I used to try to brew the perfect cup of coffee. I'd grind fresh beans
purchased from a man who roasted them in small batches using only the finest Arabicas grown in volcanic soil at high altitude on an Indonesian Island. Next, I'd pour near-boling mountain spring water over the grounds perking it through a brown chemical- and bleach-free filter into a favorite mug decorated with two hand-painted wolves in full winter coat. My ritual ended with a half-teaspoon of canned milk imported from Holland. I thought I was close to achieving perfection. Then I met Marian.
I met her my first night teaching at the Manzanita Women's Unit of the Arizona
State Prison outside Tucson. It was my first teaching job, and I think I got it because of my enthusiasm and there's a short list of people waiting to teach in prison. That night a guard let me in to what looked like a typical classroom--chalkboard, desks, bulletin boards displaying colorful construction paper flowers and thumb tacked student papers with large encircled "A"s and hand-written comments like GOOD WORK BRENDA! in bright red ink. The only difference between this room and classrooms in the world outside were the windows: two floor-to-ceiling vertical slits so narrow they offered no hope of escape to even the thinnest body.
Three women in prison-issued denim shirts and jeans entered, noted me with
half-interested nods, then continued their conversation at the back of the room. Though I tried to look calm as I searched my backpack for a pencil, my hands thrashed inside the pack like two trout desperately seeking water in a fishing basket. I looked up and saw a short, stocky, middle-aged woman with choppy gray hair enter the room. She set her notebook on a desk near the door. Gaze riveted on me, she planted her hands firmly on her broad hips, tilted her head back slightly, opened her mouth wide and started to laugh. It was a deep-throated scorching laugh that exploded from some primal place, then flowed out,
lava-like, flash-igniting everything in its path.
I'm not street smart. I was raised expecting to defend myself against nothing more threatening than an occasional dispute over position in a grocery store line. Though my limited experience couldn't prepare me for Marian, I knew that if I didn't act quickly I was in deep trouble--a revelation not born of experience or logic, but a rapid succession of biological signals: accelerating heartbeat, stiffened spine, hairs on the back of my neck standing up as if I were about to be
struck by lightening.
Somehow I knew what I had to do. I had to stare her down. If I averted her
eyes for even a second, looked at my hands or toward the door, she'd have me--the way a cat has a bird. I'd be prey, not only for that moment, but for the entire semester. So I smiled tightly, my head bobbing stiffly up and down like I recognized her from somewhere, hadn't seen her for a long time, as if we'd just enjoyed a real good joke together. Another thought streaked through my mind--she'll probably think I'm crazy. Crazier than her...that's good. It didn't take long for her to see I wasn't going to back away and her laughter slowly cooled. She carefully sat down, both of us still eye-locked, me smiling and nodding, she laughing softly now. A group of students came in, one playfully slapped Marian on the back, we pulled our eyes apart simultaneously and acknowledged the others.
Throughout the semester Marian and I maintained a balance in which she challenged everything I said, and I stood my ground. Neither of us pushed too far. We always managed to come out even. It was like we were rowing a boat together and had to keep the pull of our oars even to avoid being swept into an endless whirlpool.
Halfway through the semester Marian came to me for tutoring. During our sessions she told me things. How a violet separation from her husband sent her reeling across state lines, charging extravagant purchases on her husband's credit cards. How she was finally caught with a rental car she'd neglected to return to an out-of-state agency. "That's grand theft auto," she told me. "Just one of the things a woman can do to get herself locked up for a couple years." She told me about her prison job sewing bras for the other inmates. How she worked at a sewing machine ten hours a day for ten cents an hour. That her name was really Marion spelled with an "o," and changing it to an "a" at incarceration allowed her to get a new social security number which she could discard at release, erasing any link to her life in prison. Marian taught me my first prison lesson: the border between truth and fiction can be a wide-meshed sieve.
In spite of this lesson, I wasn't prepared when I sat down to grade a stack of papers one night and found that Marian had turned in a homework assignment she couldn't have written. It was clear she had copied a column from the Wall Street Journal or some up-scale business weekly. I was angry and disappointed, but I wasn't going to let her change my stroke. The following week I returned her ungraded paper and told her it was excellent writing, good enough to be published in a professional journal. She looked at me, at the paper, grinned, wadded it up and tossed it into the trashcan saying, "Damn, why did I turn that thing in?"
The last time I saw Marian was near the end of the semester, just before her parole, during a monsoon storm. The State Prison is on the outskirts of Tucson, a few dirt-road miles from paved highway. That night my '69 Volvo barely made it through the flooded washes. When I got to the classroom, the door was locked. I stood in the chilly hallway looking out a window-slit at the downpour, waiting for a guard to let me in. A dark figure in a blue rain parka streaked across the compound toward the classroom. The door opened, the figure entered and pulled back the parka's hood. It was Marian. She'd seen me scurrying across the rain-soaked yard and came to tell me class had been cancelled because no one thought I'd come out in the storm.
I said I wasn't sure I could make it back across the washes and we joked that I might have to spend the night in prison. I rubbed my chilled hands together and remarked how good a cup of coffee would be. Marian's face lit up. "You want coffee? I'll get you a coffee." I didn't say anything. The dining room had closed hours ago and there's no cooking in the inmate's cubicles because someone had recently decided they were using too much electricity. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll get it."
I waited a long time for her return--long enough to wonder if she'd been caught and sent back to her cubicle. Long enough to begin to suspect she didn't really go to get coffee. Leaving me stranded in the cold hallway of a prison compound in the middle of a monsoon was her way of finally getting one up on me, shoving me into the eye of the whirlpool. Maybe she was back in her nice warm cube laughing with her fellow cubies. I could feel what little trust I'd managed to scrape together leaking through the mesh. Then Marian burst in.
She pulled one of those small appliances that heats one cup of water from beneath her parka and set it on the floor. She took a Styrofoam cup and a white plastic spoon from one pocket and a small jar of freeze-dried coffee granules from another. On our knees now, I scooped a teaspoon of the granules into the cup and stirred as she poured in the warm water. "Cream?" she asked. I stirred and nodded. She pulled a packet of powdered, non-dairy creamer from her back jeans pocket and handed it to me.
"Thanks..." I started, but she interrupted, "Gotta go before they figure out
I stretched my legs out on the cold concrete floor, leaned against the wall and watched rain drizzle down the long window, warming my hands on the cup, sipping coffee, and crying. Crying because she'd risked something for me and I'd doubted her. Crying because a cup of coffee cost her a day's wage at a sewing machine. And crying because my search for the perfect cup of coffee had come to an end.