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“‘Belfa.’ Is that right? Unusual name.”
Bell nodded. She’d been fielding that inquiry or a version thereof her entire life. It used to rile her when she was a kid—Yeah, granted, it’s not Jane or Sue or Mary, but maybe you could just shut up about it—because, really, why should she give a damn what anybody else thought about her name?
She’d let go of that anger a long time ago. After all, it was unusual. People often mistook it for “Belva.” Or, if a new teacher back in Acker’s Gap High School had been calling the roll and thought it was a typo, she’d ask Bell how to spell it.
B-E-L-F-A? With an F?
Yeah. B-E-L-F-A. With an F. F as in—
Bell would stop herself just in time. Good way to get expelled.
So, yes. Her name was a hassle. No wonder her sister Shirley had started calling her Bell when she was barely two years old.
She shoved the thought of Shirley out of her head. She didn’t have time for that today. Her life was about to change—again—in a very big way, and she needed to focus.
“Some kinda family name?” the man asked. Unwilling to let it go.
Bell nodded again, even though she didn’t really know. There was nobody to ask. Her mother had died when she was an infant and her father … well, he wasn’t the kind of man you questioned. About anything. Unless you wanted a punch in the face.
The state official shrugged. His eyes dropped back to the document, which he was filling out with a blue Bic pen. He was right-handed. With his other hand, he anchored the paper to the desk while he wrote. His desk faced the wall.
Other than the man’s breathing, the only sound in the room was the occasional swish of paper-shuffling when he shifted from one page to another page, checking something, and then returned to the original page.
His name was Clifford A. Spalding. Bell knew that not because he’d introduced himself—he hadn’t—but because he had signed it on the required line at the bottom of each page.
She sat in a gray metal chair next to the left side of the desk. Her hands were folded in her lap. During a previous visit to this office last week—she was meeting with another bureaucrat that time, not this man—she had automatically perched her left forearm along the edge of the desktop, the same as anyone might do when a chair was angled sideways to a desk.
Instantly, the woman had told her to take her arm off the desk.
Bell, startled, had tried to explain that she wasn’t trying to—
Okay, so she wouldn’t be making that mistake again. She kept her arm off the desk today. Feet flat on the floor. She would only speak when spoken to.
The office was bland, cramped, and beige, slapped together with cheap paneling and thin carpet and shoddy furniture. The drop ceiling was marked with yellow-brown stains; in certain spots, mysterious, pimple-like bulges hinted of backed-up water from roof leaks. There was a stubborn smell of warm plastic and old aftershave, with a yeasty tang of secret mold.
It was depressingly similar to all of the other state offices to which Bell had been summoned over the past month, as her community service neared its end and the amount of pre-release paperwork escalated.
Freedom was now within sight. Yet the prospect of that freedom didn’t make her excited or relieved or even especially happy.
It made her edgy. Apprehensive.
Spalding moved in his chair. He was a middle-aged, skinny-legged man with a soccer-ball paunch and a bald head that looked like a greasy peeled egg under the too-bright fluorescent lights. The skin on his forearms—he wore a short-sleeved, blue-plaid shirt—was the color of margarine, and included a string of tan blotches that would, Bell surmised, warm the heart of a dermatologist who’d been pricing sailboats.
He kept his eyes mostly on the form. But when he did look at her, there was, she thought, little to cause his gaze to linger. She was a forty-nine-year-old woman with gray, hooded eyes and an expressionless face. Her brownish-blond hair was long, falling well past her shoulders; it was longer, in fact, than it had been since she was a teenager. She’d had nowhere to get a decent haircut and so she just let it grow. She was heavier, too, than she had ever been before in her life, owing to the food in the prison cafeteria, the preponderance of starchy carbs. If she never saw a potato again, it would be too soon.
Even now that she was living in her own home again, as she finished up the community-service portion of her sentence, she still hadn’t gotten back into a routine of healthy eating. Hard to make herself care.
“You’ll be getting a packet with the basic information you need to know,” Spalding said. “There’ll be a phone number. And a website. Any questions, anything you’re not clear about, you call that number. Or go to the website. Always have your ID number handy. Okay?”
“Good.” He checked another box on the form.
He was treating her with the indifference that she had come to expect from all state officials over the past three years, from guards to cooks to custodians to employment counselors. She was a number, not a person.
That didn’t bother her. In fact, it was a comfort. Being treated as special was not a kindness. It always carried a price tag. Anonymity was armor.
“Okay,” Spalding said. “So you’re almost done with your community service. Says here you’ve got five more days at Evening Street Clinic.”
“Five more nights. I work the night shift.”
That got a reaction. He lifted his eyes from the paper and looked at her. He didn’t like to be corrected. “Nights. Whatever.” Back to the document. “The point is, I need to inform you that you’re eligible for employment assistance from the state if you qualify and if you fill out the—”
“I’m fine. I have tons of support from lots of family members.” That part wasn’t true. “And financial means.” That part was. She had always lived frugally, and her ex-husband had kept an eye on her mutual fund and her 401(k) while she was away. She wasn’t wealthy, but compared to most women leaving prison, she was, Bell knew, practically Oprah-rich.
“Okay, fine,” Spalding said. Still looking at the paper. “Moving on. I know you’ve already heard all this, but it says here that I’ve got to go over it again and then have you sign a form that says you acknowledge that you received the information. Okay?”
“You’ll be required to check in with your parole officer at a time and place designated by the PO. You’re responsible for your own transportation to and from said meetings. You won’t be reimbursed—so don’t ask. If you’re caught with a firearm you’re subject to immediate arrest. And you can count on random drug tests, okay? Not that drugs had anything to do with your offense—it’s just policy.”
“Okay. I’m not complaining.”
When he looked at her this time, it wasn’t out of annoyance. It was curiosity. She saw it in his eyes: the hunger to know more. His mouth twitched.
“You don’t do that, do you?” he asked. The pen hovered over the paper, and he moved it in a small clockwise circle. “There’s nothing in here about any sort of complaint. You didn’t bitch about anything. In three years. That’s pretty rare.”
She shrugged. “Just wanted to get along. Let the time pass.” She was keenly regretting the fact that she had said anything beyond “Okay.” She’d interrupted his rhythm, causing him to give her an extra bit of scrutiny.
He was looking at the document again, but she wasn’t off the hook and she knew it. This time, his eyes didn’t automatically sweep over the long paragraph in the middle of the second page, the single-spaced summary of her life—her offense, her sentence, her background. Her story was unusual. Unusual got you noticed. She didn’t want to be noticed.
Had she kept her mouth shut, he’d probably be finished with his spiel by now and would be signing the bottom of the last page of the form, crafting the letters that spelled Clifford A. Spalding and doing it with the same bold, dramatic flourish she’d spotted on previous pages. A lot of bureaucrats—this was her pet theory—channeled all of their thwarted individuality and their tamped-down creativity into the way they signed their names. The signatures on the various forms that defined her life now were a veritable art show, a one-dimensional aerobatic circus of loops and swirls and spirals.
Copyright © 2018 by Julia Keller
Excerpt from The Cold Way Home copyright © 2019 by Julia Keller