The Prison Wife Gets Her Man

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The Prison Wife Gets Her Man by Alicia Erian


My husband, Nils, was serving his fourteenth month of a two-year sentence for a day-trading scam that went like this: first, he opened an account with an online brokerage — usually this took about $500. Then he bought a large volume of stock in a good company, like Dell or UPS. We’re talking purchases of, on average, $100,000. Sometimes the brokerages called him about

this, sometimes they didn’t. When they did, they said, “Mr. Wexler, we see you’ve just bought $100,000 of Dell, but there’s only $500 in your account,” and Nils said, “Are you people trying to insult me? I’m making a modest trade here. I’m on my way out the door to give you people a check right now. What’s the trouble?”


Nils’ greatest gift was his capacity to take offense. That was, he took it deeply, he let you know with his voice that he was utterly astonished by the lengths to which you, his attacker, were willing to go to debase a fellow human being. You’d never felt so low in your life for doing it, never mind that your instincts were 100 percent correct. And so you backed off. You said, “My apologies, Mr. Wexler. It’s just that we have to check these

things out.” Then Dell or UPS would go up a few points and Nils Wexler, gentleman stockholder, would put in a sell order for shares he never really owned. At that stage, with a $5,000 profit margin, he would cash out and take his suddenly very real check down to the bank, just as promised.


I missed Nils. We were entitled to conjugal visits, but he refused to do it in prison. He said it was inelegant, like walking down the hall at the doctor’s office with a cup of pee in your hand. “The more people know your discreet business,” he told me on the phone through the Plexiglas, “the more you become like an animal who shits in the street. You think the animals don’t care? Look at them while they’re doing it. They’re apologizing to you with their eyes.”


“What about me?” I said. “I need sex, Nils.”


He shrugged. “Look elsewhere, my dear.”


“You’re an asswipe,” I said. “Good luck finding me when you get out.”


“I think you’ll be easy to find.”


I looked at him in his blue prison jumper and decided it was probably killing him to be this brave, to have faith in the only conventional part of his life. Nils trusted in no one and no thing by simple virtue of the fact that he knew the depths of his own deceptive nature and had a tendency to

project his criminality onto everyone else. Including me. But for whatever reason he also clung to me, and if I had never felt special before, I surely did now, for it was something altogether to be loved honestly by an otherwise dishonest man. Maybe it was flattering, maybe it was a comfortable burden, maybe it lifted me out of some place in myself that had always felt no good. Who took care of criminals, after all? The clergy, underpaid government workers, saints. Not that I even remotely resembled any of these people, but I admit to occasional fancies of nobility.


In prison, Nils’ affection for me took the form of steadily maintained weight, neat hair, close shaves, clean fingernails. He hoped to keep me from worrying, I knew, to create an illusion of continuity that would make it easier for us to pick up where we had left off as soon as he was released. “Don’t come and get me when they turn me out,” he had been instructing me for months. “I’ll take a cab home and we’ll cook a simple meal. It’ll be a day like any other, and we’ll treat it as such, with no celebrations or undue joviality. We’ll make love two nights later, so as not to seem desperate.”


“To who?” I said. “Who’ll be watching?”


“We will,” he said.


“I’m desperate right now,” I said. “I’m telling you every week.”


“Discretion is the better part of valor,” he warned.


“Valor?” I said. “You think you’re some kind of hero?”


He considered this for a moment, then said, “Yes,” and the crazy thing was, I spent the whole ride home wondering how this could be. But that was Nils. He was very sincere. If he told you something crazy, your first concern wasn’t whether or not it was true, but whether you could find and travel his twisted roads of logic. He was a puzzle, a brainteaser, and the prize of his alternate universe was as irresistible and meaningless as hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk.


But I was worried. To survive prison, Nils was spending more and more time spouting his philosophies on dignity and elegance as if such things were still within his reach. Meanwhile, the greaseballs on either side of him were telling their girlfriends to slip a finger in their underwear and smear it across the Plexiglas. Somehow I thought we might survive better if Nils would succumb to this. If he would allow himself to be reduced and humiliated a little, instead of using his courtly manner as a front for innocence. This, too, was for my benefit, as he was deeply, deeply ashamed to have made me a prison wife. “My wife is my conscience,” he often said, an apology mixed with faint contempt.

There was no counterperson in sight when I walked into the bakery, so I started coughing until a rangy brunet came out from the back, wiping his floury hands on his apron. “Can I get some help?” I asked.


He looked around the small shop, which consisted of a pastry case and a glass-doored refrigerator holding undecorated cakes. “There’s supposed to be a girl out here,” he said. “What the hell?”


“I guess she must’ve stepped out,” I said. “Can I order a cake?”


“I’m supposed to work the counter, too?” he muttered, grabbing an order pad beside the cash register and a pencil so dull he would have to hold it vertically if he expected any lead.


“I need a cake,” I said. “I want it to say ‘See You When You Come Out of the Sewer’ and I want it to be decorated with one of those metal files people use to break out of prison.”


The kid, who was maybe twenty-five, started writing down what I had told him. “‘See You When You Come Out of the Sewer,'” he repeated, and I nodded.


“With the picture of a file,” I said.


“‘With file,'” he said, still writing.


“And I’d like it to be a vanilla cake with strawberries in the middle. Do you do something like that?”


“‘Vanilla cake with strawberries.'”


“It’s for my husband,” I said. “He’s in prison of all places.”




Alicia Erian and


The kid stopped writing and looked at me. He was fit, like Nils, with slim muscles that stretched the armholes of his snug T-shirt. There were dark circles beneath his lazy green eyes and he would have to shave soon if he didn’t want to be identified as bearded. “This is a real cake?”




“What did your husband do?” he said, and since there was no one around, and it was just starting to pour outside, and all I knew of intimacy anymore was two people separated by a counter, I told him everything. When the story was over, he said, “Yeah, I get all kinds of requests.”


“What do you mean?” I said.


“For example, a lot of ladies want dick cakes, for bridal showers or whatever.”


“You make a cake like that?”


“Nah,” he said. “The boss’d never go for it.”


“You should start your own business,” I said. “On the side.”


The kid looked out the front window of the bakery, over a display of cakes and rolls that had been glazed with clear varnish, locked in a permanent state of presentability. “Would you like to borrow my umbrella?” he said, watching rain slant into the windshields of cars on the one-way street.


“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”


He went in back and returned carrying a black, compact variety. “You can bring it back when you pick up your cake,” he said, handing it over to me, but it was cheap and blew out the second I stepped outside.

Nils said the cake was déclassé and wouldn’t eat any of it. “But it’s your birthday,” I said, taking a bite-sized piece for myself. After admiring it, the guards had scanned it with a handheld metal detector and chopped it to bits, leaving it in a cubed, berry-soaked heap on a Dixie plate.


“That’s just it,” Nils said from the other side of the glass. “You brought me a birthday cake about a sewer. I can’t eat that. I’ll be sick.”


“There’s no sewage in it,” I said.


“It was written in green,” he said. “That’s very suggestive.”


“The kid that made this?” I said to Nils, licking frosting from my fingers. “That’s who I’m going to sleep with.”


“Oh yeah?” he said.


“That’s right,” I said.


“Keep your voice down, would you? I don’t need the whole place knowing my wife is frustrated.”


“The message I’m getting from you is that you would rather I slept with the bakery kid than sleep with me yourself.”


“I would rather you waited ten months and explored the many technological options available to women today in your position.”


“A vibrator? This is your suggestion to me?”


“My wife has no concept of the euphemism.”


“Who are you talking to?” I said.


“My wife,” he said.


“And who is that? If you think you see the person you call your wife sitting in this room, please point to her.”


Nils laughed and it made me wet.


“Tell me about the kid,” he said, lighting a cigarette, and I did, what little I had seen.


“The umbrella is your in,” he announced when I was finished.


“Oh yeah?”


“Buy him a new umbrella, invite him over, give it to him.”


“What’s wrong with the bakery?”


“You want to give it to him at work?” Nils said. “That’s a busy place.”


“Give me your word that you won’t take revenge on him when you get out, Nils.”


“My word isn’t so good right now.”


I stopped for a minute to compose my thoughts. Finally I said, “If I give him the umbrella — wherever I end up giving it to him — it’ll be a simple story, a dignified one. You’re telling me that after fourteen months alone in this place, you’d rather not hear it?”


Nils smiled sadly at me. He said, “Martina, I’m a white-collar criminal. Violence would not become me. If at some point in the near future you find yourself in possession of an elegant tale about protective rain gear, I assure you, your story is safe with me.”


“Nils,” I said, leaning forward into the Plexiglas, “fuck me in one of the conjugal rooms, now.”


His smile faded and he stubbed out his cigarette. “Sweetheart,” he said, before hanging up the phone, “you have crumbs at the corners of your mouth.”


I got the kid one of those umbrellas with blue skies and white fluffy clouds lining the inside, and took it over to the bakery, where an old man with widely set legs told me that he had quit.


“What do you mean he quit?” I said. A tightly outfitted teenage girl was also behind the counter, watching me get my bad news and probably reveling in it. No doubt it was she who should have taken my initial cake order.


The old man shrugged. “Some get-rich-quick scheme. Said he didn’t need my effing minimum wage. Can you believe the mouth?”


“Get rich quick?” I said.


“Real quick,” the girl put in, and I wondered if I might have misjudged her. “I seen him yesterday on a motorcycle,” she added.


“Is it raining?” the old man asked me, eyeing the umbrella.


“No,” I said. “But this is his. I need to return it to him. Do you know where he lives?”


“I do,” the girl said, and she told me.


“He made good cakes,” the old man said grudgingly.


The girl looked at the pointed metal tip of the umbrella and said, “You could put somebody’s eye out with that.”

The kid answered the door in jeans and bare feet. His short hair stood at odd angles, while faint ridges in his abdomen confirmed a fitness regimen. Somewhere behind him, a modem screeched. “Hi,” I said. “Remember me?”


“Sure,” he said, “the prison wife.”


“I blew out your umbrella and I’m here to replace it.”


“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “the forecast is good.”


“That’s just it,” I said, unsnapping the thing and pushing up the expansion mechanism until it made its satisfying cluck into place. I raised the stem high in the apartment hall, offering him a view of the cheery nylon underbelly. “Ta-da.”


“Shit,” he said. “It’s bad luck to open umbrellas indoors.”


“Well,” I said, closing it back up, “I’m the one who opened it, so you don’t have to worry.” I offered him the smooth wooden handle.


“No,” he said, “really. You keep it.”


“Please,” I said, still holding it out. “You’ll like the feel of it in your hand.”


“It’s just that I’m kind of busy right now,” he said.


“Yeah, I know. Running my husband’s scam.”


He ran a hand through his hair. “Oh boy,” he said. “This is it, isn’t it? This is the bad luck.”


“Bad luck?” I said. “I don’t think so.”


“You won’t tell your husband?”


“Do you know why I’m here?”


“Sure,” he said.




“You want to have sex. You’re trying to grease the wheels with the fancy umbrella.”


“What wheels?”


“How much do those things go for, anyway? Fifty bucks?”


“I guess what offends me is that, all things considered, I’m still standing out in the hall.”


He shrugged. “Maybe you should blackmail me. Threaten to tell your husband or something.”


“This isn’t some chore, you know! I’m thirty-three! I go to the gym.”


“So your position is that I should already be attracted to you — that my decision here is a non-decision.”


“You’re making me work too hard for this,” I told him, and surprised myself by starting to cry.


He remained attentive, but ultimately unmoved.


“Fine,” I sniveled. “You’re blackmailed.”


He smiled then in a way that felt very familiar to me — a benevolent, white-collar way — and, at last, wrapped his fingers around the curved umbrella handle. “You’re right,” he said, using it to tug me into the apartment, “it feels nice to hold.”





Alicia Erian and


He lived in a small, square room with a double bed situated between a pair of tall windows. Occasionally a breath of wind would send the curtains rushing forward, after which they would deflate and recede, licking the edges of the unmade bed in their backward path. On a small table near the foot of the bed sat a stack of papers, a computer and a half-eaten bowl of cereal. An upside-down motorcycle helmet on the floor served as a receptacle for mail.


“Just give me a second,” the kid said, leaning the umbrella against a wall and disappearing into the bathroom. While he was gone, I broke his Internet connection and dialed Nils at the prison, having planned the afternoon around our weekly call. When he finally came to the phone, I said, “It’s me.”


“Sweetheart,” he said.


“I’m not at home.”


“Oh yeah?”


“I’m at the kid’s apartment. With the umbrella.”


“Who are you talking to?” the kid said, coming out of the bathroom, a smudge of toothpaste on his cheek.


“My husband,” I said, pulling my mouth away from the cordless receiver.


“Your husband?” he said.


“I thought you were going to give it to him in the bakery,” Nils said.


“I was, but then I found out yesterday he quit.”


“Hey!” the kid said. “You promised not to tell him that.”


“Is that him?” Nils said in my ear. “He sounds a little whiny.”


“He quit his job because I told him your scam and now he’s running it.”


“What the fuck!” the kid said, and he started pacing the room.


“Calm down,” I said.


“Is he making any money?” Nils said.


“Are you making any money?” I asked the kid, following him with my eyes. He was all over the place.


“No,” he said. “I swear!”


“He’s not making any money?” Nils said. “How can that be?”


“What about the motorcycle?” I asked the kid.


“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck!”


“What a foul mouth,” Nils said. “Put him on.”


“He wants to talk to you,” I said, holding out the receiver.


“What? Are you kidding me?” he said, dodging it.


“C’mon,” I said. “He might have some good advice.”


“Fine! I have a motorcycle. So what?”


I put the phone back to my ear. “Nils? He doesn’t want to talk to you.”


“Don’t tell him that!” the kid said, and then he took the receiver.


“Hello?” he said nervously.


I sat down on the bed, relieved to have Nils taking care of things. “No sir,” the kid said, “the last thing I would want to do is offend you.” There was more silence as he listened, and slowly his shoulders began to relax. I lay back on the stale sheets and closed my eyes as my husband had his way with the two of us, all the way from prison. The kid laughed a couple of times and said, “Oh, man,” about something Nils had told him, and I was wet again at the thought that we were all in this together.


“Ask him if he can help us,” I said, sitting up on the bed.


The kid looked at me blankly. “Mr. Wexler?” he said. “I think your wife wants to talk to you again. Hold on just a second.” He handed me the receiver but I shook my head.


“Just ask him,” I said.


He held the phone aloft for a few more seconds, then reluctantly returned it to his ear.


“Mr. Wexler?” he said. “Ah, your wife has asked me to ask you if you can — if you can help us.”


There was a long silence then as the kid listened, rapt, to whatever Nils was telling him. His head bobbed lightly in silent affirmation, and his bottom lip pulled apart from the top. At one point he said, “Sure,” and seated himself in the computer chair, spinning it around to face me on the bed. A small heat rash crept up the side of his neck. “Okay,” he said finally, “I’ll tell her.” Then he covered the phone and said to me, “He says you should be making yourself comfortable right now.”


“All right,” I said, feeling oddly shy as I stood and pulled my underwear from beneath my skirt. “Comfortable” was how Nils liked me at home, so that at any given moment he might lay himself into me with the minimum of disruption. He was particularly attracted by activities I performed with my back to him, such as cooking, weeding, and freelance data entry, insisting I carry on with my work as he made his studied strokes in and out of me. I associated most things mundane with coming and found I did not resent those chores nearly as much as my friends and colleagues.


“What else?” I asked, feeling the kid’s eyes on the shadow beneath my skirt.


He listened to Nils briefly, then told me, “Mr. Wexler says I might be interested in your impression of the courtesan hanging in your living room. The Hendrick Goltzius.”


I nodded and sat down on the bed, undoing the top buttons of my blouse until I had an opening wide enough to stretch around the edges of my bra. I pulled my breasts out and let them spill over the new, squarish neckline I had created, nipples just catching against the fabric. At last I tilted my head to the right and smiled faintly, placing my hands restfully against the flat of my stomach. Nils loved all things ancient and dirty and our apartment walls were covered with images of women who didn’t seem to realize their breasts were exposed. Oblivion made him hard. The more I pretended not to notice he was inside me, the faster he would come. His greatest disappointment in life was my habit of waking on penetration.


The kid, who had slipped somewhat in his chair, said, “Um, Mrs. Wexler? He says it’s obvious the drawing was done in a cold room.”


I hesitated briefly, then, as if to turn the pages of a book, licked at the thumbs and middle fingers of my hands.


“Okay,” the kid murmured to Nils some moments later, “I see it.”


“What else?” I asked quickly, it having been so long since I made a man’s voice drop.


The kid cleared his throat. “He says for you to come over here and get me set up for bad weather. He says you mentioned something about an umbrella earlier. He says that he thinks it might rain.”


I nodded and got off the bed, crossing the floor to my purse on the small table.


“He says we absolutely can’t go out in the rain without protection,” the kid said, gently laying a hand on my back as I made space between his legs to kneel down, unbutton him, and pull him out.


“Tell him not to worry,” I said, rolling on the Durex. He’d been visibly hard since my underwear with the dark wet stain hit the floor. “What else?” I asked, my hands pushing off against his thighs as I stood.


“He says we should be facing the computer,” the kid said, swiveling his chair around. “He says if I’m running his scam, I’m going to need a spreadsheet to keep track of my investments. He says you know how to work something like that, and you should sit down and do it now.”


I raised my right leg to straddle him as the kid lifted the tail of my skirt, offering me the material once I was steady. With his free hand, he then held himself at an angle as I eased myself backward onto his lap, gripping the computer table for leverage. When I had closed the gap between us, I let the skirt fall around me, but he gathered it back up again and pinned it at my waist. “He wants to talk to you,” the kid nearly whispered, starting his ride into me, and I accepted the phone he passed over my shoulder.


“Nils?” I said. “Are you there?”


“I’m here,” he confirmed.


“It won’t take long, baby.”


“You asked me for help,” he said. “A man should help his wife.”


“You are helping me,” I said as the kid reached around for my breasts.


“Pretend you don’t notice it happening,” he said.


“I’m looking at the computer,” I told him.


“Oh yeah?” he said.


“Computers make me think of you.”


“I’m finished with computers,” he said.


“Me too,” I said, my husband’s wistful voice pushing me over the top. “I’m finished, too.”


“Tell the kid to wrap it up,” Nils said.


“He says wrap it up,” I told the kid, who did almost immediately.


“Now get out of there,” Nils said.


I eased myself off and put my underwear back on, while the kid knotted his rubber and flushed it down the john. “Ready to go?” Nils said a few minutes later.


“Yeah,” I said.


“Give me back to the kid,” he said.


“He wants to talk to you,” I said, handing the receiver over.


“Yes, Mr. Wexler? Uh-huh. Oh. I don’t know about that. Um, okay.” He pulled the receiver away from his mouth and said, “He wants you to come here,” and I did, and the kid slapped me, and I slapped him back.


“Give me that fucking phone,” I said, grabbing it out of his hand. “Fuck you, Nils,” I said. “If you want to slap me, do it yourself.”


“I couldn’t,” he said. “I just couldn’t.”


“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wexler,” the kid said, and he started to cry a little.


“Tell him not to apologize,” Nils said.


“No,” I said.


“Sweetheart,” he said, “it was reflex.”


I looked at the kid, still naked and crying, and said, “Nils says not to apologize.”


“Tell him these things happen.”


“These things happen,” I said.


The kid nodded and wiped his eyes.


“Good luck finding me when you get out,” I said.


“Will I need it?” Nils said, and I sighed and said no, that I’d be there at the prison, waiting to pick him up, or, should it come to that, to follow his taxi home.

Illustrations by Owen Smith




Alicia Erian and