Thursday, June 11, 2015

Just Marking Time

By William Van Poyck

Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  This story was submitted by his loving sister, Lisa, and we consider it a great honor to be able to share it with you.

The kneeling shoeshine man, well seasoned by Fate’s chastening hand, moved with practiced deliberation. His wrinkled black hands danced in tired cadence, his gnarled, distended knuckle joints resembling burnished pine knots. Back and forth went the soft cotton rag, the strophe and antistrophe of a life lived in the margins. No longer able to pop the rag authoritatively he concentrated intently, his mind wrapped around the task at hand-buffing the expensive wingtips of the Giorgio Armani-suited lawyer perched atop the elevated chair. He bent his head low, showing only his finely spun, bone-in-the-desert white hair, ignoring the people hurrying by. Finally he looked up.

“That’s it, boss. You’s looking good now.” A hand-rolled cigarette hung from his mouth, stoking his tobacco-cured bass voice. The shoeshine man smiled, showing bad teeth. His lean rawhide face folded into a sinewy tangle of rifts and valleys surrounding eyes the color of old butter. The black man stood up slowly, his knees popping like cracking walnuts.

The attorney inspected his shoes carefully, then nodded. He eased out of the black wrought iron chair and slipped the shoeshine man a five-dollar bill, then picked up his briefcase and walked away, his footsteps echoing across the marble-clad courthouse lobby. Smiling faintly the old man nodded at the retreating customer, gently touched the brim of his porkpie hat and slipped the bill into his pocket. A sudden coughing fit bent him over, a deep, dry hacking cough that threatened to rip his lungs from his frame. It was a bad cough, he knew, with a bad sound. And, it was getting worse, just as the doctors promised. They had been brutally honest and the old man held no illusions. Rather, he felt only an acute sense of freedom, as though a great weight were lifted, enabling him to see with a prismatic clarity that traveled well across time and space. When the coughing subsided he glanced at his cheap pocket watch. It was almost time. He lit another cigarette, then climbed up on his chair atop the old mahogany shoeshine stand and turned around the hand-lettered cardboard sign: out to lunch.

The shoeshine man sat patiently, smoking cigarettes and watching the crowds gradually thin. He was a patient man, having learned it, no, earned it, laboring under countless pressing suns, from Natchitoches, Louisiana, to Belle Glade, Florida, dragging cottonfield towsacks, cutting sugarcane, or picking oranges in the sweltering groves. But more than any single place, he came to harness, even conquer patience, in those small concrete boxes, those coffin-like chambers that still to this day, somewhere beneath the variegated layers of blistered paint, bore the testimonial scars of his carefully scribed hieroglyphics, gouged into stone like an ancient Mayan priest tracking the relentless marching arc of solstices and equinoxes. Patience, he had been told as a hobble-de-hoy, was the greatest virtue.

The old man fished in his pocket, removing a creased, tattered newspaper article. He unfolded the paper, smoothing it carefully before holding it up close to his face. He squinted with his one good eye.

Ex-Inmate Loses Lawsuit 
Tallahassee. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Florida, without comment, affirmed a lower appellate court decision dismissing the lawsuit brought by an ex-inmate against several state officials and agencies. Linford Richards, who spent almost three decades in prison, including six years on death row, for poisoning his seven children, had sued then Okeechobee County State Attorney Clarence Shipley, as well as the sheriff, two deputies and the county itself. Richards was eventually exonerated, pardoned and released by the governor after an investigation revealed that perjured testimony and fabricated evidence were used to convict him. Shipley, now 81, once a Grand Dragon of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, is reportedly retired and living in Jacksonville. Richards, now 72, enjoyed a brief career as a noted folk artist until crippled by arthritis, and is said to be suffering from lung cancer. His lawyer had no comment.

The shoeshine man, unable to read, inspected the worn article, the letters as inscrutable as a Zen Koan. His landlady had read it to him, read until she finally refused to read it anymore. Now he fingered the paper, staring, transfixed, as if given enough time the reluctant newsprint might be coaxed to yield up a satisfactory explanation. Closing his eyes he let his memory recede, slipping back with familiar fluidity to that comfortable refuge, that land he inhabited during those many years spent in coffins. His mind’s eye celebrated his stout little shack of a place, deep in the woods, hand built of weathered board-and-batten cypress siding, crowned by a rusting tin roof over wrought iron-hinged pine board shutters. Perched on the edge of a meandering creek, its banks a greening veil of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees, the house commanded a sandy slope shaded by tall oaks and poplars, their branches heavily draped with clots of Spanish moss. Past the beagle pens out back, beyond the pecan grove, in swampland dense with pickerelweed, custard apple and arrowhead, sat the old oak-framed tobacco curing barn. Outside, rampant wisteria vines purple against an overarching, impossibly blue sky, and the gumbo limbo trees publishing their aromatic white flowers (yes, that cloying flowery scent that haunts him still). Gray-headed wood storks with huge, tapering beaks, patrolling the bogs, the swamp echoing with the clacking of their bills (yes, on quiet nights he hears them still). Inside, dark, quiet, the dust motes drifting through slanted sunbeams that reflect off the old propane burners used to dry the tobacco. The dark, hushed place where his children played, and died.

The old man sat up with a start. A great silence filled the once bustling grand edifice, a triumph of marble, polished granite and beaux-arts architecture. The man patiently inspected each occasional passer-by as one awaits an old friend returning from a long journey, composed, tolerant, unwavering. Unlike the scurrying people he was in no hurry, for he had nowhere to go and no place to be. He was exactly where he needed to be, buoyed by a bracing sense of fate-driven connectedness.

The courthouse quiescence was interrupted by the faint, distant echo of hard leather heels clicking against cold marble. The tempo gradually waxed until a solitary figure came into view, a stooped, elderly white man walking with a briarwood cane firmly grasped in his one good hand. The man wore an old-fashioned white suit punctuated with a blue and white checked bow tie. Beneath the suit coat his right arm hung awkwardly, crooked as a crone’s finger, withered like a lightning-struck tree limb. He was a spare, grumpily abstemious man with a stygian, preserved-in-aspic look, his perpetually scowling face reflecting a leanness of soul and dryness of spirit. His pale blue eyes possessed a feral watchfulness, darting, roving, as though anticipating the awful possibility of some harsh and sudden appointment with destiny demanding restitution on accumulated debts. His searching eyes fell across the lobby, deserted save for the old Negro shoeshine boy perched upon his stand. He saw the shoeshine boy stir in his chair and their eyes locked for the briefest of moments. A vague sense of familiarity washed over him, an ephemeral recognition comprehended but dimly, and then it was gone. The elderly man with the watchful eyes shuffled by in his peculiar gait, leaning on his knobby cane, his ancient leather briefcase grasped in his good hand, slapping against the cane with each step.

He was almost to the brass-trimmed front doors when he halted. He heard something, a voice. Slowly he turned, surveying the empty lobby. No. There was nobody. Just the old shoeshine boy, facing him now, holding a wooden, stained shoeshine box. Yet something troubled him, a parlous touch, lightly tracing the edges of his memory. He looked again at the boy, taking his measure. The boy spoke.

“Clarence Shipley.” The gravelly voice rose up from a vast reservoir of bitterness, a philippic from a place beyond reconciliation.

“Who are you?” Shipley cocked his head, trying to decipher the spare, elegiac tale written across the ebony face. The boy, as stooped as Shipley himself, was smiling oddly. He reached into the shoeshine box and a vague sense of foreboding tugged at Shipley’s consciousness. “Who are you, boy?” Shipley repeated, his eyes sliding over the implacable black face. “Do I know you?” Shipley was surprised to hear his own voice quaver.

“You know me.” The tone was infrangible, the words boiling with wrath. “I am Linford Richards, and may God damn your soul to hell.”

Shipley saw the hand emerge from the shoeshine box, holding something bulky, menacing, dark. His mind registered the spoken words and as they reverberated within, a brilliant light reached out, piercing the veil, and his entire universe seemed to collapse into a singular point in time and space. In that fleeting instant, as his cane fell from his hand and clattered across the polished floor, a sense of utter grief engulfed him, the certain knowledge that in fact he would not die in a state of grace, crashing together with that blinding orange flash and driving him into a timeless space within the center of his consciousness. The blazing flash metamorphosed into the cleanest, brightest, purest white light imaginable, just long enough to register. Then, in less time than it takes for a tired old heart to beat, the beautiful white light winked out and Shipley fell through an outer darkness, into a deep, black void outside of time and space, without beginning or end.

William Van Poyck was executed by the State of Florida on June 12, 2013