This story is by Joanna Dunn Samson and won an honorable mention in our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Joanna Dunn Samson is a graduate of the Bennington College MFA program in fiction writing and a veteran of the Yale Writers Workshops. She writes short stories and essays, as well as feature articles in the local paper about animal rescue programs and issues. She is currently working on her first novel, The Trouble with Crows. This is her second honorable mention in a Short Fiction Break writing contest, after “The Poo Poo Man” in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest.
Pleading guilty to a state crime was one thing, but a federal crime? That was something else altogether.
First of all, the sheer amount of paperwork required by the feds was intimidating. Alice sat in the waiting room of the federal probation office with a stack of papers on her lap, waiting to be interviewed by a probation officer about the man she lived with, William Casey Battle. Billy had pleaded guilty to three counts of intent to distribute ten kilos of opioids and was being held in jail pending sentencing. The purpose of her interview was to talk with Agent Riley, who was preparing the presentencing report for the judge, about Billy’s character.
That was another thing about the feds—the probation officers were a far cry from the doughy, indifferent social workers who handled probation for the state courts. Federal probation officers were trim, neatly dressed FBI agents with close-cropped crew cuts and good posture. When Agent Riley introduced himself, Alice had straightened her shoulders, discretely sucked in her belly, and cursed herself for not wearing control-top pantyhose.
She shifted her weight, crossed and uncrossed her legs, and fanned the stack of papers fastened to the beat-up clipboard. She checked her watch and groaned. Damn that Billy; she’d never make it to work in time. She flipped back to the first page, fished a pen out of her purse, and began.
Name: Alice Lucille Chapin
Relationship to Defendant:
Alice paused and pursed her lips. How to describe their relationship? They weren’t married, although she’d wanted to marry him early on, back when there was still a twinkle in those blue-gray eyes. She’d dreamed of walking down the aisle in a silky, white dress with pearls embroidered across the bodice, and everyone—their families, friends, and yes, even Billy—figured it was only a matter of time before she did.
Then Billy suffered a string of catastrophes: a motorcycle accident resulting in a fractured pelvis, two DUIs, a suspended driver’s license, and dismissal from his job on the line at the Goodyear plant. After that, his drinking and drugging skyrocketed, and his temperament changed, slowly but surely, from lost and aimless . . . to erratic and contentious . . . to volatile and violent. She couldn’t bring herself to leave him—she had tried (and failed) many times—but she couldn’t bring herself to marry him, either.
Her mother had been appalled. “Are you stupid? You make him marry you while you still have the chance; the Battle family name means something in this county. It’s the dumbest decision you ever made, letting him off the hook.” Her mother was a Baptist and a pragmatist.
When her mother left the room, her father had grabbed her hand between his and whispered, “No, baby—marrying Billy would be the dumbest decision you ever made.”
The fact was, they were both wrong; she’d never made any decision at all. It had just happened—a slow, downward drift into a bleak emotional existence with a man who construed every comment, no matter how innocent or benign, as criticism; who roared and hurled beer cans against the wall at the slightest provocation. A missing sock, an unmade bed, cold pizza—all were fair game for his rage. When he was home, she kept her head down and her voice low and approached him like she would a wary pit bull tethered to a flimsy chain.
She winced. It was just like that.
She turned back to the form and considered her choices. “Girlfriend?” Too inconsequential. “Significant Other?” Too contrived. “Partner?” Too legal. Billy often referred to her as his old lady, as in, “My old lady’s home,” or, “My old lady needs the car.”
She hated that. She wasn’t old; she was only thirty-two! Maybe her curves had melted into folds around her middle, maybe there were a few gray hairs in her dark curly hair, and maybe some days she was tired and short-tempered; but then, living with Billy could do that to a person. But with a little red lipstick, a pair of tight jeans, and high heels, she could still turn some heads, for sure.
She scribbled “Significant Other” in the appropriate space and moved on.
The next page asked for administrative information—address, age, employment, and the like. Then came a section entitled “Financial Information,” under which was printed: If you are the spouse of the defendant, please list all assets, liabilities, sources of income, and household expenses.
Alice stiffened; pen poised. Why would they ask her this? Then she remembered. Calvin Byrd, Billy’s lawyer, had asked about Billy’s ability to pay a fine because, according to Calvin, the greater the fine, the lesser the time. She had dismissed the possibility out of hand. Billy had no assets, no job, no nothing.
But she had assets and a job, and hadn’t Calvin mentioned something about common-law wives? That was worrisome. The old Chevy was hers and so was the modest cottage in town thanks to her deceased grandma, may she rest in peace. Alice made enough money as a teller at Hometown Trust to pay the bills and squirrel away some money in an account Billy didn’t know about. It wasn’t much, but it was hers. Surely the feds couldn’t expect her to pay a fine just because they had lived together for so long.
Her stomach turned at the thought. She jotted “n/a” and prayed eight years of living with Billy didn’t make her a common-law wife.
Agent Riley poked his head out the door. “Ms. Chapin? You ready?”
Alice swept the hair out of her eyes and flashed him a smile. “Few more minutes?”
“You bet,” he said and closed the door.
The purpose of her interview with the probation officer, Calvin had explained at the conference with Billy at the jail, was to identify any redeeming qualities or mitigating factors that might persuade a judge that justice would be served by sentencing Billy to probation rather than prison. According to Calvin, it was more than a theoretical possibility.
“His previous state crimes were minor, and this is his first federal offense. The court might be merciful if there is strong testimony from friends and family regarding Billy’s character, which in this case would be . . . ” Calvin squinted at his notes, “ . . . a note from Billy’s mother and an interview with Alice. Huh.” He drummed his fingers on the table and studied the two of them. “Well. That should be okay,” he said without conviction.
Billy had reached out, stroked her cheek, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s up to you, Alice. Get me out of here. Things will be different this time, I promise.”
He sounded so scared, so earnest, so sincere, that when she gazed into those blue-gray eyes, all the lies, late-night fights, petty rages, and other women dissipated like smoke through an open window. He needed her, really needed her, and not just for posting bail like before. Her testimony could mean the difference between his freedom and years in prison. She could save him. Things would be different this time. She could see that now.
Then Calvin had said, “Focus on his remorse. Those F.B.I. guys—they love remorse. They hear genuine remorse and think: This guy’s never going to commit another crime.”
Her face flushed hot at the memory of how willing, how eager, she’d been to believe Billy in that moment. How could she have been so blind, so stupid? Remorse? Bullshit! Billy had no intention of going straight. He wasn’t sorry he’d committed a crime; he was sorry he’d gotten caught: he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time; he was smarter than everyone else—the FBI, the drug-addled buyers, and certainly her. He would play them all.
“Ms. Chapin?” Alice started at the sound of Agent Riley’s voice. “You ready?”
She took a deep breath and nodded. She was. Her daddy had once told her she’d know when it was time to leave Billy. He’d said there’d be a moment of startling clarity—a holy instant—and she’d know, with absolute certainty, she couldn’t stay one more minute. This was that moment, and her daddy was right—there was not one iota of doubt.
Billy would be furious—dangerously furious. She’d have to leave McDuffie County to escape the wrath of the Battle clan, but so what? Her only ties to the county were a bible-thumping mother and a hen-pecked father. Maybe she would move someplace with better weather, away from the crippling summer heat of Georgia, someplace like Rhode Island. Yeah, Rhode Island. No one would ever look for her in Rhode Island. She would find a place on the ocean where she could watch the ships sail out to sea. She would be free.
Alice smiled, gathered her purse, and stood. “I’m ready,” she said, and followed Agent Riley through the door.