My dad likes to watch people die. It’s his only joy in life now.
I remember him being young when I was a child. He had black hair, a thick black moustache. Waking early, coming home smelling of cedar, going to sleep early. And then he couldn’t sleep. He stayed up in his Barcalounger, glass of Alka Seltzer buzzing in his hand, trash TV softly playing.
His hair turned gray, his belly a keg. He sold the fence company for pennies on the dollar. Mario, his lieutenant for thirty years, didn’t want it. In the end it wasn’t worth much. What was it but a collection of individual parts?
And Mario? His hair was still black, even after all that hellish work. He wanted to retire on a nice nest egg. See his grandchildren christened. Host barbeques in the backyard of his bungalow just inside 610.
But my father has no grandchildren. He has his wife, still loyal, a jittery emergency smile painted on her ‘rosy mauve’ lips. And they together have me the writer and my brother who works for the DA as a sort of clerk.
I suppose it’s this connection that started the whole thing. One of my brother’s many jobs in the office is to file the crime photos. Many hours staring into his computer screen.
I still think of crime photos from police procedurals in the 60s, grainy black and white. Almost divination to get any evidence out of them. But that’s not how they are now. Now, they’re clear as Grey’s Anatomy, which is also often the subject.
These are the ugly crimes. Not petty theft, not lifted cigarettes or baby formula, or even purses, or those things they rarely get back and are impossible to photograph, but that still the police exploit to fill their coffers. These are pictures of the remnants of human, dare I say, evil?
Father would say evil. He’d say evil quite easily as if he’d got a handle on it. I remember one day when we were dismantling a wrought-iron fence. I was always good at dismantling metal fences. That and digging post holes—things that utilized my big frame, unlike hammering which was all in the forearms; and all the laborers, however short in stature, had stronger forearms. Suddenly the BNSF train came screaming past us, filling the field, filling everything with its whistle. Between whistles, dad, who was right there with shavings of cedar on his rough shoulder, said, “that’s a big train taking coal to the fires in hell.”
My father was a man who had to be forced nearly at knifepoint to church, who refused most fervently on Christmas. And there he was talking about hell. It wasn’t about hell, of course, because he didn’t believe in hell. It was the turn of the century. There was something else he believed in. Something huge and dark, beyond him yet eerily near.
I was away getting my MFA in Yankeedom. So this isn’t really my story. My brother was still living with our mom and dad. He brought his work home with him, looking at it like a detective. Or at least our uncle thought so; an investigator himself, he said my brother Lewis would make a fine detective.
Lewis made sure Mom didn’t see. He was bothered by it, of course, he admitted as much, but he had a tough flinty personality and he let the images go out of his mind. He assumed our father was the same way. It is as easy to misinterpret physical toughness for mental toughness as it is to confuse muscular strength with bodily health.
Dad was monumentally tough. We’d seen him come home from work with gashes across his forearms. Bruises on his left foot from a dumb mistake with a post-hole digger. Holes from a nail gun. If he were to exploit his laborers, he’d exploit himself too. It was a contract unto himself. I like to think I know that toughness. In the mornings, before I begin reading long arduous books in preparation for my comprehensive exams, I run four miles up the big hill at the center of Vine. Eight miles in total every day, like my father did when he ran cross-country in high school. I understand physical toughness, and I understand how it can be uncoupled from mental stability.
“Who did that?” Dad asks about a corpse in an ash dump. “No one,” Lewis says. “That is, we don’t know yet.” And on it goes, a few bodies here and there, strung up in a bathroom, dismembered, mostly just shot on the street. It could have been the police.
The number of bodies Lewis carefully curates doesn’t frighten me. It is a small sliver of the whole population of Galveston. Dad would say I see things through “rose-colored glasses”—but I see nothing with rose-colored classes, not the island, not the suburbs along the big freeway, not Harrisburg, not Manchester with its miasma from the factories across the Ship Channel, not downtown—no; but I also don’t see it darkly. It is all just land and aerosolized factory junk. The people are all just people. Sometimes the sun comes in, a big burning Texas sun, delouses it a little. Sometimes it rains.
The corpses are just corpses.
But I can’t deny that to dad they have a special meaning. At first, it just seems he’s interested in my little brother’s work. He’s bored and likes the procedural quality of it. But this all ends when someone’s caught. The easy banter at a fish fry with his detective brother ceases. His eyes grow like I remember them. Like only I, up in this icy New England winter, remember. My brother was too young and when he wasn’t he liked physical labor. I remember my dad all those long days, face screwed up with focus, pinpricks for pupils.
The young man appears to have done it. The crime is in the local papers. It is not necessary to inscribe here the state of the body and the particulars of the crime. Needless to say, my father, without much investigating, understood what had happened and how it conformed to his worldview.
What view? My father was Solomon sitting in the ripped bucket seat of the 2008 F-150, its elongated bed filled with cedar gates. He was talking about wood and its warping. And he was talking about the type of earth you found in the city—what I’d call anthrostratum in Theory class—earth filled with concrete, brick, remnants of glass windows, bottles.
Years pass. The man awaits trial. Then there is a trial. There is the threat of the death penalty. Father never says he’s in favor of the death penalty. He’s never said much about politics other than that when Jimmy Carter was president everything went to hell—gasoline prices through the roof! Other than that—other than that and the usual hardness of a man of his type, casual racism at odds with his similarly occasional bromides about the need for racial harmony and fairness, his hatred of trade unionism and taxes, his love of cash—there are no politics. Or maybe all that there is is politics.
In fact, the idea that the government kills is probably not a surprise or a special thing to Dad. The government kills and people kill. The world kills. Some people have it coming, he most certainly believes. He also believes this: that his father, the once feared judge and mayor of my natal city, cared more about “politics” than he did “making a living.” This might be the only insult I’ve heard him pay his father.
A young man in a jumpsuit. A young man unrecognizable in a courtroom sketch. The man’s crime is unimportant. His name—his last name adopted, in a manner, in the distant past—is Ash. (My father has already forgotten how he got here. That his son had showed him pictures of another crime, a decapitation. The man who most likely “did it” is now a prisoner of the state.) Now my father is watching this other prisoner, Ash, who may have committed this other crime, killed his girlfriend, although he maintains his innocence. He’s being put to death by lethal injection. In Texas, people with the right cable package can get a special government channel which shows all the state executions. It was written into the law in the late 60s as a form of propaganda. It’s very popular on YouTube.
Recently, the state government has run out of pentobarbital. It was forced to turn to state labs, mostly in Houston, to produce drugs that could satisfy the government prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Some of the new drugs clotted in the syringe and the rubber fount and the needle, causing a slow trickle in the blood stream, which apparently caused the condemned great pain—all Dad knew was that they shouted incomprehensible things from the table.
He didn’t like this. After one Ms. Kelly Reichhart’s execution, he made one comment over his Stroganoff: “hanging would be better.” Mom read this as “more humane,” but it still put her off her meal and she pushed it away.
That night, Dad had a flash of bad dreams and stayed up half the night. The next morning, about six, he reminded Mom that he was lactose intolerant and shouldn’t eat meals with a lot of cream in them.
It goes on like that, him tuning in. It’s like when he and Mom watched a lot of The Twilight Zone, or a lot of Big 12 football, or Survivor, only now Mom goes into the bedroom when he flips the TV on. Lewis peeks in from the porch where he sometimes does paperwork and rolls his eyes.
“Dad’s nuts,” Lewis messages me. “Remember when I liked reading about serial killers? It’s like that but a hundred times worse.”
After that, Lewis doesn’t answer my questions. He prevaricates. Talks about music, the latest Mountain Goats. He seems to think I’m not really interested in our father.
Now his obsession is like an anatomist’s book of bodies, a perused true-crime magazine; crimes committed and perhaps committed and sometimes technically committed although the felon has no idea what they were doing. Different wrists, different shoulders, different gauges of belt around the chest and leg, different last words, different imperfected drug cocktails, different shouts from the table.
Dad begins to write letters to the government with his suggestions. His first suggestions are rather touching in a way. Women, he writes, should not be killed. He didn’t care for the Reichhart execution. He has a rather liberal view of confession, and notes that every prisoner has a right to confess to any type of priest. Who is he to judge? In Texas, the law is that it’s a Catholic Priest, a Baptist or Methodist Minister, or nothing. Mother reports this line she thinks she deciphered from a letter left on the table: “I didn’t know that I could feel so close to the revenger, that I could feel bound with the revenger.” She thinks this stab at poetry is nonsense. Finally she suggests therapy. He’s gone to therapy, he reminds her, and he didn’t care for it.
When they run out of drugs, my father suffers withdrawal for state murder and begins to send more illiberal messages. Since he began to get responses from government officials and state house reps, he’s moved onto writing from a new email account. He supports Dale Attenborough’s new legislation to allow the great surfeit of death-row inmates to be killed the old way via electrocution. The bill is in committee in the traditionally unrepresentative State House, where his father, my grandfather, was a representative.
The bill, after it has cycled through the two houses twice, is, in my eyes at least, a travesty. A return to barbarism. (Yes, I know. When have we left barbarism behind?) Men—it states rather clearly men—may be put to death with traditional methods if approved by a doctor and justice of the peace, such as electrocution, hanging, or by firing squad.
Immediately people are electrocuted. In Florida and the Carolinas people have been executed in such a manner for years and the nouveaux riche rednecks in Texas can’t be outmurdered by those coastal elites. Mom, Dad and Lewis gather in the living room to watch the first electrocution. Mother nibbles on her lip. Lewis stands unseen through an archway in the dining room. There is an executioner and some rabid-looking folks behind a one-way mirror. No justice of the peace though. They throw the switch. Lewis feels sick. Mother seems to be having an epiphany. Father sits with a queasy look on his face, like when you’re watching a sex scene in a well-lighted room.
A few days later they all have an argument. Somehow they’re back at the dinner table. The first time since the Stroganoff.
“I don’t think there’s any justice in it,” Mom says.
“Well,” Dad says. He wants salt but can’t have since his first heart attack.
“I don’t think it’s good for you.”
“I know damn well what’s good for me.”
“Ethan!” Lewis always calls our father by his first name.
“What’s so good about it?” Lewis asks.
“You’ve seen it,” Dad says. “You’ve seen all those pictures.”
It takes Lewis a second to realize he’s talking about the crime scene photos. “Sure,” he says.
“They’re fiends,” Dad says. “How ’bout that for a ten-dollar word?”
Lewis mutters, “I think you’re the fiend, Dad.”
Before the heart attack, Dad would have said, “I’m gonna make your ass grass” and Lewis would threaten him with whatever was in reach (a candle holder maybe) and Mother (and I if I were there) would have already left the dining room. But now time has made Dad more placable. “I guess I have to deal with that,” he says finally.
Dad does feel a fiendish power in his fingers. The titillation of the keys. The man never liked social media, but he doesn’t need social media. All he needs is an email in order to send his screeds to House Reps, Senators, old lawyers and judges (who are—were—friends of the family), and to the prison governor of the Walls Unit. Their usually prompt responses fill him with elation.
His voice in the correspondence has changed. It is no longer restrained. The House Reps no longer seem to be feigning interest, the old lawyers seem reinvigorated by Dad’s gaining strength, they are looking to him for reason to kill, he is filling them with the spirit of death.
In the governor’s mansion—the governor of the state, not the Walls Unit—my father’s name is mentioned. “Oh, fine,” the governor says. “Whatever’s fine.” And so my father is written on as the Justice of the Peace. As it turns out, there’s really no prerequisite to fill this position, like when, one hundred years ago, you could be a judge without passing the bar.
According to the viscera of the black letter law, this position, which comes with a small stipend, “is meant to provide the condemned with the presence of a good and noble person or persons—representing the moral rectitude of the state” et cetera. Dad’s phone buzzes on the Formica. It’s an aide to someone—he can hear her voice echo as if in a huge marble chamber. The call is a courtesy, the aide says, and he’ll have to make a reply in twenty-four hours.
“I don’t need twenty-four seconds,” he says.
The first and only execution he attends is the one of a man named Courtland Dawes. He hasn’t killed anyone. He’d sat in the Buick while an associate stumbled upon the owner of a house he was robbing. The shotgun might have gone off accidently—it was what the killer claimed. The shotgunner got life, the driver death. It occasionally happens in Texas.
Father drives to the prison alone. Neither his wife nor his youngest son will go with him. Of course, I’m in New England. The prison is a little more than two hours up I-45, first through the city and then through a series of smaller cities and towns. He turns off the interstate onto Highway 30. There is a stand of facades on Main. The county courthouse. Beyond that, there’s a mechanic with a big pile of tires in the parking lot. There’s a place called Mr. Hamburger. Then there is the Unit, a huge mass of wall. Long soft-looking red walls. Across from the prison proper there’s the prison governor’s house. He parks on the street before it. A rambling villa with a terracotta roof.
The maid lent from the women’s prison lets him in the foyer. The governor is away. Dad waits. He waits for almost twenty minutes, remembering how as a child he had come there with his father, who had dined there with the man he’d called warden in ’72, during his father’s senatorial campaign.
When the governor appears, he’s with the condemned. Dad is shocked to see him unshackled. His utter humanness is appalling. The condemned hardly looks at him. He looks as if he’s going to spit, but decorum keeps him from spitting on the coral-colored carpet. The governor is wearing a sky-blue suit covered in dust.
“We have a problem with the chair,” says the governor.
The condemned spits in the cut-glass bowl of bluebonnets.
The governor asks the girl from the woman’s prison to bring him water. Dad is surprised that she doesn’t bring the governor a glass of water, but instead a porcelain bowl with a dishtowel soaked in it, which he uses to pat off the dust and sweat from his forehead.
“Thanks, Marta,” the governor says. Then, “We have to make a decision about the thing.”
“What? What decision?” Dad says, only because both the governor and condemned are looking at him.
“Well, the chair is on the fritz,” the governor says. “Sorry, I suppose that’s a pun. Suppose it’s rude.” He continues. “Well, Courtland, you and this…this…good citizen here….” He thinks if he should ask my father’s name, which he’s forgotten.
The governor laughs. “Ah, alright. You don’t happen to be related to old Senator Wilde.”
“The very one.”
“Ah.” The governor has a sort of cockeyed smile he can’t suppress. “Well, Ethan, you help Courtland here decide if he’s gonna use the chair despite something wrong with the current. The wrong kind of current maybe. It’s either that or by firing squad, which we’d have to scare up a peloton for.”
He and Courtland find themselves in the sunroom. Suddenly my father wants to offer him all the pleasures he can in these last moments. He never liked any man before Courtland he realizes. Never found any reason to like his father—loved him maybe but that’s different. His two sons—he supposes he had to keep us alive and that was his tragedy. It was his life. But sustaining life wasn’t at all a burden with this fellow.
He saw the fresh flowers, the rich carpets, the mahogany, the eucalyptus, species of wood far and away superior to the oily cedar he used in fences. He thinks this is a rich place. He calls Marta over and asks if they could have something to drink—lemonade. Courtland harrumphs.
“You don’t like lemonade?” Dad asks.
Courtland looks at him like he is crazy. “I don’t know you,” he says.
“Oh, yes,” Dad says.
He thinks, is the man not afraid? Is he? It was a good question because he didn’t seem like it. “Marta,” Dad asks, ignoring the question of fear, “can we have cigars?”
“Sure.” Marta is in the doorway perfectly calm. She goes through what seems like endless rooms looking for cigars. In fact there is no humidor nor any cigars.
By the time she comes back empty handed, the governor has returned through another door. “Have y’all decided?” he asks.
“Oh, no,” Dad says weakly.
“Well, son, what will it be?” asks the governor.
“I don’t care. I don’t want to hear it.”
“Well, son, you’re gonna hear it.” The governor produces a coin, a bronze Sacagawea. “Heads electricity, tails guns.”
He flips it. Guns.
Courtland walks with his head hung like it’s been snapped already through the rich tapestried outer-rooms of the mansion. Dad follows feeling a little frantic. He’s done nothing for this man. He’s offered cigars like you smoked outside a maternity ward, but there had been no cigars. They walk through the red streets. They were near the college where I’d gotten my undergrad degree, streets through which I used to walk back to my apartment, so I know these streets well. They go up 14th Street between the laundry and the main unit. There’s haggling over what to do with the prisoners in the yard or in the laundry. There’s a call to empty the fields that had once long ago accommodated the convict rodeo. The people who believe Courtland responsible for their brother, uncle and friend’s death are brought out of the electric chamber and up into the bleachers. Dad can hardly see them. He believes they all have dark hair and maybe dark eyes but otherwise look nothing like family. One of them blows her nose in a handkerchief.
There’s no wall to line Courtland against, and so he’s leaned against the field goal. It is all very haphazard. Some of the guards have produced what they could from the armory, a diverse array: handguns, rifles. And so, when finally the guards have surrounded him and Courtland has muttered just soon enough to be heard, “this is murder too,” the din of pistols is cacophonous and Courtland’s manner of death very bloody. His body shakes on the ground and one of the guards goes up and discharges his sidearm at his head. And that’s that.
In the dining room of the governor, my father feels suddenly nauseous. “Sure,” says the governor, “that’s fine. Just eat something.”
I get a flurry of calls and messages, which tell me very different things and don’t really allow me any suspense. For instance, at first I think it was nothing to do with the heart but instead with a nerve problem he’s had for years, which came before the heart problems. Then I hear he’s in stable condition. But only then do I come to understand he was in stable condition after having had another heart attack (thus becoming unstable). And only after his third heart attack (the second of the week) during the first surgery do I learn about the first surgery.
I book a plane to Houston after the second heart attack. I was told it’s the right thing to do from most corners of my small social world.
There’s a terrible winter storm that besets Chicago. I sleep on my baggage in O’Hare and am forced to take a flight to North Carolina before being rerouted to Houston. Aunt Kim, my father’s older sister, picks me up at the airport. When we reach the hospital he’s just being wheeled into the second surgery, this a multiple bypass. I see him just as he’s being wheeled in. He’s afraid he’s going to die, that’s clear, but the doctors assure us the survival rate is very high.
Lewis isn’t there. He has recently had a lot of disagreements with our father.
“About the crime bill?” I ask Mom later.
“No,” Mom says, and adds under her breath so Dad’s sisters won’t hear, “for him being an asshole to everybody.”
Apparently in the past months he’s become more of what he was, which was a man flailing between moods. Although his therapist, after he was sent to her by one of his many heart and brain specialists, wouldn’t say this and to be honest neither would I, many people called him bipolar. Sometimes charming, more often short-tempered, he had been temperamental in these preceding weeks or months. I didn’t know. Of course I’d been away.
Obviously, I think, this had something to do with his obsession with execution. With death. I think, maybe he’d had a presentiment about his own death. I look out the window from the cardiovascular unit on the 20th story of MD Anderson. Below sits Hermann Park.
It must be pretty simple, I think. Some narrative thread that I could pull through. He knew his sons hated him, his wife feared him. And he felt such horrible guilt, he projected his guilt on the criminals. Criminals I took as shorthand for those people the state killed.
Obviously, I’m writing this up in my head and already getting a little fancy and still haven’t quite grasped the meaning of all this.
After a while, Aunt Kim says she’s going down to the street to smoke and asks if I’d keep her company. We sit on a curb beneath the medical towers. Doctors and nurses in scrubs walk by. Aunt Kim smokes Virginia Slims. Here she tells me the outlines of a story that I decide then and there I’ll one day repeat to you, because it feels like a necessary corollary to what has come before.
When Aunt Kim and her brothers and sisters were teenagers, they used to go up to Huntsville on holiday. She knows I know Huntsville because she knows I’d attended the university there.
Kim says that it being the site of my father’s coronary failure and all has her thinking about the city. And since I know the place—and am a writer, she smiles—I’ll have the sensitive qualities to appreciate the story she’s about to tell me.
Her father—my grandfather—was a politician. During the time of this story he was a state representative. For many years before and after he was elected, he would bring his put-upon wife and his motley herd of children up to Huntsville for the annual prison rodeo. Nowadays, not every politician of my grandfather’s stripe would attend it, but then no one cared.
Kim was the eldest. A nineteen-year-old girl in a sort of chiffon travesty that framed her breasts. (These are Aunt Kim’s details.) There was also my father, Ethan, wearing a coat with toggle buttons. Also there was Nick, Paulette, Johnny, and June—the last two I’ve always assumed were named after the Cashes.
They all ran around the park out in front of the big soft red walls and ate the delicacies: elotes, pork chili, colored ice. The prisoners were able to mingle with the guests to some degree. The big gates and portcullises were open, but there was no escape. The prisoners knew they’d be shot before getting into the town, and even if they did, doors would be closed on them and they’d have to hijack a car or go into the sewers.
Kim walked through the fair. Through gates and past walls. She felt her family growing smaller, she felt their eyes losing their hold on her. Eventually she found herself in the stables, a lean-to against the lowest most exterior red wall. The horses’ big, well-formed heads poked out from the stalls. One of the horses was tied up in the center of the stable, being brushed by a prisoner. This was a young man named Leon Chávez, whom Kim immediately and shamelessly engaged in conversation, about horses mainly.
It was from this meeting that a correspondence blossomed. Letters that might have increased the depth of her feeling. Letters that her mother was aware of, but about which her father, who was on the campaign trail again, had no idea until he did one day come home and find a letter sitting out on the Formica. Of course, he was shocked. And being the man he was, he raised hell. Shouted and all that, demanded his little slut of a daughter come out of the girls’ bedroom and face him. My father and his siblings watched from the crack in the door as his father rained down animadversion. (Kim uses this word animadversion; she always liked big words and did in time become a school teacher.) Finally, my grandfather got tired and sat down and asked who this man Leon was. Was he on death row?
In fact, Leon Chávez had not killed a cop and was not on death row, although he had gone to prison more or less for cavorting with people who would be killed by cops in an incident too tangential and convoluted to recapitulate.
On the outside, he’d kept stables, and was premier among the other horsemen in the Huntsville Unit. Thus he was used by the city to care for the police horses in the prison and city system, and, naturally, he came to manage the rodeo. And so, it wasn’t so bad my grandfather, the patriarch, thought. And soon, he began to think of their correspondence as almost like an engagement. And while her mother never thought Kim had any more than a pen pal, her father had gone from thinking his daughter was an abominable slut to a woman on the cusp of a good match.
He even thought about how he could spin the story for political gain and subsequently made calls to various stakeholders in the prison industrial complex (terms, she notes, that were not so common back then) in order to get Chávez released. He even wheedled out some promises of early release. When the next year came around Chávez’s sentence had been shortened.
Kim is on her third cigarette. She’s reminiscing about Chávez. Only a stableboy who went riding around with his friends, fell asleep in the warm leather of the Buick and woke up being hustled by police. A person she remembers from her brief interaction as probably a generous man, talented with animals (“if you know what I mean,” she adds gravelly) but not very smart.
By then, she continues, by halfway through their correspondence (which only lasted a year), she didn’t want him and thought her father’s Quixotic attempts to bring them together were only made to punish her.
She reaches the point where people pause before the climax. She lights her fourth cigarette. She waits for me to ask what happened. Upstairs, my father is in surgery. He’ll be there all day. It takes time to do the minute work, trimming and tucking the tiny valves of the heart.
Chávez was dead by the end of the next year’s rodeo, and Courtland was dead, filled with little holes, and my father is dead too, filled with even more minute holes, but we didn’t know that yet smoking on the curb.
Then there’s my father’s funeral. His body big in the casket. Not quite as sad, a big body in a casket. Sadder more when the body is emaciated, or worse a child’s body, where the casket wears big on it. My mother is abominably sad, although I hope, in time, in time. The shackles are coming off, you know.
I stay in the city, far far away from the cold room, the worn Windsor chair where I´ll be writing this story. I used to say I hated my father. I used to play it up Freudianly to quite an unseemly degree. I think now maybe I was the fiend somehow. That in the end it was I somehow who had to kill him. That all the time it was I who was obsessed with death. The person for whom death was the only resolute ending, the only acceptable narrative capstone—or headstone. Yes, with demonic trains too, extemporaneous shooting parties, and (as Chávez was) being tossed over the neck of a horse and crushed during a helter-skelter prison rodeo horserace, but ultimately with what comes after that, which is nothing.
At the funeral they release doves. One of them is caught in the big tent they’d thrown up at the gravesite. I’m the one to go over to pull up the tarp to release the poor thing. When it flies between me and the tarp it empties its panicked bowels onto my jacket.
My brother laughs. He and father have made peace now.
He says, “That means you’ll be the next to get it.”
Cody Harrison is a fiction writer currently residing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He’d like to dedicate this story to his firstborn child, Lana. His work can also be found in The Gettysburg Review.