Isabel didn’t like lesbians, but that didn’t stop her allowing them to join the Union. In fact, she had developed a degree of sympathy with their rejection of men; she longed to marry and have more children, but if given a chance, would happily strangle her ex-husband to death.
In any case, the lesbians buttressed up the Union, which now stood at forty-plus girls and recruitment was still and always a priority. Before long, they might control over half the prison population.
It was necessary for Isabel to make her way through her daily routine with an entourage, not just for personal protection but because there were always errands, persistent supplicants, spontaneous ideas that needed recording; and, of course, to maintain the aura of authority among Union members and potential recruits. In this crumbling castle with plaster walls the colour of ice-crusted leaves, where the shrillness of voices was amplified by wide empty hallways and panic, and where dullness and soul-destroying monotony were dutifully embraced, the sight of Isabel with her brightly dyed red hair and completely illegal red fingernails, surrounded by hand-picked and deferential subjects, all looking well-fed and alert and alive, was memorable and aweful.
The guards tolerated her with good grace and by the convenience of bribes, usually drugs or favours, but sometimes too because they were no more immune to spectacle and the mysticism of hierarchy than the girls were.
Isabel’s first feat of magic was the curtains she negotiated/ battled for in the main toilets, a victory she insisted was successful because of the support of certain fellow inmates, the girls whom she dubbed the Union. And as she continued to serve her time, she struck a secret deal with Armando, a senior guard, for the safe and consistent import of various narcotics, the most popular of which was not cocaine or heroin but Xanax, and the siphoning of profits to an external account. She set up an inmate-controlled medical emergency system, so her girls would not die of the drugs she smuggled. She petitioned small, independent operations with the prison walls to amalgamate with her Union, less by threat than by luxurious coercion.
You would almost, Miss Fisher said of her one day to her friend Wendy, believe that Isabel had been a powerful businessperson and negotiator in the real world. Perhaps her crimes had been of the corporate variety?
Oh no, Wendy had told her. Wendy was intimate with Tricia, who was one of Isabel’s closest aides and confidantes.
Isabel was the daughter of illegal immigrants who were deported, though not before they abandoned and entrusted their child to the care of a friend, who turned out to be a notorious madame, Wendy told Miss Fisher, who raised Isabel to be a pampered and prized virgin ready for auction, until Isabel was raped by her English teacher and subsequently booted from the brothel.
Homeless for years, Isabel fell in with a pleasant and shy man who imported cocaine from Colombia. They married and had two children before he turned federal witness, at which time they were banished to a small town in Minnesota, where he continued to import cocaine with a new set of suppliers until he was arrested again. Isabel and the children moved to Miami but as homelessness loomed and she was unable to otherwise support the children, she began a short-lived career as a drug mule.
Her husband divorced her while she was in prison; and after being released again, he took custody of the children and moved them to the American Virgin Islands, where he continued to live as a roofing/ drug importer.
“Fascinating,” said Miss Fisher. “It would make quite the story, if true.”
“Even if it isn’t,” said Wendy. “Anyway she’s always had to scrabble and scrub for a living. She had nothing yet lost everything. Hardly a corporate or any kind of power.”
“She wants my blessing,” Miss Fisher said. Wendy wasn’t sure if Miss Fisher was still talking to her. Sometimes her aging mind wandered, these days.
“Oh yes, for her Union. She imagines I have some kind of influence,” said Miss Fisher.
“She wants you to join?”
“She does, indeed. And you too. And all my little friends.”
It was a Sunday afternoon early in November, but so sun-lit and warm that they’d removed their old woolen coats and scarves and basked in the unexpected glow. Their bench backed against the stuccoed utility building and faced a tall chain-link fence, beyond which was a sparse forest of spruce and fir; the closest to a view location that was available anywhere on the grounds.
“She could probably source some pecans for you,” Wendy said. She leaned back and closed her eyes, pretending for a moment she was enjoying a supple, warm day anywhere else.
“Do you think so?” asked Miss Fisher.
Wendy nodded, hoping Miss Fisher was watching. She felt deliciously drowsy, and probably could have dozed off, if she hadn’t felt the pierce of a frozen droplet on her forehead.
She sat up. The sun still shone, but the air had turned bitterly cold. Miss Fisher was pulling on her jacket again. All around her the air was filled with ice rain— tiny sharp pellets of ice that sparkled in the sunlight like shards of tinsel.
“Amazing, isn’t it,” said Miss Fisher. “How things can change in an instant.”