I keep having the same dream about you Jimmy. The media frenzy is over, but some small market tabloid didn’t catch on fast enough—so they call me at my home. They never know anything about what happened—or they say they don’t—and I’m never smart enough to just hang up the damn phone. I just answer all the questions like I’m sitting in a Catholic confessional. Sometimes I think it’s you on the other end—pretending that you don’t know what happened—making me answer all those questions.
It always goes the same. Oh, this is one of those phone calls? Fine. If you want to know, yes, in 1978 I killed a man. Shot him in the chest. I was nineteen years old and he was nearly fifty. It wasn’t about having fun—it was just my job. I was a guard at a prison in the South. You’ll probably find out where, if you don’t know already, but I’m not going to help you out, because that’ll just make it easier for you to go and dig up some local paper and bring it to my house.
You’ll bring it to my door at 7 p.m. and ask me to sign it and ask me to tell you all about the time I put a bullet in James David Monroe. You’ll ask me in front of Becky, my wife of nearly thirty years—a woman who was against the death penalty when I met her and is sure against it now. You’ll ask me in front of her and she’ll look down at the table like you were some mistress walking in off the street. She’ll act like you just came on in during supper and said, “let’s talk about this,” and slapped that god damn headline down on the table. Oh, she knows about everything—but she’d like to forget it. She’d see you there, and she’d know it was you and not some reporter. Thirty years isn’t long enough to forget.
She’ll even look at you like you’re that fifty year old man wearing a blind fold, and maybe she’ll think you got a cigarette in your mouth, and maybe she’ll remember how you cried and begged and shat yourself and said over and over again how it wasn’t you, and why couldn’t we believe you, and you’d never do something like that. Maybe you’ll keep on saying that until the bullets argue out loud. Ignore your flesh and words and go straight for your heart—which was broken anyway, because you were telling the truth. The entire time, you were telling the truth.
Then she’ll look at me like I’m the murderer, which I am. And then she’ll look at our little girl Natalie, who’s sitting seven feet away in front of a plate of food, and she’ll tell her, “No baby, you don’t have to eat your peas. Go play with your dolls.”
My little girl won’t understand why tonight is the one night she doesn’t have to clean her plate. She won’t understand why tonight she gets to stay up forty minutes longer than usual and sit between Becky and me on the couch while we’re way too quiet during the Tonight Show.
She’ll be curious. Kids are always curious, but she won’t ask any questions because she’ll be afraid to break the spell. She won’t risk being sent to bed just to find out why she hasn’t been already.
I wonder why adults don’t have that same sense about them. I wonder what makes a man search through old microfilm in a backwater library to read about a thirty year old execution. I mean, the guy who decided to reopen the case—he read through all those microfilms—every arrest report, every court report and every local interest story—and decided that we were all wrong. He decided that it was time to dig Jimmy Monroe up and clear his dead fucking remains of his crimes. His name? I don’t remember his name. What does that matter? He wasn’t trying to clear his name.
How? Oh, DNA evidence. Can you believe that? They got DNA evidence from two dead bodies, and after all that evidence was presented we were left with two victims instead of one. Jimmy Monroe, not James David Monroe, not that three named notoriety the media saddled him with in 1978. Just Jimmy. Just like his mamma called him til the day he died, and just what she called him when she screamed at the boys on the firing squad—called us fucking killers. I can still hear her. I think I stopped hearing her after fifteen years, but then they proved her right and now I hear her again. I’ve never understood why they let the families watch executions.
The next day she came to see the body. We didn’t make them, it’s not like a homicide. Sometimes the families just need to see the body. I don’t get it, but it’s not my call.
I was the youngest on the crew so I got to stand guard over the remains. Bobby Milam said I would still be able to fuck that part up. He said if the body got fresh I ought to call out for backup. I’d like to say I didn’t laugh. I’d like to say I didn’t think that was the funniest shit I’d heard that day. If I could say that then maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a bastard about it. Maybe I wouldn’t mind you coming around here with a piece of paper reminding me of what I’ve done.
When Jimmie’s mamma came in the door that next day she’d calmed down. She just eased on in and signed all the paper work. Joe Burke still patted her down in case she’d decided to get some revenge. Sometimes people wanted to make us pay for the executions. They can’t get at jurors, or judges, or legislators. They don’t understand that guards are just the machinery that finishes the job. We’re the brooms that sweep up the mess. We’re no more responsible for the deaths than the guns we use to do it.
She didn’t put up a fight. She just kept her eyes down. Down on the paper, down on the pen, down on the ground watching her feet move. I think she might have looked up for a second when she got to where I was standing. My shoes would have been pretty hard to miss against the white tile. Two black polished dress shoes. They were both shining and reflective. They weren’t always so sharp, the boys told me that on a regular basis, but I’d polished them that morning. I had to. The day before, Jimmy’s blood splattered all over the left shoe. 20 feet away and the blood still arched across the green yard and splashed little flecks on our faces. Little rain drops of warmth on our pants and shirts and shoes. We took out our handkerchiefs and wiped our faces and our gun stocks—as if it were just that easy.
So yeah, she saw my shoes, and she flicked her eyes up at me and back down to the floor—but she didn’t look at my shoes again after that. She waited until I turned the key in the door, pushed the door inward on its hinge and listed to it slam against the side wall and recoil like the ghost of seven gunshots. She heard it too, and when she could, she walked into the nearly empty room. She stood at the shore of a thousand tiles, a square inch each in size. Her look followed the brown and white boxes that leaped one another—leading to the center of the room. In the center was a hollow table with four fog-silver legs peeking from under the bottom of a white cloth—a cloth that barely hid the drainage reservoir where we’d hosed down the floor and rinsed out her son’s blood and feces.
I couldn’t blame her for not looking up. I didn’t want to look at the top of that table either. I didn’t want to spend another second with that naked man with his torn open chest. The sheets we put over the bodies make me think of my wife’s veil. They had since a woman had come in the year before and lifted back a sheet just like the one James was under. She pulled it back and put her lips gently against her husband’s. She put her head on his chest like it was nothing more than the gentle aftermath of her honeymoon. Then she crawled up on the table, and stayed there and cried. We’d already patted her down—she wasn’t going to try anything crazy—but she still got her revenge on me that day.
Mrs. Monroe didn’t have the same reaction. She didn’t even pull the sheet back, she didn’t do anything but turn from the room and walk back out, and keep her head down on the brown tile and the white tile and then the even whiter tile. Then I called her back, “Don’t you want to see the body?”
That’s when she finally looked at me and that look would have left powder on your palms if you touched it, like the proof of a gunshot. I just know it.
“You think you got the wrong man on that table Mr. Hawkins?” There wasn’t a thing about her now that looked like a woman looking down. There wasn’t a thing about her that said she had a dead son. She looked more like my mamma used to when I stayed out too late on a Sunday. And she asked me that question the same way my mamma used to ask me every question she already knew the answer to. I don’t mind saying, at nineteen I still had a healthy fear of my mother and that fear shot up from my chest and out of my throat in the only answer I ever gave in moments like this: silence.
“If you kill a man, I guess you ought to at least make sure you kill the right one.” As she said it, she walked over to the table, pulled back the sheet like it was nothing more sinister than a lid on buffet platter. If the sight bothered her at all she managed to hide it. She looked the face over for a few seconds, covered it again and turned to me. “Sorry Mr. Hawkins, but it looks like you got the wrong man.”
That’s all she said, and then she left.
You’re wondering what’s got me thinking about all this. It happened so long ago, I ought to just let it go. Forgive myself. The problem is I didn’t know I needed to forgive myself for twenty-eight of those years, so I’m still coming to terms. When the story first broke I was glad to be a thousand miles away—but they still find you, the media I mean. They always find you. I guess you know all about that.
Doesn’t help that only two of us guards are still alive. Hank’s still in town, but he ended up with Alzheimer’s so he wasn’t much to interview. I feel bad for him, of course I do, but that doesn’t make him any better to talk to. Anyway, with me being the only one left who knew anything about it, I had people from every national publication on my front lawn.
I’d seen stuff like it before, on Court T.V., Fox News, C.N.N., but I didn’t appreciate what it’s like to be famous for something like that. You don’t know what it’s like to have people tearing up your lawn, your street. I spent years cultivating the grass in my yard. My wife spent years growing roses and these little weeds that looked like flowers, but really weren’t. Once, she tried to explain why it mattered, but if it didn’t come in a little 2x2 square of sod, I couldn’t grow it and I couldn’t understand it. Throw the sprinklers on, get rid of ant beds—that I could do—but I couldn’t prune and dig and landscape. That was up to the girls, and they loved it. They even pretended not to notice when I stole some of their flowers to give to them on their birthdays.
My daughter was five years old when those trucks and camera crews showed up on our street, but she was already smart enough know they shouldn’t be there. She was also smart enough to pretend that she wasn’t horrified every time some jackass cameraman in a backwards baseball cap stomped through a flower bed to ask me a question. She emulates her mother. She wants to be just like her, and swear to god I hope she ends up that way. I’m not a man who’s afraid to love—but I’ve spent a lot of years with permanent blisters under the second knuckle on every finger—the kind you get from gripping on, too long, to anything that pulls you. I’ve spent a lot of years with my skin looking too much like a sand trap that’s contrasted by the lush green surrounding our home. My wife has always been beautiful and my wife has always been kind. She’s got the kind of hands that stay gentle even when they’re covered in texture and potting soil. I’ve got my father’s hands.
Sometimes Natalie likes to come over to my recliner in the living room and scramble up into my lap with a book in one hand and in the other, her favorite pink brush—the one with Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” on the handle. “Daddy, you need to brush my hair so that I can read this book.” She always calls me Daddy when she wants something. She also smiles at me really big and her single dimple, the one on the left of her face, pops out like a little wink. Even if Natalie doesn’t know what she’s up to, even if it’s unconscious, her dimple is in on the scam. Some people might worry that the instinct for manipulation starts so early—but it’s never bothered me. Sometimes she calls me “Dad” when she needs to seem older, but she seems most grown up when she’s embarrassed by me, or when she says just the right thing to get her way. We all do it. I’m not making some commentary on women. My mother would come back from the grave and beat the tar out of me. I know how strong a woman can be. That’s why I want my daughter to keep on becoming one.
Still, that doesn’t mean that my little girl is wise just yet. She always forgets how “Daddy” always catches every tangle when he’s brushing her hair. That his boxy hands can barely hold that tiny brush. That he palms it like a kitchen sponge and tends to scrub her hair more than brush it. I always know what’s going to happen—but I guess I’m not that wise either. I always hope that this time I’ll get it right, and this time she won’t say, “Ouch Daddy, that’s not how you do it!”
But, I never get it right and inevitably she’ll turn to me and look up at me like I planned the entire thing. As if I said, “Honey, why don’t you go grab your brush so that Daddy can play with your hair,” and then betrayed her. Her brow furrows, and she scowls and even though she’s not even four feet tall, she finds a way to look down her nose at me and accuse me, “That’s not how Mommy does it.” Then she takes the brush, and the book, slides out of the chair and onto the floor, and I’m just Dad again.
That’s when she moves a few feet over to her mother. Becky always watches the entire thing, and I can feel her smiling while she pretends to do a crossword or balance our checkbooks. I wonder how we ever ended up with a daughter. I can’t believe my wife ever let me hold her with hands as rough as mine, but Becky always knows how to fix the spots that I treat too roughly. She takes over the brush duties, removing every tangle without a single complaint, and I sit in my chair and listen to my daughter read her book.
In the evening I’m remembering right now, it’s a book called Lon Po Po. Most of it’s just Little Red Riding Hood meets The Three Little Pigs. It’s cute, and the art is nice, but it’s just a children’s book. Still, I’ll never forget that dedication, “To all the wolves of the world, for lending their good name as a tangible symbol for our darkness.”
“What’s that mean Daddy?”
“Well, I think it means that we all need to be afraid of something, so why not wolves?”
“I’m afraid of the dark.”
“I know sweetie, but everyone’s afraid of the dark when they’re little.”
“But not wolves?”
“Not always. In some places a wolf is just like a dog.”
“Why are some people afraid of them then?”
There was no good answer for this. What could I say? People would rather be afraid of the wolves than feed them? They’d rather choose their fear than have it sneak up on them? Wolves can be shot, or captured or beaten or starved. You can’t do anything about the dark but shine a light on it and prove that it was never really there.
That kind of fear is nothing—or it’s hidden. Sometimes we just need to blame something for the fear we don’t understand. It’s been a part of humanity since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake—maybe before that. The wolf and the snake are just kindred spirits in a world that’s looking for bad guys. How would you explain that to your little girl?
“Who knows? Your aunt Jamie is afraid of dogs, but she isn’t afraid of the dark. You never know what someone’ll be afraid of.” Jamie was very afraid of the dark, but I had a point to make. Like I said, we all manipulate.
I wonder what Jimmy’s mother told him about wolves. I wonder what she told her little boy about the dark when he couldn’t sleep at night. Was she like me? Did she take him to the closet, open the door and crawl inside to prove there was nothing inside but clothes and shoveled in toys? Did she let him curl up in bed with her to feel safe? What could she have told him about that final darkness he had to face without her? When the blindfold was placed over his eyes how could he possibly remember that there was nothing to be afraid of in the dark? How did his mother feel when she couldn’t protect her little boy any longer. Did she think of me and those other boys as the big bad wolf, or just a tangible symbol of a shadow we couldn’t help but cast.
I wondered about all of this while the T.V. reporter talked about Jimmy’s strange request to be killed by firing squad. A female reporter turned to an expert and asked about the different types of capital punishment.
In the middle of a very graphic description of what happens during a hanging, I looked over to see my wife had dozed in her seat on the couch, but Natalie was focused on the screen. She made eye contact with me and said, “Daddy, I think it’s time for me to go to bed.”
I stood up, put a hand on my wife’s shoulder and woke her with a kiss on the forehead. She smiled at me, kissed me on the cheek and then stood up and started toward the bedroom. Natalie put her arms into the air, which meant I was supposed to pick her up. I did. Then I carried her past her bedroom door and into the room where Becky was already brushing her teeth with her eyes closed.
We’d all be sharing the room this evening. No one asked me any questions about why.
I kept myself from checking the closet before we all crawled into bed. They held back the urge to ask me if I’d go ahead and check.
The media gives up on these things after a while. It’s been a couple of years and even though the story was more resilient than Jimmy, it still died eventually. It’s hard to champion a cause when there’s no one left alive who was really responsible for the problem. It took a lot of convincing for anyone to believe I never meant anything by shooting that boy—that I really was just doing my job and doing what I’d been convinced was right. That I could never do it again seems beside the point. I’d done it, and I’d done it as close to proudly as anyone can do a thing like that and still be human. But, I couldn’t do it now and still be proud. You could show me a video of Jimmy doing exactly what they accused him of and Jimmy could admit to it, and I still wouldn’t pull the trigger. A man ought to be certain of some things.
My wife was glad to hear me confess this one night before we went to bed. I’d been considering it for over twenty years before I finally came to my conclusion.
“I knew you’d figure it out eventually.”
“What if I hadn’t? What if I always thought it was right?”
“Then I’d have kept waiting.”
“What if, though?” The room was dark and quiet. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I imagine she wasn’t looking at me, but at the ceiling. It was a rare time when the silence got the best of me. “Would you still love me?”
“Who says I ever loved you to begin with?”
This was her way of telling me I’d asked a stupid question. I smiled in the dark and I’m pretty sure she must have been smiling back at me. Of course she’d have kept loving me. She just might not trust me to love someone else the right way. I hadn’t appreciated much of what Jimmy’s mother went through for a long time. Then I had little nieces and nephews and I started thinking about how much I loved them even when they did the most awful things. I started imagining what I might do if they grew up to be killers, or rapists or just plain fuckups. I realized that even if I was ashamed every minute by them, I’d still love them, and I wouldn’t want them killed for anything they might have done.
That’s when I finally felt guilty about Jimmy. Not for shooting him, not for killing him, but for making his mother turn around and pull back that sheet and look at her boy. Maybe that’s why I didn’t stop her when she told me I had the wrong man. Maybe I figured that was just about right as far as she was concerned, and that if I didn’t want to look at him, I couldn’t ask her to look at him. Then again, maybe I just didn’t want her anywhere near me anymore.
Anyway, once I told my wife how I felt, she decided it was about time to have a family. I said it was getting a little late to be parents.
“Seems like the perfect time to me. We had to wait until you grew up enough to be a dad.”
“You mean we needed to wait until at least one of us stopped being so stubborn?”
She crinkled her nose at me. “I wonder how hard it’ll be for us to conceive if I don’t have sex with you for a few years.”
I kissed her on her crinkled nose and we got started making a family. I’ll spare you the details, but as you can see, it worked. We have a beautiful little girl, and now that the reporters are gone, we also have a pretty decent lawn again.
You’d think that’d be the end of my problems, right? Story’s over, beautiful family, picket fence—sort of. It’s a chain link because our dog kept chewing through the wood and we had to replace a lot of the old fence anyway. Still, it’s the American dream if there is one.
Except that eventually kids stop keeping all those questions they’re sitting on to themselves. They start asking why they don’t have to eat their vegetables, and they start asking why they get to stay up and one day they come in and ask you why their teacher makes them play hangman during their spelling class.
“I don’t understand,” was the complaint from my seven year old.
“Don’t understand what?” I didn’t ask this because I couldn’t imagine more elaborate questions, but only that I’d learned what all parents learn: Never answer questions before they’re actually asked. If you make too many assumptions, you end up answering new questions before you’re prepared. As if you’re ever prepared.
“Why do they kill him?”
“The hangman Dad! Are you even listening to me?”
“I’m listening sweetie. They don’t kill him unless you get the word wrong.”
“Yeah, but that’s silly.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not his fault that we don’t know how to spell.”
She was right of course—I had no answer. The reason I had no answer is that I’d never even realized how sick the game was. What kind of man gets this close to fifty and doesn’t even realize how disgusting it is to let his daughter play hangman? We don’t just kill a man, we make a child responsible for it. We punish someone else for knowledge that they don’t have yet. We stand at a blackboard with a piece of chalk and we draw a little circle for the head after one mistake, a long line for the body for another. Eventually we add arms and feet and the moment we’ve created a complete human being is the moment we’ve destroyed him. When I considered all of this, I knew what to tell my daughter to make her feel better.
“Natalie, it’s not his fault that you didn’t know the answer, but the important thing to remember is that it’s not your fault either. You shouldn’t feel guilty that the hangman dies just because you didn’t get it right. That’s your teacher’s fault and I’m going to have a talk with her.”
“Oh, no Daddy, I got my word right.”
“Then why are you so worried about it?”
“Because, I might not get it right every time.”
I looked at her for a long time, the way I used to look at my mother when she’d ask me those impossible questions, but today I was supposed to have the answers. When I thought about it, she probably never had them either.
“Natalie, go bring Daddy your brush.”
Steven Kilpatrick studies & writes from Denton, Texas.