I picked up Claire at the mall and took her to her apartment near the Oceanfront. She was thin and petite with short, boyish black hair, the word believe tattooed on her arm, a pierced nostril.
She sat in the front, which I like. I let people sit wherever they want to, but I like to talk and sitting up front is usually a sign of friendliness and a willingness to chat.
But Claire was quiet. One word replies to my first attempts.
“Doing a little shopping?”
“Pretty hot out there, huh?”
I’m always wondering at this point of the ride. Do I shut up and leave her alone? Are my attempts at small-talk just bugging her?
But she was up front, so I thought I’d try one more time.
“You a local? Have you lived here long?”
“Here and Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve lived in both places.”
“I’ve been to Charleston. It’s a beautiful place.”
“Yeah. I like it better than here.”
“So, what keeps you here? Why not move back if you like it better?”
“I can’t because it would violate my parole.”
From that point on, Claire was frank with me. She’d been out of prison for only about a month. She didn’t have work and wasn’t hopeful of getting any with a felony conviction. She’d served a year of a five-year drug sentence because she almost O.D.ed. They dropped the possession charges, but the parole violation meant she had to do some time.
She did nine months in a local jail and three in a penitentiary. Jail is much worse, in case you didn’t know.
“I’d rather go down in a hail of bullets than go back to jail,” she said.
She’s been clean for fourteen months. That’s the longest she can remember. But she feels trapped. She can’t get work here and she can’t move to where her family is in Charleston. There are programs that can help once she gets a job, but getting one is up to her.
If she had her choice, she’d go back to school and get licensed as a natural foods nutritionist. But that costs money and the schools are outsider her parole area.
“The parole system is just a scam to get us back into prison,” she said.
Claire didn’t seem angry. She seemed hopeless.
Before she got out she said, “Thanks for listening.”
“I wish I could do more than just listen.”
“Sometimes that’s the most important thing you can do, really.”
I want that to be true. I gave Claire an invitation to church and told her I’d be praying for her.