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North Carolina Correctional Facility for Women Raleigh, North Carolina
June 8, 2018
This hallway always felt cold to me, no matter the time of year. Cinder-block walls, a linoleum floor that squeaked beneath my prison-issue shoes. You wouldn’t know what season it was from this hallway. Wouldn’t know it was June outside, that things were blooming and summer was on its way. It was on its way for those outside, anyway. I was facing my second summer inside these cinder-block walls and tried not to think about it.
“Who’s here?” I asked the guard walking by my side. I never had visitors. I’d given up expecting one of my parents to show up, and that was fine with me. My father came once after I’d been here a couple of weeks, but he was already wasted, although it wasn’t yet noon, and all he did was yell. Then he cried those sloppy drunk tears that always embarrassed me. My mother hadn’t come at all. My arrest held a mirror up to their flaws and now they were as finished with me as I was with them.
“Dunno who it is, Blondie,” the guard said. She was new and I didn’t know her name and couldn’t read the name tag hanging around her neck, but she’d obviously already learned my prison nickname. And while she might have been new to the NCCFW, I could tell she wasn’t new to prison work. She moved too easily down this hallway, and the burned-out, bored, bitter look in her dark eyes gave her away.
I headed for the door to the visiting room, but the guard grabbed my arm.
“Uh-uh,” she said. “Not that way. S’posed to take you in here today.” She turned me in the direction of the private visiting room, and I was instantly on guard. Why the private room? Couldn’t be good news.
I walked into the small room to find two women sitting at one side of a table. Both of them were somewhere between forty and fifty. No prison uniforms. They were dressed for business in suits, one navy, the other tan. They looked up at me, unsmiling, their dark-skinned faces unreadable. I kept my gaze on them as I sat down at the other side of the table. Did they see the anxiety in my eyes? I’d learned to trust no one in this place.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
The woman in the tan suit sat forward, manicured hands folded neatly on the table. “My name is Lisa Williams,” she said. She had a pin on her lapel in the shape of a house, and she reminded me a little of Michelle Obama. Shoulder-length hair. Perfectly shaped eyebrows. But she didn’t have Michelle Obama’s ready smile. This woman’s expression was somewhere between boredom and apprehension. “And this is Andrea Fuller. She’s an attorney.”
Andrea Fuller nodded at me. She was older than I’d thought. Fifty-something. Maybe even sixty. She wore her hair in a short, no-nonsense Afro sprinkled with gray. Her lipstick was a deep red.
I shook my head. “I don’t understand,” I said, looking from one woman to the other. “Why did you want to see me?”
“Andrea and I are here to offer you a way out of this place,” the woman named Lisa said. Her gaze darted to my lacy tattoo where it peeked out from beneath the short sleeve of my pale blue prison shirt. I’d designed the intricate tattoo myself—black lace crisscrossed with strings of tiny pearls and chandelier jewelry. Lisa lifted her gaze to mine again. “As of next week, you’ve served your minimum sentence. One year, right?” she asked.
I half nodded, waiting. Yes, I’d served my one-year minimum, but the maximum was three years, and from everything I’d been told, I wasn’t going anywhere for a long time.
“We … Andrea and I … have been working on getting you released,” Lisa said.
I stared at her blankly. “Why?” I asked. “You don’t even know me.” I knew there was some sort of program where law students tried to free prisoners who had been wrongly imprisoned, but I was the only person who seemed to think my imprisonment had been a mistake.
Andrea Fuller cleared her throat and spoke for the first time. “We’ve made the case that you’re uniquely qualified for some work Lisa would like you to do. Your release depends on your willingness to do that work and—”
“In a timely fashion,” Lisa interrupted.
“Yes, there’s a deadline for the completion of the work,” Andrea said. “And of course you’ll be under the supervision of a parole officer during that time, and you’ll also be paying restitution to the family of the girl you injured—the Maxwell family, and—”
“Wait.” I held up my hand. I was surprised to see that my fingers trembled and I dropped my hand to my lap. “Please slow down,” I said. “I’m not following you at all.” I was overwhelmed by the way the two women hopped around in their conversation. What work was I uniquely qualified to do? I’d worked in the laundry here at the prison, learning to fold sheets into perfect squares, and I’d washed dishes in hot chlorine-scented water until my eyes stung. They were the only unique qualifications I could think of.
Lisa lifted her own hands, palms forward, to stop the conversation. “It’s like this,” she said, her gaze steady on me. “Do you know who Jesse Jameson Williams was?”
Everyone knew who Jesse Jameson Williams was. The name instantly transported me to one of the rooms in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Four years ago now. No, five. I’d been seventeen on a high school trip. My classmates had been ready to leave the museum, but I’d wanted to stay, smitten by the contemporary art, so I hid in the restroom while my class headed out of the building. I didn’t know or care where they were going. I knew I’d get in trouble, but I would deal with that later. So I was alone when I saw my first Jesse Jameson Williams. The painting quite literally stole my breath, and I lowered myself to the sole bench in the gallery to study it. The Look, it was called. It was a tall painting, six feet at least, and quite narrow. A man and woman dressed in black evening clothes stood back-to-back against a glittery silver background, their bodies so close it was impossible to separate his black jacket from her black dress. They were both brown skinned, though the woman was several shades darker than the man. His eyes were downcast, as if the man were trying to look behind himself at the woman, but her eyes were wide open, looking out at the viewer—at me—as though she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to be in the painting at all. As though she might be saying, Help me. When I could breathe again, I searched the walls for more of Jesse Jameson Williams’s work and found several pieces. Then, in the museum shop, I paged through a coffee table book of his paintings, wishing I could afford its seventy-five-dollar price tag.
“He’s one of my favorite artists,” I answered Lisa.
“Ah.” For the first time, Lisa smiled, or nearly so, anyway. “That’s very good to hear, because he has a lot to do with my proposal.”
“I don’t understand,” I said again. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” I’d read about his death in the paper in the prison library. He’d been ninety-five and had certainly led a productive life, yet I’d still felt a wave of loss wash over me when I read the news.
“He died in January,” Lisa said, then added, “Jesse Williams was my father.”
“Really!” I sat up straighter.
“For the last twenty-five years of his life, he dedicated himself to helping young artists,” Lisa said.
I nodded. I’d read about his charitable work.
“Artists he thought had promise but were having a hard time with school or family or maybe just heading down the wrong path.”
Was she talking about me? Could Jesse Williams have seen my work someplace and thought there was something promising in it, something that my professors had missed? “I remember reading about some teenaged boy he helped a few years ago,” I said. “I don’t know where I—”
“It could have been any number of boys.” Lisa waved an impatient hand through the air. “He’d focus on one young man—or young woman—at a time. Make sure they had the money and support necessary to get the education they needed. He’d show their work or do whatever he saw fit to give them a boost.” She cocked her head. “He was a very generous man, but also a manipulative one,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Shortly before he died, he became interested in you,” Lisa said. “You were going to be his next project.”
“Me?” I frowned. “I never even met him. And I’m white.” I lifted a strand of my straight, pale blond hair as if to prove my point. “Aren’t all the people he helped African American?”
Lisa shook her head. “Most, but definitely not all,” she said with a shrug. “And to be frank, I have no idea why he zeroed in on you. He often helped North Carolina artists, so that’s one reason—you’re from Cary, right?—but there are plenty of others he could have chosen. Why you were on his Good Samaritan radar is anyone’s guess.”
This made no sense. “Isn’t anything he had planned for me … or for anyone … didn’t his plans die with him?”
“I wish,” Lisa said. She smoothed a strand of her Michelle Obama hair behind her ear with a tired gesture. “My father’s still controlling things from the grave.” She glanced at Andrea with a shake of her head, while I waited, hands clutched together in my lap, not sure I liked this woman. “I lived with him,” Lisa continued. “I was his main caretaker and he was getting very feeble. He knew he was nearing the end and he met with his lawyer”—she nodded toward Andrea—“and updated his will. He was in the process of building a gallery in Edenton. An art gallery to feature his paintings and those of some other artists as well as some student work.”
“Oh,” I said, still puzzled. “Did he want to put one of my pieces in it?” Maybe that was it. Had he somehow heard about me and wanted to give my career—such as it was—a boost through exposure in his gallery? Ridiculous. How would he have heard about me? I couldn’t picture any of my professors at UNC singing my praises. And what on earth would I put in his gallery? My mind zigzagged through my paintings, all of them at my parents’ house … unless my parents had gotten rid of them, which wouldn’t have surprised me.
“Nothing that simple,” Lisa said. “He wanted you to restore an old 1940s mural, and he stipulated that the gallery can’t be opened until the restored mural is in place in the foyer. And the date of the gallery opening is August fifth.”
This had to be a mistake. They had to be looking for someone else, and I felt my chance at freedom slipping away. Restore a mural? In two months? First, I had no experience in art conservation, and second, I’d worked on exactly one mural in my nearly three years in college and that had been a simple four-by-eight-foot abstract I’d painted with another student my freshman year. “Are you sure he meant me?” I asked.
“Why does he … why would he think I’m ‘uniquely qualified’ to do this?” I asked, remembering the phrase. “How did he even know I exist?”
“Who knows?” Lisa said, obviously annoyed by her father’s eccentricities. “All I know is you’re now my problem.”
I bristled at her attitude, but kept my mouth shut. If the two of them could actually help me get out of here, I couldn’t afford to alienate them.
“I suppose he thought you were qualified by virtue of your art education,” Andrea said. “You were an art major, correct?”
I nodded. I’d been an art major, yes, but that had nothing to do with restoration. Restoration required an entirely different set of skills from the creation of art. Plus, I hadn’t been the most dedicated student that last year. I’d let myself get sucked in by Trey instead of my studies. He’d absorbed my time and energy. I’d been nauseatingly smitten, drawn in by his attention and the future we were planning together. He’d told me about his late grandmother’s engagement ring, hinting that it would soon be mine. I’d thought he was so wonderful. Pre-law. Sweet. Amazing to look at. I’d been a fool. But I knew better than to say anything about lack of qualifications to these two women when they were talking about getting me out of here.
“So … where’s this mural?” I asked.
“In Edenton. You’d have to live in Edenton,” Lisa said. “With me. My house—my father’s house, actually—is big. We won’t be tripping over each other.”
I could barely believe my ears. I’d not only get out of prison but I’d live in Jesse Jameson Williams’s house? I felt the unexpected threat of tears. Oh God, how I needed to get out of here! In the last miserable year, I’d been bruised, cut, and battered. I’d learned to fight back, yes, but that was not who I was. I was no brawler. My fellow inmates mocked me for my youth, my slender build, my platinum hair. I lived in a state of perpetual fear. Even in my cell, I felt unsafe. My cellmate was a woman who didn’t talk. Literally. I’d never heard a word from her mouth, but her expression carried disdain. I barely slept, one eye open, expecting to have my throat slit with a stolen knife sometime during the night.
And then there were the nightmares about Emily Maxwell, but I supposed I would bring them with me no matter where I went.
“You’ll work on the mural in the gallery, which is only partially built at this point,” Lisa interrupted my thoughts. “There’s plenty of room in the foyer. That’s where my father wanted it displayed.”
“It’s not painted on a wall?”
“No, it’s on canvas and it was never … hung, or whatever you call it.”
“Installed,” Andrea said.
“Right,” Lisa said. “It was never installed.”
“Who painted it?”
“A woman named Anna Dale,” Lisa said. “It’s one of those Depression-era murals. You know how, during the Depression, the government hired artists to paint murals for public buildings?”
I nodded, though my knowledge of those WPA-type programs was sketchy at best.
“This mural was supposed to be for the Edenton Post Office. But Anna Dale went crazy or something—I can’t remember exactly what my father told me. She lost her mind while she was working on it, thus the finished product was never installed. My father’s owned it for decades and he wants—wanted—to hang it in the foyer of the gallery. And he said it has to be in place by the date the gallery opens.”
“August fifth,” Andrea said in case I hadn’t heard the date the first time. I most definitely had.
“That’s not even two months from now,” I said.
Lisa let out a long, anxious-sounding breath. “Exactly,” she said. “Which is why you need to start on it immediately.”
“What kind of shape is it in?” I asked.
Lisa shrugged. “I haven’t actually seen it. It’s been rolled up in a corner of my father’s studio closet all these years—it’s a massive thing—and I don’t know what condition it’s in. It must be salvageable, though, if he expected you to fix it.”
I tried to imagine what nearly seventy years would do to a huge canvas stuffed in a closet. What Lisa needed was a professional restoration company, not a novice artist. But what I needed was my freedom.
Copyright © 2019 by Diane Chamberlain