Set at the notorious Jefferson City Prison, a novel about loss and healing and unexpected bonds.Evelyn Grant, newly widowed, returns to her hometown of Jefferson City, Missouri, where she rents rooms in her old family home across the street from the Missouri State Penitentiary. Then Evelyn sets about trying to see her mother for the first time in forty years. She knows where to find her – across the street, behind the limestone wall: Mabel Grant is serving a life sentence in the penitentiary for murdering the twin babies of a neighbor. Evelyn makes the acquaintance of Roz Teal, who has befriended a condemned prisoner soon to be executed. Through Roz Evelyn meets Ezekiel, lifetime convict, who leads Evelyn to her mother. A novel about loss and healing and unexpected bonds.
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By Marlene Lee
Holland House BooksCopyright © 2014 Marlene Lee
All rights reserved.
I couldn't see the Missouri Penitentiary from the train station, but I'd felt the beat of its limestone heart all the way from the Mississippi River to the center of the state. New York City seemed very far away.
In front of the depot I kept my head down and walked toward the waiting taxi. Leaving my bags at the curb — "Can you give me a minute?" — I stepped back inside the waiting room, empty except for the man behind the caged ticket window. In a water-stained corner of the ceiling, pounded tin hung loose. I missed the rumble of baggage carts and telegraph clatter that used to fill the place. But the marble floor seemed friendly, as smooth as when I'd played jacks, onesies through tensies, waiting with my mother for the Missouri Pacific.
"I'm going to the Missouri Hotel," I said, outside again.
"I wouldn't do that," said the driver.
"It burned down years ago."
Steve Mason hadn't mentioned the fire.
"There are motels on the highway," he added.
"That far out?"
"The highway runs through town now." Amused, he opened the back door for me. "When was the last time you was in Jefferson City?"
"Forty-some years ago?" He gave a long, low whistle and got in behind the wheel. The taxi smelled sour. Cold cigarettes and sweat. "Where you headed?"
He started the engine. Blackheads studded the back of his neck but the cotton shirt collar was clean and pressed. "Where on Capitol?"
"Across from the penitentiary." He hitched himself around to face me, a sedentary man with a bad back. "The old one? Prison's moving east of town."
"The one that's always been on Capitol."
He faced forward again. "It's still there. They haven't moved the old guys out yet. Old guys and one old woman." He eased away from the curb and we turned south, uphill. Monroe Street passed by at a slant. "Lots of activity right now. I can't get you to the gate."
Ahead, the First Methodist Church opened its arms. "What kind of activity?"
"Execution next week. Protestors."
"Can you swing through town?"
At seven-thirty it was still light. The three dime stores, Woolworth, Kress, and Newberry, were gone. Still, turn-of-the-century buildings continued to gaze down on High Street, their brick facades ruddy with sunset. When five people wearing summer fabrics emerged from a restaurant and stepped onto the empty sidewalk, I shielded my face and moved to the middle of the seat.
"For now, they're gonna keep the old prison open for tourists. That, and the gas chamber. The execution's this Wednesday. Darn right."
"712 Capitol Avenue," I said. I wanted to be near the prison walls, the Capitol dome, the Methodist Church steeple, the county courthouse. Give me the old part of town: High Street. Monroe. The Lafayettes and Madisons, Marshalls and Jacksons. No subdivisions. No malls.
June air carried hymn-singing from the direction of the prison. A fifty-ish woman walked her dog west on Capitol, and I studied her as if we were survivors from the same refugee camp, as if there were rumors: The person you're looking for walks a dog every evening, or You'll find the person you long for in a taxicab approaching the Missouri State Penitentiary.
"Why did they leave one old woman behind?"
"Don't know. It was in the paper, though." The sound of singing and chanting grew louder. The taxi slowed. "I can't get any closer." Ahead, a crowd blocked the way.
"Can you let me off at the corner? I'll only be a minute." Stepping onto the pavement, I brushed against one of the orange-and-white-striped sawhorses stenciled "Missouri State Prison." In front of the entrance a line of police stood at attention, the only bodies that weren't moving and swaying in the hymn-thick air. At the edge of the crowd I passed a solitary gentleman in khaki walking shorts who stood slightly apart, thin legs knotted with varicose veins. In slow motion he raised a sign, neatly printed: "'God bless us every one.' Tiny Tim."
Across from my old house, the prison wall sat cooling in encroaching twilight. Behind the administration building, prison dormitories were hidden from view, sunk below grade in the old quarry that had furnished rock for the entire enterprise. All my life the state penitentiary had been just across the street. I remembered touching the warm, rough limestone when I was a child, curling my hand around the strand of salad called ivy as it crawled up the wall. My mother rushed across the street, grabbed me by the arm, and dragged me back to our front lawn. Never go near the prison! Pray for the prisoners, but only from our side of the street!
A siren in one of the guard towers began a paralyzing slide up the scale. Startled, I leaped in place, blocked by a line of protestors holding a banner at waist height — "Born-Agains for Tim" — and vigorously singing "Jesus Loves Even Me." A middle-aged woman with a severe haircut held a megaphone in one hand and beat time with the other. Beside her, a young man stepped toward me. "Join us?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"It's Jefferson City at Armageddon," he explained. "This is the first execution we've had in years."
"I remember an execution when I was a child," I said. "This is just one of many down through Missouri history." I sounded like someone commemorating capital deaths. Ahead, from the Cherry Street end of the block, more chanting wound between and around blasts from the megaphone. Above the wall, floodlights in the guard towers came on, obliterating early stars.
I was standing in front of my old home; lawyers' offices. Gone were the spirea bushes at the edge of the lawn. Ditto the hydrangeas. But the hickory tree, taller now, still grew at the property line. During summer vacations, Barbie and Jackie Pletz from next door came for picnics under its branches. Mrs Pletz's cheese sandwiches had been very different from my mother's egg salad. The mustard was strong enough to open up a space behind the nose as dark as a cave. Those sandwiches, foreign artifacts, were cut into four triangles instead of halves. The Pletz house had felt foreign, too: Purple carpeting with blue flowers; a fruity smell in the rooms, like old oranges; toys scattered about. The house had seemed careless and tolerant of mistakes.
At about that time, my flat world began to grow round. At age seven or eight, I realized my neighbors and my neighbors' neighbors were different from one another. Households were not alike. My family was distinct from every other family. My mother was not like other mothers.
"How's the prison look?" the driver asked as I reached the corner and climbed into the back seat again. "About the same?"
He stuck his head out the window and made a U-turn. "I don't suppose you've got anyone behind the walls."
The black vinyl felt sticky. I kept my hands in my lap.
"What you was asking about, the Missouri Hotel," he went on, "it was arson. A couple of prisoners escaped and set the place on fire. Of course, it was already boarded up. No one stayed there anymore, not even on State business."
Early one evening, perhaps the very day of the cheese and egg salad sandwiches, as I walked to the playground through sleepy coos of mourning doves, the penitentiary had come to life behind me. Had I heard someone talking about a prison break or an execution? A riot? Had I caught a glimpse of my future? Whatever the reason, the giant across the street stirred and began to breathe. Its breath fluttered the curtains at every window in my neighborhood. That day I realized the prison had always been inhaling and exhaling; I'd just never heard it. I forced myself to keep going, but as soon as I reached the playground, I turned and ran back home where my parents sat in front of the new TV set, watching yellowish-green images behind the plastic film they'd installed to protect the family's vision.
"Come here, Evelyn," my mother said. "The Methodist minister is on television."
"Sit down," my father said. "Your mother wants you to watch the service." I sat on the floor between them, not too close to the screen because my mother said even with the green plastic film, you never knew what damage a TV could do. But by the time the organ had stopped playing so the minister could talk, my father and I were drifting upstairs, he to his study and medical journals, a doctor who hadn't been able to cure his wife, and I to my dollhouse. Once she got caught up in prayer, my mother didn't notice whether anyone else was there or not.
"Forty years," the taxi driver said. "What brings you back now?"
"This and that," I said. "Tying up loose ends." I'm a widow now, I might have added, or I want to know why my mother did what she did, or simply: I still love her.
On my first morning back in Jefferson City I sat on the edge of the motel bed, its sweaty, unfresh sheets knotted under me. A headache hung on. I felt feverish.
"Information," I said into the telephone, wanting much more than the recorded message I received: prison visiting hours, 1:00 to 4:00. On an answerphone I left my name, the prisoner's name, and our relationship.
After coffee in the motel lobby, I called a cab. By noon I was standing in front of 712 Capitol. Energetic new demonstrators had replaced yesterday's late crew. The police were changing shifts, too, and I watched fresh reinforcements file to the wall from patrol cars blocking off Cherry. Below the nearest manned tower, a line, mostly women, waited at the prison entrance notched into the wall. They looked experienced, knowledgeable about penitentiaries and themselves. Envying them because they knew how to visit a prisoner, I got in line.
I looked west down Capitol Avenue where a new apartment building cast its out-of-scale presence over the neighborhood. In his letter, Steve had told me to expect the height, the glass and steel. He'd built it on the lot where his family's home once stood. Still, I was surprised by its power and modernity. I spotted a pay phone near the double doors to the prison and considered calling him, but he would hear the singing and megaphone and guess where I was. Standing in line, even with my headache and fever, provided comfort: these women would not know me or judge me.
My old bedroom window across the street was blank. No curtain, no shade, just glass with a glint of sunlight. Downstairs, the lawyers had decorated. Painted shutters were pulled aside to frame flowers and figurines. Forty years ago my mother moved behind that glass, occasionally coming forward to adjust a drape or dust a sill. I longed for her to come to the window.
At one o'clock the prison doors opened and they let us in. After giving up my driver's license and being stamped on the back of the hand with purple ink, I took a seat in one of the orange plastic chairs that filled the waiting room. Two officers kept watch over us; there were approximately thirty of us there to visit. I'd traveled two days by train for this moment, but now I wanted to be somewhere else. My headache and flushed face occupied me. I hoped I was just overwrought, not sick and infecting the women who sat feeding their children, wrapping and rewrapping crying infants in blankets soiled from Department of Corrections buses the State ran on schedules from Kansas City, St. Louis, and Springfield.
I changed position on the molded chair. Next to me, a baby girl nursed. Her miniature gold-and-pink-gemmed earrings glittered with each pull at the breast. On her infant forehead, a sweat of salty dew had broken out. Exhausted by the hard work of feeding, her ecstatic eyes rolled up into her head.
I labored under the weight of dead air in the room. Drawing a deep breath required effort. My attention roamed among the women's sandals and toenails, the room's dirty windows, the pulse in my temple.
Was my mother being ushered toward me at this very moment? Did she dread seeing me? Would she even come? I tried to remember what she looked like and failed. I shouldn't have come back to Jefferson City. The few letters I'd written had never been answered. Maybe they'd never been delivered. Was I going to mention them to her? Should I? Does one talk about the mail to one's mother? Would she know me? Should I introduce myself? Would it be rude to ask her why she destroyed our family?
The other women in the waiting room were much younger than I. My mother had been locked away for more years than these girls on orange plastic furniture had lived. I tried to grasp the fact that the brownish-green floor and ceiling, the dirty walls, had been here all along. These same Missouri windows were admitting smudged light the day my mother's cell door swung shut behind her.
On Sunday afternoons we would walk along pleasant, dappled streets named Fairmount, Moreau, Elmerine, Moreland. Leafy trees touched each other high above slow, occasional cars. Off Fairmount Boulevard, McClung Park overlooked the valley between the east side of town and High Street. We stood motionless, gazing across the distance at the domed Capitol. The county courthouse, quaint and beautiful, lifted its clock tower high above our town. If the wind was right, we heard its bell ring the hour. As my mother took my hand and we turned back for the long walk home, I thought life would be an endless succession of Sunday afternoons.
My face felt hotter now. Chill sweat dampened my arm pits and bra line. These women on plastic chairs knew who they were visiting. They had not waited forty years to talk to a stranger.
A voice announced the bus that would carry them to the new prison where their young men had already been moved. Eventually the old prison would be cleared out.
Someone called my name. My heart beat faster, and I couldn't stand. The guard repeated himself. I tried to control my breathing; I didn't want to be panting when I came face to face with her.
I followed the officer down a liver-colored hallway and entered a room where glass panels separated inmates from civilians. He pointed me to a booth and tall, three-legged stool. I climbed onto it and waited. Next to me, the Hispanic woman, who hadn't gotten on the bus with the others, continued to nurse her child. I guessed at how her husband, deprived of those breasts, might feel while he watched.
I tried not to slip off the stool that rocked now and then on its uneven legs. If I tipped into the glass, I might accidentally touch my mother through the splintered window, cut both of us, land on her, even break one of her bones. After being in prison for forty years, she might be fragile. Some people are fragile at seventy; some aren't.
Behind the glass, a guard with a crew-cut and florid face opened the door, stepped through, and picked up the telephone hanging on the wall. "Mrs Grant will not be coming for visitation today."
I listened through the receiver at my end and stared blankly.
"Mrs Grant will not be coming today," he repeated. He looked down at a carbon copy and read, "Reason for refusal: inmate preference."
My stool wobbled. I put one foot on the floor and shook with the effort to neither sit nor stand. "Why?"
"I have no other information." The officer watched me closely, as if I, like my mother, belonged in a cell. I would have been happy to turn myself in. There was no particular reason to remain on the street side of the limestone wall. I hung up the telephone and climbed onto the stool again.
"You'll have to leave now," he said, bending slightly for better eye contact.
I all but crawled back to the waiting room. Someone was moaning: me. An alarm rang. A female guard took me through an unmarked door to a private room, and after sorting through a basket of driver's licenses, she found mine, gave me a Kleenex, and escorted me through the double doors onto the steps of the front entrance. I wanted to run, leave this place far behind, but I turned an ankle at the curb and had to limp across Capitol Avenue.CHAPTER 2
I walked aimlessly up to High and back without any attempt to call a cab. Finally, after several round trips, my ankle felt better and my feet knew what to do. Of their own accord they took me toward 712 Capitol Avenue — past Mrs Winthrop.
Even in the 1950s she'd seemed like an old woman. One time she telephoned my mother and complained that I was taking short-cuts across her lawn and would I stop because I was wearing out the grass.
"She's screaming at me!" I'd sobbed one morning, aborting my walk to first grade and running back to the house. "Mrs Winthrop is screaming at me! I walked across her grass!"
My mother dropped the dust rag, pulled me up into the wing-back chair, and rocked me in her lap. "Now, now. She's a lonely, cranky old woman. We'll pray for her. Then we'll pray for her lawn." She laughed. "Last of all, we'll pray for your feet." She grasped my shiny sandal and wiggled it tenderly. "Dear God, please keep Evelyn's little feet off Mrs Winthrop's lawn."
Excerpted from Limestone Wall by Marlene Lee. Copyright © 2014 Marlene Lee. Excerpted by permission of Holland House Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Ioana Marza for Readers' Favorite Limestone Wall by Marlene Lee follows the return of Evelyn Grant to her hometown - Jefferson City - after forty years of absence. Recently widowed, Evelyn feels a pull to her childhood home, which is just across the street from the town’s prison with its limestone walls where her mother is serving a life sentence. She rents out the top floor of her former home and reacquaints herself with the town and old friends, as well as making some new ones. Through them, she finds her way into the prison where the mother she hasn’t seen since she was a child lives a hermit life. Around this time an execution is due, which unsettles the town. Limestone Wall is similar to normal life; nothing spectacular happens and yet it is meaningful and absorbing and hard to rationalize. Evelyn cannot explain why suddenly, after forty years, she feels the need to see her mother, other than the fact that she is very lonely after her husband’s death and her children leaving home. Her friend Roz cannot help playing mother to convicts who might or might not need her. This instinct to be reunited with one’s mother, the yearning for maternal love (whether to give or receive) is profoundly human and any reader who lost their mother or child would connect with that. Marlene Lee is not trying to prove any principles or answer big life questions - the execution itself is a background event that is relevant for Evelyn’s friend, rather than a statement for or against the death penalty. The characters are believable and interesting and the story moves in a subtle way. Evelyn is close to finding a relationship again, but nothing is rushed or overly romantic. Two people in their fifties approach each other in a realistic underplayed way, exactly as I would expect it to happen in life, as opposed to the movies. Limestone Wall captures humans and their fundamental feelings - loneliness, love, being lost and confused - in a thoughtful and unpretentious way. It's a very pleasant read.