Janet Campbell Hale's novel The Jailing of Cecelia Capture recounts the life story of a thirty year old native American woman who has been arrested for drunk driving. Despite being a student at prestigious Boalt Hall, the law school of UC Berkeley, despite being married to a white man and mother to their two children, Cecelia is haunted by memories of her reservation childhood and her unresolved relationships with her father, her mother and her people. Kept in jail a few days on an old welfare fraud charge, Cecelia spends the entire time musing on her past. The story, deftly written in the third person, veers from poignancy to anger and back, and is one of the jewels of American fiction. Speaking of this novel, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison said, "The Jailing of Cecelia Capture is a beautifully written book. Janet Campbell Hale's gifts are genuine and deeply felt."
Excerpts from The Jailing of Cecelia Capture
All excerpts copyright©1985 by Janet Campbell Hale
No watch. Nobody in the holding tank had one, since all their belongings had been taken away as part of the booking procedure. No clock. No window.
Three or maybe four hours had passed since Cecelia Capture Welles's arrest. Or was it really only an hour or so? It was hard to say because she had been very drunk at the time and she was still not quite sober and was grateful that she wasn't. Being a little drunk took the rough edges off reality. Almost always.
There was time enough to have been transported to the Berkeley jail, hands manacled behind her back. Was that necessary? she wondered. Did they believe that it was? The skin around her wrists was red, and her wrists themselves felt as if they had been bruised, but no bruises were apparent. They would probably show up later, she thought, all blue and purple and ugly.
Mugshots had been taken. At least they hadn't asked her to smile for the camera. She had an uncomfortable thought: The photographs will turn out ugly, because I'm drunk and they didn't let me do my makeup or even run a comb through my hair and this lighting is anything but flattering. At least she had had a good salon cut in San Francisco just the day before, or was it the day before that? It seemed almost humorous to her that she cared how she would look in the mugshots.
She was fingerprinted and given a breathalyzer. The machine was not working right, and the policeman who was trying to administer the test was angry and frustrated. He kept accusing her of not cooperating. His partner came in every few minutes and, speaking in soft, kind, intimate tones, told Cecelia she had better watch out. This other one was mean, he would say, and she had better cooperate or they would have to take a blood sample.
Cecelia told them to stop Mutt-and-Jeffing her. (She had learned about that police method in her criminal law class back in her first year of law school.)
They took the blood sample then, without her permission, which they could legally do because she had given her permission to be tested on the breathalyzer but would not cooperate - or so they would say in the police report, would testify to in court if it came to that. Of course it was because the breathalyzer was not working right and they needed the blood sample for evidence.
She was drunk and therefore somewhat anesthetized and also trying to remain detached from all of this, yet she did feel a surge of anger as she watched them stick the syringe into her unwilling flesh. She felt violated. She watched the tube attached to the syringe fill with her life's blood, deep, dark red. Her very blood was taken without her permission.
Except for the grey concrete floor, the holding tank was painted yellow. It contained a sink and a commode. Long, narrow wooden benches ran along two walls. The room was dirty, gritty, littered with gum wrappers, cigarette butts and empty cigarette packages. It looked as if it hadn't been swept out or otherwise cleaned for a week or more and had held many temporary inhabitants in that time. Its shabbiness matched the shabby way Cecelia felt: unbathed, hair uncombed, teeth unbrushed, still wearing the rumpled clothing she had worn since the morning before. At least, she thought, there were no wine stains on her dress. The cell had a bad smell to it, too. Just, she supposed, body odor.
Cecelia had two cellmates: Velma and Ethel.
Velma was a thin white whore with needle tracks up and down her arms. Her teeth were very bad, and her over-bleached, dry blond hair hung limply around her face. She had a pale, sickly look a vampire might have, Cecelia thought, if there were such creatures as vampires, and who was she to say there weren't.
Then there was Ethel, a black woman in a black velvet jumpsuit that zipped up the front. The seams strained over her fat, beefy body, her great breasts and her almost unbelievably huge, round, jutting derriere. Ethel had a tough, threatening countenance. She sat on one of the benches, glaring. She told Cecelia to bring her a drink of water, which Cecelia did. Ethel did not say thank you. She drank the water, dropped the Styrofoam cup on the floor and leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes.
Velma wore a bright red miniskirt and a white satin tank top. Thin as she was, her upper arms looked flabby. Her limp hair needed a shampoo. Cecelia thought how strange it was that this woman was desired by men, often, and by many men, so very much desired, in fact, that she was able to earn her living the way she did.
Yet - and she did not just realize this now; she had known it for some time and turned it over in her mind, decided it was not valid, and continued to do it anyway - it was through attracting handsome men that she, Cecelia Capture Welles, sought a measure of self-esteem.
It was through her ability to attract men that she found the assurance that she was an attractive and desirable woman. Maybe her husband didn't want her any more, but she could still get men, plenty of men. But then, so could Velma, and they were willing to pay good, hard-earned cash for the privilege of lying down with Velma. Cecelia wondered if a prostitute's customers kissed her first.
"Hey, girl, what you starin' at?" Velma asked in a loud, hostile voice.
"Nothing," Cecelia said. "I'm not staring." She didn't mean to stare at Velma. It was just that the cell was so small, and there were not many places to cast one's eyes.
"The hell! You just sittin' there starin' a hole through me!"
"You bitches keep it down!" Ethel spoke without moving or opening her eyes. Her tone showed that she meant business. In a quieter voice Velma asked Cecelia what she was in for.
"DUI," Cecelia answered. "Driving under the influence."
"Drunk drivin'," Velma said self-righteously, "is worse than peddlin' your ass. Drunk drivin' kills and cripples. Damages property. Fuckin' never hurt nobody."
"Tha's right," Ethel said, eyes still closed, eyelids completely motionless. She didn't say another word, though both Velma and Cecelia waited for her to continue. But she didn't say anything more, just "Tha's right."
"I know," Cecelia said. It was true. She belonged in jail more than Velma did. Velma spoke with a straight tongue.
Fucking never did hurt anyone, except maybe in a roundabout way. Certainly not the way the drunken driver of a big, powerful, fast-moving automobile could hurt.
She remembered how she had driven aimlessly through the streets of Berkeley in the pouring rain, windshield wipers not turned on. It had seemed cozy inside the old Chevy, the heater making it warm and comfortable, the radio turned to KCOW, the Bay Area country music station. The rain on the windows softened and blurred the outside world, which she already viewed through an alcoholic haze, and she had been crying. Yes, she remembered now, tears and rain and alcohol. What a combination. She had almost managed to blot out the world.
Velma, who had been pacing, sat down on the bench, eyes narrowed, and looked at Cecelia, the woman who knew she was a menace to society and belonged behind bars. Velma studied her carefully, taking her in from head to toe. Twenty-seven, she would guess, or twenty-eight or thereabouts; hard to tell. Dark skinned. Not very dark, but dark enough to show she wasn't white. Mexican, more likely. Orientals and Mexicans it seemed, held their ages differently than white people.
She wore a conservative light blue knit dress. Joseph Magnin, probably. Dark shoulder-length hair, newly cut. Velma took in the expensive Italian shoes and the wide gold wedding band on the third finger of her left hand. Velma had known she was a married woman, though, even before she spotted that obnoxious ring. There was just something about her that seemed married.
Velma lit a cigarette.
"Well," she said, "and a married woman, too, huh?"
"Married women are worse than whores," Velma stated flatly. "Damned hypocrites. I personally have no use for them. Never did. Never will."
Cecelia did not respond. She wished she had a cigarette. Oh, God, but she wished she wasn't there. In jail. Almost anything would have been better. Maybe she should have let Roberto take her home. No. Being in jail was better than that would have been. Imagine waking up beside Roberto.
Velma paced around again, picking at the skin on her arms. Cecelia hoped she wasn't going to start going through withdrawal now. She didn't know anything about heroin addicts, how long they had to go without before withdrawal began.
Velma paced, and Cecelia could see the beads of sweat on her forehead and upper lip. She was apparently very agitated, picking at her skin and pacing. Come on, Velma, Cecelia thought, talk mean and bad some more. Say something. Don't get sick. Velma stopped pacing and sat down.
"The only difference between a married woman and a whore," Velma told Cecelia, "is that they fuck just one dude and get paid a lot less. Then they walk around looking down their noses and thinking they're so good."
Cecelia shrugged, relieved that Velma seemed all right again, at least for the time being. Velma took out her pack of cigarettes and offered Cecelia one, which she accepted gratefully. She needed it.
"Thanks," she said, inhaling deeply.
"Did you call Hubby yet?" Velma asked in a mocking tone.
Cecelia shook her head. Hubby. Her husband, Nathan, was not there. He was in Spokane, Washington, supposedly waiting for her to finish her law degree and return to him and the two children and the house they were buying on a lot and a half in a peaceful little middle-class neighborhood near Northtown Shopping Center.
In reality, though, it was not that way. In reality, she knew, her husband wanted her never to come home. He had not been her husband really for a long, long time. He had become another enemy to struggle against and try to keep herself safe from.
"You gonna call him?"
"No, I'm not going to call him."
"What you think he gonna say when he find out his nice little wife been a bad girl?" Cecelia just shook her head, wondering how come a white woman like Velma talked black.
"Humph. Don't matter," Velma said. "You gonna be otta here anyway in just a few hours on OR."
"Most likely will."
"Humph. Don't even make sense," Velma said. "Some irresponsible bitch like you, goin' around endangerin' citizens' lives gets out on OR while a workin' girl like me has to wait for her old man to bring 'round the bail money."
"Well, Velma, that's the way it is," Cecelia said, more to herself than to Velma. She wished she had a drink. She was very nearly sober now, beginning to feel afraid and panicky. She was certainly in no mood for sobriety to take hold.
"Yeah, a married woman is worse than a whore," Velma said again, more to herself than to Cecelia.
The iron door opened and a policewoman stood at the entrance and read: "Welles, please." That was Cecelia's married name. She stood, hopeful. "Come with me," the policewoman said. Cecelia thought she would be released now; they must hold drunken drivers only a few hours on the first offense. Or maybe they would hold her overnight. That would be all right, she guessed. She worried that something might have gone wrong. But what? A case of mistaken identity? Maybe she was the spitting image of some desperado. Maybe it was worse than that. She tried to push such thoughts away. Maybe they were releasing her now.
She was taken along a corridor and up in an elevator. No, they were not going to release her. Panic. Along the way they passed a clock. Three o'clock. Was that all? How could that be? Down another corridor. Then she was put in a cell. Her own cell. Clean and quiet and empty except for herself. She was all alone now and was supposed to lie down and go to sleep, despite the light which could not be turned off.
She felt afraid. Her body ached. She wanted to go to sleep. A strange thought entered her mind: Saint Jude. Praying to Saint Jude would be in order now. Her mother had often prayed to Saint Jude because he was the patron saint of the down-and-out, the one who helped a person when the situation seemed hopeless. Her mother could pray to Saint Jude, but she could not.
Cecelia lay down and covered herself with the thin jail blanket and closed her eyes. She prayed, not to Saint Jude, but to some unknown factor, please, for oblivion. Just take it all away from me and let me rest. I need rest.
The one thin blanket Cecelia was given was not enough to keep out the cold and let her fall into a deep sleep. Instead it was a restless sleep. She shifted her position on the thin plastic-coated, sheetless mattress in a futile attempt to get comfortable.
It was April of 1962 and though no snow had fallen in six weeks, the spring was cold and dry, and melting, dirtied patches remained on the ground here and there, in ditches and gullies, in the densely forested areas, in the shadows of mountains, where the sun seldom shone.
It was just daybreak now; the sky, dark and overcast, had been threatening rain since the afternoon before. In her room in the small wooden frame house twelve-year-old Cecelia Capture prepared for the day. She was running a race today at the St. Mary's track meet. Two races, actually, the 660 and the Girl's Relay. The Girl's Relay was not that important, but the 660 was. She was representing Lodi Junior High School.
Cecelia stood in front of the dresser mirror and brushed her hair, which was only somewhat long, an inch or two past her shoulders, not the long, long, past-the-waist length she would have liked it to be.
Her mother nagged her about even this length: "Long and straight and stringy. Why don't you get it cut and put in a good perm? You look like some old witch. You look like Geronimo. You look like some damned reservation kid" (which her mother knew that she was but did not like to recognize).
Cecelia brushed and brushed her straight black hair, brushed it smooth and shiny as glass.
Am I attractive? Beautiful? Plain? Just okay? It might depend, she thought, on who her audience was and maybe, too, on what she did.
Surely, if she became an ace runner and won gold medals at the Olympic Games, the sportswriters would describe her as "the beautiful, raven-haired maiden who won all the medals Jim Thorpe had won and then some, who, amazingly, broke records set by Jesse Owens even though her legs were not quite so long."
On the other hand, if she went down to southern Idaho and became a potato picker, or if she waited table at the truck stop in Bonner's, probably nobody would be moved to write about or even comment upon her remarkable beauty. Unless it was some truck driver.
Cecelia lined her eyes, shadowed them in Midnight Blue, coated her lashes with mascara. She stepped back to admire her handiwork.
Liz Taylor, eat your heart out, she thought. She looked glamorous, like an Egyptian princess. Her parents would not tolerate lipstick, but she had no trouble getting away with Egyptian-princess eyes. They never seemed to look at her eyes.
Cecelia emerged from her room at a quarter to seven, carrying her school books and a bundle of running clothes.
Will Capture sat drinking the coffee he had made himself. He was going over his notes and the agenda for the open meeting of the tribal council. The meeting would begin in the late morning and go on into the late afternoon. He had gone over these things before. He wanted to do it again, just one more time. He wanted to be thoroughly prepared.
Will Capture was an ex-prizefighter and he worked to keep himself in shape. He looked ten years younger than his age, which was sixty-seven. He was proud of his youthful appearance.
He always got to the meetings early so he could get together with some people beforehand and talk over the issues. His reading glasses kept getting fogged over by the steam from his coffee, and he had to stop and remove his glasses and wipe the steam away with an old once-white handkerchief.
Cecelia tried to slink past her father quietly without being noticed. She made it to the door before he saw her.
"Hey, you," he called, "get back in here right now." She was so close to freedom she could reach down and grasp the knob of the door. She didn't move. "I have to catch the bus," she said without even turning around. "No time to get back. It's almost seven."
"Get back here, I said." His voice was flat and not very loud. He looked up at her over the tops of his bifocals. "You have to eat some breakfast," he said. "Go cook yourself a couple of eggs."
"Oh, Dad, for Pete's sake. I'm going to miss the school bus, and there's a track meet today," and besides, she didn't say, she was trying to become as thin as a cracker, as thin as a fashion model.
She would have liked to have a figure like her two oldest sisters, who lived on the coast; they were built the way their mother had been as a young woman, short and petite with no bones to be seen, just soft, rounded curves. But Cecelia and Andrea, the third sister, were built differently. They were tall and sturdy and had prominent bones.
Cecelia was already five feet seven inches tall. She would soon reach what would turn out to be her full adult height of five feet nine inches, but at twelve she worried that she might keep on growing taller and taller until she was an incredible seven-foot-tall woman, and no boy would even want to dance with her unless he was a Watusi or something on that order.
Since she had to be tall, she wanted to be thin, like a model, with hollow cheeks and hip bones that protruded and ribs you could count when she wore a clingy bathing suit and just the slightest suggestion of a bosom. Sleek and streamlined like a greyhound, built for speed. Only she already had, young as she was, more than just the suggestion of a bosom.
"You're not getting out of here without eating some breakfast," her father said, "so you might as well relax. I'll drive you to school in the pickup. I'm going to the agency to a meeting today anyway, and to the dump. I think your mom wants me to do some grocery shopping, too. So just put your things down, take off your coat and fix yourself some eggs."
She did as she was told, but not without glaring her resentment. She wondered how he had such command, although he was so easygoing in his manner. He never used a cuss word, except maybe a "damn" now and then, and she had never heard him really raise his voice in anger. It was hard for her to imagine him as the fierce opponent he was supposed to have been back in his prizefighting days.
Cecelia stood at the wood-burning stove and cracked eggs into the frying pan. She discovered she was hungry. Maybe she would even make herself some toast. No, too much trouble. Eggs were enough.
"Dad, do you want some eggs?"
"No, thanks. I already ate. But bring me some coffee, will you?"
She poured his coffee. He looked up and noticed the bright red sweater she was wearing. She hoped that for once he wouldn't say anything. She was back at the stove when he spoke.
"I don't like that red thing you're wearing." She didn't say a word. "No, I sure don't like it. None but a certain kind of woman wears red."
She knew what he meant, the kind of woman he had in mind. He was so out of step it was pathetic. He was born in 1895, after all. Probably no one else in the whole world who was Cecelia's age had to put up with such an old person for a father. "Grandchild" his friends jokingly called her; she didn't think they even knew her real name.
Cecelia was the child of her parents' old age, twelve years younger than her nearest sister. Odder still, she was not the only old-age child, simply the only one who had survived.
Cecelia didn't know then, as a child of twelve, but she would understand later that she must have been Will Capture's last attempt to have a son, a son who would maybe be the athlete he had always thought he had the potential to become but never was, a son who would become the lawyer he had wanted to be but had failed to become.
Probably he could imagine his son in this big court battle and that one, winning land-claim cases and other sorts, and people saying, "Did you read in the paper about the big water-rights case? The attorney was young Capture, you know, old Will's boy." Will would teach his son from the very beginning the importance of academic discipline. Will's son would form his very thoughts in English. Will's son would provide the Indian people with quality legal representation.
In fact, there were two sons. One was stillborn two years before Cecelia's birth. The other, born a year later, had lived just a few minutes. He was undersized, born too early, and he had managed only a few weak cries, had thrashed his little limbs about weakly and then had died in his father's arms.
Will Capture had no son in his old age to guide toward the ambitions he had once had for himself. He had only Cecelia, and for a few years he treated her almost as if she were the son that he wanted.
He taught her to excel in school. He taught her the importance of academic discipline. He wouldn't allow her to go to the mission school, where he had gone, where his sisters had gone, because it was not academically sound. He helped her with her homework, drilled her over and over again, listened to her read. When she was home sick, she would get ahead of her classmates because of his coaching.
She was the only Indian child in the town school, and she longed to go to mission school with all the other Indian children, but he said no. He said if you were going to compete successfully in a white man's world, you had to learn to play the white man's game. It was not enough that an Indian be as good as; an Indian had to be better than.
When Cecelia was eight years old, she skipped third grade, and this made her father proud. Years later he was still finding ways of mentioning this to people, of working it into his conversations. His pride in her was what made going to school in Lodi, which she hated, bearable.
This past year, though, he hadn't seemed at all interested in her studies. He still wanted to look at her report card, and he seemed pleased with her grades, but he was no longer intensely interested. He no longer tested and drilled her and gave her pep talks about school. She didn't know why he had turned away from her this way. She supposed it was because he took less of an interest in almost everything since his drinking had increased.
"No, Cecelia, I sure don't like to see you wearing that getup." He could be so aggravating. "Getup." Did she wear "getups"?
Of course he would notice that red sweater, which was perfectly respectable, but he would not notice the tight jeans and the eyeliner and shadow and the thick coats of mascara that stuck her lashes together in clumps. Lipstick and rouge and anything red he would notice.
"And another thing," he went on, "you know what they used to say in the old days, when I was a boy? They used to say you could always tell Indians because of the color red. When they saw a rig coming or people riding horses in the distance, they would say, 'Just look for the color red, and you'll know if they're white or Indian.'"
You had to say that, didn't you, Cecelia thought, scooping her eggs onto her plate and carrying the plate to the table, clutching a fork in one hand. It was fully light now, so she turned off the kerosene lamp, even though her father was still reading and it would have been more considerate to have let it burn. She sat herself across the table from him and began eating her eggs.
Red was always going to be her favorite color when she grew up, she thought vindictively. Her whole wardrobe would consist of nothing but red. Red coats and red dresses and red high-heeled shoes, red jeans and red nylon stockings. Even red underwear.
Like many Indian people of his generation, her father seemed to Cecelia in some curious way ashamed of being Indian, although he would have denied it vehemently. He spoke the native language, hadn't even begun to learn English until he was twelve and went to mission school.
Cecelia could not help wondering how her father had managed to feel patriotic, why he had enlisted when his father had been defeated in the Indian wars and he himself was not even a U.S. citizen at the time. Her father had taught her a little Indian history when she was small. She knew Indians weren't granted citizenship until 1924. But both of the Capture boys made it over to France to fight Germans on behalf of the United States, as did many, many Indian men, none of whom was a U.S. citizen.
She finished eating her fried eggs and poured herself some coffee. Her father continued studying his papers.
He was preparing to argue his liberal political views with the tribal council, that "damned bunch of BIA puppets," as he called them. He had been on the tribal council for a while but was impeached because he was caught sneaking outside for a quick shot of whiskey during a meeting.
Drinking was not allowed on the agency grounds. That was a law first established by his father, Eagle Capture, who had served as tribal judge for many years and who believed that alcohol was the single greatest enemy of the Indian people.
"Those damned BIA puppets would drive Jesus Christ to drink," Will had said when they impeached him, but he still headed up committees and went out and argued his views and got people to vote, and he always took an active role in tribal politics.
He was so absorbed now, she knew he would have to be reminded of the time. She took another sip of coffee. Will's coffee was always strong. It made Cecelia feel grown-up to drink her father's coffee.
She looked out the window. It was a dark, dismal day, and the air felt close. She hoped it wouldn't rain until after the track meet, at least until after the 660. It would be a shame to get rained out.
Cecelia was aware of the beauty of the scene, and when she looked out over the countryside from the kitchen window she thought of the things she had so often heard her father say: that this land belonged to him and he belonged to it, and that he would never leave it again, never, no matter what might happen.
She saw the school bus rumble along the highway and pass the Capture mailbox.
"Dad, the bus."
No response. "Dad, Dad." He looked up from his papers. "The school bus just went by." He glanced down at his wristwatch. It was an old, handsome one, given to him by his father when he graduated from Jesuit High School, before he went away to college.
"We still have a few minutes. Why don't you go put on something else."