Samantha K. Smith
The first, and only time, I was locked in a cell was at the hands of my father. I was just a child and he held the keys. With a swift turn of his wrist, he put me away. If you asked now, he'd say it was a joke—nothing more. For him, it was but a quick unmemorable instant. For me, it was another of many times my father felt like the kaleidoscope I loved; each turn different, magical, and sometimes blurry and out of focus.
On Dad's right hip was a weathered patch slightly less blue than the rest of his uniform pants. For the moment, he was free of the gun holster normally fastened to his side. Keys jangled on the ring attached to his leather utility belt, and his steel-toed boots paced forward evenly, each step swung like a pendulum. It was cool in the corridor as I trailed behind. My clammy fingers went numb as I dragged them along the gray cement. The left wall disappeared into locked cells, like the kind I'd seen on T.V. for bad guys, only these were real and, by proximity, worse.
The hall, lit by a single flickering bulb, casted disfigured shadows throughout the barracks. He stopped in front of two side-by-side cells; each one equipped with a toilet, a yellowed bowl with no seat, and a thick slab of concrete bench.
I pulled from within a stoic expression I'd seen my teachers sport when kids acted up, when they didn't want the class to know frustration was getting the better of them. There were no windows or privacy. The smell of urine and body odor was so strong, it burned my nostrils. I'd asked to see what he did at work and I was determined to prove to him I was cut from his cloth.
Dad breathed a certain kind of electricity into everything he touched. With him you were the most truly alive you'd ever been, or ever would be. A high so high, you could chase it the rest of your life. As his eldest child, I often felt like Wendy in Peter Pan, repeatedly trying to catch his shadow without success. Just when you thought you pinned him down, Dad would do something unpredictable. So when I asked for a ride in the car with sirens on a real chase—our own take your daughter to work day—, this trip to "the tombs" of his station was my compromise.
My father pulled the key ring from his belt. He searched through the mountain of jagged metal, each clang echoing down the hallway. Voices resonated from the office, full-bodied belly laughs. Dad shoved a long key from the host of others into the lock. It united with the trigger and he swung it around twice, two loud clunks.
"Who are these for?" I asked.
"Criminals until they get bail."
"More than one person at a time?"
He nodded. There was nowhere to hide, people watching at all times. You were locked in a cage like the ocelot in my favorite picture book.
"Want a closer look?" Dad cracked the door enough for me to step through. I began to wonder if this sort of thing was allowed, if Dad would get in trouble for letting me in here, or if the men down the hallway could hear us. Dad always said if he hadn't chosen this side of the law, he would've landed on the other; the bars facing us served as a thin dividing line.
The door hinge groaned in protest.
"Go ahead." He nudged me in.
I did as told. A few paces closer to the toilet. A ring of dried yellow pee congealed to the surface. Someone missed the bowl, maybe on purpose like my younger brother who—though toilet trained—in defiance, never seemed to aim. I was now sure Dad had never taken my mother here. If he had, I would've never seen this place.
A clang rattled the hallway. I turned to catch my father smiling from the other side. The door shut, parallel bars closed me in. He spun the key. Another click to ensure it locked. It was just he and I, father and firstborn, facing each other from opposing sides.
"See you tomorrow, Bud." The key ring announced his leaving as he about-faced.
Wimps panicked and I refused to be one of them. My girlfriends at school would scream and cry if they were locked in a cell; they'd tell anyone who'd listen what their Dad did. I convinced myself I was different. This would be our secret. The reality of the situation settled in my core, cramping my insides. Homesickness is what I called it for the school nurse when I found myself in any dicey situations that required I call my mother. A nagging dread.
But then, I asked for this. I wanted to know what Dad's work was like and he was fulfilling that promise.
The bars would not budge with shaking. Rust stained my palms the color of dried blood. I tried to force each limb through the space between, to the outside where I stood just moments before. It first looked as though my small frame might be able to slip out, but no matter how many times I maneuvered my forehead there was no escape.
"Dad, I want to get out now," I yelled. My voice rang higher in pitch as it played on repeat back to me across the walls. "Please don't leave me." I wondered how long I'd be locked away. It was silent save for the lone, dull bulb humming then clicking, flickering as if ready to die.
This could be punishment. I'd tied my little sister's bottle to a string a few days before and hung it like a pulley over the doorknob. Each time she got close, I hoisted her milk out of reach. Get your baba, Kelly, I taunted, laughing as I dangled it out in front of her. Dad caught the whole thing on video camera.
Or was it a lesson for the future? Bad kids spent time here. I was a pest, whining for Dad to bring me to work until I got my way even after he had said no.
I backed away from the bars, centering myself in the cell. A large spider, larger than the garden variety, kept watch from the invisible web suspending him from the wall. Numerous victims struggled in his path. Spiders were my least favorite of all the bugs, with the exception of cicadas, whose shells Dad and my brother stuck to my pillowcase one summer night to scare me.
Or a test? Was he waiting for me to face my fear like the time he pushed me into the lake water face first when, petrified, I refused to dive in?
"Dad," I yelled, afraid he was out of earshot. "Please come back."
I heard his boots pound the floor. His smile faded as soon as his eyes met mine. He swung the key round twice, faster this time, until the door disconnected.
"You okay, Bud?" he asked. He bent down to my height on uniformed knee with outstretched arms. In the way that other adults seemed older, separate from kids in every aspect, my father never had. A Peter Pan fleeing to Neverland at every turn and I, his willing lost boy. "I was just kidding. You knew that." I wiped my face on his shirtsleeve, inhaling the scent of home from the laundry detergent Mom used to wash our clothes.
When we left the hallway headed back to the office, Dad hit the switch killing the light leaving us in a quiet darkness. He slung his arm around my back until his palm found its place on my shoulder.
"So how'd you like jail?" he asked.
Samantha K. Smith is a native New Yorker, Hunter College MFA grad, adjunct instructor and managing editor of Epiphany magazine. Her work has appeared in Granta's new voices series, The Common, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Bustle, Tottenville Review and The Outlet of Electric Literature. Follow her on Twitter @samanthakristia.