The Pink House

From the Journal of
Nicole Parks

I promised Lolly that I would write the story of my time in prison. She said I should call it a memoir, so here it is. Some of it is from my journals, and some of it I remember though there is plenty I have forgotten, thank you very much. But what I can’t forget is Lolly Johanssen and what she taught us in her classes. Lolly is the person who inspired me to be a writer. Some people go to prison and end up finding God. Lolly helped me to find me.

I was in prison for possession of narcotics and for carrying a concealed weapon—an unregistered firearm at that. But what you need to know about me is that I am not, nor have I ever been, a dope fiend. I have never done any drugs, have never stuck any drug-type substance up my nose or in my arm, and have never even smoked a blunt. To tell you the truth, I pity addicts because their lives do not belong to them. They belong to the drug. I should know because even though I never touched drugs or smoked a nasty cigarette in my life, I had my own addiction: to a man. A smooth as melted chocolate, sweet-between-the-sheets man named Antwan. And that’s how I wound up in this place – this prison with its pink buildings up in the middle of Nowhere, North Florida. Sometimes we joke that it’s a big old pink palace, and we’re all a bunch of ladies in waiting, waiting, waiting.

In some ways prison is just like any place else; there’s a game to it. You can be all cool and rebellious and you can do every single day of your time and then some if they can figure out more charges to put on you. I have seen that happen to many a stupid-ass woman. They sneer at the C.O.s and refuse to do their work and get written up and locked down every day. They know they are the shit. I decided right away that wasn’t the way I wanted to play the game, and I got put into a different category. See, even those people who run the prison are willing to cut you a little bit of slack, well not exactly cut you slack. Let’s see. How can I say this so that even if it isn’t factual, it might be a little bit true?  There’s a few things, a very few things, that they offer to inmates that aren’t so bad. It’s mostly for show so they can say they’re trying to rehabilitate us. If you can get it in their minds that you are one of those who won’t cause any trouble and will make them look good, then you can get in that certain category of inmates who are eligible to take programs. We were a small group, and it wasn’t like it looked like a big privilege to the others. I mean, going to a writing class?  Most of them would rather slam their heads into a brick wall. But me, I knew that anything a little different from the everyday same ol’ same ol’ would be good. And I had always liked to write. I kept a journal all through middle school about all the stupid little fights with girls and the crushes I had on various boys. Then in high school my English teacher helped me get a scholarship to the University of Miami, and I was the first one in my family to go to college. Now, I am the first one to wind up in prison.

I come from a respectable family of AME Zion church-going, hard working folks, and I had destroyed their dreams for me. I was their A-student girl, the one who was going to be some kind of professional, a lawyer or something. Unfortunately, I was learning about the law the wrong way. Now, what I wanted more than anything else was to get back on track, to earn the respect of my momma and daddy and somehow regain a portion of all I had thrown away. So when the lady asked if I wanted to take a poetry class, I said, “Yes, ma’am. I’d like that very much.” And I somehow felt as if I might get a piece of my life back, a small piece.

So there were twelve of us out of a population of 670 women and the class was on Thursday evenings – same time as the NA meetings, but you already know that I didn’t have to go to that. They didn’t have Antwan Anonymous meetings. That first night we stood at the fence of our zone, watching the poetry lady walk up to us. She was a tall skinny white lady with short dark hair and she limped as she carried a satchel case over her shoulder and some kind of box in her hands.

“She walks funny,” someone said. “She got a club foot?”

When she got up to us, she smiled this big wide smile as if she knew all of us really well and she was so happy to see us. We forgot about her foot. She handed the box to Lucille and looked around at our faces.

“This is going to be great!” she said.

At first I figured she would be sort of like those professors I’d had in my one year at the university—nice but clueless. I found out pretty quickly that she was different. It was the way she looked at you as if she saw something inside you that you had no idea was there. When she suggested I change a word here or there in my poem, I didn’t take offense. I knew she was right. Even the hard cases seemed to like her.

We had class in the library, and for twelve weeks, we couldn’t wait till Thursday nights. If our phone privileges fell on that night, we ignored them. She gave us notebooks and colored pens and pencils. Sometimes she’d sneak in some chewing gum. We’d chew all through class and then wrap our spent gum in paper and she’d collect it before she left so no one would know. And for two and a half hours, we’d write about anything we wanted to write about. I wrote poems about my daddy’s daddy who was a sharecropper, about my great-great-grandmother who escaped from slavery to live with the Indians in Florida, about growing up near the cane fields, about catching fiddler crabs, about missing Antwan, about the azure waters off Bimini and the funny little man who sold me a straw hat when we were there. I don’t know why, but it made me feel free. It took me out of that environment, and it seemed like whatever we wrote, Lolly somehow made us feel that we were on a par with Shakespeare or Langston Hughes. And sometimes she’d bring poems to read to us—poems by Nikki Giovanni or Gwendolyn Brooks or a guy who had been in prison named Ethridge Knight. When we read our own stuff aloud, Lolly would watch us with her big green eyes, and she’d nod or sometimes close her eyes like she was listening to music, some Grover Cleveland type stuff like my dad used to listen to. We thought she was an angel.

One night someone asked her what happened to her foot.

She laughed, took off her shoe and showed it to us. It wasn’t real! We were shocked. She rolled up her pants leg and showed us that the whole leg all the way up to her thigh wasn’t real.

“This is my Barbie leg,” she said. “I had cancer when I was fourteen years old, and they had to amputate my leg just above the knee.”

“Oh, my goodness,” someone asked. “Do you have those what-do-they-call-em pains where your leg used to be?”

Lolly nodded. “Phantom pains?  Yes, sometimes it hurts like hell.”

We understood the idea of phantom pains. Some of us had pieces of our hearts amputated, and we hurt where there shouldn’t have been anything at all.

Lolly had big thick eyebrows, and when she pretended to be serious, her eyebrows would scrunch up and her freckled face would get crinkly and she made you laugh. Once she showed us that leg, some of us stopped feeling so damn sorry for ourselves. After all, we’d lost our freedom but we would gain that back eventually. She’d never have her leg again. And it made us love her all the more. So, we wrote and wrote, hoping that our abundance of words would make her happy and somehow they did seem to.

Then the program was over and she said she’d try to give us another program that summer. Lolly was true to her word. Only this time instead of writing poetry, we were going to put on a drama production.

Friday, May 20

The door to the Blazer opened. A pair of black stiletto heels landed on the pavement. The feet inside the shoes were nicely arched, the ankles slender, legs shapely. The owner of the legs locked and slammed the door. She looked in the rectangular side mirror at her reflection and noticed a smudge of lipstick outside her lip line, rubbed it off with her index finger, whispered, “what the hell” and turned to go inside the French restaurant where the party was being held. The night was warm as melted candle wax, and there were no stars to be seen in the gray-black sky. As she walked across the parking lot, she ran a finger over the cusp of her right ear, counting the earrings—a nervous habit.

Jen didn’t like parties. She usually drank too much, said something wildly inappropriate and wound up going home with someone who was married to someone else. All right, she had only pulled that stunt once, but it had turned into a two-year affair that ended that very day with a phone call from the wife, advising Jen that her attentions would no longer be needed.

“I have forgiven Daniel,” she said, “but I promise you, he won’t be making any more visits to Tallahassee to see you, and if you show up here in Atlanta, I will eviscerate you.” Then she hung up. Eviscerate was a lovely word, Jen thought; equivocate, eliminate, eviscerate. This all confirmed what a psychic in Cedar Key had told her a few weeks ago: “He will dump you like a load of dirt and never look back.”

So, after one failed marriage and an affair that was worse than a failure, here she was at the ripened age of thirty-two without a hell of a lot to show for herself except a ten-year-old Chevy Blazer, a suspended driver’s license and a cat with allergies. But she looked great in her little cobalt blue dress, and after a couple of glasses of whatever cheap wine they were serving at this thing, she wouldn’t care about the rest.

She was walking along the stepping stones toward the veranda of the rambling wooden house turned fancy restaurant when a voice called, “Dr. J.”

She wheeled around. Gary was trotting toward her.

“Doctor?” she asked. “I’m not a doctor yet. I’m still ABD, and when did we get so formal?”

“AB what?”

“All But Dissertation. It means I’ve done all the course work, passed the tests and now I have to write a damn tome to get the piece of paper.”

Gary smiled, and yes, he was disarming, distracting, slightly dismaying. He had been flirting with her relentlessly for the past three months, helping her with the young performers at the Shakespeare Festival, an event which provided the excuse for this “appreciation” party. He was also a student in her theater arts class at the university.

“Sorry . . . Jen. Wow. You look really nice. Great dress.”

“Thanks. I’ve had it forever.” Ex-husband Lyle bought it for her. No need to go into that.

“So, you came by yourself?” Gary asked, awkwardly. He was just an inch or two taller than she with a soccer player’s physique and soft pink lips that she had never really noticed before. 

“Yes. And where’s your date?” she asked, gazing at him in the weak light from the restaurant.

“I don’t have one.” He looked around as if for his invisible playmate.

“Then let’s cause a scandal,” she smiled and tucked her hand through his arm. “Maybe I’ll get fired from my oh-so-high paying adjunct position. I’m sure Amanda Hathaway, my nemesis, will be here, and she’s dying for an excuse to make sure I get crossed off the list.”

“Why would you get fired? The semester is over, Professor Johanssen. I’m not your student anymore.”

“Then why are you calling me professor?” She let her body shift close to his. Together they walked up the steps onto the veranda of the 1920’s house that had been converted into the town’s showcase restaurant, Chez Pierre.

Sure enough Amanda Hathaway, the grand dame of the theater department, noticed them and said archly when she “accidentally” ran into Jen in the bathroom, “Isn’t it past your date’s bedtime?”

“I believe it is,” Jen had answered and swung out of the bathroom without a backward glance. Amanda Hathaway had been in several Broadway hits in her younger years. She was now a full professor of theater at the university and she had never accepted the idea of someone like Jen actually having a job there, too, even if it was a crappy part-time position. Jen managed to get excellent evaluations from her students, and she’d done the necessary course work. But Jen was a woman. An attractive woman with plenty of talent. And Amanda Hathaway couldn’t stand her.


“How old are you?” Jen asked Gary as she slid on top of his naked body and ran her tongue along the side of his salty neck.

“I’m twenty-one,” he said. Okay, she thought, that’s only eleven years difference. She spread her legs and straddled him, not letting him inside her yet, just gently rubbing against him. She wished she hadn’t drunk so much, but if she hadn’t, certainly she would not be here in her bed with a student. A former student, she reminded herself. She’d already turned in her grades.

He rolled her over and parried like a fencer. Nicely done, she thought and pulled his face toward hers so she could suck his lips. She scraped his back with her nails, she moaned loudly, she thrust back at him. The hell with that bastard in Atlanta and his stupid wife, the hell with her ex-husband, Lyle, and his stupid girlfriend. She was getting royally serviced by a beautiful boy who had made a good solid B. He leaned down and sucked hard on her nipple. Maybe it wasn’t too late to change that to an A.


Morning. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, her body heavy as a camel’s. She opened her eyes and saw Gary sitting naked beside her with a cup of coffee.

“Coffee? You made coffee? Who sent you? God?” she asked.

Gary smiled at her. 

“My head hurts,” she said, pushing herself to a seated position. She was grateful the blinds were closed, and it was dim in the room. At least they’d come to her apartment and she wouldn’t have to pee in the bathroom of a 21-year-old male.

“We drank a lot,” he said.

“Yes, but you’re young and you have a nice, fresh liver,” she said, taking the cup from his hands. She knew what she really needed was water to get rehydrated, but caffeine wouldn’t hurt right now—open up the capillaries, get the blood flowing. She could hear it whooshing inside her head.

“Are you teaching this summer?” he asked.

“No, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I need to figure out something. The worst thing is . . .” and she stopped to laugh bleakly. “The worst thing is I lost my driver’s license. I got a DUI last month and they suspended it. Bastards.”

“But you drove your Blazer to the party last night.”

“Oops,” she said, shrugging.

He lay down on his side and propped his head with his hand.

“That was funny what you said last night.”

“What did I say?”

“We were talking about that bulimic girl in class, and you said you knew the difference between bulimic and anorexic because the word ‘bulimic’ had that barfy-bile-burping connotation. And that led you to wondering why ‘bucolic’ meant something beautiful and peaceful when it sounded like a combination of bubonic and cholera.”

“Did I say that? I thought you said it, and it made you seem funny and so fuckable that I had to take you home.”

He ran a finger over her thigh in circles. She was sitting up in the bed, looking down at the bristles on his scalp.

“No, you said it, but I’m glad you brought me home anyway,” he said, glancing up at her with a question in his eyes. She felt him growing hard, nudging her knee. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, she thought and placed the coffee cup on the end table.


He was easing his way into her, both of them a little tender from the night before when the phone started ringing. Jen closed her eyes tighter. Gary stopped mid-stroke and asked if she had to answer it. She shook her head, and they continued onward. But the rhythm had been broken, and she was unable to have a climax. His orgasm seemed perfunctory, the B student doing his best.

When he rolled off her, he asked if she was feeling all right.

“Oh, fine. Just cut off my head and impale it on a lamp post in front of the bar where we went last night, will you? As a warning to others,” she said, turning on to her side. She reached over and picked up her phone to check her voicemail in case the call had been important—someone offering her money or a job. She heard Lolly’s voice and deleted the message without listening to it.

“Who was that?” he asked.

“My sister, the biggest pain in the ass who ever lived.” She placed the phone back in its cradle.

“I didn’t know you had a sister,” he said.

“Why should you know that?  You’re my student for God’s sake. Why should you know anything about my personal life?”

“Well, I know that you have a rather large freckle on your ass. That’s pretty personal.”

Jen laughed and buried her face in her down pillow.

“So tell me about your sister.”

“Oh, God. Do I have to?” She rolled over, reached for the coffee cup and drank even though it was no longer hot. “No,” he answered.

“She had cancer.”

“Is she okay?”

“It was bone cancer. They wound up cutting off her leg just above the knee.” She gazed at the line of light at the bottom of the blinds and remembered being left at home alone during the operation. She had refused to go to the hospital.


“She was fourteen years old. I was sixteen. I remember thinking, that was so like her to do something like that. Get cancer. I mean, she was already Momma’s little darling. Then when she got sick it was like I just disappeared. Everything went to her. We had no money left for anything else. I had to quit my acting classes. I couldn’t get new clothes. We sold our car and had to take the bus everywhere.”

“But she lost her leg,” Gary said hesitantly.

“Exactly. So how could I complain? I mean, I looked like a total and complete asshole. Even now, you’re thinking, ‘well . . .’ but you don’t know what it’s like. When we were little I always had to take care of her because Mom had to work all the damn time. Our father thought child support was a jock strap for little boys. Then when we finally got a little older, Lolly’s cancer turned our lives upside down. And you know what? When Momma died, she left the house to Lolly because she thought I was married and would have my husband to help me. I hadn’t told her that I was divorcing him because he was off fucking someone else whenever my back was turned. She figured it out before she died, but she never changed the will.”

“You sound bitter.” His eyes were narrow, peering curiously at her, but his voice was soft, not judgmental.

“I’m not bitter. I’m hung over. Listen, I’m gonna take a shower. You should probably go home.” She kissed him, then stood up, opened her closet door and pulled on a cotton robe.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. He sat up and slid on his jeans. “I’m going back home to Tampa tomorrow. So I guess I won’t see you again till the fall.”

“Gary, I’m not like one of your little girlfriends. I’m not going to be offended if I don’t hear from you again. I mean, it was fun, but let’s be real, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, awkwardly. “I really enjoyed working with you though. You’re really talented and all. I thought the play went great, and you did a great job with those teenagers.”

She managed to smile. Anything to get him out of her apartment so she could get cleaned up. She wondered if she’d be able to get anything accomplished at all today.

For one thing she had to figure out how to make some money to keep her rent paid up for the summer. She hadn’t gotten any summer classes, but someone had called her from the hippie school nearby and asked if she’d be interested in directing the plays for the summer camp. The pay wasn’t much, but if she could scrape up one or two extra odd jobs, maybe act in some instructional videos for the state, she could get by. That was what life was all about, right? Get by. Just survive one day to the next.

The phone rang as Gary was leaving. Jen walked past it and went to take her shower. Her bathroom was small and old-fashioned with little white hexagonal tiles on the floor. The shower faucet had big white porcelain handles. She thought that even if she were rich, she would want a bathroom just like this. She ignored her bleary-eyed reflection in the mirror on the medicine cabinet and turned the water on very hot.

When she got out ten minutes later, she heard a knocking on the door. She slipped on her robe and went to the door in her bare feet and swung it open. In the hallway at the top of the stairs, Lolly stood with light from the window swirling around her, dust motes glittering. “Jesus, you are persistent, aren’t you? I told you, Lolly, I can’t come help out with your prison class,” Jen said, turning her back and heading into the kitchen for a Diet Pepsi. Lolly followed with that familiar clomping motion. “I’ve got to earn a living, you know. Some of us don’t have free rent.”

“I’ll pay you,” Lolly said.

Jen slowly pivoted on one foot and looked at her sister.

“How much?”

“Is two thousand okay?”

Jen sighed. Two thousand would be perfect.

“How often do we have to go there?”

“Once a week for fourteen weeks. Saturdays. We can ride together. You’ll really love it, Jen. I promise you.”

Jen opened a package of ginger snaps and ate one.

“How’d you get money?”

“I got a grant,” Lolly said.

“How much are you getting paid?”

“Well, my gas is covered,” Lolly said.

The martyr, as usual, Jen thought.

“God, you make me feel like such an ogre. I take two grand and you take nothing.”

“Look, it’s important to me that this program is successful. If it is, there’s a possibility of getting some federal grants to do more programs for a lot more people. And you’re the only one I know who can help me. I can do poetry and journal writing, but I don’t know anything about drama. I need your help, you can teach me, and you need money. Can we do that without a big goddamn fight?”

Lolly had her arms crossed over her flat chest and her head was tilted in an impatient, questioning manner. Jen studied the stance; it signified so much. Could be useful for some future role.

Then she realized what she was agreeing to—one of Lolly’s do-gooder projects. Jen didn’t want to do it, but what choice did she have?

She sighed, “When does it start?”

“I’m going to meet with the women the first Saturday of June, and we’ll officially get underway June 10,” Lolly said. “Are you in?” Jen tried, but couldn’t think of a reason to say no.

“You’ll have to drive. You know I lost my license,” Jen said.

“Deal,” Lolly said. Jen held out the bag of ginger snaps, and Lolly took one.