Karen Campbell's Writing Blog

I still can not believe Tom is gone

I still can not believe Tom is gone

I still can not believe Tom is gone. It has been sixteen years. I miss the simple things: his soft rumbly voice, his silver and turquoise. Most of all, I miss coming home after work, my final trudge up the steps to the porch, and within seconds, the sound of his recliner slamming to upright, the running footsteps and the dog toenails across the wooden floor, the door flung open, man and dog, his wingspan, his smile, “Honey! You’re home!” He never got tired of it. If Tom had his way, he would like to be remembered as the best skier, kayaker, a Mountain Rescue Agent, and Grateful Dead fan that ever lived. He loved his pals and his Golden Retriever. He loved me.

Tom was the shy twin

Tom was a twin to a shining star brother, he was the shy twin. He told me as a little boy, he hid in the closet when a baby sitter came and stayed there until she left. “Otherwise, we were hellions, my twin, my little brother and me. My poor mother.” He laughed at the memory and shook his head. “I was a little funny. I was smart but I had a hard time concentrating.” Tom got off track as a teenager. He told me he began experimenting with recreational drugs. He signed up for the Navy to get straightened out.  I still can not believe Tom is gone

Ichabod Crane

One day, I went looking for him out in his toy trailer. I found him behind motorcycles, boats, skis and camping equipment, digging though some old boxes. He was chuckling and shaking his head, holding an old photo album. “Gee, I don’t know if you wanna see this, but here I am as a Navy cadet.” he shyly passed the album open to a picture of skinny young man with a sharp Adam’s apple and Coke bottle glasses. Ichabod Crane, oh sweetheart.

The Navy quickly discovered his genius with electronics and made him an engineer on an aircraft carrier. His duty was to go up in a navigation plane, equipped with an early GPS system and keep track of the fighter pilots. After the navy, he became a whiz for companies like Intel installing enormous computer systems.

In his thirties Tom swanned into a beautiful man

When Tom was in his late thirties he had laser eye surgery, ditched his thick glasses and swanned into a beautiful man. He was quick to laugh and quick to brag good-naturedly: “Enough about me, what do you think of me?” On anyone else, it would be tedious, but he was tickled with himself. People couldn’t help but like him, I couldn’t help but love him.

Tom did not die instantly in the accident. I discovered his last minutes by reading the accident report. He was shouting for help. He was worried about me: “I’m crushing her! She can’t breathe.” Was he aware of the extent of his injuries? Was he lucid in his final moments? I wish I could have comforted him. Was he afraid? Did he know he was dying? My guts tell me he would have been surprised. What? This isn’t in the plan, I have more to do!

I couldn’t bear the guilt, the shame

My family spared me the details for several months after the accident. They were right, it was almost too much to bear. But once I was in prison, I couldn’t keep the thoughts from swirling. I couldn’t bear the guilt, the shame. I walked miles of circles day after day on the prison yard until my mind went quiet. But they would start up again, always. I was haunted by images of the accident. I pictured him crushed up against me shouting for help, then the rescue with the jaws of life, and his final moments, lying on gurney, the ground? I imagined his face as he succumbed and the pose of a body no longer inhabiting his beautiful free spirit. My fault, my fault. I lived in a cage of self condemnation, my own prison.

The prison yard swirled from tears

I remember one early Summer morning at yard, six months into my sentence, I was the sole walker. Through the fences lines I could see the distant hillside turning green. At least I am alive to see it. I thought of Tom. The prison yard swirled from tears. Suddenly in a supernatural flash, I saw him. He was standing before me, in his ski clothes, staring intently, leaning his head toward mine.

“What are you doing?” His expression was a little teasing and a little impatient.

I didn’t deny this was happening. It was real. I felt him, I heard his voice. “You’re not mad at me?” I asked in my mind.

“Don’t waste a day! I wouldn’t. Be happy.”

I laughed, out loud. I felt a wave of warmth and he was gone. I could grieve now. The door of the cage was open.

I still can not believe Tom is gone

I still can not believe Tom is gone

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three

Cell Etiquette

“Roll up, Baker,” barked the Guard. “You’re movin’ to down the row to 113.” He turned away and clomped back to the podium. The Department of Corrections (DOC) moved women around like chess pieces. This would be my third cellmate in three months.  Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

I was nervous as I packed my plastic bags wondering who my new cell mate would be. I dragged my bags to a new cell, the familiar hiss of plastic bags followed me down the row on the first floor. I stopped four doors down, in front of cell 113 and waited for  the guard to call the Bubble and order the cell door open. All eyes in the dayroom were on me. I didn’t know which was worse, staring out at the crowd or turning to see just who was in that cell.

I recognized this woman

The door rolled open. A young black woman was pacing inside, I apologized for coming into her space, “Sorry. I’m your new cellmate.” She shrugged her shoulders,

“Ain’t no extra beds, prison’s full.”

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell EtiquetteI recognized this woman. I’d overheard her talking in the dayroom about being an exotic dancer. It was the first time I had been this close to a woman who made her living by taking off her clothes. She walked to the window and looked out at the dayroom, allowing me space to unpack. It did not take long to unpack. Clothes in one tank box, coffee and creamer in the next, toothbrush on the shelf. I quickly made the lower bed and climbed into my bunk, slumping against the wall.

My new cellmate resumed her pacing.

“What you in for?” She asked.

Manslaughter II/DUI Car Accident

I gave her the speech: Man II/DUI car accident. Seventy five months, no good time.

She nodded her head and seemed satisfied. “I am here for fighting. I got mittens.” She held up her fists. She looked down at her balled up hands and tucked them under her armpits, like she had to place them in a safe, locked place. Then she turned away and leaned on the wall, gazing out the cell window. “I been down about a year. Crimes up in here be all over the place. A lot of cluster fuck robberies for drugs, lots of I.D theft and murder. As long as you ain’t in here for a child crime, we’ll get along O.K.”

I took in her frame as she faced outward. She was short and curvy. Her waist was tiny, like a corset, then blossomed into a round rump. My God, you could set a tea cup on that thing. I bet she can kick too. I just kept staring at her well muscled arms and balled up fists. I could feel my heart beating.

“What’s your name?”


“You ain’t never been in prison before, have you Kaaren?” She drew out my name.

“No.” I hoped that was the right answer.

“Uh huh.”

Livin’ in a cell means you gotta take care of yourself, not let yourself go

She didn’t tell me her name. We all could see the last name on our I.D.’s. They were on the lanyards around our neck, but the last name was what the cops called us.   

She resumed pacing. She stopped at the mirror and turned her head side to side to check her face and hair. She was exotic, like her profession. She had large black eyes and a pouty bottom lip. “Livin’ in a cell means you gotta take care of yourself, not let yourself go. If you look a hot mess, all the nasty stank of a women’s prison is gonna be blamed on you.” She did not make eye contact but went back to pacing, like a school teacher.  “Make an attempt. You gotta shower every day, change your shirt and underwear, wear deodorant, brush you teeth. Don’t be sneezin’ and coughin’ all over the cell. Pick up after yourself. Don’t put wet clothes in your laundry bag.”

“Okay.” I said meekly, like a child. But my new cellmate was about 19, 20 at the most. I wondered who taught her this stuff. Did she learn from other inmates or did she have a mother who taught her the basics of personal care?

Ain’t nobody gonna wanna live with a thief

“Never, never touch my stuff. I will share if you need it, but if you be touchin’ and taking peoples’ property, you gonna do some hard time. Ain’t nobody gonna wanna live with a thief.” She went back to the window. She said all this matter of fact. Not mean, not threatening. I was actually relieved. At least we had some ground rules and I knew she would tell me what I needed to learn. I did not want to meet those mittens. I planned on walking out through the fences of prison with all my teeth.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell EtiquetteShe stopped pacing, faced me, mittens on hips, “One last thing, Kaaren, anyone taught you a courtesy flush?”


“When you gotta take a crap, you gotta sit all the way back on that cold ass toilet seat and make a booty seal with yo’ ass. Then you flush. It be cold.” She shook her head,

“You might have to flush more than once. You do what it takes cuz no one wants to be smelling your shit.”

“Okay!” I’m sure my eyes were the size of dinner plates. My God I just met this person and she’s telling me how to have a bowel movement. I had no idea there was prison etiquette for poop.

The doors of the cell opened for line movement and she went out into the dayroom, no goodbye, no backward glance. The lecture was over. I watched her round black bottom moving through the tables in a staccato beat: boompity, BOOM, boompity BOOM, the booty seal queen.

The prison spent good money on a powerful plumbing system

While she was gone I brushed my teeth, sniffed my pits, and gave myself a little bird bath. I reviewed the protocol of a proper booty seal: sit all the way back on the seat, and use my legs in the gaps. The prison spent good money on a powerful plumbing system. A back up would be unthinkable. The stainless toilets were connected to an enormous cavern of plumbing tunnels so when you flushed, the noise was like the call of the dinosaurs. Here goes. Whoo-eee! It was a blast from the arctic tundra, and moist. I stood and checked, I had a tender butt hickey but everything went down, matter, tissue and odor. Small price to pay for peace.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Three Cell Etiquette

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two Hookers

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two


During the confinement of count time or lights dim, Mittens and I began to share our personal histories. It was like chess. Each of us placed a fact on the table and watched the other’s reaction. I told her about the accident and Tom. She wasn’t overly sympathetic. I was met with this reaction in nearly every telling of my story. Despite killing my husband and another woman in the car accident, the reaction to my crime was just the same old story. It didn’t feel that way to me. 

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two

“I loved him,” I admitted, “but he scared me. He was a pretty, pretty man, a dead ringer for Sam Elliot, dimples and all. He was a wild, adorable lush. I didn’t say no. That was my fault. On the days my daughters were with their dad, I waded in to whatever extreme sport came up—boating, skiing, mountain climbing. I was the chick who hung out with the dudes. There was a lot of tailgating. All the guys smoked weed. We all drank.  My life was out of control.”

She was underwhelmed by my story

She sighed and shook her head. She was underwhelmed by my story. Mine was a suburban mom crime, a luxury crime of selfishness. I was not stealing to eat or hooking to buy groceries for my kids. But I was the opposite when she began to talk about her violent childhood. There was drug addiction and poverty. “My little brother and I use to put water on our cereal. Sometimes it was the only food in the house.” I pictured Nikki and Haley going to school hungry. How old was she?

“teach” about life in prison

Between sharing our stories, my new cellmate continued to pace and “teach” about life in prison. My next lesson was hookers. She shrugged her shoulders. “I take the money both on and off the stage.” Then she walked to the window and turned her attention to another woman. “See that one by the call-out board? Girl ain’t go no game. She thinks she’s all that, but she ain’t nothing but a flat backer.” She stayed at the window and kept looking at her, “I know God don’t like that blue eyeliner. Umph.” Then she walked back to my bunk and turned her pretty peepers at me, “Girl’s a mess, Kaaren.”

What’s a Flatbacker?

I laughed. “O.K., I’ll bite, what’s a flatbacker?”

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two“Flatbacker is a hooker who actually has to lay down to get paid. Their last known address is the back seat of a Coupe de Ville behind the Waffle House. They hit the top of the skankometer. They do a quick P.T.A., that’s a pussy tits and ass in the sink at the Shell gas station between clients. There’s girls like me that dance. Sometimes I just go with someone to let them do what they do. One man pays me to watch him dress up in women’s clothes.”

I laughed and leaned forward. She was on a roll. “I’m good at it. I tell him, ‘Oh no! Those shoes are all wrong with that dress, you gotta start over, and wear the right bra and panty set.’”

And I thought I had held some odd jobs.

The Primo Hooker

“The primo hooker is the call girl, a top dolla ho. Call girls look down on corner girls. We have a call girl in the honor dorm. They call her Helen of Troy. One of her Johns was murdered, she was in the room, so she went down.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two
AKA Helen of Troy

She’s prime pussy, even pretty on prison. I’ll point her out at yard. Just watch her walk, all lady-like. Girl raise a jealous ruckus alright, make straight girls go gay and fighters see red.”

“Do you make a lot of money dancing and, you know, the other stuff?” I asked.

“Listen, not everyone’s meant for the game. Why should I wear some paper hat in stand in grease all day? I can make a whole day’s wages in ten minutes. Kaaren, your Tom? Girl, you ain’t falling in love with the right things.

Do you understand Unlimited Visa?

I know I’m gonna fall in love with a Bentley and a trip to the Poconos, and a pink diamond. Eat your heart out J-Lo. Do you understand Unlimited Visa?” She took up the pacing, checking her money-maker body in the mirror. “I don’t care if he’s Arabian, White, Native. If he’s got no teeth, I’d bake his cake and put it in the blender. I’ll just keep my jewelry and the Land Rover with the leather interior. That’s the truth. Ain’t no shame in the game.” She was theatrical but now she stopped before me and said very seriously, “When you grow up eating breakfast cereal with water, what cha gonna do?”

“I can’t imagine. You had to be pretty strong from the get-go, didn’t you?”

“I’m a survivor Kaaren.”

“I have never heard a story like yours, except on Oprah or in a book.”


“You’re a natural born storyteller.”

She liked that, looked at herself in the mirror.

You have a lot to teach a woman like me

“You have a lot to teach a woman like me. I’d like to write down some of the things you just said. Is that O.K.? I think I might write a book and let me tell you, you would be a star.”

“A book? Somebody gotta do that, OK?”

I reached for paper. “OK, let’s go back to the beginning, the hookers, then you said something like ‘why should I wear a paper hat and stand around in grease all day?’

Her hard life stories and lessons continued into the days and nights.  She encouraged me to write. She would even slow down and repeat things so I could get the direct quotes.  She did a good job of telling a lively story, but I could hear the hurt and disappointment in her life and the pride that covered up the damage. I felt the stirring of tenderness for this girl, but kept a watchful eye on those mittens.

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two Hookers

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part Two Hookers