Georgia Tindale is an assistant editor working in Amsterdam and co-editor of Porridge Magazine. Her primary interests include poetry, science writing, health and society, history, religion and postcolonial studies. Her poems have been published and are upcoming in Sunlight Press and Laurel Magazine. She tweets @tindale_georgia.
If you had to choose the last meal you could ever eat on earth, what would you pick? I’m not just talking hypothetically here; I mean it. Food is more than a means of keeping alive, it’s a moment, like when you make coffee and it’s just the right temperature to drink. You take the first sip and there’s that bitter explosion on your tongue. It’s the feeling when you’ve made someone laugh. Not a polite laugh; a real one, right from the guts. The type of laugh where the eyes smile the most.
That guard with the beard came into my room yesterday. He said, ‘Randy, what do you want to eat for your last meal? Fried chicken?’
I know why he thought I’d want chicken. Guys like me are the types you’d expect to find in a roadside diner with a large coke and a bucket of super-spiced chicken. We’re not inside for brain-work like kidnapping or conspiracy, not smart enough to realise that good behaviour could win us some extra time. No point as far as we’re concerned; the gurney’s where we’re headed and that’s the end of it. But I didn’t want fried chicken, not this time. I grew up in Perdido Key, and there’s this one stretch of beach where I used to skip school and go hunting for clams with my brother. We’d go down early when we could still smell the mist in the air and stay until all the after school clubs had finished. I’ve not been back since.
‘I want lobster tails please.’
The guard cracked his knuckles.
‘And root beer too, and fried shrimp, and clams.’
The guard left, shutting the door harder than he needed to. When you’ve been without a choice for as long as I have, it feels kind of odd being allowed to make a decision. I’m one of the last guys to get this privilege. The state of Texas wants to ban meal requests for people like me. Why should we get special treatment when we’ve taken someone’s life away? Only God has the right to decide when it’s time for that.
When I first got here, it felt strange being alone for this long. At least I have a window slit. Not exactly the best view, but I can see out onto the stretch of grass outside the unit. There are a couple of trees dotted around, surrounded by fences and the buzz cut grass. I spend a lot of time looking out of my window during the lockdowns. Twenty two hours a day gives me plenty of time for looking.
I’ve been watching the grass outside for thirteen years. I’ve got it easy though; some guys are stuck in here for thirty years. It’s pretty tough that, if you ask me, let them face the bullet and get it over with. Some decide it’d be better to do the job themselves. I don’t blame them. My own case didn’t stay in the news for long; sometimes I think if I’d killed more people or done it in a smarter way, I’d be more of a story.
An obsessive personality designed this unit. The building is made of white concrete with blue steel supports. My room is blue and white and brown: a brown sink, blue bed covers, whitewashed walls, brown stains, brown floors. They make us wear white jumpsuits with DR branded onto the backs – just in case we forget why we’re here. My ceiling has marks on it. I spend a lot of time wondering what the shapes mean.
Sometimes I tell myself it’s a message left by the guy in here before me. I wonder what he used to think about, whoever he was, and what he chose for his last meal. I imagine him a lot but my imagination isn’t so good, so he often ends up looking like my brother. He’s younger than me, with that girly hair Dad always used to try and get him to cut. Tanned skin and one eye slightly lopsided. If I close my eyes and breathe in deeply I can see him. I think a lot about him, mainly back from when we were kids.
One morning in sixth grade, Paul came into my bedroom while I was asleep. He threw a cushion at my head and sat down at the end of my bed.
‘Hey Randy, you don’t want to go to school today do you?’
He was dressed already, his rucksack slung over one shoulder. I shook myself awake.
‘If you’re not, I’m not.’
Paul stopped skipping school faster than I did. He’d always been the smart one, and I got out of the habit. That’s the difference: he went back and graduated, went to college, got a job; I got myself into situations he couldn’t possibly understand.
Here, in the afternoons when the sky outside turns deep yellow, I like to think about how the sky looked back home, how the sand used to match the colour of the sun. It spread out in front of us as wide as we could see. The day went on and we’d grow tired of hunting for clams and skid stones onto the sea instead.
‘You’ve got a nice tan today boys,’ Mom said once, ‘have you been playing outside in gym class?’
We’d snicker at each other behind our hands. I used to hide the letters from school and write doctor’s notes. I became an expert in forgery by the age of fifteen.
They’re moving me down to Huntsville tomorrow. Sometimes I think it’s a relief to know that it’ll all be over in twenty four hours. But other times I get this feeling in my stomach like someone is squeezing real hard when I remember those conversations I used to have with Paul about growing up.
I keep thinking back to one day in particular. It was one of those sleepy days in June before the schools broke up and we were lying with our heads in the shade of a big sandy bank. Paul used to try and tell me that if you ate the sea oats which grew on the banks it would make you grow a foot taller. I never knew if it was true, but I knew that the oats were storm repellents. It’s one of those things that you’d never guess looking at them, but their roots are so long that they keep the soil in place.
We lay there in silence as the wind blew hot sand onto our bare legs. After a while, Paul turned his head towards me.
‘I’ve worked out what I want to be when I’m old.’
‘I want to be a policeman.’
‘But Paulie, we hate the police. They’d put us back in school.’
Paul stopped and seemed to think about this.
‘Yeah, but that’s small potatoes to them. They’ve got criminals to chase.’
I grunted back at him, not wanting to show how scared he’d made me. The future wasn’t something I wanted to talk about. I knew it was only a matter of time before he’d go to high school and leave me. The school had called our Mom about our absences the day before. Paul sensed my feelings.
‘You can come with me Randy. Go back into class with me next week and we can train up and be a crime fighting team.’
I knew it wouldn’t happen, or at least not to me. It’s the reason I never call him. He left home long before I got mixed up in the wrong group of people. I couldn’t stand for him to see just how bad his deadbeat brother ended up. It’s probably stupid of me to think he won’t have heard by now.
I remember sitting at the table and watching my mom cook clams. She’d chop the sweet peppers, the onions and celery and fry them all up together, the flavours mingling with the salty water and stinging my eyes.
‘You need patience to cook them properly,’ she’d tell me, ‘leave time to let all the juices come out.’
The night before I left home she cooked conch fritters. I sat outside on the road as the sun was sinking. Our kitchen looked out onto a row of high rise buildings. She couldn’t see me; she was singing like she used to when Paul and I were kids. The smell floated through the open window as she sang a song I’d never heard before. Her parents were from Puerto Rico but she’d never taught me Spanish. Sitting in the dust, I tried to understand what she was singing. The sky was stained pink and yellow and blue.
‘Dinner’s ready honey.’
We sat across our table made of driftwood, her tanned arms serving up hot potato and making sure I got the bigger portion. Her hands always smelt of salt and spices. After the fritters I snuck out of my window and lay on the beach, feeling the heat of the food in my stomach. The sky was clear and the stars had a purple haze around them.
When I sit down tomorrow with my plate of lobster tails, fried shrimp and clams I’m going to pay tribute to my childhood. I may have screwed up my adult life, but there’s nothing about my life as a kid that I would ever change.
The young guard came into my room yesterday.
‘Time’s up McCarver.’
Two guys took me into the sunlight. I caught one of them sizing me up.
‘Don’t worry, you won’t get any trouble from me.’
They pulled my handcuffs tighter. I kept quiet. No wind, no movement, no sound except my boots and theirs on the dusty gravel. I took a last glance at the blue building with white supports. It was a short drive, their eyes on me the whole time as I sat behind the metal grid. Dust caught in my throat from walking and it made me cough. Each time I coughed I saw the guards flinch.
They took me to a holding cell. The guard with the beard came in with me and asked me what method I wanted. I chose injection because someone told me it’s over quickly. I reckon it’ll be hard for them to put the needles in on account of my veins. My skin is all puckered over and I have so many burn marks and bruises.
Last night I dreamt I was strapped down on the gurney. I was floating up in the air, looking down at the room. They’d already injected my body. I was motionless on the stretcher, my arms held down by black straps, my limbs cushioned by white pads. A man in a pinstripe suit had his hand on my ankle. My face was pale and the people around the gurney weren’t moving. I hardly knew it was me to be honest. I’ve gained a lot of muscle and my face was more lined than I remember it.
Back in the unit, they made me wear a jumpsuit with ‘DR’ on the back. When I’m taken out of this unit, they’ll put an X on my stone. I keep imagining Paul visiting my grave. He has two little blonde daughters with him. They never say a word, or leave anything by the headstone, but they’re always there. I watch them leave the graveyard and I don’t follow them out.
The cook messed up my meal. I don’t exactly know what I was hoping for, but the flavours were wrong. I guess he just threw something together and he didn’t let the juices soak out for long enough. There was too much salt and barely any spice. I ate all of it, but I was mad.
The chaplain came into my room this morning. I sat upright in bed.
‘Who do you want to call today Randy?’
‘No one.’ I said, lying back down.