and didn't have. Fuck this white-ass jail, she thought. When she stopped in the bathroom and looked in the mirror she saw a sad woman.
Summoned by her new boss, like a kid to the principal, Zelna's voice on the phone determined and tense, "I need you in my office, now."
As if Mcheko cared what Zelna needed or wanted. She stood in the program director's office and leaned against the empty desk.
Zelna sat at the other desk, twisted sideward and looking up, "Sure you don't want to sit down?"
"I want to clear the air, straight off."
Mcheko remembered when Zelna had started at the jail. How dressed up she was, in a green suit, dripping gold jewelry. Kept asking what it was like to be a woman in the jail.
"I have a lot of ideas for the program. I'm hoping you'll support me."
Like Mcheko hadn't taught her everything she knew about the jail. Like anybody would take Zelna seriously.
"We got along at first. I want us to again."
Zelna wouldn't make it. Couldn't do as a clinician, wouldn't do as director. She'd been showing the strain for months, gaining weight and bursting out of her clothes, cleavage showing more often than not, like she wasn't in a jail.
"I'm willing to forget this morning, start fresh. But that doesn't mean I'll tolerate insubordination," Zelna said.
Mcheko looked down at Zelna. Saw the mottled blush creeping up her neck, the way her foot shook. "You wanna talk insubordination I need to call my union rep."
Zelna sighed. "I didn't mean it that way," she said. "I just . . . Okay, let's have some honesty here. I know you wanted the job. Thought you deserved it, after all the years. But Anna chose me for director. It wasn't my idea."
"Shit, like you just doing everyone a big favor, acting the boss. Like everybody don't know Anna picked you for figurehead, so she can run the program."
"That's enough. Or you will need the union."
"You said your piece. Now I'll tell you. Just keep outta my way and we'll be fine. In the all years Joe King was here he never called me to his office, treated me so rudely. But you're new, a woman. I can relate to that. I'm willing to give you a chance. But you better let me be. You understanding what I'm saying here?"
"That's more than enough. Any infractions, any problems from now on, will be dealt with officially."
Mcheko shook her head. She was fated to work with fools. No use bothering or fussing. Girl didn't know how to talk or when to end.
Let Zelna think Mcheko wanted her job, let her think whatever she wanted. Mcheko had bigger things to worry about. Like how her feet were hurting in the new shoes, and how tired she was with not enough sleep, and the hours to get through before she could leave.
Later, in the staff office, Mcheko described the meeting. The office was on the administrative floor, behind medical records. There were five work stations against the wall. It was long and narrow with no windows and fluorescent lights that turned white people yellow and black people gray.
Paul, the social worker who worked swing shift, was there. Joyce, the program clerk, was typing on her computer. And sitting at the extra desk for relief staff was Dr. Ross, the psychologist who did the testing.
"So, what did Zelna want," Paul asked.
Mcheko hesitated a minute before describing the meeting in front of Dr. Ross, but figured what the hell. She gave them the blow by blow, played up the good parts. "Yeah, Zelna doesn't know shit and will be lucky to last a month," she ended.
"She was weird with me, asked for my job description," Joyce said.
"At least Joe was never around," Paul said, "which is starting to seem like a good thing."
Usually Mcheko thought was Paul was the whiniest man she'd ever met, sorry-ass and unhappy, but he had a point.
"I've never met Zelna, least I don't think so," Dr. Ross said. "What does she look like?"
"You'd remember if you saw her. Way zaftig." Paul gestured an hourglass.
Dr. Ross got red in the face and seemed uncomfortable. "Thing is, I mean. Will Zelna be hiring to fill her position? I'm really interested, if you could let her know."
"It's a master's level job. Why would you want it?" Mcheko asked.
"No PhD jobs, too many budget cuts. You know how that goes. "
"You should see Anna," Joyce said. "She does the hiring."
"Be funny if we all called in sick. Let Zelna work doubles for a week."
"You got an evil mind Paul."
"Learned from you Mcheko."
And later still, finally at home, Mcheko walked barefoot to the kitchen and got herself a bottle of chardonnay. Put on some Marvin Gaye—And when I get that feeling, I want Sexual Healing—thought about Lusala.
She had two days off before her next shift, until Friday, and didn't care who called her to come in. Let someone else work OT. Let Zelna do her own shift. Program director for one day and already the girl was nothing but trouble.
Zelna was as full of spite as she was stupid. It'd be just like her to refuse Mcheko's vacation request, the one she'd turned in a year in advance, for visiting Lusala.
On her third glass of wine, Mcheko thought how funny it'd be for Zelna to work a double, do Mcheko's night shift. She could call Friday morning last minute and say she was sick. Zelna would be stressed big-time and rightly so.
Marvin's CD was still playing, on auto repeat.
And when I get that feeling, I want Sexual Healing.
Mcheko remembered seeing Marvin at Bimbo's 365 Club, looking fine. Sexual Healing is good for me.
Mcheko remembered being with Lusala in Nairobi. She thought of his last email, saying he missed her, that they were too old to waste time. 'Come to Kenya, my dearest one. Come now.' How long would he wait?
She wondered if she could afford to retire early. It'd serve Zelna and the rest of them right if she quit. She did it before at San Q. Why not again?
Mcheko slept late the next morning. Dressed in sweats and a baseball cap, went out for a late breakfast of eggs and grits, plenty of strong coffee. Told the waitress that in Kenya most people drank instant Nescafé and only the upper classes and tourists could afford roasted coffee beans.
When she got home she sorted through her bills and bank accounts, figured her pension and social security. Realized she'd be better off working another year but could quit if she wanted to.
Arthur would disapprove. Say giving up her job was crazy. Wouldn't be the first time—since he was twelve, shaking his head at her, a kid with a stick up his butt. He wouldn't visit her in Kenya. She'd feel guilty for leaving. But she wasn't about to let her son decide her life.
As for calling in sick Friday and screwing Zelna, she had two days to decide. Of course there was her accrued sick time, hundreds of hours she'd lose when she quit. Good enough reason to call in Friday and whenever she got the urge.
Mcheko imagined Zelna getting more and more stressed, piling on the pounds as she struggled to maintain the program. She imagined herself at the Carnivore Restaurant with Lusala, feasting on roasted zebra and wildebeest.