In the early morning, on his way down the mountain toward Stanville, Gordon sometimes glimpsed gray foxes, their lustrous tails trailing after them, as he followed the curves of the winding road, passing huge drought-desiccated live oaks, their jagged little leaves coated in dust, and banks of rust-red buckeye and smoke-green manzanita. On the straightaway toward the brown basin, the scenery changed to oil pipeline and derricks, whose axles wound and wound. After the derricks was a shaggy orange grove, and one farmhouse with two palm trees in front, where the road split. On the valley floor, the temperature was twenty degrees hotter and the air heavy with the smell of fertilizer. There were no more oranges, no oil derricks, just power lines and almond groves in huge geometric parcels all the way to the prison.
Gordon went through three electronic sally ports to get to his classroom, which was in a windowless trailer near the vocational workshops and the central kitchen. From the kitchen pumped a constant smell of rancid grease, overpowered only by the drift of solvents from the auto-body shop, where trucks—guards’ private vehicles—were lined up for super-discounted paint jobs by prisoners.
He had clearance to enter this part of the grounds, but the housing units and the yards were off limits to him, with the exception of one cell block on A yard, 504, where he worked with people from death row and administrative segregation. Gordon had dreaded death row but found that it didn’t quite conform to his nightmares. It was automated and modern, each tiny cell with a white-painted steel door and a small safety-glass window. There were twelve women, one to a cell, and a cramped alley with tables and sewing machines surrounded by meshed cage. A guard led Gordon in to meet with students one-on-one, while others knitted or made hook rugs at nearby tables. Betty LaFrance, who was not one of Gordon’s students but always insisted on speaking to him, brought a radio from her cell and played elevator music as she crafted. The women were allowed to come and go from their cells, which smelled of Renuzit air freshener and were blanketed in handmade afghans, for privacy and probably so as to make use of these afghans, which they churned out on the oily axle of time.
Administrative segregation, on the floor above death row, had no common area, and there was no interaction among the women except yelling. Gordon waited in a small office as a student clink-jangled down the hall in her restraints and was put in a cage for the lesson with him. That was where he’d first met Romy Hall, who was in his class now. What he had noticed about her was that she looked him in the eye. Many of the women had a way of looking at his shoulder or past him. Their eyes rolled every which way to avoid his. Also, she was attractive, despite the conditions. Wide-set greenish eyes. A mouth with a Cupid’s bow—was that what it was called?—an upper lip that swoop-de-swooped. A pretty mouth that said, Trust this face. She spelled well, read with good comprehension. He wasn’t looking for a good speller. He wasn’t looking for anything among the women in Stanville.
Gordon passed out photocopied sections of books—“Julie of the Wolves,” Laura Ingalls Wilder. He didn’t say they were children’s books; he kept it simple, since many of the women had only an elementary-school education. They wrote in bubble letters, like adolescent girls. Even London—whose nickname was Conan and who looked like a man—wrote in bubble letters. London was clever, it was obvious. Never did the reading but made the others laugh, which was something.
“Is ‘bosom’ plural?” London asked.
“Depends on whose, maybe,” someone said.
“The bosom of Jones. Sounds like an adventure film. Lieutenant Jones and the Bosom of Doom.”
Geronima Campos, an old Native American woman, drew in her sketchbook all through class time. Gordon wondered if maybe she couldn’t read or write. He asked her what she drew.
Portraits, she told him. She opened her sketchbook to show him. Each page had an image and, under it, a name. She could write. But the images were not faces. They were wild streaks of color. “This is you,” she said, and showed him a scribble of black lines with a staining splotch of blue ink.
When the class discussed a chapter of “The Red Pony,” by John Steinbeck—the third chapter, “The Promise,” about Nellie the pregnant mare—one woman raised her hand and said that, when she’d delivered, her womb was heart-shaped, “in two parts,” she said, “just like a horse’s, and even the doctor confirmed it.”
They read from the chapter out loud. At the mention of pigs, a student interjected that her cousin had written to her from lockup in Arizona, where they put a pig in the gas chamber one Sunday a month, to test the machine.
Gordon tried to steer the discussion back to the book. What was the promise that Billy Buck had made?
Romy Hall raised her hand. She said that Billy Buck had promised the boy, Jody, a healthy foal. Earlier, Billy Buck had said that he would look after the red pony, and the pony had died. This new promise was Billy Buck’s chance to be a man of his word, by delivering the foal safely.
“Did he keep it?” Gordon asked.
She said that that was the trick of the story. Technically, yes, but in order to deliver the foal he had to kill the mare. He smashed its skull with a hammer, and that was a bullshit way to keep a promise. The mare could have had other foals that weren’t breach, but she had to die because some cowboy was hung up on himself as a man of his word.
“It’s O.K. to make a promise,” London said to Gordon, as if summarizing for the teacher how life actually worked, “but it’s not always a good idea to keep one.”