On January 17, 2000, a bullet traveled from a .25 Ruger pistol at a speed of 2,000 feet per second and pierced a pregnant 25-year old Tina Maples in the left side of her frontal lobe. Maples was shot at point blank range. The bullet burned a hole diagonally through Maples’ left cranium and cerebral cortex to land against the right cranium, ricochet back through the cerebral cortex and lodge within the left temporal lobe. En route, the bullet pierced the basal ganglia and punctured the upper brain stern. Death was instantaneous.
“Kynez was a good baby,” Ma’Dear told the producer. “Real good. He never gave me no trouble at all. No, he didn’t. He almost never cried. A little bit here and there, like a normal child. But beyond that, no…he was good, real good. He had a good behavior.”
“What was he like, cognitively?” the producer asked. The producer’s director of photography fiddled in front of the camera he kept his eyes on, to watch Ma’Dear as he recorded her. The sound girl sat still, nearly asleep. Ma’Dear pat at her nose, thinking it was shining. She hated that. Kept tissue in her purse for it. She had done a few of these, by now. It was all so much more technical and drawn out, boring even, than tv ever show. Ma’Dear always heat up too much under the lights. One time she got faint.
“What?” she asked the producer.
“Cognitively. You know. How would you say he thought, on a cognitive basis?”
“Say again?” Ma’Dear squinted.
“Were his intellectual capabilities and intelligence on par with other kids his age, would you say? Did he enjoy learning, activities on par with other children his age?”
“Oh. That kind of stuff. Well. Oh sure. I suppose so.”
I left the living room for the kitchen, poured myself some red Kool-Aid. But I could still hear. Ma’Dear thought back:
“Well I guess Kynez started counting and knowing his letters, all that, same time as these other kids. ‘Bout three. He potty-trained a little later than my girl, but not too late. No. Nothing out of the ordinary. Kynez was a creative child. He liked to color with them…them…crayons all the time. He get a box on his birthday or Christmas, and every last one of them crayons be worn down to the nub by time Easter come. And, he’d want me to buy more. He’d just draw and draw.”
“Oh really? What did Kynez like to draw?” “Well, whatever kids draw. I don’t know. Rainbows, trains, cars, trucks, houses, dogs, cats, fire trucks. Anything. Anything at all. I got so tired of putting his little stuff up on that there refrigerator and these walls. Oh, he’d tickle me so with all his mess.”
“Did any of his drawings have indication of violence, or deviant tendencies?”
“Oh no! None at all. Like I say, he mostly draw rainbows and simple stuff. He loved trains, animals. And, crosses even, with angels around them. Kynez loved the Lord very much. He was a good kid. It wasn’t ‘til-”
“Oh, Missus Madison. We have to-wait, there’s…we still rolling? Oh.”
Then, “We got b-roll?”
Finally, just as I came out to watch and put my two cents in, “Ok…looks like I’m out of tape. Thank you so much. We’ll be back next week. I think. Ok. Cut.”
In 21 days, my brother, my twin, my dawg, my homie, my partner, my best friend, mi amigo, my uncle, my don, my Bonnie, my Clyde, my Tonto, my grandma’s son and my mother’s brother, will be executed, by the state of Indiana, by lethal injection, by law.
I’m a witness. I turned paperwork into the Department of Corrections last week (again) to make sure. Kynez put my name on his list, asked for me specifically, out of just three or four people he got room for. He already had a last-minute 120-day reprieve, for him to fantasize on freedom, for his lawyers to grasp for straws, for reporters to knock on our door, for strangers who didn’t know him before to hear his name now, for the ones of us who do know him to sit in limbo and wait and remember, for this giant and monstrous and really real thing that’s been an elephant in our dark rooms for eight years to keep its control over our lives and do something not even God can do: stop time.
Two days after that, I’m supposed to get married. About that, I ain’t so sure. I didn’t plan for the dates to coincide. Why would I? He’s supposed to be gone already. Funeral got to be sped up or put off just cause I’m marrying my girl? God forbid, it all winds up on the same day. Everybody at my wedding talking about him, crying and shit, while I’m supposed to be dancing and happy and drunk? Every time my anniversary roll around, there’s a memory more outstanding than that. A chill over it, an evil twin to it, a Hyde. Am I supposed to carry the flowers from the funeral home and use them at the church for the wedding? Do we bring all the cakes left over from his repast to my reception hall, just in case we run out and need extras? I don’t know. It makes no sense.
“Well…when? I’m tired of waiting, Spencer,” Denetria had badgered.
“After the execution,” I told her, at one time. That time was last summer. Then it became this past winter. I would turn up my music, bob my head, press the headphones deep into my ear drums, to Jay and Pac, Kanye and Common, Lauryn and Mos, T.I.
But the initial execution was put off. Twice. A few times and a few months. Not stayed. Just appealed. Twice. Bullshit. New evidence, his lawyers claimed. Now? Last minute? It’s been nine years. What could they know about now they couldn’t know about then? How come it took them so long to find out? What about all the time he spent in there already? Who’s paying that back? What about all the times they told him, all of us, this shit would all be reversed? How many times you think you can get people’s hopes up and then go right back to what it was all along? People ain’t puppets.
Shakes ain’t talking. He ain’t really eating. He ain’t going out. He ain’t showering. He ain’t taking his meds. He ain’t giving interviews. He ain’t begging for commissary cash. He’s writing. To us. Every day. Sending note after note after note home in perfect cursive one line, hieroglyphics the next line, a comic strip on the next and illustrations at the end, having to do with God and the Devil and Jesus. I don’t open mine no more. Ma’Dear open hers, and mine too. She claim they make some sense and she can understand ‘em and I’m just not trying hard enough. I heard that one before.
But she ain’t my mama. She’s really his. She’s just my Grandma. Shakes was born a few months before I was. My mother was just in high school, with sickle cell anemia and a Kentucky Fried Chicken job and a boyfriend who came by for a while when I was brand new. Once they graduated, he went off to college in the South and married a cheerleader he met on a campus during Freaknik. So, Kynez and me, raised together all our life, are really like brothers. Ma died when she was 25. I was 9. It’s been 25 years since I saw her face outside a picture frame or figment of my imagination. I’m over it. I guess. Now, my life is about looking at Shakes’ pictures with Ma’Dear, talking about my daughter with Denetria and basically being run around told what to do…by everybody.
“Serenity’s gonna be in pre-school next year,” Denetria used to remind me. “I found a good one, off in Hammond. All the parents I met at the orientation work full-time at the casino and the hospital. They’re married. Went to college. Got big, pretty rings. Spencer, I don’t want my daughter walking up in there the only one without a daddy.”
“She got a daddy,” I reminded Denetria: my girl, my baby mama, my fiancé.
Who was I? A boogieman? A leprechaun? Santa Claus dropping off presents? A fairy godfather whipping up Captain Crunch for breakfast and grilled cheese for dinner? Serenity ain’t got no damned daddy? News to me.
I have to watch my words. Denetria has the apartment, not me. All my stuff is just there. I travel, I suppose. I’m liable to pull up one day and find my shit at the curb. Where would it go then? My woman got the upper hand. She remind me of it all the time.
Ma’Dear’s house is down the street from the Horseshoe Casino, on 119th street, same place it’s been since I was three my damned self, it seem. The pink brick one-story on the corner. The big yard and chain link fence and doghouse in the back and three black dogs running to the front. The Rottweilers don’t bite. They just go crazy to get out the fence. That’s what I tell everybody who ride by or came to get me all these years. The pink brick one-story on the corner. After while, it just came known as that. This is where we was. Spencer and Shakes, one and the same, together, coming out the house with high-top fades lined up fresh, Crown Royal sagging our hoodie pockets, a couple blunts stuck in our socks and money clips on the Timbos. We were popular. But, that was back then. Now, I realize we should have been paying more attention to more.
All this magnifies fact I wound up working in the crematorium and incinerator associated with the Lake Country Coroner’s Office, mostly dealing with Lake County in Indiana, but having something or other to do with Chicago sometimes. The city’s downtown is about fifteen miles away. Since nobody at work knows I know Shakes, he come on the news and I hear different perspective: “That nigger crazy”…“Let ‘em fry”… “How the fuck did not somebody see that coming?” We didn’t. I stay quiet, handle the cases and bodies and burials of people who have no next of kin or no money for coffins. Usually, they’re people found randomly in motels and hotels and alleys and apartments in big buildings or little houses on unsettled but quiet blocks. Contrary to what most people think when they hear of a coroner and his office, the majority of people I’ve ashed to a final grave weren’t at all murdered or killed in any violent ways. Usually, it was pretty natural stuff. The fact they have to be buried by paid strangers in a coroner’s office is usually the most unnatural thing about both how they lived and died.
Though I don’t work in the offices, I hear they’re bodies whose kids haven’t seen them in years or whose grandkids forgot their addresses or whose neighbors liked them enough to chit-chat close to their doors, but not enough to lend money for their headstones. A lot of ‘em didn’t have a regular doctor to sign the death certificate. They come to me rolled in plastic and tarp and bound with twine. They’ve hardened and shrunk no matter who and what they were when alive. They’re featureless and faceless and nameless but numbered with a tag on the plastic, so we know which slot to put their cardboard box of ashes in down in the cool cellar. When it’s been a year or two after the person was found but nobody’s ever come to claim their ashes, we bury the ashes in a communal plot donated by the County and paid for with sales from the deceaseds’ auctioned estates. I wear a fiber filtration mask for the dust and the ashes and the fumes. I wear paper booties and a jumpsuit for caution. I listen to WGCI when I’m working with a body and I watch WGN when I get a rest.
Now, in 21 days, before the sun rise, Shakes is gonna die. The State I work for gets what it want. The mothers and fathers and brother and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins and friends of Tina Maples get what they want—and deserve, according to most. The white folks who see us every day like gangsters on the news, and pass us in Strack Van Till and Carson Pirie Scott and BP Amoco and the Casino, without so much as a kind word or one look in our direction, with whatever ideas they keep from seeing us on the news, will know they still runnin’ it. They’ll know they can run to the woods starting every October, with license to shoot down deer who ain’t bothering nobody. And they can even gloat about it, put it on their walls, show it off in back of pickups. Order restored. Reality checked. A grave dug. The Lord avenged.
Shakes ain’t do it. He’s say that since day one. Do I believe him? Do I gotta choice? We’ve watched him transform: babyface grown wrinkled, short fade gone dready, bird chest gone pumped up, wide eyes yellowed. He’s good behaved, but like Ma’Dear says in his movie: he always has been. Nobody been more surprised about his outcome than us. Yeah, we broke curfew. We brought girls home when Ma’Dear was at church. We called ourselves trying to steal cars, joyriding for a bit before parking ‘em right back in the garages of the friends whose parents were never none the wiser. That’s the stuff I want to think about, and remember. Everything he done dumped on me from inside—the bloody fights, the tough baloney sandwiches, dropping the soap—I forgot. Or, at least I try to. Don’t do me no good to remember. I don’t know why it’s a film.
Ma’Dear can’t settle on an outfit she want Shakes to see her in for the last time ever. I wanna tell her she ain’t picking out her dress for Easter or the last big birthday party she’s ever going to have. She’s dragged me to DSW and Baker’s to look for new shoes. She still got hope we gonna find high heels with the toe part being wide enough to fit her bunions. She got an appointment with Miss Vera to do her hair the day before, so we can check in a motel in Michigan City by at least noon the next day, and have time to get settled and eat something, and then go on to the facility for a visit (if we get one), then get back in our rooms to stick by the phone until Shakes ain’t got no more time to call, and then go back to the facility least two hours ahead of midnight to make sure all is well and we on time. Then, after he goes to sleep, we can get back to the motel to try to get some sleep ourselves. In the morning, we get to the Michigan City Medical Examiner’s office to claim Shakes’ body and bring him back home to us. To bury him.
“It’s all in divine order…” Ma’Dear chants, over and over and over. “I swear ‘fore God I’ll break a commandment and kill somebody ‘fore I miss it. We just going to a funeral, and Lord knows I been to plenty of those. All this is. Two funerals in a row.”
And the sisters from the church who keep on coming by just nod with her. They pray. They bring plates covered in aluminum foil: cake, chicken, casseroles, dressing. She leaves me Tupperware on the stove to take to work for lunch.
Denetria found a wedding dress at David’s Bridal with the back out and no sleeves. Her tattoos will show: the one of her mother and father’s names, one of my name, one of Serenity’s, a loopy downturned Aries cross for herself. The church is in Chicago. It’s gonna be the same one she was christened and baptized in. It’s the one Serenity’s getting baptized in on Sunday. Denetria wants carnations cause they’re cheap enough for her to fill the church with. But her bouquet gotta be roses, she keeps telling me. She keeps going to Macy’s on State Street in Chicago, a couple of times, with her girls. The hot chicks at the MAC counter make up her face in a variety of palettes. She checks with me on each one. I like none, cause they change her face too much. I tell her I like all. She’s gone to another store in Macy’s for the stationary to print the invitations on. The envelopes are purple. The information inside is printed in gold on butter cream paper. I’m supposed to go to David’s Bridal to get a tux with a purple bowtie and cummerbund. Sometime before the wedding, I’m also supposed to notify a best man, and a two other groomsmen to match her one sister and best friend from high school when they all walk down the aisle, to “Here and Now” by Luther Vandross and Gregory Hines. Or “Always and Forever,” by somebody whose name I just don’t know. I just go by what I’m told. I got a mind whose gonna do it, but I ain’t officially asked them yet. I’ll do it in a few days, I guess. After the baptism. They got to come get fitted for the same attire I’ll wear, or at least similar. Denetria planned all this four months ago, around Valentine’s Day, soon as I gave her a cluster from Zales when we woke up. We had had sex. It was supposed to be a promise ring. But, she took it and ran with it. For more. Much.
In 21 days, my brother, my twin, my dawg, my homie, my partner, my best friend, mi amigo, my uncle, my don, my Bonnie, my Clyde, my Tonto, my Grandma’s son and my mother’s brother, will be executed. He got the first death order a few days after Valentine’s Day, when I got engaged all of a sudden. We found out about his date the very same day. The minute I gave her a ring, which Denetria had pointed out herself, she told me day and time for everything else. I had no say. About a week later, I told her:
“They set the date. It’s gonna be ‘round that time. Start of the summer.”
“Well, but, ummm…I done told everybody ‘bout the wedding already.”
“Well, tell ‘em something else. Shakes gonna die. We gonna have to change it.”
“That’s tacky. I mean, I already had Serenity damned near three years ago.”
“What’s one more year, or a few more months?”
“Nigga, you just don’t want to do it. That’s all…You ain’t fooling nobody.”
“Ain’t trying to.” I switched the record to a song more slow. Then, I took off the headphones. Best I could do was make love to her. And then I could run out to Empire Chinese for the shrimp fried rice, veggie tempura and egg rolls she loves.
She continued, because she had my attention, and I would listen: “I mean, it’s been almost ten years since all this started…I didn’t even know you back then. You don’t even go see him no more. I know it’s hard. Trust me, I’m with you baby. I deal with it when you deal with it. I’m just saying, we can’t help it, now. Keep our lives on hold. You using all this as an excuse….”
She was partially right. Truth is, I didn’t much see the need for it. I still don’t. In 21 days, the State of Indiana will take the one person I’ve told more secrets to than her and walk him into a chamber where I’m supposed to watch him go to sleep forever, like a dog gone sick, and never have one more chance to say “What’s up?” or “How you doin’?” or “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas.” And, this is the law. This is organized and ordained and practiced. This is the way of the land. Now, with rules and randomness like that, I don’t see how and why my rules of thinking I’m enough of a husband and father without all that fanciness isn’t enough in my land. I am here with my family. All the time. A phone call, text, email, shout out, Blackplanet note away. I “Like” everybody’s shit on Facebook. I come when I’m called. To everybody. Gave up my life for them. Everybody. Everything. Little of it had much to do with me but Serenity. She’s mine. That much, I admit. I don’t deny I could have been more responsible. I can’t blame or scorn her for that. The rest of it, well. I got swept up.
Shakes started smoking weed when we was about 13. He dropped out of school when he was 16. I couldn’t. I actually liked it. I was on the basketball team. Gym teacher recommended me. Point guard at Calumet. ‘C+/B-‘ average. It could have been a ‘B’ if I had tried just a tad bit harder. But, all that didn’t appeal to me. I went to classes all week, practice after classes, KFC on Friday and Saturday if I didn’t have a game, church on Sundays. KFC hired me because they remembered my mother. KFC kept me because they remembered my mother. I was always late. I brought home more than my share of buckets and biscuits. Got to the point where Ma’Dear and Shakes and everybody else depended on me for it. Then, got to the point where Shakes wasn’t here.
Shakes was in and out for a few years, leaving behind a son to boot. For Ma’Dear to take care of. Shakes just had to have a baby by a chick who was worse off into that life than his ass was. Janice still pop up every now and again. After Shakes got convicted, she dropped their kid off one Sunday after church and disappeared for the next two weeks. Then Ma’Dear said: “That’s it.” She wouldn’t let it out of her sight. Ever since, Ma’Dear sometimes acts mad at me, like the boy is mine. James’ll be 12, a few weeks after the execution. He’s too young to witness. He still remember Shakes, though, with some pride. It took me a couple of years to get him off my back like I was his daddy, and not his cousin. But, I guess now, after all that’s happened and all the talk, he understands. He’s accepted it. Or, at least he pretends to. He’s in the seventh grade now, taller than me and his daddy. Shakes been locked up whole time he’s been in school, so the boy hasn’t had to explain or talk about it. He got his mama’s last name—Perry—and not ours—Madison. So nobody associate him with any of it. We’ve kept it quiet. For his own good.
On Y2K 2000, when everybody I knew had filled up their bathtubs with water and the cabinets with canned goods and the cars with gas and the minds with nonsense, Shakes was out and about with one or more of the unsavories he brought by the house, whom Ma’Dear told him not to bring back. I hadn’t met Denetria yet. I was with another chick at the time. I remember her name was Felicia. She kept me plenty occupied. For this, I was grateful. And, on Y2K, 99 going to 2000, when the folks who had some money was worried about computers losing it and the folks who didn’t have money worried about computers messing up government checks, me and Shakes wasn’t worried. Nothing much was going to change for us either way. I just would have been annoyed if the streetlights hadn’t worked no more like everybody predicted.
Maybe all the scrambling we were supposed to believe would go on would erase the bills my relatives had run up in my name without paying, or all the parking tickets I owed in my own name. So, for me, it was all a good thing: stay in the house until everybody else got over the mayhem, get used to actually counting out change and saving money in the top drawer again. I had a couple grand on me from KFC, where I was, had been, since graduation. I never scored more than a 16 on the ACT, so my options were limited. I was at Calumet College, staying warmed up and tight on the Lake Michigan courts, thinking of a transfer but honestly just content where I was. Why wouldn’t I be? The pink brick one-story house on the corner was paid for, the bills minimal, the clubs in Chicago just thirty minutes away up and down the toll-way. I could have left it all before the job, Big Mama, Denetria, the name, the story. I could have been free.
Shakes was into some other stuff I didn’t quite know about or understand. Nor did I want to. It was above my head and my means. I always been yellow-hearted. He used to be somebody the ladies who knew me haggled me about. “Where Shakes? Where Shakes at? Call that fine nigga…” Dressed down and up (depending on which way you was looking) in Karl Kani, Fubu, Rocawear, Phat Farm. But he was smoking that weed, every day and all day. His lips turned black and thin, like purple Play-Doh rolled out. He lost a tooth. By time he was going on nineteen, he was on his way to two years in Cook County boot camp for an East Chicago corner store robbery, where he drove the car but didn’t have the pistol, so he was spared the real deal. Boot camp waiting list was so long he got out early a few weeks, or months (I don’t remember all this shit exact). Then, by time he was twenty, he started to wear the same outfits a few days in a row and wipe off pools of sweat whenever he showed up to sit with me on the porch to see the dogs for a bit. They still recognized him, easy. I didn’t. He shook. He drooled. He rambled. He stunk of not enough deodorant but too much cologne. He laughed crazy. He was on that shit.
“You need to get on out of Ma’Dear’s house,” he always told me. His head stood an inch taller than mine even when we sat down on the porch. His biceps pumped out of a dingy and torn muscle shirt, like he was the one shooting layups as if he once thought his life depended on it. I had on a down jacket; he claimed he wasn’t even cold.
“I’m good,” I had told him. He wiped his nose with his bare forearm. He didn’t even mind the snowflakes come down on the mouth of the Sunkist I suspected as his only meal, before he appeared in the kitchen to devour all our bacon and eggs. Then he took a few video games he claimed he would bring right back, and ran all the hot water out the shower so Ma bitched later on she couldn’t wash any white clothes until the night.
And, about two weeks after that last time we sat on the porch, when we threw off a whole pack of raw bacon to the dogs (knowin’ Ma’Dear would hit the roof, so we laughed in advance at her reaction), when I shivered in my down jacket and Shakes sweat in his bare arms, the weather turned a bit friendlier. The snow thawed on the Indiana Dunes near a stone quarry. A salt worker saw Tina Maples’ body, with part of her face blasted off but her once-pregnant belly intact—preserved in the snow like she had expected to come back, after somebody forced her from a day at the mall to withdraw cash from a remote ATM, where brown and gray faces were recorded, and one of them looked like Shakes. Just a little bit.
Some five years ago, in winter 2008, a white man who claimed he wasn’t white (“I’m Jewish”) showed up at the pink one-story brick house on the corner. He brought a book with his name on the front and picture on the back to show us. Ma was impressed.
Now, this wasn’t about us. It was about our neighbor state of Illinois. They had a governor sweet enough to commute a life back to everybody on death row over there. Damn, if we could have just lived across Indianapolis Boulevard, at the fringe of Chicago, Shakes would have been one of them. So, this set other folks off to rebel and rally all of America to let capital punishment go. Robert and Jessica Lepavsky were the producers and directors of a movie of this. Husband and wife. They mean well, I guess. Got our information from Shakes, who gave it to his lawyers to pass. Robert Lepavsky and his people don’t look too different to me from the coaches who sat on Ricky’s raggedy couch in Boyz in the Hood, knowing the boy could barely read. But, they wanted him to make their schools into football champions regardless. Same thing here. Shakes had always been spoiled. He could turn Ma’Dear on with a look or a plea like it wasn’t nothing. And, according to himself, he wanted Robert Lepavsky, Lepavsky’s assistants and this documentary film company to tell his story for the whole world to know from here on out. And Ma’Dear was just gonna have to go along with that.
Just cause I knew somebody sitting in a six by nine jail cell on count of it, I didn’t have nothing to do with the decision to be part of no movies about the death penalty. Had I had something to do with it, somebody would have been paying me and anybody else on-camera. We would’ve had some royalties or something coming back here for it. If Hollywood had been my calling, this ain’t the movie I would have auditioned for. Even if I’d been into making porn, which I’m shamed to admit I have kinda sorta done (just privately, with willing subjects), I would’ve gotten paid some real good money for it.
The film crew is a bunch of people who all have jobs in the colleges in Chicago, where nobody I know can even get into. I never say too much to the crew, thankfully and respectfully only a few people. Robert comes with a bundle of two or three people to run a camera and lights and a microphone. An hour, maybe two, gonna be compressed out of all these hundreds of hours of film they pushed out of our lives. Of course, the most ridiculous or emotional or upsetting times gonna make the cut, like a reality t.v show. We really are just normal people. We work, sleep, talk, eat, watch television, play spades, get drunk, get high, drive around. Ordinary shit. Though the majority of the time is caught up with this big thing dumped in our lives, nobody is gonna say it or talk about it. We can’t do anything about it. So, why should we talk about it?
And, some things just private. I wasn’t about to explain the nightmares I been having since all this started, and not the ones you know are nightmares even when you sleep. It’s something to be said for dreaming about a place you never seen or been, with a cast full of faces you can’t recognize. It’s a little bit of control in that situation, like watching a scary movie in the theatre with your friends but letting yourself be scared for fun. But when you sleep and there’s giant horses right in the same kitchen you just made a sandwich in, or headless bodies on the same lawn your bedroom window faces, or an impression of somebody you just talked to that day sketched in the trees by your house, it’s harder to call it a dream in the moment. The time span between what you did and what you dreamed is too short not to wonder what you might have missed the first time. Those the conditions under which I signed a waiver to be included in Shakes’ movie, just by default and for documentation. I was half-asleep. I wish I hadn’t signed.
Everybody else got excited about it. Made the best of it. It’s better than getting your ass kicked and weave tore out and relationship shattered on Jerry Springer just to be on television, I suppose they thought. My problem with the whole situation was the lack of reverence. I mean, if I was going into somebody’s house and jail cell, since technically that’s somebody’s house, I would be somber and over-courteous. I’m not saying Robert and Jessica aren’t. Anyone they bring around is grade-A classy people. But they all just seem a little bit too energetic and overeager, given the context of the situation. When their cameras stop rolling, we keep going despite. Ordinary shit for us. Every single day.
“I ain’t ‘bout to stop my life right along with it,” Ma’Dear said, when it came up. And it was just a front, because her life stopped to doing nothing but talking bout Shakes.
Sodium thiopental will put Shakes to sleep. Make him unconscious, basically, like he’s about to get his teeth or appendix pulled out. We’re just gonna wave, we discussed.
Pancuronium bromide will stop his breathing. But, since he’s sleep he won’t know he’s not taking any breaths. That’s the second shot.
Potassium chloride breaks his heart. He’ll get that shot last. And that’s it.
When my baby was born, January 2010, I was 26 years old and unhappy working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was getting embarrassing to be a nearly six-foot tall man with a six-pack—but wearing an apron and bonnet to work. I only made barely 10 dollars an hour. The only glory in it was I could say I had become a supervisor. This humiliation was especially since my woman was a retail manager at Carson Pirie Scott, in the juniors and lingerie sections. She brought home sexy dresses and lace underwear and designer baby clothes. I brought home fried chicken. It didn’t match up. I felt least I could do was bring home a decent paycheck—with some real benefits, health insurance, life insurance, savings for my babies.
By this time everybody was starting to look for jobs online. I didn’t have the Internet at home yet. Libraries always been too quiet for me. I went to the back of a few papers and saw information about the oil fields, stockyards, Kirby vacuum cleaner sales, Chicago bridge operators. The Coroner’s Office was hiring. This was the government. I thought it would be more stable, give me more days off and sound more prestigious. I went to the office in Crown Point for a group interview with about eight other people, mostly men and one Mexican woman. When they asked what qualified us for the position, I talked about being used to handling animal parts in high heat. For whatever reason, I wasn’t called back. I called the office a few times over the next month to find out when they would be looking for people again. I was told that was it for the year.
But one day I got to the pink brick one-story on the corner and there was a message for me on the machine. I was invited in for another interview. Then, I was sent to a doctor’s office in Crown Point to do a drop. I stopped smoking weed on the September 2001 morning Shakes was convicted, so it was clear. I was hired a few days later and in a paid-orientation by the next week. After a few months of checks, I was able to book for me and Denetria to go on an Apple Vacation to Jamaica for a holiday. After a year of checks, I could pay for half her rent and a brand new Dodge Saturn for myself. After two years of checks, I decided to go to school for business and mortuary science degrees. If I took a little more time to save, I could keep student loans out of my hair.
I always regret I never gave proper notice to my manager at KFC. Mystery Harris worked with my mother at the same KFC back when they were in high school. Of course, since it was only a few miles away and we had gotten hooked on it over all these years, me quitting didn’t stop us from going through the drive-through. The people I knew and worked with always seemed to wait on Denetria and Ma’Dear when I wasn’t around. Whenever I went up there, I got the new faces—silly young girls who gossiped while they took my order. They seemed to be mean, ugly people who never said “Thanks.”
I knew Mystery worked the morning shift on Saturdays; she was old enough not to care about going out no more, and all the teenagers who worked there still needed their Friday nights. I don’t know why it hit me one day, but I wanted to go see her. Ever since the date was set for Shakes, I hadn’t been able to get to sleep or stay there. I get up like this again on Saturday, early. I let the dogs out to do their business. I let them back in. I watch an auditorium church service on television. I heat up a frozen pack of pancakes, eggs and sausages. I drink all the orange juice. I play with myself like I usually do after a few nights of staying away from Denetria’s, at the pink brick one-story on the corner with Ma’Dear instead. I watch some cartoons. I wash the dishes. By the time Ma’Dear is unlocking her bedroom door, I’ve gone out to the car to go get lunch and dinner for the day. Ma’Dear appears at the door all of a sudden, just as I had pulled off.
“Spencer! Spencer,” she yells. I pull the car back a little bit.
“Any mail?” she asks.
I put the car in park, get out and open the black box we had erected on the fence to keep the dogs from confronting the postman. It was empty and hollow as a sewer tunnel. I shake my head and head back to the car.
“Where you going?” Ma’Dear yells.
“I’ll be back,” I yell. I don’t want to get sidetracked into errands. I’m not Shakes. I’m free.
Mystery was past 50. But you couldn’t tell her that. She only put her bonnet on when the health inspectors showed up. Otherwise, she had her shoulder-length red hair curled for work and this bright plum lipstick used to smell so sweet when she got up in my face. She always wore big earrings herself, but got on the girl workers to only wear studs. She had a son who only used his father’s last name one time—when Mystery twisted it on the application so the franchise owner wouldn’t know they were related. She even had grandchildren—two, one way past Serenity’s age. At only nine o’clock in the morning, it isn’t busy at KFC. It isn’t even open. I park my Saturn, walk up to the drive-through window, knock on the glass and smile big.
One of the things been going on since last Fall is people been remembering Shakes when they would have otherwise forgotten all about him. And us. That’s cause he’s been in the news for the least little thing ever since his first date was announced in the winter. And with every news report, every psychiatric test his lawyers demand, every interview his crusaders give, every stunned politician who gets a question about his execution, and even the re-emergence of a juror who said she would have decided differently if she had known he failed math, a couple of paragraphs are printed or spoken about his murder of Tina Maples 14 years before. So, people stay reminded. They remember and know: Kynez Thomas Madison, also known as “Shakes,” got himself hooked on heroin when he could have done a million other things with his life, and then he tried to rob a stranger who turned out to be feisty and pregnant. He killed her and her baby for approximately $500 she was able to withdraw from Harris Bank at once.
Although it’s a test of people’s character and trust I could have done without, I figure the folks who actually bring up Shakes are real. The phonies who skirt around the obvious fact of him are untrustworthy. First, Mystery grabs me by my shoulders and swings me so hard I lose my breath.
“Hey stranger,” is her greeting. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen her. True. But, “I stop by all the time,” I tell her. “You just ain’t never in here.”
“Oh, now you must got the wrong place…I’m always here alright,” Mystery says.
She asks me if I want something to eat. I tell her I don’t. She has her man in the back drop me some wings anyway. She brings a small container of potato salad and a few biscuits to the counter where I stand. I reach over into the back bins for plastic packets of honey. Within five minutes of Mystery letting me into the back door and drawing a bit of a blush out of me, she’s talking about it.
“How Ma’Dear doing with all this mess going with Shakes?” she asks, while she looks down to get the day’s three cash registers ready.
“She’s alright,” I say. “She’s been wanting to go shopping for new clothes to wear to everything. Wants him to remember her right.”
“It’s just such a damn shame,” Mystery says. “First her daughter, Joanne, your mama. And, now her only son.”
“Don’t forget her husband,” I say. Grandaddy was a bit older than Ma’Dear. He had worked in the oil refinery since he was eighteen and his high school teacher’s father made him one of the scarce black boys hired. It all but paid for the pink brick one-story house on the corner, but it made him sick. By the time he was fifty, he was bony-chested and coughing up black stuff. I never really got to know him all that well.
“Oh yes,” Mystery says. “I had just started working here with your mama ‘round the time her daddy died. Well, least Ma’Dear got you out of all of it. Grandkids.”
I crack apart a wing and concentrate on it. I’m not about to go into the weight on my shoulders from being Ma’Dear’s only living descendant besides Serenity, whom she had once all but taken over, until Denetria grew suspicious and possessive and hip. Had I not rushed out of the house before she woke up today, I would have gotten a laundry list of work to do—none of it having to do with me, my life or my wishes. Of course, I pick up her high blood pressure medicine. I open cans her arthritis would otherwise keep shut. I shovel the dog shit in the yard and bury it in a deep pit near the shed. I stand on the dining room chairs and atop the mattresses, to swipe the dust bunnies off the ceiling and ceiling fans. I go to the store nearly every day for something she had meant to get the day before. I carry some stuff down to the basement and I carry other stuff up from it. I catch the mice and trap the garters. I feed the dogs. I unpack the bags. I answer the telephone and the door. I’m the main one she’s still cooking for every day, way too much. Then, I’m the one who drove around passing the leftovers out.
“Yeah, she’s still trying to spoil somebody,” I tell Mystery. “Serenity got so many clothes and toys…”
“Oh Serenity!” Mystery shrieks. “Her mama came in her about last year some time, I think around the Fourth. She such a pretty little ole thang.”
“That’s my baby,” I say. “She’s getting baptized tomorrow.”
“Now, isn’t that precious?”
“Yeah. And, you know I’m getting married.”
“What!?” Mystery yells. I blush again and more. Given how much it’s constantly talked about close to home, I forget the outside world don’t know nothing about it.
“Yeah, in a couple of weeks matter of fact,” I explain. Mystery checks the pop machines and fusses with extra sleeves of cups to sit atop it. She glances at the clock—close to 10:00 a.m. and opening time—with her back to me while she speaks.
“Now that is good news,” she says. “That’s the kind of stuff they need to be telling us in these papers. Not all folks’ other business. Who got killed, drugs, gangs…”
“Yeah, I decided last Valentine’s Day to gone ahead and make that move.”
“Now, are you just telling me or are you inviting me?”
“You know you’re invited. I’ll make sure Denetria drop off an invitation.”
“No, no, no,” Mystery wags her finger. “Don’t you bring my invitation to this place. I don’t like for none of these people in here to know my business. Shoot, I might have to call off or say I’m sick if they need me to work that day.”
We hear the back door slam. In seconds, a small girl appears at the cash register to punch in her employee numbers. I say “Good morning.”
“You late Mazzie,” Mystery says.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Without so much as a look in my direction, the girl slips to the back. Mystery glares to the back with her eyes slit, and her hands on her hips.
“Now that girl is late, every single day, Spencer…Every. Single. Day.”
I lower my head and I shake it.
“She’s on parole,” Mystery whispers.
She turns to grab a large round chicken bucket from atop the empty rotisseries and dark shelves. A familiar, all-consuming, homey and spicy smell envelopes the restaurant as the fryer man in back prepares to fill these for the first part of the day.
“What?” I roll my eyes, as Mystery leans in closer to continue.
“Now, her parole officer had to beg me to hire her.”
“Man, what she do?” I ask
“Hooking to a undercover cop. And then offered him drugs on top of it.”
“Now, somebody look past all that to give you a job and you can’t even be on time?” Mystery switches to the back. I already know what she’s doing. She’s going to stuff a bucket of chicken and few paper bags of biscuits for me to carry home. She remembers we like wings, breasts and thighs—no drumsticks. And, for my wedding present, she will drop off what she can for Serenity’s baptism dinner, at the house. She is one of the real fam, ones we can trust, I suspect. She’s not in it to gossip and she don’t look at us like we did anything wrong, to bring this down to our names. I bet she won’t even tell nobody she saw me. It feels good to be just another person on just another day.
It’s all only twenty days away, so we may as well get a break on cooking. I ran around too much, getting home too late to partially bring home lunch and dinner so Ma’Dear won’t have to cook Saturday. She’ll get Sunday. She’s been complaining about her knees and James is here tonight (again). I put the two buckets of chicken on top of the stove, free for all who come by. And, if the last few weeks is any indication, there will be visitors—the film people, a few reporters, church folks, the neighborhood. Though I don’t know how much the reporters or film folks I’ve seen like Kentucky Fried Chicken. They bring Evian bottles, trail mix, granola bars. They don’t even drink from our glasses.
On my way to the bathroom to move around what Mystery stuffed me with, I see a lump in the gray plaid covers on Ma’Dear’s bed. One little brown foot, with a few of his toes stuck out of the covers. James is snoring. Usually, James takes over the couch or the bed when he visits. Now, he’s in Ma’Dear’s bed. This is new. She’s been moving to the couch, little by little, night by night. My stomach churns and I feel like I’m heavier. Just as I’m bout to sit on the throne, the telephone rings. I answer the phone. It’s Denetria.
“You staying there, or coming here tonight?” she asks me. “We got to get your stuff put up tonight, ‘cause tomorrow we gotta get to church early.”
Denetria’s mother, father and aunt will travel from Milwaukee to attend Serenity’s baptism. They may spend the night, since Denetria is always going up there and complains no one comes to see her. They think I simply stay over from time-to-time. We usually take my records, coats, personal items and other things down to Denetria’s storage bin in the basement of the complex. We know her aunt and mother like to snoop.
“I’ll be there,” I tell her. With the Solstice coming, it takes longer for the sun to set. A few weeks ago, I would have been there by now. But Ma’Dear is frazzled and talking to herself, playing records and pouring gin. I can stay. In a few weeks, I’ll spend every single night with Denetria. Or, maybe I won’t. Something tells me I’ll still be split between two homes. The wedding is just a formality, something the women want from me. They need to see it, get dressed up, smell the flowers, drink the Aldi’s champagne, dance, twirl frosty figurines from the top of a cake. I’ll be there. I have to be.
On my way to my small old bedroom, where pictures of all of us in rusty and sagging picture frames, with the images having none of the power to pierce my imagination and memory like they had before, to give me dreams where the laughter is out loud, to keep me knowing any body I burn can not feel it, Ma’Dear stops me.
“Come dance with me,” she says. She gave me a promise few days ago: she will not talk about Shakes anymore, make me read his letters, force me to recall stories I’ve forgotten, or do anything at all but keep our plans for me to drive her up and back while I watch what we have to watch. So, she’s gotten creative in talking to me about other things it seems. She sits in the dark, on the couch in the living room. I hear “Little Things Mean a Lot,” and Nat King Cole, from the cassette tape player. She taps the fake stained glass lamp atop her candle and incense-lit altar to my mother and her own big mamas, the ones I never knew and would never meet. She stands up in the yellow light.
“Ma’Dear, man, I’m tired,” I groan. But she has me in a grip.
“You too old now to dance with your Grandmama?” she asks.
“Naw,” I tell her. “I’m tired.”
Ma’Dear is soft and jiggly, with tart breath and sloppiness and warmth. She has freckles at her collarbones, around the boat neck of her house dress. Ma’Dear used to dress like a boss. Wide-brimmed hats, scarves down to her knees, boots up to her thighs, platform shoes, short leather skirts, suede coats and jackets. And now her body flops about in clothes the size of drapes and her scalp stays tight under prickly, large-size green rollers. I grumble into her arms all the way. The telephone rings. We both know it’s Denetria, again. She uses Serenity as excuse to get me onto the phone.
“My grandbaby wants to talk to her daddy,” Ma’Dear says.
“And her great-grandma too,” I say. “To say goodnight.”
But she doesn’t release me. The telephone stops.
“I saw Mystery today,” I tell her. My feet don’t move and only my hips, waist.
“Oh my goodness.” Ma’Dear feels to warm all over. “Mystery. No wonder smell of fried chicken woke me up. Your mama’s little friend. They were so tight. Back then, they were. True friend, she was.”
“She said she’s gonna come to the wedding.”
The cassette tape begins to hiccup.
“Of course. She deserve an invitation. Just past midnight now. We on Sunday, thank God. Wedding in 21 days, it is. 21 days now. That child ordered the cake yet?”
“She said she gonna do it next week.”
“Stay away from that buttercream. You know my sugar...”
“Ma’Dear, I can’t tell Denetria nothing about this wedding. She gonna do what she wanna do.”
“Get used to it.”
She sighs. We dance. The cassette tape works itself out. It’s smooth once more.
“Just so you know, I done cut my part of the filming, in that movie,” she says.
“Jessica come callin’ me today ‘bout something. I’m sick of it. I told ‘em no more then I hung up the phone.”
Ma’Dear’s laugh is like a grumble.
“Robert come callin’ me back, all frantic. Miss Madison…Miss Madison! I told him ‘Enough.’ They got other folks for they damned movie, and enough material. Or, they should have, by now. Might’ve been them calling back just now.”
From the bedroom off to the side, James starts coughing and sounds like a whistle without a pea.
“See, this child here getting sick and we got a baptism tomorrow and a wedding in 21 days,” Ma’Dear continues. “I told them film people to gone on. We too busy for that.”
“But I thought we signed a contract?” I ask.
“I ain’t signed nothing! Not a damned thang say I gotta keep on working, just they can use my likeness and words.”
“Okay. We should make sure…”
“I’m sure. So far, I been being generous letting them come ‘round more than I thought they was going to. At the end of the day, Shakes said he wanted to be in some movie to stop the death penalty. His decision. Won’t help any of us now.”
But she catches herself, gets creative.
“I think one of the dogs is sick,” Ma’Dear claims.
I hadn’t noticed that. They seemed fine and friendly to me.
“Which one?” I ask her.
“The lil one,” she says. “Been just throwing up, whining, listless. Sick and tired.”
I hadn’t noticed that at all. But I decide I’ll let Ma’Dear be right, for the next 19 days, and many more after them, probably, she will need to be. So she is right and we dance and we laugh. And she falls asleep on the couch with hair rollers untangling to the floor. My dreams—or nightmares, depending on how you look at it, but I’ve had so many that could fit in that category I’m so used to it I can’t single some out—include the task of burning Shakes’ body down down to ash at my incinerator. I know it’s him. But I continue on like it’s another, with the crackle and spittle of the fire sparking orange ashes and flames breathed by dragons I can’t see or hear or stop. I sleep well though.