POSER

by Nevada McPherson

It’s obvious she’s never been to visit anyone in prison before. Something about the expression on her face tells how this is all new to her. The search of the vehicle, the pat-down, the scan. He asked her to leave her purse locked in the SUV unless she just wanted to bring a change purse with some quarters in it for the vending machine—no paper money allowed. He left his lighter and cigarettes in the car; God knows he’ll want those when he comes out.

Since they made plans to come at more or less the last minute, he’d barely gotten Jessica on the visitor’s list, but she got on it so she’s with him when Butch walks into the visiting area. Ambrose feels his heart quicken when he sees him, after everything that’s happened and all this time. Maybe it seems longer than it’s actually been but still … nearly a year and a half.

Butch has put on some weight. He still looks like he’s been working out, but not all the time like he used to. His rock-hard physique’s gotten softer. His dark hair is short but still wavy, starting to gray at the temples: baby face and affable disposition still intact. He grins to see them and Ambrose feels like bursting into tears from a combination of joy and guilt. Jackie’s words about when was the last time he’d been to visit Butch come back to haunt him, and he didn’t know if something in Butch’s eyes might, too, for being so slipshod, selfish and uncaring and for not coming back again sooner but there’s nothing negative there at all, just a strong, welcoming embrace as they use one of the two hugs they’re allowed, at the beginning and end of a visit.

Butch is a big guy so it’s a hell of a bear-hug and lasts until one of the guards turns their way and Butch, smiling, in tears, pulls back to get a good look at him. “Baby brother,” he says, maybe just to say it since he never gets to anymore. “You looking good. You are a sight for sore eyes.”

“You are, too, Butch. I never meant for it to be this long.”

“Aw, hell, I know you out there trying to survive and all. Times is tough, they tell me.” His attention shifts to Jessica. “This must be the pretty lady I been hearing about.”

Ambrose glances at her, unaccustomed to seeing her looking shy like this. Still, she has that beautiful smile and those bottomless blue eyes that are so mesmerizing. He places his hand on the small of her back to pull her closer. “Jessica, this is my big brother, Butch Ballard. Butch, this is —”

“I heard. She’s my new sister-in-law.”

Jessica’s bottomless blue eyes suddenly get larger and she looks at Ambrose, puzzled. He’d forgotten for the moment about telling Carl, and Jackie, for that matter, that he and Jessica were married. And he’d said nothing to Jessica about it, thinking he’d tell her later and they might even laugh about it (or maybe not) but now he looks at her pleadingly, while Butch stands there grinning in his XL-sized white outfit with the single navy stripe down the outside of each leg. “Can I give you a quick ‘welcome to the family’ hug?” he asks Jessica gently.

“Sure,” she says. “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Butch. Ambrose has told me so much about you.” Not really, but that’s sweet of her to say.

Butch leans forward and embraces her: not too close, not too tight, mindful of the watchful eyes of the guards around the semi-crowded visiting room. Since it’s the middle of a weekday, it’s not as crowded as it might be otherwise. As Butch hugs Jessica, Ambrose notices he’s gotten new ink on his right arm. 38-27-38. At first, he wonders if maybe it’s an old locker or safe combination but there are no R’s or L’s, just numbers. Then he realizes it could be measurements—a woman’s measurements. The Columbian drama queen’s, most likely. The great tragic love of Butch’s life who couldn’t care less.

Butch releases Jessica, looks at Ambrose. “You got yourself an angel,” he says.

“Didn’t I, though?” Ambrose agrees. She’s giving him a veiled look that says they’ll discuss this later, but she seems to be playing ball on the ‘married’ thing, which enables him to breathe a little easier.

“Hell, y’all have a seat,” Butch says, indicating for them to sit down on the opposite side of the table from him. “I’m glad I found you,” he tells Ambrose. “Hope you’re not upset I had Danny’s private dick track you down but … well, I just didn’t know what else to do.” He looks at Jessica. “Danny’s my lawyer, you know.”

“How long you think it’ll be now, Butch?” Ambrose asks.

“Lookin’ like another five, but maybe sooner if I’m real good,” he says. He clenches and unclenches his hands, then lays them flat on the table, glancing over at the guard closest to his line of sight as he keeps an eye on the clock as well. “Almost got my associate’s degree. And then I’m going for my bachelor’s. Ain’t that a hell of a goddamned note!” he asks, still with that infectious enthusiasm that Ambrose realizes he’s been missing out on by not being around. No one’s around. Not really, not the way Butch deserves. Butch glances at the guard again. “Pardon my language, ma’am,” he says to Jessica. “I almost forgot; we’re not supposed to use profanity here in the visiting area.” Now Ambrose wonders if he almost forgot because it’s been so long since he’s had any visitors. “So how long y’all been married?” Butch asks. “Got any kids?”

 “Jessica has a little boy named Beau from her first marriage. He’s a sweetheart and I’m crazy about him … ” He glances at Jessica, quickly checking her reaction. She looks like she’s still with him. “We don’t have any of our own yet.”

“We will, though,” Jessica says, causing him to look at her again, surprised. “One day.”

“Good, ‘cause I’d just love to be an uncle,” Butch says. “You can bring babies in to visit, you know.” Then, “Aw, listen to me. You probably wouldn’t want to bring no baby in here. People do, but … maybe I’ll get out in time to see him while he’s still—hell, before he graduates high school anyway.” He smiles, but this time to mask the fact that he’s getting a little emotional. Ambrose leans forward, following an impulse to touch him, grasp his hand, hold him, but the guards are watching.

“Butch?” Ambrose begins. “You all right?”

“Oh, hell yeah,” he says.

Jessica turns to Ambrose. “Why don’t I take those quarters and go get us all something to drink?” she asks. “What kind of soda would you like, Butch?”

“Uh … Coke or Pepsi. Whatever. Thank you, ma’am.”

“Ambrose?”

“The same.”

“’Kay. I’ll be back.” She stands and starts over toward the vending machines in the corner, taking her time.

“Butch, I swear,” he says, “I’m so sorry I haven’t been back to see you” This feels like an echo of last night, with him and Jessica apologizing to each other before a session of wild-as-hell sex to rival the night of the red jumpsuit. Meanwhile poor Butch is sitting here day after day, year after year, enduring no telling what. He asked Butch once if he’d ever had to fend off other guys looking for sex and he said he could handle himself—he was really buffed out then—and then again later when the subject came up, he’d said, “It is what it is.”

 “You’re living your life. That’s what I always wanted for you. I didn’t mean to drag you away from it by sending you that letter. I just wanted to find you.” In spite of the tears in Butch’s eyes, a smile tugs at his lips again. “Daddy told me you’re running one of those S&M places. Is he crazy or is that true?”

“It’s true.”

“What the hell’s that like?”

“It’s not as freaky as it sounds. The woman who owned it left it to me in her will. I was working there most days and working for Lang nights, and then a bunch of stuff happened. I don’t even know where to start to tell you everything.”

Butch drops his voice to a whisper. “Did that bald-headed bastard screw you over? I been hearing shit about him. If I ever see that son-of-a-bitch again—”

“I owed him some money for a while but I paid it all back,” Ambrose says softly, glancing toward the guards. “I think I even might’ve scared him a little.”

Butch grins. “That’s good to hear. I oughtta know you can take care of yourself by now. Will you tell me ‘bout it one of these days?”

“Sure, I will.” He turns to see Jessica over by the vending machines, making a selection. “So, you think Daddy’s days are really numbered?”

Butch places his hands flat on the table, eyes downcast. “He had a bout of pneumonia last winter and things were looking grim.” Finally, he looks up. “So I’m not a total egg-sucking liar.”

“Liar? About what?”

“Well, Daddy is in bad shape, by all accounts. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be around. Could be a week, a month. Hell, he’s so damn mean he might even last another year or more. He could outlast me.”

“Don’t say that, Butch.”

“And Mama’s slowly drinking herself to death, ‘cording to some folks I still hear from ev’ry once in a while. Guess you could tell. You went by there, didn’t you?”

“Yesterday.”

“Well anyway … the reason I told you all that ‘bout Daddy in the letters ‘cause … ”

“Yeah?” he asks, leaning forward again.

“I missed you, Baby Brother. I guess you could say I exaggerated some. Hoping you’d write back and I’d get to see you again. Ain’t that some shit?” He says the last almost laughing but not quite. Then silent.

Ambrose sits still, staring at Butch, absorbing the fact that he went to all the trouble of trying to get him here because he’s lonely and desperately needs to know there’s someone left out there who cares. And the fact that he had to wonder about that or doubt it for a minute is sad beyond words. “God, Butch,” he says. “I’ve missed you, too.” He has to swallow hard to try and dispel the lump that’s formed in his throat. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come back, but I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

“You don’t have to make anything up to me. I’m glad you’re here now. Just wanted to find out where you were and if you’re all right. And tell you I love you, and . . .” He looks up and sees Jessica, hanging back tentatively before approaching the table. “You can come on back,” he says to her.

She sits back down at the table. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. If you guys need to talk, I can go pick out something else from the vending machine.”

“Stay,” Ambrose tells her. “I was just telling Butch how we won’t be strangers anymore. We’ll be coming to see him a lot. I will anyway.”

“Well, me, too,” she says, popping the top on Butch’s soda can and setting it in front of him. “I’m so glad I’m finally getting to meet you.” She smiles. Turns out she is charmed by him. Many women are. It’s just that he goes for the dangerous ones. Always did, like playing with matches.

“Does Callie still come see you?” Ambrose asks.

Butch smiles but looks downright wistful. “I ain’t seen or heard from her in a damn long time. Hell, she could be living in Barcelona with some baron or count, or in some Mexican jail. Or she could be dead, for all I know. They’s no telling.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Well. Shit happens. Y’all going home today?”

“We’re flying out at five.” Then, “Are you feeling all right?”

He looks up, eyes moist, red around the edges. “I’m fine.”

No guards close around at the moment so Ambrose reaches out and places his hands on top of Butch’s. “I notice you keep clenching your hands. Are you having some trouble?”

“They get a little numb sometimes. Might be bad circulation. I’m all right though.”

“Let’s see your grip,” Ambrose says. Butch smiles like it’s much ado about nothing, looks him in the eye, gripping his hands. It’s still a firm grip, but not quite what it used to be.

“How’s that?” Butch asks, releasing him. “Not bad?”

“Oh, I want to see,” Jessica says, reaching out to him. “Squeeze.” He glances around to see where the guard is, then takes her slim, delicate hands in his large, angular ones. He grips her hands, glances around for the guard once more, leans forward and kisses her left hand. Ambrose notices she’s not wearing a wedding ring—she’d stopped wearing the one from Mike when the divorce was final a few weeks ago and now she’s not wearing one and neither is he, for that matter. Butch notices; his eyes shift briefly to Ambrose and he looks like he could almost bust out laughing, but he doesn’t. Besides, he’s getting to squeeze Jessica’s hands and his mood has already lightened considerably. Ambrose can read his mind.

“You have a very nice grip,” she tells him as he releases her hands and sits back in the chair.

“Why, thank you,” he says. “So do you.” He sips from the can of soda. “Y’all just make the most charming couple I ever saw.” Ambrose can tell he’s still holding in laughter; doing a damn good job of it, too, but the fact that he is makes it hard to go on. Jessica is oblivious, watching Butch intently. He’s still got it.

“All right, Butch,” he says finally. “I’m going to level with you about something.”

“Whatever could that be, I wonder?” he asks, furrowing his brow, but it’s a joke, because he already knows.

“Jessica and I aren’t married; I just told Daddy that because I thought it would piss him off. And he told you and Mama so I was just playing it as it lays since I started it.” He glances at Jessica. She’s staring at him, blushing, again put on the spot. “And Jessica knew nothing about it ‘til now and she was just going along with me—I guess to keep from embarrassing me or whatever.”

“Ambrose!” she cries, probably feeling whiplashed at being roped into complicity then outed, all within a few minutes’ time. “What on Earth made you tell your dad this in the first place?”

“He was being such a pill and so rude to you. I just thought it’d piss him off, that’s all.”

Butch finally laughs. “Well, boy, it did. When he called me, he was fit to be tied.”

“Why would telling him you’re married to me ‘piss him off’?” she asks.

“Because he doesn’t want me to have anything. Least of all a good-looking wife.”

Butch nods. “That’s the honest truth. Our daddy is one more contrary, bitter old S.O.B. Can’t help himself.” He takes another sip of his drink. “But we’re not,” he says, looking at Ambrose. “Thank God we’re nothing like our old man.”

This is an excerpt from Nevada McPherson’s new book, POSER. She writes in the Southern Gothic town of Milledgeville, Georgia, home of Flannery O’Connor and once site of the world’s largest “lunatic” asylum. She is currently at work on POSER, a novel set in the darker corners of Silicon Valley. A graduate of LSU’s MFA Screenwriting Program, she’s written several award-winning screenplays, stage plays, graphic novels, nonfiction pieces and countless to-do lists. You can see her previous work for Deep South here.

“POSER” was selected for our “Separation” theme about feeling disconnected. Read the rest of the stories related to this theme here. 

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