Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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To All Whom These Presents Shall Come
from Bloomland

TO ALL WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME is the salutation the governor writes on Eli’s death warrant, before fixing the time and date of his execution. It has been twelve years, but the state has finally secured a dose of potassium chloride, reportedly donated by an anonymous supplier in the prison’s parking lot. What this means is that, for the third time this year, you are driving to Feliciana with your phone mounted on the dash, waiting for a clemency hearing update. You are imagining the worst outcome of this event—Eli’s body thrashing off a table, his father clawing at the door—hoping that to foresee an elaborate detail will prevent it from happening.

But this time, it’s different. The darkness on I-40 is barely cut by moonlight. Your phone does not light up. By the time you are alone in the woods, some adrenaline has worn off. You are a horse continuing to run long after its rider has fallen into the dirt. You think: this is what real endings feel like, after anxiety erodes into routine.

When you arrive at Feliciana, Eli has already been in a bright room for thirty hours with a Bible and a chaplain. A major has collected his belongings. He has bowed under a wood sign that says SILENCE, his leg irons rattling across the floor. After being strapped into a gurney, a nurse has evaluated his veins, then hooked him to intravenous tubes that feed through a small hole in the wall. While sitting through fifteen minutes of pre-drug saline solution, he has watched a teal curtain out of the corner of his eyes, waiting for it to open onto the viewing room. He has been assured that the midazolam will anesthetize him completely.

Meanwhile, you are escorted to a small brick room, where you sit in a row of chairs with Eli’s father, the warden, the chaplain, and five volunteer witnesses. When the curtain opens, you’re surprised by how Eli’s gurney is shaped like a surfboard and mounted on a thin pedestal, giving it the effect of hovering in the air. Never in your life have you seen a body presented this way, like it has been installed somewhere for observation.

After a few minutes, the warden approaches the window and touches his eyeglasses, like a coach feeding his team an important signal.

“Do you have any last words?” he says, arms crossed, face emptied of all expression.

“Yes, sir, I do,” says Eli. He does not turn his head to the side. He is positioned in such a way that the most natural place to look is toward the ceiling.

“I want to say that I am sorry for any pain that I have caused,” he says. “I didn’t understand what I was doing. Something was missing, and the shooting was my way of trying to get it back.”

Over the last year, you have exchanged several short letters with Eli, which means you’re used to these types of phrases. You no longer focus on the passive voice, the boilerplate lack of responsibility. Nowadays, you are trying to see your own place in all of this. You are considering that, if indeed there was a voice, maybe you have heard it, too.

When Eli is done speaking, you have to close your eyes. You thought you’d be able to watch, but you’ve lost sight of why you came here. You thought this could be a way of extending compassion toward him, but now you can’t imagine how compassion could possibly work this way.

When you open your eyes, Eli’s skin has turned slightly crimson, but his body is in the same position. Everyone stands, and when they crowd around a folding table to sign paperwork, you do not feel as if anything has come to an end. It’s just that another thread running through your life has prematurely vanished.

Back in the prison parking lot, the sun is coming up beyond the fangsome treeline, its peachy residue infecting the corners of the sky. You get in your car, but you don’t leave. You watch the protesters and SWAT team disperse, wondering why this story, and all the ones like it, have to end this way.

So you start your car and drive home, woozy with images of concertina wire, gun towers, the intaglio of trees and swamps. You try to understand what just happened, to see how it might fit into the always-shifting geometry of your past. But then you stop. You remind yourself it’s okay to be confused, that you can’t flick the lights on quick enough to see what the darkness looks like.

When you emerge from the forest and onto a stretch of familiar highway, you decide you shouldn’t be alone. I’ll be in class by the time you get back to Ozarka. So you cycle through a list of friends to call, struck by an increasingly familiar realization that you’re not very close to anyone. The people you know are compassionate and giving, but you’d need hours to catch them up on your life in general, not to mention the entangled notions of compassion and shame that took you to Feliciana and back.

You’re about to pass through Little Rock. You consider stopping at your parents’ house, but driving through the quiet streets of Marin Estates has always felt wrong. Whenever you go home, you still wish you were taking a left on Alameda, toward that brick house you lived in before high school, the one with the back deck surrounded by unkempt boxwood. You want to enter the house and then wander outside, the porch light thickening around you. You want your mother to emerge from the back room and massage your shoulders until the entire house shakes from the garage door opening. You want to run downstairs so you can watch your father pull his Buick into a space just wide enough for it to fit. You want him to do something silly, like keep his sunglasses on, or put his tie in his mouth as he parks, to indicate he had a good day. And before he cuts the engine, you want to sing part of a song you learned in choir, emboldened by his good mood. You want to feel no risk when expressing your joy, your doubt, or your frailty.

For most of your adult life, you assumed that longing for this place was just nostalgia, an ordinary regret of growing older. But after you get back to Ozarka and sit alone on my porch, you start to think it’s evidence of a rift. “Something was missing,” you hear Eli say again. The phrase unspools like a stray dream. It no longer sounds like an empty grab at sympathy. Instead, it suggests an era of comfort and connection, before the people he loved turned into long corridors he was told not to enter. It makes you wonder if, all this time, maybe you and Eli were missing the same thing. Maybe you’re different from each other only in degree, not in kind.

Later, when I get home, you explain all this to me. You take me back to that house on Alameda, that garage where you sang “O Magnum Mysterium” beneath the hum of an engine, surrounded by camping gear, inherited furniture, and bins of old clothing. You tell me that, at some point, you traded in this person for someone else. You were trying to grow up. You thought you were getting stronger and more independent. You were setting yourself apart as a man. But it didn’t work the way you thought. You expressed your emotions so infrequently that Casey often felt blindsided by them. You went on some inner journey after her death because you assumed your grief would be displeasing to others. And as the years passed, you got farther away from everyone, because you weren’t growing up. You were taking what had bloomed and folding it back upon itself. You were dying on the inside. And what you are beginning to understand is that, when this type of rotten limb finally does break apart, we don’t examine its decay. All we ever focus on is the sound, as clean and sudden as a gunshot.  

Reprinted with permission from Dzanc Books.

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