When he dreams now, all of his dreams seem tied to food, and all of the food is tied to memory. And the dreams he remembers most clearly are the ones that go back a long way, to the farthest jurisdictions of memory. Back to when he was a boy in Augusta, short enough to pass beneath the counter without bumping his head. That counter, bone white formica dotted with tiny blue stars, divided the kitchen from the den. In the memory-dream, his mother stands over a stove, slicing okra, shucking corn, shredding a shoulder of pork and a breast of chicken and combining them all into a pot on the stove to make Brunswick stew. He toddles from her side out to his sisters on the old green couch in the den. Both of them older, he the baby of the family, and the only male left now that his father has disappeared into the oil boomtowns of the Dakotas. Hannah is braiding Eliza’s hair and whispering a secret into her ear, and in the background an old animated Disney movie is playing. The volume is low, just above Hannah’s whispers, and on the screen a girl with hair just a shade lighter than Eliza’s pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and collapses to the floor.
In the prison cell in Oklahoma where he does his sleeping now there is no television, and the only beauty is Eliza, who still visits from time to time. People in this arid, flattened state don’t even know about Brunswick stew, not his mother’s kind or any kind at all. His public defender is working the governor’s office, and he has recruited the chaplain and one of the dayshift officers to search the restaurants and diners around McAlester, trying to find a decent bowl of stew to go with his cornbread, sliced honeydew, and peach cobbler. He has hope that they won’t all come up empty, though it hangs in the air now softer than Hannah’s whispers.
The news of his execution date came last week. Before that his dreams had mostly been of freedom, abstractions of green grass and open highways. He woke from them to the bland monotony of the Row, mostly the sounds of clicks and the sight of painted blocks. The low click, the one that sounds like far-off summer thunder, means the runaround is coming down the line with books and candy. The loud click, the one that hits closer to home, is for his personal door. It means a visitor, or a search, or a trip to the yard to walk and smoke and breathe fresh air, not the stale HVAC smoke that is filtered back to the Row. Then there are the blocks. His cell has 147 cinder blocks, all of them painted the grey of an overcast sky, except for a line halfway up the wall that’s the same shade of orange as the awful circus peanuts that his mother used to carry in her purse. Before his date had come down he had felt like one of those grey blocks most of the time, a piece among other pieces, snugged into place and remembering occasionally to hope that the whole structure didn’t weaken and come crashing down on top of him.
In the mornings after the dreams have receded and the faint whispers of hope are all that hang in the dead air, there are still rare moments he wishes for nothing so much as the blank grey brought on by drinking from the bitter cup he once poured. The poison within the cure. He has been inside for so long that he can go weeks without thinking about that bliss, the hot sweet surge that comes first, the low gentle nodding after. In those first years after he came here he tasted it every night, crime and craving mixed with remorse to form its own bitter medley. The dream was different each time. Sometimes all he saw was a flame burning just below the glass ball of the pipe, a little smudge of black between the fire and the fuel. Other times he saw himself sliding open the kitchen window of a house at night. A light appearing from down the hall, paisley wallpaper swimming in shadows. The sound of bare footsteps. Caught between the window and the back door, he had closed his hand on the first object it could grasp. A dirty cleaver, left in the sink. Other times he just dreamed of walking through the night. Legs cramping. So thirsty his tongue felt wrapped in raw cotton, the kind that grows on the side of the road back home in south Georgia.
Before that irrevocable night, when he had first come to Oklahoma, he had worked on a pumpjack crew, pulling lines and servicing motors. One of the other boys on the crew had introduced him to the Violet Mary, a mixture of cough syrup and gin that was used for everything from treating insomnia to celebrating the end of the workweek. He had resisted a long time, but finally, after working a string of 17 days, he had found his nerves so raw and frayed that he had mixed the toxic slurry in a plastic Big Gulp cup, then sipped it on the ragged couch of his travel trailer until it pulled him under. It hadn’t felt so much like falling asleep as falling under a spell.
He wonders now if it will feel like that same kind of falling when they get him down on the gurney and put the real toxic medicine to work in his veins. In these last days he waits without really meaning to wait, feels hunger without a true direction or name. What people mean when they say longing. He is not asleep now, but he can feel it coming on. He’s in that night house again, but this time there is no grasping, no running. He knows there is no turning away. But alongside that knowing there is also the dreaming, the memory of sisters whispering and the television buzzing and stew simmering in the kitchen, his mother singing old hymns while she sets the table.
Jake Sullins teaches writing at Georgia Highlands College and lives in Allatoona, Georgia, a town mostly covered by a lake. He is currently working on his dissertation in the Creative Writing PhD program at Georgia State University.