The shank measured four and a half inches long, fashioned out of a small green Pringles can and clear packing tape. Bobby snapped on purple latex gloves from his shirt pocket above the Texas Depart of Corrections insignia and peeled the weapon off the cold cement floor. The air lingered with primal violence, Bobby could smell it, the unmistakable stench of men up to no good. It served as a subtle warning that life was not governed by rules, but rather by chaos, and that every action had consequences. The homemade knife, though lightweight, was sticky with blood, the cartoon mustache of the Pringles logo behind a thumbprint of browning red. The colors reminded Bobby that he had a dinner date with his wife Daisy-Lynn at Tableau Italiano, a date that he promised up and down he’d be there for, and dropping the shank into a plastic evidence baggie, realized he’d have to cancel yet again.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe man who had done the stabbing, Keith “Daddy” Bristol, was a death row inmate facing execution with a long white beard braided to his bellybutton. Convicted of multiple homicides, Daddy had been allowed two hours a day alongside general population for, of all things, good behavior. The victim, a hulking, heavily tattooed enforcer for the prison gang The Nordic Princes, took exception to the way Daddy spent his commissary and made a crack about the skinny Santa looking motherfucker. Fourteen stab wounds later and no one said a word.
IIIIIIIIIIII“My wife’s gon’ kill me,” Bobby said, handing the baggie to a secondary CO. The emptiness of the cold room with the inmates on lockdown jawing through the reinforced plexiglass windows on the steel doors felt more like they were in a museum display than a penitentiary in southern Texas. Inmates called it Ghostland, the home of those on death row, a living cemetery of wayward souls. The Warden, a former CO named Hector Garcia, watched with his good eye. The other wandered pale and ghostlike, the cornea separated after an inmate put a lunch tray across his face. According to Ghostland lore, Garcia emerged from the infirmary with the ability to see into people’s souls. Sweat glistened through the pits of his white button-up.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Protocol, amigo,” Garcia said, and radioed to the tower to get the paperwork started. “She’ll understand.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby sighed and wondered how to break the news to Daisy-Lynn. She’d been talking up their date for the past week, bragging to friends on the phone, and planning hair appointments to get her curly red tangles under control. Bobby noticed her manicured nails and commented on them, but his wife acted like she didn’t know what he was talking about. It was the game they played, Bobby noticing and Daisy-Lynn denying, like they were teenagers and not a married couple of four and a half years. Bobby suspected it was his wife’s way of keeping the spark alive, something to stave off the banality of day-to-day routines.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Warden, I’m gonna need my phone call,” Bobby said, and checked his watch.
IIIIIIIIIIIIGarcia laughed and put his hands behind his back like an inmate getting processed. “The true ball and chain,” he hollered, and doubled over. The prisoners shouted and banged on the doors at the sound of Garcia’s joy, their collected voices like an animal roar rising from the jungle.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby stepped into the yard after signing off on the stack of paperwork he intended to fill out. The incident report got longer every year. Instead of keeping it military style and providing an emotionless play-by-play, the state required them to theorize narratives as to why the incident might have happened in the first place. Bobby knew why. The Ghostland rookies knew. Anyone stuck inside of an unchanging life surrounded by people who only made bad decisions was an explosive recipe.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby called Daisy-Lynn from his cell phone and waved a two-fingered salute to the sniper guard in the high tower.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Are you kiddin’ me?” the woman answered. She knew what a call during work hours meant.
IIIIIIIIIIII“The yard’s catching heat, baby,” Bobby said. “A man’s going out on ice.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe cicadas burned so loud that the air was on fire with their song.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Stay at your sister’s tonight,” Daisy-Lynn said. “I need time to figure things.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I can bring you queso blanco from Chuy’s when I’m done, ain’t no trouble,” Bobby said. His wife disconnected as the radio on his shoulder called out an 11-99 due to a 953 in CB-2’s library. Bobby looked to the sniper in the tower who pointed toward the second floor of the library’s corner. They watched a tuft of smoke rise from a tilted window. Bobby shook his head and peered into the blue sky. Emergency lights flashed red and the fire team trotted through the yard in heavy rubber boots and dirty yellow jackets. Another incident. Another stack of paperwork. No one was getting out of this place anytime soon.
Bobby’s sister Donna had the futon set up in her home office by the time he arrived. The sky glowed orange and purple, the day’s heat shimmering against the smokestacks of distant oilrigs. Her adobe house had the feel of a place for family, even though Donna and her husband Chon weren’t planning on kids.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Beer in the fridge, leftover carne asada on the stove. You know the drill,” she said. When Donna met Chon–an electrical engineering professor at Texas Tech University–she left her pot dealing days behind for a desk job in the school’s admission and intake office to make sure she didn’t lose him. Their house shimmered with framed pictures of abstract art, embroidered hand towels in the bathroom, and shelves that bowed under the weight of too many books, a far cry from anarchy flags and pictures of rappers with facial tattoos.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s gettin’ dark,” Bobby said, sitting at the edge of the worn-out futon. He looked outside. Chon banged away at the keys of his laptop hunched over the circular table in the kitchen. Thin glasses hung off the end of his sharp nose.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Tell Bobby about your find,” Chon said, and yawned. Donna, leaning against the doorway of the home office, snapped to attention and smiled.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Pictures of us as kids,” she said, and got on her knees to pull a large blue box from beneath the futon. “You ain’t gon’ believe how bad we used to dress.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe sat next to her brother and pulled the photo box onto her lap. They opened the lid to a sea of glossy memories and pulled out stacks by the bunch.
IIIIIIIIIIII“My mohawk phase,” Bobby said, flipping a picture of himself at fifteen with spiky red hair. His sister chuckled and showed a picture of her own.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Baggy everything. Big jeans, big shirts. You’d hardly know a girl was under there,” she said. “Thank goodness I grew out of it.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“God gave you curves for a reason,” Chon said from the kitchen. Donna giggled.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby didn’t understand why the comment rubbed him the wrong way but it seemed that every time he stayed over, he liked Chon less and less. Always hiding behind his computer reducing the world into numbers and equations, the man seemed disconnected from reality. He openly scoffed at people with the potential for violence and one time told a professional boxer to have real dreams, grown up dreams bigger than owning his own gym. Bobby had to step in and buy the boxer shots and rounds just so his brother-in-law wouldn’t get his face smashed, and Chon was none the wiser. Chon constantly referred to Bobby’s favorite show about a drug-dealing teacher as a “fantasy” series, and only ever struck up conversations about how Ghostland was built.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Oh wow, it’s me and Mr. Davies,” Bobby said, staring into a smiling, poorly lit memory. The teen stood next to a well-dressed man with snow-white hair, both giving the thumbs up. It was this guidance counselor who had given Bobby invaluable perspective. Davies explained that the universe was governed by chaos and consequence, but how sooner or later paths emerged so clear, it was like chaos didn’t exist at all.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He told you that if you didn’t shape up, you’d end up in jail,” Donna said, leaning against Bobby’s shoulder. He imagined his sister recalling one of the thousands of memories of their unruly youth. They jacked cars for joyrides and pocketed smokes from the corner store, ripping through the entire pack behind the swing set at Moxley Park.
IIIIIIIIIIII“And it was you who told me to find a nice girl, otherwise I’d end up in jail,” Bobby said, and rested his head atop his sister’s.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Yet some fates are inescapable,” Chon said from the kitchen, and Bobby felt the urge to smash that idiot’s laptop across his snide face. He took a deep breath and leaned against the back wall so that only his neck stayed vertical. Donna put the pictures back in the box and slid the container underneath the futon.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Got some Cheerios and chocolate milk, too,” she whispered. “It’ll pass.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby wanted to ask his sister if she ever got into it with Chon, but he knew they must. All couples, at some point, butted heads over stupid things as a way to learn how to handle the bigger things. He was also aware that, for all of his quirks, Donna loved Chon, and he loved her. They were good for each other in the way that sweet and savory can be complimentary so as long as the texture was right. Inside their home, the texture was as smooth as a peanut butter cup cooled by the fridge.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter four and a half years of marriage, Bobby was still trying to figure out Daisy-Lynn. When they met at that barbecue, chaos turned to order and Bobby saw his future unfurl with crystal clarity. This was the woman that would make a man out of him, he knew it the second they started talking. He fell in love so hard that he bent over backwards to make her happy, which included cutting his long, heavy-metal hair, removing fast food from his diet to drop twenty pounds, and shaving daily to keep his face smooth for kisses. He loved the feel of Daisy’s lips on his cheek, though he never outwardly expressed it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDaisy-Lynn came from a two-parent middle class household. She’d gone to school in Austin and graduated with a degree in Music Ed, but never pursued the idea in a professional capacity. In truth, she longed to be a housewife, despite minoring in Women’s Studies. Bobby promised to give her the life she always wanted, which Daisy described as a life of travel, and food, and adventure. To afford a ring, Bobby took a job as a Corrections Officer in Ghostland. It paid more than most jobs and required the staff to work out, to stay physically fit, and Bobby saw no downsides to accepting the role until Daisy started complaining about being bored.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDonna clicked off the light and left her brother alone. The pungent sweat of the day grew thick in the small room as Bobby took off his work boots and unbuttoned his tan, short-sleeve work shirt. He stood to stretch and flipped on the slow ceiling fan.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s an engineering marvel,” Chon said from the kitchen. “That detention center is wasted on criminals.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby closed his eyes and thought about the pools of blood splashed across the cold cement floor, the sniper in the high tower, and the horrid smell of feces and un-brushed teeth that choked the air. He figured it was better that it happened behind those walls than inside of these.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Yeah,” Bobby said. “Once you’re in, you’re not going anywhere.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIDonna closed the door until a crack of light outlined the frame. Bobby focused on his breathing but couldn’t shake the feeling that in trying to make the right choice, he’d actually made the wrong one.
The early Texas sun made waves of the horizon. Bobby drove to the detention center feeling foggy-minded and stiff in the Chevy Trailblazer, his unshaven face itchy with sweat. He eyed the wide-open plains with swatches of grass and sand weaved together like a patchwork quilt. Tumbleweeds bent around cacti as the odd tree wilted under the wide-open blue sky.
IIIIIIIIIIIIGhostland loomed against the horizon rising in the distance the same way a gunslinger’s tombstone did. Bobby checked the rearview and knew he needed to rid the scruff. His shirt had wrinkled. Dark bags pushed against his eyes and his teeth needed brushing, the taste of Cheerios and chocolate milk thick on the back of his tongue. Chon and Donna were still asleep when he left, so he did the dishes and put the futon back to a seated position. He left the fan on.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe outside gate buzzed open as Bobby scanned his ID card. Inside, he removed his utility belt and walked through the metal detectors nodding at the guard.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Garcia’s looking for you, bub,” the guard said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“10-4,” Bobby said, and reattached his belt. The thick walls made echo chambers of the halls where a buzzer always seemed to be sounding, or the clink of a closing door, or the shouting of inmates. It was a soundtrack Bobby had grown accustomed to, had found strange comfort in. He walked the winding maze to Garcia’s office and rapped on the door. Garcia waved him in and told Bobby to have a seat.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Two things,” Garcia said, sitting on the corner of his desk, his black rubber soled shoes more tennis than dress. “First, you’re getting promoted. I want you to be the execution guard present for Daddy’s dismissal tomorrow night. The Governor wants this guy gone. Second, take the day and get cleaned up. I can’t have you on the floor looking like that. They’ll eat you alive.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Apologies, Warden,” Bobby said, twisting the wedding band around his ring finger.
IIIIIIIIIIII“No need. We’ve all been there,” Garcia said, and phoned the clerk to get paperwork sent to Bobby’s desk. The promotion’s benefits included a small pay raise and three extra vacation days. Garcia’s ghost eye scanned Bobby. “You good with watching someone die?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby stood up and looked into the mirror hanging next to the warden’s framed picture of his collegiate football team.
IIIIIIIIIIII“See it every day,” he said, and rubbed the stubble on his face.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Salud, amigo,” Garcia said, and dismissed Bobby. He walked back to the guard at the metal detector, through the chirping machine, and outside into the heat where his car’s interior felt impossibly hot. With the tinted windows down until the AC kicked in, Bobby felt like a skeleton imprisoned by flesh. The bones of who he was had been wrapped with the skin of heavy expectation.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBy the time he pulled into the driveway of his one-story ranch, a purple car parked on the curb, Daisy’s sedan beneath the garage’s overhang, Bobby felt like his life no longer belonged to him. He walked to the back porch and pushed open the kitchen door. The cool air from inside made his face feel swollen.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s me,” Bobby said, dropping his keys on the kitchen table. Daisy-Lynn charged out of the bedroom wrapped in a purple towel.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I didn’t say you could come home,” she said, her face as red as her hair. Tiny freckles clustered along the top of her shoulders.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Baby, please,” Bobby said. He cocked his head and sniffed the air. Something wasn’t right; the unmistakable scent of men up to no good. The purple car outside on the curb was gone.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You might pay the bills, but I rule the roost,” Daisy said, putting a hand on her hip.
IIIIIIIIIIII“My name’s the one on the mortgage,” Bobby said, and pushed open the door to their bedroom. The smell grew stronger, even though the bed was made. “I work this job so you can have the life you want.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I didn’t want this,” Daisy said, waving her hand at Bobby’s exhaustion. “You’re gone all the time and when you do come home, you’re a ghost. What am I supposed to do, babe? Twiddle my thumbs and daydream?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I was thinkin’ maybe you could get a job, what with that degree of yours,” Bobby said. He sat on the corner of the bed and eyed the unlocked window that faced the curb.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDaisy-Lynn threw up her hands. “All I ever wanted was for you to take care of me. I’m lucky if I get to have a conversation once a week with my own husband. It ain’t right.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“What ain’t right is a comin’ home to a woman actin’ like another man ain’t been trying to wrap around her in a house she don’t pay for.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Daisy said. She went inside the master bathroom and turned the shower on. Bobby walked in behind her and turned the shower off. They stood face to face in a room no bigger than a jail cell.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I deal with liars on the daily,” Bobby said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Good for you,” Daisy said. “Having people to interact with and all.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Baby, I know things ain’t been easy, and I’ve missed some important dates. I’ll hold my hand up there. I miss you, is all. I miss layin’ with you and talkin’ ‘bout life.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby ran his fingers over Daisy-Lynn’s freckled shoulder and hooked them inside of the purple towel. He pulled and the towel budged. Daisy bit her lip as she fought against a smile.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You’re a damn fool if you think it’s gon’ be that easy,” she whispered. “Clean yourself off and post up by the TV. I’ll make myself scarce. I ain’t done thinking about us, about things. Just don’t come in here no more unless I invite you in.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. He turned the water back on and waited.
IIIIIIIIIIII“And I’m supposed to be grateful?” he asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“If you don’t hear from me by tomorrow night, I’ll have moved on. But if I call you, I’ll be ready to talk.” Daisy let her towel drop to the floor. She wore a silk nightgown.
IIIIIIIIIIII“That new?” Bobby asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Daisy said, and closed the bathroom door behind her. Steam filled the room until Bobby could no longer see his own reflection.
Bobby sat with Daddy in his cell. He ate a final meal of medium-well steak, toast, green beans, and a can of Miller Lite. The man chowed down with reckless abandon savoring nothing, devouring everything. It made Bobby wonder if the finer things in life weren’t meant to be held onto, that they were supposed to be fleeting and momentary.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You’re probably wondering why I did it,” Daddy said, smacking his lips and swishing the near-empty can.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Among other things,” Bobby said. Garcia peered into the room, then vanished.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Same reason you stay with a good woman. You feel like the best version of yourself when you do. People don’t understand until it’s done and there’s blood on your hands.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Finish eating,” Bobby said. Daddy slurped the final swig of room temperature beer.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe day ticked by with grueling numbness. Human Rights activists paced along the front gate with signs and chants about the sanctity of human life, how the government had no right to impose such garish, primitive punishments. Bobby figured these were the same people who went home every night and got to watch television, surf the net, go to restaurants, and plan vacations. He wondered if any of them had ever had to break up a fight in the shower over a honey-bun, or heard the way hardened criminals cried at night in their cells so loud that suicide seemed like a reasonable option, or seen when an inmate was released–how they stood at the exit terrified of a lawful society and asked to stay a few more days.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDonna called to let Bobby know that she and Chon were heading to the Badlands for a weekend getaway, and if he needed to stay at their place he was more than welcome. Over the phone, her voice sounded official and strong. The wheezing smoker’s gruff had eased over the years into something smooth and confident. Bobby wondered if the world had been changing around him while he spent his days milling the halls of Ghostland. He wondered if it was too late to switch careers, to become re-immersed into a lawful society and make a decent wage doing something other than pulling baggies of heroin out of a clenched asshole.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby sat in the break room finishing a small can of Pringles. The table, even for Corrections Officers, was bolted to the floor. He pondered the idea of Daisy-Lynn cheating, of what that would mean for the last four and a half years, for the life he had tried to build for her. He slid a chip past his lips, the sandpaper texture cracking against his tongue and the roof of his mouth. The salty kick dissolved into mush, ground down by his teeth until he swallowed. Only a single chip remained.
IIIIIIIIIIIIGarcia swung open the heavy break room door.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s time,” he said. Bobby looked at his digital wristwatch. Thirty minutes to midnight. He nodded and crushed the Pringles can in his fist until the rim contorted into a jagged point. He ran his thumb over the sharp edges. Part of him considered pocketing the can, but he threw it into the trash near the door when he saw the consequences unfurl with crystal clarity. The point was, he told himself, that he could take action if need be. The idea brought something that resembled peace.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe execution room had a long plank like a massage table in the center of the room draped in both white linens and plastic sheets. Six brown, industrial leather belts hung lifeless from the sides. Two for the ankles, one for the midsection, two for the wrists, and one for the forehead. According to the operating medic, people tended to lash out in their final moments. The woman opened a small medical carrying case with a syringe, bottles of murky yellow liquid, and connected flimsy tubes to the rolling IV.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby brushed his fingers against the cell phone in his pocket. No calls aside from Donna, and the day was drawing to a close. He watched through the plexiglass window as a judge and surviving families of the victims entered the witness booth. Bobby wanted to tell them that they wouldn’t find the closure they needed, that watching someone die didn’t mean they could heal. It just meant that they would have to focus their cumulative anger elsewhere.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThrough the open door, a guard announced, “Dead man walking!” Bobby looked down the hall. Daddy smiled as he walked alongside the Warden. The inmates he passed applauded and whistled from their cells. Garcia shoved Daddy forward. Bobby’s hands clenched into knuckles.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe medic strapped Daddy to the table, two guards lying across the man to keep him from squirming. The families behind the glass dabbed their eyes with flimsy tissues.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby followed Daddy’s eyes to the phone on the wall, the phone with a direct line to the Governor’s office. The final strap held his head in place and the guards let up their pressure.
IIIIIIIIIIII“We’re gon’ wait, right? Wait for that phone to ring?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe man’s hands spread out. He struggled against the restraints, despite orders to stay still from Garcia. Bobby walked over and put his palm on Daddy’s chest beneath the long, braided beard.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’ll be over soon,” he whispered. Daddy looked up with large, quivering eyes.
IIIIIIIIIIII“That’s what I’m afraid of,” the man said. “I can change. I can be better.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby thought about Chon, and what it would mean to enroll in classes at a university. He thought about his sister Donna in her happy little adobe home.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDaddy’s voice pitched high as he begged. Bobby removed his hand and stepped away against the wall as the medic pushed a needle into Daddy’s bulging vein beneath the crook of his left elbow.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe families inside the witness booth rose to their feet and put their palms against the cool glass, closing their eyes as the clock stuck midnight. Garcia closed his good eye, his ghost eye locked on Daddy. Bobby stared at the phone as Daddy wailed, both waiting for a call they knew would never come, until the room fell into silence.