by Patricia Anthony
The building smelled of Lysol and
panicked sweat; its silence again took her by surprisetwo visits allotted, this one
her last. She knew that she would always remember this silence, the odd, sad, sterile
passivity of it, the hushed, contemplative expectation, like a monastery.
She entered H-wing of Ellis Unit past Barry Swotts,
the young freckled-faced guard, and Frank Best, the balding older man. She knew they must
dread her coming. Still, they were Texas-polite, tipping their caps. "Hey, hows
it going, Miz Jessup? Sure is a fine one outside."
This fine morning she had driven past grape purple
irises, tulips the pastel hue of childrens Easter eggs, lollipop-shaped Bradford
pear trees frothy with blossoms: a feast of blooms not a hundred yards from this spot.
Frank and Barry must have driven by them on their way to work. Jimmy Lee Highwater
hadnt seen the seasonal color. In Ellis cell block wings there were no
windows. He had not seen spring for over eight years.
Jimmy Lee waited for her in a square beige room. He
sat on one of a pair of molded tan plastic chairs. Head bowed, hed propped his
elbows on the rectangular pressed wood table. The tables gray metal legs folded if
need be, so that it might be stored away. Neat and pliable as a corpse, that
tablearms folded over chest, legs drawn up like a child sleeping.
Jimmy Lees right wrist was cuffed. He was a big
man; the table flimsy. Had he been so inclined, he could have carried that table
one-handed through the buff steel door, down the tan corridor, to the chain link fence and
beyond. As he ran, he could fold that table. He could store it in a culvert, under a
bridge, in a shallow grave.
Barry and Frank crowded into the room with her. When
she sat opposite Jimmy Lee, Frank put a box of Scott tissues (pale watercolor lilacs on a
white cardboard background) within arms reach. Then he withdrew. On this particular
fine spring morning young Barry had Granny Guarding duty. He leaned against the
steel-and-glass door, hands clasped to his front, a blond, khaki-uniformed choirboy.
She said, "Im here. So what did you
Jimmy Lee lifted his head and she could see the
blankness of death in him. He was, she imagined, mulling things over.
With a compassion that annoyed her, he asked,
"Didnt get no sleep?" His imposing size was what she remembered from the
trial. Yet since the first time they had sat face to face, his blue eyes struck her as too
gentle for mass murder.
"I didnt come all this way for you to
patronize me," she snapped.
He seemed mildly puzzled. "Yeah, its bad,
not getting no sleep."
Hes useless, she thought. Primitive. Ignorant.
Perhaps slow-witted. She wondered how the State of Texas had ever imagined he could give
At the door, Barry shifted his weight. She shot him a
warning look. On her first visit, when she had broken down in perfectly understandable
sobs, the guards had been solicitous not of her, but of Jimmy Lee. Yet in two days these
same guards would strap him to a gurney and then they would put him to death. She could
tell by his body language that Jimmy Lee had already forgiven the guards for what they
were to do; she could tell that the guards appreciated his forgiveness. Its a damned
boys club out there, shed told Edgar only the week before. The comment had
made Edgar peevish, of course. As if a husbands and fathers love was any
greater. As if straight-laced Edgar and his RAMS, his fast modems, his big hard drives,
would ever dream of raping a woman and killing her kids.
"You a Christian?" Jimmy Lee asked.
Her back stiffened so abruptly that a nerve pinched.
"Cause I been thinking you probably is.
Most folks round here is Christians." Jimmy Lees eyes might have been
soft, but his face was coarse, his features blunt. His hands were hugethe fingers
spatulatehands made for the cruder of the male tasks.
"Thats none of your business."
"I know that, maam. But I was just
wondering . . . " He considered the box of tissues. "You think your
familys in heaven?"
It didnt feel as if she had tensed, but she must
have. Barry dropped his arms. He took a half-step forward.
"I think they must be," Jimmy Lee said.
"I think its only right. I mean, the way they died and all."
He jerked his head up. Her question surprised her,
too. All this timeshe didnt think that she would ever have the courage to ask.
"I killt em, maam. You remember?"
"Yes, damn it. Im not stupid. But
"Well, like they told you at the trial: I shot
the boys in the back while they was sleeping, and I shot her in the face later. But they
all went real quick, though. Want you to know that. Werent no struggle nor
nothin." He stared at the tissues a while. "So you a Christian, then,
maam? You think theys all in heaven?"
"At one time I was a Christian, yes."
"Its hard when folks is pulling at
you," he agreed. "I mean, like on the outside and all. Its quiet in here,
except when them doors slam. Mostly its nice. You got your bed and your three
squares. A person can be alone with his thoughts. Only when it gets closer to the time and
all, things gets hard. Listen. You ever get them nightmares?"
Once upon a time shed dreamed in color. Now she
struggled into sleep and sometimes awoke with the sound of a shot.
"Cause when I was a kid," he said,
"had this friend was a Lakota Sioux. Mama and me, we lived up near Weatherford? And
when she wasnt drinking it was nice and quiet. Just like here. Wed go
swimming, Lyle and methat was this Indian kids namewed shuck our
jeans and go skinny dipping in his daddys stock tank. And so Lyle told me about true
names, and how his was Rattlesnake. I thought that was pretty good. Nobody
fuckssorry, maam. Nobody messes with a rattler. But Lyle, he tells me it
aint like that, that the rattler is wise and all, and only kills to protect hisself.
Anyways, Lyle told me I was Owl. I told him he was full of shit. Oh, Im sorry, Ms.
Jessup. Me and my dirty mouth. We got this bad habit."
She checked her watch. "Does this have a point?
Because this is a long story, Jimmy Lee, and I just dont see the point. Neither of
us has the time."
Jimmy Lee ducked his head. To her shock, she saw he
was blushing. "No, maam. No, we surely dont. When I was a kid, though, I
didnt want to be no owlhiding in the dark like that. But later on it struck me
that Lyle must have been pretty smart, cause damned if I didnt turn into one.
Like if you ever see an owl sitting in a tree, youll never see it fly. Owls is
sneaky like that." He pulled a tissue out of the box and handed it to her. "You
got some mascara or something."
When had she started crying? She scrubbed her eyes
He said, "When you was in here before, Miz
Jessup, you asked me the why of what I done; but you never stuck around for the
She slammed her fist, the tissue wadded in it, onto
the plywood table. At the door, Barry said, "Miz Jessup?"
Shed utterly forgotten he was there. "You
told me you didnt know."
"Yes, maam. And thats the Gods
honest truth. I could tell you it was the meth what done it, and I used that excuse a
while. The easy answer is, I needed money. But why did I kill them kids? Them boys never
done nothing to me. I mean, the rest of the story kinda makes sense: Your daughter had on
this pink little nightie, maam. Didnt cover much of nothing. And as for
shooting her after? Well, couldnt leave no witnesses. You know that."
She swiped at her eyes again. The tissue came away
smudged with taupe eye shadow, the institutional hue of the walls.
"So for nine years I been thinking on the
why," he said, "and I still caint make no head nor tail. Seems like I was
mad at the time; but if you was to ask who done what to make me so blamed mad, I
couldnt give you no good answer. I figure Lyle was rightmy nature is Owl. I
killt them kids cause they was small and defenseless. I killt em because I
felt like it at the time."
"I dream about coming in here with a knife,"
she told him. "I fanaticize that two big men are with me, to hold you down." She
noticed that Barry was staring at her, his cherubic face blank.
Jimmy Lee nodded. He studied the tabletop, the place
where the wood grain Contact paper was peeling. "Did you know, maam, that if
theres a creature on Gods green earth that hates an owl, its a crow? Not
that they see a whole lot of each other, crows being daytime birds and owls coming out in
the night. But crows always give me the jeebies. If a crow finds some critter dead or
dyinga helpless little crittertheyll eat it alive. The first thing they
go for is the eyes."
She looked to the wall clock, wondering how much of
this she was supposed to take. She wondered when the "healing" the state had
promised would begin. Two oh five. Forty-nine hours from now the drugs would work their
way down the IV line. Jimmy Lee would go to sleep, and then, without much fanfare, his
heart would stop. She strangled the tissue. It wasnt payment enough.
"I dream about em."
She sat up, hopeful. "Renee and the boys?"
"Crows." He tried to touch his face with his
cuffed hand. His wrists were thick and the cuff was tight. She wondered if the impulsive
gesture had bruised him. "Seems like just lately, I been dreaming about crows."
He cleared his throat. "Theys a-flapping them big black wings and theys
coming closer. And in this dream, see, I caint move a muscle. My bodys all
froze up. And I think . . . if I could just close my eyes, you know? Squinch em
tight so the crows cant get at em. But I just caint seem to do
He reached for water, but the plastic carafe was too
far away. She nudged it closer. His hands shook. "So here these past few years,"
he told her, "I come to know that hate gets past your skin and gnaws at your innards.
I know all about hate, see, cause I used to hate my mama. And now I gone and caused
you to hate me, too. Thats the worst thing about all this. Them folks I killt, why,
there was only a little bit of pain. Im not making light or nothing, but less than
fifteen minutes and it was over. But you, maam? Why, its been going on nine
Her chest went cold from the effrontery, from the pity
she saw in his face. How dare he talk to her of hatred? She wanted to tell him to shut up,
shut up, just shut the hell up, but her throat could not let the words go.
"You ever think, maam, that things we do
sort of branch out like roots? And so this bad thing I done nine years ago been squeezing
on you like a weeping willowll squeeze a water main. All this time I been seeing you
talk on TV, talking hateful. I caused that. So I told the warden, before the State of
Texas kills me, I need to set things right."
Had she been able to articulate what she felt, her gut
should have vomited up a wordless howl. Her strong, steady voice surprised her. "Set
things right? Set things right? If you want to set things right, you son of a
bitch, you bring me back my daughter and grandkids. You know the last words I said to my
daughter? I told her that I hated her new drapes. She hung up on me. The very last thing I
told my grandkids was No. No, dont touch grandmas
things. No, you cant have ice cream. No, Im not taking
you to the mall. So you want to set things right, you bring my family back right
now." And then she, too, was shuddering, shuddering so hard that the table danced.
She wanted to escape the prisons dull beige walls. She wanted very badly to close
her eyes; but she couldnt.
"Oh, Ms Jessup. Oh, maam. You dont
have no idea how I wish I could do that. Preacher keeps telling me Jesus done forgive me,
but theys too much to forgivemy whole damned, messed up, no-account life. I
been watching you, like I said, on the TV. And, well . . . Here. I wanted to give you
She stiffened. Would he hand her some hand-tooled
leather wallet as a pathetic keepsake?
He leaned as close as his shackles would allow.
"I want you to listen to old Jimmy Lee, now. Will you do that, maam? I want you
to think hard on them nightmares I been having. When they kill me this Wednesday, I want
you to know how scared I am to die."
She drew a tissue from the box and gave it to him. In
a monotone, he thanked her.
He picked at the wadded tissue, shredding it into a
damp pile of white. His face worked until his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth, were smooth
again. "You think its going to rain?"
"Rain?" She wondered if he might be speaking
some sort of prison slang.
"I like them thunderstorms. Like the smell of it;
the way them clouds build up, all white and soft and big, like a pile of clean pillows or
something. I used to get me some outside time. Have us a yard here. Its small; could
only see me a part of the sky. But now the dates so close, they wont let me
out in the yard no more."
"The skys blue today. Not a cloud in
He stared at the shreds of tissue. "You come
"Maam, Im asking you to come. I
dont have nobody to see me off, so wouldnt be folks crying or nothing. But it
might ease you to see me strapped down. To see the life go out of me. I took so much away,
maam. I want to give back what I can."
She shot to her feet. The chair shrieked across the
tile. "Goddamn you! What sort of sick stunt are you trying to pull? How dare you ask
if my grandchildren are in heaven! Theres nothing afterwards. Nothing. Were
born; we die. So you cant give me anything at all, Jimmy Lee. How about that? When
they strap you down and pump those drugs into you, dont assume that youve done
something good in your life. You're a born loser and youll die a loser. Thats
all you ever were."
He nodded. Barry saw her coming and hurriedly stepped
out of her way. At the door she stopped to look back. She looked back again from the
corridor beyond. Each time she looked, she saw Jimmy Lee staring at the tabletop, nodding.
At two in the afternoon on Wednesday, a late norther blew in. The
sky turned slate gray, the wind blustered. At two forty-five, during Edgars
"Good Riddance" party, she refused a noise maker even though at three
oclock sharp everyone else blew theirs in celebration. At three-fifteen the guests
toasted her and Edgar both; they told them that they could get on with their lives. They
hugged her. They shook her hand. Unable to stand the press of the crowd, she took her Cuba
libreEdgars idea of the days perfect drinkinto the sunroom, where
she could smell the fresh breeze, where she could see the storm come in.
Edgar followed. "What the hells the matter
"Nothing." She turned from the damp gray and
budding green of the backyard toward the partys decorations: teal blue, Renees
favorite color; and cowboy blue and silver for the boys. She said, "Its not
"What do you expect?" he hissed. "I
mourned for nine goddamn years!"
Beyond the French doors, the crowd of guests had begun
to stare their way. She caught sight of Edgars new girlfriend. "Oh, no, no
Edgar. For heavens sake. Its time for you to move on."
"Were in this thing together, arent
we? Arent we?" He had turned crimson-faced. "Lately youve been
looking at me like Im some sort of monster. Well, Jimmy Lee Highwater was the
monster, Marge. He murdered three innocents, or did you forget that? What sob story did
that sociopath tell you, anyway? All about how his mommy sent him to bed without his
dinner? Huh? Did you feel sorry for him, for gods sake?" She wondered
which of Edgars guests would stop this. Pastor Dunwith had taken a half step forward
when Edgar screamed, "What the fuck did you do? Forgive him?"
No. Never. Not that. Yet she wished shed gone to
Ellis. Now she would never know if watching Jimmy Lees death would have given her
Edgar crowded her, his body blocking the door. With an
effort, she shouldered past him. To her back he called, "You tight-assed bitch! They
were my children!"
She pushed through the throng, their eyes on her every
move, gazes as unflinching as television cameras. Then she was out the front door and
alone in the spitting rain. No flash-bulbs, no microphones. No more reporters now that
Jimmy Lee Highwater was dead. Edgars manicured tiff grass was vacant without them,
as if someone had stolen an assembly of ubiquitous garden trolls, pink flamingos.
Yet at the curb, parked cars, always the parked cars,
visitors bringing pot roasts for the widower, activists bringing petitions, politicians
wanting a useful quote. For nine years she and Edgar had been so damned busy.
She was not dressed for the outing, but still she
drove to the lake. There, she strode the black asphalt jogging trail until her Neiman
Marcus pants suit hung heavy, until the padding in her Easy Spirit pumps was sodden.
Weighted down, her hair collapsed, an Aqua-Net-fragrant mop.
Wiping the damp from her cheeks, she saw that her
makeup had run. She ran, toopast sleepy spectator ducks and apathetic mud hens, past
small boats moored at the dock, sails neatly tucked. As fast as her arthritis allowed, she
jogged into the woods dim cathedral twilight.
Why hadnt she spoken up? The state had certainly
given her the chance. Now it was too late to ask if Renee had begged for her life. Too
late to ask which of the children he had shot first, or if the noise had woken his
brother. She would never know if Renees last sight had been that of the dead bodies
of her children.
Ahead, from a tangle of old growth oaks, crows
screamed bloody murder. The cacophony stopped her in her tracks. Shock set her heart
racing. Then a gust of wind; the boughs of the bur oak dipped. She wasnt dreaming as
she had (for a giddy, irrational moment) feared. Yet what she saw made no sense. Furious,
hysterical, the birds attacked a lump on a branch.
The crows spotted her. Startled, they fled, cawing:
black specters through the latticework of the trees. The lump turned its head one hundred
and eighty degrees and peered backward. Caught in the regard of those moon-yellow eyes,
daylight dimmed. The air went hushed. Fresh rain pattered on the remains of last
winters leaves. The owl was startlingly, unnaturally close. She could see the breeze
ruffle its mottled wings, its feathery horns. The round face was as familiar and homey as
an image in a childs coloring book. Its talons looked deadly.
It hootedthe same whimsical query shed
once taught Renee when she was a baby. The call that once, over nine years ago, shed
taught her grandchildren. Four times it asked: "Who-who? Who-who?"
Rain fell faster, the rhythm of the drops impatient,
like the drumming of fingernails. The wind turned chill. A gust lifted a lock of her hair
from her forehead and slapped her with it. She blinked. When she could see again, the
branch (of course) was bare.
In the gray day she walked to her car. Against the
Buicks door, she wept. From the shrouding mist on the other side of the park the owl
asked, "Who-who? Who-who?" It had always been, she realized, the only relevant
question. "Why?" could never be known. The true answer to "How?" would
have driven her insane.
Renee, she thought. Alan, Jason. Jimmy Lee.
All this time she imagined shed been watching;
yet shed failed to catch sight of where nine years had flown. At Edgars house
the party was over. It was over, whether they were ready for freedom or not.