Running Out of Road by Daniel Friedman: New Excerpt
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2011: Something I Don’t Want to Remember
Do you understand everything I’ve just told you?” asked the man in the white coat.
“Yeah,” I said.
In fact, I had no idea what he’d been talking about. I remembered the droning of his voice, but not the words. I hadn’t been listening, and my hearing hasn’t been so good recently. Or maybe I had been listening, but somehow, what he said hadn’t stuck. My mind had been wandering, but what had I been thinking about? I couldn’t remember. Also, I couldn’t remember who the man in the white coat was, where I was, or what I was doing there.
I looked up at the man, scrutinized his face. Clearly, he was a doctor; who else wears a white coat? He wasn’t our regular doctor, though. Had our regular doctor died or retired? No. Probably not. I think I’d have remembered that. This doctor was maybe in his forties, and he had a dress shirt and a tie on underneath the coat, not those pajamas some of them wear, so this probably wasn’t an emergency or a surgical kind of situation.
I was sitting in a leather chair. My wife, Rose, was sitting in an identical chair, next to me. Between the chairs was a small wooden side table with a crystal vase of fresh-cut flowers sitting on it, where an ashtray should have been in any civilized place. I looked around for an ashtray. There were no ashtrays. I reached into the pocket of my Members Only jacket and found my cigarettes. I lit one. If the doctor told me to put it out, I could act indignant about it, and maybe nobody would realize I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
We didn’t seem to be in a hospital; the offices in those places usually seemed more institutional—cheap mass-produced furniture, tile floors, or occasionally thin wall-to-wall carpet. Flickering fluorescent tube lights embedded in low, drop-in ceilings.
This doctor was sitting behind a heavy wood desk, with a fancy-looking computer on it. Shelves lined the walls of the office, filled with books and little trophies and toys. I looked at the floor. Woven rug over hardwood parquet. The rug looked expensive. I was going to ash on that expensive rug unless this doctor offered me an ashtray.
He looked at my cigarette. I looked him in the eyes, daring him to tell me to put it out. He offered me his coffee mug, and I tapped my cigarette against the side of it.
So, this was definitely not the hospital. They’d never let me smoke in a hospital. And also, there was no piss smell. We must have been at one of the medical parks or a clinic of some kind. The doctor was one of the specialists.
I looked at Rose. She seemed upset. Embarrassed, maybe. Had I said something that had embarrassed her? I almost certainly had. I grinned at her so she could see I wasn’t sorry.
“If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them, or explain further,” said the doctor. “I want to make sure you have all the information you need.”
“Take it easy,” I said. “I ain’t stupid.”
What could he possibly have been saying that was so important? What could he have to say that was new, or any different from what a procession of doctors had been telling me for the last fifteen years? That I was on a slow, steady decline, breaking down and wearing out, little by little? That
every day, for the rest of my life, I would be a little weaker, a little slower, a little more shaky than I’d been the day before? That I was moving inexorably toward a single, predictable destination? No shit, Sherlock.
“You don’t have any questions?” Rose said.
“I think I’ve got a handle on things,” I said. “Are you ready to get out of here?” I gripped the armrests of the chair I was sitting in and lifted myself off of the seat, my arms shaking under my weight. My walker was parked by the door, and it was going to take me a while to totter over to it, so I figured I might as well get started.
But Rose put a hand on my arm. “Did you hear what this man has been saying? Do you remember what this man just told us?”
“Sure,” I said. But it was clear I was caught. I couldn’t really put one over on her. After nearly seventy years together, she had seen all my tricks.
“Who is he?” she said, gesturing at the doctor.
Okay, that was an easy one: “He’s the doctor.”
I had two options. Either I could give in and tell her I had no idea who he was, or I could bluff. I hate admitting when I don’t know something, so I decided to guess.
There were a number of possibilities. I had a cardiologist, a heart guy. He was older than this doctor, though, a bald man in his early sixties. I could even remember his name: Dr. Richard Pudlow. Funny name for a depressing cat. This man wasn’t Dr. Richard Pudlow.
I had an ear, nose, and throat guy, and also an audiologist. I got a hearing aid last year, and going around with that thing jammed in my ear canal caused a lot of earwax buildup, so I had to go get that taken care of every few months. The audiologist would stick a little loop of wire down into my ear and dislodge a reddish-brown hunk of greasy foulness about the size of a pencil eraser. Going there was a real fun time. Lots of jokes about mining for treasure. But the audiologist was a lady doctor, and I was pretty sure this guy wasn’t the ENT.
I had a gastroenterologist. I had an episode a while back where I started shitting blood. The gastro guy determined it was a sloughing of necrotic intestinal tissue and that it was normal, although they still put me on IV fluids and kept me for observation for three days on account of my advanced age and generally frail condition. When you get to be eighty-nine years old, occasionally your guts just die inside you. It’s no big deal.
This doctor could have been the gastroenterologist; I couldn’t remember what the man had looked like. But I remembered the smell; his office was in the hospital. So this wasn’t the gastroenterologist.
That meant, by process of elimination, he had to be: “The neurologist. The dementia guy.”
I looked at Rose to see if I had gotten the right answer, but she shook her head at me, and I could see tears in her eyes.
“This is Dr. Feingold. The oncologist,” she said.
That rang a bell. A distant, quiet bell, but still a bell. I looked around again. This place wasn’t as unfamiliar as I’d thought. I had been here before. Sat in this chair. Listened to the doctor talking at us. Lit a cigarette to be confrontational. Ashed in the coffee cup. I’d done it all before.
How could I forget? I used to be able to memorize a face, but lately the details that used to stand out in my mind seemed to blend together. Now I was sure I could recall having seen this man. It had just gotten so hard to keep a grasp on things.
“I’ve got the cancer?” I asked.
She shook her head again. “No, Buck,” she said. “I do.”
I can explain it again, if you’d like,” said Dr. Feingold.
“What’s the point of that?” Rose asked. “It’s not sinking in. Can’t penetrate that thick skull of his.”
I took another drag off my cigarette and tapped ash into the coffee cup. Before I started having the hearing issue and the memory problems, before I needed the walker to get around, nobody ever talked about me like I wasn’t there when I was sitting in the room with them.
“Well, you don’t need to make a decision immediately, but if we’re going to engage in an aggressive course of treatment, sooner is always better,” Feingold said.
“I never imagined I’d have to make a decision like this on my own,” Rose said. “I try not to resent him. I know it’s an illness, and he can’t help it. And he was so strong for all of us for many years, and now I ought to be strong for him. But I need him, and he’s just helpless. I feel like I am alone. Betrayed, is how I feel.”
Feingold rested his elbows on his desk and leaned forward. His forehead crinkled, and his eyebrows knit together. He looked thoughtful and sympathetic. I wondered how many times he’d practiced doing this in front of a mirror. “Maybe now would be a good time to look for support somewhere else. Do you have children?”
“Brian is dead,” I said, wanting to participate in the conversation. “We don’t talk about it.”
“We have a daughter-in-law and a grandson,” Rose said. “I haven’t told them about this yet. I don’t want them to worry.”
The doctor steepled his fingers under his chin. “If you trust them, now might be the time to lean on them. You need to think about authorizing someone to make medical decisions on your behalf in an emergency, if your husband isn’t going to be able to understand those decisions or their implications. It’s called granting a medical power of attorney, and it’s a standard form. I can refer you to someone, if you’d like.”
“Our grandson is a lawyer,” Rose said.
“All right,” said the doctor. “You can take some time to confer with whoever you need to and make a decision, but if we’re going to move forward with proactive treatment, we should probably start within the next few weeks.”
“Thank you,” Rose said, and she stood up. I stood up as well, and I held Rose’s arm to steady myself until I could get to the walker. We made our way, slowly and in silence, down a quiet, carpeted hallway, out a door, and into a waiting room. A very thin woman with a schmate covering her head was sitting in a chair reading a magazine. She looked up at us, her sunken yellow eyes staring out from the bottoms of deep purple-black hollows. I realized I was still holding a lit cigarette. I considered putting it out, but once you start making accommodations for even one cancer lady, you find yourself on a slippery slope. I decided, instead, to just get out of there as quickly as I could. With the walker, that wasn’t very quick.
As Rose and I rode the elevator down to the ground floor, I felt I should say something, but I didn’t know what. We walked in silence through the building lobby and out to the parking lot.
“Where did we park?” I asked. But Rose just pointed as our Buick pulled up to the curb. An aide from Valhalla Estates, the assisted lifestyle community for older adults where Rose and I lived, was driving it. She was a heavyset black woman, and I knew I’d seen her a hundred times before,
but I couldn’t remember her name. She had some music playing on the radio, so loud I had to turn down my hearing aid. There were some trashy magazines with names like Us Weekly scattered on the front passenger-side seat; I guess she’d been out here waiting for us, and I didn’t blame her at all for staying in the car instead of sitting in the waiting room and sharing space with the grim specter of death. Although, if she wanted to avoid sharing space with the grim specter of death, she certainly picked the wrong line of work when she applied for a position at Valhalla.
She shifted the Buick into park, climbed out, and opened the door for Rose. Then she held my arm as I climbed into the backseat. This was a laborious process. First I grasped the doorframe with my left hand as I clung to the walker with my right. Then I had to lift my quivering left leg an agonizing fourteen inches to step into the car. Leaning on the aide’s thick, soft arm for support, I slowly lowered my body onto the seat, and then I used my arms to help lift my right leg over the lip of the Buick’s chassis. When I was finished, my forehead was damp and my breathing was ragged. Of all the indignities I faced on a regular basis—people talking about me like I wasn’t there, the walker, people yelling at me so I could hear what they were saying—having to ride in the back of my own car was the worst.
“You need help with your seat belt, Mr. Buck?” she asked. I waved her off, so she closed the door behind me, folded up my walker, and put it in the trunk.
Rose seemed like she was about to say something, but then her handbag started chirping. She found the cellular telephone and flipped it open.
“Hello?” she said, and then she paused while the person on the other end spoke.
“This is Mrs. Schatz, his wife,” she said. Then the person on the other end said something else, before Rose responded, “I don’t think he’d be up for that. He’s almost ninety years old, and he has dementia.”
“Who is it?” I asked. Rose shook her hand in my face to shut me up.
“No, thank you,” she said to the person on the line.
“I want to talk to him,” I said. Actually, I yelled it. Rose hesitated, but there was no way the person on the other end of the call hadn’t heard me. She gave me a dirty look, but also the phone.
“This is Buck Schatz,” I said into the receiver. “What do you want?”
“Mr. Schatz, my name is Carlos Watkins.” The voice was thin and reedy, but cultured. Carlos Watkins sounded like the talking heads on TV, but not the right-thinking, plainspoken ones I liked. He sounded like the liberals on MSNBC. Come to think of it, he sounded a little like my grandson.
I made a noise into the phone, a deep, phlegmy rattle that let Carlos Watkins know I was unimpressed by his diction. “Sounds like an ethnic name,” I said.
That caught him by surprise, I think. He stopped talking to process that. Then: “Uh, yeah, I guess it is. My mother is Dominican. I’m black. Is that a problem for you?”
I laughed. “Son, if that was a problem for me, I’d have to be a damn fool to have spent the last ninety years living in Memphis. Is it a problem for you?”
“I think it’s at the root of almost every problem in this country,” Watkins said.
I rattled again. “We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that,” I said.
On the other end, I heard the sound of Watkins shuffling some papers, and then he said, “Detective Schatz, I’m the producer of American Justice, a serialized journalistic project made in collaboration with National Public Radio and broadcast over the air and on streaming Internet audio.”
“Well, I ain’t giving you any money,” I said. “I’ve got all the coffee mugs and tote bags I will ever need.”
The aide—I wished I could remember her name—had climbed into the front seat and was pulling the car out of the clinic’s parking lot and onto Humphreys Boulevard.
“I’m not calling to solicit donations,” said Watkins. “I was wondering if you would be willing to sit for an interview with me.”
“Right now?” I asked. “I’ve got a lot of stuff going on, at the moment.”
“No, not right now. Cell phone audio is less than ideal for recording, and I’d like to meet you face-to-face. I’ll be in Memphis later this week, and I am happy to come visit you at your place of residence.”
“What do you want to talk to me about?” I asked.
“American Justice is a show about criminal justice in the United States, the people who operate it, and the people it operates on, with a focus on the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender, and how those factors interact with the systems that disseminate state-sanctioned violence against individuals and groups whose lives and activities are deemed to be illegal by those who hold power.”
“That sounds like fun,” I said. “I once took a road trip to the Grand Canyon and stood at the intersection of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Four states at once. It was really something.”
“So, almost the same thing,” Watkins said.
“I’ve been retired for forty years. I don’t operate any systems anymore. What do you want with me?”
“I’d like to talk to you about Chester March,” said Watkins.
So, this reporter was looking for a whole lot of trouble. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time. Is he still alive?”
“Yes, for the moment. But the state of Tennessee is planning to put him to death within the next few weeks, if his lawyers aren’t able to get a court to stay the execution.”
“Good,” I said. “The sooner, the better.”
“He’ll be the oldest person executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976.”
“He must be very proud.”
“He is a frightened, enfeebled old man who is about to be killed with a lethal injection.”
“I’d be pleased to hear he’s frightened, but I don’t think he’s capable of feeling fear or any other emotion. Chester is a reptile.”
“Our program will include our extensive interviews with him, so our listeners will be able to judge that for themselves, but you are a big part of his story, so we’d like to hear from you and get your side of things.”
“You’ve talked to him already?”
“I have, and I intend to talk to him some more as my work progresses. Do you have a problem with that, Detective Schatz?”
“You can talk to whoever you want. Just be careful. That fellow is a damned snake, and he lies as easy as he draws breath. It ain’t easy to get a true word out of a man like Chester.”
“How would you accomplish such a feat?”
This time his voice came through loud and slow as he carefully enunciated each word: “How would you extract the truth from a man like Chester?”
Then I heard a rattling noise that wasn’t coming from my throat, and I realized it was the sound of the phone shaking in my hand.
I lit a cigarette. “I ain’t stupid, you know,” I said to Watkins.
The aide in the front seat shook her fleshy arm at me. “Quit it with the cigarettes. We talked about this, Mr. Buck. I know you ain’t forgot. My little boy got asthma. He don’t need to be smelling your smoke on me.”
“It’s my goddamn car, isn’t it?” I said to her. “Crack the window.”
In my ear Watkins said, “What does that mean?”
“I know you’re trying to set up some sort of smear on me with your little program. Why should I help you do that?”
“I am going to tell this story whether you participate or not. If you’d like to tell me your side of it, I’m willing to listen. But your input is not required.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, and I flipped the phone closed. This was the start of a real mess, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle this reporter on my own. “We’re going to have to call William,” I said to Rose.
“Yes,” she said. “I guess it’s time we told him about the cancer.”
“Who has cancer?” I asked.
Transcript: AMERICAN JUSTICE
CARLOS WATKINS (NARRATION): In the state of Tennessee, they send the worst of the worst down to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in Nashville. About 750 men live in this complex of twenty low-slung buildings, and two-thirds of them are “high-risk inmates,” convicted of serious violent crimes and considered to pose a continuing danger to society. Sixty of those high-risk inmates have been sentenced to die by lethal injection. Riverbend is where Tennessee’s death row inmates live, and Riverbend is where they will be executed, unless they’re spared by Providence, a court order, or death by natural causes.
Of those sixty condemned, half are black, even though black folk comprise only 17 percent of the state’s population. And half of the state’s death row inmates hail from “West Tennessee,” and that mostly means Memphis.
Philip Workman was put to death here at Riverbend in 2007 for the 1982 killing of a police officer in the parking lot of a Memphis Wendy’s restaurant. Ballistics experts had some doubts about the evidence that convicted him, four of the trial jurors later repudiated their verdict, and two Tennessee State supreme court justices asked the governor to grant clemency, but none of that was enough to stop Workman’s execution. He tried to donate his last meal, a vegetarian pizza, to the homeless. The state denied his request.
Riverbend is also the home of serial killer Bruce Mendenhall, a long-haul trucker who traveled America’s highways murdering sex workers. Mendenhall isn’t on death row; he was sentenced to life for the 2007 murder of Sara Hulbert. But he’s facing more charges here in Tennessee, as well as in Alabama and Indiana, and he’s under investigation in five other states, so he may yet get his date with the needle.
It was from an inmate who dwells in these bleak environs that I recently received a letter. It’s not terribly uncommon for journalists to get letters from prisoners. Prisoners send a lot of letters. Writing letters passes time, and passing time is the chief occupation of those who are trapped in the teeth of the American criminal justice apparatus.
But this letter stood out immediately as unusual. I’ve asked the man who sent it to read it aloud for you, and then I’ll tell you more about him and the circumstances in which he finds himself. I apologize for the poor audio quality.
CHESTER MARCH: Dear Mr. Watkins,
I listened to your recent feature on the plight of three prisoners who have spent decades in solitary confinement at the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, and I thought it might be worthwhile to reach out to you, and to share my experience.
My name is Chester March, and I have been on death row in Tennessee for about thirty-five years. Death row isn’t quite as restrictive as a segregated unit; I am allowed to have books and a small radio. These things go a long way toward keeping me sane. However, condemned inmates here are confined in an eight-by-ten space for twenty-two hours each day, I take my meals alone in my cell, and my visitation privileges are extremely limited.
I am one of the oldest men awaiting execution in the United States. Tennessee doesn’t relish keeping a man around who holds that distinction, and it seems my appeals are soon to run their course. I wonder if you and your listeners might be interested in hearing my story before the state kills me by lethal injection. I just learned that I have an execution date scheduled in two months.
I am in this place because I was hunted and persecuted by a famously brutal police detective, and convicted on the basis of a confession extracted during a torturous interrogation, in violation of my constitutional rights. I have spent decades fighting for a new trial, and but the criminal justice system refuses to acknowledge the insufficiency and illegality of the evidence supporting my conviction.
My appellate lawyers, who work on my behalf at no cost to me, seem competent and dedicated, which is something I cannot say of my trial counsel or about some of the lawyers who worked on my previous appeals. However, I no longer believe my salvation can come through the system in which they operate. The only way I will be spared is if there is a public outcry against the injustice perpetrated against me. You are my last hope, Mr. Watkins.
Yours in Christ,
Chester A. March
* * *
WATKINS (NARRATION): Compared to most prison correspondence, this is grammatically polished and well-structured. Erudite, I’d even call it. It aroused my curiosity, and if I’m being honest, it also tickled my ego a little bit. It was like the getting the message from Star Wars. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope!” I had to learn more. How could the man who wrote this letter be sitting in a Tennessee prison, awaiting execution? And when I began to look into the circumstances of Chester A. March, I found he is quite different from most prisoners.
The American carceral state inflicts its cruelties primarily upon the underclass. Black men are locked up in proportions that more than triple their representation in society at large. And among the whites who find themselves behind bars, they too emerge primarily from disadvantaged communities.
But not Chester March. Chester March is the wealthy son of one of Mississippi’s agricultural oligarchs, a descendant of slaveholding planters, a graduate of Ole Miss, and a brother in Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He is, it goes without saying, a white man. And yet even a man like this, born with the privileges of whiteness and of aristocracy, could not protect himself from the violence of the state, which has locked him away for decades, and which plans to kill him. The machine is designed to process the marginalized, but it will crush anyone unlucky enough to be fed into it.
You might have noticed that this story has a ticking clock; Chester March is scheduled to be executed. After I got this letter and pitched the story to NPR, I spent about two weeks doing background research and making contact with some of the people involved. Each episode of American Justice airs about a week and a half after I finish editing the audio, so by the time you hear this, we’ll be about a month away from the date Chester March will either be put to death or given a stay of execution. So this is an interesting, experimental project: long-form, serialized coverage of a developing story. This season of American Justice will be six hour-long episodes, released once a week, and we’ll learn what happens to Chester in the fifth. As I record this, I don’t know how the story will end.
But along the way, you’ll find out how Chester came to be in his current situation, you’ll meet the heroic lawyer who is trying to save Chester’s life, and we’ll try to talk to the man who waged a twenty-year campaign to bring the full weight of the criminal justice system down on Chester: a notorious Memphis police detective named Baruch Schatz.
William Tecumseh Schatz Esq. arrived on a Delta flight from New York with a stopover in Atlanta. He used to be able to get here direct; Memphis was a hub for Northwest Airlines. But Delta bought up Northwest in ’08, and since then, there have been far fewer direct flights from LaGuardia. Memphis is still the international hub for Federal Express, but that won’t get you here nonstop unless you want to ride in a crate.
The Memphis terminal opened in June of 1963, one of the first two-level airports in the country and a masterpiece of cutting-edge modern architecture by the acclaimed Memphis designer Roy P. Harrover, who built it with huge tapering columns that made the terminal look like a tray of martini glasses.
With its sparkling new facility complete, the Memphis municipal airport was rechristened the Memphis International Airport. It was a time of great optimism, and Memphis felt like a city on the rise. I shot a bank robber in the face that summer and got to shake hands with the mayor at a ceremony honoring my bravery. My son was about to turn ten.
A few months later, though, the president was killed in Dallas, and after that, we had several years of racial unpleasantness, culminating in a certain unfortunate incident at the Lorraine Motel, and then the Vietnam War. Once we got through all of that mishegas, the jet age was at an end, the river port was being automated, and I was nearing retirement. The celebration promised by that giant tray of martinis never quite seemed to happen.
William T. Schatz—who used to be called Tequila by his brothers in Alpha Epsilon Pi, by the way—never knew what it was like to hope or to believe that an international airport would make this an international city. As he trudged through Harrover’s masterpiece, dragging his carry-on suitcase behind him on its squeaky plastic wheels, he probably just thought the place was small and dated, a decrepit monument to a failed dream in a crumbling region that never quite got over its humiliation in the War Between the States. A place you couldn’t get to from the civilized world without first making a stopover in Atlanta.
His mother—my daughter-in-law, Fran—was waiting for him outside the terminal, and she took him to lunch at a chain Mexican restaurant where he ate two full baskets of chips with salsa, and drank five Diet Cokes. In New York, you see, the Mexican joints don’t give you free chips, and none of the restaurants do free refills on the fountain drinks, so he gorges on that trash when he comes home.
Rose always tells me to leave him alone about it, because he says he doesn’t eat like that when he’s off on his own and he doesn’t come here often, so I shouldn’t start fights over trivialities when he’s in town. And I know he is a grown man and I should mind my own business. But something he is eating up there is making him go soft around his midsection, and also, it’s unseemly. I’ve sat there and watched him do it, and I was disgusted. And I wasn’t happy to have to go to a verkakte Mexican joint in the first place, because I don’t like ethnic food and those places always smell funny.
Anyway, sitting at that table, as he picked at the last of the chips, not minding that the paper lining of the basket was soaked with so much grease that it had become transparent, Tequila’s mother told him what Rose didn’t want to have to be the one to tell him, and what I couldn’t seem to remember for more than a few hours.
Rose had got the lymphoma. It isn’t the worst kind of cancer, but even the best kind of cancer is still cancer. The doctors caught it pretty early, and in a younger patient, the prognosis would be very favorable. The usual treatment was a course of oral chemotherapy and targeted radiation. But chemo drugs and radiation wreak havoc on even a fit human body, and Rose was eighty-six years old.
The doctor had walked us through the side effects of chemotherapy: anemia and fatigue. Nausea. Vomiting and diarrhea, which meant we’d have to be really careful about dehydration. Hair loss. Her fingernails and toenails would fall off. And the big ones: thinning skin and easy bleeding and heightened vulnerability to infection.
If she took a fall while she was undergoing these treatments—and she had fallen before—she was likely to rip open like an overstuffed garbage bag.
As for the infection, well, lymphoma is a cancer that starts in the lymphocytes, which are white blood cells—the immune system. Chemo attacks the cancer by attacking the lymphocytes, and when you kill off the lymphocytes, you strip the body of its defenses against things like influenza, strep throat, and the common cold, any of which can be extremely dangerous for someone who is elderly and immunosuppressed. It’s very easy for something like that to progress into pneumonia, and when you are old and weakened from cancer treatments, pneumonia will kill you.
The alternative was not to take the chemo and not to do the radiation and just die of cancer. I hit the goddamn ceiling when Rose told me that this was even under consideration—actually, I hit the ceiling each of the half dozen or so times she had told me about it. But the case for refusing the treatment and letting the cancer run its course made a certain kind of morbid sense. It would likely take eighteen months to two years before the cancer spread everywhere, and then she could go into hospice and drift off on a morphine cloud. She’d make it almost to ninety.
That’s a good run. Maybe a good enough run. If she underwent cancer treatment, she might die anyway, and she might die sooner because of it, weak, bald, emaciated, and drowning from the inside with her lungs full of fluid. Even if she fought the disease into remission, how much longer could she expect to live, and what kind of quality of life would she have? Was it worth the suffering she was certain to endure if she took poison drugs and assaulted her body with radiation? Would it leave her wheelchair-bound? Bedridden?
After Tequila’s mother told him the news, she brought him over to Valhalla, so we could all have a fun conversation about it, together.
“What do you think I should do?” Rose asked, after the hugs, condolences, and various formalities had been exchanged.
“I don’t know,” said our grandson.
“Well, a fat lot of use you are, then,” I said.
Since we only had two chairs, Tequila and Fran were sitting on the bed. Our space at Valhalla was tiny, even smaller than Tequila’s studio apartment in New York. Besides the chairs and the bed, we had a shallow closet, a chest of drawers with the TV sitting on top of it, and a pair of large speakers Tequila had ordered from the Internet so I could turn the TV volume up loud enough for me to hear what people were saying and for the neighbors’ walls to shake. We had also had a small refrigerator, a microwave oven, and a tiny square of counter space with a couple of cabinets mounted on the wall above it. The kitchenette was situated opposite the bathroom, which was fine, since we had no room for a table and ate on TV trays next to the bed on days when we didn’t feel like getting dressed to go down to the common dining room. The whole space was maybe 350 square feet, which was plenty for me. When things were close together, I didn’t have to move around as much.
“I’ll figure it out,” Tequila said. “It’s just that you blindsided me with this. I’m still trying to absorb it.”
“Why did you think your mother told you to come home, when you’re taking the bar exam in six weeks?” I asked. “You had to know it wasn’t for good news.”
“Actually, I just thought she wanted me here so she could make sure I was watching my Barbri course videos,” he said.
That got a bitter laugh out of Fran. “Are you?” she asked.
“I’m a little behind,” he said. “But it will be fine. Everyone from NYU passes.”
“Great,” I said. “That will make you feel extra special when you don’t.”
He bit his lower lip and sort of puffed himself up. “There are some things you should take care of right away, whether you decide to undergo treatment or not,” he said. “You need a document giving medical power of attorney to Mom. That will allow doctors to talk to her about your condition and show her your medical records, and it will allow her to make decisions on your behalf if you’re in a situation where you can’t make them for yourself. You also need a living will, which absolves her of having to make some of the most serious of those decisions. It’s a document that directs your medical treatment, so that you are the one who gets to determine how you will be treated in an emergency. Basically, it stipulates that you don’t want radical measures taken to keep you alive when you’re comatose or brain-dead. If you reach a point where you are end-stage metastatic, you don’t need to have your ribs cracked by doctors performing CPR if you stop breathing, and you don’t want to kept alive on a ventilator or a feeding tube.”
“Can you draft those for us?” Rose asked.
“I shouldn’t,” Tequila said. “I haven’t even taken the bar exam yet, and I am not going to be taking one in Tennessee. These are pretty standard documents, though. A local lawyer should be able to draft them, witness them, and notarize them for maybe a few hundred dollars. I can find somebody who will take care of it for you.”
“What do you think I should do?” Rose asked him.
“You should definitely put a do-not-resuscitate instruction in a living will,” he said. “If you get to that point, they’re not going to be curing or saving you. The best they can do is prolong your suffering. And not for very long.”
“Yes, but how do I decide whether to undergo the chemotherapy and the radiation?”
He lay back on our bed, with his feet dangling over the edge, like a sullen teenager. “Oh, God. I have no idea. I can do some research online. If you’d like, I can talk to your doctor.”
“So, what you’re telling us is that you have nothing to contribute, and your presence here is in no way useful,” I said.
He sat up and clenched his fists. “Get off my nuts, Grandpa,” he said. “I didn’t know I was walking into this shit.”
I pointed a finger at him. “Let’s take this out into the hallway.”
“You’ve bothered your grandmother enough. Let’s go outside.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Are you asking me to fight you?”
“What? No. I’m not going to kick your ass and put you in the hospital a month before your bar exam, as much as you probably deserve it. Let’s just talk outside, so you can stop upsetting your grandmother.”
I lifted myself off of the chair, grabbed onto the walker, and started pushing it toward the door.
“I don’t understand,” said Fran. “Where are you going?”
“Just out for some air,” I said.
“I know what he wants to talk to William about,” Rose said. “Some fight he got into with a man from the radio. He thinks if he goes out into the hallway, I won’t know what he’s up to.”
“He got in a fight with a man from the radio?”
They were talking about me like I wasn’t in the room again. I was hearing all of it, because I had only made it about a third of the way to the door. Our room was maybe thirty feet from end to end, but I needed ninety seconds to cross it. Maybe a little less, if I was in a rush to get to the toilet.
“Yes. A journalist, I think. It’s something to do with one of his old cases. He keeps finding these doorways back into his past, like a Pevensie child finding portals into Narnia. And meanwhile, I’m dealing with cancer. I’ve had to remind him three times in the last two days that I am sick, and every time I tell him, it’s like I’m telling him for the first time. But he hasn’t needed any help remembering a stupid phone call from a reporter.”
“Do you want me to stop him?” Fran asked. “I feel like we have some important things we need to discuss.”
“Let him go. William will keep an eye on him. There’s no reasoning with him when he gets like this, anyway. If we call downstairs, I think we can get somebody to send up some coffee.”
“How is the coffee here?” Fran asked.
“Disappointing,” said Rose. “Just like everything else.”
Then Tequila opened the door, and I shuffled through it.
Transcript: AMERICAN JUSTICE
CHESTER MARCH: Hey, how you been?
CARLOS WATKINS: I’m all right. How are you?
MARCH: You know me. Every day is a new adventure.
WATKINS (NARRATION): Death row inmates aren’t allowed any visitors other than their lawyer, and, as their execution nears, a religious advisor. They don’t get to see their families. They can make occasional phone calls, if they have enough money to pay the extortionate per-minute rates the phone company charges prisoners, and they can send a limited amount of mail that is screened and heavily redacted by prison censors. They get an hour in the yard each day. Otherwise, they’re in their cells. It’s the most maddening existence I can imagine, and Chester March has been living it since 1976.
By the way, that’s why the audio quality for my conversations with Chester is a bit worse than it would be otherwise—all our conversations have been over the phone, and I have to record both sides. I’ve never been able to meet Chester face-to-face. I’m in Nashville right now, but the closest I can get to Chester is Riverbend’s gate.
MARCH: Regular prisoners get to have jobs—they can cook or work in the laundry. Some of them get trained to do maintenance on the facility. Plumbing or electrical work. There are group counseling sessions, and GED classes, and even some college courses the men can take. I don’t get to have a job. I never thought I’d be jealous of something like that, the right to mop some floors or change out light bulbs. But the state figures there’s no point in me learning or doing anything. No point in me bettering myself, or keeping myself busy, or even staying sane in this dump. I’m a dead man. I’ve been dead since Gerald Ford was president.
WATKINS: What do you do to pass the time?
MARCH: A lot of fellas on death row, they just get real fat. They say, when the ghost leaves you, you lose seven ounces, but while you’re waiting for your big day, most folks here seem to put on about two hundred pounds. If you can die before the state can kill you, that’s the only way you beat the house. Since they don’t give us any sharp objects, or even shoelaces to hang ourselves with, diabetes is the way most of the guys here try to punch their own tickets. I know a man who ate so many Oreos, he lost a foot.
WATKINS: How many Oreos does that take?
MARCH: Who can count that high? I’ll tell you something, though: You eat fifty or so of those cookies every day for a week, and your shit will turn black.
MARCH: Yeah, and dry. Chalky or—I don’t know—powdery? Never seen anything like it. Eating all those cookies dries your guts out so much that, when you fart, it’s like your ass is coughing.
WATKINS: Does it smell like chocolate?
MARCH: You’d think that, but no. It smells evil. Like rotten eggs, but a hundred times worse. The stink carries into the other cells. And the air circulation in here isn’t so great, so that really lingers, especially in the summertime.
WATKINS: This has happened more than once?
MARCH: More than once? It happens constantly! That guy has been eating as many Oreos as he can get his hands on for fifteen years. He came in here in ’96, and he was just a scrawny kid. Looked like maybe he was what they call a tweaker, but you don’t ask a man about his past. Not in this place.
He didn’t stay skinny for long, though. When they took him to the hospital for his surgery, they had to haul him out on a reinforced gurney. They cut his leg off just below the knee, got him on insulin, and then they brought him back here to keep waiting for them to kill him. He’s probably 450 pounds, and that’s without the leg. These days, he goes around in a wide-load wheelchair.
WATKINS: (NARRATION) Every funny story about death row is really a sad story, though. These aren’t just stories about poop and bad smells, but stories about mental and physical illness, about the toll it takes on the mind and body to live for decades in a desolate place without hope or joy or, indeed, much human contact of any kind.
Is it okay to laugh at stories about the harm the state is doing to people like Chester March and the skinny tweaker kid, ostensibly on behalf of all of us? I guess it has to be, because if you don’t laugh, you’ll have to cry.
The hallway on our floor had two sitting areas carved out of the spaces between the rooms, where there were sofas and little side tables with artificial flowers. Maybe the person who designed the place had envisioned them as gathering spaces, where active older adults would congregate to gossip and reminisce and share in their enjoyment of the residential amenities offered by the Valhalla Estates Assisted Lifestyle Community. I’d never seen them used for that purpose, though. Mostly, it was just a place to stop and rest on the way to the elevator, and it was much appreciated by those among us who couldn’t make it all the way down the hallway without a break.
Even though it was only midafternoon, the common areas on my floor were empty, and the hall was as quiet as a mausoleum. There might have been a few televisions on in some of the rooms, but they were too low for me to hear, and the carpet muffled the sound. And most of my neighbors were probably napping. I usually dozed in the afternoon myself; I’d gotten by on five hours per night until around my eightieth birthday, but the amount of time I spent asleep had roughly tripled in the previous five years. Training for the marathon, I suppose.
I pushed the walker toward a rarely used couch, and Tequila followed me.
“You know the real reason why I asked you to come into town, right?” I asked.
“Grandma has cancer.”
“Yeah, but what are you going to do about that? You can’t even draft the drop-dead instruction.”
He flopped down next to me. “It’s a do-not-resuscitate, and everyone should really have one.”
“Thanks for your advice, Dr. Kevorkian. What I need from you is help dealing with a pesky journalist. This man from the radio is digging into an old case I worked, looking to cause trouble.”
“I’m still kind of stuck on the cancer thing, if I’m being honest,” he said. “Why are you worried about what someone might say on the radio? Nobody even listens to the radio anymore.”
“I’m worried about your grandmother as well,” I said. And I was, to the extent I could remember what was happening. For some reason, trying to hang on to the news about Rose’s illness was like holding a live, wriggling fish. “But I can’t have somebody tearing down my past. It’s all that’s left of me.”
“Okay. Tell me what’s going on, and I’ll figure out what we can do about it.”
“There’s a man I put on death row up in Nashville named Chester March. He’s looking for a technicality that will save his skin, and he thinks he can get off by claiming I beat his confession out of him. He’s got this NPR producer, Watkins, listening to his nonsense.”
Tequila held a hand up. “Wait a second. You retired before I was born. How has this guy been on death row that long?”
“I don’t know why they haven’t killed him yet,” I said. I pulled out a Lucky Strike, and stuck it between my lips. “Ask your liberal president.”
“Barack Obama was fifteen years old when you retired.”
“That’s not the point.” I dug my lighter out of the pocket of my Dockers and started flicking it.
Tequila draped his arm over the back of the sofa and crossed his legs. If nothing else, three years of law school had taught him to take up space. Eating all that Mexican food probably helped as well. “Grandma has cancer, and I am taking the bar exam in a few weeks. In the scheme of things, this just doesn’t seem very important.”
“It’s important to me, Sambuca. Is there anything we can do to get rid of this reporter?” The lighter spouted flame, and I lit the cigarette. I wasn’t supposed to smoke in the building’s common areas, but there was nobody around, and if someone had a problem with me, what were they going to do? Send me to the principal’s office?
Tequila shrugged. “If he says something false and damaging to your reputation, we can sue for defamation, I guess. But you can only do that after you’ve already been defamed. There’s no way to, like, get an injunction to force NPR to kill the story. Protections for the press are First Amendment freedoms, and courts can’t impose prior restraints that prevent people from speaking.”
“So what can I do?” I asked.
“Not much,” he said. “But maybe we can call your representative at the police union. They might have some suggestions.”
“I don’t even know if I have his card,” I said. “It’s probably not the same guy anymore, anyway.”
“Not a problem,” he said, and he started tapping the screen of his Internet phone. I sat there and watched him do that for maybe thirty seconds, and then he dialed a number and set the phone on speaker.
“That seemed a little too easy,” I said, as the phone rang.
“Most things are easy,” he replied. That had not been my experience in nine decades on this planet, but I never had a Star Trek communicator that told me everything I needed to know about everything.
A woman’s voice on the line: “Memphis Police Association.”
“Hi,” Tequila said. “I am here with my grandfather, who is a retired Memphis police detective. He’s hoping he can speak with his union representative.”
“Okay, let me transfer you.”
The phone played classic rock while we held. I flicked ash on the carpet. Tequila grinned at me. “See? Easy.”
The music stopped, and somebody picked up. “You got Rick Lynch.”
“Hi, Rick,” Tequila said. “I’m here with my grandfather, who is a retired Memphis police detective. We’re trying to get in touch with his union rep. Is that you?”
“Can your grandfather speak?” Lynch asked.
“Yeah,” Tequila said.
“Then how about you shut the fuck up and let him. Ain’t my job to talk to people’s grandkids.” I liked this guy.
“Are you my union rep?” I asked.
“Maybe. Who are you?”
“I’m retired detective Baruch Schatz.”
“Aw, shit!” Lynch said. “I’ve heard of you. I didn’t know you were still alive.”
“I get up three times a night, just to check,” I said.
“Well, what can I help you with today, Baruch Schatz?”
“A man I arrested, Chester March, is about to be executed. He’s trying get his sentence overturned by claiming I coerced his confession, and he’s got a reporter from NPR who is listening to him.”
“When did you put this guy away?” Lynch asked.
“Seventy-six,” I said.
“Okay, did you murder anybody?”
“Is this reporter going to try to say you murdered anybody?”
“I can’t imagine why he would. I expect he’s gonna say I whupped this suspect in the interrogation room.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Lynch said. “Well, there’s no statute of limitations on murder, but anything else you might have done, it’s too late for anyone to charge you on. So you’re in the clear. I’ve never heard of the department opening an internal investigation this long after the fact, especially not into the conduct of retired personnel. I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about.”
“But this reporter is still going to go on the radio and tell this story about me,” I said, and I flicked my ash again.
“Detective Schatz, I don’t know how things used to be done, but in the Year of Our Lord 2011, the Memphis Police Association ain’t in the business of silencing journalists,” Lynch said. I stopped liking him.
“We were hoping you could help us with public relations or crisis communications,” Tequila said.
“Son, this is a police union. You must have us confused with an advertising agency.”
“Is there anything you can do to help me with this?” I asked.
“If you are charged with a crime or subjected to a departmental investigation, we can get you a lawyer and back you up. If this reporter calls me up, I’ll be happy to tell him you were a great detective and that our position is that this guy March deserves to be executed. But there’s not much else I can do.”
I rested my elbows on my knees. “That’s just terrific.”
“Eat a dick,” Tequila said, and he hung up the phone before Lynch could respond.
“So, what’s next?” I asked my grandson.
“I think you should ignore this reporter and this whole situation, and just focus on supporting Grandma,” Tequila said.
“But if I don’t talk to him, he’ll tell the story without my side of it.”
“So what? Journalists write and broadcast stories about death penalty cases all the time. Nobody pays much attention, and the reporters almost never prevent people from getting executed. If you don’t talk to this reporter, you can’t make an inculpatory admission.”
“A what?” I asked. This damn kid and his law-school Latin.
“A damaging statement. The reporter has got nothing but old records and the killer’s self-serving narrative. He needs a climax for his story, and he wants it to happen when he confronts you and makes you admit to wrongdoing. He’s trying to get you, and all you have to do to avoid being gotten is stop taking his phone calls.”
“Okay, maybe that makes sense,” I said. “But I just can’t let March broadcast his lies on NPR and not respond. I can’t let that animal have the last word.”
Tequila smacked a hand against his forehead. “Okay, well, why don’t you tell me what really happened.”
“Not much has happened yet. The reporter called me on the phone and said he’s been talking to March and he wants to talk to me,” I said.
“For fuck’s sake,” Tequila said. “Tell me what happened between you and March. What did you do to him? What is he telling this reporter?”
“Oh,” I said. I stubbed out my cigarette on the armrest of the sofa, and hid the spent butt underneath a cushion. Then I lit another one. “Well, that’s a whole thing.”
1955: Jew Detective
The woman sat in the chair on the other side of the desk from me and sobbed. I had gotten used to looking at people in this state, but I never managed to get comfortable with it. I lit a cigarette.
“If you need a minute to compose yourself, you’re free to step into the powder room,” I said, gesturing toward the toilets.
Her eyes widened, and her mouth fell open. “No!” she shouted. I must have looked alarmed because she said, “I mean, I am afraid that if I leave, you won’t be here when I get back. I’ve come to this police station four times, and this is the first time anyone has let me speak to an officer.”
“I’m a detective.”
“That’s even better,” she said.
The shield was new, and very important to me. I’d earned it in the face of some pretty harsh circumstances. It had been tough for me to even become a cop at all; I’d caught a bullet overseas and messed up my shoulder pretty good. It took three surgeries and a couple of years of rehabilitation before I was able to get a medical clearance to sign up for the academy. I’d gone to Memphis State on the GI bill in the meantime and got me some liberal arts. I joined the department in 1949.
An officer with a college education could sit for the detective’s exam after two years on patrol; men without college had to wait three. I took the first test I was eligible for and earned top marks. They told me they didn’t have an opening for me, but they somehow had openings for guys with worse scores. It wasn’t a mystery why: I had the wrong kind of name, prayed in the wrong kind of place, and I didn’t belong to the right social kkklubs.
It was another three years before I got called up. It only happened after a spectacular display of heroics that got my picture in the paper, and I wasn’t well liked in the detectives’ bureau. Which was probably why this lady that nobody wanted to deal with was sitting in front of me.
I tapped my cigarette against an ashtray. “So what is it I can do for you, Miss . . . ?”
“Ogilvy. Hortense Ogilvy.”
I nodded. “Of course you are.”
“A friend of mine has gone missing.”
I read once that, for at least a short time, in the flower of their youth, all girls are beautiful. But whoever wrote that never met Hortense Ogilvy. Miss Ogilvy had very large gums or very small teeth, or probably both. There was visible inflammation around the gumline, angry red with a few pockets of yellow-green pus. Her lips didn’t quite stretch far enough to cover that whole disaster, so the gums were constantly exposed: florid, spit-slick, and glistening. I’d seen a mouth like that once before: on a bloated cadaver we’d fished out of the river. I caught a whiff of something foul, and I wasn’t sure if I was actually smelling Miss Ogilvy’s mouth or having a vivid sense memory of the stink of that particular corpse. I wondered if she would take offense if I tried to smoke two or three cigarettes at once.
“A friend of yours?” I asked.
“Yes. My friend Margery Whitney.” Miss Ogilvy made a face like she’d bitten into a lemon. Her swollen gums blushed purple with disgust. “Well, she’s Margery March now. That’s her husband’s name. Chester March.”
I exhaled a plume of smoke out of my nostrils and then tried to breathe it back in. “She should have turned down his proposal just to avoid that name.”
Hortense clenched her fists. “If you ask me, she should have turned down his proposal for a lot of reasons.”
“Too bad nobody asked you,” I said.
“What is that supposed to mean, Detective?”
“I’m not sure yet. Why don’t you tell me why you think Margery March is missing.”
“We’re quite close, and we talk every day or so. We had a standing lunch date every Wednesday that we’d kept almost religiously until she disappeared. I haven’t seen or heard from her in nearly three weeks.”
“Anything happen between you that might explain why she is making herself scarce?” I really couldn’t blame Margery for taking a break from Hortense. I was ready for one myself, and I’d only known her for about five minutes.
“Nothing whatsoever,” Miss Ogilvy said. “We were thick as thieves, and then she was just gone. Her sister hasn’t heard from her, either. And the neighbors haven’t seen her around, which is unusual.”
“What does the husband say?” I asked.
“That she’s out. Whenever I visit.”
I dropped my cigarette butt in the ashtray and lit another one. “Usually, a family member initiates a missing-person report.”
“Her family is up in Nashville. All she has here is Chester.”
“And you think Chester might have done something to her?”
“Oh, I hope not.”
This conversation was becoming circular and annoying. In a nonchalant way I figured might seem unintentional, I blew some smoke in her face. “Well, what do you think happened?”
She coughed and waved a hand in front of her mouth. “That’s why I came to you. So you would find out.”
“Terrific,” I said. “Sounds like fun.”
Copyright © 2020 Daniel Friedman.
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