Issue #9: Creative Nonfiction
“You remember the incident last November, the Thompson escape?” The chief deputy warden inclined his head in my direction, recounting the event as if my memory needed a nudge. “And the armed accomplice, David Hunt . . . ”
Biting my lip, I stifled the urge to scream. Like I was going to forget being shoved into the back of a rusting prison transport van, a shotgun pointed at me, sure I’d be dead in minutes.
In November 1980, I’d been on my way out San Quentin’s count gate after an eight-hour graveyard shift when the watch sergeant hollered, “Hey, Holmstrom, easy money. Got a medical run for you.”
I was happy to grab overtime. The next month, I’d be on a plane to Europe to meet up with my boyfriend. Sleep be damned; I could stay awake for a couple more hours to haul some low-custody—”good guy”—prisoner off to a doctor’s office in town. I was unarmed. It was me and a medic named Ruff. Two hours and I’d be in my car, heading for home. What I hadn’t planned on was David Hunt, the Inmate Thompson’s homeboy, showing up with a long gun, intent on liberating his buddy. Money would do me no good if I was lying in some scrub at the bottom of a cliff in a remote section of West Marin, my uniform pants around my ankles, a bullet through my head.
The first thing in my mind: This can’t be happening. Other useless thoughts flooded in. Why did I ever sign up to be a prison guard? Now I’ll never see Paris.
As the chief deputy continued talking to those who had gathered, months after the escape, the kidnapping scenes flickered through my head—the Inmate Thompson sliding into the prison transport van’s front seat, pushing the key into the ignition and grabbing the steering wheel, despite his waist chains and handcuffs. The old Chevy engine wheezed and backfired a plume of blue smoke as Thompson jerked the gearshift into reverse. In the front passenger seat, the gunman turned towards me, eyes narrowed. The barrel of the shotgun, cradled on his shoulder, rested against the perforated steel barrier that separated the front seat from the rear prisoner compartment, emitting a metallic rattle with each lurch of the van. In a moment we’d be on the road, our abductors driving us to God knows where.
No one was in sight, no sound from a car or radio. Even the birds were silent. The only noise was my heart thudding in my chest.
I’d wanted to squash my face against the steel screen and cry out, “Go ahead! Escape! I don’t care. But don’t hurt me . . . Don’t kill me!”
Ruff, the medic, sat motionless beside me, his hands folded over his beige uniform smock as if in prayer, his face pale as clotted cream.
Why hadn’t I turned down this medical run and just kept walking out the prison gate when my shift was over? I could’ve been home, safe in my bed.
Hare-brained schemes to attract attention clumped in my head. Yell at a pedestrian or passing car, or peel off my uniform shirt and wave it around. Naw, if anyone saw that, they’d just think I was some crazy Marin County babe having a hot flash. Plus, those moves would piss off the man with the gun.
Our abductors began arguing.
“Let’s tie ‘em up,” Hunt insisted.
I stopped breathing.
“Shit no.” Thompson steered the van to the deserted back side of the medical complex. “We gotta get out of here.”
Lucky for us, Hunt and Thompson were more interested in making it out of the state than in rape or murder. They left Ruff and me locked in the van’s prisoner compartment while they’d hot-footed it out of town.
Eventually, the long-planned European vacation with my boyfriend erased thoughts of San Quentin and the kidnapping. But memories of Hunt crouched in a dark corner of my mind like a child’s boogey man lurking under the bed, ready to claw into my consciousness. Still, the nightmare was over. Wasn’t it?
So why was the deputy warden taking about Hunt and Thompson now, months after the escape? I surveyed the room, my chest tight, my breathing shallow. The prison’s administrators sat stone-faced around the sprawling conference table, looking like they were waiting to hear the eulogy at someone’s funeral.
I was a lowly correctional officer, a prison guard. These silverbacks probably wouldn’t even have noticed me as they crossed the upper yard, wouldn’t have seen me admonishing a couple inmates who kept stepping over the out-of-bounds line near the canteen. So why was I sitting at a table with all the “suits”—the top brass?
At least it was warm in the conference room. The cruel March wind that crested over East Block housing kicked up bits of rotting bag lunches and torn clothing on the upper yard. Icy gusts battered me, no matter how many layers I wore under my uniform. I was almost glad to be here, near a heater.
“Hunt and Thompson were apprehended after a string of robberies in Washington State. They were returned to Marin County jail a couple days ago.” The chief cleared his throat. “A snitch at the jail told a deputy that Hunt was offering fifteen hundred dollars to have you eliminated.”
I pulled my Tuffy jacket closer, suddenly shuddering, despite the steam heater blasting in a corner of the room.
“Hunt must figure that if you’re out of the picture, the medic won’t testify against him.” The chief watched me, his eyes boring into my skull. “The DA would drop the case.”
The room was silent except for the periodic belching of the heater. I felt the administrators’ eyes on me. Waiting.
“I’ll testify.” My voice came out in a pathetic squeak, like a cornered mouse.
The chief nodded. “We’ll provide a house on grounds for your safety. And of course you’ll be assigned to a non-contact position—a tower job. It will be a couple weeks before maintenance finishes with a house in the valley.”
Ordinarily, this would’ve been good news. Getting staff housing with low rent and walking distance to work was highly coveted—most of the homes were reserved for the “suits” and higher-ups like lieutenants and the custody captains.
“This is confidential. Only staff who need to know about it are aware of the contract on your life,” the chief said at the end of the meeting.
Oh boy, secret shit. I couldn’t reveal the real reason why I was getting bargain on-grounds housing and a laid-back job assignment. But I did tell my parents—to prepare them in case I was killed. And I told my live-in boyfriend, so he could ditch this woman with a crazy career that might get him shot too. Instead, he stayed.
Trouble was, I’d have to lie to my work buddies—pretend it was pure blind luck that I’d gotten these goodies. I couldn’t mention the death threat, the contract.
While waiting for the house to be ready, I was shuttled off to CDC headquarters in Sacramento for safekeeping. Back at San Quentin, the rumor mill was in high gear. I’d been having sex with an inmate and had been arrested. How else to explain my disappearance?
Once I returned, I moved on-grounds and was assigned to a tower overlooking the waterfront warehouses, a place where nothing much ever happened, where my biggest worry was staying awake for eight boring hours. Soon the gossip changed. The new explanation for my supposed good fortune was that I was sleeping with one of the suits instead of an inmate.
No place felt safe except when I was in that tower, a Smith and Wesson strapped to my hip, a rifle leaning in a rack beside me. On-grounds housing wasn’t a real refuge—a six-foot chain-link fence was the only barrier between me and anyone wanting to earn fifteen hundred bucks. On the outside, I was on edge, waiting for a contract killer to leap from behind a trash can or whip out his Glock in the middle of Petrini’s Gourmet Grocery while I ducked for cover behind a display case of Belgian chocolates.
My mouth broke out in sores; I had insomnia and night terrors—waking up screaming, a hooded figure leaning over me, his gun glinting in the moonlight.
Turned out there were more steps I needed to take before going straight to court to testify against Hunt. First, there was a lineup. This wasn’t like those TV police dramas I’d watched as a kid—the ones where the witness to a crime would stand behind one-way glass, a sympathetic cop laying his hand on her shoulder as she gazed at the men lined up in a row in front of a height chart. “Take your time, ma’am,” the cop
Instead, I was in a large auditorium in the Marin County Civic Center, fluorescent lights flickering overhead, chairs scattered haphazardly across the pocked linoleum floor. Ruff, the medic, and I were seated on opposite sides of the room. “So you can’t influence each other,” the DA said.
Seven jail inmates shuffled in, no cuffs or shackles, and lined up in the front of the auditorium about thirty feet away. I’d been mere inches from Hunt during the abduction and would never forget his acne-scarred face or ice-green eyes—as cold as a Dakota winter road. But I couldn’t see these details from where I was seated.
I guess I just accepted that this was how lineups worked in real life. I didn’t think to question the DA, to ask to move closer.
“Take a good look,” the DA said. “Oh, and the Afro wig was recovered.”
I’d almost forgotten Hunt’s absurd disguise. If he hadn’t been pointing a shotgun at me, I might’ve laughed at his Man-Tan smeared face topped by a cheap Afro wig. Like I’d mistake a biker-type white boy for a black man.
“You can have them put it on,” the DA said.
One prisoner twisted the wig so it sat sideways on his head; another pulled it low to cover his eyebrows. This was no help.
Leaning forward in the rickety folding chair, I examined each prisoner, straining to see each face clearly. Shivering, I folded my arms across my chest. I recalled failing a high school math test because I’d gotten confused; how stupid I’d felt.
I wanted to cry.
Finally, I narrowed it down to two possibilities. Everyone else was too tall or their build was wrong.
There. That man in the middle. It had to be Hunt. I felt it in my gut. But, did I trust my instinct?
Turned out the medic and I identified different people. The DA faced me. “How sure are you of your identification?”
I hesitated. I could’ve been one hundred percent sure if I’d been closer, but by then the inmates had all left the room. I should’ve asked for a do-over, requested to see the men up close. I should’ve lied. Instead I said. “Seventy, maybe eighty percent.”
The DA shook his head. “That’s not enough. We won’t prosecute.” I wanted to scream, maybe grab the DA by his starched Van Heusen shirt collar and demand he bring Hunt to trial, to give me a chance at a better look.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I just turned and walked out, pissed at myself that I’d let Hunt get away with nearly killing me—twice.
Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in Bernie Siegel’s book, Faith, Hope, and Healing. Several of her essays and nonfiction stories have been published or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream, The Penmen Review, Jet Fuel Review, Switchback, Stonecoast Review, Summerset Review, Two Cities Review, and others.