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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

Recent Work By Ronlyn Domingue

Mr. Jack sat under the hanging light at the kitchen table with an ashtray at one hand, a book under the other, and a cup of coffee in between. His casual posture made him look shorter than he was. Sometimes, he braced his elbow on the back of the chair and dwarfed a novel in the palm of his hand. His dark, wooly eyebrows straightened in concentration, sometimes lifting as he took a drag of his cigarette. From my place in the living room, near a lamp with a book on my lap, I could barely whiff his Marlboro. That’s what my dad had smoked before he quit cold turkey. But Mr. Jack and my father smelled alike anyway, that humid smoky scent of the Intracostal base where they both waited to fly helicopters to offshore oil rigs.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.

I am two years old.

And I am sacred.

 

 

I descend from generations of Catholics, numerous as rosary beads. My grandparents are devout beyond the expectation of prayer and Sunday mass. The One True Church is chosen for me, and I sit in one of its domiciles surrounded by echoes and incense but anxious to go outside.

Beyond the cathedral steps is the largest, oldest living thing I’ve ever seen. Almost 500 years old, it is Magnificence and Beauty. The oak tree waits for me, for my hands on its bark, for my entranced orbit around its trunk. I will learn the words axis mundi decades later, and I will know exactly where that is.

For now, the tree holds the space between the cathedral and the school building where I attend catechism. In the classroom, I’m told of the indelibility of original sin, the importance of pleasing the Lord, and the stories of a great ark, burning bush, giant whale, and woman who turns to salt.

But before I’m called away, I stand on the fluorescent-lit sidewalk within a footstep of the darkness, a leap away through moonlight into a canopy of leaves. At the ancient oak’s roots is where I want to be.

I am a pagan.

 

 

Requisite catechism classes and first confession complete, I wear the white dress my grandmother made for this first communion. I walk down the aisle with the other children to the pews—boys sent left, girls sent right. The veil’s haze blurs my sight. I kneel. I mutter what I’ve learned by rote, and I feel I’m doing something wrong. I don’t belong here. I’ve told no one I don’t believe what I’ve been taught in catechism, by example, through osmosis. I push this feeling down, hard, and it stays. The wafer on my tongue transmutes into caulk.

I am a bad girl.

 

 

We move to another parish, with a modern building and no oak tree. The priests are younger, as well as the families. The circumstances are different, but the doctrine isn’t. I barely contain the danger of what I know, what I feel, but I can’t speak of it.

So I sit in the bright sanctuary where the acoustics are balanced and the pews are unworn, with the unacceptable thoughts I’ve formed on my own. I am only twelve, but I don’t believe birth control, sex before marriage, or homosexuality is wrong. I don’t believe in hell, purgatory, limbo, or heaven. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead. I don’t believe that Catholicism is theOneTrueChurch, that people of other religions—or none at all—are damned, or that the pope is infallible.

I am an apostate.

 

 

I meet with a confirmation counselor, a middle-aged woman who does most of the talking about the solemn sacrament. My feet dangle from the edge of the wingback chair. I sip the Coke she serves me. Knowing I can’t endure an act of hypocrisy, I tell the woman I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t know her, or trust her, so I summon up the most neutral excuse I can imagine. “I need more time to think about this commitment,” I say. Perhaps I come across as mature, or at least respectful. Several weeks later, after much sulking and silence, after several red-faced insistences upon my obedience, I am allowed to quit.

I am a disappointment.

 

 

I’m not prepared for the difficult growth from the tendrils of doubt into the gripping vines of uncertainty. Our Father who art in Heaven has been imposed upon me, but I have no guide to take his place. I want to be an atheist—desperately—but all I can achieve is an embittered agnosticism. My rage at God, if God exists, is complicated. I don’t want to be this way, but I am, and if my will alone can’t make me a believer, then was I fearfully and wonderfully made not to be one?

At fourteen, I begin a search for answers beginning in philosophy, psychology, and natural science. In college, I learn of a time when God was a woman, or at least not only a man. I behold the Venus of Willendorf and the Minoan snake goddess, who seem familiar to me, like someone I’ve forgotten. I read the names of the dead goddesses and their myths, invoking the Feminine in the place where the rigid, judgmental Masculine banged his hairy white fist. I encounter Joseph Campbell, the venerable sage, who reveals the common motifs of mythology and religion from all over the world throughout time. He teaches me that human beings have always assigned stories to the Great Ineffable.

I am a scholar.

 

 

During the first years I practice yoga, I acknowledge the envy I have of my grandmothers. What is it like to believe as they do, to have trust in a faith, to have prayers and rituals that hold meaning? What does it feel like to have a relationship with the Divine that isn’t constantly in question? And if there’s doubt, how does one carry its weight, the pressure that perhaps there is, in fact, nothing after all but the spooky action of matter and energy?

As I enter Eastern territory—where Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me—I also return to the Earth. I read and think about the span of human wisdom, but it is only in stillness with Nature that I discover any truth. I ache for a return to something I think I once knew, something that belonged to me, something that was stolen and buried.

Then I find peace in my knowledge that the Divine force takes many forms. Each is a fragment of the whole, a glimpse through which the person perceives according to his or her understanding. My grandmother finds comfort in the Blessed Virgin Mary. My sister’s Hindu friend has a shrine to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. My Buddhist friend sits in meditation, sometimes in the presence of Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion and action.

I reach for the ancient oak, a flower, the song of a bird. When I hold these things, I am connected to the Divine in the purest state I comprehend.

I am a seeker of what cannot be taught or found, but instead known and felt by my individual human soul.

 

river praying for strangers

Read one of River Jordan’s four novels, and her first memoir is no surprise. Spend a few minutes in her company, and it seems inevitable. She’s a person of depth and gentleness, a warm spirit who knows the power of words—spoken, written, or uttered in silence.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit was a resolution before it was a book. At the end of 2008, she knew her two sons—her only children—would be deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that quiet way ideas come upon all of us at times, River received her resolution for 2009. She was to pray for a stranger every day. This would be her way to focus on matters other than fear and worry.

Encouraged by her husband to keep notes, River chronicled her encounters with strangers. She shares the stories of some of them, most who received her offer with gratitude. During that year, she learned about the connections we all share as human beings and what a gift it can be to one’s self to reach out.

One quote at the start of a chapter made me pause. “You can pray for someone even if you don’t think God exists.” (Real Live Preacher is credited, and I assume he or she is, in fact, real and meant to be anonymous.) If that is so, then what is prayer at its essence?

I think the feeling behind that quote is really about connecting with humanity and caring what happens to them. Even a stranger. I wouldn’t say that is the essence of prayer, but it can certainly be one facet of prayer. I think prayer is more like water, that it has many shapes, moods, origins, and variations.

The book opens with the inevitable departure of your two sons. Under these circumstances, you felt a New Year’s resolution drift upon you—to pray for a stranger every day. What effect did you expect this to have in your own life? And theirs?

I wasn’t expecting any return in my life which is funny because that has been one of the greatest gifts, the evolution of my soul if you will these last few years. What effect it might have on others? I believe in the power of unselfish prayer. One with no personal agenda but the betterment, peace, and completeness of that other person. Because I believe that, I thought surely out there somewhere, my prayers might make a difference down the road in a stranger’s life, although it was a difference I never expected to see.

You write about an inner knowing when you saw your stranger for the day. How would you describe the feeling—and dare you guess about its source?

People really want to know about this a lot. Exactly how do you choose, they’ll ask. As if it is some kind of strange science or mystical magic. But I just shrug my shoulders. Try it. That’s what I’d say. Spend a week just watching faces in a crowd. Before each day is over, someone will stand out to you. Time doesn’t slow to a crawl or the waves of people part for me to see someone. Sometimes, it’s just that crying, feverish baby, or the bus driver, or the cashier at the store. Of course, a lot of people who I’ve said hello to or told them I would remember them in my prayers that night felt that God singled them out because they needed a good word that day so much. I hear that over and over again.

You mention the importance of getting a stranger’s story. How did that exchange give context or depth to the way you prayed?

river author photo

Story really gives context to everything, doesn’t it? I love the fact that we live our lives through story, connect in story, and in my book are part of an eternal story. It has made me more aware than ever of the threads that connect us to one another.

The initial approach to strangers remained difficult for you. You thought one reason was because many people—yourself included—have a deep desire “not to be rejected.” At times, your gesture was, and one example was the intoxicated woman at a restaurant. How did your ability to handle dismissive reactions change, if at all?

Now, she probably didn’t think she was intoxicated. :) Truthfully, in all my days over these past few years of speaking to people, some might just give a friendly smile and a thank you—or Thanks—only that one has been strangely dismissive. But that’s okay. It didn’t change the quality of my compassion for that woman that night when I prayed.

Many of the strangers gave you specific matters to pray about. What were the most prevalent requests? Did people ask for themselves or for others in their lives?

Sometimes, people really requested specific things. Never for new things, or to buy a larger flat screen TV, but so very often for their husband, wife, children, and so on. Family. Love has been the major motivator of those prayer requests. Sometimes, people would/will want to keep me and tell me the names of everyone they want prayer for. I kind of sum that up by praying for the people who they love. They would make requests other times for health problems, or occasionally to keep a job, find a new job, not lose a home. Finances also seem to be tough all over.

There are some heart-wrenching moments in this book. I’m thinking of the girl with bruises who asked you to pray for her mother, the baby you comforted who would likely be placed for adoption, the woman who took forever in the grocery express lane who you realized must have been terribly lonely. After dozens of encounters like this, how did your experience of compassion shift?

I can still be so amazingly short-sighted, trapped in my own world, unaware of the needs of others. But yes, my compassion has grown—deeper. That would be the word. What happens to the people in my path matters more. And my heart, just like that old Grinch, has grown three times its size.

Sometimes, you saw people who appeared to be in need of prayer—they seemed to be in ill health or dealing with tough circumstances—and your impulse was to pick them. However, the selection of your stranger was rarely so obvious, sometimes a person who looked as if s/he had no troubles at all. What did the call to go beyond appearances reveal to you?

It’s easy to pick the person pulling an oxygen tank. That’s obvious. And no doubt they could use a few good prayers. But we assume so often that the pretty girl, the woman with a diamond ring, the man who appears to have everything—are in some perfect place in life where they have no need of prayer. My experience has shown me exactly the opposite. Those people have all opened up and said those familiar lines—Funny you should choose me, because—and insert their story here. I realize now beneath ever perfect wrapper or happy face, a story is resting that may be very much at odds with what the world is viewing.

As a fellow introvert, I was interested to see how behaving as an extrovert gave your life a new dimension. Now two years later, how has that experience altered the way you interact with others?

I talk to people more. I realize that my interaction with them has value. This is extreme for me. I have always valued words, silence, aloneness—and good friends. That’s for sure. But now I see that we really aren’t meant to be those islands. We really are a part of the main, of each other. I think John Dunne had it right.

There’s plenty of hugging between you and strangers. Is this a Southern thing?

Yes. I think it’s a Southern thing. But I also think it’s an innocent child thing. I’ve noticed that children from everywhere seem to love to hug people and each other. Perhaps it’s those protection boundaries that keep us from doing that. But I passed out hugs on my recent trip to New York coming and going. Either I’m giving off hug radar these days, or some days the whole world needs a hug.

On occasion, you would run into people you had prayed for. Some of them shared updates on their lives. What did you discover through this—about reaching out to others, or the promise of hope, or the inevitability of change?

It was a rare and splendid occasion to run into those people again. Fortunately, in each situation, life had taken a turn for the better for each of them. I’m not granting that due to my prayers at all, but here’s the most important thing to me. These strangers, what happened in their lives, the fact that in different ways they were in better spirits, really mattered to me although we had only met from that brief, first encounter.

During the last months of your resolution, you encountered a red-haired man who looked like a Tolkien character. He said your sons would come home. How are they?

Very Tolkienish. I’d like to run into him again. Both sons came home safely. They are stateside. One of them has orders to deploy again now.

For those strangers reading now who’d be so inclined to pray, do you have a prayer request for anyone or anything?

My private list would be much like those of strangers I’ve met, filled with requests for the health, safety, healing, and happiness of my family and friends. I think my one request would be that readers so inclined might offer that prayer in their hearts for a stranger. Whether it’s for a day or a lifetime, I believe only grace light, and love can come from that. I have a prayer card currently on my website, and it reads, “Every day I pray for a stranger. Today you stood out to me as someone special in a beautiful way. I thought you should know that I’ll be praying that your burdens be lifted, your fears abated, and your loves protected. May blessings, goodness, and peace surround and keep you.”

Check out River’s author website, blog, and radio show. (By the way, she has a gorgeous voice.)

Find her books through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

 

 

I’m writing my second novel by hand. In pencil, in large sketch notebooks with no lines. Or, for another part, in purple ink on letterpress-worthy paper, torn, folded, and stacked into signatures with my own little hands. When the book decided—yes, you read that correctly—that’s how it wished to be done, I balked. Seriously? With the glorious technology now available? I’m grateful it didn’t require me to use the pen and ink set I have stored in my credenza.

Yet before it made that assertion, I was writing notes by hand. In pencil, standard graphite as well as colored, for variety and emphasis. The official notebook launched October 23, 2006. It includes snippets and quotes from round after round of research, idea after idea that popped into my head, and copious ramblings, fits, furies, and epiphanies. To date, it exceeds 1,000 pages.

archive #2 crop

If I ever became famous, or well-regarded, that mother lode might be valuable, especially in the increasingly intangible digital world.

With arrogant hope, I thought about my literary legacy as I wrote my first novel. The meticulous record keeping reflected my own orderly nature, but I had the future in mind as well. What if I “make it?” What if a future scholar would become apoplectic with glee to pore over the minutiae of how Draft 1 evolved into its final form? Perhaps the notes I took from an interview with a 100-year-old female physician gives unexpected insight into a certain character. And what about the somewhat detailed floor plan of the house of one of the couples?

I wrote the first novel on a computer, but all of my notes are handwritten. Everything, from the notes to printed research material, is stored in one box in my closet labeled with the novel’s title and the word “Archive.”

“Archive” is an important distinction. In my last will and testament—drafted during a period of attention to adult matters—I specifically state that “my literary papers (i.e., stories, novels, notes and correspondence)” are bequeathed to my alma mater for the library’s special collection. However, “any and all personal journals of mine (which have been collected in a box and designated as such) shall be destroyed as soon as possible upon my death.”

Yet I’ve already begun the process to expunge my own collection.

In the summer of 2007, I embarked on a major closet cleaning, beyond old clothes and accumulations. I sorted three boxes which held the writings I’d done since I was a child. Duplicates were tossed, along with early drafts. I stacked what was left in date order and put them in one tidy narrow box. Of my personal letters, I kept what had sentimental meaning and marked those for archives.

As for my journals, of which there were fewer than one might expect, I read through them, observing my rather mundane life and its paucity of scandal and intrigue. Then I summarized the main points in a new journal, kept a few pages from the primary sources, and burned the rest.

I loved the burning. It was so primal.

What? I shouldn’t have done that?

Then, in the summer of 2009, in yet another flurry of research for Novel #2, I read a compelling biography about Virginia Woolf. Her work, and Woolf herself, had nothing to do with my novel—but I felt drawn to it anyway. (Novel #2 and its spooky synchronicity…) What disturbed me was the pointed inclusion that her family had not, repeat had not, honored her wish that her personal papers be destroyed after her death. She did not leave a clear legal will on this matter, but the last line of her suicide note read, “Will you destroy all my papers.” [sic]*

This little detail, an act of betrayal as I saw it, was the hidden reason I had to read the book. It connects to a small incident in Novel #2, one I’ve yet to reconcile. But there was a personal consideration as well.

I have to confess: I am one of those people who loves to read about long-lost and discovered diaries, letters, and manuscripts. Oooh, a treasure! I think—even if I don’t have interest in the person who left it behind. That such things warrant news coverage suggests that people are a curious bunch of voyeurs. We value whatever insight or significance we think the artifact might yield.

After reading the Woolf biography, I contemplated more seriously what I would leave behind—and why. I questioned the point of keeping records of my private thoughts since I wanted them destroyed anyway. It’s helpful to have them as a backup of memory, what happened when. I doubt I’ll ever write a memoir, but if I did, that’s the material I’d mine.

As for clumsy drafts and notes, they reveal an evolving process of both the works themselves and my development as a writer. Even I can see that, especially when I dared to skim some of what I wrote as a teenager. But I doubt I’ll ever sit down to read all those old short stories, poems, and plays. Short of the laughs, it could be excruciating.

I will never read the first draft, nor the second, or the third of my first novel again. These hundreds of pages are taking up space in a box in a closet, as well as about two megs on my computer’s hard drive. I’ve referred to the notes once or twice to find the titles of books I read for research, but for no other reason. Still, I treat the contents with respect. I know exactly where they are in case of a fire.

The second novel’s archives are even more copious and complicated. This novel had an earlier incarnation as a near book-length prose meandering, rightly abandoned more than 12 years ago. It’s the stuff of a scholar’s dream—the inchoate seed from which a mature work sprung, or at least is about to spring. The handwritten spew of one of the sections reads like psychotic ramblings with no sense of time or order. The handwritten prose of another suggests the writer might know what she’s doing. The notes show the progression of what will be an epic work. The draft-in-progress is typed and electronically archived, so losing the paper originals would not be a disaster.

Every few weeks, I edit through the typed pages of Novel #2 and stack them in my office. Then once the pile is hefty enough, I burn the printed pages in my fireplace. I love the flash of white flame when the torn shreds take at once. Clutter gone, effort transmuted.

fire

Because most of the work on Novel #2 has been especially unpleasant, I have a recurring fantasy of burning its pulpy corpus on an outdoor pyre right before it’s published. Every single handwritten and typed page. Throw in a nice full moon for effect, and of course, a libation. It’s destined to be read, in more instances than not, in digital form (an affront to a theme in the narrative, but I digress)—so why does physical proof of its creation matter?

Why don’t I burn it up as I go? Why don’t I burn the entirety of my archives now?

I don’t know.

I’ve wondered about Woolf’s awareness in her last days and hours. Her death was not sudden. She could have destroyed her papers first, or at any point long before her desperation became too much. Surely, she had a sense of her legacy and what her papers would mean to studious inquirers. Perhaps in those surviving records, Woof herself expressed ambivalence about their destruction.

No doubt I harbor some delusion, vanity, or hope that my work will be deemed worthy of study one day. If that’s the case, I understand there’s an expectation to play nice and leave something for someone to discover in a box after I’m dead. But right now, I’m the author of one published book, one in progress, and five in concept. There’s a big gap of so-what-and-who-cares between now and the spread of my own remains.

I suppose I cling to the materials—even as I question the clinging—because of its tangibility. It’s physical. My creation. Consider that a writer’s lifelong collection of effort is called a body of work. If so, an essay might be a fingertip; a book, the meat of a thigh. Those things that have no form—ideas, feelings, thoughts—incarnate as words on a page. For me, paper is matrix, binding those words together.

As technology shifts our relationship to the written word, what future is there for what is actually written? Typed pages covered in arrows and the author’s scrawls. A hasty note tossed in a box. A handwritten letter. An autograph. These things are treasures and commodities now. Imagine the frenzy of collectors and scholars who one day may want to touch what a certain writer touched—you, me, someone else. Nostalgia for what is dying must motivate me as well, a desire to preserve relics.

My last will and testament remains unchanged, but what I’ll do with my archive while I’m still alive remains unsettled. One day, I or Disaster might destroy it all, lightening my earthly load and limiting what insight friends, family, readers, or scholars might have into what I created. This may not be much of a loss.

If I do my job as a writer, I will leave a body of work that speaks for itself.

 

*Noted in Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf by Mitchell Leaska. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998.


final_merm_cover

Carolyn Turgeon and I met in a rural, rainy corner of East Texas in January 2007. We were surrounded by tiara-wearing, book-sharing Pulpwood Queens. A surreal lovefest of words if I ever saw one. That’s how I got a copy of her debut novel, Rain Village. Whimsical and heartbreaking, the book convinced me that she’d be a writer I’d follow.

My 90-something-year-old neighbor is almost blind. She might still see the shapes of trees and the color of them in full leaf. She might even see the blanket of the spent ones, assuming she let them pile up. She doesn’t.

Her yard man comes nearly every weekend with his trailer loaded with equipment. In December, the neighborhood trees hung on to half of their leaves—the drop is late in the Southbut the ones that had fallen on her lawn met with a 200 mph windstorm. A relentless, two-hour onslaught.

My patience exhausted, I left the house. As I drove off, I glanced at our littered yard then noticed the spotless little grasslands on the rest of the block. Black plastic bags hid the dead. Once, I would have been shamed by our violation of social norms. No more. I appreciate the crisp rustle and tumble until Todd mows it into confetti compost.

fall scatter

We’re the third owners of an International Style house built in 1950. The architect—who claimed no aesthetic inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian periodchose a site in a new neighborhood that had mature trees. Attendant to mid-century modern practicality, he intentionally positioned the house’s longest facade to face south. He understood the value of deciduous trees. Shade in the summer, sun in the winter. He left several large swamp chestnuts standing and allowed a few young ones the chance to grow. A patch of urban forest thrived.

In 1960, he leveled most of the back yard and used part of the space for a regulation tennis court. Not long after his death, we asked his family why the court had been installed. One of his daughters laughed. “He hated to rake,” she said.

I joined in, remembering my grandfather. He hated to rake, too, and had no trees on his property, a small lot in an established neighborhood otherwise full of trees. I did not inherit his disdain.

maple

When we bought the house, the tennis court had succumbed to the earth’s slow shift. Cracks and rifts buckled the concrete. Sink holes threatened to swallow legs up to the knee.

These hazards were hidden under two autumns’ worth of fallen leaves. The second ownerfollowing the architectrented the house to various tenants for years. The last ones left the property a wreck. We, the third owners, had considerable clean up to do.

Two scrappy teenagers we hired stuffed dozens of plastic bags full of leaves. In the damp patches that remained, rich soil coated the hard gray surface, alive with microbes and worms. I scooped this up when I could and sprinkled it under the trees, who made the mess in the first place. I stood in the sink holes where the roots of long-dead trees had disappeared from their graves. I imagined the woodland that might have been.

After we had the tennis court removed, the clay valley received fifteen yards of river silt. Fertile enough to sustain grass, the silt was seeded with centipede. For two years, it crept and endured with water and hope. Our mulching mower chopped the green blades and dry leaves. The decay would yield topsoil.

The return had begun.

oak red

Bill, a native plant expert, smiled with affection as he peered up at my favorite swamp chestnut. Its thick canopy cast deep shade in the afternoon. Here and there was a fallen leaf the size and shape of a cow’s ear. The ground under some of its roots was barren except for a blanket of leaves. We’d removed the iron plants that choked together near its trunk some time before.

“This is what it wants,” Bill said as he pointed at the ground.

“What? Leaves?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s it’s food,” he said. “Spread them as far as you can.”

I kept my mouth shut. What a dolt, I thought to myself. My well-conditioned concept of a proper yard shattered with a sudden, but obvious, revelation. Grass was not normal under trees. Leaves, moss, ferns, and shrubs were. What forest had St. Augustine, centipede, or any other variety of turf growing across its floor?

“I want to create a woodland in the back here,” I said. The tennis court had become a wide boring rectangle of green.

Bill smoothed his beard. “Start with leaves. As many bags as you can get. Pile them up and let them decay to build the soil. Do this for a few years. You’ll have to pull a few weeds and any trees that sprout. Otherwise, it’s low maintenance.”

That fall, Todd and I spent Sunday mornings collecting what our neighbors diligently bagged and left at the curbs as trash. We received askance glimpses as we filled the truck bed with our roadside loot. I noticed the grassy front lawns. Ours looked—and would continue to look—no different. A polite concession to real estate, and community, values. But part of the back yard would be released to some wildness.

I turned myself over to patience, tentative as a new leaf.

hornbeam

These few years later, fourteen trees root into ground that was once covered with concrete. Under their young canopies, I can scratch into sweet soil and find the creatures responsible for the black gold. The red bud will come into flame soon. The fig tree might produce enough for the mockingbirds and us. The maple, hornbeams, and winged elm promise respite from the August heat. The slow-growing swamp chestnuts struggle to reach deeper into the clay.

Next fall, we won’t have to raid our neighbors’ curbs for leaves. I expect the trees will have enough to feed themselves.

What becomes of them will turn into memory. The young trees join the cycles of my human years, my growing appreciation for change and the assurance of return.

oak orange

The presumptuous and their eager green, frostbitten

Wise pecan, trustworthy officiate of spring, unfurled

Merciful shadows, blessed shade, summer in and out

Doodle bugs under the magnolia perfumed with spiced decay

Small blistered hands cool in the pile, the reward for raking

A gust of visual birdsongthe notes flutter down, down, down

Pneuma and terra dance the fairy whirlwind

Empty grasp at the blue, the gray, to be filled again with new life

parsley haw

The bank’s assistant manager approached me with a friendly smile and an immaculate suit. Charles looked his part—competent, precise, rational. He also looked younger than I am, much younger, but appearances are tricky. He asked why I’d come in. I explained I needed to shift some money around to keep it liquid. I was a writer who dipped into savings and was contemplating a move to another state.

Tante Nan made ragdolls by hand. She lived on a family farm in the country, near sugar cane fields. She once had been busy outdoors, a self-sufficient wife and mother with eggs to gather, animals to slaughter, and crops to tend. My great-great aunt was elderly when she sat down with fabric and thread to create the toys.

The lyre-leaved sage emerged with vigor the following spring. A true perennial, it returned in the same place it had been planted, and then some. Several descendants appeared nearby. They announced themselves in rosette bursts of dark green leaves alive with purpled veins. Started by seeds, I thought. Happy ones. Within weeks, tall stalks—dotted with rows of pale blue-violet blossoms—grew straight up from the leafy centers. Each flower had a triangular yawn with a wide protruding lower lip and thin top one. Noticing the sage’s effortless replication and early color among the other sleepy perennials, I let them sprout forth.

They went to seed sooner than I expected. I had a habit of cutting back what exhausted itself. My decision to leave these plants alone was a matter of curiosity. This plant had been in my garden only one year. I didn’t know what would happen. Cyclical study had not been my horticultural m.o.

On the cusp of summer, I sat near thriving echinacea, the hearty clerodendron, and spent sage. The sage’s narrow stalks were dry and brittle. Two little finches rushed into the stems. They gripped the stalks with their feet and leaned over to ones nearby. At the throats of dead blossoms were seeds. Dozens were still attached. The finches had a feast.

Had I read of this relationship, it would not have sparked the bright, simple pleasure of witnessing it for the first time myself.

* * *

For a gardener like me, red salvia is a perfect specimen. It spreads by seed, transplants easily, tolerates drought, attracts bees and butterflies, and blooms for months—late spring through fall. The brilliant blossoms snap fire in the air, against almost any background.

salvia multiple blossom crop

In all the years I’ve grown them, I’ve enjoyed their attractiveness in color and of critter. I cut them back when the stalks stopped blooming and turned brown. This promoted new growth. More color, more nectar. The seeds that dropped and germinated were allowed to keep growing. I left them rooted in the earth itself.

But this year, I planted some of the spring seedlings in the large pots on the patio. Typically, I filled those with fuchsia and red pentas, favorites among local beasties. The salvia went in because they were free—homegrown—and something different. When I sat in my office, on the chair that faced the patio, I liked the promise of long red-blossomed spikes for months to come.

Summer sun and air didn’t have a chance to dry out the pots. The salvia thrived under my care. This was a bittersweet stewardship. Almost every morning, I took my 16-year-old cat outside to walk on the patio. She was living with lymphoma, with tumors in her abdomen and behind her right eye. Ariel had spent her life indoors, protected, basking in the light filtered through windows. I felt compelled to give her whatever comfort fresh air and dappled sun could bring.

Too frail to run, she strolled around the patio or sat still gazing at the world through her strong left eye. I drank coffee, watered plants, watched the birds and squirrels with her. I tried to stay in the moment, in the presence of her life, in the beauty of our own back yard.

Ar walk pause

The salvia grew, bloomed, went to seed. No stalks were cut to encourage more flowers, although I had done so in the past. The profusion of blooms waned, as did the visiting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds (oh, they were a surprise). It was all I could do to simply keep the plants alive. I let things go as Ariel prepared to leave.

* * *

Several days after Ariel’s peaceful death, I rested in the chair in my office and looked into the yard. The coreopsis had no yellow flowers, only spent ones. Several areas required weeding. Young shrubs planted in spring needed more water. The fig tree had tripled in size.

The salvia had random speckles of red. I thought to myself that it needed a serious trim to bring back some life and color. There was time for one more push before fall. In that instant, a finch landed on a brown stem. It reached out and nibbled a stalk.

salvia seed stalk butter gard

The finch ate the seeds.

I remembered the lyre-leaved sage and my delight of discovery. I didn’t know the red salvia gave food in another form as well. Then I realized the plants were in the same family, their stems and flowers almost alike. The connection between them had been lost to me until the bird arrived.

The finch continued to eat. The moment held complicated gentleness. My patience with the sage and my willingness to watch taught me about its cycle. Ariel’s illness stripped away all that was not essential, disrupting my patterns, leaving me open to what happens when things are left to be. There was a comfortable space between surrender and resistance.

Sitting there, I smiled even as I grieved.

salvia bush 4

Mother’s bleeding her dead children
single-celled, invertebrate
born in the water of her womb
after the Word, below the light
amniotic deaths, sand and silt shrouds
mass graves of viscous black rot

Mother’s bleeding, her dead children
finned, feathered, furred
still in the water where life began
anointed by the exhumed hemorrhage
innocent sacrifice of awakening
your sleeping terrestrial siblings

Mother’s bleeding her, dead, children
thin-skinned, thick-headed
water and oil have never mixed
excuses confuse a simple choice
eat, drink, breathe where if her wounds drain dry?
return to her—or return to her
She will welcome you, either way

Read Parts 1, 2, and 3

May 30th was the last time I had a private, one-on-one visit with Feltus. After I exited the prison grounds, I decided to see the Angola Museum. It was on the opposite side of the prison’s security fence, only yards from Death Row. I had parked facing the museum to remind myself to go inside. At the counter, an African-American man in a white short sleeve shirt and blue jeans was folding T-shirts. He greeted me. I said I just wanted to look around. He said he recognized me because he’d seen me go back to my car with a Bible a few hours before. I told him I was there to visit the man who would be executed in a few days. He followed me into the museum’s back room and asked if I was Feltus’ spiritual advisor.

I explained how I got involved. He seemed intrigued by the autobiography. I asked him what he did at the museum, stopping short of asking if he was an inmate. He was outside of the security gates wearing street clothes. His glasses had a harsh chip on the top edge of the left lens. He had big, inquisitive, intelligent brown eyes and short-clipped, wavy hair.

“I collect things for the museum,” he said. “People call me. I call people.”

He was a bit of a curator who gathered old pictures and artifacts from the surrounding communities where families had been for generations. There was an old black-and-white striped uniform in a corner, a display of handmade weapons, and old letters. When I saw the pictures of chain gangs and field workers, some of them taken in the 20th century, I thought to myself, This is no different from slavery. I remembered seeing armed guards on horses watching prisoners at work on the grounds the first time I met Feltus.

“Did you see the back room?” he asked. “Well, maybe you don’t want to.”

“What’s there?”

“The execution exhibit.”

“I want to see it,” I said. “It would help me to know.”

A poster for Dead Man Walking was in a glass display case near the doorway.

“It’s strange how proud they seem about that movie,” he said.

I turned into the room. The first thing I saw was the electric chair in a glass booth. I muttered, “Oh my God.” I didn’t expect to see that. “Is that the actual one?”

“Yes. They don’t use it anymore.”

The high-backed chair, probably oak, was centered in the display. Leather straps lay on the seat. The arms were covered with carved initials and words. The man said guards did that. To the left was a stand with a leather hood. It was white, stitched with a tan leather string. Behind the chair were a clock and a painting of a vent. The man said a vent in the real chamber was turned on to blow out the smell of burning skin. On the right was another stand that had three old sponges connected some metal pieces. I asked him to explain how it worked.

“The sponges were dipped into a saline solution and placed on the man’s head. Then they’d put on this metal cap. The hood was dropped over his face, and a door behind the chair opened so clips—like the ones you use to jump a car—could be placed behind the man’s ears and on top of his head. They put a band around his leg, too.”

I turned to my right and saw a picture above his shoulder. “Is that the lethal injection gurney?” He said it was. It looked like a cross with black straps draped over the places where a man’s body would be tethered down. There were no needles and tubes present, the lines that would run chemicals to sedate a body, then freeze muscles, then stop a heart. The room looked as big as a walk-in closet. “Where is this?”

He motioned for me to follow him. In the room where the old uniform hung on a mannequin, he pointed to a spot on a map. “That’s Camp F.” We went back to the execution exhibit, and he showed me an article on the wall I should read.

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said, offering my hand.

“David,” he replied. He shook my hand.

“I’m Ronlyn. Thanks for your help.”

He left me alone to read about a Louisiana teenager, Willie Francis, who survived his first seat in the electric chair. The second time, he died. I overheard a woman speaking to David in a tone that made me think he wasn’t supposed to talk to me.

I stared into the cases full of odds and ends, shackles, and electric razors. On the wall above the shackles, I saw the front and side view mug shots of every man executed in Louisiana since the 1980s. Under each person’s photos were his name and execution date. I paused. The second framed set was full. Someone would have to create a whole new set or put Feltus’ pictures on their own. I knew that people would go into that room and imagine what he was like and get most of it wrong. I looked at the faces of the men who Feltus had known and talked about, the others whose names I’d never heard.

In that moment as I stared at the mug shots, I knew I looked at nothing more than masks. The men’s faces showed who they were when the pictures were taken, captured in the worst moments of their lives. I couldn’t judge any of them, ever again, the way I had once judged people. I knew too much. I realized that for all I believed I understood about Feltus, he constantly surprised me with sensitivity, depth, and intelligence. Such material was not part of my academic readings.

I thanked David before I left. For the first time since Feltus’ stay had been lifted, I cried on the way home.

*****

We didn’t get much time with Feltus on his last day, June 6, 2000. The East Baton Rouge Parish 19th Judicial Court granted a hearing, a last-ditch and procedural attempt to stop the execution. All of his friends and family, along with Keith Clark, his family, and Donna Ponsano’s family, watched as the request was denied. I watched Feltus’ face. It was still, without emotion. He looked like a cold-blooded criminal. Or maybe he looked like a man who had slipped deep inside himself. There was no legal intervention that day. A jury in 1992 and a legal system ending with the U.S. Supreme Court judged that he should die. That day, he would.

Cecile and I arrived at the penitentiary together hours later. Once we passed through security, we boarded a large passenger van. A guard drove us to Camp F—also called the Death House—a 10 minute ride from the entrance gates. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably cool for June. A perfect day to be outside. The fields were full of soybeans and corn. There were groves of young fig trees and pecan trees. In the distance, the forest blanketed the hills. An armed guard on horseback watched several men paint a long white picket fence. The weather and landscape were a balm, and a cruelty.

Two guards stood outside Camp F’s main door. Inside, there were three long tables with folding chairs, an ice chest full of soft drinks, a couple of trays of sandwiches, and a CD player softly playing gospel music. Feltus was sitting with two friends when we walked in. Cecile reached him first. As he stood up and raised his arms, I noticed that his hands weren’t chained. I felt an odd sense of relief. Then he hugged me, tight. He grabbed a notepad, a pen, and letters bound with string. He had me follow him to a table away from everyone else. There, he gave me the last letters people sent him and dictated the events of the prior twenty-four hours. I wrote quickly, knowing that he was doing it for himself, not for me. Charlie had to ask him to join the group again after more than a half hour.

Everyone mingled, drank soft drinks, and shared some nervous laughs. Those who smoked, did. We checked our watches. After a guard came to take Polaroids of everyone, Feltus called us to have a prayer. He stood with his back against a table and the rest of us gathered in an ellipse around him. Charlie was right by his side. Feltus asked for forgiveness and for peace for his victims. He gave thanks for the people who stood around him—his lawyers, spiritual advisor, cousins, friends. Then he asked Jean, the lawyer closest to him, to say a prayer. She did. Then he invited anyone else who wanted to, to say something.

Perhaps he didn’t expect it, but every person spoke. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I meant it when I told him he had changed my life, that I would never see other human beings the same way again, that he was courageous to tell his truth to the world. I ended with a promise. No matter what, I swore I’d see his book published.

I watched him as the others shared their thoughts. He leaned the small of his back against the end of the table. His eyes were fixed to the middle of the ellipse. He cried without noise. The tears dripped off his full cheeks to his blue button-up shirt with the frayed collar, over the left side of his chest were he’d written “Feltus” in indelible ink, marked so it wouldn’t get lost in the laundry. The light coming through the large windows was soft. The afternoon was fading. He looked muted and serene. I stared at that 39-year-old man who faced death with genuine dignity, with absolute peace, knowing he was loved despite all he’d done.

Even the prison officials had damp eyelashes after we finished. Then the warden approached the group and said it was time to go. Only Jean, Charlie, and Cecile stayed behind. Jean and Charlie were going to witness the execution. When I hugged him goodbye, I repeated my promise. He wasn’t crying anymore, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He wouldn’t look at anyone.

That night, I watched the clock on my VCR every minute between 8:20 and 8:40 p.m. His execution was supposed to happen at 8:30. When I knew it was over, I sat quietly. I couldn’t form thoughts. I was blank. Cecile called at ten o’ clock to say he went to the execution chamber under his own power and that he died peacefully. ***

The next day, the local paper printed a quote from Mr. Clark.

“I saw a man go to heaven tonight, I do believe.” [2]

*****

The morning after Feltus’ death, I awoke from a dream about him. I saw the back of his head as he made tea to keep himself calm. A peculiar peace lingered with me as I drank coffee on my back steps. The weather was, as the day before, unusually beautiful. I went to work late. By the afternoon, I returned to the words he left behind.

His funeral was well-attended. The gospel choir sang with sorrow and joy. Feltus liked music, and he would have appreciated the performance. As I sat through his service, I felt a sense of relief present, as if Feltus had been given an ultimate freedom and we were there to witness it.

During the next four months, I channeled grief into work. I had no other projects or distractions. Cecile arranged for Mary McMyne, a research assistant and my good friend, to help me with the edits. The rest of the staff left me alone to make sense out of his 350 page single-spaced, typed manuscript, several pages of notes, dozens of letters, his entire trial transcript, and his case file. I had a duty to him, but it was more than an obligation. It was an honor. Feltus died entrusting me to prepare his story for anyone who would read it. As a fellow writer, at the very least, that was a promise I could not break.

But I haven’t fulfilled the promise yet. The manuscript has been submitted to several publishers in the past. There were a couple of close calls. Agents have looked at it—and passed. I haven’t forgotten what Feltus wanted: “My dream is to have my book published, and live to see it help kids and teens.” He didn’t get the latter, but I intend to steward that dream, somehow, some way. The time will come when the world is ready for what he had to say.

Ten years later, when I read pages of his manuscript, I see more than the uniqueness of his personal story. My heart whispers, “There, but for the grace of God, and I reply, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I follow no organized faith, but I honor those words. They speak the truth. Luck, randomness, karma—an undeterminable factor played into the circumstances of his life, and mine. Every choice we’ve ever made was grounded in those circumstances. Had I been Feltus, how can I be certain I would have made better, less destructive decisions? What made me think, then, that I didn’t have the same gradations of light and dark with my self, as he had in his?

What Feltus proved is that what’s on the outside of a person—the markers of race, class, culture, education, employment—does not hint at the depth and complexity on the inside. What I learned is that our differences were less important than the connection we forged, in spite of them. Then I glimpsed but now I see that Feltus was a richer person than his case file revealed and more profound than the worst choice he’d ever made in his life.

No matter what I think I shared with him, Feltus shared more. I learned lessons about compassion, judgment, kindness, and forgiveness that could not have come from articles and books. Feltus Taylor, Jr. was a human being and a wounded soul. Because of both, he was a teacher. My teacher. I thank him now, finally, for the honor of being his student.

Ft mural

 

Photo of Feltus Taylor, Jr. taken Sept. 7, 1999, two days before his fifth execution date.

[2] Millhollon, Michelle, “Taylor put to death – Killer apologizes: “It was always my own doing,” The Advocate 7 June 2000:1BS

***6/9/14 The last sentence of this paragraph was deleted after I received information from Mr. Keith Clark that the details were incorrect. I apologize for the error and appreciate that he contacted me.

Read Part 1 and Part 2

I visited Feltus a few days after he got his new execution date. He’d been through the death warrant announcement and waiting before—twice in 1997 and twice in 1998.

The death row inmates had been moved back into the building at the front of the Angola complex, several yards from the only prison entrance. Inside, huge box fans circulated warm air through the halls. I couldn’t imagine enduring that heat for too long. A female officer escorted me to an air-conditioned visiting room. She asked if I usually had contact visits, and I said I did. I added that he didn’t need to be shackled. During past visits, I had to ask the guards to take off the cuffs, something they were legally allowed to do. She alerted someone on the hall to get him out. She and I talked until he arrived.

The door opened. Feltus walked in without a guard or arm shackles—smiling. I laughed and told him I was shocked to see him come in that way. Every other visit included grumpy-faced guards who unlocked his hands in front of me. Each time, I’d watch him rub at his wrists for a few minutes afterward. That day, he put down a pile of paper and lightly hugged me. Along with a copy of his manuscript, he had a stack of letters he wanted me to mail for him. His goodbyes.

He told me he’d received the letter I sent him telling him how sorry I was about the turn of events. “My attitude is that we’d all rather remember each other smilin and laughin than all sad. You got time for sadness later,” he said.

Then he admitted he hadn’t worked on his book in a long time because he had writer’s block. He pushed a pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Write this down,” he said. For about five minutes, he dictated to me, starting where his manuscript left off. He stopped suddenly. His posture changed. “That’s enough. I can do the rest on my own now.”

“Are you ready to go, if this is it?” I asked after he told me about his concerns about dying. He was clearly more afraid of the actual events—the wrong dose of chemicals leaving him conscious—than the dying itself.

“Yeah.”

“Do you still want your lawyers to take it to the Supreme Court?” He had often considered giving up his appeals to stop his grandmother’s worry and give his victims peace.

“Yeah. I didn’t want to last time, but I do now.” He paused. “Will you be there my last day and go to my funeral?”

“I promise to do that if that’s what you want.”

“How do you do at funerals?”

“Okay.”

“Because you’ve been to a lot?”

“No, I’m just able to function through all of it. I save the grief for later.”

“I want to take pictures the last day. Group ones with everybody and just the two of us. You can put it in your photo album, and people will wonder who that black guy is.” He laughed.

We visited for two and a half hours. It still surprised me how quickly, and comfortably, time passed when I was with him. We never struggled to find a subject to talk about. Before I left, he said he was going to buy a pound of coffee from the store—the prison commissary—and pull a few all-nighters.

“Don’t work too hard. You need your rest,” I said.

“I’ll have plenty of time to sleep later.” He smiled.

I laughed.

Then he looked straight at me. “For whatever reason, I’m glad our paths crossed.”

“I am, too, Feltus.” And I meant it.

That was the last visit I had with him before the execution date. I never bothered to get on his regular visitors’ list because Cecile always managed to arrange special meetings for me. That was a mistake. Because I wasn’t on his list or part of his legal team, I had no rightful claim to see him. The warden, who was suspicious about what Feltus was writing and why, denied every other request for visits, and I had no recourse.

His book kept me focused during the day, every day. He in fact pulled those all-nighters because I received almost one hundred handwritten pages, back and front, within three weeks. I sent him questions through the mail every few days to have him elaborate on sections he’d already written. He sent those back quickly, too. Three student workers typed his manuscript, and they asked each other what happened in the parts they hadn’t typed. I didn’t care why they were interested, only that they were. It confirmed that Feltus’ story meant something to others.

But in my quiet moments, I was confused. I didn’t consider myself close to Feltus. I thought it was strange that I didn’t think about him all the time, considering what was about to happen. I felt guilty about my emotional distance and wondered if there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t bring myself to have a connection with him that his other friends did.

Also, I knew, but didn’t openly acknowledge, that I feared other people’s judgment. I grew up with the understanding that victims received sympathy and wrong-doers received punishment. Love the sinner, hate the sin was a concept, not a practice. I worried what others would think about my choice to work with him and, in doing so, show kindness to a criminal, a murderer. Our society’s outcast.

Sometimes, I felt callous, but I did care. Deep down, I believed Feltus needed and deserved compassion. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was shifting in the ways I thought about capital punishment, imprisonment, and human fragility, even human dignity. I had vivid nightmares about executions—and Feltus was the one being executed. I wrote him several letters during those last two weeks. Whenever I had a good afternoon run or watched TV with my partner at night, I thought of him and what experiences he must have missed in his lifetime. I even wrote the governor a letter asking for his mercy, stating that if Feltus were executed, it would be justice served but not justice done.

On the scheduled execution date, September 9, 1999, I left work that afternoon and joined another one of Feltus’ social workers at his grandmother’s house. We had both been denied final visits. The book project banished me, and Jane’s outspokenness about the lack of mental health services at the prison had banished her. We were to wait at Miss Henretta’s for Feltus’ final call.

Within an hour, the five-room shotgun house filled with nine people. Jane and I were already there with his grandmother, Miss Henretta. Then his grandmother’s sister, her daughter, and her daughter’s adult son arrived at the house together. Behind them came the man who had located Feltus’ biological family and collected facts about Feltus’ life before he was adopted. Finally, two of Feltus’ pen friends from England joined us. Both women had written Feltus since the first year he was on Death Row, and each had traveled to see him several times since then. They had visited when he had his fourth execution date in May 1998. This time, they expected to go home after his funeral. Jane and I served them food and drinks and waited for the phone to ring. We all roamed the house, brushing each other in doorways and the one small hall off the bathroom.

When the phone rang, Jane answered. He asked to speak to me first. His voice was low and dark. He said he cared about me and wanted me to promise that I’d make sure his book got published. I said I cared about him, too, and assured him that I would honor his wish. By the tone in his voice, I could tell our brief conversation was over, so I handed the phone to Miss Henretta. I couldn’t keep the glass in my hand steady. He spoke to everyone in the house at least once and then I was called back. When I took the receiver from his cousin, I heard static. I said Feltus’ name twice, and then the phone went dead. I jiggled the cord. I felt my insides go quicksilver cold.

I sat on Miss Henretta’s bed next to his pen friend, Jan. “How far is he from the phone?”

“Just a few feet. He’ll call back soon.”

I couldn’t stop shaking. I went through the house to pick up dirty plates and glasses. I imagined that a guard had made him leave the phone to make preparations to take him to the death chamber. It was still early, though, not even five thirty. The execution was scheduled to occur around seven. Alone, I washed the dishes in the tiny kitchen where Miss Henretta had her clean plates face down on the table at each seat, a bowl of fresh fruit, and a saucepan of the boiled water she drank. I placed the last clean glass on the counter at the moment the phone rang. I walked through Feltus’ old bedroom to the narrow hall and stood there to see Jane—standing next to Miss Henretta who sat in a small chair—pull the phone from her face and shout, “We got a stay!”

No one cheered. A few of us muttered what might have been prayers. The tension in the house slipped through the cracks in the walls. A silent, reverent calm took its place.

Later, I learned that Feltus had been called away from the phone to begin his final meal. That moments after he began eating his gumbo, his lawyer walked toward his holding cell with her thumb in the air. That only the guards had heard the phone ring with the call from the U.S. Supreme Court giving Feltus a stay—an hour before he was to die.

*     *     *     *     *

After Feltus’ last minute stay, I felt like I got a second chance myself. As his writing coach and editor, I knew there were gaps in his story that only he could fill. Feltus had completed a first draft of his book three weeks before his execution date. All of the questions he answered to elaborate or clarify were meant for me to weave into his original text, but there were more questions lingering. He had additional work to do. I knew I had to be more consistent with him through visits and letters. Although his friends encouraged him to write his book, as his coach, it was my role to make sure that happened.

My role. During the days before and after Feltus’ execution date, I realized how I defined and justified my distance from him. In my head, I had constructed our relationship as one of teacher and student. I thought of myself as his instructor, giving him direction about how to write his story, where there should be more description, where he needed to share his thoughts. I had to care about him, and I did, but I didn’t have to be his close friend.

I kept my promise to be more attentive to him and his work for the first couple of months after his stay. We wrote and visited a little more often. I was placed on his regular visitors’ list. No more contact visits face-to-face at open tables in an air-conditioned room. We met in a visitors’ area where he was seated, shackled, in a tiny booth with a heavy door and had to speak through a mesh screen. I sat opposite him in a narrow room that connected to several tiny booths. The room was cold—cold air, cold light. His booth was dark, radiant with heat.

Then it happened again. My life—a bout with the flu, work, a writing class—got in the way. As for Feltus, a series of hostage situations and drug busts resulted in a security crackdown in the prison. That meant the conditions became harsher, often unnecessarily. Those who did art work in their cells, like Feltus, had their painting supplies taken away. Lawyers couldn’t have contact visits with their clients, which had been standard for years. Men suspected of having knowledge of what happened were moved to cells on different tiers, which disrupted friendships. This made Feltus depressed and unable to concentrate. He didn’t work on his book for months. He was angry at me for not giving more feedback on what to do next. I was annoyed with him because I had given him several suggestions for changes that he hadn’t made.

We were on cordial terms when the final decision came. Cecile called me into her office and said the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected Feltus’ case. The court would not hear his appeal. His fifth stay of execution was lifted. It was April 24, 2000. I sat across from her, stunned, knowing this was the end. No more eleventh hour miracles. While we tried to use words to express the unimaginable, he called to talk to us. Cecile barely managed not to cry. I felt my throat close. Feltus sounded resigned. And peaceful.

Fortunately for the book project, only days before the court’s decision, three dreaded projects I had on my calendar had been canceled or delayed indefinitely. I didn’t question such gruesome divine intervention. I read his entire book again. In the meantime, he finished the assignments I’d given him, and he began to write about the months after his 1999 stay.

We had a good visit on May 16. His spirits were bright, and his humor was dark. His remark, “You’re gonna think I’m paranoid, but there are people up in here tryin to kill me,” was a classic example of his resilience and strength. He seemed not only prepared to see to his autobiography’s last details but also to die, surreal as the circumstances were.

Several days after our meeting, I sent him more than 400 questions to answer, most of them asking for simple clarifications—a name, a color, a remembered thought or feeling in the moment. I knew when I was doing it, I was being unfair and selfish. I didn’t want him to die without drawing the last pieces of his story out of him. 

He retaliated. I didn’t want him to send mail to my home address, partially out of respect for my partner’s wishes. I also wanted my privacy. I figured out that he got my address from the form Charlie filled out with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those people who would serve on the Feltus Taylor, Jr. Foundation board. I was working on his book at my office on a Saturday when my partner, Todd, called, furious, to say there was a packet from Feltus at home. In a note he enclosed, Feltus wrote that he was “sick and tired” of answering the questions. Only 10 had responses. The rest were blank.

I visited him again on May 30. Before that day, I’d sent a letter stating that I knew he was angry but he didn’t have the right to ignore my wishes. He told me face-to-face that he’d sent the packet to my house to piss me off as payback for expecting so much from him. It was a glimpse of a side of him I hadn’t seen before, but I couldn’t deny that some kind of reaction was inevitable. He kept a journal during his last days, which he read to me. He wrote that I was “a shrink, always trying to figure him out.” He went on to observe that it was like he was a project for me and that it was weird how much I knew about him when he knew so little of me. I couldn’t deny any of that, either. His honesty and insight startled me a little, although I wasn’t certain why. Now I realize I underestimated him. He was a far more perceptive person than I recognized. How much of my judgment about his textbook case past clouded my ability to see him for who he was?

Despite his initial anger, Feltus wasn’t a man who held grudges, at least not in the later years of his life. We had a brief but pleasant meeting. He thought it was funny when I pulled out a dollar bill covered in questions I had to ask him. No one was allowed to bring in anything from the outside except the clothes they were wearing and $20 or less in cash. I had tried to go in with a Bible with some secreted blank paper, but the visitor’s center guard told me I couldn’t because I wasn’t a spiritual advisor. No problem. I knew that I could use paper towels from the bathroom to write on and get a pencil from a guard by asking for a commissary order form. As it turned out, there was a pencil on the metal shelf which a guard had forgotten to pick up from the last visitor.  

When I left Death Row’s visiting room that afternoon, I knew I’d see Feltus alive only once more—on his execution day.

Read Part 4

Read Part 1

I can’t explain why I felt compelled to work with Feltus, other than to say I knew it was something I was supposed to do.

The possibility of a publishing credit, as an editor, was appealing but not paramount. I didn’t expect and wasn’t promised royalties if and when the book was sold. Feltus wanted proceeds evenly split among his elderly grandmother (who has since died), his surviving victim and both victims’ families, and a foundation in his name that would give grants to organizations that serve children.

There was no intent on my part to get the intrinsic warm-fuzzy feeling of helping someone. I could have chosen other means, certainly one less controversial and subject to judgment.

I did believe, then and now, in the power of his voice. I reflected on my own relationship with words and with those who read them. In college, I’d been politically active and wrote newspaper editorials on several touchy subjects. Whether people agreed with me, I didn’t particularly care. I wanted people to think. Or better, to question. I viewed Feltus as a catalyst to shift the way people thought about capital punishment. He wasn’t an attorney, a nun, or a criminologist. He had the most direct authority to talk about the death penalty. He had the right to tell the story because he lived it, like Frederick Douglass had the right to tell his.

What I struggled with then and couldn’t name until now is my flaw of arrogance. I thought I had the education and experience to nurture his voice, to prompt him into deeper self-realization. There I was, nearly 30, full of assumptions. The assumptions were different from the ones of the predominant culture, spewed forth in the media. That depiction cast Feltus as a predatory black man—like thousands of others—who lurked the streets with criminal intent.

Oh, but I was beyond that, wasn’t I, having seen the research about how society creates its own misfits through poverty, violence, delinquent peers, school failure, and substance abuse, to name a few. I thought I understood him. I knew the theories, the predictors of behavior, and I knew his facts. I had read his case file, and Feltus was a textbook case. The circumstances and themes were all familiar. Only the details of his story were unique.

He was abandoned by his birth mother and taken in by a couple when he was two. He could not talk, walk, or feed himself. He wasn’t potty trained until he was four or five. He was a poor student. In fifth grade, he was placed in special education and socially promoted every year after. His school records show that he went between two extremes: acting withdrawn or acting out. Until he was fourteen, he had a severe speech impediment, which stopped although he received little speech therapy as a child.

His adoptive father was an alcoholic, and his parents were physically abusive with each other. They divorced when he was 10 because of his father’s infidelity. He was closest to his mother and maternal grandmother. His friends were boys who committed petty crimes, and he joined in to be accepted. His grandfather died when Feltus was 13, the only male figure who seemed to take an interest in him when he was a child. When he was 14, his mother remarried, but she and her husband moved out of state. Feltus stayed with his elderly grandmother so she wouldn’t have to live alone. His stepfather died when Feltus was 18, and his mother moved back to Louisiana months after his death.

Feltus dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, three months before he turned 18. He worked two jobs at a time but still stole to get extra money. He dated a young woman from a poor family he felt sorry for. When he found out the girl and her family were going to be evicted, he committed an armed robbery to cover their rent and his own bills. He evaded the police for two weeks and was arrested on his nineteenth birthday.

In 1980, he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor and sent to Wade Correctional Center in North Louisiana. His files state that he was sexually assaulted at least once at Wade. He had at least three prison relationships. He sold drugs to make money. In 1985, his mother died of a heart attack. Then in 1987, his father died. To keep a promise to his mother, Feltus earned his GED in 1988.

Like most prisons in the U.S., Wade offered few programs to help inmates to return to the world outside. Feltus was not taught skills to get a job that paid a living wage or how to deal with frustration and conflict without using violence, toward others and himself. 

After being in prison for 11 years, at the age of 29, Feltus left Wade Correctional Center in June 1990. He worked 80 hours a week at two fast-food jobs he got within a month of his release. He met a young woman at work with whom he fell in love almost immediately. The relationship was good for four months. They discussed moving in together and having a child. Although he wasn’t financially ready, Feltus moved out of his grandmother’s house when her Social Security benefits were threatened because he was living with her. For almost two months, Feltus lived with friends and in his car. By then, he and his girlfriend weren’t getting along. Feltus alleged that she was seeing her ex-boyfriend again. To deal with stress, Feltus used marijuana and crack. In February 1991, he rented an apartment after it seemed he and his girlfriend had reconciled. Within weeks, the relationship broke up for good, and Feltus was fired from his jobs.

Exactly nine months after he was released from prison, Feltus went to Cajun’s Fabulous Fried Chicken to ask for his job back. Keith Clark, the manager, said he wouldn’t hire Feltus again but would help him find a new job elsewhere. While they waited to call the manager at another restaurant, Feltus helped prepare for the day’s business. While cleaning up, he saw the safe was open. He thought the money was the answer to his problems. He went outside to his car, where he had a gun under the seat and handcuffs on the rearview mirror, and returned to the restaurant. He handcuffed the manager and a worker, Donna Ponsano, in a back room. Clark tried to reason with Feltus. After a brief argument, Feltus shot both of them and took the money. He was caught 15 hours after the shootings.

Ponsano died two days later. Clark is permanently disabled, confined to a wheelchair.

In 1992, Feltus was sentenced to death and sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Death Row.

Feltus wrote about his life in terms of being on the outside and on the inside. He lived 19 years and nine months on the outside, free. He lived 19 years, five months, and 20 days on the inside, in prison.

*     *     *     *     *

Through the winter of 1998 and into the early summer of 1999, I had occasional visits with him and communicated through letters. I admit that that my contact wasn’t as regular as it could have been. The bustle of life and work occupied me.

Aside from that, I was careful about how close I got. I didn’t tell him much about myself. I kept the facts basic, things I would tell anyone who asked, like whether I was single, how many siblings I had, what jobs I had worked. I couldn’t forget that he was a man who once survived by conning people. Information was leverage. It revealed weak links, soft spots. I knew that he had friends outside of the prison who were far more open with him. I didn’t feel comfortable getting that close. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem fair that I withheld so much when I had his entire life before my eyes and he trusted me to see it all.

My distance was complicated by the fact that, as much as I was cautious, I actually enjoyed talking with him. Cecile and his lawyer scheduled contact visits for me, so I didn’t have the same psychological interference that I would have if we’d met through a screen.

We would discuss his book for the first few minutes. At the time, he was sending me several handwritten pages every couple of weeks. After the business part of our visit was over, we talked about all kinds of things. He read a newspaper and watched the TV news every day. He had more to say about current events than almost anyone I knew. I found it intriguing that Feltus considered movies, television, and music partially responsible for the rising violence among young people.

He would tell me stories about what went on inside the prison—from affairs among guards to the way contraband moved among people, even on the Row—and find humor in all of it. He often spoke frankly about what he missed about being on the outside, like long hot baths, good fried chicken, driving, and women. We had profound discussions about spirituality and death. He always mentioned how much he regretted what he’d done and how much he wanted to apologize to Keith Clark and the Ponsano family. His brown eyes deepened with tears, but he did not cry. Not in front of me.

If Feltus noticed how reserved I was during those first months we knew each other, he didn’t mention it. He seemed content with the direction I tried to give him about his writing and often took my advice. I could see his progress as a writer. I’d encouraged him to focus more on descriptions and reflection. He had definitely improved.

I saw the strongest proof of his growth as a writer in his essay about Dobie Gillis Williams, his friend who was executed in January 1999. Originally, Feltus had started it the day of Dobie’s scheduled execution in June 1998. It chronicled what Feltus thought every few hours and his reaction when Dobie returned to the Row after a last-minute stay. I encouraged him to finish it with his impressions about when Dobie was finally executed. A few weeks later, I received another couple of pages that were even better than I expected. Instead of simply stating that Dobie had arthritis, Feltus described how debilitating it was for him. Feltus gave details about what Dobie wore the day he walked off the Row and how his expression had changed from “the look of death” to one of peace. He also showed empathy through his imagination. In one part, he wrote that he pictured Dobie getting on the lethal injection table by himself, his life flashing before his eyes. “Then lying down must have felt really cold at that point,” Feltus wrote. “Then his body dancing around within him as the drug started working and shutting his system down. But the people watching couldn’t tell from just looking at him.”

Feltus grieved for Dobie. He didn’t write much of his autobiography in the months that followed. Then he set his book aside completely after the April 20, 1999 Columbine school shootings in Littleton, Colorado. The violence upset him so much that he wrote a series of essays that he wanted put into a workbook for young people. He was passionate and sincere in his wish to stop kids from leading the life he had. Much of his autobiography included frequent digressions in which he directly addressed—no, pleaded with—his young readers. “Don’t make the same mistakes I made,” he wrote over and over, telling them to listen to their parents and teachers, stay away from drugs, be kind to each other. . .  

*     *     *     *     *

Feltus was a thoughtful man. For birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, he sent cards to his friends and family. I know this because I received some and because I was given two years worth of letters after he was executed, which he gave me permission to excerpt in his autobiography. People thanked him for remembering special days in their lives. They appreciated that he asked about the welfare of the people they loved. In copies of letters that he wrote which friends shared with me, I read for myself that Feltus included many others in his prayers. I still remember a brief letter he wrote to a close pen friend’s father who was elderly and suicidal. Feltus pleaded with him to realize how blessed he was to have family with him and that being old didn’t mean he could no longer enjoy his life.

He had a good sense of humor. Feltus liked to call himself “The Black Leprechaun” because his birthday was on St. Patrick’s Day. He joked about mooning the warden and witnesses at his execution just before he got on the table. He wondered if there was sex in heaven and what it would be like to make love on a cloud. The day he told me how a lethal injection kills a person, we spent twenty minutes debating the worst ways to die. He picked the guillotine: “It must be terrible knowin that blade’s comin but not when.” He chuckled through the imagined terror.

He didn’t find his self-worth until he was on Death Row. This was something I could’ve inferred from his case file, but he acknowledged the realization himself, later, in his autobiography. Because of his learning disabilities and speech impediment, he felt stupid throughout his childhood and adolescence. He admitted that he knew it was wrong to steal but felt he did those things because he was, at the core, “no good.” It wasn’t until he started writing his pen friends (what he called them) once on Death Row that he began to question why he had such beliefs about himself. He began to grow not only in his faith but also as a person when he met Charlie, an Episcopalian deacon. People who were close to Feltus credit Charlie, Feltus’ spiritual advisor, with nurturing a transformation that was complete on the day Feltus died.

Feltus was truly sorry for what he did. Every time I saw him, he spoke of Keith Clark, Donna Ponsano, and their families. I know that his letters to friends and conversations with them often included “the mess,” as he called it. But this wasn’t a jail cell conversion. From the day he committed the crime, he was remorseful. Even court testimony from the officers who dealt with him days after the murder includes Feltus’ expressions of remorse. His last words were an apology to his victims: “I want to tell you, Keith, and the Ponsano family, that I’ve always regretted what I’ve done. It was my own doing. After this is over with, I hope you can find the peace to move on.”[1]

I recognized those qualities and vulnerabilities about him and was still so removed. My guard remained up, and I was quite conscious of its presence. Although my caution may have been prudent in some ways, I felt guilty about how easily I kept my distance. Perhaps I considered it professional.

One of the most jarring moments was when the Fifth Circuit Court rejected Feltus’ appeal and scheduled a new execution date in 1999, his fifth date since his 1992 conviction. I had a moment of queasiness and panic. Only part of that was because he would die. The rest was because he hadn’t finished his autobiography. About an hour later, I began to wonder what the next few weeks would be like. I wondered what was going on at the prison, how people prepared for a rare, profound event like this. I wondered how a man who would die in 45 days and had written only half of his story could be motivated to finish it.   

[1]  Millhollon, Michelle. “Feltus Taylor , 39, executed for killing,” The Advocate 7 June 2000:1A and Millhollon, Michelle, “Taylor put to death – Killer apologizes: “It was always my own doing,” The Advocate 7 June 2000:1BS

Read Part 3

I stood with my hand on the cold metal gurney-gray shelf under the screen separating us. For the third time, I tried to leave. He was in the closet-sized room opposite me. The bulb was out above his head. There was hardly any light coming through the tiny window in the door behind his back. He leaned forward and said in a mock whisper, “You’re gonna think I’m paranoid, but there are people up in here tryin to kill me.”

His familiar smile turned into a crescent moon. He widened his eyes until then gleamed. Then I laughed from my gut, where I felt it most. He joined in with that quiet, shoulder-shaking heh-heh-heh-heh he used when his humor was darkest. Between the two of us, we smothered out the noise behind him: box fans, clattering key rings, steel hitting steel.

I laughed to myself even after I left the visitors’ room, passed his name on the white board in the office downstairs, and walked along the flower-lined sidewalk distantly edged by chain link and razor wire. It was broiling outside compared to the air-conditioned sections inside the prison building. The car’s interior wouldn’t cool off until I was 10 miles from Louisiana State Penitentiary. The overgrowth along the hills defied the May drought. I listened to Marvin Gaye’s album Let’s Get It On. Part of me felt the need for symbolic gestures, that I should have chosen What’s Going On? instead. But I knew Feltus Taylor, Jr., the man who was alone in his cell by then, would want me to listen to whatever made me smile. Then I laughed quietly at his joke again.

Someone was trying to kill him—and would in 21 days.

He would die on June 6, 2000.

*     *     *     *     *

I worked for an office within a state university’s School of Social Work when I was asked if I would help Feltus with his autobiography. I’d been on the staff less than a year. The office had several on-going criminal justice projects, most of which involved program monitoring and evaluation. The director’s death penalty work didn’t fit neatly among them. An expert in criminology, Cecile was a social worker who gave mitigation testimony during the penalty phases of first-degree murder trials. Her role was not to save a defendant’s life, although that was implied intent. She gave a judge and jury information about a person’s life history, the facts and circumstances that might explain how one human being could kill another.

For months before each trial, she personally interviewed the defendant as well as his family, friends, teachers, doctors, and others who knew or treated him. Some staff members collected dozens of documents—records from schools, physicians, counselors, police, prisons, employers. All of this was synthesized into a defendant’s social history, a map of his life, a trail leading to the day he was arrested for murder. I compiled and created her court presentations, which meant I knew the details. After I saw those case files, the academic research I’d read was no longer theory. Risk and protective factors translated into real people, real life.

I didn’t support the death penalty, but my reasons were pragmatic. First, poor people, especially minorities, were most likely to get death sentences because they couldn’t afford private attorneys who could plea down charges or get them off. Second, taxpayers paid more to give a person years of appeals and execute him than to sentence him to life in prison in the first place. My opinion had little to do with morality or compassion. That would change, drastically.

Because my view was so logical, I couldn’t relate to Cecile’s approach to her work. I’m not sure she often believed that any of her clients were guilty unless the facts were indisputable. In the same conversation, she would talk about sad, awful abuses within families and then give some example about how they were “wonderful people.” She had empathy for the crime victims, but she seemed to have more for those accused of the crimes.

When she talked about Feltus Taylor, I figured he was no different from the rest. No better, no worse. He had been on Death Row five years before she got his case. It was in the post-conviction phase, which meant his case was moving into higher levels of the justice system and would reach its end at the U.S. Supreme Court.

I don’t know how long she had a copy of his autobiography before she asked me if I’d be interested in helping him. She’d read it and couldn’t believe how good it was for someone with so little formal education. I agreed to read what he’d written—because I was morbidly curious—but made no promises. I expected to turn down the request with ease. How good could it be? I read the entire manuscript in one sitting. When I got to the last page, which ended in the middle of an event, I wanted to read more. I searched our office files to try to find the rest of the book. When I found Cecile later that day, she said there wasn’t anymore because he hadn’t finished it. I thought it was remarkable, unexpectedly eloquent yet simple. He had the gift of a natural storyteller.

My enthusiasm was pure instinct. I knew that he had something to tell the world. Not as a prophet, martyr, or saint, just as a man who didn’t whine or make excuses about the wrongs he’d done. Although I knew I had to help him finish his autobiography, I also knew that I’d have to keep my distance somehow. I couldn’t deny two facts. He was a convicted criminal, and he was going to be executed one day. So from the first letter I sent him, which took me at least a week to carefully word, I had my guard up. I decided that my role was to be his coach and editor. I could offer no more.

*     *     *     *     *

Because Cecile was part of Feltus’ legal team, she was allowed to have contact visits with him. This meant she didn’t have to see him in a regular visitors’ room, where partitions gave little privacy and mesh screens distorted faces. She tried to arrange a contact visit for me because I was her employee. She apparently told the warden the real reason for the visit because he refused her several times, stating Feltus and I could work on his book using the telephone and mail. That’s exactly how we would work together, but I wanted to meet him in person. I didn’t fully trust the opinions of those who knew him, I wasn’t sure how much he’d written was true, and I had to let my gut tell me what I could believe.

Cecile managed to finally convince Warden Burl Cain to let me in. A visit was scheduled before Christmas in 1998. Until then, Feltus and I had communicated only through letters. I focused on what we had in common—writing. I had written fiction sporadically since I was old enough to print, and all of my jobs since high school had involved writing and editing on some level. He stated that he had a passion for writing that he didn’t discover until he went to Death Row. We were opposites—white woman, black man; middle-class, working class; free, imprisoned—but our appreciation for the power of words was a significant shared interest.

Our correspondence wasn’t particularly personal, but I began to get a sense of who Feltus was. I knew that I was at least dealing with someone who was sincere. In his response to my first letter to him, he wrote:

“My dream is to have my book published, and live to see it help kids and teens. Than [sic] I will know that my life wasn’t a total waste. I made a really bad mistake in my life. And I am paying for it now, and may pay for it with my life. But I don’t want teens to make the same mistake that I have. And a lot of them do. And are coming to prison younger and younger these days. Even to death row. And it really needs to stop, you know.”

Cecile joined me for the first visit. At the prison entrance, there were colored lights, wreaths, and holiday greeting signs. Beyond the checkpoint, I noticed a huge painted wooden Santa and his reindeer on top of the administrative building, which was connected to the first building a visitor sees to the right of the security gates—Death Row. However, at that time, Death Row prisoners had been moved to cells toward the back of Angola’s 18,000 acre complex, land that was once a plantation.

Once we approached the building, we had to walk through narrow fenced corridors blocked by gates with electric locks. All of the windows had bars. Not a single face peered out to enjoy a cool breeze. On the first floor, there were several guards on watch and prisoners pushing large laundry hampers on wheels. I found it strange that none of them acknowledged us, not even with  glances. They must have seen plenty of white women in civilian clothes—lawyers, social workers, nuns—standing in the open spaces under fluorescent lights. Cecile and I stood there at least 10 minutes before our escort put us in a room upstairs that was used as a doctor’s office. He locked the door behind him.

For half an hour, I watched guards and inmates talk to each other like co-workers. Then, two guards led Feltus into the room. He was as short as I expected—I knew from reading his case file that he was about five feet six—but he was much broader, like a bulldog through his arms and chest. His hair was cut close to his skull. He had bright, kind eyes. Cecile hugged him, but he couldn’t hug back because his wrists were shackled together. I offered my hand, which he shook, then he leaned a shoulder toward me, an armless hug. I patted his back lightly.

Cecile started the conversation. He was reserved, even though he’d seen her many times. Still, a dry sense of humor came through, a quality I hadn’t noticed in his letters. When he smiled, one dimple creased his right cheek. At age 37, he had a mischievous boyish innocence about him. He was a good listener. I noticed that he looked people in the eye when he spoke. His attention focused on what was said, and his responses didn’t fly off in tangents. Cecile talked nearly the entire time we were there. When she gave us a chance to chat, Feltus stressed how much he wanted to do something that could help kids and that was the reason he was writing his life story. I told him I would read his manuscript as he wrote it, give him suggestions on what to do, and edit it once he was done. That I agreed to help seemed to mean a lot to him, as if he didn’t deserve this gesture but would accept it. Our brief talk was direct and thoughtful. He impressed me with an intelligence that called into question the IQ score of 80 I saw in his case file.

I left knowing I’d made a commitment to a murderer, a man I genuinely liked.  

Read Part 2