Condolences from Death Row

By  |  January 20, 2016
“Pontalba, New Orleans” (1997), by Jack Spencer. www.jackspencer.com “Pontalba, New Orleans” (1997), by Jack Spencer. www.jackspencer.com

 

T

he envelope was facedown on the living room floor under the mail slot, mixed in with glossy campaign propaganda, the usual meaningless slogans, endorsements, toothy family portraits. This was a real letter with real handwriting, but when I picked it up I felt a moment of confused dread. Next to my name and address was rubber-stamped DEATH ROW in black. The stamp’s imprint had that singular aspect from pressure unevenly applied, the bottom of the letters dark and resolute but the tops ragged and noncommittal, ghost spots blanking the middle of TH RO. The penmanship on the envelope was careful, cursive, rounded, small. I’m in one of the few professions in which one encounters handwriting on a regular basis. My students come from a variety of demographics, and if I had to peg this writing’s provenance I would have said Uptown Catholic school girl, maybe Academy of the Sacred Heart? Plaid skirts, loafers, the mindful tutelage of nuns.

The return address was the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. I admired the elegant loops of the “L” and the “S,” something I never quite mastered myself. More specifically, the letter was from Death Row G, Todd K. Wessinger #383747, my brother’s pro bono client. I knew the name, but I never expected to receive a letter from him or anyone else on death row. The back was stamped “Not censored, Not responsible for contents, La. State Penitentiary Mar. 20, 2012, La. state pen. An all male penal institute.” This letter had been fortified by some dark and insistent bureaucracy, or worse, by some guy just doing his job, but it wasn’t sealed, just had a dainty piece of tape across the tip of the flap’s V. The next evening at dinner, I showed my brother the letter and he said to himself, incredulously, “Where’d he get the tape?” Our kids at the crowded table, restless, waiting on the pizza, also marveled over the envelope’s penmanship. “Yeah,” my brother said, “those death row guys have great handwriting. Most of them never made it past grade school, maybe high school, the last time handwriting really mattered.” Plus, with no computer access, all written expression is just that, written. For a moment, death row seemed a citadel for the preservation of good handwriting, monastic even; what a contrast from the wild spidery glyphs of most of the lawyers I knew who defended the condemned, who filled up stacks of legal pads, legibility irrelevant, since they are basically just communicating with themselves.

A few months before, in late December, I had interviewed my father and brother about their pro bono capital punishment cases, which they’d been handling for about ten years now and which they always talked about with a different tone and intensity than their other legal business. At one point, early on, they had clients in adjacent cells who would compare notes about their Gisleson lawyers: the father a seasoned ex-federal prosecutor, the son a brand new attorney who’d never tried a criminal case. One would recount his elder attorney’s courtroom successes and the other would wonder why the apple hadn’t fallen closer to the tree.

Actually it wasn’t really an interview, it was drinks and lunch with a tape recorder at the Rib Room, where my dad held court for more than twenty-five years in his maroon upholstered chair, at table 5, next to a high rounded window looking out onto Royal Street, a proscenium framing cast iron balconies, arched transoms, and hanging ferns—the kind of lovely amnesiac view cherished by tourists and locals alike, a postcard tacked over the city’s troubles.

That month my dad did what he’d been doing for the last two years of living with leukemia, nose-diving into the desert of zero immunity and the ICU and then pulling up at the last minute, leaving us all—family, nurses, doctors—dusting off our clothes and craning our necks at his ascent. He did it again! His nurses called him the rock star of the Touro Infirmary oncology ward. As with most things in his life, he litigated his illness, read all the pages of fine print that accompanied his medications, cross-examined his doctors, mapped out the defensive strategies of his symptoms and treatments on legal pads. That afternoon at the Rib Room, a few days after Christmas, he was drinking wine, excited about his record-high platelet count and the possibility of going to M. D. Anderson for a bone marrow transplant. He sounded good, though a few times I had to discreetly push the tape recorder toward him, his weakened voice, as he talked about the death penalty, his legal career, the mysteries of the human personality.

Near the end of lunch he mentioned that the following week he had four days of chemo lined up and then planned on going up to Angola, to death row, to see his client on the fifth day. Talk about “ineffective counsel,” he joked. An enthusiastic practitioner of gallows humor, he’d often say he was fighting to keep his client from lethal injection, but he was the one getting poison shot into his veins on a regular basis.

So the next week, after his round of chemo, with zero immunity, he took the long drive to Angola, tucked into the crook of the state near the Mississippi border, visited his client, fell ill upon returning home, and died within days. It would be narratively convenient, powerful even, to say that death row finally killed him, but of course we’ll never know which handshake, countertop, doorknob between New Orleans and West Feliciana Parish slipped him the enterococcus bacteria that finally did him in. Vulnerable as my dad was, the whole world was a threat. Health-care workers and children were more lethal to him than death row convicts, who live pretty physically sterile lives, and I think he was more concerned that the associate who was driving him up to Angola had young kids and their empty car seats in the back were probably teeming with invisible peril. But since most narrative is part purpose, part accident, and the messiness of life always pulses up against the myth, I think this ending, with its gallows irony, is a good one to claim for him anyway.

One of the things my dad, a self-made man and fugitive son of the Rust Belt, appreciated about his adopted state, where he married a sixth-generation Louisianan, raised eight kids and buried two, is its ability to create and maintain its own myths, for better or for worse. He loved that he could drive from his home in Algiers to death row in Angola and back in one day, traveling overlapping colonial histories, highway sign to highway sign, through the snares of exoticism laid by our forebears, who were endowed with that pioneer privilege of naming places, subjecting generations to their desires, their enterprises. Sometimes the names become merely cartographical curiosities; other times, their legacies hold. Angola, known also as The Farm, bounded by the Mississippi River on three sides and the gentle Tunica Hills on the fourth, was originally a plantation owned by a slave trader notorious for breaking up families. It was eventually bought by the state and maintained as a prison in medieval fashion, to the extent that in the 1950s a couple dozen prisoners cut their Achilles tendons in protest of the conditions there. Although the last few decades have brought institutional reforms and prisoner rodeos, Angola remains a compounded locus of two centuries’ worth of sins. When we talk about the state’s social ills, we are talking about historical gouges scoring our culture that are not healing over anytime soon. If Louisiana were its own country, and some would posit that it kind of is, we would have the highest incarceration rate in the world, thirteen times that of China. More than five thousand men inhabit Angola, in that tight bend of the river, in the country’s largest maximum-security penitentiary; they are there because of bad luck, bad judgment, bad legal counsel, bad laws, or just for having fundamentally bad souls.

 

Honestly, that death row envelope frightened me, and I had a quaint moment in which I had to sit down on the red velvet couch, a Duncan Phyfe inherited from the frozen tableau of my grandmother’s front parlor, hands trembling with a piece of mail. But, an interesting discovery—both fear and tenderness can be accommodated within the same instant. Todd’s letter was formal, deferential. He sent belated condolences for the loss of my father, whom he’d had the honor to meet. He talked about his warmth, charm, professionalism, said many of the same, specific things that people had said in the visitation line that snaked out past the brick walls of Saint Clare’s Monastery and onto Henry Clay Avenue the morning of the funeral, and I appreciated that there was some continuity of perception between death row and Uptown New Orleans, and that my dad was its vehicle.

In his letter, Todd was trying to set up a meeting with me, and needed a little more information for the required paperwork, “sensitive information” like my date of birth and social security number. During another dinner, when my brother was explaining some arcane procedure of the capital appeals process and I was pretending to follow what he was saying, he started talking about how tough it is to visit death row. If you’re not related you can’t just ask for permission to visit. “Unless you’re from Hollywood,” he explained. “Billy Bob Thornton or John Cusack or whoever. Those guys get access.”

Really, John Cusack? That name shifted something in my brain, hitting a lever. Cusack and I had grown up together, him in John Hughes-type movies and me watching them in theaters that don’t even exist anymore. Now we’re both aging, the skin under our eyes thinning, both taking on glum roles of middle-age discontent. About a year ago, he’d become a sort of bete noire for me. One late night after watching Hot Tub Time Machine, I couldn’t sleep, because my four-year-old had come into our bed, snoring like an old man and driving my husband out to sleep on the couch. In the movie, Cusack’s character is transported back to the ’80s via a malfunctioning hot tub and a Russian energy drink. A couple days before I’d received an effusive e-vite to my own ’80s high school reunion, to be played out on location in the French Quarter. Open bar, uncomfortable appraisals, balcony drama. Much of Hot Tub’s campy nostalgia and plotline seemed contrived so that Cusack and his buddies could get busy with girls who were way too young for them. In the cascading credits was the name of Cusack’s personal chef, which I found depressing for some reason, and I remembered a picture in the newspaper of Cusack when he was in town filming, riding a bike, all protectively padded as though he were going jousting or something.

Now it was about 3 A.M., and I still couldn’t sleep, and I thought I heard some howling in the field across the street, in an empty lot that nature overtook when the city tore down a Section 8 apartment building. It was a little urban oasis but showed evidence of unwelcome activities: syringes, broken bottles, plastic bags with suspect brown smears on them. The howling alternately seemed human and animal, and I got up to investigate, discovering nothing, just muddled shadows ringing the edges of the field. Sometimes because of the warehouses and our proximity to the river, sounds get thrown around our neighborhood in such a way that you can’t tell where they’re coming from. Wide awake now, I checked my e-mail, which they tell you not to do when you can’t sleep, and a one-sentence message from another lawyer brother was waiting: “Dad’s doctor said he’ll be dead by the Super Bowl.” My dad and his oncologist were evidently combining the manias of cancer death timelines and the possibility of a second NFL championship for the Saints. “Two dat?” my dad reportedly said. “Fuck dat!” I went back to bed, to the loud corrugated breathing of my little boy and the indeterminate howling. The ceiling fan needed dusting, my dad was dying, the ’80s were reasserting themselves in my consciousness, and I kept picturing that funnel vortex rising out of the hot tub at the end of the movie, sort of like the liminal tornado from The Wizard of Oz but without anything swirling inside of it, no witches on bikes or farmhands; it was an empty dark expensive CGI spectacle, its team of creators buried deep in the credits, down below even John Cusack’s personal chef. It was one of those middle-age moments you sink way into, the past and future touching, the present crystallizing around you, tiny filaments in the air connecting icily to trap meaning.

Maybe “trap meaning” is a little wrong. After all, it’s really only trapped in the fat rectangle of the previous paragraph, but its bars are palpable enough. I was feeling the press of mortality, the parental conundrum, and also, I think, a certain anxiety of authenticity felt both generationally and personally. What’s real? What’s manufactured narrative? What’s the relationship between them? Where’s all the noise coming from?

There are times in your life like that, in grief, in love, when you walk around like a live wire, meaning sparking off everything, and you go through the day dazzled and hurting. Maybe I was being oversensitive about the death row letter, but lately I was back in that place, feeling like Dante “midway in our life’s journey,” lost in the dark wood at the entrance of the Inferno and harassed by furry beasts of worldliness before Virgil shows up to guide him. Like Cusack in Hot Tub Time Machine, Dante ultimately sees much of the redemption for his midlife crisis in the fantasy of a too-young girl, Beatrice. I guess men have always been built to disappoint. But I’m starting to think that the dark wood isn’t really so bad, and sometimes you run into people you know; sometimes sympathetic strangers. There can be camaraderie there—like, hey, we’re here together in the dark wood, can I pour you some more of this bourbon, can you recommend a good book? Was Todd’s letter another low branch across the path or was it the murky green light that filters in between branches? And what about your kids? They’re happy enough, they’re fine, you can hear them in the sunny clearing nearby and you can always go join them. Sometimes you think it would be nice if we could widen these paths, make it easier for our kids when it’s their turn in the dark wood. But I think the best thing we can do is make sure they’re equipped. They can bring their own machetes, their own bourbon.

 

In New Orleans, as in much of the country, we hadn’t had much of a winter and we were enjoying a gentle glide into an early and perfect spring, the kind that blankets the city in a good mood. The tall living-room windows were filled with the bright flora of the improbable field across the street, trash trees holding their own alongside the sycamores, the busted light pole blooming yellow with a mess of cat’s-claw vine. I read the letter a few more times, making myself late for work. It suddenly seemed to be my most important possession, and like all real handwritten and delivered letters these days, an instant relic from a previous era, before time and space collapsed. Besides the thoughtful observations about my dad and the condolences, it was the letter’s valediction that got me: “With gratitude & sincerity, Todd W.” Now I was really late, and I opened the door to a morning that was quickly turning to afternoon.


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Anne Gisleson’s work has appeared in The Atlantic,  Ecotone,  and The Cairo Review of Global Affairs,  among other publications. She teaches writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and is the author of The Futilitarians.