For the last two days Emily had been waiting for a call from the agency where she’d interviewed for a clerical position that paid a fraction of what she’d been earning on the street. The interview had gone well, with her responding in a practiced manner to the questions about the large gap in her employment history. The story she’d rehearsed with Anne, her employment counselor at the halfway house where she’d been living since getting out of jail, had been seamless. She’d returned to her native Pennsylvania to care for her sick mother, she’d said. Cancer. Very slow death. She’d had no choice but to drop her life as a student at City College and answer to her obligations as a loyal daughter. One year turned into two, then there came the hoped-for remission, only to be followed soon after by a vengeful-seeming and fatal relapse. There were of course affairs to be settled, which occupied the better part of the following year; arranging for her mother’s funeral and burial; selling her mother’s house, the proceeds of which had gone to the repayment of a debt against her estate; then the last few months shuttling between friends and acquaintances before deciding on re-settling in the city which had proved to have hosted her most productive and happy years.
Things seemed to have gone so well during the interview that Emily had expected a call the next day, and had to refrain from calling the agency herself to ask when she’d be able to start her new job. But she’d listened to Anne, who advised that she should simply be satisfied with having done her best, and to let the fates present her with her next course of action.
So Emily sat on the couch in the day room of the drab house in the outer borough of Queens, far from the streets of the Lower East Side, where for the past seven years she’d lead a day-to-day existence, living off the desires of men who simply wanted her for the professional intimacy she provided. On the morning of the third day, Emily was scheduled to meet her probation officer downtown. She would have to provide proof of her gainful employment in order to escape her P.O.’s admonition. He had warned her that if she wasn’t employed by the end of the six-week period that began with her release from the city jail, she could be subject to a re-appearance in front of the judge who’d cut her this break nearly two months ago.
Accepting the offer of counseling and residency in a "supportive living environment," Emily had absolutely melted at the chance to get off the street, clean herself up and start building a life that resembled normalcy. Now that the clock, or calendar, had ticked off the days and weeks and she faced the possibility of a return to jail, she nervously considered her options as she sat on the couch inhaling her first cigarette in almost two months. She stubbed out the butt in the overflowing ashtray alongside the couch, stood and walked upstairs to the room she shared with two other women, both of whom had already left for their jobs at a fast-food restaurant off the parkway. Sitting on her bed she could smell the restaurant from the pile of dirty uniforms in the corner of the room.
Though the girls would return in the evenings laughing and telling stories about their day at work, gossiping about co-workers and complaining about their boss, and though Emily had to suppress her envy at their camaraderie, she resolved that she would not allow her situation to degrade so far as to have to actually work in such a place. Though she was a criminal in a sense, it was not as straightforward a characterization as she believed most people thought it to be. There were many complicated reasons why she’d arrived at such an arrangement, and it was not something that had happened overnight. There had been a long apprenticeship involved; relating to her drug addiction, her general rebellious streak, the chronic disassociation that she later learned may have been a result of the mild mental illness she’d been suffering with for who knew how long. The point was, she told herself, that the path toward where she found herself after her life had been suspended by her stay in jail was not a direct line from catholic school to the street.
With the help of Anne and her counselor at the treatment center, she’d been able to see how she’d lied to herself about what she deserved, so much so that she’d believed that the debasement attendant with a life of prostitution was but one more thing in life that needed to be endured. This is where the drugs had come in, she had reasoned. They were necessary in order to numb her from feeling the shame of her situation. Of course, the drug use then created the need for more cash, more than she could earn in an eight-hour-a-day job, and so the self-perpetuating cycle wound itself on, Emily seemingly powerless to stop and get off. It was in this way that she felt fortunate to have been arrested when she was. If it were only a prostitution bust she’d have been back on the street in a matter of hours. As it were, she’d been found in an apartment with a man who on the morning of her arrest had woken up dead, creating the complication that led her to this run-down house in this anonymous part of this outer borough.
Shaking herself out of this familiar reverie, Emily took off her clothes and walked into the bathroom. She turned on the shower and before stepping inside, paused to consider her reflection in the mirror. Emily stood with her palms covering her breasts, the steam gathering until she could no longer see her reflection. Stepping into the stream of warm water released her thoughts as she planned her strategy for her meeting with her probation officer.
Emily got off the downtown bus at the busiest intersection of the business district. She looked upwards impulsively, catching herself in the act she’d seen so many tourists and travelers engage in when she was out looking for dates in Manhattan. She turned her gaze forward and started walking toward the general direction of the building where she would meet with her probation officer. The last meeting with P.O. Jenks had come at the halfway house. He’d come there to inspect the living arrangements and have Anne sign some forms attesting to Emily’s attendance at her counseling sessions, that she’d been obeying the house rules and that she’d passed her randomly administered drug screens. That afternoon Jenks had sat with her for less than five minutes. “The less work you make me do young lady the better off you’ll be,” was what she remembered him saying to her.
She crossed a busy street, catching sight of the tall numbers positioned over the two-story entrance to the office building that corresponded to the address on the paperwork she’d brought along with her. As she neared the corner, two men sitting along a concrete ledge followed her steps, and though she did not make eye contact with either of them, as she neared the curb she remained conscious of their stares, of the way her shoes sounded on the asphalt, clicking out the steady, purposed walk of someone who did not invite random comments from men lunching on street corners. Nevertheless, when the stares followed her, and the eventual comments came, she felt herself smiling at the effect she still caused by simply walking down the street.
The false pride from that almost-encounter vanished when she reached the atrium of the building and read the poorly-written sign on the glass doors to the probation department: PLEASE CHECK ALL FIREARMS AT DESK. Emily felt chastened as she found the floor where she would meet P.O. Jenks, hoping that she would actually be able to walk free from this appointment and return to the house where she lived, to the worn couch and the familiarity of her roommates and their endless gossip. The elevator opened onto a waiting room filled with mis-matched plastic chairs attached to one another with plastic ties. From a plexiglass window with a slot beneath the opening hung a clipboard and a chain, on the end of which was a pen. She walked over to the window and signed in, giving her name, her probation officer’s name and the time of her arrival. Emily then sat in the first row of chairs and waited. Three other women were waiting. Two of them were called inside, a door buzzing to unlock itself. One of the women pushed against the hydraulic door hinge, the other followed, dragging behind her a reluctant child who Emily had not noticed before. The third woman simply vanished, leaving Emily alone in the waiting area.
The clock above the door read fifteen minutes to three. Her appointment had been for 2 p.m. and she’d been fifteen minutes early. Her instruction sheet read that no appointments were made after three o’clock. After ten more minutes the door buzzed, and Emily sat upright as P.O. Jenks appeared in the doorway. “How long you been here?” A voice from behind the window spoke out before Emily could answer. “She been here since two.” “She been here since two? O.K. Be right with you.” Emily found that she’d half risen out of her seat. And as the door closed, locking with a series of clicks, she sat back in her seat and waited. She smoothed out the front of her blouse and fixed the hair that had fallen into her eyes. She wet her lips in anticipation of having to speak. She cleared her throat and began composing in her head her explanation; how she’d been out looking for work and how she was expecting a call on a job any day.
Emily looked at the window slot, noticing that the clipboard and the pen hanging from a chain had been removed, and how now a stained piece of cardboard covered the opening at the base of the window. The door buzzed again and P.O. Jenks appeared, stopping in the doorway to say something to someone behind him. Then he began laughing. Emily noticed that he was wearing a jacket. P.O. Jenks stepped out of the doorway, letting it close behind him. He walked over to where she sat and stood alongside her chair. “Come on. I’ll talk to you on my way out.” “O.K.” Emily rose from her seat as P.O. Jenks walked through the doorway leading out to the elevator.
Instead of pressing the call button, he motioned to a side stairwell and gestured for Emily to follow him. “Walk this way with me.” Emily followed P.O. Jenks into the stairwell. He took the stairs two at a time. Emily tried to keep up, disconcerted by the sound her shoes made echoing off the walls of the damp stairwell. When she made it down the four flights, P.O. Jenks was waiting at the basement level, just beyond the door to an underground parking garage. “This way,” he said to her. She followed him as he walked along a row of parked cars, trying to avoid oil-stained puddles of water.
“You should have come earlier,” P.O. Jenks said over his shoulder. “You come late in the day like this and I have to mark you down as an absconder.” Emily felt a single thump inside her chest so distinct that she’d sworn she’d actually heard it. She stopped walking and looked at Jenks, who continued on a few steps, stopping next to a late-model sedan at the far corner of the lot. P.O. Jenks turned a ring of keys over in his hands, shaking them like a percussive instrument. Emily steadied herself and decided to look at his face. It was in that moment that all her anxiety drained away at the new knowledge of him that she now possessed.
This would be easy, she thought, as she walked steadily toward the car, her heels echoing across the vast, empty underground space.
Charlie Sweeney is a writer, musician, and filmmaker born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, currently exiled somewhere upstate, quietly plotting his return.