Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and a fiction editor at the online magazine BENDING GENRES. He’s also the author of four books, most recently the story collection, THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at
Another one’s set to die today and as usual my stomach’s a swamp of nausea. I forget I’ve poured a bowl of cereal, staring out the window at a wall of gray rain, hypnotized by nothing and everything, the way it feels when you’re in a broken marriage, and now my spoonful of Wheaties tastes like wet newsprint.
“You could get another job,” my husband says, reading my mind again which I hate because there are plenty of things I’d rather not have him knowing. “It doesn’t pay squat anyway.”
So he says. He always says.
We’ve got bills, a car loan, his big ass truck loan, can barely pay the minimum on our credit cards, with interest piling up every month, constantly gnawing at me like some hideous flesh-eating disease.
Well, if Texas wants to kill again, someone’s got to be there to record it, and I’m their gal.
Far as I know we’re the only state that chronicles a condemned criminal’s last words. It feels wrong, perverted, like watching your sibling undress, yet it’s legal and actually required. I write down their final statement word for word and enter it into a computer where it sits in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice data base, free for anyone to see, though why on earth would they want to?
A lot of times the inmate thanks the Warden, which I don’t get. He’s the one organizing your execution, and he’s looking the other way as he does it, which again is like being in a bad marriage where you know your spouse is cheating but you’re just too tired to fight, or too frail to run.
The other thing most of them do is say goodbye to friends and family, which is what you’d expect. Sometimes they confess a secret sin they’ve been harboring and the relief on their face as they confess is the opposite of the death they’re facing, as if they’ve escaped from prison after all.
We’ve been married going on twelve years. I suspect Darold’s philandering started about year seven which I know they say is when couples get the itch. I never got that, though Darold did once give me the crabs. Said it was from a toilet seat. I looked it up on the internet and it’s a possibility, though slim as winning Powerball.
My sister, Arlene, doesn’t understand why I stay with him but she’s got a good man who still buys her yellow roses and gave her the one-of-kind nickname Renny, which I think is downright adorable, especially when he says it while fluffing up her mop of orange hair. Darold’s called me Bitch more times than my own name, Tammy. He’s come close, but he’s never hit me, so there’s that.
The thing Arlene doesn’t understand is how different we are, even though she and I are twins. It’s like that line in the movie, “The Way We Were” where the teacher reads a winning story that Barbra Streisand is sure will be hers only it’s not, it’s Bob Redford’s with the opening line: “In a way he was like the country he lived in; everything came too easily to him.” That’s Arlene to a t, though she don’t know it. I’m not spiteful, but I’m not deaf, dumb and blind either. Nearly every day, fruit falls into my sister’s lap, most of it golden apples.
It’s a bold risk, Darold telling me to quit my job since I know he lost his last week. I didn’t even need to probe, since word flies around these parts like the wind. Still Darold’s going to pretend for some reason. He’s got his overalls on and I’ve packed his lunch pail and he’s out the door, saying “See ya tonight,” without mentioning what I’ve got to go through today or how hard it’s going to be.
Jackass. I married a jackass. I guess that makes me one, too.
I sit at the table, knowing I’ve got to get going while some of the inmates’ most recent entries flutter through my head like shutters banging in a storm.
“I’m ready to go home.”
“To the victim’s family, I want you to know that I hope you let go of all the hate because of all my actions. I came in as a lion and I go out as a peaceful lamb.”
“Tell them I finished strong. I love y’all. Richie, Brad and John. I love you Auntie. God is good and I’m done.”
Most of them find God before they die. Grace is such a meal ticket, a life raft tossed overboard when you’re about to choke to death on saltwater. It makes sense. But I wonder if they mean it, if they really love God all the way down to their toes, the way a woman should love her man, and vice-versa. If they don’t, God’ll be able to tell. If he knows the number of hairs on your head, well, shit, he’s knows everything then.
I volunteer at our church twice a week when MOPs is going on--MOPs being Mothers of Preschoolers. Moms set up tables and meet in the service area, mostly gossiping, but it’s a break away from their rug rats for a while, and they’re usually grateful for the respite. The kids can get cranky, but I like being buried in the squalling noise and chaos. I like how curious the kids are about everything and how respectful they sound when they look up call me Miss Tammy. Sometimes I even take one as my own, in my imagination I do, and I picture myself making the little boy or girl waffles for breakfast, taking them shopping for clothes or roaming the food store aisle with them in my cart.
Our pastor’s a burly man with a handle bar moustache who reminds me of a redheaded Teddy Roosevelt. In last week’s sermon he shared how his wife, LouAnne, came down with a deadly disease way back when they were missionaries overseas and LouAnne was pregnant. A doctor said it was more than likely the unborn baby would suffer sever fetal damage and he recommended an abortion. Pastor Reevus told us how he prayed as if he was in a fever himself, asking God over and over to tell him the correct course of action. “And you know what happened?” Pastor Reevus asked the congregation. We knew but didn’t say, and after a pause he slammed his palm on the pulpit. “God answered clear as day.” Then Pastor Reevus called his daughter up to the podium. She was a skinny scarecrow of a girl, shy and nervous, which made her all the more endearing. “This,” Pastor Reevus said with wet eyes as he put an arm around his daughter, “is our miracle. This is why I believe.”
I believe too, but my faith is shaky and I know I’m not as strong as Pastor Reevus, not even as strong as most of the condemned inmates.
“There are no endings, only beginnings. Love y’all. See you soon.”
“I didn’t get my SphagettiOs. I want the press to know that.”
On the drive Arlene calls and I put her on speaker. She bubbling over excited. Mason bought her twin lab pups. It’s their anniversary, seven years. I’ve forgotten, though I fake it, feeling plastic for lying to my sis who, as far as I know, has never been anything but truthful with me through these many years.
When she tells me, “I want to name one of the puppies after you,” I get flustered and emotional, tears splashing right away without warning like those menopause commercials they show on TV, but my way of responding to her sweet gesture is to say, “He bought you bitches?”
I don’t know where it came from. I guess I just like being the one to say bitch instead of Darold. I guess, not so far deep down, I am jealous of Arlene after all.
“Female pups,” Arlene says, almost a question.
“And you want to name a dog after me?”
“Well, I thought it was a kind gesture.”
“Why not a gerbil or a piglet? Why not something really filthy?”
“Hey now yourself,” I say, clicking off, feeling a tangle of rage and guilt, knowing Arlene meant well, knowing too that she always does everything the right way while I hardly ever do.
At the prison everything is as quiet as a library, a cemetery, a moment at the front door of a trailer when a husband comes home from a bar smelling like the sharp tang of vagina.
I go through screening and down the hall looking straight ahead, the way they tell you to do if you’re up high somewhere when you’re afraid of heights.
A couple of times somebody says, “Hey, Tammy,” and I try to nod but my neck has become a tree stump, as if severed from my head, and I’m unable to do anything other than stride ahead.
The halls are narrow, and seem more tapered every time I walk them. I know I’m getting bigger, fatter than I’ve ever been, but it’s a claustrophobic feeling, like the time Arlene and I snuck through Old Man Miller’s drainage pipe and I got stuck after she’d made it to the other side. I was there for hours, until she summoned Dad and then later I was given the belt on my backside--thirteen lashes, one for every year I was old at the time.
The interesting thing, the thing nobody mentions, is that most people Texas executes are Hispanics. Look it up, you’ll see. I’ve only known Mexicans to be friendly, family-first type of folk. I can’t even imagine one getting stirred up enough to kill somebody, not to mention his wife and daughter as Enrique Vasquez is reported to have done.
For some reason, I always expect the inmates to be thin rails, but they never are. These are men getting ready to die and that’s why they show up with bodies like Rocky Balboa’s.
Same with Enrique Vasquez. Even with his prison uni on it’s easy to see he’s got a body builder’s physique. Ordinarily condemned men enter this room looking resigned or sheepish, like a dog that’s been beat for peeing on the rug, but not Enrique. His big brown eyes are bumblebees trapped in a jar, bumping up against glass time and time again, hitting one side of the jar then the other, then the lid, trying to pop it open.
He has two visible tattoos. On his right forearm it says Maria with the last “a” trailing off into a stem that then forms a rose. On his other forearms it says Choco, with a wispy loop off the “o” turned into a stem that forms an identical rose matching Maria’s. Choco was his daughter, a nickname he gave her because she so loved chocolate.
Before I even do preliminaries Enrique jumps in. “I didn’t do what they say. I told the lawyer, the judge, the jury, I told everyone, but they wouldn’t believe.”
His eyes have turned black now, not menacing, but rather charcoal smudges, like the kind Darold would have on his hands after working at the shop back when he still had a job.
Usually inmates look around the room, at the guards, but Enrique has only looked at me and he won’t stop staring.
“I did not do it. I don’t care about dying but I don’t want to be known for killing my wife and daughter. I would never harm them. They were everything to me.”
His hands and ankles are cuffed, but he kneels down in front of me and just as he does one of the guards grabs the back of his uni and the fabric rips, so the guard then yanks Enrique by his hair and heaves him back into the chair.
Enrique doesn’t seem to be bothered by this in the slightest. His eyes have never left mine, and while it’s a cheater’s way out, I wish I was blind right now. The strained agony in Enrique’s face is a portrait of death itself.
“I didn’t do it,” he says, his voice a hoarse whisper now. “I didn’t.”
“Please, sir,” I say, my drawl thicker than ever, as it always is when I’m nervous. “I just need your last words.”
“I said I didn’t do it. I would never, ever hurt them.”
“You have to believe me. You have to help.”
Help has got to be the biggest word in the English language, even if it’s just four simple letters. I never liked that Beatles song, but I never change the station when it comes on. Help. I need somebody. Yeah, we all do. I do. Enrique does right now. But it’s too late. Too late for him and me and every other sonofabitch that’s been screwed over.
“Sir,” I say, “do you want those to be your last words?”
I look down at my notepad which is bouncing between my quivering thighs. “Your last words: are they You have to help?”
“Yes! Please. I loved my wife and child. What man does not?”
“Sir, one last time. What will you say as your last words?”
Enrique, for the first time, looks away from me, his head flapping backward, eyes raised upward at the bald white ceiling, his neck craned so far back that it seems his head might snap off.
“Sir,” I say, a trickle of piss escaping, wetting my groin area.
Enrique’s head comes swinging down. He leans forward, too close, and so, Buck, the largest of the guards, hits Enrique on the knee with his club and Enrique’s leg responds reflexively, leaping out and kicking my ankle.
“Hey, asshole, knock that shit off,” Buck says, bringing his stubby club across Enrique’s throat and squeezing while Enrique flails.
“Buck. Buck!” I say. “It’s okay. Let him be.”
Buck keeps his choke hold a beat longer, but finally eases up, removing his club.
“It’s all right,” I say to Enrique, though it’s not, though nothing is. “I just need your last words.”
And then we’re done. You’re done. It’s finished.
Enrique looks at me square in the eye, jaw flexed, lips thin and pursed and I feel guilty for some reason, as if I convicted him myself.
I look down at the floor where there’s a red smear in the shape of an oversized comma. “Sir, I’ll only ask this one last time. What are your last words?”
He takes a sharp breath through his nose, nostrils flaring like a stallion, stands and nods to the guards. When Buck takes his elbow and leads Enrique away, I write in my notepad: Last Statement: I didn’t do it.
On the drive home I think about death, about murder and what kind of person would be capable of killing a woman and child. A jury convicted Enrique, but DNA evidence has been known to clear lots of criminals after they’ve been convicted. Only God and Enrique know the honest truth about his case.
It’s hard not to feel hypocritical, as I often do, remembering the three abortions I’ve had since being married to Darold, all without him knowing. Abortion is a woman’s choice and not murder, I know that, but still it’s a weight I carry around like all these extra pounds I’ve put on.
At home I take a bubble bath for the first time in years. I light candles that I’ve placed around the tub, get in and read Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” not understanding much of the poems, but liking the music in her words. She was thirty years old, same as I am now, when she stuck her head in an oven while her kids were in the next room. She stuffed rags in the bottom seams of the doors so that none of the poisonous fumes would get out. That woman must have really been suffering.
If Darold follows through with his charade of pretending to still be employed he’ll be home in an hour, so I get out, dry myself, dress, and fill two suitcases full of clothes and shoes. I want to tell him face to face that I’m leaving, that I’m finally strong enough to do what I should’ve done a long time ago.
When Darold’s not home by eight o’clock, I rip a page from my notebook meaning to write him a note, but nothing comes to mind and so I leave the blank paper on the kitchen table, grab my bags and walk out without looking back, without a solitary regret.
In the car, I drive in silence, hearing myself breathing. It reminds me of the last breath I saw Enrique take.
He said he didn’t kill his wife and child, and jury or not, I decide I’m going to take his word for it that he’s innocent. He’s dead now, so it might not matter to anyone else, but it does to me.
Outside the night is as black as it’s ever been, and just as soothing. As I scan for the moon, one Last Statement comes to mind: Let’s ride!