Charlotte pumped her arm in circular motions, hunched over the antique coffee table to pin as much pressure as possible between the polishing cloth and the darkly shining mahogany surface. That was the only way to ensure that the table gleamed. Force the wax into the grain. The table needed to reflect like lacquer. The prisoner would be coming soon.
The shine faded fast. Dust collected daily. Even as time simply passed, a certain dullness crept in. A cozy would have been easier. Protect the surface with no polishing at all, but the table was an heirloom. It had to be polished and displayed.
She rose and stood back to survey the light reflecting off the coffee table, hands resting on the hips of her light blue cotton dress. Tilting her head, she checked different angles. Then she rotated around the table to verify the uniformity of the wax. Finally satisfied, she nodded. It was as a mirror.
The sunlight shone softly on the table top through the freshly laundered lace curtains. Charlotte approved. The living room was almost presentable. The other rooms already were. Even if her home would house a prisoner, at least it was in respectable shape.
Except for the carpet. Exactly two days had passed since the cream Berber was vacuumed. Charlotte vacuumed exactly every three days. Really, she wanted to do it daily. To be tidy. However, daily vacuuming wore good carpet too quickly. Three days kept the Berber from wearing but still allowed her to keep it free from dirt. Two days had passed, though. It was time for the carpet to be cleaned.
Hurrying through the dining room, with the walnut dining table and freshly washed place settings arranged for the evening meal, Charlotte fetched the reliable metal vacuum cleaner from its closet in the kitchen. Not cheap plastic like the worthless more modern models that threw more dust than they picked up. No. This white and beige workhorse had been her mother’s. Her mother used it for years before she passed, making sure Charlotte understood the difference a good vacuum cleaner made in a house.
The vacuum cleaner roared to life at Charlotte’s instruction and she shouldered it around the living room in circles of decreasing size. Of course, she carefully and gingerly circumnavigated the furniture inhabiting the room to avoid knocking anything askew. Then, after pausing for any possible dust kicked up to become complacent and settle, Charlotte repeated the task in the opposite direction. Once satisfied that all marks in the carpet were erased, Charlotte returned the vacuum cleaner to its post in the kitchen closet to silently await its next duty.
She paused to take a breath after she sealed the closet door, but just then the grandfather clock in the dining room sounded. She immediately recalled the next chores to be performed, but she chided herself. The schedule would have to adapt, she reminded herself, since a prisoner was due to arrive.
The letter of notification was on the kitchen table, by itself. Charlotte placed it there when she reread it that morning after Ward whistled his way off to work. She reread it again and again, just to make sure she understood. That she had it all right.
The paper itself was a printed form letter. Only her and Ward’s information and the specifics had been added in blanks by a typewriter.
As run of the mill as a jury duty notice, only it notified that the state would be requisitioning the use of her home for the purpose of providing shelter to a convict. The prisons were impossibly overcrowded, the letter informed. Unable to determine any other immediate solution, the state had no choice but to place prisoners in private residences.
Charlotte looked at that portion of the letter again, still sure she must have mistaken the contents somehow. The measure was temporary, the letter assured. Citizens were chosen for the duty randomly in order to assure a fair distribution of the burden and each citizen only had to bear the burden for a month. Then, another home would be randomly chosen. The entire program would immediately cease as soon as an expansion prison could be built. This inconvenience, the letter explained, was a necessary obligation for the maintenance of a free state.
Charlotte carefully placed the letter back on the kitchen table. Then she dashed to the hutch for a tumbler before hurrying to the refrigerator to fix herself an iced tea.
The coolness of the iced tea and the clink of the glass tumbler on her lower teeth calmed Charlotte. She took a light breath and exhaled. Then she straightened the collar of her dress and took another sip.
She thought the letter a mistake, or possibly a joke, when it first arrived. The idea was preposterous, putting prisoners in respectable homes. It had never been done. At least, she had never heard of such a thing. However, Ward only nodded, chewing his roast, when she scoffed at the matter during dinner. He’d heard about the situation at his office. It was real, all of the sales department talked about it. The overcrowding at the prison sure was a real problem.
She was sure it was a problem, she told him, but in her home!? What if something happened to her? This was a convicted criminal! A dangerous man! She could be attacked!
Ward chuckled at this. He was sure the state took appropriate measures to ensure safety. They wouldn’t implement the program if they could not be sure of safety. He said she worried about nothing.
That was easy for him to say. He didn’t have to stay at home with the prisoner. He went to work all day. There was no need for him to worry, but things were different for her. She stayed at home all day. All day with a prisoner.
Ward just sat back, digesting his potatoes, and pointed out that she didn’t have to sit around the house either. Not if she didn’t want to. Heck, it wasn’t like they had any children to fuss over. She could spend the day shopping. Or, take some of those courses down at the community center. Hadn’t he even said she could get her real estate agent license when she said she was bored that time? Yes, she should do that.
Charlotte sighed, remembering. She finished the iced tea and rinsed the tumbler in the sink. Then she turned the water hot, squeezed detergent from the bottle waiting there, and scrubbed the tumbler clean. After she dried the glass with the cloth hanging from the cabinet door in front of the sink, she paused to let the air absorb any remaining moisture before replacing the tumbler in the hutch.
That was Ward. He didn’t understand. If she spent her days gallivanting all over town, then the housework would never get done. The whole day was required. She couldn’t just fritter time away taking courses or amusing herself.
Ward always said he would help around the house. That she shouldn’t finish everything before he got home.
She shook her head. Ward was sweet, but sometimes a bit clueless. He was tired at the end of the long workday and needed the chance to relax. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be fresh for work the next day. There would be no more promotions because he’d be too worn to distinguish himself. Then where would they be? No, as nice as help would be, Charlotte knew he needed to focus himself, first and foremost, on his job. That left the housework to her.
Charlotte started as the doorbell suddenly rang. She swallowed dryly. Normally, it was such a happy tune, announcing a visitor to briefly interrupt the monotony of the morning. This, however, was surely the prisoner. This time, the chime felt more like an air raid siren.
Well, there was nothing to do about it. She just had to accept matters and smile. This would happen. She straightened her dress and hair, ensuring she was appropriately presentable. Then she marched briskly through the dining room into the foyer and opened the cherry wood front door with the frosted panes of glass separated into a pretty pattern by connecting lines of lead.
“Howdy,” a heavy man in a tan uniform bellowed out pleasantly the moment Charlotte opened the door. She noticed that his light brown shirt, starched with the silver badge on the breast, bulged over his belly, was tucked haphazardly into his darker brown pants. His thumbs hooked into the pockets just drew her focus more to the sloppiness of the tucking around his belly. He unhooked one of his thumbs and used it to tip the front of his cowboy-ish hat in an apparent attempt at a polite gesture.
“Got your criminal here,” the heavy man went on, shoving a little mouse of a man dressed in an orange coverall suit through the doorway without further introduction. “All ready for you.”
Charlotte jumped, not expecting the prisoner to just barge right in like that. What if the guard had gotten the wrong house? He got right down to it. No pleasantries or anything.
The little man in orange stumbled from the shove, apparently not expecting the guard’s haste either. There were handcuffs on his hands and feet and a little chain running between, like Charlotte could just hang him on the coat rack by the door and be done. When he recovered his balance, the little man did not look at her or the home in which he was to be lodged. Perhaps he was not curious. Instead, he looked at his plain brown clunky shoes. Shoulders fallen like he had a sack of wet clothes on his back. Charlotte found herself staring at the bald spot on his little head, facing her and ringed by wispy gray hair remnants as it was.
“Oh,” Charlotte exclaimed, recovering herself enough to remember decorum. “Do come in. Of course, come in.”
“Thank you kindly,” the heavy man blustered as he rolled inside past her, shoving the little man with a thick paw to keep the little man stumbling ahead. Charlotte quickly shut the front door and hurried to catch up as the guard and the little prisoner continued that way into the dining room.
“Nice spread,” the heavy man puffed, looking around almost like he expected highwaymen to be hiding behind the furniture. “Any little ones?”
“No,” she replied. “Ward and I-”
“Kitchen’ll be the best place then,” the heavy man interrupted. He began shoving the little man in that direction without further delay. “Should be out of you folks’ way pretty good in there.”
“The kitchen?” Charlotte could not imagine this man thought her kitchen an appropriate place to keep a prisoner. She hurried after him, though, since he shoved the little man in there.
“Yep,” the heavy man concluded, surveying the room while nodding. The little man stood quietly next to the kitchen table in his orange coverall suit, looking down at the floor. “This’ll do fine.”
“The kitchen?” Charlotte repeated. “I need my kitchen! Wouldn’t the basement be more suitable? Or perhaps the garage?”
“Nah.” The heavy man quickly dismissed her concern, taking a black oil chalk wrapped in rough brown paper out of a pocket. “This here little guy won’t take up much room. Besides, I expect you’ll probably want him where you can keep an eye on him.”
He shoved the little man to an out of the way spot of the floor. Then he started drawing a big square around him. The little man just stood there, shuffling a little. The black oil chalk left a horrible looking mark on the floor. Dark and dirty compared to the nicely waxed white linoleum.
“Wait a moment,” Charlotte protested when she realized what was happening. “My floor!”
“Aww, don’t worry none,” the heavy man reassured her with a tone that sounded just a bit too patronizing to Charlotte. “He’s gotta know where his limits are, and this’ll wash off with a little elbow grease later on.”
Charlotte’s indignation deflated. She knew she really would have no trouble cleaning the mark later, ugly as it was for the moment. The heavy man was right. The heavy man? She still didn’t know his name, or the prisoner’s for that matter. Regardless, the black would disappear with cleanser and scrubbing. But…why have it at all? What would that terrible mark accomplish?
The guard finished drawing the square and struggled back to his feet, puffing with the exertion. His face turned red. He put the oil chalk back in his pocket and hiked up his dark brown stiff pants.
“There now,” he commented, apparently to no one in particular. “You behave now,” he said to the prisoner. “Hear?”
The little man didn’t acknowledge the instruction. Instead, he continued staring at his shoes. Motionless, more like a prisoner’s statue. Charlotte noticed that the orange coveralls were several sizes too large for the little man, like a boy dressed up in his father’s suit. Surely the state could find prisoners clothing that fit, couldn’t they?
“Well,” the guard interrupted Charlotte’s thoughts, “I should be on my way. Ma’am,” he said, touching his thumb to his hat brim again, before turning and walking out of the room toward the front door.
Charlotte blinked. Then, a moment later, she chased after him, catching him in the dining room.
“Wait,” she pleaded, clutching at his arm. “You are leaving? What about the prisoner?”
“Shoot,” the guard laughed. “You don’t need to worry none about him. He’ll stay in his box like he’s been told. I’m sure you folks can manage. Just don’t let him balance your checkbook and you’ll be fine.”
“But…but…,” she stammered, “who is going to guard him?”
The guard shook his head. “That one doesn’t need any guard,” he chuckled. “Just let him be. Someone’ll be around each morning to take him to the shower and can. Bring him food and duds and all that. Other than that, he ain’t no different than a plant. Just sits and pho-to-sin-theesizes and whatnot till his sentence is served.”
Charlotte stared. He was just going to leave her with the prisoner? Alone? In her kitchen? She thought for sure the guard stayed as well. She’d even made up the guest room with the guest sheets, even though he wasn’t exactly a guest. Company was company after all. Still, was this safe?
The prisoner had not moved. Charlotte peeked to be sure. Still slouched in the kitchen, inside the allowed square. Still staring at his shoes, apparently. He looked harmless enough, Charlotte supposed, even if he was a criminal.
“Well then,” the guard offered after Charlotte was silent for a moment. He cocked his head slightly as he looked at her. She felt like the look suggested she was perhaps a little feeble. She couldn’t seem to respond, though. “Guess I’ll be going.”
He rolled casually toward the front door, Charlotte’s fingers sliding from their loosening grip on his arm as he moved. He let himself out and she just watched him go. She blinked a few times, taking it all in.
“Well, please have a pleasant day,” she mumbled after he had already gone. She glanced around the room aimlessly.
Catching sight of the prisoner in the kitchen, she started. She rushed to the front door and locked it. This had taken up too much of her day already. So much remained to be done before Ward arrived home from work, prisoner or no prisoner, guard or no guard.
Charlotte quickly fetched the broom and dustpan from the kitchen closet, keeping an eye on the prisoner as she went. He was still a prisoner, after all, regardless of how harmless he looked. Then she swept from the foyer into the dining room, and then on into the kitchen. Doubtless the men had attempted to wipe their feet, but they were men. Surely they tracked something onto her floors. Really, she needed to mop as well. That would have to wait for the prisoner’s square to be removed, though. There just wasn’t much point mopping until that was gone.
She kept looking at the prisoner as she swept. He did not move, but Charlotte could not forget his presence. Could not concentrate on her work while worrying about him.
Well, she would have to do the work waiting in the other rooms of the house, she decided. Just till she learned to ignore him. She swept into the dustpan and emptied it before replacing the broom and dustpan in the kitchen closet. Laundry! That was just the thing. She’d get the laundry started. By the time that was finished she thought she’d surely have gotten a hold of herself.
She hurried out of the kitchen after taking one last look at the prisoner. Then she marched through the dining room to the hallway at the back of the house that led to the basement. She flipped the basement light switch and pulled the door shut behind her, to have a little privacy now that she wasn’t alone in the house.
As she walked down the wood stairs, painted a thick gray, Charlotte noticed how prison-like the basement seemed. It seemed strange that she’d never thought of it before. The whitewashed cinder block walls. The smooth, dark cement floor. The small, solitary room. It was a bit cell-like, when she thought about it.
She snorted. There was work to do and she was still thinking about that silly prisoner. Well, that was enough of that. Straightening her posture, she marched over to the laundry machines.
In a large plastic sink next to the laundry machines, Ward’s whites soaked in plain water. They’d been soaking from the night before. Charlotte always soaked whites in bleach water first, diluted of course so as not to burn holes. Then she rinsed before soaking them again in just water. The process was time consuming, but it had to be done. Whites dulled far too quickly with just laundering alone, and actual bleach in the wash or even merely rinsed out whites could leave light spots on her nice colors. No, her multi-soak method was the only way.
She drained the sink of water and wrung out the excess, just in case any bleach remained. Then she loaded the whites into the washing machine, set the machine to hot, and started the cycle. After water filled the machine, Charlotte added the detergent. She always waited until the machine filled so the detergent would mix with water before sticking to the clothes.
The washing machine, of course, had been empty. The dryer as well. She never left the wash in overnight, either in the washing machine or in the dryer. Leaving wash overnight caused wrinkles, or mold. No, laundry went from start to finish within a day or not at all.
She closed the lid to the washing machine to let it do its work. The hamper with the clothes still to be washed waited next to the machine. She always brought clothes down to this hamper when dirty, never leaving a pile on the bedroom floor. They had to wait still, though, until the washing machine finished and the whites moved to the dryer.
Well…that was it for the laundry. Charlotte had no more reason to loiter in the basement, avoiding the prisoner. She figured she might as well go and get used to having him around while she did her work.
As she closed the basement door and drifted back into the dining room, Charlotte realized she had not yet had lunch. The prisoner’s arrival completely ruined her schedule. Otherwise, she would have lunched at least an hour before in order to ensure she would be hungry again when it was time to serve Ward dinner. She clicked her tongue and shook her head, deciding she’d better get it over with and salvage what she could of the situation.
The prisoner looked up at her when she entered the kitchen, but just for a moment. Before Charlotte could react, he stared downward again. In fact, she couldn’t be sure she’d seen him move at all. She noticed he still stood in the same spot in the square. Apparently she really didn’t have to worry about what he might do if not watched. This really was as safe as she’d been assured it would be.
Nodding quickly to no one, she set about making a small lunch. She was hungry, but lunch had to be small because it was so late in the day already. Otherwise her stomach would not be empty again in time for dinner.
A sandwich was just the thing, small and quick. Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, leftover turkey, and sliced cheddar. Just like that. She didn’t even have to scrub the counters afterward because she worked on a square of wax paper. She poured a wholesome glass of milk and it was all done.
Turning around to take the sandwich to the kitchen table, she saw the prisoner. She realized she had been so focused on preparing the sandwich that she’d forgotten about him. He was just so easily forgotten.
Looking at the little man, Charlotte paused while holding the glass of milk and the plate with the sandwich. The guard said that someone would be by every morning to feed the prisoner. Surely, though, that could not be all the poor man was allowed to eat? It seemed so cruel.
Well…the state could run their prisons as they liked and she could treat people in her home how she liked. Charlotte marched up and held the plate and glass out to the little man. “Here,” she said. “I imagined you might enjoy a little lunch.”
The little man didn’t look up. Charlotte stood for a moment, holding out the sandwich and milk, waiting to be thanked. Finally, she set the plate and glass in the square with him, figuring he must be shy from being ordered around for so long.
“I’ll just leave this for you,” Charlotte reassured the little man. “You can eat it when you are hungry.”
She turned around then and repeated her efforts. Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, leftover turkey, sliced cheddar, and milk. Finally, she sat down at the kitchen table and efficiently enjoyed her lunch. She faced away from the little man, of course, so he would not feel self conscious about eating. Surely his table manners were a little lacking and would prove to embarrass him.
When she finished, though, she saw that the prisoner had not touched the sandwich or the milk. Not a bit. In fact, he had pushed the plate and glass just outside the square, as if the unaccustomed kindness contaminated his imaginary cell. He shuffled as she stared at him.
Charlotte huffed. He did not have to eat if he really was such a stickler for the rules, but she did not have to put up with ingratitude.
She wrapped up the sandwich in the wax paper she had used for preparation and placed it in the refrigerator. That would be lunch for the next day. The milk she just drank, though she did not want it and it made her a bit nauseated to drink a second glass. There was just no way to wrap milk up to save. Then, she washed the dishes and glasses, dried them, and put them back in the hutch.
She hoped the prisoner paid attention to all the work she had to do, what she had to do because of him. He had to notice, even if he would just stare down if she checked. They were in the same room after all.
“Well,” she told him as she turned to look. As she expected, he did not look at her. “I simply do not have time to worry about you. I have to start my husband’s dinner.” The prisoner did not respond and Charlotte huffed again. Then she turned and retrieved her Dutch oven from the cabinet.
Dinner was roast again. A good roast required a few hours to cook, but it was hearty. That was the sort of thing Ward needed to stay on top at work.
She told Ward once, just thinking out loud, that cooking roast all the time was a little repetitive. He told her that she could cook anything as far as he was concerned, take a Chinese course and cook chop suey. She shook her head, remembering. That was Ward all over. He did not even stop to recall that Chinese dishes gave him those late night heartburns. No, roast was repetitive, but it was reliable.
Charlotte set the Dutch over on the kitchen counter and pre-heated the stove. Then she got the roast from where it defrosted in the refrigerator and unwrapped the white butcher paper. Setting it in the Dutch oven, she rubbed the roast with garlic salt and pepper and onion powder. Even rosemary, for flavor, as always. Then she washed potatoes from the decorative potato box in the corner and carrots and onions from the crisper and sliced them over the roast. By the time the stove was ready, Charlotte was finished. She set the lid on the Dutch oven and placed it inside the stove.
Wiping her hands together as if they were dirty, which of course they were not, Charlotte looked around the kitchen. Dinner was started. It would be ready just when Ward arrived home from work. One more task accomplished.
She happened to glance the little man’s way again. He looked so pitiful, Charlotte thought, all meek and crestfallen as he was. So wretched. Surely he was sorry for whatever crime he committed. He certainly looked sorry to her.
“Now see here,” Charlotte insisted, marching over to the little man while carrying one of the kitchen table chairs. “I understand that you are a prisoner and are accustomed to following prison rules. However, you are staying within my home now. This is the situation and we have to live with it.” She paused, waiting to see if he would react in some way. He did not.
“My home is not a prison and I will not have it treated like one,” Charlotte pronounced, standing very straight. “We are civilized people in this house and we act accordingly.”
She jammed the kitchen chair into the square. The little man flinched.
“While you reside in my home you will act civilized as well. If you are tired, sit down. Use the washroom when you need to. As long as you do not misbehave and be sure to stand in your appointed place when the guard arrives in the morning, then we do not have to live under lock and key.”
She smiled, not that the little man would know since he was not looking at her and all. No matter, Charlotte felt she made her point. Besides, she had the next laundry cycle to attend to.
Turning away from him, Charlotte marched through the dining room and down into the basement. This time she did not shut the door behind her, just so he would know she was keeping an eye on him. Quickly, she moved the whites to the dryer and put the next load in the washer. Then she started both machines and marched right back up into the kitchen, expecting to find the little man sitting obediently in the chair she had provided.
He was not, though. Charlotte gaped. The chair was pushed outside the square and the prisoner stood just as before. He had pushed her chair away from his area, just like the sandwich. Like it did not belong there and had to be removed.
“Now see here,” she shouted at him, realizing with a shudder that she probably sounded like a guard. “If I offer you a place to sit, I expect you to be grateful. By all means, do not sit if you do not want to sit, but do not throw my hospitality in my face. No matter how much you pretend, that square is not a prison cell. It is my kitchen floor. You are a guest and you will behave as such. Do you understand?”
The little man did not answer. He fidgeted as if he was trying really hard to pretend she was not speaking to him, but he did not speak in turn.
“I asked you a question,” Charlotte demanded. “Be courteous and answer me!”
The prisoner fidgeted more. “Ma’am,” he finally whispered, hoarse like he was not used to talking anymore. “Prisoners are not allowed to have visitors without prior written approval. If visitors have been approved, then a visitation may take place, but only on Sundays.”
Charlotte grabbed the prisoner by his orange coverall suit and yanked him out of the square. His eyes shot wide in apparent alarm.
“Visitations? So, I am a visitor in my own home? That is the last straw,” she shouted, yanking him through the dining room. “Get out of my house!”
Charlotte tore open the front door and flung the prisoner out onto the lawn. Then she quickly slammed the door shut again and drew the bolt. For a few minutes, she fumed in silence.
After a time, though, Charlotte’s anger was slowly replaced with a growing panic. What had she done? She evicted a prisoner that the state ordered her to keep! What would they do to Ward and her? What would the neighbors think? Slowly, she opened the front door, just a crack, and peeked out.
The door flew inward, forcing Charlotte back, and the prisoner leapt onto her. His claw-like hands furiously grabbed at her throat and squeezed with a surprising strength. Charlotte gasped in shock, but she could draw no air.
The prisoner’s eyes burned, blasting hatred full blast into Charlotte’s own from only inches away. He pushed her backward with unexpected intensity, back through the foyer, back through the dining room, until he slammed her against the solid dining room table. The dishes, already placed for dinner, clattered from the force of the jolt.
Charlotte’s throat gagged, futilely attempting to breathe. A black ring formed around the edges of her vision and her legs buckled. She sank to the floor, the prisoner’s twitching hands squeezing ever harder.
And then, it stopped. Charlotte gulped feverishly at the air she could finally pull into her lungs and looked around wildly from where she was sprawled on the ground. The prisoner was no longer above her. She struggled to her feet, grabbing onto the dining room table frantically.
Then she finally caught sight of the prisoner again. He was back in the kitchen. Back in his little square, staring at his shoes as meekly and quietly as he had before. As much of a mouse as ever, harmless. Charlotte slid down onto the floor, still clinging to the table, and just breathed.
Photo Source: Number One London