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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Out on the Tracks

By Michael Moore

I squinted into the light of the train as it came at me full speed. The ground vibrated under my eleven-year-old ass, and my heart sped up with anticipation. WHAH! WHAH! The street was about fifty feet away, and there was a loud "ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding" where the gates came down to keep cars from driving over the tracks. Even if there had been cars stopped, nobody would have seen me. It was pitch dark out and the part of the tracks I was sitting on disappeared into a patch of woods. After the train drove over me, it would cross Hoag Road and then a bridge that went over the Skagit River.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching it turn to fog. It lit up wonderfully by the light on the front of the train. I liked trains. WHAH! WHAH! I mean, it wasn't an obsession or anything. I didn't have a mini set running around my floor, or locomotive wallpaper. But still, I thought they were pretty cool. When I was a kid, I used to love it when one of my parents would get caught at an intersection waiting for one to pass. I would sit in the backseat and count the boxcars. Sometimes they seemed to go on forever. I wasn't a kid anymore though. I was eleven. Now, I couldn't even count that many years on my fingers, which was okay, because I had stopped using my fingers to count in the third grade.


On both sides of me, metal rails went on forever. The noise seemed to be coming out of them. From my bedroom, it always sounded meek: tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a. But up close, it was a humbling, thunderous roar. Steven Miller had said not to touch them, telling me they had some sort of electricity running through them. "It's okay to touch 'em when there's no train," he’d said. To demonstrate this point, he had leaned down and placed the palm of his meaty hand flat on the track. "But be careful when there's a train comin’, Danny. They'll zap the livin’ shit out of ya". That had been two days before. Frankly, I hadn't believed there was electricity running through the tracks. Why would there be? But my neighbor was a year and a half older than me and had more experience with this sort of thing. He said he had laid between the tracks before and let the train pass over him, said it was the best feeling he ever had. That, I did believe. I had heard of other kids doing it. Never seen one, even though we had lived in The Meadows as long as I could remember, and I had spent most of my days playing around the tracks. The closest anybody ever got when I was around was the bottom of the hill that they ran along. A dozen feet at least. I had been told that if you're not careful, being that close, the train would spit rocks at you. "Seen that too", Steven Miller had said, "Kid used to live right here in The Meadows. Lost his whole eye". The train was a big part of story telling in my neighborhood. Some kids claimed to have jumped on and rode it for miles. Others said they caused derailments by leaving loose spikes on the tracks. (All a long, long time ago, of course.)


Mostly, I just left pennies and came back later to find them flattened like pancakes. But I wanted a story, which was why I snuck out that night. Why my bedroom window stood open on the other side of the fence, as I sat in my plaid red pajamas on the damp wooden beams, staring into the light of an oncoming train. My body trembled as cold, humid air brushed against the exposed skin of my face. My only regret as it approached, was that I hadn't brought anybody to witness what I was about to do. But it was well past midnight and nobody would be out this late. Even I shouldn't have be, really. My dad would have welted my backside if he knew. The thunder radiating from the tracks grew louder and the earth began to shake more violently. The train was getting close. I needed to lay down. WHAH! WHAH! My heart beat like a snare drum, and there where pinpricks all over my body as I reclined and looked up into the foggy sky. There were no stars visible, but the moon peeked curiously around a thin grey cloud at me, my only witness. Every muscle in my body tensed. I clenched my jaw so tight that I thought I chipped a tooth in the back of my mouth.


WHAAAAAAH!!!!! I closed my eyes and held my breath, my hands balled into fists. This was it. Only then did it occur to me that this might really be IT. What if the stories were all balogna? What if I died? But how? The wheels were far enough apart that I could have fit three of me between them. And I had seen parked trains. They were high. I could have crawled on my hands and knees and they still would have been able to pass over me. But what if there were pieces that hung down? Chains? The thought of getting whacked in the gonads with a dangling metal chain didn't sit well with me. Nor the idea of anything dragging across my face. Suddenly, being under the train didn't seem like such a hot idea. And it was close. How close? The air around me grew somehow colder. I needed to move. I opened my eyes, ready to jump, to roll, to get off the tracks as fast as I could. But, instead, I froze up. Every hair on my body seemed to stiffen and reach for the sky. Until then, I had never seen death, or experienced the dirty tingling sensation of its reality as it stares down at you. I could die content if I never know that feeling again. I opened my eyes and looked into the caved-in face of a dark-haired boy, who appeared to be about my age. I could only see one eye. The other disappeared where half of his skull had collapsed. His jaw hung down so far, he could have fit both fists in his mouth. His head rested on one shoulder, as if it had somehow popped off of his neck bone. Blood decorated his white t-shirt in horrible streaks and splotches. With his one eye, he looked down into mine and blinked. I screamed. I sat up abruptly and my head hit his, causing it to fall from his shoulder and dangle from the skin of his neck. The train was right behind him. I didn't have time to get up and I knew it. I screamed again, and was somehow able to take note over the thunderous noise that I sounded like a girl. I didn't care though. Funny what does and doesn't matter when you know you're about to die. The boy grabbed me by my shoulders and shoved me back to the ground, pinning me against the wooden beams. My head collided with a sharp rock, and the pain that shot through my body told me that this wasn't a nightmare. WHAAAAAAH!!!!! Then the music of hell erupted around me as the train passed over. I closed my eyes as tight as I could, but tears somehow managed to seep through the slits. I'm sure the ground was shaking more violently then ever under my back, but I didn't notice. Fear filled every cell of my body, causing it to vibrate like a jackhammer. I reopened my eyes and he was still there. Somehow his head was back resting on his shoulder, and he was laying on top of me, holding me down. He wasn't strong, I was paralyzed. Something about his touch seemed to drain the life out of me. Though I didn't try, I knew I wouldn't have been able to turn my head and look away from his hideous face. The worst part though, was the way he stared at me, with his head tilted and that lonely eye trained on me like a hunter's scope. He was emotionless. Cold. His jaw, which I now saw was completely detached from his skull, hung from his cheeks, stretching them and resting on my lips. The train was a blur as it passed above him. Even though the light mounted on the front of the locomotive had long passed, and the night was darker underneath. Still, somehow, I saw every horrible detail. All that came out of my mouth was a shaky, "Nnnaaaggghhh!!!” I felt a warm spot spread over my crotch, it contrasted with the cold of the night, telling me that I had pissed myself. What could I do? There wasn't a doubt in my mind what the boy was. I closed my eyes again and thought about what came next. I would die like he had. He probably died the same way, laying under the train. He probably had a neighbor like Steven Miller, with some bologna story about laying on the tracks, who talked him into it. I didn't want to die. At that moment, that's all I really knew. I opened my eyes and looked into the one eye of the ghost. I begged him to read my mind.

Please, I thought. I don't wanna die. Protect me, please. He just continued to stare back at me. That moment seemed to go on forever, and as I looked up into his dead stare, I thought about everything that mattered to me. For the first time in my eleven years, I understood that life is a privilege, not a right. Somewhere in the wreckage of what was once the face of a young boy like me, the cold gaze began to make sense. It wasn't cold at all. It was just broken. For the longest second of my life, I felt what he felt. My fear didn't disappear, but it was gone nonetheless, changed into sorrow. It was bigger and more horrible than the tons of steel passing over me. Not because the boy was dead, but because he was lost and always would be. Then the cloudy sky appeared behind him, and the noise faded out. I looked up and saw the back of the train disappear over the bridge, then back at the dead boy. My tears had stopped flowing at some point, I was still shaking though. "Thanks". I didn't think about it, it just spilled out of me. He didn't answer, he just stood up and began to walk away. I saw then that his back was broken like his neck, and the top half leaned over to the side. He walked with a terrible limp. I think I expected him to disappear, but that's not what happened. He kept walking along the tracks until he was so far away that I couldn't see him anymore through the fog. Suddenly, I knew that he hadn't died laying under the train. He had been hit, walking on the tracks. I went home that night and crawled back in through my window without anybody ever knowing I was gone. I decided not to tell my story to Steven Miller, or any of the other neighborhood kids.


I'm now in my thirties, and telling this story for the first time. I never saw the boy again. However, every time I see some train tracks, I look for him, but I imagine he's far away by now. Still, I never forget to whisper a "thank you" in the direction that he was walking.

Michael Moore 888554
Washington State Reformatory Unit
B-230
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

Michael Moore is an incarcerated author who has worked in the Seattle area as a personal trainer for years. His spare time is spent searching the darkest corners of his mind for whatever oddities, fascinations or horrors might have found their way in, begging expression in his unique literary voice. Keep your eye out for his first book, Ninja Girl, set to be released this year.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hero of the Quotidan

Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  His sister Lisa, the keeper of his writings and his memory, shared this previously unpublished story with Minutes Before Six and it is our great honor to share it with you

By William Van Poyck

It was in the golden, grasshopper-drenched spring of my eighth year that I first purposed to become a police officer, when I watched the grim-faced deputies arrest and carry away Phillip Jurnigan, the hatchet-faced man who had murdered my best friend, Calvin. Later, in the waning days of that endless Florida summer, dangling my tadpole legs from the hard oak bench in a hushed rural courtroom, I raptly listened to the solemn oratory of the prosecutor’s opening statement, gripped my father’s hand tightly and quietly resolved to instead become an attorney. But it was seven days later, as I observed the precise, skillful and devastating cross-examination of the witnesses, and the steady, inexorable presentation of irrefutable forensic evidence by Horace Addison, the veteran white-haired attorney for the accused, that I first considered becoming a criminal defense attorney.

By the time the jury returned its verdict of not guilty, it seemed a mere technicality, and it was with profoundly mixed emotions that I watched Jurnigan, one arm draped across the shoulder of his lawyer, walk down the coquina stone steps a free man. Most everyone’s attention was drawn to the austere visage of Jurnigan, searching his implacable countenance for some sign, yet I could not tear my eyes from Horace Addison, solid as a cannonball, smiling broadly, stopping occasionally to shake a proffered hand, stepping with authority, exuding confidence. He had known from the beginning, I remember thinking, that he would win. He just knew. I longed for that type of certainty.

Even now, when I close my eyes I can vividly recall the heavy scent of orange blossoms hanging in the humid evening air, the familiar ratcheting burr of the cicadas homesteading in the towering Australian pines bracketing the courthouse, the dusty yellow, curly-tailed dog skulking around the edges of the crowd. And, when I squint hard I can clearly see the sweat-streaked face of Calvin’s father, pushing through the crowd, silently mouthing words. I see the big pistol rise up and over the heads of the bystanders, the shooting flames, the deafening roar, the cherry bomb smell of burnt cordite. And, finally, the tumbling body of Phillip Jurnigan, followed by that of Horace Addison, parting the screaming crowd like startled pigeons, coming to rest in a heap on the hot macadam street. Mostly I recall the thick, white, lion mane of Horace Addison, matted a cruel red, and his parted mouth, pearl-white teeth streaked crimson, silently opening and closing until it finally stopped moving at all. And, though I was just a little skipper at the time, barely big enough to pull the slack out of my drawers, my mind was fully formed on the subject from that point on.

That’s how it was in my eighth year, after my mother had disappeared but before the tuberculosis took my father, before the state took me and running away became more than just a metaphor. All I ever wanted to do was be a lawyer, the hero of the day, a daily hero, and save the innocents. It was my sole grounding dream. It was a good dream. And, even when later that same year fate’s indifferent razor gutted my life and ripped everything else away, it was my dream still.

To this day, in my mind’s eye, that trial performance by Horace Addison remains the finest demonstration of a criminal defense attorney’s skill and dedication that I have ever witnessed, and given another time or place it would have been the stuff of legend, grist for the Hollywood mill. But, it was a backward, hardscrabble, pine tree county, unafraid of death, populated by alligators and armadillos, and its import has long since faded away, leaving only the faintest tracings in the minds of those who toiled in life’s margins. Many years later, not long out of law school and not fully trusting my memory, I had the trial transcripts transcribed, poring over them to reassure myself that my inspiration was grounded in fact. My searching fingers traced across the flimsy onionskin as the scenes once again played themselves out. It was all there, just as I had recalled, even better, since I was able to better appreciate all of the subtle legal nuances.

As it was, Jurnigan had lived and Addison died. Calvin’s father ended up at the state penitentiary in Raiford, chipping away at a forty-year sentence. The next year they caught the man who had sodomized and murdered Calvin, after he killed two other boys in a more or less identical fashion. Following his confession he was tried, convicted and sent up to Raiford, where in due time, he was executed. Some years later, so I heard, Calvin’s father braided a rope from his blue denim work pants, slung it over a beam in the prison chapel, and hung himself. But, that’s another story.
You’ve folded back your memory like a soft, familiar blanket and it lies at your feet, a faithful, curly-tailed, dusty yellow dog, ignorant of the sins of its master. You lean into the long wind, searching, searching, your eyes scanning with a fierce vigilance that energizes the spirit. Where you once dared to believe that life was good, you now search intently, far beyond the temporal sky where Orion commands the Southern Firmament, forever locked in battle with his eternal enemy, Taurus. You listen intently for the terrible song, even as your soul recoils at the prospect of a life’s balance spent accommodating an impulsive moment in time, of a Mephistophelian bargain you never knew you struck.

There it is, a corrupt blight on the cerulean horizon. Your spirit contracts as it approaches, this inky cloud, swinging, turning, flying toward you like some youthful fantasy, sweeping and rolling across the swaying expanse of emerald sawgrass, toward you, raining down the detritus of a life shattered on the rocks of unrealized potential. The voracious dystopian shadow passes through its valley, howling its dreadful song, searching relentlessly, for you, approaching inexorably, suffocating in its awful certitude, and you turn your face against it. Your search for life’s unrehearsed moments has ended and you reflect in the final moments on what you might have done differently, for grace always seemed to be just one revelation away. You struggle, resist, but your feet appear locked in destiny’s embrace, and now the shadow has your scent, that of total despair, so you just lean into the long wind, feeling for the comfort of the blanket at your feet, until you realize it is no longer there. The shadow embraces you, silencing all light, and you finally accept the way it is.

She lived on a mountain framed-plateau, close enough to the Pacific to feel the kiss of its breezes, yet far enough removed to partake of the unique temperate microclimate. The capacious adobe house was typically Mexican with its high, wooden-beamed ceilings and cool Spanish tile floors. A high, white wall surrounded the house like a modest skirt, punctuated by cactus, banana trees and splashes of colorful bougainvillea. In the center of the interior courtyard a cool, blue-tiled fountain gurgled amid the scent of lemon trees hugging the air. Outside of the walls jasmine, sandalwood and blooming jacarandas vied with heavily scented frangipani trees and orange hibiscus for the attention of fat black and yellow bumblebees. The house stood as though posed by an artist, the distant sparkling ocean waves glittering like a million shards of glass, set on a timeless, mysterious landscape teetering between arid and tropical. A sprawling house, a little old, a little tired, but as it should be. At least that is how I remember it.

Some twenty miles to the east, across a wide, spectacular valley inhabited by chattering monkeys and gangs of colorful parrots, loomed the cloud-shrouded hulk of Kukulcan, a not-so-dormant volcano both feared and worshiped by local Indians. Or so I had heard.

I remained hidden in the jungle at the clearing’s edge until day turned to night and the cool mountain air drifted down to chill my sweat-stained shirt. Then, I crossed the back field, scaled the outer wall, slipped through a colonnaded archway and noiselessly entered the darkened courtyard. I carried no weapon.

Directly ahead was a set of large French doors, framed in dark wood, open to the gentle breeze rustling the palm fronds. Through the doors I saw a motionless figure on a couch facing me, wearing dark wraparound sunglasses. Straining with concentration I took in every feature offered through the shadows. It was her. The neatly coiffed hair was even blonder than I remembered it, not a strand out of place. My breath caught and my heart began pounding. Pushing myself deeper into the vegetation I struggled to regain my composure and steel myself for my purpose. The begging question again raised its head: What in the hell am I doing here? Self analysis was my foe, though exactly why, I could not say. So I leaned on the question with both hands, as a man leans on a chest during CPR, pushing it back into its box before it could fully form. And when, in turn, I questioned that response, I leaned on that, and so on, like a never-ending hall of mirrors, until what remained was pure base instinct. Just as rapid word association strips away the facade of pretense and convention leaving only the true essence of personality to reveal itself, so my actions were the distilled essence of who I was. This is who I am. This is what I am. I yam what I yam!

The tired looking woman on the couch stared ahead, a sphinx in Ray-Bans. I clenched my teeth, reminding myself why I was there, then stepped through the open doorway into a large room, facing her squarely. She made no movement, neither surprise nor recognition, and for a fleeting moment I feared that I was too late, that she was already dead. The shiny glasses made me think of a mounted insect, and then I recalled that she suffered from macular degeneration. Perhaps she was blind by now.

“Shostakovich,” she finally said, as if resuming a conversation only briefly interrupted. The voice I remembered as smooth, like polished gemstones, was now unnaturally husky. My heart began racing again and I considered whether she was speaking one of the countless foreign languages she had mastered. My attention was drawn to several large, colorful abstract paintings mounted over the long couch. I recognized her distinctive painting style.

“Dmitri Shostakovich,” she continued, waving her hand towards the sound system from which the strains of a string quartet wafted. “The composer. He was a true prodigy. So gifted. If you listen closely you will hear how he makes use of the musical equivalent of a monogram: D, E-flat, C, B. It is so beautiful.” She spoke without moving her head and it was impossible to see her eyes. “But, he was shattered by Stalin’s secret police. Silly politics.”

Even in my anger some part of me admired her coolness. Coming from someone else, her comments might have sounded pretentious, but the fact is, she was the most cultured and knowledgeable person I have ever personally known. She spoke with authority on any conceivable subject, from science, mathematics, geometry or history, to literature, art and music. Color, music, numbers and geometry, she often lectured me, were the fundamental language of the cosmos, transcending our limited three-dimensional plane. As a younger man I was often forced to surreptitiously consult dictionary or encyclopedia following a conversation. But, she never spoke in a showy, didactic manner; rather, she simply expected others to be on a par with her. In truth, she was a soul caught between the depth and complexity of her own thinking and the intellectual inadequacy of her audience.

“Nine years,” I finally croaked. Despite the countless rehearsals of this very scene, that was all I could come up with. I felt vaguely foolish. She had a way of doing that to everyone. It was her art.

“So, did you come to kill me, darling?” Her voice sounded like dry cellophane.

“That’s all you can say after nine years?” I struggled to regain my lost script.

“Is that all you can say?”

“You destroyed me. You took away my dream, ruined my life, everything I worked for.”

“Everything we worked for.”

“You betrayed me.” I willed the rage to come forward, to well up and overcome reason. It was always so easy when I practiced, and I wondered why it was now so hard to hate. It should be easier, considering.

“Yes, I did.”

There it was. The admission momentarily stymied me. I expected excuses, evasions, justifications, cajoling, even begging. An oppressive silence filled the room. A macaw’s distant screech gnawed at my consciousness, followed quickly by the unmistakable guttural roar of a hunting jaguar.

“I tried to help. I left you a quarter of a million in cash, darling. Remember? You turned it over to the police. How foolish.”

“It was stolen money! If I had used that money it would have been a tacit admission of complicity.”

“So, then, you did consider keeping it?”

“No,” I protested, wondering why I was on the defensive. “I am not a thief. I did not invest all those years at law school just to throw it all away over stolen money. It was stolen. It’s a matter of principle.” I heard my voice trailing away.

“Always thinking like a lawyer, darling.” Despite the dark glasses I imagined I could see those piercing green eyes, the ones she used to probe my soul like a surgeon’s lance.

“And, after they forfeited your house, your cars, your boat and your bank account, I hired the finest criminal defense team in the nation. I paid them anonymously, in advance, cash. And you refused to accept them. You ended up with a federal public defender. A martyr complex did not become you.”

“You just don’t get it, do you? I am not a thief. Your stolen money did not interest me. You think that if you steal millions of dollars, it makes it special? Like it isn’t theft? You bankrupted companies in six states. You left hundreds of people penniless, robbed of their life savings, their dreams, their…”

“How melodramatic. You sound like that prosecutor in his closing argument at your trial. The sermonizing does not become you, either.”

In the sudden silence I heard her labored, wheezing breath, as if tutoring me was hard work. The faint, mellifluous ballet of the string quartet made me feel as though I were playing a part in a movie, with Shostakovich trying to reveal God through the notes of a violin.

“I’m not here to reason with you,” I said, drawing myself up and locking eyes.

“So, why are you here? To kill me, or for the money? Or both?” The cellophane voice crackled and she cocked her head in that way she had of drawing you into her presence.

“The hell with that money.” I spat the words out like red-hot rivets. “This is not about money. Do you have any idea what nine years in prison is like? Nine years! Can you even fathom a life totally reduced to the mere hope of survival? Do you know what happens to lawyers in prison? Nine years for something I did not do? Nine long years of scornful laughter at my claims of innocence? Betrayed by someone I loved and trusted with my life? Can you even conceive of it?”

My rage left me breathless. I once was very good at thinking and speaking on my feet; I earned my living doing it. But now I fumbled for just the right words, the ones that would reveal the scars on my soul. I felt out of place, as if in a dream. I once read a book where a character felt just as I did at that moment, though I could not recall how the book ended.

“Have you considered that I found you, picked you up out of a Key West gutter, a lost, frightened, little runaway boy? I took you in, molded and shaped you. You owe me everything that you are and all that you will become. Have you considered it?” She spoke dispassionately, belying the emotions of her words, as if once again instructing me. Then she stood up, visibly trembling, the hem of her gown shaking.

To my left I saw a blur of movement. A short, thick-limbed Indian had quietly entered the room as if bidden by some telepathic command. I recognized Squanto, her ageless, faithful Mayan servant of many years, first in Guatemala, later in the Caribbean and now apparently here. He silently accepted his inapposite nickname, loyal to a fault. His face was impassive but his liquid obsidian eyes were questioning. She turned to address Squanto and I saw the deep, wrinkled wattles garnishing her neck like folded parchment. When had she gotten so old? She instructed Squanto to return to his room and remain there. Having finally learned Spanish in prison, I understood most of what she said.

“I was an attorney,” I said vehemently when we were again alone. “An officer of the court. I took my responsibilities seriously. It meant something to me.”

“How noblesse oblige.”

“I was committed to working within the system,” I continued, wondering why my words suddenly sounded foolish to me, “and stolen money, or the fruits thereof, is not part of the system. It isn’t just all about money. It can’t be.”

“No? Why do you think it is called a system?”

“I thought you knew me better than that.”

“So did I.”

“I had dreams,” I countered. “Goals. A vision for my life. You took it all away. In one moment my entire future disappeared.” My voice cracked as my emotions escaped my grasp. “I signed all of those papers trusting you. I never knew. I never knew! I trusted you, dammit, and you betrayed me.”

“True betrayal can only occur in the presence of true love.”

“Love?” I sputtered. “It was you, not love, that betrayed me.”

“Your principles betrayed you,” she shrugged.

I stared at her, the hatred coming easily now, pushing away the mountain of exquisite shared memories, those beautiful times we shared an achingly special magic. The poet claims there exists a thin line between love and hate. Mine was flint hard. A sudden, uncontrollable surge of pure, raging hatred rose up like bile until a crimson mist curtained my tunnel vision. A thick, numbing detachment overcame me as I felt myself moving towards her, aware but powerless to stop, tightly gripped in the emotion of Cain. In my dreams, my fantasies, I invariably used my hands.

“I always believed your spirit would overcome even your deepest sorrows,” she said with infinite sadness, her warm breath caressing my face.

Those were her last words, though I did not recall them until later. She stood stoically, seemingly resigned, even as my hands wrapped around her neck, as if offering herself up in a sacrament of penance. With power that startled even me, I throttled her violently, squeezing ever tighter until her glasses flew off as an involuntary gurgle escaped in protest. She never resisted, yet still I squeezed, transmitting my fury like an electrical current, watching her bulging green eyes search for absolution. Finally, her body went slack while her eyes glazed over and rolled back, looking like small, white boiled potatoes. Even then my fingers closed their grip, digging ever deeper into the flesh, until, drained and exhausted, my burning forearms rebelled and her limp body fell to the sofa.

I stood mute, willing my heart to stop pounding, fighting to catch my breath. It was done. Now I had to think clearly. With extreme deliberateness I took long, deep breaths, forcing down the panic. Slowly, methodically, I inventoried my options. It was strange how, in my fantasies, I never thought past this moment, and now I possessed no real plan.

Picking up the sunglasses I placed them back on her face. Pinching her jaw until her mouth opened I stuffed her tongue back inside, wiping the saliva off on her gown. I arranged her body on the couch, laying her out and folding her hands neatly across her belly. For the first time I noticed that she wore a wig. Pulling it back I saw that she was bald. Staring down at the woman I had once loved beyond reason, I strove to decipher my feelings. I was a killer now and there was no turning back. There was also a witness. I knew what I had to do.

A distant troop of howler monkeys exploded in a riot of cacophonous alarm calls; something was hunting in the jungle.

Moving quietly through the darkened house I found the kitchen, then rummaged through the drawers until I found a large, cruel-bladed boning knife which I slid behind my belt, feeling the cold steel against the small of my back. For good measure, a six-inch steak knife went down my sock. I learned a lot about knives in prison, more than a man should have to know.

Passing back through the big room I carefully edged down a hallway, listening at each door. “Squanto,” I whispered hoarsely. “Squanto!”

The house appeared even larger inside than out, and I was soon lost in the labyrinth of rooms, stairs, alcoves and hallways. Suddenly Squanto materialized before me like a silent wraith, his dark, shiny eyes boring into mine. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as my gut tightened. Squanto remained motionless, enigmatic, and I suddenly remembered that it was I who had been calling him.

“She’s dead,” I offered suddenly, without thinking. Then I unnecessarily repeated myself in Spanish. There was no discernible reaction, only his black eyes glittering with question. Finally, he nodded deliberately. “Yes,” he responded, as if assuring himself of something he already knew. “She knew it would happen soon. She was expecting you. We hoped you would arrive sooner.”

I stood rooted in bafflement, as unsure of his meaning as of my next move. Cold, greasy sweat slid down my back along the knife’s edge. Turning slightly, I began easing my hand towards the knife handle.

“She wanted to speak with you before she died. That is all she spoke of,” I tried to ignore his words, concentrating on his shirt button where I would thrust the blade. My fingers touched the wooden handle. “But the cancer was bad. Muy malo.”

Cancer? Frozen with indecision, my body swayed, suddenly lightheaded from a rushing kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions. “Cancer?” My voice stuttered, cracked.

“The many trips to the towns and villages weakened her greatly. But she loved the children, and seeing their faces kept her alive.” Squanto made the sign of the cross against his chest.

“How long? How long did she have cancer?” My mouth felt numb, my voice sounded strangely distant.

“Two years now,” he replied sadly. “The doctors did all they could, but there was no hope.” Squanto paused, hesitated. “We will call for the doctor in the morning.”

The doctor. My mind raced with the implications. I had to stall.

“What did you mean about her going to the towns and villages?” My empty hand dropped to my side.

“Come.” Squanto beckoned, then slipped past me. I followed silently as he led me up a wide stone staircase into a high ceilinged library with walls of built-in bookcases, where he pointed to a massive, ornately carved desk crafted of dark Honduran mahogany. Neat stacks of books were arranged on the top. “It is all in the green book.”

I slowly sank into an old leather chair, feeling the knife dig into my back. Eyeing the books, I noted some titles, recognizing Pater, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Swinburne and other Romantic poets. A large, well worn Bible lay to my right. Next to it lay The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosacrucian Symbolical Philosophy by Manly P. Hall. Alone in the center of the desk was a large, green leather bound ledger. When I opened it, the faintest essence of her perfume floated up like a faded promise.

Squanto was right, it was all in the book. Dating back over two years, page after page, column after column of figures and explanatory notes in her beautiful, florid script, showing how she had given away money. The amounts were staggering. To hospitals, schools, orphanages, every type of charity and philanthropic organization imaginable. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, American Cancer Society, on and on, millions and millions of dollars. Suddenly I felt very small.

“Every morning she picked a new village. Then, I would drive her there and watch her pass out American dollars to the poor. They loved her, especially the children. But it was very hard on her, very hard.”

“But, surely, with this kind of money…” I shook my head in disbelief. “With modern technology, medicine. . . .” My voice trailed off. “I just cannot believe that this cancer could not be treated, stopped.”

“Yes, at first she tried. The doctors were hopeful. But…” Squanto looked away. “After that, she saw doctors only for the pain. She was ready to die.” He hesitated, then added softly, “I think she was punishing herself. This was her way of…” He did not finish.

Squanto pointed, indicating a metal strongbox. Reaching up, I pulled it to me, noting its heft. Inside were a dozen thick bundles of American hundred dollar bills secured with rubber bands. Turning to face Squanto, I caught myself in mid-sentence. Over his shoulder I saw a large oil painting. It took me a long moment to recognize myself against a sparkling tropical sea, the sun high in an impossibly blue sky, smiling back from the canvas. My arm was around her waist. A floppy straw hat perched playfully on her head, failing to hide those green, green eyes, while she smiled at the huge amberjack hanging at her side. With vivid clarity I recalled the scene, at her languid, low-slung island home on Long Boat Cay, Bahamas, where we often retreated for fishing trips. The date on the painting was this year and the oils seemed barely dry.

“She loved you very much,” he said quietly, following my gaze. “She spoke every day of the time when you would return.”

Not for the first time I wondered just how much Squanto really knew.

“Her fear was that she might die before she could give it all away. The fear, I think, kept her alive. She said if she died you would know what to do.”

Turning back to the ledger book I calculated that she had eight different bank accounts, six mutual funds and three stock brokerage accounts in five countries under nine names. She had already given away over a hundred million dollars, as best as I could determine, and with almost two hundred million dollars left it was clear that she had invested well. Apparently she conducted all transactions by mail.

I don’t know how long I sat there, lost in thought, until the plan formed in my mind. It seemed fitting, on balance. Having already been charged, convicted and punished for stealing this money, it seemed only right that I could now dispose of it. At her insistence I once took calligraphy classes, part of her notion of what constituted a cultured individual. I became quite skillful with the pens. Picking up her silver Mont Blanc I began practicing, and within twenty minutes I mastered the different signatures.

Straightening up, I took a deep breath. “Squanto,” I said, pulling the knife from behind my back and laying it on the desk, “I have a plan.” He eyed the knife warily, grunting noncommittally. “We have a lot of work to do,” I continued, pulling the steak knife out of my sock and laying it down. “We are going to give it all away.”

For the first time the old Indian smiled, and I began writing the checks, backdating each one by several days, consulting with him occasionally. By the time I was done the sun was rising above the eastern mountains and dust motes danced in the golden beams of light. I was very tired.

“Where will you go now, Squanto?” I asked, closing the green book.

“Home to my village.”

“Guatemala?” I recalled that Squanto came from an ancient Maya village deep in the interior, a mysterious region called el despoblado, “the uninhabited land.”

“Yes. My village is called San Miguel. The true name, though, is Ixtamacojo. I have nobody else and no place else. I have served the senora many years. Now I am old and I will go home.”

“You should go now. There may be trouble later. I will take care of things here.”

“She must be buried.”

“I will do it. But you must leave now.” I handed the strong box to Squanto. “There is enough money in there to buy everyone in San Miguel a new house.”

“We are very poor. We need a hospital. Roads. Good water. And a school for the children.”

“Yes,” I agreed, handing him the largest check I ever wrote. “This is for you. From now on they can call you the mayor of San Miguel.” I smiled faintly.

“Yes,” he said as I stood up. “Yes, I would like that.” He returned my smile.

“We have done the right thing,” I said finally, searching his face.

“Yes.”

“There is nothing else we could have done.”

“That is true,” he replied, not unreasonably. Then, taking my hand, he shook it firmly, said something in a language I did not know, and turned, leaving the room. Ten minutes later I heard the Jeep grinding its way down the rutted road.

Picking up the boning knife, I made my way downstairs until I stood before her lifeless body. In law school they teach you that even if the reasoning behind a judge’s legal decision is erroneous, the ruling can nevertheless be upheld on appeal if the ultimate outcome is correct. In the end, it is the result that counts.

I brought the knife blade up against my neck, feeling the sharp, cold steel caress that spot where my carotid artery pulsed. I reflected on the body lying before me, soon to be interred in the black volcanic soil outside, as dead as my childhood dreams of being the hero of the day. Had I ever truly known this woman at all? In the end she was an enigma, as perhaps was I. Perhaps in the end we all become what we resist. With that thought, and befriended by that peculiar euphoria which accompanies a supremely decisive act, I stretched out beside my mother in the dawn’s early light.

You choose to lie down, your heart burdened from the gravity of a lifetime weighed in the balance and found wanting, a life lived in places where others cannot go, less than the sum of its parts. You cast your eyes upon a landscape littered with the soft fruit of the mistakes you have earned. You reach back, far back, to a time when your life was stitched to the rising and falling fabric of a small boy’s world, of golden grasshoppers and dusty yellow dogs, of desperately wanting to be the daily hero, but try as you might, your reach exceeds your grasp. You wonder how and why it all went so wrong, and whether you at least get points for effort.

It occurs to you to pray, but the fear that you might receive justice rather than mercy stops your throat. So, weary from your struggle against a tide of regrets, knowing not what else to do, you lean into the long wind, searching, listening for its mocking song, until you finally sense the approach of that familiar dark shadow, its thundering hooves in tune with the beating of your own heart, its melancholy song echoing back to a time long ago. Squinting your eyes shut, you hunker down, struggling, resisting, according to your nature, until, finally, with a wretched gasp you hold up your frail human fallibility like Orion’s shield and choke out a prayer. And, in that singular moment out of time you again feel your father’s hand tightly gripping yours, and finally, in that moment, the shadow ceases to sing.

Bill Van Poyck and beautiful Lisa

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Well, that was certainly… interesting.

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

A man upstairs is screaming. I can’t quite parse the full content of his tirade; the acoustics in this place are a little weird and, in any case, he’s hardly paused for a breath in more than an hour. I honestly have no idea how he’s still upright at this point. Someone snitched him off, that much I can gather. Something about stolen “squares”. If I understand him correctly, the culprits name is Taterhead. As far as I’m concerned, if you are dumb enough to engage in an exchange for contraband narcotics inside a maximum-security prison with someone nicknamed after an anthropomorphic vegetable, you deserve to wind up in seg. Every few minutes, Brillo, the resident recidivist jackass living in the cell to my right, lobs some… ah… “encouraging” words in this man’s direction: “Man, Taterhead is going to beat your brains in, punk,” for example. He almost sounds bored when he does this, as if he were in the middle of trimming his toenails. Two toes later: “You five-pointed-star hoes sure talk pretty,” which not only got a response from upstairs, but also managed to incense all of the other Bloods on the wing. Somewhat to Brillo’s annoyance, the rest of us in the Byrd Unit’s maximum-security observation cells have failed to comprehend or properly appreciate the brilliance and subtlety of his “psychological science” games. We have, however, independently and collectively determined that he might have the most appropriate in the long history of prison nicknames.

Everyone in this hall has recently been written up for a major disciplinary infraction. I am the only exception. I have no idea what Brillo did, but I’m sure his mouth had a great deal to do with it. The gentletwit to my left is here for staff assault; I know this because he’s told everyone numerous times about how he “stuck that pig”, even though we all know he really just hit the cop with one of the pitchers in the chow hall – and then proceeded to get his ass beat all the way across said chow hall. At least a dozen guys are here for K2-related misbehavior. Several allegedly attempted to “initiate an inappropriate relationship” with female staff members. Aside from Captain Staff Assault, and maybe the screamer upstairs, everyone is innocent, naturally. There is currently much discourse about “the Man” and his propensity for injustice, peppered with the usual inchoate threats about what the aggrieved intend to do once they get an opportunity. 

Me, I’m smiling. It’s 8:00pm on 24 February, and a little over fifty hours ago the State of Texas was attempting to murder me. It’s amazing what a little sprinkling of perspective can add to what might otherwise be considered a very bad situation. This smile, though: it’s a little strange. I’ve been monitoring it warily for the past two days; the way it creeps up on me, the way it seems to be completely disconnected from any visible emotional content. I don’t really know where this narrative is heading, unlike in most of my entries for this site, I don’t really have a plan for this, I just want to be as genuine as I can be about what I’m feeling right now; free from any overarching structure or goals. I suspect at some point over this entry, or the next, I’m going to talk about how I endured the execution process these last few months, and how I remained true to both my principles and ideals, as well as maintaining my calm. I am proud of this, make no mistake, I worked hard to stay Zen or, as my friend Rod put it, to not deviate from my inner Spock. But I also want to complicate this image by admitting that I’m aware I did real psychic damage to myself over the past decade, learning to live comfortably so close to the void, without the protective shielding offered by irrational hopes or delusional theological beliefs. People like me are not supposed to live in foxholes, and yet we do; I did. Whatever compliments I may end up giving myself over this, understand that I’m aware of the costs I’ve paid and will continue to pay, and that I have some real work in store getting myself back to the point where I can connect with wonder and joy again. Because I haven’t felt relief yet, I haven’t felt happiness. When I received word at 5:32pm that I wasn’t about to be pumped full of fraudulently obtained and possibly expired barbiturates, I immediately snapped to the next set of goals. That’s how I’ve been living for so long, it was all I could think to do. I only smiled because a room full of TDCJ super bigwigs was staring at me as if they expected something of the sort. One of the Death House guards asked me why I wasn’t doing cartwheels, and all I could do was stare at him – this thug, this brute, who minutes before had been preparing to tie me down and kill me, as he had so many of my friends – and think: Who the fuck told you we were on talking terms now? I didn’t say the words but, apparently, I didn’t need to because he didn’t say anything to me again.

Clearly, this is not good.  If I were less self-analytical or honest, I’d allow myself to believe that I’m just in shock, and that I will come out of this gloom shortly.  The problem is, I built the gloom, step-by-step, intentionally and deliberately.  Of all of the goals I set for myself during my time on death row, none were more central or important than that I live rationally, to the best of my abilities; that I not delude myself about what was happening to me, or where I found myself; that I not become a hypocrite and bow to the easy comfort of something like Pascal’s Wager; and that I learn to stare down my fate and the full extent of the State’s power that was arrayed against me and not blink.  It took a while – years, in fact – but I figured out how to get there.  So, I’m very aware that I’m not just numb right now.  I’m something else.  I stripped away my fear and watched calmly as other parts of my humanity were carried off with it.  I wasn’t pleased to learn that when you lop off the troughs of the emotional sine wave, you forfeit the crests too, but what was I to do?  I had my goals, and the State had its.  It was war.  Things die in war.

Nihilism isn’t inevitable once you acknowledge the disenchantment of the world.  There are other options.  But I seem to be wired for it, or to at least to flirt with nihilism’s borders, beyond any utility it might have presented to me during my sojourn into the land of the near-dead.  Existentialism was the little castle I built on the banks of the nihil, and then I pretended to lose myself in projects.  It was enough, then.  I suspect it no longer is.  Now that I am once again mortal in the same untruncated sense as most everyone reading this, I want more: more feeling, more joy, more love, things I deprived myself of out of necessity, or out of a sense of justice. I seem to want more contact with the Numinous, even though I suspect I will need to clarify what exactly I mean by that, least my theistic friends be given false hopes.  Just in case I managed to survive the Row, over the years I’ve searched for a sort of middle path between the Abrahamic God of my childhood and the quasi-nihilism of these later years, a position that didn’t require me to sacrifice reason or intellect while also not foreclosing on the ability to reach the beauty that is inherent in the world.  Occasionally I have found traces of such a third solution: in the way Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch develops a sort of spiritual grandeur even as she leaves the habits of naïve Christian piety behind; she is shown to be neither a romantic nor nihilist, yet she finds a way to both leave the enchanted world of her past while still maintaining a connection to an order of values that are impervious to time.  Despite his neurotic tendencies, there are hints of what I’m talking about in Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, especially in his capacity for wonder.  Bloom sees “god” (in a rationalist and pantheist sense) wherever he turns, unlike Stephen, who is no longer capable of seeing the Numinous anywhere – much unlike myself currently.  More than anywhere else, I locate this third way when I read and think about Spinoza.  If I’m ever to believe in “god” in any sense, it is almost certain that it would be his god, the god of the infinite intelligibility of the world, the god of the principle of sufficient reason that undergirds the modern scientific ideal.  But I think that’s an essay for another day.

Anyways, that’s what’s bouncing around the old noggin at the moment.  Here’s the space that confines it: the Byrd Unit is one of those old red brick facilities that was built using convict labor.  It was built in the early-50’s, I’m told. It is the main unit for prisoners entering the system, so most of the 1,200 (my estimate, probably suspect) or so of the men I see shuffling down the hallway are just passing through classification and the somewhat curiously and incorrectly named “Sociology” department. These seg cells are much smaller than I’m used to; indeed, I can reach out and touch both walls if I extend my arms outward.  There is a set of bunk beds, an ancient sink/toilet combo that is easily older than I am, and a rather ginormously large extended family of roaches.  I don’t care about all of the signs proclaiming this to be a facility operated by the State of Texas, it’s the roaches that really own the place.  The matriarch of the clan that currently resides in C-13-4 is sitting on the bars, staring at me now. Years ago, when I started studying Buddhism, I began catching insects in my cell and taking them outside instead of killing them.  My friends used to gently mock me for this. So… um…  I’m very clearly saying that I’m in no way seriously considering throwing one of my shoes at this monster right now.  Besides, if I did, I’m pretty sure the bloody thing would catch it and throw it back at me.  Hey, I think that was meant to be a joke.  Signs of life!

I am mostly property-less at the moment.  I gave away nearly all of my nonessential possessions over the course of the past year, once the appellate process began to wind down to its last pathetic sputters.  I once read about the Swedish concept of “death cleaning”, and it seemed like a fine idea, like so much else that comes from Northern Europe.  The goal is to put yourself in the shoes of the executors of your estate, who are tasked with having to deal with the mountains of crap that people tend to leave behind after they shuffle off this mortal coil. If you can’t rationally imagine person X being pleased to come across item Y, toss it.  Chances are, you will soon realize that most of what we own is going to be completely worthless to anyone else, and a burden for them to dispose of.  The stuff that prisoners collect tends to be useful within the penal context, but is pretty worthless once you venture past the front gate.  I couldn’t imagine my father or stepmother wanting, for instance, my free-world sewing needle or homemade soldering iron, so I began finding homes for all of my junk some time ago.  I am, for the first time in many years, completely free from contraband at the moment.  I feel kind of naked without all of my tools for up-to-no-goodery, I tell you.  I am consoled by the fact that many others are now enjoying the fruits of my illicit labors.  Toujours de l’audace, brothers, and so forth.

In addition to the items that I freely parted with, I seem to have “lost” an alarmingly high percentage of the remainder somewhere during the Polunsky-Walls-Byrd-Unit shuffle.  My typewriter, for instance. I’m not exactly certain how one misplaces such a thing, but there you go.  Then again, given the number of times I’ve done surgery on that P.O.S.  without the benefit of anesthesia in order to fix some problem that developed after a rough shakedown, it’s entirely possible that the sodding thing seized upon the confusion following my commutation and made good on an escape attempt.  If it should somehow manage to find itself on eBay, though, I’d appreciate a heads-up.  Also missing: a wide assortment of paperwork on which my name features prominently, for example, my commissary receipts for the past three years, my school tuition receipts, the unit orientation paperwork I was given when I first arrived at Polunsky on 3.23.2007, etc.; nearly all of my stamps and envelopes; my t-antenna; the photographs of my friends who have been executed; and, a pair of my boxer shots. Nothing in the least bit creepy about that last item, right? Right. (But still: Ewww…) I suspect this minor thievery took place when my property was being bagged up at the Chateau Polunsky; Manufacturing Anomie was far more non-fictional than I think most of you understood at the time.  I’m sure that these fine, upstanding employees of the State thought I’d be dead by the end of the day, and that anything with my name on it might be worth something on the murderabilia sites.  Sorry to deprive you of your beer money for the week, guys.  Enjoy the stamps.

So, no property.  I do, however, currently have a rather awesome abundance of prison graffiti to analyze.  Never mind all of the gang rot: that’s as boring as it is predictable. The messages that always pique my curiosity are the ones that seem to be disconnected from reason, or the generally accepted rules of grammar. For instance, on the long wall that runs parallel to the bed, someone has written “I am Cambodia!” four times in an immense, angry font. Below this, in somewhat faded script, this same hand has written “GodKingQueen – Land of [something-something-something]” then a long string of numbers.  I can’t make heads or tails of this last bit.  I expect that boredom’s gremlins are eventually going to prod me into attempting to crack this cipher; I’ve already determined that the number as a whole is not prime, and not a Fourier transform series, either.  Anyways, that’s tomorrow’s problem.  All around the cell, someone has written the word “Ants!” and then included a series of dozens of arrows pointing to what were, presumably, once the Cartesian coordinates of just such an insect.  I see dates – for example, “GZA wuz here 6.21.04” – going back to the mid-90’s (so, alas, those particular ants may no longer be amongst us. I kind of wish they were, though, as I’d like ants a hell of a lot better than these roaches!). I always feel like I ought to add something to such displays; I’ve written of this dilemma before. Some of you will be pleased to learn that my notebook full of (what were to me, at least) interesting quotes has also vanished; perhaps in confederation with my typewriter, perhaps to use this vast accumulation of wisdom to write the book I was always tempted to write.  Fortunately, I still possess some of these gems upstairs. So, I’ll come up with something good to contribute to the wall at some point.  Right now, I’m leaning towards some words from the all-but-forgotten Thomas Wolfe: “I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close.”

At any rate, I suspect this cell and my placement in it represents something of a test.  It really is a remarkably bad cell, as these things go.  The light doesn’t turn off, for one.  It was, initially, about as filthy as it is possible for physical matter to become.  I talked an SSI into smuggling me about a metric ton of cleaning supplies last night and, after roughly six hours of scouring, I’m still not completely content.  There’s no recreation in this hall, ever.  That might get a little rough if I end up staying here for a few months.  Over the past few years, I’ve managed to get back to and maintain my high school weight by running my ass off, and I’d hate to see all of that effort wasted.  Affixed to the ceiling, about two feet in front of the cells, is a metal rail.  Attached and hanging from this rail is a ten-by-eight-foot piece of heavy plexiglass on wheels. Whenever anyone – inmate or guard – goes walking down the hall, they push this contraption along, thus shielding them from projectiles that might be launched from within the cells. Thus far, I haven’t witnessed any such displays of ranged martial prowess, but it’s early days yet. What I have witnessed – what would be absolutely frigging impossible for anyone with ears to miss – is that this contraption sounds like a crash-landing 747, filled to the brim with loose cymbals, when in use. Sleep has become a phenomenon I haven’t had much intimate contact with lately, but I’m highly looking forward to becoming delirious to the point of passing out in a few days. A test, but a particularly sorry and ineffective one. I just have to think about all the friends I left behind at Polunsky and my determination is solidified. In the weeks leading up to my date, I allowed myself on a few occasions to think about what it might feel like to be granted commutation. I theorized that I might feel something akin to Survivor’s Guilt, but I had no idea it would hit me this hard. I spent nearly all of my time on Deathwatch with my good friend Rod, and I feel like I betrayed him by leaving him behind. I know that’s not strictly rational, but it’s clearly the dominant voice in the emotional chorus blaring away in my head at the moment. A hard truth, suspected and now confirmed: I will not have truly escaped my death sentence until this penalty is abolished and all my friends are out of that hellhole. 

I lived through 161 executions during my time on the Row.  I knew most of these men, and was friends with more than a third of them.  They all deserved the chance I’ve being given, as far as I’m concerned.  I can easily picture Arnold Prieto casting his grumpy-ass frown over the state of this cell, and the artistically masterful addition he’d have added to the collection of graffiti.  Likewise, I can only imagine the wry comment Lester Bower would have made (in his head, at least) in response to Brillo’s annoyances, as well as the much more direct comments Robert Pruett would have definitely not kept to himself.  I can see Joseph Lave, so noble, shaking his head over the lot of them, while slipping earplugs into place. Rolando Ruiz, Robert Ladd, Miguel Angel Paredes, Donnie Roberts, Gustavo Garcia: these are not mere names to me, they are memories that are seared in far too deep to be effaced by any injury less severe than death itself.  I don’t exactly know what life has in store for me going forward, but if anyone wondered if I was done penning polemics against the State just because it did the right thing once (and only then because we made it politically advantageous for them to do so), think again.  The events of the last few months have not in any way damaged my discipline or resolve, and they are going to have to try a lot harder than a few dozen roaches and bad food to break me. 

And try they shall.  I think I’m destined to remain in admin-seg for some time, until they figure out what to do with me.  Still, I haven’t had a disciplinary write-up in many years and I’m not coded as STG (Security Threat Group, i.e.  I’m not a gang member). So, eventually, they are going to have to release me into the general population.  I’m hoping that they will do this without me having to use the law to force them, but I’m already preparing for this should it become necessary.  Mother Polunsky taught me well in that regard. 

– Later –

Hey, we have mice here!  I thought I saw something brown and furtive scurry by an hour or so ago, but these old buildings are full of shadows and I chalked it up to more roach troop displacements.  On its way back from wherever, this time it ventured a little closer to the middle of the run, where the light is better.  I’d saved up two pieces of bread for a midnight snack, so I tossed some pieces out to it.  Initially, it ran off, but after a few minutes it crept back into the light and snatched the bread away.  I feel like I’ve seen someone in a prison movie befriend a mouse before, but I can’t recall which film it was.  Somebody help me out here.  Am I becoming a cliché?  I hope not.  I hate to be derivative.  I wonder if I could train it to assassinate these roaches? Somehow, I don’t think this would be karmically better than just stomping them. Damn you, “right intentions”!

Seriously though, I don’t think I’ve quite managed to adequately convey to you the size of this Tyrannosaurus Roach. (Erm… Tyrannoroachus Rex? Whatever.) It uses the bars at the front of my cell like a throne. A few times an hour, a lesser specimen will bow and scrape its way up to it.  The two will confer – no doubt they are plotting my murder and dismemberment – and then the thrall will swiftly depart. I think this beast might be Job’s Leviathan.  Sometimes it will stretch its wings out and flutter them for a moment, like a bloody dragon, before relaxing them again.  It’s as if it was saying: Look at what I can do, human. What do you think of that, mortal fool?  Okay, look: while all of you are staring at the shadows of roaches on the walls of Plato’s Cave, this is the behemoth that’s standing behind you in front of the fire. Got it?  If roaches prayed, this is the god to which the words would be directed. Dei gratia Roachus Rex Fidei Defensor… I’m about to use a minimal, probably Dalai Lama-approved measure of force, to evict this thing.  If these are my last words, remember me fondly.

– Later yet –

Still alive. (Still alive!) The creature has departed – for now.  In any case, I should address my relative silence during my time on Deathwatch.  My friends all seemed to understand this was part of a plan, but I did manage to receive some criticism for this from the peanut gallery.  Apparently one bloke from the U.K.  felt it was his place to inform me that I wasn’t “man enough” because I didn’t write a contemporaneous final journal like Kevin Varga or Arnold Prieto.  Man, the internet is such a great place!  Where else can people who have never once been involved in the life of another person, and who in fact know absolutely nothing about the precise circumstances of that life, somehow nevertheless presume to offer unsolicited advice and even condemnation once that person then has the temerity to ignore them. ‘E’s a proper English gen’lemin is wot ‘e is, innit?  So quick as a flash and witty as you like, I says bollocks.  As should now be apparent, we had some plans for clemency, ones that I’ve been thinking about and slowly putting into place for more than a decade.  There were a lot of moving parts, especially in and around various offices in Austin.  If you think you know how this was done, chances are you are either wrong, or else are mistaking the visible part of the proverbial iceberg for the hidden mass.  I may talk about some of the submerged portions one day, but only after the lessons I’ve learned have been deployed in the perhaps eight or nine cases currently still on the Row where clemency might be feasible.  In other words, mate, I was busy this winter, way too busy to waste time trying to entertain you.  What free time I carved out for myself I spent on the people I am closest to, a decision I don’t feel requires any explanation or justification.  Anyways, at the risk of sounding like I’m caving on the very point I just been a page huffing and puffing about, you’ll get your tale of the lost Deathwatch months, so relax.  I may not have written an online journal of those days, but I did take lots of notes, as well as instructions on how and when these were to be released.  On that note, NMFD was finished a long time ago as well, so put the pitchforks down, people.  Did you really think I would have left you hanging like that? (If one were searching my words for a metric of how strange I’m feeling at the moment, I very nearly drew a smiley face at the conclusion of that last sentence.  May the gods help us all.)

Anyways, enough of the dark side of the blatherweb, and on to the whole purpose of this entry.  I want to convey how appreciative I am for the literally thousands of you out there that didn’t merely engage in the tired old “thoughts and prayers” routine, but who instead actually bought into my life by funding the dozens of projects that helped convince the Board to vote for clemency, and who rolled-up your sleeves and participated in a truly epic bombardment of the Governor’s office.  They never saw you coming, not like that.  I know some of you who wrote letters, and in the weeks and months ahead I’ll be sending out thank you letters.  I’ll never know even a tiny percentage of those of you who did participate, but if you’d like to introduce yourself, my new address and number will be posted below.  If you use the JPAY email system, their server will track me if they move me around a bunch of times over the coming years, so consider using that instead of snail mail.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about gratitude these past few months.  It wasn’t that long ago in the history of our species that the idea of a government entitlement would have greatly befuddled people, especially those humans that constituted the government.  In those days, things like poverty, injury, or sickness were considered to be either bad luck or divine retribution; they were, in other words, your problem to deal with (and yours alone), however much actual pity or sympathy anyone might have felt for you.  If someone – family, friends, a local lord, co-religionists – gave you assistance, this was truly a gift, not an entitlement.  Gratitude was obviously the appropriate response to this gift; it is, at its heart, an acceptance of one’s dependence on the love of others.  Ours, however, is an age of rights.  That’s a good thing, don’t misunderstand me.  Far fewer people live miserable lives and die excruciating deaths today because of this fact, even in America, where conservatives have somehow managed to convince people that “liberty” requires the social safety net to contain far more holes than is the custom in Europe.  Today, when we see someone on the street or dying of a disease without the benefit of medical intervention, most of us instantly think about how this suffering could have been prevented, what laws may entitle him or her to assistance, and whether the person’s rights have been denied.  Even down here in Yee-haw Land, oftentimes there is a government function that can be applied, and this is due to our modern conception of rights.

I wondered if this stance has damaged our collective understanding of gratitude.  I’m pretty certain it has mine, at any rate, in the way I have at various points of my life taken certain things for granted in ways that embarrass and shame me now.  Why?  Gratitude conflicts with the independence to which the political morality of rights attaches supreme importance.  This independence is so hard-wired into some of us that I have often refused assistance because on a very basic level the receipt of a gift implies a certain degree of servility: think of the peon bowing and “yes-milording” before the baron who has just given him an extra sack of grain. There’s an awkwardness there that I have felt my entire life.  One of the ways this manifested in my youth was that I felt so ashamed of my dependence on others that I could never ask anyone for help, which, in turn, caused me to increasingly hide the mental illness that was starting to stalk me.  Already uncertain of whether I was worthy of acceptance and affection, I reasoned that an open acknowledgement of my feelings of unworthiness would guarantee that I would be distanced from the approval I was searching for.  If a person perceives the world as an openly hostile space, where most people intend to harm them physically or emotionally, this trains them to forever exist in a stance where advantages, gifts, and protections are seized upon without a proper appreciation for those who provided them.  One may, in some cases, learn to enjoy hurting the world back when the chance arises.  I did, certainly.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to love or be loved in return if this is the world one inhabits.  Love means that one wishes for the happiness of others. Not in a derivative sense, where the other becomes happy as a consequence of my pleasure, but independently and directly.  This requires that one not be preoccupied or worried about one’s own security; a certain space must be opened up in the field of one’s self-regard in order to allow the happiness of others to grow and flourish.  Gratitude is the shovel that we use to clear the sludge of envy out of our lives and allows a space for love to grow, by enabling us to experience the world as a place that is reasonably well-disposed and even benevolent towards us.  It allows us to see others in the selfless and non-instrumental way that love (and charity, solidarity, friendship, and compassion) always is at its core.  It’s one of the primary ways I intend to start evicting the thoughts and processes that allowed me to stay laser-focused and survive the Row, but which have probably damaged my humanity over the years. I thank you for having believed in me, and I am going to try very hard over the years that come to have been worthy of this faith.  You did a truly marvelous job. (Late addition: I should probably note that little, if any, of the preceding paragraph is original thought on my part.  In some form or fashion, and with quite a bit of mixing and flexing, most of this came from Seneca’s On Favours, Cicero’s Pro Plancio, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, as well as maybe a little bit from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, and a generalized understanding of Max Weber; though I may have misunderstood these last two to an embarrassing degree. Weber always hurts my brain a little. Any stupidities that worked their way into my understanding of gratitude are entirely my fault, not theirs.)

I think breakfast will be arriving soon; I've been writing all night.  I’m not sure when I will be able to mail this out.  Much depends on when I will be allowed to purchase more supplies.  If they drag this out, I am going to have to be kind of strategic about how I use my last envelopes.  I’m sure you will understand.  Thank you for riding this out with me.  Let’s continue the fight.  My particular battle for life is over, but the broader war for abolition continues. Onward.



The hurricane swept by, few of us survived,
And many failed to answer friendship’s roll call.
Whom shall I call on?  Who will share with me
The wretched happiness of staying alive?
Sergei Yesenin

Thomas Whitaker 02179411
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75861


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Pro Bono with Judge

By Eric Williams

I'm a former judge (elected official in Texas), former attorney, and military veteran. Currently, I am an inmate on Texas Death Row.  My objective with this column is to produce over time a series of short, informative articles with the goal of explaining some current legal concepts, examining select court opinions, provoking thought, and providing a forum for your questions.  However, I am no longer a licensed attorney. Therefore, please realize that none of the information posted is intended to replace actual advice from a licensed professional. Always seek the counsel of your individual lawyer before making legal decisions.  Please send your questions concerning legal concepts, analyses of published court opinions, and your thoughts, comments, and criticisms. 


Jury Issues I: 

What is a jury actually supposed to do?

A jury should:

1.)  Observe all of the evidence presented;
2.)  Determine the truthfulness (or not) of the witnesses;
3.)  Decide how much weight (if any) to put on the testimony and exhibits;
4.)  Consider the assertions of the lawyers;
5.)  Deliberate in a thoughtful and reasoned manner to resolve any disputes over the facts; and
6.)  Follow the written instructions of the judge in applying the facts to the law in a verdict.

More detail regarding each process listed:

Jury duties numbers one, two, and three on the list above should occur both continuously and simultaneously throughout the trial. Each juror should be making individual assessments of the evidence. Why? With varied backgrounds, education, and experience, each juror brings their unique perspective to their observation of the evidence. What one juror believes about the testimony and exhibits does not have to match what any other juror believes. 
Jury duty number four is typically referred to in regard to the opening statements and closing arguments of the attorneys. I believe the most important point to focus upon with jurors, at this stage, is that the words of the lawyers are not, in any way, to be considered evidence . 
Unfortunately, duty number five is almost never actually explained to a jury. Lawyers all too often assume that each juror knows and understands what deliberations include. That erroneous assumption can easily lead to situations in which jurors follow suit with a juror who has a strong personality rather than deliberating individually because they do not understand their own responsibility. Frequently, jurors do not actually discuss the evidence or make any sort of critical analysis. Why? No one properly explains to them their function, which is to carefully and impartially observe and evaluate the evidence, or their obligation concerning deliberations.
Interestingly, duty number six is the easiest to describe because so much case law has been written concerning the written instructions (the charge) to the jury. The judge will read the entire jury charge and send the document with them to their deliberation room. They are told to elect a jury foreman, read the charge, and proceed. However, many opportunities are lost at this stage because the lawyers fail to emphasize and educate jurors about the instructions defining the legal concepts of both the presumption of innocence and the State's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, many lawyers assume that jurors understand those ideas, when in fact, they do not. 
How is a juror to know what is expected of them and how to perform their function properly?
Different legal systems have some very different approaches. Some countries assign jury selection and education to a judge. Some states, such as Texas, allow the lawyers some form of interaction with potential jurors during the selection process. Ultimately, in most trial systems, the lawyers are responsible for educating the jurors. Sadly, this aspect of juror education is woefully neglected.
Until, or unless, a "professional juror system" is properly developed and applied, the prior education level and experiences of each individual juror are somewhat random. Which means that there is no consistent standard of education or understanding among jurors regarding their function and expectations in arriving at what should be a fair verdict.
In my experience, lawyers and judges tend to focus on the law -- the rules for the trial framework -- rather than on how the jury determines the facts. This is not surprising since lawyers and judges study the law, read the law, and argue about the application of the law. However, the facts of each case are critical, because those facts should form the basis of the final jury determination. Facts are the sole purview of the jury. Interpretation of the facts is the area in which one juror can have a huge impact. 

Simple answer -- what is the jury's function?

Judge the facts. 


Jury Issues II:

Can an appeal correct a factual mistake by a jury?

Most people, including jurors, believe the answer is yes.  After all, the appellate courts review the trial, and we´ve all heard of those media stories of cases being overturned.  So, if a juror believes that – “even if I make an error, the appeal will fix it,” – how can we be critical of them for not knowing the truth, since they were most likely never told?  The accurate answer is that, no, the facts are not re-interpreted by any reviewing court.

Appellate rules and case precedent do not generally allow appellate courts to review the factual findings of a jury decision, or to substitute their view for that of a jury.  A common view expressed in legal opinions is “The jury is the sole judge of the facts, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight to be given to the evidence, therefore, the jury may believe or disbelieve all or part of any testimony, or exhibits presented.”

Those statements also mean that once a jury has reached a verdict, that finding is very difficult to overcome, based upon the facts as presented in trial.  Newly discovered evidence, wrongly admitted evidence, and wrongly suppressed evidence all have their own unique requirements to be considered for a reversal of judgment.

However, a reviewing court does have to examine the facts, testimony, and exhibits in the trial record.  Legal arguments are not usually made in a vacuum.  Context and factual details will be part of any legal analysis.  Often, lawyers will highlight the facts that support their legal position, while downplaying conflicting facts.

One remedy potentially exists for the appellant, based on the factual evidence presented at trial.  The issue is referred to as a challenge of the “legal sufficiency of the evidence” claiming that no rational juror could make a finding of guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, on the particular evidence presented at the trial. Success on this point is rare but can happen, if the prosecution fails to enter evidence sufficient to prove any required element of the offense charged.

What is the meaning, you may ask, of the standard “legally sufficient evidence”? It is the minimum amount of evidence, and reasonable inferences therefrom, required to prove each element of the offense as charged, beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, that definition has so many moving parts, its value as an empirical standard is quite low. In common-sense terms, the evidence is legally sufficient if a juror could look just at the prosecution´s evidence and think, “Yep, that´s good enough.” Is a confession sufficient? Perhaps. Is one witness sufficient? Again, perhaps. Is forensic evidence required? No. Can circumstantial evidence alone ever be legally sufficient? Absolutely. All these examples depend upon the underlying details.

An important problem, (I would say, flaw), with any appellate court looking at the legal sufficiency of the evidence, or any attempt at reviewing the factual findings of a jury, is the actual verdict form itself.  Current laws do not require, and some do not allow, any specific factual findings by the jury to be written onto the verdict forms.  Which means the jury verdict is a simple “guilty” or “not guilty” with no detail, no specifics, no written fact finding.

The following comparison is the best way I have found to expose the fallacy of not requiring every jury to make specific findings in order to render a guilty verdict.

Schoolchildren are required to attend and pass certain math courses.  At a certain point, that curriculum will include an algebra class, with some form of equation issues.  For assignments and testing purposes, students will be required to show the steps they took, in writing, to solve the equations presented, in order to obtain full credit.  How many of you can recall a teacher stating, “Class, remember, if you do not show all your work on each problem in this exam, you will not get credit”?

Now, knowing that in order to pass a simple grade-school exam, it was critical to show specific steps involved in reaching an answer to a math problem, do you find it odd that our court system allows a jury to indicate a summary answer on a verdict form that may even subject a defendant to the death penalty as a punishment?

As we´ve briefly discussed, jurors do not show, in writing, any of their underlying work.  When they complete their verdict form with “guilty”, we are left wondering – which part of the evidence did they believe, or disbelieve? Did they review the evidence in a reasonable, rational manner? Or did they just talk randomly and then vote?  Did they understand the elements of the offense that were to be proven – or not proven?  With a verdict of guilty, at what point in their determination of the facts was the presumption of innocence overcome, beyond a reasonable doubt?  None of these questions can be accurately answered based upon the current legal rules and practices.

Different jurisdictions have varied laws and rules in place to protect jury deliberations.  The most restrictive laws prohibit jurors from ever speaking about how they arrived at the verdict.  In a more reasonable jurisdiction, jurors are allowed to decide individually, after the trial is completed and they are officially released from juror service, whether to discuss their deliberations, or not.  In my experience, most jurors, even in a relatively short and simple case, do not want to..  I attribute this behavior, in part, to anxiety arising from not actually knowing what they were supposed to be doing in the first place.

And so you might be wondering “How can an appellate court effectively review a jury verdict if there are no specific factual findings?” The current approach is to assume that the jury, in a guilty verdict, must be believed all the evidence presented by the prosecution, and none of the evidence that might have supported a defense theory.  Unfortunately, because there are no requirements for a jury to “show their work” indicating the specific facts they used to arrive at their verdict, and the reviewing courts are prohibited from substituting their judgment of the facts, there is no other way to evaluate the legal sufficiency of the evidence.

Another concern with the logic the system uses to justify the prohibition mentioned above is that because the jury sees the evidence live, it is believed that they are in a much better position to determine it’s the truthfulness and weight to be placed on each piece of evidence. Could any appellate court make a fair and proper analysis of a witness´s truthfulness? Even if the entire trial is recorded with video and audio? Without actually being there, in the room at the time, any post-trial evaluation of a witness will be inherently incomplete. Does that limitation render any factual review by an appellate court unfair?

The final concern of this article is with the issue of appellate courts making an actual review of a verdict finality.  Once a trial is completed, if it was “fair enough”, then the result should be permanent.  Obviously, my use of the term “fair enough” is merely a short cut for a large body of legal claims.  If appellate courts were allowed to review every fact and piece of evidence in a trial to decide what to believe or not, and then what to give weight to, what would be “enough” review?

Civilized society must figure out how to balance those aspects of legal case decisions, between correctness and finality.  How many innocent people go to prison in this country every year? What number, if any, is acceptable? How do we, as a society, minimize the chance of sending another innocent person to prison?

I am convinced that one part of that answer should be to greatly improve juror service and specifically juror education.  During my legal career, the vast majority of potential jurors actually wanted to do a good job, and wanted to be fair.  Unfortunately, their real, practical knowledge of jury service is nearly non-existent.

As long as we allow the media to educate most of our population with sensational news stories, unrealistic television series, and replace actual learning with entertainment, any favorable changes in this area will be difficult, and will involve hard work.

You are making this change now.

Thank you for your time and thoughts.

Eric Williams 999598
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Eric L. Williams

Status: Inmate of Texas’ Death Row, solitary confinement, Dec. 2014

Education: 
Juris Doctorate (Law Degree) 1999
Texas Wesleyan School of Law

Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice 1989
Texas Christian University

High School: Azle, Texas 1985

Experience: 
Justice of the Peace, Elected 2010

Private Practice of Law, focus on Texas Family Law
1999-2014 Board certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, 2008

Court Administrator, Texas District Court, 1994-1999

Military: 
Reserve Officer Training Corps, 1985-1989

Commissioned Second Lieutenant, US Army, 1989

Army Reserves and Texas National Guard, 1989-1999

Texas State Guard, 2009-2012, Captain

About Me: Birthdate 07 April 1967, Catholic, interests include science fiction, suspense, military fiction, history, humor, cooking, and geography. Currently studying Spanish and German languages.