The Done Thing
The State of Arizona conducted its executions at dawn and had for the past several years, a policy change from midnight for which no explanation had been offered. I liked to keep abreast of such things. I had the Daily Star delivered to my St. Louis home, days late and at no small cost. For nearly two decades I’d collected clippings and taken notes on legal pads. I ran calculations and so I knew: forty-eight percent of inmates took breakfast as their final meals. Maybe they sought grounding, one last moment in step with the breakfasting rest of the world. The eggs, though, threw me. Thirty-four percent of prisoners—even some slated for electrocution—demanded fried eggs. Breakfast any mother might serve: the buttery stuff of hurried kitchens, pan to plate in under ten minutes. Kiddie food, and cheap. I’d read the studies. Few inmates in Intensive Supervision Unit-Stemble came from privilege. Maybe they ate and thought of their first eggs and the hands that brought them. Mothering of some persuasion, over- or under-, it was all just rhetoric. I read those articles, too. Every execution had its editorializing. Never mind justice. He grew up hard. Blame the mothers. The mothers will do.
Or, worse, the alternative: maternal address to camera and court. Rote permutations: I know what my son did, please don’t take my son, my son knows what it is to take, please, my son knows what is to be taken. While inside and over the wall he chewed his eggs, the fear and grease shunting them down to loose bowels. I
hoped the cooks couldn’t get an egg right. I hoped shells snuck in and startled, crunching like bones.
I wanted to see him.
I wanted to hear him complain about the grub.
He would, too, if it was nasty stuff. Or he’d explain the eggs. “See here. The food’s so foul a fried egg’s the only thing they can’t screw up.” He used to have this way of speaking, leaning forward, pitch lilting like he was letting the world in on a private joke. “Maybe we just like eggs. It doesn’t have to mean a thing.”
It didn’t have to be nostalgia. Eggs fry up quick. They’re easy to spice. Fodder for the self-sufficient. Bachelor food.
I knew my statistics. Clarence Lusk was lucky to be white. Lucky Clarence, to have his mother out there funneling her retirement into his defense. A little darker, a little poorer, and he’d be long buried.
For eighteen years and four appeals I’d waited. I tried to visit. Each April I petitioned, miserable annual paperwork, right on the heel of taxes. He invariably denied me. “Understand this,” my lawyer said, “few things remain that he has the power to refuse.”
I wanted to see his face. He’d be older now, too. Everybody was, with certain, notable exceptions. When we put my sister in the ground, her hair had haloed around her face, a cropped, unruly mess of curls. Layered. The fashion of the day, archaic now. She looked like a dandelion gone to seed. Hair grew postmortem. Nails too. In the bitter months between funeral and verdict I remember finding comfort in this. My underground sister continued to change. She grew wild out of sight.
Clarence appeared at trial with his hair shorn close. This was no longer mandatory—some prisoners’ rights lawsuit—so it had to be strategy. Before, he’d let it go shaggy. Maybe he thought the cut would make him respectable.
It wouldn’t. Nothing would again. And I hoped it wasn’t strategy. I hoped it was lice.
My husband Frank, God bless, used to stop me from running away with myself. Lida, he’d say, what good can thinking like that do? Frank was a gentleman, in the sense that the word is the sum of gentle and of man. He knew there was no peace to be had from a certain vein of thought. How I loved him. As he did me, even when I was frayed, even when I loosed the shrill, full honesty: it wasn’t actually peace I wanted. I wanted to be sure Clarence Lusk wouldn’t find any. I could say that sort of thing to Frank, and that was a measure of the soundness of our marriage. And this was as well: I did not often say such things to Frank. I saw how it made him feel helpless.
Our Pamela had grown up measured and very sweet, like Frank. A confident, lovely girl, except when I mentioned Clarence. Her father, locked far away. Her father, who had put her mother underground. She said I looked absolutely hawkish when I spoke of him. And so I didn’t do it much. The way it knit her face together. Three times a year we let him write Pam. When she was just a little thing and young enough to forget.
Clarence didn’t have the right to deny me anything.
And so I had no one, really, to talk to about the eggs. Thirty-four percent. I’d triple checked. I used a calculator. Why eggs, why fried, I couldn’t figure. Eggs were bizarrely optimistic. Eggs were a beginning. Yellow. Cheerful. Though fried, of course, they’d never grow.
Someone should conduct a study. Shattered Eggshells: A Comprehensive Analysis of Proteins, Lipids and the Murdering Mind. The data could make a difference. Waitresses could phone a hotline after taking orders. Barbra would have appreciated that line of thought. She always got this impish look when she guessed I was thinking something terrible. Barbra would’ve had her own theory. Everyone knows breakfast’s the most important meal of the day. The condemned have high pressure mornings ahead. Better load
up on protein. But my sister never said anything of the sort. She had no reason to. I only learned my statistics after. Almost twenty years gone now. Frank dead, Pammie out of the nest and married. But Clarence. Clarence lingered, unshakable as the phantom weight a watch leaves on a naked wrist. Once he died I could find new thoughts. I wanted that. I wanted it desperately. I wanted to fly to Arizona. I wanted to fry him an egg.