Oct 05 ● BY Mant Bares
Abandoning my research, I draw back the curtains to the surprise of dusk fading into blue-black. I’ve hunched hours away over my computer. Against a small patch of cloudless sky, I see a lightning bug. He hovers in place for too long, then, in front of my bleared eyes, the hover corrects into a twinkle. He’s a star, fixed in position, dead for all I know.
And what do I know about stars? All that gaseous swirling, even lightyears away from the particular cruelties and other toxic elements of this world—surely, he must have secrets, an inner life.
The day after tomorrow, my mother will be executed by the state of Louisiana. I don’t know yet if I’ll go.
I could stomach the impassive criminal records: the worst misdeeds weakened with legalese, the cold notations of death dates and times to the minute. Eventually, I could even stomach the many intimate black-and-whites of bullet-ridden bodies slumped before smoking muzzles, both clean and messy decapitations, the methodically electrocuted.
Invariably, the dead depicted are men. Men hanging from rafters or tree limbs, legs blurred in a gentle swing. Men arranged stiff or splayed in their own blood. Men with bags or muzzle-like masks on their heads. Men with uncovered faces, sagging with stagnant juices. Men cooked dead with dribbles of blood on their chins. Ted Bundy on a gurney, a plate of skin missing from the top of his handsome head.
My state, a former penal colony, has executed criminals with abandon. I couldn’t help laughing when I learned Louisiana’s electric chair, long out of commission and on display in a museum, is called Gruesome Gertie. Then I was confronted with the terrible silence of her empty seat.
Now, state-sanctioned executions are a process of intravenously gorging the body with chemicals, an event no longer broadcast or recorded.
I find most information for the last ten years via innocence projects. I don’t care much about them, considering she definitely is a murderer, but I do linger over the phrase botched execution. In one sterile snapshot, a latex glove holds a limp arm with a large needle mark, with rings around it like a bull’s eye. Leading away from the mark, chemical burns peel away the blanched, tattooed skin, revealing the pink underneath. Doomed prisoners have been known to convulse for minutes—in some cases, up to an hour—to scream out, and even to survive, to stumble out of the execution chamber with a small barnacle of life holding on somewhere secret.
I blink. Throbbing inside my own head, my brain swishes blood and renews itself.
Many stars have joined mine, their light curious. Through my window, I let them see me, this body, this life without scheduled end. I wonder if they think of me as I do them: in terms of my death, history once the image of me can reach them.
Too early the next morning, my advisor calls to discuss my dissertation, a book-in-progress on women with tuberculosis, née consumption, in literature.
I say, my eyes still closed, “I don’t think I’d want more than one, maybe two full chapters on Poe and his consumed women.”
“Never avoid Edgar Allan Poe, Miss Holiday.”
I shuffle to my desk for last night’s cold coffee. “No, I wouldn’t. I was just thinking… I mean, you are right. Prosaically, there’s so much consuming going on. Especially in ‘Annabel Lee.’”
I’m not attached to Poe’s child-bride, cousin Virginia, and all her renderings. I prefer the mother figures Poe also lost to the disease. But the reading public—and my advisor—loves her and her kingdom. I fumble through Annabel Lee consumed by love that is more than love, the angels consumed by resentment, the consuming nature of kinsmen, Annabel consumed by the angels and/or by the kinsmen,. I consume my coffee to buy time between phrases. If one of my students had gone on like this, I would’ve pointed out Annabel has no thoughts, none, but to love and be loved by cousin Eddie, that she must be hollow for that man to echo so persistently inside her, that nothing is there to consume but her silence.
He interrupts: “Katherine Anne Porter?”
Outside my building, the garbage truck chugs, stops, continues, stops again. I flick the blinds. “The writer?”
A car is parked in the off-limits red zone on the curve, blocking the truck’s way forward. For a second I don’t recognize the blocky sedan; it’s not driven by any of my neighbors. The garbage collectors jump off the back of the truck and split to knock on doors. “I thought Porter had the flu,” I say. “A bad flu strain that turned her hair white, isn’t that right?”
“She also was sequestered in a sanatorium for tuberculosis for a time,” he says. Struggling to pull on my laced shoes, I don’t break the pause. He threatens to send me materials.
“Sorry, but could I call you back?”
“You should be thinking more broadly about this topic. A few poems and plays do not a book make.”
I promise to revisit the kingdom by the sea—and, yes, Katherine Anne Porter, whatever it is she can offer—and rush downstairs.
The collector isn’t standing at my door alone. He’s telling my brother Danny that his car needs to be moved. My father, looking strained, stands off to the side with his nose in a spray of flowers.
“Sorry, I didn’t see the paint.” Danny says. My big brother’s in a smart pair of slacks, his shirt ironed crisp where it isn’t crumpled from the long drive to my city. “I’ve never been here.” He sees me and the garbage collector follows his gaze. I nod at the collector, and he walks off, Danny close behind with his keys in his fist like a nervous woman in a dark parking lot.
My father hugs me over my arms, the fist holding the flowers pressing knuckles into my spine.
I hug back but quickly pull away. “You look sort of dehydrated, Dad.”
“I think them are, too,” he says. The flowers visibly wilt in the fast-rising heat. Danny has fastened all his shirt buttons for him, and his Adam’s apple is red from the pressure. I nick the top button open and lead him inside.
When I return to my spare living room with cold tea, no ice, my father has rooted out the remote and punched in the numbers for his local news station. “Too far,” I say, and input the right numbers for my city’s 24-hour cycle.
Danny knocks at the door and, even though I yell that it’s open, waits for me. Then he’s inside, all elbows. “Clementine. It’s good to see you.”
“Here so early.”
“Your phone not on?”
“The roads were okay?”
“We tried to call.”
“I’ve been out of the apartment lately. Working.” I haven’t left the apartment in days. If you asked my advisor, he’d say I’m working from home this semester. “And my signal’s acting up.”
From the futon sofa, eyes on the television, my father says, “The bridge was out and then the exit off y’all bridge was backed up so we had to park a while.”
Danny sits next to him while I remove a stack of old student papers from a chair. A young news anchor with a head cold narrates a video of two city councilmen yelling at each other over a surprise dissenting vote. It could be that Danny now uses the same aftershave as my father or that the news anchor clears her throat too much, but I don’t understand the point of the argument.
“He should’ve kept his word,” Danny says, an aside but a decisive one. I prickle, even though I don’t care about these men yelling in circles. Danny has always loved picking sides and goading me with his certainty. I’ve raised my voice at my brother. I’ve groaned and snarled and refused to sleep in the same house. Because he’s quiet but rigid, affecting neutrality, I can never call his fighting dirty. But he can be just as caustic, and dismissive besides. Danny doesn’t even live here, I think. He doesn’t even pay the taxes they voted on.
The news program spins into a picture of Bonnie Barrett, convict on her last 48 hours. Danny shifts his weight on the sofa cushion, and my father sinks back, his shoulders touching the wall.
I already know how small she looks in their favorite mugshot, her face tilted back on her neck, grim and flattened of color. In the life before her death sentence, she was a broad woman with a toothsome, furious mouth and cheeks livid with what she called the Irish complexion, though she isn’t. My mother, Bonnie.
I nudge the pile of student papers askew with my foot so I’ll have to bend, an excuse not to see her or what they always show next: the posed senior portrait of dimpled, tragic Randal Meaux.
All I can remember of the first year after Bonnie’s arrest was my vicious eleven-year-old’s crush on her victim. My fantasy was simple. I’d arrive on the scene, in the parking lot of a local bar, and stop her from shooting the tipsy college freshman leaning on her car. I would throw myself between my love, Randal—with his skiing in Colorado and Beta club and love for applied mechanics and honey-blonde hair—and the gun in Bonnie’s hand. A neurochemical mother-daughter bond would kick in, natural as a heartbeat, and he would be saved. Bonnie would be saved, too, but the rest of the fantasy was wrapped up in a life of loving Randal.
Once the trial started, Randal’s aunt, the woman who raised him, broke her silence. Her unforgiving statement to the press shook me out of my delusion. I’ll never forget that sick feeling, seeing Randal’s face in a face that hates Bonnie Barrett. Hates Clementine Harvey, as I was then.
Now a scene from the trial: young Danny sitting behind her while her defense declares the insanity plea. No sign of me because my father respected my decision, soon after Randal’s aunt made her statement to the press, to withdraw from the circus and go on living my life in a gifted kids’ boarding school on scholarship. Cut to Danny on the stand, describing her “episodes of distress and psychosis,” acting the psychologist in that clueless teenage body. I bristle.
Bonnie was unreachable in her frenzies. When she dragged me by my hair to where Danny was already kneeling on a bed of uncooked rice, begging only made her worse. Guilt put the squeeze on her, and she threatened violence on herself instead. We knelt in our punishment and watched as she raked her nails over her arms until she bled and slammed her head on the kitchen table until her eyes wouldn’t focus. Sometimes my father was able to wrestle her to the floor, flattening her peaceful with his body. She moaned like an animal left for dead. In bed, Danny and I picked the rice out of our knees and woke with grains stuck to our faces, in the creases of our elbows.
My father’s flowers, I realize, need a vase. I catch one last image on the screen, of Danny in a tearful embrace with the newly minted death row inmate, mouthing the word Momma with his chin hooked into her thin shoulder. Without alcohol, with prison food, she had shrunk to nothing.
From the kitchen, I hear the throaty anchor bring the story to a close. Barrett will be survived by her long-time partner Floyd Harvey and their two children.
Funny, I think as I fill the vase with hard water spitting from the faucet, to have that tense applied to her obituary. She will be survived by us. We will survive her.
We are silent after my father has the sense to turn the television off. They look at me with desperation, with a fear that I, too, won’t know how to make this easier. I set my record needle to Billie Holiday singing her blues and sit in my chair, facing them and backed by Billie.
Lady sings the blues. She’s got them bad. She feels so sad. And wants the world to know. Just what her blues are all about.
Danny says, “I don’t know why you like this lady so much.”
I give him an uncompromising look. I changed my name to Clementine Holiday before high school, out of love for her and need for anonymity in the age of the Internet. Danny doesn’t understand—me or the blues.
He shrugs. “I’m not much for sad songs.”
I don’t think this one’s so sad. Lady sings the blues. She tells her side. Nothing to hide. At least she gets to tell her side.
My father says, looking at me, “Miss Billie had a sad life.”
I almost smile at him. He’s always called her Miss Billie, like she’s a neighbor or imaginary friend.
My father reaches over to squeeze my hand. “She died,” he answers when I don’t, “while handcuffed to her hospital bed.”
“Jesus. What’d she do?”
“Drugs,” I say. Billie moans. “She was an addict, that’s it. Sick. That’s why government agents came to where she was dying of kidney failure and cuffed her to the bed. Fingerprinted her, right there, took her mugshot. Knowing she would die before they could do anything.” I tremble with anger, though I remember being calm when I found out—sad, but calm—and when I first told my father.
Lady sings the blues. I’m telling you, she’s got ‘em bad. But now the world will know, she’s never gonna sing ‘em no more.
“Terrible,” my father says, like he had over the phone. “Just terrible.”
“Yes,” Danny offers. I can barely look at him, so I tilt my head into the music.
A new song. Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible said and it still is news.
I can feel Danny working up to something, then my father surprises us. “She don’t have much time left, Tiny.”
Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that’s got its own.
“Y’all know I don’t want to go.”
“She needs you there,” Danny says.
“What, having the two of you watch ain’t enough?”
My father inhales sharply and begins to cough. Danny pats him on the back and says, “You know, I think they take the cuffs off, but if that’s the difference to you, she’ll wear them.”
I feel my lip curl. Billie’s record warps over a long note. I say nothing, watching my father wipe his mouth with a handkerchief.
“She’s sick. She’s suffering. It’s no different.”
We stare at each other, every argument about Bonnie we’ve ever had hanging in the air, waiting to swarm. She fits in this category and that one. Everything she did in her life, if you took Danny’s word for it, was a symptom.
“His aunt’s going to be there,” I say.
“Right. And his cousins. We can’t let her die looking at people who hate her.” He lets Billie croon. I’m like an oven, that’s crying for heat. “If you’re there, she’ll go in peace.”
“Is that what she says?”
Danny produces a letter from a jacket pocket, addressed to Clementine Barrett—as were all the unread letters she sent me over the years. Convinced by my absence, that my father turned me against her, she took it upon herself to excise him from my name. She either didn’t believe or didn’t know about Clementine Holiday. At my only visit to prison, after Randal’s aunt shoved me back to reality, I refused to speak to her. She cursed my father with her worst and spit on the glass barrier. The guards took her away screaming. I hate remembering the spit sliding down and my father stroking his neck, eyes closed, collecting himself, while Danny made excuses for her. I remember thinking I was glad they never married, that he could sever that tie. I should’ve expected he’d stand by her until the end.
“That’s not me,” I say.
He props the letter against the vase. We don’t speak much after that. After the Billie album runs out, they get up to go.
“We’re leaving home by one at the latest, after Dad’s out of work. Should be here by three.” That means we’ll be at the prison by four-thirty, barring traffic, while the main event isn’t until eight. I promise nothing and hug my father back again, but tighter.
Adela eats after we finish, always. “Are you sure you don’t want any of this?” She returns to her bed with a steaming bowl of lentils held dangerously close to her bare belly.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes. But I listen better when I’m not hungry.”
I groan into a pillow. “I have a decision to make!”
“You decide better when you’re not hungry.” Adela feeds me every other bite, my head in her lap, mouth below her spoon. When we’ve eaten, I sweep the severe, lash-brushing bangs out of her face. She lets me run my fingers over her pale forehead, nubbled with moles since she was a child, an inheritance from her Turkish mother. A descendant of both Turkish and Mexican revolutionaries, she studies literature of revolution in the same department as me and my Poe-loving advisor. A year ago, we first bonded over Les Misérables. A little less than a year ago, we first fucked to Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets.” She tugs on my ear. Sometimes she’s too generous, I think, letting me go on and on like I do.
“How can I help you, love?”
I rest my head on my fist. “Tell me again.”
“The story hasn’t changed, you know.”
“I’ve been researching. It all blurs together.”
“That’s what I mean.”
I start for her: “When your grandfather had been in the United States for two years, he got word that his brother…”
“That his brother had been executed by the Turkish government.”
“For what?” Adela sighs, slinking down a little on the mattress.
“Your great-uncle, he was the peaceful one in the family. He played music, taught math at the university. Your grandfather was the fighter. That’s why he had to come here. He was protected, a political refugee, and they couldn’t touch him. So, they accused his brother of sodomy.”
We sit with that for a long minute until Adela picks up the thread.
“They did it with rope. Apparently, or so my dede was told, his brother said something to the soldiers right before. Don’t know what. Later that day, one of the soldiers was found dead. Self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“Did I tell you about the bank robber’s sister?” I ask. I zoned out right after rope, barely heard her. She’s right, the story—the end—hasn’t changed. There’s no more than I remember.
Adela rubs her pinky over her front teeth. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, suddenly overwhelmed by my neediness. I hide my face in the crook of my arm. I finally told her only two months ago, and since then I haven’t stopping talking: about Bonnie, about prison, about death. I tell myself Adela can handle it, that her work is this kind of suffering. She’d tell me if it made her suffer, too.
“He killed somebody in the course of a robbery,” Adela starts for me, tugging my ear again.
“And his sister was all the family he had in the world. And she loses her shit. Like, starts screaming while they strap him into the chair.”
There’s a moment we both wait for a different ending, something better than a simple scream. I sigh and raise myself on my elbow. I’m tempted to touch her naked thigh, start again, forget what the next 24 hours will bring. “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”
“We’ve gone over both your options. It’s for you to decide.”
“Would you go if it was your mother?”
“If she cared whether I lived or died? Yes. But that’s me and my ana, not you and yours.”
“Even though…” I can’t finish. The upside to this long isolation from my family is they haven’t had the chance to judge me. Adela’s been out since her preteen years.
“Especially since she beat me.” Adela twists her arm to expose the seam just above her elbow, evidence of a long-ago switching.
“Don’t tell me to put myself in her shoes.”
“I would never. What a painful pair of shoes, though.”
Again, the urge to lose myself in her bed. I see my shoes across the room and walk to them naked. Then I gather the rest of my clothes and dress.
“I’ve got to go figure this out. Who do people go to for advice? Generally.”
“Lovers. Friends, family. Hairdressers, therapists, bartenders.”
“Already came to you. No and no. Cut my own hair, cry to myself. Hm.” Keys in hand, I sit on the edge of the bed.
“Are you afraid you’ll scream?”
“No, not me. Not my dad. Danny, maybe. The aunt might cheer.” I remember her unforgiving court statement, the resemblance between her straw-blonde hair and his. She’s since grayed. “Is it terrible to say I didn’t think she’d live to see this?”
“Everything about this situation is terrible. For her, for her sons. For your mother, too. But also, for you and your brother and your father. Maybe it will be easier to decide if you’re deciding whether to go for them, not for her.”
When I go to leave, Adela asks me to send her condolences along to my father and brother. She’s so much smaller framed by the door. The tension in the outer corners of her eyes turns me inside out. I decide I won’t burden her with talk about Bonnie again, not once the woman’s dead. I jingle my keys and go.
Behind me, the sun drops over the golf course. The country club near my apartment suffers now from my absence.
Once I had buried the decision in gin, I livened the place up. A generous gentleman let me use his phone to search Katharine An Porter consumpion. Turns out, though she spent two years in hospitals for the consumed, though a brother and cousin and perhaps mother died of it, she never actually had tuberculosis; doctors misdiagnosed her bronchitis. Bronchitis! Only the gentleman taking back the phone kept me from calling my advisor and crowing that he was wrong, wrong, wrong, I don’t need Porter or Annabel.
Under the eyes of the exasperated bartender, I toss my shabby sandals in a dumpster. He got away easy—I never got around to asking for his advice. I walk along an imaginary straight line all the way home.
In my mail slot I find a long interdepartmental document envelope with many old address directives crossed out on the front, sent from my advisor. Two sheets of paper, a terse note from my advisor and a letter from Katherine Anne Porter to her sister in December of 1916, from the Woodlawn Union Tubercular Hospital. Inside, I scan the contents.
Honey, I am hanging my head in shame that I am not giving you anything this Christmas but the dinky little things I’m sending.
Once Bonnie sent Danny and I a joint present from prison: a dinky keychain from the Mall of Louisiana, an old one from before we were born, stolen from someone’s cell or traded for a cigarette.
On the back of the December letter is a photo-copied excerpt from another, a ratty-edged, sloppily-typed, undated slip describing some kind of carnival outing with her daughter at a time Porter wasn’t in treatment for one lung condition or another.
She looked like a strange child, perched stop ofa flying and bejewelled horse reaching madly for rings and catching them joyfully and winning free rides laughing and laughing.
I skip to the end.
Took her to see a clock that her teacher said for her to see that wswas really wonderful, showing most everything on earth that a clock could show and much more and it took three men thirty years to build it. It interested her less than anything we saw or did.
I feel woozy, discard the papers, sip water from my tap. As the purple spots fade from my vision, my intuition seems to worm through this membrane of indecision. I should go. No, I shouldn’t go. I shouldn’t! I… should? Rising from my gut, there’s some sense of compulsion that I interpret as wisdom before it releases in a watery, acidic burp.
I throw all the papers I can find, research documents and bills and old syllabuses, on the floor, and sit in the scattered layer. Bonnie’s letter appears like an omen on top of notes covering “The Cremona Violin,” an obscure story by the same German who wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The script on her envelope is impulsively spiky, Clementine Barrett—strange, like a clue to a riddle. I stuff it in the larger envelope with the Porter materials.
What I love about “The Cremona Violin” is the young girl at its center. Antonia has inherited three things from her mother. First, what is described as “an organic failure of the chest.” Second, a glorious singing voice the author attributes to the illness, as though the lungs can draw inspiration from the music of a cough. Last, a fate.
Her widowed father never explains to her why he forbids her to sing. Then a lover compels her to share that voice, sweeter than the finest violin, just once, oh please, one time. Her father runs in as her last note expires in the air. Like her mother before her, the consumed girl has sung herself to death.
Oh, Antonia. I write her name in block letters on a legal pad and try to sketch her based on the last lines of the story—”her eyes closed, a sweet angelic smile on her face, her hands devoutly folded, and looking as if asleep and dreaming of the joys and raptures of heaven.” She was blessed, not knowing what was coming.
Gardenias take shape instead, one after another, then a forehead in dimpled tension, drawn eyebrows, eyelids in their own kind of plaintive rapture. I linger on her rounded mouth and vulnerable, exposed teeth. I cross out ANTONIA and write LADY DAY.
Billie could not have known she would die penniless at 44, body on its way to rot under the eyes of government lackeys.
My grandmother, the killer’s mother, died around that age, too, of complications from a crack in her skull my grandfather insisted she got by slipping on the mopped floor. My other grandmother died in her 70s of unchecked breast cancer, my father’s one sister of alcohol poisoning at 31. A girl in my graduating class died tangled in her flattened bicycle, age 19. The driver fled and was never caught.
They saw it coming, moments or months before, and they didn’t, none of them. Bonnie can consult a schedule, count down the days, the hours. She will be meticulously strapped into her death. Her veins will be made to sing, and sing, and sing, And to whom? For whom?
“Not me,” I say aloud, spooking myself. The apartment swallows my voice, like a black hole and its favorite food, light.
Cypress knees mob the water on both sides of the long bridge over the basin. I stare at these buckled roots, ignoring my impulse to peer into every car we pass, at the news crews and political pilgrims with handmade signs in their laps. FRY THE BITCH or WHY MURDER TO PUNISH MURDER? They might be looking for me, too.
Every so often during the ride to the prison, I catch Danny spying on me in the rearview. My father reaches back about as often to pat my leg, in some combination of thanking me and reassuring himself that I’m really here.
Danny’s knock startled me out of my sleep, still sprawled on my papers. I wanted to tell him that she’s lucky I passed out before I could warn him not to come for me. Instead I said, “I’m not sure about this.” He responded by helpfully pointing out the ink stains on my face, a paragraph of “The Cremona Violin” transferred on my forehead.
I’m wearing a light jacket because I had the last-minute notion that the prison will be cold inside. In my pocket is Bonnie’s letter, still stuffed in the larger envelope from my advisor. The papers crinkle when I move. I wish Danny would ask me what she wrote, just so I can tell him I haven’t read it. Yet. Or ever.
Passing familiar billboards, truck stops, overpasses, I think about our family’s long drives to New Orleans or Vicksburg for Bonnie’s impromptu weekend vacations. She would rant all the way there about politics or imagined slights or how she was the best student in her high school drama club. I know for a fact that her tiny alma mater didn’t have a drama club. But she did have one Shakespeare passage committed to memory. Eye of newt, and toe of a frog, wool of a bat, and tongue of a dog. Then Danny and I would holler in the small space, Double, double, toil and trouble! Fire burn and cauldron bubble! When she was angry with my father, she would direct it at him in the driver’s seat. Double double, Floyd and trouble. I wouldn’t join in.
That scene with Macbeth and the witches is two before a scene I know better, one with a vague mention of a disease—could-be tuberculosis—that the good King Edward cured with his touch.
My father asks, “Y’all mind if I crank down this window?”
“What for? You hot? I just changed the coolant, the AC should be fine. Adjust the vent.” Danny drives with his right hand stretched over the steering wheel, his thumb on the horn. Has he ever in his life, I wonder, honked at someone? “Oh wait,” he says. “Let me guess, you bought cigarettes at the gas station.”
“I need to relax.”
“You need to live to retire.”
I interject. “Is this really the time for all that? Dad, you go ahead. Won’t bother me.”
He works the rotating arm on the door until the window is halfway down, then flicks a plastic lighter four times before he gets a flame. Before Bonnie was arrested, he exclusively used a clunky, silver antique Zippo she had bought him for his first Father’s Day. He sold it to pay bills that usually came out of her paycheck.
Smoke trails out of the window and dissipates against the backdrop of marshland. Seeing the cigarette as he flicks the ashes, I recognize the brand and ask for one. Danny exhales hard through his nose. My father passes the pack and lighter underhand in the space between his seat and the door. I haven’t smoked in years, and the inhale’s rush now feels false, chemically manipulative and stale. But I like watching my smoke mingle with his before the wind sucks it away. I shuck my jacket so it won’t smell once we get to the prison.
“College, I was all about the 100s,” I say over the seat.
“So long! You could’ve probably used one of them holders. Like a flapper girl.”
Danny speaks loud against the wind whipping around the car. “Y’all done? I can’t think with all that noise.”
I catch his eye in the rearview. “You want to think?”
“Now that you mention it,” he says even louder, “we should think about what this is gonna be like.”
I toss my stub out on the highway. My father snuffs his in a napkin. The air stiffens when the windows seal closed.
“Fucking awful is what it’s gonna be like,” I say.
The protestors and eager anticipators, the news people and their recording equipment, are all kept at bay by a guarded fence out front. We enter via a service road, back parking lot, double doors with chains hanging from the bar handles, guards flanking the threshold and locking them shut behind us.
More guards process us like we’re walking into our own incarcerations. We are patted down, me by the only female guard. Our pockets are emptied, our phones and jewelry taken for safekeeping, our shoes and jackets removed, my hair unpinned and shaken loose. The tallest guard finds the envelope in my jacket and asks for my permission to open it. I’m having a hard time speaking now that we’re here, so he takes my silence as a yes. He doesn’t dump the contents out or open Bonnie’s smaller envelope, just scans the loose page then hands the envelope back with an apologetic nod. While the female guard uses her nails to peel up my father’s orthopedic inserts, Danny restores some of my dignity by helping me back into my jacket. I hold everyone up taming my hair again without a mirror.
The warden’s office is at the end of a wide, windowless hallway. Danny walks sure-footed, almost impatient, and I wonder how often he’s been here. The prison rarely allows visitors to death-row, but I’d bet he took every rare opportunity. Holding my father’s hand as we trail behind Danny, all my research seems nothing more than gory trivia.
The warden’s office is completely lined with bookshelves, every leather binding a possible key to a secret passageway. The man himself is big, tall, wide, unremarkable, in a suit with no personality, and with hands that pull moisture from mine when we shake.
“Mr. Harvey, Mr. Harvey. Miss Harvey, I’m sorry I’m meeting you for the first time on a day like this. I’m Warden Fontaine, and I’m in charge here.” I nod politely, thinking Miss Holiday. We all sit. The warden unbuttons his jacket. Danny and my father mimic him. I bury my hands in my pockets and rest my fists in my lap, pulling my jacket closed.
“Mr. Warden,” my father says, “will she eat?”
“Yes, Ms. Barrett did finally agree to a last meal. Fried rice and a small thermos of chicory coffee.”
“That’s it?” I ask.
“Yes, Miss Harvey. We offered to get her anything, within reason. We do provide well for our inmates.”
Danny says, “And is she asking—”
I interrupt. “Within reason? What’s an unreasonable request look like?”
Warden Fontaine looks from me to Danny to my father to me. “Well… one man asked for blowfish.” He shifts in his seat. “Said he always wanted to try it. But it is a potential poison, so we denied his request.”
“What did he eat instead?”
Danny glares at me.
“To my memory, he settled for fried catfish.” He quickly moves on to logistics, with many anxious looks at me he almost conceals. I am in my head, in “The Cremona Violin” and Les Misérables and even “Annabel Lee,” in women swooning, coughing, gagging, heaving, convulsing, in Katherine Anne Porter and her tricky lungs, in my mother taking me to see a clock showing more than a clock should be capable of, and in me not interested.
In our private waiting room, Danny repeats everything. I let my father hold my hand.
“She’s not seeing anyone before the event. Not even a priest.”
“Not even us,” my father says.
“Lots of inmates call for spiritual counsel in the eleventh hour. Father Gregory will be on standby until the end.” The event, the end. “We can ask for counsel, too, but none of us need it at this second, so.”
“So.” The room’s not unlike a cell—small and damp, a spackled-over square over the small sofa where there must have once been a window, a particle-board desk with a chain lamp and rabbit-ear radio. It smells like rust and raw, neglected floor wax. Danny takes the desk chair while we sink into vinyl and springs.
“And there will be three news representatives present in the viewing room. No cameras, he said. Just witnesses from the press. They’ll take statements if we’ve got them, but that’s it.”
“Statements?” I think of a future execution researcher coming across a petty comment I made to my brother in the viewing room.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got one prepared on the behalf of all of us.”
I don’t ask to read it. I figure it’ll make me so angry I’ll actually lose it.
We wait. I bet Danny five dollars there’s a Bible in the desk drawer. Instead there’s a small bound pamphlet about the ins-and-outs of conjugal visits. I sit on the arm of the sofa.
Different guards poke their heads in to check on us, and, once the time we were promised an escort to the viewing room has passed, to apologize. I give them no expression or response. They’re probably taking turns, so they can all see us, Bonnie’s family, for themselves. The guards remind us of the location of the restrooms and vending machines.
I don’t leave the room, but my father frequents the restroom, every time coming back with his face splashed wet, eyes red. He pops Tums whenever his heartburn makes ashes of the last.
The silence wears on me. I wish we were in the prison proper, with the sounds of Bonnie’s environment to ground us. Buzzers, clanging doors, voices, scuffing of standard-issue shoes, dour coughing. I wonder if this execution is a form of entertainment for them, or at least for the inmates not sentenced to the same fate. The state last executed a woman, the only one to sit in Gruesome Gertie before her retirement, in the 1940s. Release or rehabilitation, like a consumption patient benefitting from mountain air or a girl-child who stops singing when told, is not as interesting.
I finally go to the restroom when I can’t take it anymore. Danny is relentlessly writing out his—our—statement again and again in a spiral notebook, my father rubbing his chest and staring at his buffed shoes. The papers in my jacket are hot against my ribs. There are guards walking here and there in the cold hallway, and one of them directs me to the women’s restroom when I accidentally approach the men’s.
A tangle of exposed pipes hiss above my head. Only half the fluorescents work. The eight stalls are a shiny army green, the walls spackled rather than painted. I swing my head down, checking for feet. There are none. I’m alone.
I turn the tap on one of the low sinks and water sprays into the air, splashing the mirror, my face and torso. The papers soften, damp, in my jacket. The towel dispenser is empty, the hatch hanging open like someone started restocking then had an emergency. I run into an open stall, the door bouncing loud behind me. The cheap stiff toilet paper sheds fibers on the papers as I dab them dry.
Porter’s letters were, by chance, on the outside. Soaked through, the text describing a day out with her daughter melted into her apology to her sister about the dinky little things she was sending home.
I peel away the envelope flap on Bonnie’s letter, the glue barely tearing as I open it to check if the pages are ruined. I count without meaning to—two folded pages. Mostly dry, of course, her handwriting on the envelope smeared but not distorted, because she will not be silenced so easily. I prop her letter on the small abused metal bin for discarded tampons. I smooth Porter’s on my knee. Little tongues of air slip down from vents hidden among the pipes. Bonnie’s words tremble, one bent corner of the envelope ticking against the stall.
I can’t read anything Porter wrote. I can’t understand it anymore on the page, and I can’t recall what she wrote. I haven’t set eyes on “Annabel Lee” since sophomore year of college and I remember word-for-word her stupid seaside sepulchre and the wind that chilled and killed her. What was it Porter had said her daughter actually liked? I twist and hold the paper to the weak light. She didn’t appreciate the time that took three years and thirty men to build—or was it thirty years and three men?—but what did the girl actually like?
I stand on the toilet lid to bring the paper closer to the light. My hair touches the pipes, hissing so close to my head I can’t hear anything else. After a minute’s futile concentration, the paper tears where I grip it. I almost lose my balance and grip the door with my free hand.
It swings inward. The sink taps dribble.
And she’s standing there. Randal’s aunt.
I make a choking noise. She just looks at me. Her face is blank, and I wonder what could be left there of the halcyon days before the worst thing that ever happened to her.
I look down at Bonnie’s letter, wrinkled and open, at her feet. She—she who still looks just like Randal, even for the graying, just like the boy I should never have claimed, I know that more clearly now than I ever have—she picks up the envelope but I don’t reach out a hand to take it. It doesn’t matter—without a gesture acknowledging me, Randal’s aunt shakes the letter out gently and begins to read.
I climb down awkwardly, my foot clipping the flusher so the hissing of the pipes sharpens to a long squeal.
Even if she read aloud, I wouldn’t be able to hear. She’s barely audible with a microphone. I watch her read what I haven’t, and I wonder how long we’ve been in the same building. I never thought they’d keep us so close. All along we have been together, her and the boys she raised alongside Randal in another room just like ours—but maybe, I think, with a window and a Bible. Surely the victim’s family deserves better than us. Still, the same air tickling our necks, our breath intermingling. The same guards bouncing between us, comparing us.
She reaches the last page and starts shaking. The pipes abruptly stop squealing. The hissing is comparatively quiet. I clear my throat twice.
“Help me.” I intended to say tell me, but this is what I say to the woman who raised my first love. Don’t tell me. Help me know what she said, but don’t tell me.
She looks me in the eyes, and I can barely see through heavy stinging tears, a film like chainmail. Her hand feels warm, generous, when I take the letter back. In the space of a breath, I turn around and drop Bonnie’s letter in the toilet. But the flusher won’t work now.
“Help me,” I say again, though I don’t know if she’s standing there anymore.
But she is. We squeeze together in the dinky little stall and finally silence Bonnie. The ink streaks blue in the bowl as the paper dissolves. The water overflows, and still my mother speaks. Randal’s aunt breaks the flusher off. I jam a foot in and the wad of paper whooshes suddenly down, away, up into the pipes or some unknown, where words go when they meant nothing to begin with. We’re listening, we’re panting, we’re together, all along, and above us the pipes sing like they were meant to break.