When Death Row inmate Norman Howell drops a tidbit about how he and his father once helped the current Texas Governor get rid of competing Galveston Vietnamese fishermen through the use of high-powered explosives, Bill Travis has to decide whether to kick this particular sleeping dog or let him lie. But when the Governor’s men come calling, all hell breaks loose.
What’s an Austin boy (transplanted from deep East Texas, can you say Amen?) supposed to do when he finds himself deep inside a maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas in an interview room with a kid who is facing one turned-down appeal after another before they put a series of needles into his arm that will finally do what no amount of legal deterrence could do before–stop him for good? What’s he supposed to do when this kid nonchalantly drops a little tidbit of information that he shouldn’t know, and couldn’t know unless what he says is true? And it’s information that may very well bring down a Governor. Bring him down, that is, only if somebody like me is willing to push it.
What’s an Austin boy supposed to do when he stumbles across a sleeping dog like that?
Kick him? Maybe. That’s usually my motto. But sometimes, when you kick him, that old dog snaps right back at you: The current case in point.
Most prisons have a drabness about them. Inside Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas, the color was what could be called vomit-green beneath cold fluorescent lighting.
The building was functional, nothing more. The room in which I sat and in which the kid paced was all concrete cinder blocks with multiple coats of paint, creating an orange peel-like texture. Sounds bounced around in hollow places until they found a dead end, and there perished. Like men’s dreams.
The kid smoked his third cigarette in a row, said something about how smoking would kill a fellow, then cackled madly. I don’t smoke—well, not very often, anyway—but I’d brought in the cigarettes and the lighter so as to break the ice with the kid.
“Sometimes appeals actually work,” I told the kid.
His name was Norman Howell. The name sounds like a good name for a painter, or possibly a millionaire. Howell was neither.
Howell had murdered an old couple who ran a little mom-and-pop gas station out in a small North Texas backwater a little over ten years ago. His entire “take” had been a hundred and fifty-eight dollars and a case of Miller Lite beer. He’d been in prison and in and out of court rooms many times since that night. In Texas, committing a murder during the commission of another crime makes the murder a capital offense, punishable by death. In Howell’s case it wasn’t the double murder that had moved the case out of the realm of simple homicide, which at the most could have drawn a life-sentence, it was the hundred fifty-eight bucks and the case of beer. The fact that the old man reached under the counter for a shotgun bought no sympathy with the jury. And when his wife reached for the weapon after the old man had gone down, Howell had emptied his cheap Sear & Roebuck .38 into her. Norman Howell would have gotten off scot-free but for the presence of a cheap video camera and a hidden VCR. You gotta love technology.
“Yeah,” he said into the echoing stillness, “appeals work to delay the day when they kill you. Last time I read the Bible it said ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
What came up quickly, and was just as quickly stifled, was my reflexive response: So why’d you do it? But I wasn’t there to rain on the kid’s parade. He had enough people lined up to do that.
I tried to shift away from Howell’s favorite subject, the one subject that was, by unanimous vote—excepting, of course, Howell’s own vote, which didn’t count—a completely moot point.
I made with small-talk. It was difficult at first finding just the right subject to talk about with Howell, so I chit-chatted about how I was planning a trip to West Texas in the near future, about plans to spend a few nights in the Gage Hotel in Marathon, and something about that perked his interest.
“Marathon, huh?” he asked.
“That’s right. It’s pretty out that way. Mountains in the distance. Lots of room.”
“You ever seen the Marfa Lights?” he asked me.
I remembered. A little further west from Marathon was the town of Marfa.
“Nope,” I said. “I’ve heard of them, though. I’m not sure what to believe.”
He laughed, stopped his pacing for a moment and looked at me.
The Marfa Lights are a bonafide Texas mystery, one of the few remaining that have not been satisfactorily de-bunked. Along Highway 67 in extreme West Texas there is a roadside viewing area where passers by may stop just after the sun goes down and full dark begins to set in and watch little balls of light move and bob about miles away in the desert. Folks would come from as far away as Europe and Japan to stand there and wait for darkness to fall over the Chinati Mountains and hope to see something. Those little balls of light were reported as far back as the 1880s, long before electric lighting was brought into the mainstream. The local native Indian tribes had purportedly known about them during the centuries preceding white settlement of the area. For the Indians, the lights were the spirits of their ancestors and the valley between Marfa and the Chinati mountain range was sacred ground. During idle moments in my life, of which there have been too few, I’ve wondered about the phenomenon, but not enough to get in my car and go take a look.
“Some things you take on faith,” Howell said.
“Faith,” I said, not as a question. The moment stretched out, became a little too surreal—the sort of feeling a person gets about half a day into an amusement park visit when it hits home that the environment is real in a completely unreal setting.
Howell resumed his pacing and the moment passed.
And then he said it.
“I should’ve stayed with my dad and made good money blowing up gook fishing boats for Dick Sawyer.”
What? That was my first reaction. I didn’t ask it aloud, of course. In such situations I try to say what I’m thinking about a couple of times in my head before blurting it out. Sometimes that doesn’t work. This time I barely managed to keep myself in check.
I remembered the kid’s dad. His name was Emil (pronounced Ay-mull) Howell, and he was one of the most hateful men I had ever met. A bigot’s bigot. But he was equal-opportunity about it; he didn’t just hate blacks and Jews; he hated everybody. Emil had died a year back in a fishing accident in the Gulf of Mexico. The kid had tried to get a pass to go to the funeral but was summarily turned down by the warden. You couldn’t have gotten me to the funeral with a posse of sheriff’s deputies and any amount of rope. Then again, I wasn’t the man’s son.
Emil’s widow, Norman’s mother, lived in the little town of La Marque on the Houston Ship Channel. The feeling insinuated itself down into my gut that I’d be visiting there again sometime in the not-too-distant future, that I’d be sitting there in her living room on her plastic-covered furniture and sipping her too-sweet lemonade. I’d thus far been successful at avoiding having to see her very often and had handled trust account matters mostly by fax machine, whenever Nat dropped more responsibility for the case on my lap. She was a nice lady and all, but to me she had a vacancy in her attic. As the old saying goes: the lights are on and no one’s home. I suppose that could also come from spending one’s life with a hateful partner.
I shuddered. I had no intention of visiting Rose Howell.
I had to remember where I was and what I was doing.
None of it was my own case. I’d been sent by Nat Bierstone, my business partner, to wrap up the last details of a trust account. I watched the kid pace, looked at the walls around me and sniffed the stale air. Then I understood why it was me there in the interview room instead of Nat. Nat was no fool.
Howell dragged hard on his cigarette.
I allowed what he’d just said to percolate. And percolate it did.
There was only one Dick Sawyer with whom I was familiar, and that Dick Sawyer was ensconced in the Governor’s Mansion next to the State Capitol in Austin. God Bless Texas.
“Fishing boats, huh?” I said, trying to be offhand-like. Nowadays calling someone a “gook” is a racial epithet. I couldn’t bring myself to repeat it, unreal situation in a real environment or not.
“He was going to show me how he did it,” Howell said. “Like he did it during the 80′s. Had to sink three of ‘em before those bastards got the message to stay off our fishing grounds.”
And then I remembered.
At the time it had made national headlines. An image of Dan Rather’s face on a television screen flashed in my head, speaking in his practiced, mid-western no-accent. Dan went to school at Sam Houston State, who’s he think he’s kidding with that accent? I remembered thinking at the time. The television cut back and forth between clips of Galveston Police sifting through piles of planks, mangled ropes and nets, and then back to Dan’s commentary.
The first sinking had occurred three weeks prior to Dan’s report and hadn’t made it past the local and state headlines. A Vietnamese trawler out of Galveston had been blown up and sunk during the night. A second one met the bottom of the bay in like manner ten days later, and then came the capper: ten days later a third trawler was blown to Kingdom Come, and with it an unidentified and unidentifiable person and a large hunk of marina to boot. In a day before such labels as “hate crime” and “domestic terrorism”, Dan did one thing right: he nailed it by calling it “what looks to be a crime motivated by racial bigotry and hate”. And when it got Dan’s attention, it got everybody’s attention.
Ghosts of the KKK—not gone, no, just slumbering, festering in the Texas sun—reared their ugly heads throughout the media.
A Walk Through the South Down Nightmare Lane, was the title of a short documentary of the 1950′s lynching of a black man in a small East Texas town, timed perfectly and aired nationally four days after the last Vietnamese sinking. It was the sort of stuff Texas was supposed to have been finished with long before.
The 1980′s had come and gone, and to my recollection, there had never been any headlines about anyone being jailed, tried and sentenced for sinking those boats or for the murder.
And here was this kid.
…blowing up gook fishing boats for Dick Sawyer, he’d said.
No, I hadn’t imagined it.
“Your dad was a very opinionated man,” I said.
“You got that right,” he said. He wasn’t looking at me. He paced the width of the small room as if he was on the deck of a fishing boat and dragged deeply once more on his cigarette.
“One thing he did right was make a man outta me.”
I kept quiet. I didn’t want to distract him. Maybe there would be more.
But there wasn’t.
I didn’t have a lot to go on, I knew. Still, from the smallest whispers in secret places, great devastation is usually wrought. I thought maybe I’d just let this little juicy bit of information die with Norman on a gurney at the Walls Unit, anywhere from two months to two years in the future. Sooner or later, I knew that was where he’d end up.
I also knew that sleeping dogs were for kicking. I was sure that one day I’d regret this little character trait of mine. However, I hadn’t driven a hundred-and-fifty miles to Huntsville to plot against the powers that be. I had business to attend to, and it was time we got to it.
“Norman,” I said. “It seems to me that your father had some ideas about what he wanted for you. I think he wanted you to live a long and happy life. I think he did his best with what he had, and this trust account in your name has to go somewhere. If it were me, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d sign it over to your mother for her to live off of from now on. Then, after that, if there’s any left over, there are some good charities that need your help. Mr. Bierstone can help with all that. I’m just here to get this done today.”
“Aw man. I don’t know about all that shit. All I know is I got a date with the grim reaper. Money don’t seem so important to me right now. Why don’t you go back where you came from, and take your papers with you. I’m sure you can find something to do with them.”
I kept calm. It takes more than petty refusal and veiled insult to light my fuse.
“Okay,” I said. “I can surely do that. But let me ask you a question first.”
He stopped and looked seriously at me, as if he was seeing me for the first time. I didn’t care for his cold eyes.
I plunged on ahead.
“What do you think it’s going to be like? I mean, after they put you down.”
“What?” he asked. Maybe he’d never thought of it before; had never framed it as a question to himself. If it had been me, I would have spent every spare second ruminating over just that.
“You were talking about faith before. I don’t know what you believe,” I said. “And really, I don’t care. It’s all the same to me. But what if you’re floating around afterwards, you know. Your body getting cold and you not able to get back inside it. And you’re looking at people and thinking about things. You know, stacking up your regrets. What do you think that’ll be like?”
Copyright© George Wier. All rights reserved.