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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

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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.

24 Responses to “What He Taught Me from Death Row (3 of 4)”

  1. Dana says:

    Chills..

  2. angela says:

    as usual, totally gripping.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn,

    This is horrifying and I cannot stop reading!

  4. AMAZING story. Is this part of Novel No. 2? I’m a devoted reader now–can’t wait for the next part to be posted!

    • LitPark says:

      I’m wondering the same thing. What a story!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      In terms of subject matter, no, this isn’t related to Novel #2. However, there is a theme of compassion in my next novel…and no doubt, my experience with Feltus prepared me to write about that.

      I SO enjoy your work and appreciate you’re following this piece. :)

  5. JM Blaine says:

    I think lots of people
    imagine how they would react in
    such a situation
    Would you welcome death
    as compared to life in prison?
    You give this a good balance
    within all of us
    lies the best
    & worst…

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Absolutely. We’re all gradations of duality. Some more extreme than others.

      Regarding death or life in prison, Feltus spoke on occasion of the possibility that his sentence could be commuted. If that happened, he aspired to be a trustee–which would have allowed him opportunites to work at the prison and spend less time locked up alone in a cell.

  6. Don Mitchell says:

    Ronlyn, I’m reading these pieces with great interest. But I don’t think I’ll comment until after I see the last, one except to say that although the stakes are much lower (perhaps not comparable at all) I do feel resonances with my time constantly extracting information from the people I worked with as an anthropologist, and their knowledge of me. There obviously was an imbalance. Much of the time it was unimportant. Sometimes it wasn’t.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      It’s comparable to some degree. I assume the people you spoke with were not formally educated in a traditional Western manner. That alone sets up expectations and assumptions on both sides. Being aware of the imbalance is better than trying to pretend there isn’t one.

      Thanks for reading, Don. I have to catch up on your latest posts!

  7. Zara Potts says:

    This is so incredibly sad and moving, Ronlyn.
    I almost don’t want to read the final installment as I know what will happen and I guess I’m still such a child that I want to believe in happy endings – stories where people don’t get killed by lethal injections. Or innocent people are shot at close range.
    It’s a brutal world, but your gentleness in telling us about it is rare and precious because your gentleness is partnered with such honesty and strength.
    As for the missing parts of Feltus’s book – I think they can be found here. Your perspective and understanding and confusion is what was missing. You are filling in what needs to be filled in and doing it is such a brave and unflinching way.
    Miss Ronlyn, you make me so proud to know you.

  8. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I know this will sound very strange, but in a way, there is a happy ending. It’s sacred and profound. You’ll have to tell me if you notice it.

    My gentleness is a quality I’ve only recently been willing to own. It hurts too f***’in much to live in a world like this. And am I ready to own, too, that my experience with Feltus serves a greater purpose?

    Dear Miss Zara, as we say in yoga–Namaste, which means the light within me bows before the light within you. You are dazzling.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    Hi Ronlyn,

    I thought I commented on this days ago but it appears I did not. I found this installment to be the most compelling of all of them. I like how you weave in the reality of the situation, how your own life got in the way, and how the both of you were sometimes at odds with each other and sometimes dependent on each other. A quite human portrayal.

    Looking forward to number four.

  10. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    There was a great deal of tension in trying to manage my own day-to-day life and the responsibility I had toward him. I struggled for balance. Now and then, I felt he expected more from me than I could reasonably give. That’s life—no matter the circumstances.

    I’m curious to see what you think after reading the whole piece.

    • kristen says:

      That’s really come through in your first three installments–the struggle to manage day-to-day life alongside the Feltus experience. The unease felt in not thinking about *all things F.* more of the time.

      Such a tough one, and a reoccurring mental/emotional experience of mine as well–though the circumstances aren’t the same, of course.

      It’s like, I’ll exchange a few words w/ the mentally ill homeless man outside my office, only to, seconds later, reenter “day job world,” where easy banter and lighthearted humor are the norm. The contrast is disorienting, and there’s always this “why am I not dwelling on the plight of the homeless man/doing more to help him & others”? Why is it relatively easy (though, again, disorienting/sad/shameful) to transition from one set of circumstances to the next?

      Walls, if semi-permeable ones, are certainly needed in this world we live in. Just too much to take in otherwise.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Yes, I understand exactly what you mean. I’ve experienced dissonance like that, too, not just with Feltus. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s too draining to compartmentalize these moments…instead, I’m trying to integrate them. The walls are illusion anyway. For example, last weekend I went to a produce market and said good morning to the man stocking sweet potatoes. He paused, looked at me, and said good morning back. The subtext (which I admit I could be wrong about) is that he is often invisible, even in full view stocking vegetables.

        The other thing I’ve realized is that we all have our causes and what we do about them is expressed in different ways. Finally, I’ve come to peace with the fact that my engagement in the world is through words. I am no longer meant for picket lines and marches, though I was once upon a time. What fired me up at 20 is not what fires me up at 40.

        And you know, I think the fact that you speak to the man outside your office is a HUGE gesture, an acknowledgment of his humanity, and that is a gift.

  11. dwoz says:

    If I may ask…

    Why would your partner at the time be furious with you receiving mail at home relating to this project? That seems to me to be a very strange response. I’m trying to imagine myself being upset with my wife for receiving something like that addressed to her.

    This, from the perspective that if I know your name, it really isn’t terribly hard to access public records to find a mailing address…so I can’t see how privacy is involved?

  12. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    My partner was aware that I’d been clear with Feltus that any correspondence should be sent to my office. Feltus deliberately violated this understanding between us. My partner wasn’t furious with ME—he was furious at the fact F. hadn’t respected my wishes.

    Being on Death Row, F. would have had to get someone to locate that information on his behalf. He got it from the form–it was a legal document he had to sign, too. Regarding privacy, that extends beyond one’s physical address. As you’ve read in this essay, I struggled with how to manage my experience with Feltus. The appearance of that package crossed an EMOTIONAL boundary.

  13. [...] Read Parts 1, 2, and 3 [...]

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