Excerpt: ‘The Mars Room’

Go inside the prison system with this excerpt from the California Book Club’s May 2021 selection.

the mars room, rachel kushner
Scribner Book Company

Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays. Once a week the defining moment for 60 women takes place. For some of the 60, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once. I was woken at 2 a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley.

As our bus exited the jail perimeter, I glued myself to the mesh-reinforced window to try to see the world. There wasn’t much to look at. Underpasses and on-ramps, dark, deserted boulevards. No one was on the street. We were passing through a moment in the night so remote that traffic lights had ceased to go from green to red and merely blinked a constant yellow. Another car came alongside. It had no lights. It surged past the bus, a dark thing with demonic energy. There was a girl on my unit in county who got life for nothing but driving. She wasn’t the shooter, she would tell anyone who’d listen. She wasn’t the shooter. All she did was drive the car. That was it. They’d used license plate reader technology. They had it on video surveillance. What they had was an image of the car, at night, moving along a street, first with lights on, then with lights off. If the driver cuts the lights, that is premeditation. If the driver cuts the lights, it’s murder.

They were moving us at that hour for a reason, for many reasons. If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule they would have. Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us, a crew of cuffed and chained women on a sheriff’s department bus.

Some of the younger ones were whimpering and sniffling as we pulled onto the highway. There was a girl in a cage who looked about eight months pregnant, her belly so large they had to get an extra length of waist chain to shackle her hands to her sides. She hiccuped and shook, her face a mess of tears. They had her in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us. She was 15.

A woman up ahead turned toward the crying girl in the cage and hissed like she was spraying ant killer. When that didn’t work she yelled.

“Shut the hell up!”

“Dang,” the person across from me said. I’m from San Francisco and a trans to me is nothing new, but this person truly looked like a man. Shoulders as broad as the aisle, and a jawline beard. I assumed she was from the daddy tank at county, where they put the butches. This was Conan, who later I got to know.

“Dang, I mean, it’s a kid. Let her cry.”

The woman told Conan to shut up and then they were arguing and the cops intervened.

Certain women in jail and prison make rules for everyone else, and the woman insisting on quiet was one of those. If you follow their rules, they make more rules. You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.

Excerpted from The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Kushner. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of three novels: The Mars Room, short-listed for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times top 10 book of 2013; and Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award.
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