“Hi, I’m Esther,” the woman introduced herself, and Teresa stopped listening the moment immediately after that. She’d had talkative cellmates before, and Esther just had that look about her, that I’m going to tell you about my grandchildren whether you like it or not vibe. The trick to dealing with talkative cellies wasn't in getting them to shut up; it was in learning not to listen. Learning not to care.
Given enough cigarettes, Teresa could deal with anything. She absentmindedly began the old, familiar ritual. Open purse. Select cigarette. Place in mouth. Get lighter. Stop.
The boy's lighter’s hovered tantalizingly in front of her cigarette, halted just an inch away from the tip. Out of the corner of her eye she became aware of the old woman again, looking at her expectantly. “You, uh, say something?” she mumbled out of the corner of her mouth. For some reason she felt intensely embarrassed, as if she’d just been scolded by her mother. Not that Esther looked anything like her mother. For one thing, she was black. For another, her mother would never have been caught wearing elastic-waist jeans and a Dumbo tee at least a size larger than it should have been. The hand-knit cardigan was a nice touch, though.
“I said, please don’t smoke in my car." Esther's voice was still pleasantly soft, but it had gained a steely undercurrent of Don't test me, child, for I will brook no shit from you that had belonged to mothers since time immemorial. Teresa had even used that tone herself, so many years ago…
"Right. Sorry." She dropped the lighter into her purse and tucked the unlit cigarette behind her right ear, silently cursing at herself for backing down like that. Why had she rolled over so easily?
Give it five minutes, she thought. Then we'll be on the interstate and I can light up, smoke out the window or something. She won't pull over just to kick me out.
It was only then that Teresa realized she had no idea where this Esther person was taking her, or why she'd gotten into the car without asking how the driver knew she'd be on that stoop, the morning of her parole, when she hadn't told a single soul about her release.
*** *** ***
It hadn't been five minutes and already Teresa’s leg was twitching for nicotine. No, not a twitch, more like a cramp; a contraction of her thigh muscles that'd be painful if it wasn't so annoyingly slow, like a charley horse that would take hours to properly seize.
God dammit, I need a cigarette, she thought. Tommy needs to be fed. "So, um…"
"Esther," she offered..
"Right. So, Esther, you never said where we're going."
"Hmm. I suppose I didn't, at that." Esther's voice had a hard, cold quality to it.
Teresa turned to regard the old woman, a snide remark dying unspoken when she saw the set of Esther's face: brow furrowed, lips pressed together into a tight line, a deepening of crow's feet at the corners of her eyes as she squinted directly ahead. I've made her mad, Teresa realized, but fuck me if I know why.
She'd had people mad at her before, of course; you don't make it through 20 years in prison by being everyone's friend. Her normal reaction would have been to shrug it off, dismissing the old woman's feelings as irrelevant, impotent rage. A grandmother in her seventies versus a hardened prison bitch? Versus the Camel? No contest.
Then she remembered the unlit cigarette behind her ear, and the way she'd backed down.
Back in Frontera, the Camel had never backed down. Not to bigger women, not to prison guards, not even to God Himself if that bastard had ever come by for a conjugal. And the first thing newcomers were told, in hushed and hurried whispers, was that the easiest way to get the Camel at your throat was to tell her not to smoke. She'd spent more time than anybody in Administrative Segregation, but still she smoked. Teresa Reyes might have been quiet and weak and suicidal after lights out, but the Camel let no one stand between her and her source of power.
She'd done time in solitary for her habit, given cancer to cellmates for it, and now that she was out?
She'd rolled over like a little dog.
She'd become powerless.
She'd let the old woman, this Esther Whoeverthefuck, dictate terms to her.
The cramp in her left leg was stronger now, building, the irritant of thwarted desire forming a pearl of addiction deep within her thigh muscles. A pearl, large and smooth and cold, ice cold, the cold causing the muscles to constrict even tighter, irritate more… and then Tommy started to cry, a white-hot nodule of longing and need twisting within her chest, screaming with all the intensity of a newborn, a blazing coal of a cancerous tumor that left her gasping for breath as it threatened to burn its way though her lungs, her ribs, her skin, to explode in a poisonous orgasm of malignant carcinoma.
Tommy needed to be fed. Teresa needed nicotine. Cancer needed to spread.
"Fuck you," she spat at the old woman, lowering the passenger window, pretending to study the road signs as they passed. The car was on Interstate 15 and headed south. Her hands slowly crept into position.
And then she was moving, fumbling, really, Esther's voice lost in the roar of road noise and rushing air, Teresa's hands a trembling blur of nerves and adrenaline as she struggled to light the cigarette in the sudden wind with the kid's dead lighter, remembering too late it was empty. Son of a —
The old woman grabbed Teresa's left wrist, her hand bony and small and surprisingly strong as she struggled to pull the lighter towards her. "I said," she began, her voice shrill enough to carry over the shrieking wind, and somehow Teresa knew that if she finished that sentence there'd be no more smoking ever and Tommy would die and dammit who is this bitch to say what I can and can't do?
Cigarette firmly clenched between her teeth, Teresa waited for the next yank and then pushed off from her seat, colliding with the other woman with a meaty thud and throwing Esther against the car door. The car swerved sharply to the left, cutting across multiple lanes, as Esther fought to regain control with only one hand on the wheel. Teresa found herself sprawled across the quilt-covered front seat, her head nearly in the older woman’s lap and facing the vehicle's center console. It was, she noted, old enough to still have an in-dash lighter, and she punched it into position. Then, almost as an afterthought, she raised her hand to the radio and began frantically turning knobs and mashing analog channel buttons. A bright noise filled the car, all horns and percussion, and Teresa dialed the volume up to full, to distract and to mask the lighter when it clicked out.
Esther struggled to maintain control of the car without relinquishing her death-grip on Teresa's arm. She was shouting something, but between the music, the wind, the squealing of tires and the honking of car horns, the old woman's voice was an unintelligible blob of sound. Teresa felt something insubstantial at the edge of her consciousness, a kind of crackling in her peripheral vision. There was power in the old woman's voice, a power that had to be obeyed, but apparently it had to be heard first. The station wagon started to slow, signaling its intent to pull over onto the left shoulder of the interstate. The road noise diminished, precious seconds ticking by as the dashboard lighter refused to pop.
Teresa grabbed the steering wheel with her right hand and yanked, hard. The car lurched back the way it had come, tires squealing. "Either I smoke or we crash," she shouted through clenched teeth. "What's it gonna be?" Her wits nearly at breaking point, Esther released Teresa's arm, fighting to keep the car on the road.
Barely discernible over the blaring radio, the dashboard lighter clicked into ready position. With frenzied hands the younger woman clawed at it, prying it from its socket and setting her cigarette alight before tossing it, still glowing hot, into the driver's footwell. She pulled at the nicotine teat with the urgency of a starving newborn, gulping down lungfuls of air in the seconds she had before the car ground to a halt. Esther was screaming at her, something about how if Teresa was going to act like a child then she'd be treated as such, and that she'd lie there and be quiet, or else.
Teresa was about to ask what "else" was, but the blackness of enforced naptime crashed down on her with all the force of a stampede. Her head still on the old woman's thigh, a half-smoked cigarette dangling lazily from her lips, she was only half-aware of the radio announcing that the song was "Baby Elephant Walk" by Henry Mancini.