Featured image: Stillwater Prison, by Jeffrey P. Grosscup (1973)
The cameras stared down at them, enforcing 24-hour surveillance in this God-forsaken place of nightmares. Ethel was sick of it. She hadn’t had a moment of peace since she got here two years ago. She was sick to her stomach of the bland prison food and the boring old beige paint on the wall that had chips taken out of it all over the place. At this point, Ethel could swear that her stomach was a master gymnast. It had perfected the art of flipping and flopping and hell, when it was feeling rowdy, sometimes she joked that it just really loved a good ole jazzercise routine. This sickening place just gave her stomach a mind of its own.
She often saw the prison guards walking by, looking like this building was the last place that they wanted to be. She wanted to hit them over the head with her wooden cane. They were the lucky ones who got to leave. She was imprisoned here against her will and they got to swipe their dumb little ID cards, walk through the staff-controlled double-entry checkpoint, and go out into the world. They could sleep in their own beds, too. Ethel missed that. It was just so loud here at night and nobody cared to be quiet. She wanted everyone to shut their freaking pie holes. Laying in her bed at night and listening to the cacophony of intercom noises, carts squeaking, doors slamming, and people chattering, she often fantasized about stuffing a dirty old sock into each and every one of their mouths just so she could get some damn peace and quiet around here. This prison was Ethel’s personalized version of hell and she wanted out. She could go to hell after she finally croaked, but for now she was still kicking.
It was time for Bingo at Georgia’s Paradise Senior Center, and Ethel was pissed about it. She thought that these inane games were for old-timers. Still, her nurse had made Ethel go. She had said it’d be good for her. Ethel wanted to give her a good whack with her cane. Now that would be good for her. Some much-needed stress relief.
Ethel sat down at a table in the middle of the common room, dreading the next hour of her sad, sad life but was cheered up just a hair by the sight of Rosemary, who was wheeling herself through the door and taking a Bingo card from a nurse who looked frighteningly perky. Honestly, who would be that happy to be here?
“Ethel! I didn’t know you were coming!”
“I left you a message on your answering machine, did you get it?” Ethel’s stomach flipped at the question.
“No, I was busy.” She replied, though she wasn’t busy at all. Ethel just didn’t think she’d ever understand those damn things, so messages piled up on her phone. If anyone wanted to talk to her that badly, they could say what they wanted to say face-to-face or in a hand-written letter.
The ladies played Bingo but lost every round. Ethel was amused to see that Rosemary was actually disappointed to lose, made evident by her slight frown.
“What, did you want a sticker or candy or something?” Ethel asked. Winners got to pick a cheap prize from the treasure chest at the front of the room.
“No, actually. I just thought the reading glasses looked nifty. I have a couple of Werther’s in my pocket if you want one, though.” While seriously contemplating whether or not to take a mysterious piece of pocket candy from Rosemary, a nurse walked up to their table and announced that it was bath time. A collective groan could be heard throughout the common room. At that moment, Ethel knew something had to be done. She wanted freedom or she wanted death. First, Bingo, and now bath time?
This was completely unacceptable.
With a murderous glint in her eye, Ethel walked to dinner. She sat down at her usual table and waited for the usual group to join her. A plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans was brought to her, precisely what she had ordered off of the menu earlier in the day. Her meal was the lesser of the cafeteria’s evils, but Ethel’s stomach still flopped at the smell of it.
As her food arrived, so did her company. Rosemary came wheeling in first but took her sweet, sweet time saying hello to everyone in the room that she knew. The whole social rigamarole made Ethel want to yak. She was too old for this and, honest to God, didn’t know how Rosemary did it. Taking a bite of her lukewarm meal, she waited for Rosemary to arrive at her final destination, choosing to avoid eye contact with all of the other codgers and instead training her eyes on the cafeteria’s peeling floral wallpaper.
Minutes later, Rosemary made it to the table and was delivered her dinner consisting of a considerably dry looking turkey breast, a sourdough dinner roll, and some carrots. It didn’t look very appetizing to Ethel, but Rosemary dug right in. Rosemary started to tell her about the newest Georgia’s Paradise scandal, which detailed a rather raunchy situation between Harold and Millicent in the game room, but Ethel was quickly distracted when an all-too-familiar figure hobbled over to their table. Ethel let out a sigh and readied herself for the coming absurdity.
“I’m sorry to be so forward, miss, but I saw you from across the room and I just have to say that you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he said. It took everything in Ethel not to roll her eyes.
“Just sit down, Reggie,” Ethel shot back, which earned a giggle from Rosemary, who knew precisely what was transpiring. Reginald plopped into the seat across from Ethel, staring at her dreamily and effectively making Ethel’s stomach flip. Damn this God-forsaken place.
Sensing that Ethel wasn’t in the mood to strike up the usual conversation with Reginald, Rosemary made small talk after reintroducing herself.
“How was your dinner, Reg? Did you get the turkey or the meatloaf?” she asked.
“It was simply scrumptious! I ordered the meatloaf and it tasted just like my mother made it back in the old days. This place has certainly earned my five-star approval.” Reginald replied to Rosemary with a smile. Still, he turned to Ethel, adding, “did you enjoy your meal, dollface?”
Ethel had always hated when he called her that. Sometimes she decided to tell him as much, but this time it didn’t seem worth it. She’d let it go and only fantasize about hitting him over the head with her cane.
“Yes,” she mumbled, ready to be over and done with this painful exchange. Unfortunately, Reginald took Ethel’s pathetic excuse for a response as an invitation to continue.
“So, where am I? While I’ve loved meeting you darling ladies, I can’t seem to remember how I got here.”
“Reg, you’re at the Georgia Paradise Senior Center, remember?” said Rosemary with a sad frown hinting across her face. Ethel pushed away the sadness, used to this exact situation.
“Oh. I swear, you let your mind wander for a second and you’re in a completely different place!” Reginald joked.
“Reggie, dammit. You have Alzheimer’s. You never know where you are.” Ethel blurted.
At this, Rosemary’s face turned red as a beet. “Geez Louise, Ethel. So much for subtlety.”
“Ah, Georgia Paradise. I remember now. Wait, who are you?” Reginald questioned, beating that dead horse well into the afterlife.
At this point, Ethel couldn’t wait for dinner to be over. “Reggie, I’m your wife, Ethel. Remember?” The constant reminders had become annoying at this point.
“Oh, Ethel! That’s right! How could I forget you, my dear? And Georgia Paradise, of course.” Now that the catching up was over and done with, Ethel could see that Rosemary was itching to break the awkward tension that had been thickening like old molasses.
“It’s alright, Reggie. You know what? I wish I could forget this miserable hellhole, too,” Ethel assured.
“I think the three of us should just run away,” Rosemary jested, already giggling in anticipation of her own joke. Reginald’s laughter echoed throughout the room, but Ethel’s couldn’t be heard. Not even a smirk flashed across her face.
She was going to do it. This place could kiss her wrinkly behind.
“What’s wrong, dollface?”
Ethel simply smiled to herself.
Ethel found herself incredibly busy. After bidding Reginald and Rosemary goodnight, she returned to her room and told her nurse to buzz off after ordering that annoying nag to fetch her a piece of stationery and a ballpoint pen. She had a rather private correspondence to write.
With her letter completed, Ethel shuffled to Allen’s room, careful not to make herself known to the eagle-eyed nurses patrolling the hall. There were usually other old codgers wandering the halls after dinner, but she didn’t want to attract any attention. By the grace of God, her tried-and-true velvet slippers didn’t scuffle or squeak along the sterile tile floor as she walked.
With the stationery discreetly shoved underneath Allen’s door, Ethel’s stomach felt just a tad bit settled. She hoped that its days of jazzercising would be over once she could breathe the free air again. Ethel knew that Allen would read her message sometime before bed and be gung-ho about her plan. The man was always up for a good fight and absolutely itched to return to his glory days as a bomb technician back in ‘Nam. Allen had been an ally to Ethel these past years when Rosemary was occupied, always joining in with her constant complaining. Better yet, the old geezer was still somehow in decent physical shape, which Ethel knew would come in handy tomorrow. Allen was a key part in her scheme. With Ethel as the ringleader, Allen as the manpower, and Reginald and Rosemary as the clueless companions, this absolutely diabolical plan was going to work. For hours late into the night, Ethel envisioned her coming victory while hunched over one of her knitting needles with a stolen dinner knife. She would need a weapon for her escape, and a shiv would definitely be sharp enough to get the job done.
As she hobbled to the common room for arts and crafts time, Ethel could hardly wait to put the plan in motion and blow this popsicle stand. She had made an effort to be late this morning, ensuring that her companions would already be seated. First, she had to make sure Allen was in agreement.
“Good morning, Allen. Did you see the dinner menu for tonight?” Ethel asked once in front of his table.
“Yep. Steak and baked potatoes,” Allen grumbled. He’d never been much of a conversationalist, so this response didn’t really indicate Allen’s rejection of the plan.
“Will you dine with Reginald and I later? I’ve missed your pessimism lately. We need more of that around here.”
“Fine.” Ethel knew that his verbal acceptance and knowing look meant that Allen would make good on his assigned task for tonight’s escape.
Satisfied with the exchange, Ethel made her way over to Rosemary and Reggie, needing to keep up her usual, dreadful routine.
The rest of the day passed by normally, suggesting that Allen’s portion of the plan was going off without a hitch. Reginald had already forgotten Ethel twice in the span of five hours and Rosemary kept retelling the same old tired stories of her beloved cat, Mittens. Poor Rosemary had been forced to leave him with her granddaughter before moving into Georgia Paradise a year ago and Ethel swore she would never hear the end of it.
At dinner that night, Ethel, Rosemary, and Reginald were joined by Allen, who looked uncharacteristically happy.
“What’s made you Mr. Sunshine?” Rosemary questioned, usually intimidated by Allen but eager to get first-hand gossip.
“Nothing,” Allen mumbled. He gave Ethel a nod, which had her palming her knitting needle shiv tucked under her sweater. She still wasn’t sure how she was going to get Rosemary in on this escape plan and the time to run like a bat out of Hell was coming up quickly.
Turning to Rosemary, Ethel knew she had to be blunt. “Rose, we’re getting out of this prison tonight and you’re coming with us.”
Rosemary giggled in disbelief but stopped when she realized that Ethel and Allen remained as stone-faced as statues. “Oh, Ethel,” questioned Rosemary, suddenly looking very scared for her safety. “What did you do?”
Not even a second later, a loud boom could be heard from somewhere in the building, shaking the nursing home’s chipped beige walls. Rosemary glared at Ethel as the room went completely silent.
The shock of the noise was interrupted only by Millicent, who yelled, “Did anyone else hear that or was it these damn hearing aids?”
Then, chaos ensued. The common room went dark, but was soon dimly lit by safety lights. Old people were screaming as a group of nurses ran out of the room to investigate the problem. Ethel and Allen couldn’t hide their grins.
“And that’s our cue. Rosemary, how fast can you wheel this thing?” Ethel asked, ready to get her ass in gear.
“Not very fast, Ethel,” Rosemary deadpanned. She looked to be shaking like a leaf.
“Then put it in sport mode!” Reginald blurted, not completely aware of the situation but certainly full of spirit. At this, Allen began to laugh rather hysterically.
The four of them made their way out of the common room and toward Georgia Paradise’s front door. None of the nurses stopped them, too distracted by the potato bomb that Allen had planted in the building’s upper administration offices.
Ethel couldn’t help but beam. Her plan had been flawless. She knew that Allen could make a bomb out of anything and everything under the sun, so a potato originally intended for the night’s dinner complemented by some stolen supplies from the medical closet seemed like a good way to go. She didn’t know how Allen had managed to plant the bomb during the middle of the day, but she didn’t really feel the need to ask questions as they zoomed down hallway after hallway.
The front door of the Georgia Paradise Senior Center was protected by only one guard, seeing as the others had run toward Allen’s little diversion. The ID controlled doors had become unlocked because of the recently shut-off power. Still, Ethel knew that this part of the escape would be difficult. The guard saw the group of runaways coming from down the hallway and looked very confused. After all, what elderly person would want to take on a big, burly guard such as the one standing in their way? Ethel looked down at Rosemary, who looked terrified.
“Don’t worry, Rose. We’ll be free soon,” Ethel reassured her. She settled herself, taking time to ensure that her group was ready. Taking a look into the gentlemen’s faces. Allen looked ready to fight. Reginald simply gazed at Ethel, happy to be following her wherever she was going.
Into battle they went.
“Can I help you?” The security guard asked with a furrow in his brow.
“Just going for a stroll around the block,” Ethel asserted.
“You’re not allowed to leave the premises, ma’am.”
“Young man, show some respect for your elders and get the hell out of my way,” Ethel said, showing some bravado.
“You know I can’t do that ma’am. If you want to get through this door you’re gonna have to go through me.”
Ethel reached for her shiv. She didn’t want it to come to this. Unfortunately, it would have to if she wanted freedom from this hellhole.
At being addressed, Allen launched right back to ‘Nam, charging at the guard with fists raised. Rosemary had to look away as the two muscular men went at it. Ethel tried to get Reginald and Rosemary through the front door as the guard was occupied, but Allen had already taken a punch to the chest, which had knocked the air from his lungs. Wheezing, he hunched over as the guard got ready to land another blow. Their chances of escape weren’t looking so good anymore.
Ethel didn’t expect her Reggie to save the day, but the old geezer sure did. He jumped into the fight, giving Allen just enough time to catch his breath. Reginald wasn’t a very strong fighter and was overpowered quickly, but Ethel was taken aback when he sank his teeth into the guard’s beefy arm.
“Sic ’em, Reggie!” Ethel couldn’t help but encourage him. For once, her husband had been useful. The guard shrieked in pain but still managed to take a swing at Reginald’s jaw. Ethel reached for her shiv and firmly gripped her cane, ready to get even.
“That’s my husband, you bastard!” She swung her trusty wooden cane hard into the man’s thigh. Following her initial attack, Ethel then plunged her sharpened knitting needle into his gut. Ethel’s stomach had never felt more settled.
She was finally free.
“Wait… I’m your husband, dollface?”
“Great heavens, Reginald, we do not have time for this,” Rosemary chimed in, clearly panicked and eager to escape this dangerous situation. Allen pushed Rosemary’s wheelchair forward. The guard fell to the ground as Ethel, Rosemary, Allen, and Reginald rushed into the free, open air.
“So, let me get this straight. You four broke out of a nursing home using a bomb made out of a potato and a sharpened knitting needle?”
“Yes, your Honor,” Ethel replied, muttering under her breath, “and I’d do it again.” The trial had finally begun.
After the group had successfully escaped from Georgia Paradise, they thought they were home-free. What they didn’t consider, however, is that a squad of police vehicles would be racing down the street toward the recently set-off explosion. Ethel, Rosemary, Allen, and Reginald were quickly taken into custody when the group was seen suspiciously shuffling away from the crime scene. The incapacitated guard also gave a very detailed description of the suspects after he recovered in the hospital. Ethel had effectively transferred herself from one prison to another. With this realization plaguing her mind, she began plotting her group of diabolical geezers’ next escape from the Greenville County Jail.
Grace Tilles is a senior at Marquette University studying Writing-Intensive English and Advertising. She has always loved reading and writing but also enjoys painting, playing video games, and walking her dogs.
Jeffrey P. Grosscup, “Stillwater Prison,” Hennepin County Library (1973): https://digitalcollections.hclib.org/digital/collection/p17208coll4/id/595.