by Kate Folk
At his feet sits a small suitcase containing two changes of clothes and the .38 pistol he bought the week before with a bad check.
No effort was made to conceal his body.
It’s September, and Eric’s wife Jackie is six weeks pregnant. She’s recently become obsessed with a nine-year-old girl named Anna Marie Emry, murdered over the summer in a tiny town called Brighton, forty miles south. Anna was kidnapped by her uncle’s friend, Lary Lane Morgan. She was raped and stabbed, her body discarded in a cornfield. Eric will come home from work in the morning and Jackie will be sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of chamomile and the Des Moines Register. She’ll greet Eric with some horrifying new detail about the murder. For several weeks, Anna Marie’s family held out hope that she’d simply run away. But that wouldn’t have explained the broken screen door.
It’s an election year, and the governor, some asshole named Terry Branstad, has made Lary Lane Morgan’s crime a campaign issue, promising to bring back the death penalty just to deal with monsters like him. Jackie hopes Morgan will be the first man executed in Iowa since 1963. Eric finds his wife’s blood lust disturbing and plain weird. He retreats into the meditative cove he carved into his brain while incarcerated whenever Jackie recites gruesome facts about the Brighton murder to strangers.
Since his release from the state pen in Fort Madison, Eric’s pieced together work where he can find it. He spent a few months doing landscaping for his father-in-law’s company, hauling mulch and plucking weeds from the large, decorative gardens of houses in upscale sub-developments. The other workers joked to each other in Spanish while Eric toiled in uncomprehending silence, feeling hurt and left out and ridiculous. Finally, over the summer, Eric found an ad in the classifieds for a job doing overnight security at the Kmart on Highway 6. He’d heard security companies were willing to hire guys with criminal records. The interviewer was a squat, curly-haired woman. Eric sized her up and judged her an easy mark. Her blue eyes grew misty when he told her about his old life, stripping copper wiring from derelict buildings, collecting cans for the nickel deposit, and yeah, shoot, even pulling a few B&Es, those being the depths to which his addiction had dragged him.
The Kmart job is great. Eric gets paid a few dollars above minimum wage to do nothing. From 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., five nights a week, he sits in the company Taurus listening to classic rock and retreating to the cove. Eric was hired because shopping carts were being stolen. The cinderblock sides of the store were being graffiti’ed with phallic symbols. Eric dreads the day he’ll have to muscle somebody out of the parking lot, but for now his scarecrow presence seems enough. At 1:00 a.m. he takes his lunch break at the Hardee’s drive through across the highway. He orders the Frisco burger combo and a strawberry milkshake. Once, the nervous teenage cashier gave him the shake for free, mistaking him for an actual police officer.
Tonight when he returns from lunch, Eric finds a red Geo idling at the far edge of the lot. Eric drives over to it, but the car slips onto the highway before he can see inside. Eric imagines that, were it not for his timely intervention, the occupants of the Geo would have broken into the store, stolen CD players and VCRs, maybe set the whole place on fire. But he knows they were probably just lost, or stoned, or confused about Kmart’s hours of operation.
On a July morning Victor Feguer boards a Greyhound bus in Milwaukee, bound for Dubuque. He’s just been fired from his job at a janitorial service for standing around and not cleaning anything. At 25, Victor’s already been sacked from jobs in Ohio, Illinois, and all over his native Michigan. He’s done stints in jail for burglary and car theft, but he doesn’t have a record in Iowa, and is driven by a vague notion of starting fresh.
The bus is muggy and full of screaming children. Victor stares at the endlessly unspooling cornfields, willing himself not to throw up; someone told him, years ago, that focusing on green objects helps to kill nausea. At his feet sits a small suitcase containing two changes of clothes and the .38 pistol he bought the week before with a bad check.
At last the bus rumbles over the Mississippi. Victor cozies up to the window, dazzled by the river’s summer beauty. He’s heard it’s easy enough to get work in one of the riverboat casinos. He has a sudden vision of himself dealing blackjack, wearing a silk vest and bow tie.
From the bus depot, Victor takes a cab to a boarding house on Iowa Street. The owner, an old woman, invites him to sit in the front room. Victor compliments the chintz curtains, hoping to charm her, but the woman is all business. When he offers a check, she demands cash up front, six dollars for the week. Victor demurs. As she leads him up the stairs, the woman asks what type of business he’s in. Victor’s planned his answer to this question. He says he’s an accountant, but in his spare time he paints watercolors.
Victor’s room contains a sagging mattress, a folding desk, a dirty window the size of a magazine. In the corner there’s a small round sink, the drain haloed in rust. Above the sink, a cracked mirror segments Victor’s face like the borders on a map. When the innkeeper leaves Victor strips to underwear and lies on the bed, turning his face to the nicotine-stained wallpaper. His nose drips a slick patch on the pillow. Sweat pools beneath the length of his body. He has never sweated so much. He did not know he contained so much water.
The week passes. Victor gets a little stronger each day. He goes around town buying things with checks from his overdrawn Milwaukee account. He buys a new suit and trousers for $39.74. He buys a radio for $95.82. He buys milk and bread and cheese slices at the grocery store and eats in his dim, airless room, listening to the new radio.
On July 11 Victor cracks. He goes to a phone booth, opens the phone book to Physicians and dials the first number listed. Dr. Ackerman doesn’t pick up. Dr. Bartels does. Sorry, says Bartels. I’ve just finished for the day. Please, Victor says. My wife is pregnant, she’s in pain, she’s miscarried twice before. We didn’t want to travel but her mother is ill.
Bartels is quiet. Then he asks for Victor’s address.
JACKIE’S NO LONGER content to batter strangers with crime statistics at the grocery store. She is now canvassing outright for the governor, cold calling dozens of families from a long list of numbers. Thursday night, one of Eric’s nights off, she promises to stop after the Bartletts, but she’s still on the phone in the kitchen when Eric gets home with pizza. Eric eats alone in the living room, watching ESPN with the volume way up.
When Eric started at Kmart, Jackie was still making beaded jewelry that she sold at craft shows a few times a year. She spent mornings on the couch in the living room, watching Good Morning America and stringing tiny beads onto a length of something that looked like dental floss. The pink Kaboodle has vanished from the coffee table, replaced by newspaper clippings and legal pads scrawled with the cryptic shorthand Jackie learned while working as a secretary for a dental clinic. She has hung a framed photograph of Branstad above the TV. The governor’s thick mustache and squinting eyes remind Eric of cops who routinely beat the shit out of him when he was using crystal. Eric sits on the loveseat instead of the couch to stay out of the governor’s line of sight.
DR. BARTELS PERCHES on the edge of the mattress, which still bears a damp shadow of Victor’s body. Victor’s right hand keeps the gun trained on the doctor while his left hand plumbs Bartels’s black leather bag. He finds no vials of morphine or Demerol, only a stethoscope, bandages, antiseptic and prescription pad. Victor orders Bartels to stand. He walks behind the doctor, the muzzle of the gun grazing Bartels’s back. They get into the doctor’s ‘59 Rambler and drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois, seeking a pharmacy where no one will recognize them.
Bartels’s office is on the second floor of his house. He left a note on the kitchen counter for his wife, Bonnie, who is pregnant with their fourth child. She’d gone for tea at Mrs. Laurenson’s house down the street. Bartels’s knuckles whiten around the steering wheel. He knows Bonnie will be angry when she comes home and finds the note. She’s always complaining that he works too much. Bartels hoped he’d get home first. He imagined sweeping the note into the trash, concealing it under coffee grounds and bacon drippings.
JACKIE’S ALWAYS ACTED like she’s doing Eric a favor even giving him the time of day, but Eric knows that a part of her gets off on his criminal past. When they were dating and they’d go to a bar, she’d try to start fights between Eric and other men. She would tell Eric some guy was looking at her sideways. She’d whisper that she bet Eric could beat that asshole frat boy to a pulp. Eric had no interest in fighting. Speed had made him squirrely and secretive, and now, sober, he could barely look another man in the eye, much less challenge him to a fight. But he’d try to play along, hint that once he was off probation he’d be glad to assault a stranger in defense of her honor.
As a convicted felon, Eric can’t vote, a fact that drives Jackie nuts. She badgers him with hypotheticals. If you could vote, would you vote for Governor Branstad? The first two times she asks, he says yes, of course he’d vote for Branstad. He says something he knows she’ll like: that as a rehabilitated lawbreaker, he knows the penalties have to be tough. If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. The third time Jackie asks, Eric snaps and says he’s changed his mind. If he could, he would vote for the Democratic candidate, Bonnie Campbell, because she has red hair like his mother’s. Jackie refuses to speak to him for three days. She conducts her business in the study with the door closed, leaving Eric alone with the portrait of the governor.
BARTELS’S BODY IS FOUND lying face-up in a cornfield. He’s been killed by a single gunshot to the head. No effort was made to conceal his body.
Victor drives from state to state trying to sell the Rambler. He tries to pass checks as Dr. Bartels, wearing Bartels’s stethoscope for verisimilitude. Again and again, Victor is denied. Days pass. Bartels’s disappearance hits the front page of Dubuque’s newspaper, the Telegraph Herald. On the 22nd Victor is arrested at a used car lot in Alabama. The car dealer thinks he recognizes Victor from the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, and calls the sheriff. Victor’s not on this list, but apparently resembles a man who is. That man might be Joseph Corbett Junior, who was placed on the list in March 1960 after kidnapping and murdering the heir to the Coors beer fortune. Fegeur and Corbett wear similar horn-rimmed glasses. Their faces have a similar pallor and jowl-heavy shape.
Victor is pleasant in his interactions with law enforcement, though he continues to insist he’s innocent. He admits to kidnapping Bartels, but says he had an accomplice, a friend named Alex Dupree. Victor says Dupree shot Bartels, and a few days later, Victor shot Dupree and dumped his body in the Mississippi. So he did kill someone, yes, but it was that lowlife Alex Dupree, not Dr. Bartels. Investigators conclude that Alex Dupree is a purely fictional character, though Victor remains committed to this story throughout his trial.
ERIC IS GLAD TO work on election night. He keeps the radio off and drives the parking lot in slow loops. He’s memorized the locations of all the birds’ nests in the crooks of the Kmart sign. The biggest one is in the top part of the K, the second largest in the a’s belly. Eric stares at the a and it flickers as if trying to tell him something. He imagines stealing the company car, taking it across state lines, ditching its plates and screwing on new ones from the long-term lot at O’Hare. If he leaves now he could be at his uncle’s cabin on Lake Michigan before dawn. Perhaps he could make it look like a kidnapping, so Jackie wouldn’t get as much self-righteous satisfaction out of her own abandonment.
When Eric comes home the next morning, Jackie’s waiting in the living room, still wearing her red party dress. She says, simply, We won. Her face is flushed like she just got laid. She says she’s been out all night in Des Moines with Branstad’s people. Eric has a vision of his wife drinking sparkling grape juice in a champagne glass, tilting her head back and laughing, exposing the creamy flesh of her throat. She probably offered to be the designated driver, shepherding drunk guests to pockets of Des Moines before driving home.
Jackie stands and hugs Eric, her little fingers digging into his back. Into his ear she whispers, That fucker’s gonna fry.
BECAUSE VICTOR TRANSPORTED the doctor across state lines before shooting him, the murder falls under federal jurisdiction. The governor of Iowa, a Democrat named Harold Hughes, is a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Hughes has already placed a mora-torium on executions in Iowa. But a federal execution can only be stopped by the President himself.
Hughes phones President Kennedy, who takes the call by the White House pool, where he’s been swimming his morning laps. Kennedy promises Hughes he’ll review the case, but ultimately denies the appeal, saying Victor’s crime was too brutal. The governor has no choice but to allow the execution to proceed on Iowa soil. The chaplain breaks the news to Victor. The chaplain, an elderly man who has ministered to inmates for decades, has spent many hours with Victor and can’t quite pin him down. He’s never met an inmate who seems to care so little about his own fate. I’m sorry, son, the chaplain says. Victor just nods and says, all right then. Goodnight, Father.
Employees of the Iowa State Penitentiary prepare an invoice of expenses for the execution of Victor Feguer, billed to the federal government. The hangman’s rope costs $28.75. Prison guards stretch the rope for weeks on the beams of the auto workshop where they are constructing a gallows. A pair of young guards plays tug of war with the rope. The warden, finding their laughter unseemly, sends one of the guards to buy two identical blue suits, at the cost of $33.50 per suit. They also buy two sets of underwear ($1.14 each), two white shirts ($1.81 each), and two neckties ($.37 each), as well as a pair of socks ($.29), one belt ($.75), one pair of shoes ($7.30) and a handkerchief ($.09).
For his last meal, Victor requests a single unpitted olive. He tells the chaplain that he’ll swallow the pit so an olive tree, symbolizing peace, will sprout from his grave. The olive doesn’t appear on the Iowa State Penitentiary invoice dated October 31, 1962, though its cost is presumably negligible.
IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING the election, Jackie calls the governor’s office several times a week to ask about the delay in pushing the death penalty measure through state congress. One night in March, while Eric’s watching Wheel of Fortune, she removes Branstad’s photo from the wall and smashes the glass with a hammer. She paces the house, saying she’ll find a way to kill Lary Lane Morgan herself.
Eric imagines tying Jackie to a chair and injecting her with something strong, clean, pharmaceutical grade, liquid Valium or Dilaudid. He pictures her vein rising to meet the pressure of his fingers. He imagines easing the needle in, feeling her body unfurl. He still has a clean rig stashed somewhere in the basement.
THE LAST EXECUTION performed in Iowa proceeds on March 15, 1963. The undertaker finds an olive pit in the hanged man’s suit pocket. He drops the pit in the trash, along with a wad of chewing gum extracted from the mouth of the deceased. The corpse is embalmed, dressed in a fresh blue suit, and buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Madison.
ONE NIGHT IN APRIL, near Jackie’s due date, Eric watches a homeless man steal three shopping carts from the parking lot. Eric is parked only twenty feet from the carts when the man approaches. All he has to do is roll down the window and tell the man to go away. The man slowly pulls the carts from the corral. He keeps glancing at the Taurus’ tinted windows, waiting for Eric to intervene. Eric turns up the radio and closes his eyes.
A week later Eric is called into the dumpy HR woman’s office. She says they reviewed the security tapes from that night. They watched Eric do nothing to stop the theft. There is a quiver of hurt in her voice that makes Eric hate her.
Eric apologizes and says he must have drifted to sleep for a moment. This is a calculated risk. He knows that falling asleep on the clock is grounds for immediate termination. But it turns out he’s calculated wisely. The woman’s face softens. She says she knows it must get boring out there with nothing to do. She recommends crossword puzzles and a thermos of coffee.
The night before Jackie goes into labor, Eric smokes speed in the Hardee’s parking lot with three men in a van with Minnesota plates. He’s still high when his daughter is born. She is wrapped in a towel and placed in Eric’s arms. As Eric stares into the baby’s tiny red face, he realizes that Jackie will want to name her Anna, after the murdered girl.
That’s okay, Eric thinks. He’ll call her, simply, Anne.
Eric finds his wife’s blood lust disturbing and plain weird.
The governor’s thick mustache and squinting eyes remind Eric of cops who routinely beat the shit out of him when he was using crystal.
He imagines easing the needle in, feeling her body unfurl.
KATE FOLK’s fiction has appeared in many journals, most recently Hayden’s Ferry Review, Juked, and Joyland. She has received support for her writing from the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and was a 2016 fiction finalist for the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing fellowship. Originally from Iowa, she lives in San Francisco and works as an English teacher and prose editor for the journal Your Impossible Voice. Find her at www.katefolk.com.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
© 2016 The Indianola Review