By James Hanna
I studied her mug shot, memorizing her face. She was a boney woman in her early twenties. Her forehead was broad, her nostrils flared, her cheek bore a menacing scar. Her eyes were perturbed as though stung by the flash of the booking camera. Since she had struck her ex-boyfriend with a hammer, the photo seemed grimly prophetic. The victim had even phoned me to say he was still being harassed by her. So I braced myself when the front desk clerk buzzed my office, telling me that she had reported for her intake interview. Pocketing my handcuffs, I stepped out of my office and walked to the reception area. The room was packed with other probationers, but I recognized her from her mug shot. She was sitting alone at the back of the room, texting on an iPhone.
As I strode towards her, she eyed me suspiciously. Her gaze was like that of an animal poised for flight or fight.
“Lorena Jefferson?” I said.
She nodded haltingly, much like a cobra might nod.
“Tom Hemmings,” I said. “Come with me, please. I’m going to be your probation officer.”
Rising from the chair, she accompanied me back down the hallway. She did not look at me nor attempt conversation. As she shuffled into my office, I closed the door behind us. I fished the handcuffs from my pocket.
“Put your hands behind your back,” I said.
She obeyed me immediately, as a soldier might obey a superior officer, and I slipped the cuffs onto her wrists. She did not speak until I had set the teeth and fastened the safety locks.
“Awwww, Mr. Hemmings,” she drawled. “Whyja have to do that?”
“Anything sharp in your pockets?” I said.
“Naw, Mr. Hemmings. I ain’t never done no drugs.”
I patted her down then emptied the pockets of her jeans. She had nothing on her but her iPhone, a bus pass, and a couple of dollars in loose change. She slumped in a chair by my desk while I filled out a booking card.
“Whyja have to do that?” she repeated.
“Why did you violate the stay away order?” I said. “Didn’t you think he would file a complaint?”
“I guess,” she muttered. “He done about everything else to me.”
“Did he cheat on you?”
“Spend your money on crack?”
“Course he did.”
Her answers did not surprise me. Women charged with domestic battery were almost always victims themselves. Those brave enough to strike back were usually put on probation. The irony was irresistible.
“So why did you go to his house?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I wanted to see my son, sir. He won’t let me see my son no more.”
“So you told him you’d kick his ass again. That’s a terrorist threat, Lorena.”
She dropped her gaze as though searching for dimes and drew a shallow breath. “He beat me up a hundred times, sir. I beat him up only once. As I see it, I got some ass kickin’ comin’.”
I placed the booking card aside and inventoried her property. “Do you want to make a phone call?” I said.
“You need to blow your nose?”
I dropped her property into an envelope and sealed it with a piece of Scotch tape. “Are you ready?” I said.
She looked at me and shrugged. “What I gotta do to be ready?”
“Do you need to compose yourself?”
She turned her head sideways, scratching her nose on her shoulder. When she finished this maneuver, she smiled. “For a cop you ain’t having much fun, Mr. Hemmings. How come you’re askin’ me all them questions?”
“I’m only doing my job.”
She snorted. “Your job is to put me in jail, sir. Ya don’t gotta bug me with silly- ass questions.”
“It was silly of you to threaten him,” I said.
“S’ppose it was,” she replied. “But why do I gotta be sensible while the law gets to play the fool?”
“You’ll see a judge tomorrow,” I mumbled. “Maybe he’ll let you post bail.”
“Ain’t that up to you, Mr. Hemmings. Whatcha gonna tell him?”
I made no reply as I helped her to her feet. The probation department had a zero tolerance policy when violent probationers reoffended. If I were to comply with departmental policy, I would ask that she be sent to state prison.
I held her by her elbow and walked her to the jail elevator. As I glanced at her face, her proud stoic face, I knew I would disobey the department. “How are those cuffs?” I asked her. “Not too tight, I hope.”
The following morning, having read her pre-sentence report, I went into the courtroom where I had put her on calendar. According to the pre-sentence report, she had been born in South San Francisco and raised in the foster care system. She had worked a series of food service jobs, never for very long, and was last employed as a night watchman for a pet store, a job from which she was fired after quarreling with the manager. She was now living in a subsidized hotel in the Tenderloin District and drawing a General Assistance pension. She had no prior arrests, which I found a little surprising. The jail psychiatrist had diagnosed her as binary thinker with an explosive disorder.
I entered the holding tank, a bare brick room crowded with women in jumpsuits. She was sitting alone in a far corner of the room. She looked like an outcast.
“Mawning, Mr. Hemmings,” she murmured.
Suppressing a pang of pity, I sat beside her on the bench. She’s dangerous, I reminded myself. She almost killed a man. There’s a reason the probation department takes a hard line when violent felons reoffend.
“I ’pologize for my appearance,” she said. “Guess orange don’t suit me too well.”
“How did you sleep?” I said.
She yawned. “That why ya come to see me, sir? To be askin’ me how I slept?”
“I’m only doing my job,” I said.
She cracked her knuckles and groaned. “How many times ya gonna say that, sir? It ain’t like I’m faultin’ you for it.”
“I didn’t come here to be lectured,” I snapped.
“Naw, ya come here to make me a deal. Maybe ya shouldn’t do that, sir—ya might get yourself in some trouble.”
I had received that same caution at the training academy thirty years ago. Don’t get emotionally involved with them. Keep a professional distance. I reminded myself that collusion could result if I got too close to a client.
She stroked my shoulder with the palm of her hand. “Ya got dust on your jacket, Mr. Hemmings,” she said. “Don’tcha wanna look good for the judge?”
I removed her hand from my jacket and placed it onto her lap. “If your ex starts annoying you, call me. If you want to kick his ass again, call me. In fact, any time you get pissed off I want you to give me a call.”
She wiped her hand on her jump suit and winked. “If you wanna be a hard-ass, sir, you oughta make better deals.”
“Don’t you think you can handle it?”
She folded her arms. “I ain’t sure you can, sir. Not if you just wanna do your job. If I call you every time I’m pissed off, you won’t have no time for that.”
The following morning, she came to my office. The judge had released her on her own recognizance, pending a bench hearing for violating her probation. She was wearing dark-blue eye shadow that made her look like a bandit.
She wrinkled her nose as though hit by an odor then sat on the chair by my desk. “I s’ppoe you want me to thank you,” she murmured.
“Thank me for what?” I said.
“For askin’ the judge to let me out of jail. The women in there are crazy—they thought I was some kinda snitch.”
“Did you give them a reason?”
“Naw, you did, sir. When you came into that cell by the courtroom and tried to hold my hand. Didja forget you’re a cop, Mr. Hemmings?”
I shrugged. “We still have a deal, Lorena.”
She locked her ankles under the chair and shook her head vigorously. “Not when I’m wearing orange, we don’t. If one of them bitches had jumped me, I’d ’a’ knocked her flat on her ass.”
I recited her terms of probation to her: a year of counseling, community service, and a fifty dollar monthly probation fee. She rolled her eyes as she signed and initialed the grant. “I gotta pay to come see you?” she said.
“If you put it that way—yes.”
“Sir, I ain’t sure you’re worth fifty dollars a month. Ya act like ya don’t want me around.”
“Now why would you think that?” I said.
She folded her hands neatly onto her lap. “Can’t ya see? Mr. Hemmings, I’m ugly as sin. I got scars on my head where he beat me, sir. I can’t wear my hair in no permanent.”
“Why didn’t you call the cops on him before he set them on you?”
“I s’ppose I shoulda,” she said. “But I never been no snitch. He beat my ass a hundred times and I never snitched him out once.”
“Why would you want to protect him?” I said.
She looked at me with haunted eyes then tilted her head to one side. “That’s just the kinda woman I am, Mr. Hemmings. I’ll also be standin’ by you. Even though you put me in handcuffs, even though you took me to jail. Even though you might send my ass to the pen, I’m gonna stand by you.”
I referred her to a group counseling program at Center for Special Problems, a low-budget city project for residents with mental health issues. I also gave her a list of centers where she could receive supervised child visitations. And I dropped by her hotel in the Tenderloin to confirm her living arrangements. Her room contained only a bed and a dresser. It looked as though nobody lived there.
She was perched on her bed, hunched over her iPhone and playing Angry Birds.
“You need a television, Lorena,” I said.
She cocked her head like a parrot. “There wouldn’t be no point in that, sir. The residents here steal from the rooms to get money to buy ’emselves crack.”
“At least you can lock your door,” I said lamely.
“They’ll only pick the lock. I can’t even brew a cup of tea ’cause this whore ran off with my hotplate.”
Feeling overmatched, I placed my hands on my hips. Since I wasn’t Dirty Harry, I would have to feign being a hard-ass. “If you have evidence of that,” I said, “I want you to tell the management.”
She put down her iPhone and rubbed her eyes. “Management ain’t gonna care, Mr. Hemmings, so there ain’t no point in snitchin’. I’ll just have to do what a bitch gotta do.”
“I suppose that means kicking her ass.”
“I’m gonna do more ’an that, Mr. Hemmings. That missy won’t mess with my Kool-Aid no more after I scratch out her eyes.”
“You know what I’ll have to do if you do that?”
“Whatcha gotta do, Mr. Hemmings.”
“I’ll have to lock you back up. And that’s going to break my heart. You want to break my heart, Lorena?”
“Naw, sir, naw.”
“You going to scratch someone’s eyes out?”
“Naw, sir, naw,” she muttered. “But don’t be expectin’ no cup of tea when you come to pay me a visit.”
A day before her hearing, she called me on my office phone.
“Mr. Hemmings,” she said in a panicky voice. “I ain’t gonna look good for the judge.”
“I know that,” I said. I had read her progress report from Center for Special Problems. The report described her behavior in class as hostile and withdrawn.
“You need to open up,” I said.
“That ain’t no way to put it, sir. That class is fulla transexuals that wanna get into my pants.”
“Be glad you’re not that attractive,” I joked.
She snorted over the phone. “That don’t make no difference, Mr. Hemmings—I come from South San Francisco. A bitch got no use for gender benders when she comes from that part of town.”
“Lorena,” I said, “if you pick a fight, you know where I’ll have to put you.”
“Where ya gonna put me, Mr. Hemmings?”
“The Hotel California. And that’s going to break my heart. You want to break my heart, Lorena?”
“Naw, sir, naw.”
“Are you going to beat up a transexual?”
“Naw, sir—I ain’t going to do that. But if one of ’em grabs my p—y, I’m gonna be angry at you.”
Her revocation hearing went smoothly in spite of her behavior in class. Over the objection of an irate assistant DA, the judge cut her some slack. She was sentenced to two days in jail, time she had already served, and was ordered to come back to court in a month with a better progress report.
A day later, she dropped by my office. She was wearing a leopard skin jacket and had dyed her hair coral pink.
“Are you trying to scare off the trannies?” I said.
She rolled her eyes impatiently and sat down in the chair by my desk. “Whyja tell the judge I’m a special needs client. I don’t need nothin’ special.”
“You need to finish your counseling,” I said.
“I know that, Mr. Hemmings. But the instructor, he gave me some time out from class. I’m doin’ art therapy now.”
“I’m glad that works for you.”
She sighed like a kettle. “I’m sittin’ around drawin’ pictures, sir. How come that makes you glad?”
“Just fake it until you make it. That’s all you have to do.”
She pulled a loose thread from her jacket. “Like you been fakin’ it, sir?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’re s’ppose to be a cop, Mr. Hemmings. But you ain’t been kickin’ my ass. I’m gonna lose my respect for you unless you start kickin’ my ass.”
“When would you like me to start?” I said.
She dug her iPhone from the pocket of her jacket and started playing Angry Birds. “I ain’t listenin’ to you, Mr. Hemmings—see? I ain’t showin’ you no respect.”
We sat for several minutes while she played her video game. “Damn,” she said. “This level is f—ed up. It’s hard to bomb them pigs.”
“Keep that up, Lorena,” I said, “and I’ll do what I have to do.”
“Whatcha gonna do to me, Mr. Hemmings?”
Holding my cuffs in a pistol grip, I clicked the strands into place. “I’ll march your butt to jail.”
“And that’s gonna break your heart, I s’ppose.”
“Yes, it will break my heart.”
She played the game for another minute then offered me her iPhone. “Ya wanna try an’ improve on my score?”
“I want you to put that away.”
“All right, Mr. Hemmings, I’ll put it away.” She slipped her iPhone back into her pocket then patted me on the wrist. “But I don’t want you forgettin’ you’re s’ppose to be a cop.”
I resigned myself to her calling my cell phone almost every day. Her calls usually came around four p.m. as I was riding home on the Caltrain. I had given her my schedule and told her when best to phone me. And she considered it poor etiquette to bother me at work.
Our conversations grew as predictable as an I Love Lucy rerun. First she would inquire if I’d had a pleasant day. Then she would announce her chagrin with somebody in her building or counseling program. Her solutions to these provocations were patently the same. “If somebody f—s with my Kool-Aid, sir, I’m gonna kick his crotch.”
When I promised to slap her in leg irons, she came to my office unannounced. “Why do I gotta be in a program that’s only making me madder.”
“It’s supposed to teach you patience,” I said.
“I know how to be patient already. I was patient for five whole years. Never raised my voice to him, always bowed my head. Don’t be preachin’ to me ’bout patience, sir, ’cause you don’t know what patience is.”
Her outburst was so unscripted that I labored to respond. “That’s enablement, not patience,” I said. “Braining him with a claw hammer wasn’t too smart either.”
“Well, it got me out of the house. It got him offa my back. And now I’m having me some fun by messin’ with your head. The best thing I ever done, Mr. Hemmings, was to kick his motherf—-n’ ass.”
“You still have to finish that program.”
She shrugged “’Cause ya don’t wanna put me in jail? What kinda reason is that, Mr. Hemmings.”
“A bad one,” I admitted. “But it’s all the reason I’ve got.”
“Well, go ahead and put me in jail. That really ain’t much of a threat.”
“Consider it a promise,” I said, removing the cuffs from my pocket.
She shook her head and stared at the floor. She looked like a jilted bride.
“Is that all you got to promise me when I toldja I’d stand by you? I been patient enough already, sir. An’ I got the scars to prove it.”
She stopped calling me each afternoon, an interruption I rather missed. But I had anticipated being on her s–t list and was ready for the snub. When her program sent me a letter of termination, my indignity only increased. Was it to get back at me that she had threatened her instructor and stormed out of the classroom? Had she decided to break my heart as dramatically as I broke hers? An incoming call woke my cell phone, and I pressed it to my ear.
At first I did not recognize the voice: the tone was too smooth, the timbre too sunny, the pitch too disembodied. It was a voice as honeyed as syrup, a voice to be poured over crepes. It was the voice a recording gives you when you phone your congressman.
Having hoped to speak first with Lorena, I felt the sting of intrigue. Her voice was bold not seductive, like that of a warrior queen.
The probation chief repeated his questions. “When are you locking her up?”
It took only that whiff of dominion to tighten my grip on the phone. “How carefully did you read that report?” I said. “She told the instructor, ‘You just bought your ticket.’ That’s not a specific threat.”
“I know what she meant by it, Hemmings. When are you locking her up?”
I gripped the phone as though clutching an eel. “Maybe next Tuesday,” I said. “Unless she turns herself in.”
“Would a three-day suspension change your mind?”
“Make it a week,” I answered. “I’ve got some artwork to do.”
I shut off the cell phone, unduly sustained by the thought of a disciplinary suspension. I was starting to plan my vacation when I heard the rap on my office door. I opened the door and let her in. She had a can of pop in her hand and a sketchpad under her arm.
“What choo hollarin’ about, Mr. Hemmings?” she said. “I heardja clear out in the hallway.”
“Did you come here to break my heart?” I said.
She tossed the can into my wastebasket and sat down in the chair by my desk. “S–t, Mr. Hemmings. Locking me up won’t break your pissant heart.”
“If it doesn’t, I don’t know what will,” I said.
“Your bossman wants me in jail, don’t he, sir? And you don’t wanna be no cop.”
She rose to her feet and faced the wall, her hands tucked behind her back. “Quit talking your bulls–t, Mr. Hemmings. Do what you gotta do.”
“Do you want to take your sketchpad?” I said.
“You do what you gotta do.”
I slipped the cuffs on her as though they were bracelets then pricked the safety locks. “Anything sharp in your pockets?”
“Naw, sir, there ain’t,” she said.
She did not break stride as I grasped her arm and marched her butt to jail. She did not speak again until the gate shut behind us and we stood in the booking bay. As I ran the wand alongside her body, she gave me a wary glance.
“Mr. Hemmings, I swear. If I don’t take care of you, I don’t know who else will.”