“Thank you for your interest in the Indiana Department of Correction’s Museum. As I am sure you will appreciate the sensitivity of such a topic, the Indiana Department of Correction does not refer to the electric chair by any nicknames.”
— Indiana Department of Correction Operations Manager, in an email to the author
I’m a chef. I have a bustling sit-down restaurant in an old red-brick part of town. Whole happy hungry families are waiting at a dozen candlelit tables.
This is bliss. An indescribable joy.
I’m in the back, whistling dixie and digging hairy hands into big wet tubs of peeled jumbo shrimp, whisking fresh buttermilk and peanut oil into quail eggs and cornmeal and cajun spices I’ve sprinkled on my tongue for tasting. I’m tossing two shots of pricey bourbon in a buttered pan that flash into tall flames, the heat watering my eyes, almost searing my cheeks.
I’d weep my happiness if I could.
The lore, on my Department of Correction museum plaque, goes something like:
A century ago, amid wanton criminality, a righteous chair—an electric avenger, a sweet and cleansing chariot—hath been wrought from just and storied hangman’s timber.
Tourists sit and take photos. I hear their taboo thrills: got to be this is fake and thou shall not kill as if! and I wish my country still used old sparky
In another hundred years, they’ll say the same.
Two pairs of incarcerated hands did make me from the gallows, but I began as an untainted child. Steady sawing, like through bone—my first memory. A blocky back and legs shaped from sturdy uprights, my seat and arms from trodden platform planks.
all this wood, my parents whispered to themselves, piecing me together, ought to be haunted at best enchanted
I get to thinking about where I came from and I can’t stop.
A young inmate, my parents’ apprentice, dragged me bare from the prison workshop, out into the yard by the breezy sea. He took great pains to paint me with a thick lacquer, a heavy sun baking my coated grain. When I dried, he became the first to sit.
Through his eyes, I watched hanging gulls and slow rolling waves, with his crooked teeth I chewed on a tough spicy sausage, with his dry throat I swallowed and felt full and became gassy. His mind, in a happy loop, was on his dead mother. He was a preteen and they were in a cramped dirty kitchen. She was sing-songing him a lesson about how to make oatmeal flapjacks without wasting the batter: not waste not want not waste not want
He should’ve thrown me over the wall to be swallowed by a dune.
I could’ve been a beach bum.
In the workshop shadows they cut leather straps for binding beating chests and arms, a comfy leather pad that would sit sixty-one asses over eighty years. They bent iron U-rods for clamping wrists and ankles so none would jiggle free when the volts flushed through. They put a rubber stopper where the shaved heads would cook. But I didn’t know.
In a few days the governor arrived. He wanted to meet me before my big debut and I was moved into that dank room where I’d soak up all those lives. The warden’s two giggling daughters, running ahead of the pack, were chewing European chocolate bars when they climbed me: why this chair so dang uncomfortable? and daddy gonna bake them sinners good
I couldn’t make sense of their little voices, the awestruck things they thought. I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable. I didn’t know what a sinner was.
The governor strode in, sat, and I felt his laughing, fillet-filled belly ripple, his aides and family applauding his posing smile. I felt the warm pop of flashbulbs, heard his joy: wait till they get a load of my state’s lightning!
He christened me Betsy after his wife’s ancient bull terrier and the name stuck.
The rest I want to forget.
The sit-down restaurant reverie’s from number fifty-eight, one of the last ones.
White male, age twenty-four. Sad, stringy blonde hair. Thin, chocolate mustache. Long face, vacant stare. His dad, whom he idolized, was a so-so line cook at a Mr. Steak restaurant, a livid drunk who was always proud of bloodying his wife, a coffeehouse waitress.
I’ll spare you most of the details:
April 1979, deer hunters found this sedan, all four doors open, on a road leading to a creek; in the shallow brown water, they found a young woman’s bare body bound with shreds of her jeans. Police found her small children (ages two, four, five) upstream.
He turned himself in a week later.
He found her by the road futzing with an overheating engine. He quickly fixed it and got the car running again, but told her it was a temporary solution. She agreed to let him drive to a mechanic he knew. He’d come back for his own car.
He was good with the kids. He showed them how to interweave their upturned fingers so they could make a face mask with their hands.
I don’t want to know the rest, but I do.
He told the judge and the jury and both lawyers they should kill him because he would probably kill them first. He kept blaming his parents.
The day of, he asked for mint chocolate chip ice cream. He had a spoonful in him when he sat on me for about fifteen minutes, like all the others, and I had to see and feel and know everything he did, to hear every scattershot thought: ice cold crick not me strangling pants insanity not me can’t leave them as orphans not me
He was convinced he didn’t do it.
Amid his sizzles and evaporating lights, that’s when I first saw the restaurant: a life-long dream of opening his own establishment, everything fried and greasy as sin.
To make and provide food with hands I don’t have, to be able to whistle without lips, feel heat on someone else’s skin. He gave me an incomparable gift—a crown jewel in a roiling bottomless sea of terror, madness, and boiling blood. I was thrilled.
I tried to thank him, but he didn’t hear me.
They never do.
R.S. Powers’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Grist, Sou’wester, Juked, X-R-A-Y, World Literature Today, The Hunger, and other journals. He is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Florida State University.