Walls

By Indya S. Finch

Issue 113, Summer 2021

June 01, 2021

Untitled #44, Crenshaw Blvd, CA, 2019, by Jon Henry. Courtesy the artist

This morning, the woman next door got beaten. 1, 2 If Clarence hadn’t already felt the Swell3 coming from miles away, the rumbling underneath his feet, Julia was his first clue. There were always warnings before this, but Clarence is slow to things that hint. If it doesn’t hiss or sting, he senses no danger. 

A little past five, Julia knocked. Clarence cursed, annoyed that he couldn’t have lain there a few minutes longer. He fought with his back to get out of bed, leaning on the bedpost, the desk, and the door frame to shuffle through his apartment. He searched for the pack of smokes that he’d lost when he got home a few hours ago. Clarence tried to be a creature of habit, always placing his things in the same spot when he got home, but they weren’t on the end table. He found them instead on top of the refrigerator. Natural American Spirit cigarettes, a yellow box with the silhouette of a man wearing a headdress, in a red circle, outlined in gray, smoking a white pipe. Clarence always bought these because a woman he’d known in the biblical sense had smoked them like a chimney, naked in bed, half asleep, the ash falling onto her sheets, almond eyes, fat cheeks. He was young then, hardly twenty. He could see her just that way when he inhaled. Hear her easy laugh. He opened the box and found he only had two left. 

Tradition means keeping what others have placed in your hands, so Clarence and Julia split a cigarette while it was still dark, fluttering moths and suicidal June bugs throwing themselves at the porch light. It was only the early morning and already they had begun to sweat. Julia puffed three or four times for every one that Clarence took. She always did this but Clarence didn’t mind. He wasn’t a committed smoker; they were hard on his lungs. He asked about her daughter and if she liked her new bike. She nodded. Julia and Clarence had known each other for years. For both of them, this was about as much friendship as they could handle. It was difficult for Clarence to name anyone from his sixty-seven years of living who had some intimate knowledge of him; even his parents had only known him halfway. Julia, on the other hand, she knew what happened if she reached out to anyone, when she managed to anyway. The familiar refrains that made leaving sound so easy. Just pack up and go in the middle of the night? And go with what money, with what car, Julia thought, to where, what address could he not find with a flash of his badge? Of course she wanted to make tracks, but it was not as easy as desire. 

He began the meal. It was early for him to start the food, as it wouldn’t have to be ready till after six P.M.4 at least, but Clarence was an over-preparer. He couldn’t stand having to wait for a dough to rise, or a crust to harden, or a sauce to thicken when he knew he should be on his way to Walls5 already. 

He arranged the ingredients in order of use on his Formica countertop. Potatoes, onions, sauerkraut, broth, a bay leaf, sausage, heavy cream, mustard, salt, pepper, caraway seeds, sugar, and chives. Clarence would’ve preferred not to bring his work home, but the prison kitchen was a gray drab place, with the knives locked up dull for fear of wrongful use, grime under and on most surfaces, and an electric stove. Electric stoves were useless as far as he was concerned. 

Clarence pulled his chef’s knife from the magnetic rack and brought the blade inches from his face. His eyes scanned it and he judged that it didn’t need to be pressed against a rock in his backyard. Not that you could really call it that, a backyard, since there wasn’t enough room for a dog to play in, just a small shared green area where everyone who lived in their shitty apartments could sit on a concrete slab and look through the thinly grown trees and spy undisturbed on the people who lived farther down the hill. Not that Clarence ever did. He used the backyard to run freezing cold water through the shared spigot to have a drink, because the best-tasting cold water came from a spigot, and there wasn’t a reason to trust anyone who had a differing opinion. His knife was sharp, so there was no need to search for a rock flat enough to run against the edge. Rocks brought their own problems, like metal deposits against his skin where the knife rubbed off against the coarse material, though he kind of liked carrying the rough stuff with him, on his skin, the discolored silver flakes grinding against him. 

It’s a big day in Huntsville,6 and perfection is necessary.

He rinsed potatoes that had come from Germany. Perhaps in a crate on a ship or plane. Clarence just knew they arrived in a brown box without ice, slightly crushed, with scratched corners. Most likely the damage had been done by one of Huntsville’s many homeless cats. Clarence used to leave out bowls of milk and tuna, but that was before he found out that most cats are lactose intolerant and too much tuna as part of a regular diet can lead to malnutrition. 

He patted the potatoes dry and slowly sliced the skin away. Lots of people thought with Clarence having spent so much of his life cooking, he’d be faster with a knife. And the truth was, if Clarence wanted to, he could chop and dice with the fastest, but he liked to be tender, to treat a potato with elegance, because it deserved it. So he sliced slowly, being sure not to cut anything but the skin, and leave the potato as whole as possible. 

Though he did hate how after the rinse and the peel, potatoes never shone the way he thought they should. He imagined this was one of the few things he and John William “Billy” King would ever agree on. Their politics were different enough that no conversation would ever be had, but if the two could have a real chat, Clarence knew on this they would agree. Not that John William King wanted to talk to him, he’d already refused to meet to discuss what he wanted for his last supper. But in this hypothetical land where Clarence—a Black man—and John William King—who lynched a Black man—could have a conversation, on this they would agree. Potatoes, even when stripped of their skin, never really got the chance to be as white as they could.7 There was always dirt to be scrubbed away. 

He went on chopping small bite-sized cubes that King wouldn’t need to cut. Clarence knew they’d be soft enough to give way to plastic utensils. 

The white onions were plucked from the community garden and not from a small farm somewhere in Iran.8 He considered this a rebellion,9 albeit a small one, but that’s how they always start, or at least that’s what he told himself as he tossed them into a pot with butter and potatoes on a gas range stove, over low heat. It was a few minutes after six. 

He thought to use vegetable or olive oil instead of butter, because true believers10 in the Aryan race would never willingly consume butter, but the chef in him would not allow it.11 

Considering the circumstances,12  maybe King would make an exception. Or maybe Clarence wanted to believe this, to satisfy his own desires for rebellion,13 without sacrificing the perfection of his creations.14  

The sauerkraut he fermented himself, the process started two weeks prior.15 Maybe sauerkraut was the best thing to buy from the Krauts themselves, but Clarence believed, firmly as he always did, that nothing store-bought would ever compare to homemade.16 

The brine sizzled in the pan; he edged the loose pickled flesh into the heat. He sweated over the stove and didn’t wipe it away when it traveled the length of his nose, when it dripped into the pan. Good food is not just the ingredients but the hands and skin and in this case sweat that season those delicacies with our own individual salts. When people tell you that they love what you have made, they are thanking you for the things you’ve shed. Thirty-minutes after six. 

Clarence poured in the broth.17 

Think of your favorite lover and imagine on summer nights when the windows were open, you were naked, entangled with them, freshly done with sex and still craving each other, think of how the beads on their neck tasted when swallowed. Those droplets of self were refreshing. Or at least, that’s what Clarence would’ve told you. Because he came from somewhere else where people thought and said things like that. We sleep with our windows locked for fear of someone breaking in or breaking out, or breaking out then breaking in. 

Eintopf18 required no meat. Clarence browned the sausage at the sides before letting it rest on its front and back. It darkened with every second exposed to the pan. He killed this pig himself.19 Clarence wanted to break with tradition. What is a stew without the organs of a pig, an animal that you conquered, in your own bowl? He still felt guilty.20 Ten minutes till seven. 

Outside of Tyler, in Mineola, Texas, Clarence had milked a cow, let that milk sit, and then ladled the cream that rose into a mason jar he stored in his fridge with a label that said, “For King.” Now, he poured it into the stew and its color changed. 

He added mustard and some caraway seeds, popping the extras in his mouth. He chewed. 

The pot bubbled. 

He switched off the second eye of the stove, added the sausage and its grease. Already it was almost over. Seven-thirty, ten and a half hours to go. Clarence washed his hands and cleaned his workspace with a white rag, then he started to make a dough for apple strudel. 

 

- & -

 

In Jasper, Texas, there’s a bench that says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There is a gravestone. James Byrd Jr., May 2nd, 1949 to June 7th, 1998. My Beloved Son. On the twentieth anniversary, his family celebrates a life that was, a town pokes at the wound to see if it still hurts. 

There used to be a barrier between the two sides of the cemetery. Even though it was taken down, the bodies still lie exactly where they did before. Separate and color coded. James’s headstone is on the Black side, fenced in, this to protect the last of his body and his name. This place, supposedly holy, ransacked and desecrated twice.21  

No one is there now. They are all driving, from Jasper, or from Houston, down to Huntsville, to watch John William King die.22 

The grass bends from the wind and an animal roots around for something to eat. 

 

- & -

 

In comparison to some others, the last Swell—before the execution of Billie Wayne Coble,23 the man before John William King—hadn’t been so bad. Three rapes, two domestic violence calls, and an armed robbery.24 When Billie’s Swell was reaching its peak, there was a fire. Exactly where, Clarence didn’t know, but he remembered it was within a block or two of the Mahatma Gandhi House and the Storybook House.25 It was older, the burning house, and it had belonged to someone long before and they had long been gone, we believed that anyway. The only evidence that we were wrong was that mail still came. The postal worker’s regular appearance was the only thing that stopped a whole group of spiders from taking over the black—barely clinging to the wall—mailbox. The destruction of their giant web didn’t stop them from rebuilding, always in the same place, though you’d think it would have been a deterrent.26  

Pink house shoes sat to the right of the door and had been since Clarence stepped off the Greyhound from Dallas to Huntsville. Once, Clarence thought of nudging them to see how clean the space underneath would be.  

Clarence was walking to the store to get pineapples for Billie’s dessert.27 

He saw smoke and figured the Golds were burning their trash in the yard again. Nothing was safe from their fires. Charles Gold, the father of the Gold brood, was an ex-cop with a big gut and chuck of chew28 always tucked in his bottom lip. Charles Gold burned anything and everything all year long: tires, metal, old cell phones, jars of pus and jars of blood, clothes his children had outgrown, appliances covered in rust or that had just quit, mattresses and blankets from when they all got head lice or bed bugs (who remembers?), bones of deer already struck clean of their backstraps and hearts and ribs (the flies would dart in to land and be burned alive before one of their many eyes could blink), the crib his first boy died in, grasshoppers that thought their wings could fly over the flames, chickens or goats that had gotten into the giant buckets of motor oil, black cats or green frogs just for fun, slats of wood pulled apart from their house by a powerful storm (lightning stayed flashing among the clouds until of course it struck a tree, and the fire smoldered within the bark) that knocked their power out for three days, and plain white garbage bags filled with plastic, eggshells, and tuna cans.29 Charles Gold didn’t care about a burn ban or a ticket. They all got dismissed anyhow. But Charles Gold wasn’t burning anything. One of his many children, Huck Gold, age nine, watched the house burn with matchsticks and empty gas cannister still in hand. He was dirty, and his eyes were wide with awe. He was not the only one watching. 

Ms. Crawford, whose husband left her for a twenty-seven-year-old nurse30 one week after they’d celebrated fifty years together, shuffled onto her front porch and lit her cigarette. She was dressed for her night job as a waitress at a neighboring bar. Her tank top said backwoods babe, and her hair was whipped into an elegant chignon. 

Three frat boys who rented a house together—still half-drunk from their party the night before—laid a blanket down on the grass. They leaned heavy onto forearms covered in glitter and sweat and shared their breakfast consisting of overcooked eggs and turkey bacon31 on plastic plates. 

Thomas,32 still in his uniform, just getting home from the Ellis Unit, sat next to those boys and offered up his extra M&M’s for their spoils. They obliged. 

Clarence took the matches from Huck and Huck didn’t offer up a fight. He scampered away when told and went home, though Clarence doubted anyone had noticed he was gone. 

The store wasn’t far from the fire. When he arrived, Clarence saw two people fighting in the parking lot, over what he didn’t know. The woman who looked to be losing pissed herself after three successive blows to the head. Clarence picked up some pineapples. They were a little more expensive than he wanted, but the ones from Hawaii hadn’t arrived in time. The cashier looked bored as she threw them into a thin plastic bag. The handles of it broke on his walk back, so he carried the pineapples in his arms, the crowns digging into his flesh. 

On the walk back, the fire was out and the breeze cooled his sweating forehead. The fire department hadn’t been there for all he knew but Ms. Crawford, the boys, and Thomas stood in the half-destroyed house. They picked through floor rugs, clocks, photographs of dead loved ones, and everything else cool enough to touch. They took what they wanted. They stepped around the body with arms outstretched. Clarence thought the house had been empty, that anyone living inside had moved away years ago, but he realized now that they had not. 

 

- & -

 

They said a Black man’s body had been found. They didn’t know it was James until the car rolled up. Stella33 peeked through the living room blinds and tried not to cry right then. 

The knock came, soft and gentle. Sheriff came in, tracking clumps of mud on the heels of his turquoise boots. He took off his cowboy hat and held it in his hands. He couldn’t even look at them both when he said it. 

In the picture you always see of him, he isn’t smiling. He’s wearing a blue striped shirt and a Colorado Rockies hat. Black bearded, prominent collarbones, a wood-paneled wall behind him. 

Stella looked through hundreds of Polaroids, some stuffed into shoeboxes and others in leather-bound photo albums. He was funny. It was hard not to remember as she went through each image. 

She among others had gone to see the body, identified it. Stella still felt most days that he could walk through the door. She’d throw her arms around him and hold him tight and steady. She could hold him like she used to do when he was a boy. She would cry and not even worry about the snot that ran freely from her nose. She’d let each tear be thick and tremble with the weight of it all. Just hold him, like any mother would. 

Her crinkled fingertip tapped the plastic boundary covering his face, this snapshot of him. A quick sob. James stands in the doorway, in blue, grainy. 

Untitled #11, Buffalo, NY, 2015, by Jon Henry. Courtesy the artist

Untitled #29, North Miami, FL, 2017, by Jon Henry. Courtesy the artist

Untitled #21, Berwyn, IL, 2016, by Jon Henry. Courtesy the artist

- & -

 

He is dragging his feet across the eternally smooth floor. There is no place for mold or dust to breathe in here. King is studying the wall, though by now Clarence thought he must have known every intimate crevice or discolored slit.  

The door swings open and King doesn’t move an inch, but his eyes slide over and watch him. Clarence carries the tray slowly, the stew sloshing around inside the high bowl. Clarence is a stickler for presentation. He’d even thrown some powdered sugar on the strudel. 

The silence in here always unnerved him. Clarence thought that the kind of noise that should boom in Walls would be more comforting than this. Walls was not the rumble of riots, of men with nothing to lose, of mad screeches or the human body bending inward on itself. Sometimes no one spoke for so long the low growl of a man’s voice could break the skin out in goosebumps, uncontrolled waves of them.   

“What’s this?” King asked. 

“Eintopf and an apple strudel for dessert.” 

“For what?” 

King didn’t know yet that his request for a stay had been denied. These decisions from the courts can squeak in at the last second, and inmates can only be certain minutes before whether they will live to see tomorrow. 

“You’ll want to be full,” Clarence said. 

King nodded.  

“I didn’t even tell you what I wanted. How’d you know what to make?” 

“Some educated guesses.” 

“Why’d you go through the trouble? How you know I’m gonna eat anything you put down in front of me?”

“A dog in a junkyard will eat a steak if he finds it.” 

“I ain’t no dog.” 

Clarence set down the tray and closed his eyes. He had seen the room they did the executions in when no one else was there. It didn’t look like much. A room with chairs all facing the same way. A dark window that was just a window, that held an infinite number of possibilities but once it was illuminated, there was only the reality left. And the purpose of the room couldn’t be hidden.  

He could imagine King laid flat on the silver table. His veins protruding from the strap, not knowing what they’re asking for. Not yet knowing what they would receive. King would take a deep breath, with his audience watching, exhale, and that would be that. 

Clarence considered what it would be like for someone to have done him a great wrong. He could be in this room, sitting down, and they wouldn’t break bread, or cheer. Just watch and wait. 

Clarence opened his eyes and told King to enjoy. 

 

- & -

 

Dear Billy (like your friends called you), 

 

I have a tendency to sympathize, maybe even to a fault. If I can see where something or someone went wrong, I can say that maybe this could happen to anyone. Maybe if I were them, I would’ve made a similar choice. 

It’s why I’m a writer probably, maybe. I have questions about why I am this all the time. But partially, it must be so I can justify and rationalize all these experiences and memories that I cannot forget, that have lived inside my head since infancy, through childhood, adolescence, and this rapidly changing adulthood, that have made no sense thus far. So all the sad things can have different endings, if I want them to. 

I’m not doing this right. I know that. I think if I were then there would be no letters or appeals to let you or anyone else know this was done with the best intentions. I tried to write this for the people who waited outside the building, who screamed that you deserved it, for the people who screamed you didn’t. I tried to write this for the people, like me, who went home and made dinner with their partners and talked about what we believed in.

I made Clarence feed you, so I could say I tried to be kind. I don’t know if I meant it though. Which is why this story—whose goal it was to be kind, to question the idea of state-sanctioned revenge-killing, to make a human being out of anyone, to make you just a man, just a man who was hungry, who got fed something that maybe he would’ve enjoyed—changed into something else. Something I don’t understand, and I can’t help but feel it’s your fault. You only get worse the more I know you, and I know you. I thought I could make the death penalty sound unreasonable no matter the situation. You were too good an obstacle. 

 

- & -

 

Dear James, 

 

It feels strange writing this letter to you. I know that this is not for you and more for me. I am using you as an excuse to never reconcile with this country. I am using this story to work out my frustrations with my fear; I am giving that fear to others to hold, because that is what artists do, I suppose, when they can, when they are able, when they don’t get murdered by racists in pickup trucks. I realize by writing this, and making white supremacy the villain, I raise the possibility for myself. 

I realize, the possibility is already high. 

In 2016, I was walking to my car from a college class in Huntsville, Texas, which is only 122 miles from Jasper, and Huntsville is also where John William “Billy” King was executed in 2019, which happened while I lived there. I remember that day. 

But this day in 2016, I was walking to my car after class. I don’t remember which class, but I was an undergraduate and twenty years old. Three white boys in a white pickup truck driving down the street slowed down as they got closer, and drove beside me. They shouted at me all the way to my car. I don’t know what drew their attention; maybe it was my crop top and shorts, or maybe it was that I didn’t answer, that I didn’t react no matter what they said, and they said plenty. 

And the whole time I was walking I felt a burn eating its way through my stomach and I kept thinking I was going to vomit. I kept telling myself not to run, to be calm, that maybe that would make it better. I got inside my car, and drove away. I watched them in my rearview mirror as they drove behind me, turning on every street I did. So I drove to a public place, my job, I worked at a grocery store. I hid in the employee break room. The door had a window and I saw them through the glass, I watched them walk around for a while, peeking into aisles. Eventually they left. I went to my car and drove home as fast I could, hoping they weren’t still there, somewhere. I think about how differently it all could’ve gone. 

I revisit both that story and this one that I’m writing, and you, when another Black person is killed in a parking lot or a public street. I think of you and us and me when the police kill someone in their home, or anywhere they happen to be. I wonder if you ever worried like I do. If you thought that maybe you were paranoid that white supremacy would be the thing to deal the final blow.  

I have other high-risk factors that should be responsible. I’m a smoker, have been since I was about eighteen or nineteen. And I drink too much. I have such a deep-seated love for cocaine that I had to stop or let it become my whole life like I wanted it to. I love drugs in general, and adrenaline. 

There are so many things that could do me in. But tobacco, and alcohol, cocaine, and even dangerous behavior, need time. They need numbers; they need many opportunities. White supremacy could be tomorrow if it really wanted. And it does. 

James, what the fuck am I supposed to do?  

 

- & -

 

(This is the part we were both afraid would be here) 

 

He was walking home, maybe he’d had a drink or two, but the young guys34 who pulled over on Martin Luther King Drive and asked if he needed a ride looked like they had too. James got in because even if they were a little buzzed, he’d get home faster that way. He knew one of them. Two were in their twenties and one in his thirties, bellies full of laughter and conversation. Maybe at some point James had begun to feel the danger, but they were three younger men and he was one forty-nine-year-old man. 

What color paint, or why spray paint in the first place, there is no telling, but they covered his face in it. They pissed on James, the droplets probably smelling like yeast or beer or an unhealthy habit of drinking Dr Pepper. 

The chains they used were for logging, perhaps to tie thick logs to the bed of a semi-truck, but for now they snaked around his ankles. They drove for three miles.35 

He kept his head up while they drove, shifting his body so different parts would feel the burn of the too hot gravel. He was alive for most of the ride. His feet and ankles were ground down to stubs, his back down to the bone. He turned this way and that, trying to make each part suffer equally. 

Culverts are intended to allow drainage of water. They are usually silver and can be made of many different materials including pipe or concrete or steel. They are not usually used for decapitation but that’s what one of them did. Took his right arm too. They kept driving.  

The ride ended on Huff Creek Road. James was laid down on the porch of a Black church and cemetery. Someone found him that night passing by. Billy and his friends went to a barbeque. 

 

- & -

 

Dear You (because I don’t know what your friends call you), 

 

I spent a lot of time debating whether or not I should include a description of details, that scene with its violence. I resisted it, initially. In the end, I made a pros and cons list. 

Cons: It didn’t need to be committed to paper. I didn’t want to write it. If you are Black, I would never want you to read this and feel afraid, to look over your shoulder for pickup trucks, and I’m sorry if that’s what it did. I am tired of seeing this kind of violence everywhere I look, why should it be here? The page is one of the few safe spaces left—why let this be taken from me too? 

Pros: It’s the reality. It happened that way. Part of this project is exposing the process and the process includes reading those details and if I read them, well you should too. It will make you ask yourself the question: Can you still see John William King as a man, still sympathize and empathize and care about how he dies, say what he doesn’t deserve, even when you know, exactly, what he did? 

And isn’t that question an unfair one to ask in the first place? 

 

- & -

 

Dear Billy, 

 

Walls used to be whites only. Even state murder was segregated.

At least you didn’t get a firing squad or kidnapped by a mob whose rage would only be pacified once they held your blood and felt like they really owned it. Old Sparky is in the museum now; otherwise you could’ve gotten it that way. 

You went to sleep, and you didn’t wake up. I know it wasn’t exactly like that, but it would’ve looked peaceful on the outside. That’s how we all want to go. Do you think you should have gotten to go that way? Sometimes, I can’t imagine the kind of death I’d want you to have, or someone to give to you. And that scares me. 

Did you know when they were about to kill you, there were people protesting your death? Some people said no matter what you did, you didn’t deserve to die like that. Did one of your family members pick you up? Are you in Jasper, in some ornate container? Are you close to him? Are you in Huntsville? 

You wrote a letter before your verdict. You seemed almost proud. Said you’d go down in history no matter the outcome. And a lot of other things I won’t repeat here. Well you did it. You are the first white man in Texas history to be given the death penalty for killing a Black man. 

I’m glad they let you see your dad when the jury decided your punishment. And I’m glad you had nobody when the needle went in. Just people waiting for your heart to stop beating. And that scares me, Billy. I try to be kind, to be better than you and people like you. To hold love in my heart. Sometimes it just seems impossible. You made a monster of me, Billy. So easily. 

 

- & -

 

Clarence had his new assignments; the dates went through September. They were Larry Ray Swearingen,36 Billy Jack Crutsinger,37 Mark Anthony Soliz,38 and Robert Sparks.39 Outside Walls, people still held on to their signs though Billy was already pronounced dead. The news recites his last written statement: “Capital punishment: them without the capital get the punishment.”

Clarence walked home, feeling old. The art gallery in town was having their show; these two events always seem to overlap. He stopped in the window front to watch the people inside drinking wine, looking at paintings. 

A sharp rap. A white woman with dark hair and light eyebrows pointed her manicured nails to a no loitering sign. Clarence waved his apologies and went home. 

 

- & -

 

James tugs on the edges of his dress shirt; he’s growing all the time. He sits at the edge of his piano stool, hands waiting at his sides to begin. He gets the cue; the choir comes in and they perform. Even though he’s sharing the stage, he feels the spotlight. He feels like a star.  

In a town with only eight thousand, any audience is a significant one. There’s a camera recording, and he feels immortalized. He tells his mother when he’s done playing and off stage that he’s gonna put Jasper, Texas, on the map. She laughs, but she believes him. They all do. 

 

- & -

 

Dear You, 

 

Remember him this way. Remember them all this way. Full, and growing. 

 

- & -

 

Dear You, 

 

John William King began this story alive and now he is dead. James Byrd Jr. was dead, and now he is alive. I wrote to feel better, to allow myself this moment of grace, to grant myself a little light in something that felt so dark. I wanted to remember that he was a child who was happy, and there was a time when there was no violence attached to his name. And I do wish that we could end with this image of him, full and growing.

But maybe our problem is that we want things to feel okay when they are not. You and I want to look away. My instinct was to end this story in a way that let both of us off the hook. But we both need to sit with these feelings. Because no matter what the magic of writing allows, James is still dead, and he was still murdered. And Black children, whether they play the piano or not, live with a certain type of danger. And I can’t let you forget that, because otherwise, you will have read this story, put it down, and nothing else will happen. 

[1] Dear You, Yes, you. You reading this footnote, wondering what kind of story this will be, or you who has come back here after skipping the footnotes because you are the type of person who skips footnotes, who thinks you know better than me how this story should be read. By the end of this, people you may or may not have loved or cared about will be dead. There are no symbols and there is nothing to learn. There will be no moving last words, no comfort. These people were here, and then they weren’t. This will be difficult. —Indya S. Finch

[2] Julia’s husband is a cop and 40% of cops’ families experience domestic violence. They are also the ones you call if you are experiencing domestic violence.

[3] How to explain the Swell? It’s a crescendo, a rising tide of violence that escalates the closer execution day comes. It starts small, like a fight in a schoolyard or a broken car window, and it peaks when the inmate is pronounced dead. The residents of Huntsville, Texas, would never admit how they fall victim to or participate in the Swell, but who else is doing the breaking, the beating, the raping, the suffering, the recovery? In fact, they would tell you that they never think of the death penalty at all, nor the large looming brick building that they call Walls. They would claim it simply doesn’t cross their minds. The Swell tells otherwise.

[4] When Texas was still wild, hangings or executions would happen at noon, when the sun was still high in the sky. Now, the law says after six, when the sun is low or already disappearing, so the governor can attend to watch with the families. Here you should read “can” as having potential energy that never becomes kinetic. They never watch. They sign the papers.

[5] Clarence has worked at Walls in some capacity or other for the last two decades. He started in maintenance, but after a potluck revealed his culinary prowess, he was moved to the kitchen. Now, he prepares the last meals.

[6] Located in the Piney Woods of East Texas, Huntsville is known for being the home of Sam Houston. It houses a statue of him that stands near seventy feet tall (and many others of a much smaller stature). Houston served as president of the Republic of Texas, was a genius of military strategy (or so is claimed), owned twelve slaves, had an STD (euphemistically called his “unhealing wound”), was six feet and six inches tall, had an opium addiction, used his cane to beat a fellow congressman almost to death for insulting his good honor and name (he never paid the $500 fine and his friend Andrew Jackson didn’t expect him to either), opposed the secession of Texas during the Civil War, opposed the spread of slavery (here you should read spread in italics, meaning spread is emphasized), was an alcoholic, had a horse named Saracen, was always down for a party, and advocated for Cherokee rights (though did he deliver?)—and his nickname was “The Raven.” For a while, I lived down the street from where he lived and died. Where slaves also lived and maybe also died. I admire him, it’s hard to admit in some ways, but I admire him, for backward stumbling into history, for being kinky, for having vices, for being a teenage runaway who fucked on the banks of rivers and read Homer’s Iliad, for wanting to make something of himself and having done it, for being a Texas adventurer. And yet, how do I deal with the fact that I don’t know all twelve of those people’s names, and instead their numerical value? $10,530.20. The one exception is Lotte, a four-year-old, whom he promised to free. He never did. History is complicated.

[7] My mother bore me in the southern wild, And I am black, but O! my soul is white; White as an angel is the English child: But I am black as if bereav’d of light. My mother taught me underneath a tree And sitting down before the heat of day, She took me on her lap and kissed me, And pointing to the east began to say. Look on the rising sun: there God does live And gives his light and gives his heat away. And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive Comfort in morning joy in the noonday. And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love, And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove. For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice. Saying: come out from the grove my love & care, And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice. Thus did my mother say and kissed me, And thus I say to little English boy. When I from black and he from white cloud free, and round the tent of God like lambs we joy: Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear, to lean in joy upon our fathers knee. And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, and be like him and he will then love me. The Little Black Boy, William Blake

[8] The origin of the onion is a contested topic among experts, so the native roots of the vegetable were uncertain to Clarence. It could be Iran, or Kazakhstan, or somewhere else in Central Asia. They could’ve been used to prevent thirst, hunger, or dehydration, or aided in mummification.

[9] There was a rebellion at Walls once. Back in 1974. It lasted eleven days. Some people call it a riot, others a siege. Either way, Yvonne Beseda and Julia Standley—a teacher and a librarian at Walls—died. It is still the longest-standing prison riot/siege/rebellion in American history.

[10] See also: Fanatic, Idealogue, Militant, Zealot, Red Hot, Cultist, Disciple, Follower, Idolizer, Addict.

[11] “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.” Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

[12] King’s imminent death.

[13] A way to take power.

[14] He is a craftsman; he can’t help that he wants his work to be perfect.

[15] Buy fresh cabbage. Preferably from a farmer’s market way out of town where the southern heat tinges the skin brown or Black or anything but burned. Salt it to preference. Usually between one to three tablespoons. Sanitize your jars and lids in hot water. Drown the cabbage in a brine, seal the jar, and wait. It will rot.

[16] Clarence remembered his grandmother, who spent hours over the stove to craft bites of beauty. He did not believe those feelings could be provoked from foods that came from boxes.

[17] He made this stock from the bones of a cow named Bessie, who’d lived a good life. She loved her neck to be stroked, for her forehead to be kissed, and got so excited when it was time to play.

[18] A one-pot meal, a hearty stew or sometimes macaroni, most popular during World War II. The Germans were meant to give their meat to the soldiers who came knock-knock-knocking every Sunday. The morsels of sausage and roast were meant to keep Hitler’s army tick-tick-ticking.

[19] Blood sacrifice.

[20] Dear You, I wish I could help him. But the truth is, I haven’t figured out for myself how to get from under guilt’s oppressive weight. I don’t know if I’m passing it to Clarence in the hopes that he will surprise me, he will come out from under who I’ve made him, and he will point to the answer, he will say, “See, it was there all along,” and I can unhook it from both of our shoulders. But he hasn’t yet, and I don’t think he will. Eventually we’ll both learn how to live with crooked backs.

[21] A brass nameplate was removed shortly after he was buried. Another time, in 2004, Joshua Lee Talley (19) and John Matthew Fowler (18) knocked his gravestone over and carved slurs into the vault of his grave. In 2010, someone stole a bag of dirt from his grave and sold it online, along with pieces of the things used to kill him.

[22] Dear John William King, It is 9 A.M. You are nine hours from your death. Everyone that is coming will be there soon. They won’t be late. Nothing will be late today. Your meal will come in eight more hours. Four hundred eighty minutes. 28,800 seconds. You will have a full belly before you die.

[23] Victims: Robert Vicha, Zelda Vicha, and Bobby Vicha.

[24] Huntsville PD also wrote thirty or so tickets to Black students, but in all fairness, those students forgot to use their turn signals after ten minutes of being followed.

[25] The Storybook House, also known as the Hobbit House, was built by Dan Phillips and his company, the Phoenix Commotion. His homes are made from about 70-80% salvaged materials.

[26] Deter: / /də'tər/ Verb: discourage (someone) from doing something by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences. Example: A criminal who steals bread to feed his family will have his hand cut off. It will deter others who steal bread for their families from stealing from those who own the bread, who own the wheat, and the mill, and can make the bread whenever they damn well please. Example: The people in town are deterred from sympathizing or asking why he would commit such a crime if the one-handed criminal cleans their university hallway or mows the government-owned lawns. It’s important for them to work, you know. Who cares how many times he drops the mop if the floor shines? The people in town are deterred from asking questions when one-third of their city’s population is made up of one-handed criminals, when teenagers make their way through college by guarding these one-handed criminals, when the whole God-damned local economy chugs along because of how many people are locked behind bars.

[27] Clarence made filet mignon and twice-baked potatoes with hollandaise sauce and a pineapple upside-down cake for dessert for Billie Wayne Coble. Billie died when he was seventy. His prison record had been clean for thirty years, and his lawyers argued that this should be enough to keep him from the chamber, that he was not that same man who killed his estranged wife’s mother, father, and brother.

[28] Chewing tobacco; his particular brand of consumer dedication belongs to Grizzly Long Cut Wintergreen.

[29] Dear You, When I’m writing, I am not thinking of a reader; I’m just, writing. On my own, in silence, or to the same song over and over again. (The songs for this work: Orville Peck, “Dead of Night,” and Prince, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”) But sometimes, I put a secret into a sentence, or a paragraph, or a line of dialogue, and there’s this little ball of joy that settles in my chest. I like to put secrets everywhere. I like to hide. There’s a secret in this sentence, in this catalogue. Sometimes when I bury these little treasures, I wonder why I don’t just let you in all the way, why I don’t bring those things to the surface so you can see them. I mean, wouldn’t that be easier? Shouldn’t a writer want to be understood if they’re trying to put their work out in the public consciousness? Wouldn’t it be better to open up? Why not ditch the secrets and the subtlety? Why not be clear? I have always had a hard time opening up, and I guess I need to keep some things small, and soft, and sacred. And maybe, some of that circle of joy comes from the idea that someone will see it, plain as day on the page, and they and I will be connected, because they understand me, and I understand them. A hint: It’s biblical.

[30] The poor woman thought he had money.

[31] Rafael was Muslim, and his roommates had actually grown to like the taste.

[32] Thomas Evans is a nineteen-year-old college student majoring in special education. In his free time he volunteers at the SAAFE house in town. He is a full-time employee at the best-paying institution in Huntsville and the job is helping to put him through school. Certainly, he’s had experiences that were overwhelming. Like when one of his coworkers shot themselves in the head in the parking lot after their shift was over. They had made plans to go out for a drink that weekend. Or when he had to beat one of those men when they said they knew where he lived and they still had friends outside the unit. Thomas did it to show that he wasn’t scared. He did it so no one else would do it again. Thomas lived now with people he had met at a party once; he never changed his address on his work files.

[33] Mother of James Byrd Jr. You should have known she would appear to tear at your heart strings. These things follow a formula: Black Body with a name we all promise to remember though we can’t remember the details of their deaths, or where they lived, or how old they were, or their favorite colors, how they loved to spend a Saturday afternoon in the heat of the summer, what song brought them comfort, or what the music of their laughter sounded like in a quiet room; we remember just their names in hashtags and as Black Faces frozen in photographs. Black Body is deemed damn near suicidal for noncompliance or for being at the wrong time or the wrong place. Black Body is criticized for how it reacted and maybe just maybe it could’ve been different if they had known better, if they had done better, if they hadn’t reached for the gun or a phone or a wallet or an ID. If they didn’t talk back. If they didn’t move. Black Body knows the strength it has—who else can take what Black Bodies take? Black Body with a name that we won’t forget is deemed “no angel,” cause didn’t we all know that they smoked that shit, or drank too much? And more Black Bodies with names who have no hashtags yet get angry, or maybe if the Dead Black Body was born with a dick then the other Black Bodies protest or riot. All the other Bodies in the world don’t like when Black Bodies show their rage, and they say if we want to stay alive then we better keep that shit to ourselves. Say there’s a right way to go about this, there’s no need to be such animals, to burn what the Black Bodies have built. Black Bodies never fail to see how this always becomes a conversation about us and our respectability instead of everyone else. The mother of Dead Black Body wails and everyone will pat her back and call the murder of her Black Child unfortunate, cast it as accident, cast it as reason for a movement that is abandoned once the votes are counted, or the photo is posted to Instagram, the music video shot and edited. Mother may just want us to remember that her Child was a Child. A Child who watched her cook, or knew how she liked her kitchen cleaned, or whose belly she rubbed when they were sick. She listens to Emmett Till comparisons, and she doesn’t tell anyone that she thought her womb delivered more than metaphors, or a bill put to Congress with the name she picked out as its title. She remembers all the blood; she swears she remembers holding something solid, something crying, not in sorrow either. Black Body gets a headstone that gets shot full of holes or destroyed or cracked. Cause it’s even our fucking fault for dying, for being dead, for being made symbol, for being made martyr, for dying in a too tragic way, for wanting all that attention. Or maybe Other Bodies just wanna make sure the Black Thing is a Dead Black Thing. Black Bodies get used in art pieces, in short stories, in photographs and sculptures. Black Bodies use each other. Dead Black Body becomes alive again if only for a moment, and the Black Bodies who use them don’t know if raising the dead is always worth it or better yet, if it’s right. Maybe, sometimes, Black Bodies just want to rest. Be more than Bodies. Be more than impersonal unnamed proper nouns in an all-too-familiar timeline listed and gathered in a footnote subservient to the primary text. Be more than a mass of things to be stacked and built upon, be non-profitable and personal. Be themselves, individuated. Be given privacy and not be made to say and do things they never did. Be still. Quiet. Like water.

[34] John William “Billy” King, Shawn Berry, and Lawrence Brewer.

[35] 1 mile, or 5,280 feet, or 1.6 kilometers, or 63,360 inches, or .868976 nautical miles, or 1,760 yards, or remember when you were in middle school or high school and you had to run a mile in a certain amount of time? How a mile was four times around the track? Imagine a truck driving on that track, going in that oval shape, twelve times.

[36] Victim: Melissa Trotter. Larry Ray Swearingen claimed his innocence right up until he died. He said, “Lord forgive em, they don’t know what they’re doing,” and “I can hear it going through the vein—I can taste it,” and “I don’t feel anything in the left.” He kept his eyes closed the whole time. Prosecutors said a bad man had died that day, and that was a good thing. His lawyers said the DNA underneath Melissa’s fingernails didn’t belong to Larry.

[37] Victims: Pearl Magourik and Patricia Syren. He said, “I’m at peace now and ready to go and be with Jesus and my family.” He, like Larry Ray Swearingen, commented on the feel of the drugs in his veins. It burned him.

[38] Victim: Nancy Weatherly. He said to Nancy’s family, “I wanted to apologize for the grief and the pain that I caused y’all. I’ve been considering changing my life. It took me twenty-seven years to do so. Man, I want to apologize, I don’t know if me passing will bring y’all comfort for the pain and suffering I caused y’all. I am at peace.”

[39] Victims: Chare Agnew, Raekwon Agnew, and Harold Sublet Jr. Robert said, “I am sorry for the hard times, and what hurts me is that I hurt y’all. I love y’all. I am ready.” His lawyers argued he should not have been eligible for execution because he was intellectually disabled.

Indya S. Finch

Indya S. Finch is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship. She talks through movies and won’t stop no matter how much people complain.