AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Vincent Scarpa’s “You’re Home Early” is a story with astounding emotional complexities. Annie, a divorced orthodontist from Chicago, travels to visit her father on death row at the Huntsville Prison in Texas the day before his scheduled execution. This situation is beyond the average person’s capacity for imagining, let alone empathy, but Scarpa somehow manages to do both. Annie herself is unable to conceive of her own situation; she tells her staff and her few friends that she will be out of town at a dentistry conference. No one knows where she really is or what she is doing. Her reasons for making the trip are mysterious even to her: “It may be as simple as she is lonely and curious and wants to be there for the end of the story that has tailored the entirety of her life,” Scarpa writes. “It may be as complicated as because he asked her to.”
As she visits the prison, Annie struggles to find a rubric for her feelings. Years ago her father committed a gruesome, sadistic murder, and as a result his life and his death will take place on the very edge of society, so far outside Annie’s normal life — of anyone’s normal life — that her grief becomes uncanny.
But uncanny grief is a feeling Annie has felt before. The title “You’re Home Early” has a double meaning — it’s both what her father claims God will say when he arrives at heaven’s gates after his lethal injection, and what Annie’s husband said when she walked in on him getting a blow job from a double-amputee. Her shock at simultaneously discovering his infidelity and his fetish doesn’t prevent her from having a little esprit d’escalier. Weeks later, she thinks of what she deems the perfect response: “It’s just like you to get off on detachment.” It’s a bad pun but she finds it comforting, as she does the connection between her husband and her father’s remarks — suddenly, amidst the chaos, here is symmetry. Here is order. “You’re Home Early” is another joke played for her own amusement, a little laugh at her own fucked up life.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
You’re Home Early
by Vincent Scarpa, recommended by Electric Literature
Barring an unlikely call from the governor, this Friday the state of Texas will execute Annie’s father, Elliott Dodge. In preparation, Annie has booked a flight from Chicago to Houston, a mid-size rental car, and a week at a very affordable motel. She will arrive three days before the execution in Huntsville, and fly back the morning after. On the questionnaire offered by the travel agency, under “Reason for Travel,” Annie had written, “Father dying,” which was most of the truth, and it had not given her much pause to think nor write it.
She has rescheduled all of her patients for the coming week, referring those with more urgent dental crises to a colleague whose practice is not far from hers. According to a recent edition of the city’s paper, Annie is not one of the top ten orthodontists in Chicago, but her waiting room is regularly half-full, her patients loyal. Just a few days ago she had taken the braces off of a pregnant teenager, two weeks from her due date, who promised Annie that if her son ended up needing braces someday, years from now, she wouldn’t think of bringing him anywhere else, causing Annie to briefly imagine the baby being delivered to reveal a mouth full of wire. “I’ll have Janet at the front desk schedule an appointment for him, twelve years from next Thursday,” she had joked to the girl, whose smile, now aligned and uncluttered, she had then photographed for the before-and-after binder she keeps in the waiting room. Annie has been compiling before-and-afters since first opening her practice in the late ’90s. She will on occasion bring the binder home with her to exchange older pictures for newer ones, to remove those photos she feels do not demonstrate her best work, and to see if she can remember not only the names of the patients, but their attitudes, what they were like.
What she loves most about the photos is all they leave out. Because being a dentist means you bring a fair amount of fear and pain into the room when you enter it. You are a thing to be dreaded. It means having your hands occasionally bitten, your fingers awkwardly and intimately sucked on like straws. It means muting someone so clearly in pain by way of your hand lodged in their mouth, only to see the pleading relocate to their eyes, sad and swollen like riverbanks in a storm. But none of this is reflected in the photos. In the afters, all one saw was a well-lit, wide-smiling patient to whom Annie had restored a sense of self-confidence, and the befores served to indicate what she had been given to work with, the jagged mess upon which she had greatly improved. The binder made no space for durings, so unlike life, which Annie believes is a sometimes unbearable test of ongoingness, of navigating blindly the distance between two points, indeterminate of purpose.
While she is in Texas, the staff at Annie’s practice believes she will be attending a dentistry conference, moderating a panel on underbites. This is the same lie she told the young couple next-door yesterday after asking if they wouldn’t mind, for forty dollars, watering her plants and retrieving her mail and feeding her cat, Melvin, for the week. Beyond that, there is hardly anyone to lie to. Annie is divorced and short on friends and acquaintances. She thinks she makes people nervous. She has noticed in those around her a conscious effort not to smile too widely or be open-mouthed in her presence, perhaps fearing that she might notice malocclusion or propose some reconstruction.
Annie also feels her social opportunities are limited because she is categorically unattractive, but this has made her only a little bitter. Her unsightliness has been confirmed for her by a range of boys and men from the playground onward. Put simply, she believes she has a before face. Or it is an after face: the face of someone who must have spent twenty years squinting at the sun, at the fine print of life, and is now left with a tightly-wound knot of shrunken features, all of them harsh and unwelcoming, asymmetrical, everything from forehead to chin to clumsy jawline appearing at every moment as if they are being sucked into the center of Annie’s face by some unfortunate genetic magnetism. She is a poster woman for chromosomal misfirings. She remains unattractive despite sporadic efforts in her thirty-eight years of life, each with varying degrees of resolve, to rectify this. She has belonged to many gyms, though the problem has never really been weight. She has done chemical peels, she has gotten lowlights, she has purchased outfits right off the mannequins. She has subscribed to women’s magazines and dog-eared articles about counteracting crow’s feet. She had once even ordered colored contacts that gave her eyes as blue as icepack gel, though she felt, when she first saw herself in the hand mirror at the Lenscrafters, a sense of unworthiness and fraudulent beauty.
And who could you tell about feeling ugly? You could tell no one, not without it seeming like the most desperate kind of bait. You said, Oh, I’m just terribly ugly, and everyone rushed in with their refusals, disallowing such — such what? Honesty? What a hollow and thoughtless gesture it was, to deny someone the acknowledgement of her own mediocrity. Her ex-husband, Boris, had found her attractive and had said so regularly, but this, Annie believed then and still maintains, was in spite of her appearance, or it was because of it, but only insofar as she was entirely nonthreatening, ordinary as a ceiling fan, and therefore all the more easy for Boris to be drawn to, being, as she was, something he would not be terribly devastated by the loss of. People drove used cars comfortably for the same reason — what did they matter, the fender-benders, the dings and scratches and Pollock-splatters of birdshit? It’s not as if it were a nice car.
And so, lacking an alternative, Annie has accustomed herself to her ugliness in the manner of an ascending deep-sea diver: slowly, deliberately, so as not to get the bends, pop her lungs, shock herself with air when she breaks the surface. There had eventually come one morning where she simply looked in the bathroom mirror and thought, Well, all right. Yes, I suppose that’s the face we’re going with, Annie, in perpetuity. And just like that her rotten looks had become yet another thing not worth commenting on or worrying about. They had become a fact, like state capitals, like gravity.
And yet, her father is being executed — executed! — and there is no one to tell how unenthusiastic she feels about it. The pomp and circumstance of an execution in the family and no one to share it with. It is like going to the movies alone, having no one with whom to discuss the incredible action, the unexpected twist, and also not like that at all.
Similes, lately, have been escaping Annie. She thinks maybe nothing is like anything else, or at least nothing is like this but this.
Annie takes her seat on the plane, an aisle seat toward the front, as the rest of the passengers board. She skims through some of the articles she’s printed from her computer on prison visitation and famous last meals and words. She is stirred by the account of a man executed in Oklahoma for the murder of his mother whose last words had been, “Please tell the media I did not get my SpaghettiOs — I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” She can’t decide which is more dreadful, wanting only SpaghettiOs as one’s last meal or being denied them.
She wonders what cuisine her father has requested. One of the few memories still accessible to her from her youth is that of being eight and attending a barbecue in Waco with her father, Elliott gnawing away at a pile of ribs and wings with the appetite of a returned prisoner of war. The barbecue had been a fundraiser to support a burn victim, a young Mexican girl who had mishandled fireworks months prior. The girl was in attendance, and her parents paraded her from table to table to express their gratitude. When the family reached the table where she and her father were seated, Annie, to her horror and everyone else’s, had let out a small yelp. The girl’s face had been so mangled, a half-parted stage curtain revealing a scarred mess of raw-pink flesh. Elliott had yanked roughly on Annie’s arm and apologized profusely to the family, said they would be in his prayers.
It had been an unpleasant outing, but Elliott had talked about the smoked ribs for days.
So perhaps he has requested barbecue as a last meal — ribs, drumsticks, brisket — though it’s just as likely that his tastes have changed. Everything else has.
The barbecue had been not very long after her mother left. Only rumors of her had been heard from then on, and this allowed Annie’s mother to be many things when Annie lied. The lies began in college; most things did. Away from her hometown on a softball scholarship, she had delighted in falsifying the facts of her life. She would be getting a haircut or a pedicure or a pap smear and find herself constructing elaborate fictions. So her mother had been a prostitute. A country singer with a drinking problem. A drinker with a singing problem. A member of a religious cult in which all anyone was permitted to wear were Reeboks. Dead, alive, in a coma, in a mental hospital, in Madagascar, in Cartagena. Probably her mother had simply left — just left, that’s all — and started over someplace new, worked in produce at the Walmart and smoked Pall Malls, adopted senior dogs with mange and lived in a trailer park with a scummy community pool and tweaky neighbors, and, knowing this was likely the case, Annie felt as if she was giving her mother a kind of gift when fashioning alternatives for her.
Once, the Christmas before their divorce, Boris had wrapped for Annie the business card of a private investigator. He explained that what he wanted to do for her that year was help locate her mother. Her absence was something he believed was keeping Annie from accessing the entry point of true happiness. And so he had put a deposit down with the investigator — who had an exceptional track record in this area, Boris highlighted — which would cover most of the research expenses. It had been the only time in her life that Annie had smacked anyone. She had simply gotten up from the recliner, walked over to Boris, and smacked him across the face. Even in the moment she was remembering it: her being brave and audacious and completely out of character, as if in a TV drama. But the spirited smack had upset the fixture of Boris’s bottom crowns — placed only days before by Dr. Rosen, a local periodontist whose work Annie always thought shoddy — and he had half-swallowed one and begun choking, his face within seconds a bright, bulging purple, and Annie had had to perform a low-rent Heimlich maneuver until he coughed up the crown, along with some bile, and then the whole moment had ended up being about him, being his.
Her father does not know that Annie is on this plane headed for Texas. He had written her last month when the date had been finalized and asked that she be there for him, but she had not given him an answer. The idea of RSVP’ing to an execution was simply too surreal, too incomprehensible. It was very close to being hilarious. She had stopped visiting him eight years ago, and for no other reason than every reason one could possibly imagine — the long distance, the impenetrable disgust that her old, moth-eaten love for him still tried to permeate against her will, the inability to reconcile Elliott Dodge as both the vicious man who had committed the brutally creative first-degree murder of a seventeen-year-old boy and the single father who had raised her, efficiently if not altogether warmly — to say nothing of the security attained by making a busy, faraway life that had no space in it for the preposterousness of a father on death row. Many therapists would classify this as textbook denial, but it is not denial, Annie would argue, so much as it is a kind of willful, hard-won amnesia; not free of its own damning implications, she knows, but it is how she is able to get on. It is in this way that Annie has proven able, year after year, to make for herself a livable life, one not calibrated by an imminent fear of capsize, and for this she does not feel obligated to seek anyone’s reprieve.
The last time she had gone to Texas, Elliott had refused to see her. He knew she was going to tell him she wouldn’t be coming anymore, and Annie figured he did not want to give her the satisfaction of relieving herself of this burden in front of him. They have exchanged half-a-dozen letters in the years since, inconsequential and vague and single-sided. And yet she’s going now, to Huntsville, toward him, for him, out of something like obligation. She feels beholden, but can’t quite say to whom or to what. She has racked her mind for a lucid, sayable motive all this time and still has not found one, despite now being on the fully-boarded aircraft and taxiing away from the terminal. It may be as simple as she is lonely and curious and wants to be there for the end of the story that has tailored the entirety of her life. It may be as complicated as because he asked her to.
It is late by the time Annie arrives to her motel in Huntsville, and there is a sleeping elderly couple in her room when she opens the door. Startled by the door’s creak, the man pulls the lamp cord and turns his face to the door, baffled and drooling, and then hysterical, terrified.
“Please don’t do this,” he pleads with Annie. His voice cracks when he says it, and he begins to ramble manically. “We don’t have much money; we are on a fixed income. We have been married for forty-three years. My name is Ralph and my wife is Connie. We are happy and have had good lives but we are not done yet. We are on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon. We have known great troubles in this life. We lost a daughter to heroin. Kate, her name was Kate. I am a veteran. My wife volunteers at the food bank in our hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. We sponsor a child called Giancarlo in Peru. Please don’t do this to us. You don’t want to do this.”
Annie is stupefied. The man shakes his wife but she is deep in sleep. She swats his hand away and turns from him, continuing her graceful snoring.
“Jesus, I’m not robbing you,” Annie says. “I think they gave me the wrong room number at the front desk.” She points at her suitcase to indicate she is a fellow traveler, amicable and well-intentioned.
“Oh. Oh, all right,” the man says, relieved. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I overreacted.”
“It’s fine. Sleep well,” Annie says as she closes the door, a little stunned.
She thinks the man must have seen the same 20/20 special she did a few years ago — the one that instructed you on how best to talk down a criminal. The favored method was to give a brief synopsis of your life story; to self-humanize in the hopes of interfering with the criminal’s one-track mind. How odd, Annie thinks, to be mistaken for someone who could have such motives. How odd, and yet vaguely empowering.
“You gave me the wrong room number, genius,” Annie says, back at the front desk in the lobby. “The key still worked, but it was the wrong room.”
“What makes you think that?” the man says, offended. His name tag says DARRYL.
“I opened the door and there were people inside.”
“Were they fucking?” Darryl asks.
“No, they weren’t fucking, they were sleeping.”
“Did you wake them up?”
“Yes, I did. It was a whole ordeal. Very unpleasant. Now can you tell me what room I’m actually in? I’m exhausted.”
“Dodge,” Annie says. “Last name is still Dodge.”
Darryl stares blankly at the screen, scrolling. “Oh,” he says. “So, that looked like a 6 earlier, but it’s an 8. You’re in room 108.”
“But this is still the correct key?” Annie asks, holding it up for him to see.
“Insider secret: most of the even-numbered keys here open most of the even-numbered doors,” Darryl says. “It’s cost-effective. But keep that between us.”
He gives a wink and a smile, his teeth white as geese. Annie can tell the tie he is wearing came pre-tied, probably it is hooked in the back. She finds this just barely endearing.
“You seem angry,” Darryl says. “You seem like maybe you want to speak with the manager.”
Annie shakes her head no, she just wants to go to sleep.
“Well, good,” Darryl says. “Because you’re seeing him. The manager, I mean. It’s me.” He appears very satisfied with the timing of this revelation. “Boy, that would’ve been embarrassing for you. If you’d been all, I want to speak to a manager right this instant, thinking I was some graveyard shift nobody. It would’ve been embarrassing for you and very fun for me and nothing around here is very much fun.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not very much fun either,” Annie says, and walks out of the lobby.
Annie wakes early, Texas sunlight cheap and bright through the accordion blinds. It is Wednesday, and she is scheduled to be at the prison by noon. She walks to the vending machine in the lobby and purchases a diet soda and tortilla chips. The chips get stuck on the way down and she has to give a shove and then another before they fall to the machine’s dropped jaw. Someone else is manning the front desk now, a pigtailed teenager. She is checking in a new guest and laughing, a laugh like two dogs barking in different keys.
Back in her room, Annie showers and dresses herself to meet the visitation protocol: an inoffensive pantsuit with taupe flats. It is exactly the sort of outfit she would wear to a dentistry conference to moderate a panel on underbites. She drinks her soda and eats her chips, which are stale and salty, as she flips through the lengthy informational packet sent to her a few weeks earlier, after she had called to place herself back on her father’s visitation list. That had been a ninety-minute ordeal with an irascible woman named Uma, in whose voice it was impossible not to detect equal parts impatience and judgment. She seemed to think Annie something of an imbecile for not being well versed in the ways of the bureaucratic bubble in which she, Uma, and Annie’s father were ensconced.
This is how it will work. Today she will see her father for an hour-long visit, a visit that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice deems a “special circumstance,” which makes it sound as if there may be Mylar balloons and a sheet cake involved. Tomorrow they will have another hour together in the early afternoon before Elliott’s last meal — before he is fingerprinted, allowed a shower, given a set of plain clothes, connected to an EKG monitor, and escorted by the warden into Huntsville’s execution chamber. On the other side of the glass in the chamber — glass which Annie’s internet searching has yet to confirm or deny as one-way, another element of the whole ordeal seemingly designed to be unknowable — there will be four chairs: two for the boy’s bereaved parents, one for the boy’s younger sister, and one for the family’s attorney. If she wishes, there is a special room where Annie can watch on a closed-circuit TV with the companionship of a chaplain as Elliott is belted to a gurney and injected with sodium thiopental, which will render him unconscious, pancuronium bromide, which will arrest his muscular system, and potassium chloride, which will forever stop the clatter of his heart.
She does not wish.
Annie checks her outfit once more. She considers ironing it again as it has developed a few wrinkles, but decides against it. She smiles into the mirror and flosses remnants of tortilla out from her gums. In a see-through change purse, she places enough quarters to buy herself and Elliott a drink and a snack, the humble offering they allow a visitor to make. And when there is nothing left to do, she loads the directions to the prison on her phone and makes her way out into the parking lot, where the blacktop sizzles and the sun is harsh and hovering like a bitter principal.
Two hours from here, in Waco, the building where Dodge Batting Cages was once in operation has since been demolished — the foundation repurposed as part of a strip mall or a housing tract, like everything in Waco — but because it is the space in which the murder was carried out, it is in some sense still a functioning, if figurative, environment: still mentally inhabitable by Elliott, Annie supposes, and surely by the young boy’s mother and father, who must to this day still dream of the discharging pitching machine, the awful stutter of it like a lawn sprinkler turning on. Even Annie, who prides herself on having admirable jurisdiction over her mind and its fraught impulses, has an infrequent but vivid dream wherein she floats herself just high enough to where she is above the batting cage on that night — like some novice superhero, some trainee angel — and peels back the slate roof with her hands, shingle by shingle.
Never in this dream is she able to prevent what slowly comes into view.
The newspapers had taken to characterizing the murder as an “unimaginable atrocity” back then, a severe underestimation of the human mind and its intransigence, its resistance to being governed. Devastation carved a long, wide river in you, a surface the size of your life, which allowed for the passage of all kinds of perverse conjecturing.
And how could it be true that the murder was unimaginable, for Annie’s father had imagined it, in detail, and performed it with alarming precision.
She had already been living in Austin for three years by then, in touch with Elliott insofar as many of the belongings that she did not bring with her to college still remained in his house, the house of her youth, where she would occasionally spend a long weekend. She had not seen nor spoken to him since the winter break several months before, when they took an unremarkable trip to South Padre Island, the memories of which Annie was asked to resurrect in a courtroom a year later. No, there had been no signs of her father’s imminent unwinding. Elliot had been the same as always: calcified in most places but occasionally humorous or attentive enough to surprise her. He absolutely was not, on that trip, a man who demonstrated a capacity for the kind of wretchedness he would display just a few months later. This was what the defense had wanted her to get across on the witness stand as they pleaded for insanity.
The only strange thing that had happened — and Annie wouldn’t truly realize its strangeness until it was already a memory, an implication — was that she had seen Elliott dancing on the last night of their vacation. They had rented a little condo by the beach and in the middle of the night Annie had peered out the blinds to see Elliott, shirtless and pirouetting in the sand, his hips swaying, his arms loose and stretched to an arrangement of stars, the only living soul on the Gulf Coast. He had appeared to be wearing some kind of a wig. Annie wrote it off in the moment as both highly strange and a little embarrassing; certainly nothing she planned to bring up on the five-hour drive home the next day. This recollection the defense asked Annie not include in her testimony, for they believed it suggested a sort of burgeoning madness, contradictory to the sudden rapture of lunacy they were going for.
But Annie never saw it as a sign, still doesn’t, of anything more than what must have been a lifetime of isolating loneliness; her father’s sadness at its saturation point. It had almost been beautiful, seeing him dance under a low-hung moon, allowing a desire.
The following May, Elliott had drugged, shaved, collared, and sodomized the boy before tying him with bungee cords to the cage’s fencing and starting the automatic pitcher, allowing it to unload round after round of fastballs into his face and chest, hours of this, the floor covered in bloodied seams, until hardly a bone was left unbroken and the boy was a nude, swollen, torn-open thing, at which point Elliott had called himself in to the police, who found him outside the property, a body in his arms, begging to be arrested.
Thirty-seven was the number of pieces the boy’s skull had been shattered into, an autopsist later reported.
“What was the only organ in Peter Price’s body still working when the police arrived?” went a popular joke at the time, “Elliott Dodge’s cock” being the punch line.
“Did you hear about the banana charged with murder?” went a kinder joke from Annie’s childhood. And when you had not heard about the banana who had been charged with murder you would be told that the case had been overturned on appeal.
From the highway, Annie sees the red brick of Walls Unit, the concertina wire decorating the perimeter like metal brackets fitted around teeth. She takes the exit and pulls into the visitor’s lot, where two sweaty, unfriendly officers search her car before giving her permission to park. You are allowed to run, she tells herself. You are the only one who knows. Then she dry-swallows two Ativan from her purse and walks toward the entrance.
Inside, Annie is taken to a white-walled room and told her father will be brought in soon. She has given what it might be like to see Elliott after all these years just enough thought so as to completely overdetermine her reaction, draining from it any possibility of authenticity. She felt she should be distant enough to make clear that no meaningful forgiveness had taken place, yet genial and compassionate enough so as not to belie the gravity of his situation. She would indulge him in a few summoned memories, but in absolutely no revision. She would redirect the conversation when she sensed it going in places she did not wish to go, and she would not ask questions whose answers might upset her. She would by no means allow Elliott to seek anything like closure. This was the plan. But when Elliott enters the room, Annie begins to cackle, and then she quickly begins to cry, and then she slides across the table a Kit-Kat and an RC Cola and places her face in her palms; the plan backfired, a swift wrecking ball through her parapeted resilience, all before her father has settled into his chair. She tries to regain her composure, but in her mind the moorings of a large ship are severed by a crook on dry land, and the vessel and its terrified crew begin to move recklessly into a dark, unsettled sea. A tempted fruit fly dives irretrievably into the uncorked bottle of wine.
“Hey, bug,” Elliott says, and reaches across the table to hold Annie’s hands in his, which are callused and cold. His face is thin and tugged-on and his hair mostly gone, the few tufts of silver that remain like wiped chalk on a blackboard. His ears are pointier than she remembers them being — or hadn’t she ever registered her father as even having ears? When he smiles, Annie sees that Elliott’s teeth show signs of terrible decay, all of them caked in plaque as if he has been brushing with melted butter. He has aged poorly, hardly anyone hadn’t here, but all the same it is him, her familiar and homely father, progenitor of her own unloveliness, and she recoils at how easy it is to recognize him, how effortlessly she can place him in history as hers. This is how she had always felt when she visited, and it is mostly why she stopped. She does not like what it suggests that he appears hardly any different after what he’d done. It ought to have left him disfigured somehow, visibly ruptured like the burned girl. Anything so that Annie could see him without seeing him, see him at a safe remove. Anything not to acknowledge as true the narrative which the defense had failed to combat in the trial: that Elliott was not a possessed man overtaken in a snap of dissociative fugue, but a very sick one who had systematically broken down until he was no longer able or willing to tame his dangerous, toxic hunger. The murder was just the place desperation had taken him to. It dropped most people off many stops before. Annie looks into the dim green of his eyes and wishes what she has always wished: that she could believe he had gone mad rather than know him, her father — who had taught her to swing and who had purchased her tampons in bulk and who had never so much as spanked her — as having had the capacity for such harrowing wildness all of his life; all of her life.
“So, how are you?” Elliott asks.
“Here,” Annie says, as if to confirm he has not hallucinated her. “I’m all right. A little nervous, I guess.”
“I can tell,” he says. “I’d be nervous if I remembered how to be.”
Annie nods, looks around the room as if anticipating a waiter. She waits for Elliott to say something, and then he does.
“Bug, it means so much to me that you came. I hope you know that. When I wrote you, I thought, if I were her? Not a chance in hell. Not if it was happening next-door. And I was pretty sure you weren’t gonna come either. Which I would not have blamed you for, Annie, believe me. But I prayed about it, I prayed about it a lot, and then just yesterday God told me that you were gonna show up here, right in the nick of time. That you were coming. And now here you are.”
“The man cannot keep a secret,” Annie says, for a joke. Her father found religion long before his incarceration, and because of this Annie has always granted his faith just a touch more legitimacy than anyone else’s here. It appeared that God talked to him regularly, which was one way God was better than Annie.
Time passes slowly as they volley back and forth, keeping the conversation light enough. He asks if she’s seen much of Boris; she hasn’t. She asks if they always keep it so godawful cold in here; they do. He asks about her practice and Annie admits she is not one of the top ten orthodontists in the city of Chicago, which Elliott kindly offers is a miscalculation. She tells him a little anecdote about Melvin the cat who has a tendency to nap in the dryer when it is left open; she is always having to double check before starting a cycle. Elliott relays a story about the wife of an inmate serving life without parole — a sentence he refers to as all day. The wife had the idea to grind up methadone, tint it with a few drops of food dye, and use the paste to fill in the illustrations of a child’s coloring book. After receiving them through the prison’s mail system, her husband would lick the drawings clean. Annie finds this scheme undeniably brilliant, but does not give her father — nor, by extension, the inmate and his wife — the satisfaction of saying so.
“Cleverness can get you pretty far in here,” Elliott says. “Sometimes too far. But it kills the time.”
“Do you still do your crosswords?” Annie asks. In another life, another Texas, Annie and her father had spent Sunday mornings doing the crossword on the back page of the Waco Tribune, making up words for the answers that eluded them.
“Absolutely,” Elliott says. “One of the better parts of my days. I was doing one this morning. I kid you not: 12 across, eight letters, a penitentiary, informal.”
Annie thinks on it a minute, counts letters on her fingers. “Hoosegow?”
“May God strike me dead if I’m lying,” Elliott says. It is the kind of remark Annie is glad she herself had not made.
Somewhere past the half-hour mark, the Ativan finally kick in, and Annie settles into their snug alchemy. The panic she felt at the beginning of the conversation is converted into a kind of acquiescent distress, one that does not demand immediate attention and which she can return to later. It becomes apparent that she and her father have run out of small talk, and Annie can tell he wants to be asked about the execution. She can tell he has a thing to say about it, probably rehearsed.
“How are you feeling about what’s happening tomorrow?” she asks, buttressed by the benzodiazepine.
“I really thought you’d never ask. I thought we were gonna have this entire conversation, the full hour, without once mentioning it.”
“I’m sorry,” Annie says, though not what for.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve made peace with it. I know to anyone not in my shoes that must seem impossible. Or it must seem delusional. But you can only fear a thing for so long, Annie, that’s what I’ve learned in here. I’m just a few weeks shy of having served seventeen years — you can’t keep up dread that long. Dread gets tired, gets old. Anticipation: give it enough time, it isn’t much different than acceptance, really. So, I’m okay.”
How nice it would be were it true, but Annie can tell he is downplaying, in the way only a daughter can see her father. As he speaks, he uses the same voice he used so many years ago on Padre Island, the first night of their vacation, when the Jeep they had rented had broken down after midnight while they were off-roading through the remote dunes and marshes. They were many miles from anyone who might help, and Elliott had said, feigning confidence, “There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.” He had said this over and over, in what he must have imagined was a reassuring tone, until Annie was certain that it was the place they were going to die. Eventually, not long before sunrise, a Samaritan in a land rover came to the rescue, and as he approached Elliott had given Annie a look as if to say, “I told you so.” But she had seen her father shivering.
“I still don’t think it’s right, what they’re going to do,” Elliott continues. “I still don’t think it’s natural. It’s not their place to make such decisions. I’ve made peace with it, believe me, but you know what God’s gonna say to me when I get there? He’s gonna say, ‘You’re home early.’”
This was also what Boris had said to Annie the day she walked into their home to find a brunette double-amputee in the living room with Boris’s dick in her mouth. The woman’s eyes were closed and she had been smoothing the skin of his scrotum with her fingers in such a way that Annie’s first thought had not been, My marriage is over, My husband has been unfaithful, but rather, Does this woman think there’s braille written on Boris’s balls? It was such a strange scene, almost impossible to take seriously at first. Boris would tell her later that he had a fetish for amputees. There were apparently websites one could visit to meet other all-limbed people who shared this fetish, as well as amputees looking to be desired and fulfill the fantasies of others. One simply set up a profile, paid the monthly registration fee, and chatted away. “There’s just something about them being missing,” Boris had said.
It was many weeks before Annie landed on what would’ve been a terrific response to this, which was, “It’s just like you to get off on detachment.”
“Are you there?” Elliott asks, and Annie realizes she has tuned out. It seems her mind is demagnetized from the present moment, meandering through time, attaching itself to stories that already have endings.
“I am,” she says, though she has never felt more — more what. More elsewhere.
The warden gives them a five-minute warning, and Elliott tells Annie not to show up tomorrow. He says this as if they are merely rescheduling.
“What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t I be here? Where else would I be?” Annie asks, incredulous.
“You don’t have to, really,” Elliott insists. “I think I’m gonna spend my day in prayer. That seems like the best thing for me to do at this point. Plus I’m afraid that, if they give me too much time with you, I’ll do something stupid like ask for your forgiveness.” Elliott polishes off what remains of the soda and the Kit-Kat, nods his head toward heaven. “I’d rather ask for His.”
Annie doubts he’ll get it from either of them, though this is nothing she vocalizes. “But I want to be here,” she says, unconvincingly. “You asked. I made the trip. I’m here.”
“I just needed to see you one more time. Everything would’ve felt incomplete otherwise. Or, even more incomplete, I guess,” Elliott says. “I needed to see to it that you were all right. And you are, aren’t you? You seem all right, truly. That puts me at ease. And I thank you so much for coming, for making the trip, for taking time off work. But tomorrow? Shit, Annie. No one should have to see that. No one should ask anyone to see it. It’s twisted, it’s embarrassing. Get an earlier flight home. Do something for yourself.”
Annie cannot deny the strong sense of relief inside of her. The idea of seeing him tomorrow, after just having seen him today, had unnerved her. What else would they say, or fail to say, that they hadn’t this time? His uninviting her, she knows, is an act of kindness. She looks at her father, wants to give him something back, feels she should, and does not. He squeezes her hands once more, tries to out-grin tears that come anyway. The warden tells them their time is up. Annie can’t remember whether or not she’s allowed to, but she wraps her arms around Elliott anyway. My bug, my bug, my bug, he keeps saying. He smells a little sweet and a little like disinfectant. And then he is escorted out, waving, gone.
Annie takes to the highway in her rental. She drives and drives. She feels released from something, both in the way that means freed and in the way that means dropped. The radio issues a series of classic country songs, the lyrics amusing in their frankness. I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home. Get your tongue outta my mouth, I’m kissin’ you goodbye. She’s looking better after every beer. I bought a car from the guy that stole my lady, but the car don’t run and the lady’s crazy: I figure that makes us even. The highway swells with commuters, and then empties itself of them. Annie kills half a tank this way until the sun is hauled down from the top of the sky. She picks up a case of light beer from a drive-thru liquor store and a pack of the Marlboro Lights she’d given up many years ago from the gas station before driving back to the hotel.
In the lobby, Darryl tells Annie that the air conditioning is down. It is nearly ninety degrees, even with the sun gone. A stream of sweat trickles down his forehead, like he is leaking. The other patrons have taken off to a nearby motel with a refund and a gift voucher for their next stay. He can do the same for her, Darryl says, all he needs is the credit card she used to book the room.
“I don’t mind the heat,” Annie says, having no energy to relocate on her last night.
“Plus, I don’t have any intentions on coming back.” She removes the pack of cigarettes from her purse. “Let’s pretend smoking is allowed in my room for the night and I won’t complain.”
“We’ve got a few fans in the basement,” Darryl says. “I can bring them up later.”
“All right,” Annie says. “You do that.”
By the time Darryl knocks on the door, it is nearly midnight and Annie is tanked. So much of the beer is gone. She took a few more Ativan earlier when it seemed things were catching up to her, but now she feels fine, if only a little floaty. The knocking persists, though Annie can’t remember, until she opens the door, inviting someone over. Darryl is there, holding two pedestal fans, one in each hand.
“Oh thank God,” Annie says. “It’s a fucking sweatshop in here.”
She opens the door wider to let him in. He looks at the collection of empties, some of which Annie has repurposed as ashtrays, and Annie shrugs when he looks to her as if to say, Yeah, and what of it. She is feeling strangely emboldened; she doesn’t drink often and now she wonders why that is. When Darryl gets the fans running, the artificial breeze is a kind of heaven. He positions them in such a way that every spot in the small room gets direct contact. Annie is grateful for this, and looks through her purse for a few dollar bills.
“Don’t worry about it,” Darryl says. “I’m just glad you decided to stay.”
“I don’t know. Just am.”
Annie stretches herself horizontally across the bed, her arms and legs dangling over either side. She closes her eyes, but can still sense Darryl there, watching her. It is a feeling she had forgotten until now, that of being looked at, looked at with a motive. She is still in the pantsuit; she had meant to take it off when she returned, but doing so had seemed too daunting, herculean almost. She rolls over and stares at Darryl, who is sweaty and shiny, a little portly, but not without his own appeal.
“So, can I stick around?” Darryl asks, having worked up whatever courage was necessary to solicit a drunk and homely thirty-eight year-old in a wrinkled pantsuit.
“No,” Annie says, because how often does she have the chance to turn a man down and because she knows he will persist.
“I don’t know. I’m drunk and getting drunker. I’m a little dizzy.”
“I could join you in that.”
“There’s a chance I’ll vomit,” Annie says, ignoring him. “Plus, it’s late.”
“It’s getting earlier.”
He has an answer for everything, this Darryl character.
“Plus I’m ugly. Look,” she says, tracing her face and her shape with her hands, up and down, as if trying and failing to smooth out her undesirability.
“So?” Darryl says, and she falls in love with him for a minute right there, with the space where his denial wasn’t. He had let her have it! “I’m no prized pig myself,” he says.
Though, come to think of it, he doesn’t not look piggish. Annie imagines him at a county fair, being walked up to a stage to collect a blue ribbon, and begins to laugh.
“Is that a yes?” he asks.
“It’s a ‘I’m not going to remember this with much detail tomorrow anyway,’” Annie says. “It’s a ‘Why not, today has been a day.’”
Darryl closes the door, grabs one of the remaining beers from the case. He empties it within minutes. He lies on his stomach parallel to Annie on the bed, their bodies like overturned hammocks. It is getting cooler in the room, finally. Annie removes her blazer. Darryl places his hand tentatively on her back and then begins to scratch at her shoulders, drag his knuckles down her sides. He kisses each of the twenty-three discs in her spine. Darryl is taking his time. Darryl is in no rush. Though he is, it must be said, several beers behind her.
“Listen,” Annie says, turning over. She can see the impression of his modest cock through his khakis. “It’s been a while since I’ve done this but I don’t forget how. I slept with men like you. Because you were raised well, you think that you have to go through a sufficient amount of foreplay, but really: I am drunk and I am lonely and we are in Huntsville and seeing as we’ll never cross paths again, I say we skip right to the main event, shall we? This is me, giving you the green light.”
Annie hardly recognizes herself as the person saying these things, and she admires this sudden aggressiveness. She takes her clothes off and motions for Darryl to do the same. He slides himself into her, pumps admirably for a man with his body mass index and likely arterial blockage. He tries to grip her breasts while bending her over, but his arms aren’t long enough and he keeps slipping out of her. Outside, the sound of sirens, which serves as a cue to switch positions. He gets on top of her but can’t seem to find the entrance, he just pokes around. It is dark and men are always confused by where things are regardless. She guides him. He rocks inside of her some more, striking a surprising balance between tenderness and hostility. They fuck and fuck, a sweaty mess.
“I’m getting close,” Darryl warns. He pulls himself out and looks to her for instruction. Annie has no idea from where in her memory she excavates such a phrase, but she hears herself say, “Bust on my face.” Perhaps she had heard it in one of the amputee videos she downloaded after learning about Boris’s fetish. She had not been able to make it more than a minute through those videos without crying or laughing, hysterical either way.
“Bust on my face,” she says again, just to hear herself say it.
And so he does. His face contorts as though he’s bitten into a lemon, and thin ropes of pearl white land on Annie’s cheeks.
They laugh for a bit, both of them clammy and exhausted and short of breath. Eventually Annie goes to the bathroom and washes her face, wipes it dry with a towel. In the mirror, she is surprised to see herself smiling. Giddy, even. It appears that with enough beer and anti-anxiety medication — along with a stringent refusal of the day’s facticity — she is a rather delightful person, impulsive and raunchy and ravenous.
“You know, you look like a woman I slept with once,” Darryl says, when she returns to bed.
“Yeah, about fifteen, twenty minutes ago.”
“Funny,” Annie says, and he is. He opens up a space between his arm and chest and she moves in there.
“Why did you say you were in town again?” Darryl asks. “Because I think, whatever it is, you ought to do it more often.”
“I didn’t say.”
“Well, can I ask?”
“Sure,” Annie says. There is a pause. “Are you going to?”
“Know what? Bet I can guess,” Darryl says, and lights cigarettes for both of them.
“Bet you can’t.”
“Let me think, let me think,” Darryl says. He takes a few drags, exhales a plume of white.
“My father’s being executed tomorrow,” Annie says, so abruptly, and the bottom just like that falls out of the evening, sending them tumbling. “Tomorrow at five p.m. at the Huntsville prison.”
“Jesus Christ,” Darryl says, unsure whether to believe her.
“What? You weren’t going to guess.”
“I mean. I mean, Jesus Christ.”
“Hey, he goes to my church,” Annie remarks, and laughs a little at her own joke.
“Are you fucking with me?” Darryl asks. He appears genuinely hurt; wounded, even.
“No, I’m not. I wouldn’t.” Annie tries to take his hand but he pulls it away and gets up from the bed, his cock deflated. “My father committed a murder eighteen years ago, for which he received the death penalty. He is going to be executed tomorrow at five o’clock. That’s really the story.”
Darryl is stunned into silence, runs his fingers through his thinning hair. “What is wrong with you?” is what he finally asks.
“A great deal,” Annie says. “Almost everything.”
“Are you in some kind of shock or something? What in the world are you thinking? Why are you sleeping with a stranger the night before something like that? Jesus Christ, I came on your face! You asked me to come on your face and I did and your fucking father’s being executed tomorrow. I mean, Jesus. Do you not see how fucked up that is?”
“Oh, fuck you,” Annie says. “I get to decide what all of this means and doesn’t mean. I’m the one it’s happening to, after all. You don’t like it, well, you don’t have to. I had a terrible day, a completely awful, insufferable day. I spent hours trying to drive it off and that didn’t take. So I got very drunk. I got very drunk and you were there, at the door. None of this was planned. I sure as shit don’t have to defend myself to you.”
Darryl looks around the room as one who has been transported from another time, another dimension, shocked at this world’s complexities and banalities. The fans continue to spin noisily, making the smoke curl and dance. He tries to say something, but no words come. He paces a little, puts his clothes back on. He gives a few more false starts, but eventually he’s out the door, slamming it behind him.
It doesn’t faze Annie much; she’s asleep not ten minutes later.
She wakes in the late afternoon sticky and ill, a jackhammer at work in her cranium. She takes a cold shower and as she dresses, she notices that the fans are gone. She calls the airline and procures the last seat on a red-eye flight. It will cost her a $175 service fee to make the change, the customer representative says, and Annie says it could cost twice as much and she still wouldn’t blink an eye. She needs to get out of here. Out of this motel. Out of Texas. Out of this part of her life she has made the grievous mistake of dipping back into. She packs her things hastily and walks downstairs to the lobby where, mercifully, Darryl is not. It appeared she had done a number on him last night. Poor guy, she thinks, and loads up her rental car, stopping first to vomit on the curb.
Twenty minutes before her father is set to be executed, Annie parks in the lot of a grocery store down the road from the prison and begins to walk toward the grounds. She feels that, though she is not with Elliott in his last moments — and she is relieved about that, really — she should at least be nearby. Her clothes stick to her skin, the sun unforgiving as ever in the Lone Star State. She knows it’s silly, but she wouldn’t mind a slight thrum in her chest or a flock of birds describing themselves into the sky the second the clock hits five. She wants this should she ever have to tell this story to anyone; it would be a nice ending, she thinks, to an otherwise miserable and horrific tale. She had read a post once on a forum for mothers of inmates where a woman swore that, the day they executed her son — who was a storied serial killer — she saw two rainbows reaching from inside the gates of the prison to the world outside it. Of course Annie did not believe it, but as far as narrative resonance went, you couldn’t do much better than two rainbows. But nothing like this happens. No somber downpour, no flock of birds. No rainbows. The minute passes like the one before and after it. It’s just as well: she doubts she’ll ever tell the story to anyone, will not tell it even to herself.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Vincent Scarpa.