To cover the killing from several years back, I had an ad hoc staff of one young woman from the local college out there in Belle Glade, Florida, a quiet thing named Maria Maciel, a mother, married, twenty-one, who knew her way around town. She spoke as little as anyone I’d ever met. From the moment I met her, I wanted to whisk her away on a golden carpet. I really did think there might be a book in the project, too.
I was married, while Maria was more vulnerable: rouged cheeks, Mexican with Chicano, a little like a geisha with her almond eyes. That week, up in Starke, they were putting to death a young man named Alfonso Armstrong, who had walked into a family-owned grocery store in town—a store that had thrived for fifty years—and shot the beloved white owner of the place, a genuinely nice guy named Jimmy Kline.
The whole community, black, white, Latin, Arab, had come out to turn in Alfonso. It was his own father who drove him to the police station three days after the murder.
Jimmy’s place was called the Great Alabama-Florida Southern Grocery. They’d sold pickled sausage right beside bait and lures to fish the canals, right beside good steaks brought in each weekday morning, the only place in the area that carried quality meat—or you could get frozen hamburger just like at Winn Dixie, fatty stuff to grill out. A dude named Dontavian Jones kept a barbeque out back, cut out of a rusty oil tank salvaged from someone’s backyard, and from 11:00 to 2:00 he pedaled delicious goat and pork butt pulled off the bone, served on a Pepperidge Farm bun from the store.
It was Dontavian who’d heard the ruckus and right away the gunshot, and crazily went running in through the back entrance, as though to help. On the mute video, when he came around the counter and saw Jimmy’s body, he brought his hands to his ears and screamed. The gunman was fleeing, rushing out the door, stiff-arming past a man on the walkway who must have gasped, certain he was done for.
At the time, I still had my voice. I was losing it, but I still had my cadence, inflection, and diction in symphony, a luxury, a misfortune.
I got moving around out there, and it was an extraordinary place, with tall sugar cane on every sliver of open land I could find, vast fields of it as far as the eye could see. And trailers with laundry hanging on lines. And this barbed-wired lot cut into the cane where a man lived in a yellow school bus with an old fashioned satellite dish in the back corner and two pit bulls that came sprinting to bark at cars if there wasn’t much traffic on 715, bark until their throats were torn up. And churches everywhere, wealthy, long established productions built like fortresses, and new affairs, squat one-room or two-room rectangles. I peeked in a few to watch the silent prayer.
Or out at the home of Jimmy’s family, over on the lake in the nicest area of town, a sprawling, brick ranch on a long, wide slice of property that ran green and lush to the levee.
I spoke with Jimmy’s son, who had just turned thirty. Their daughter wouldn’t speak with me. Called me Dennis Boaz, after the Gary Gilmore shyster, said I was trying to profit, as was the Post, from their pain. And Leslie, Jimmy’s wife, had a few things to say, and less space in which to say them as the son took over.
Leslie, I’d noticed, had aged well except in the face, which had wrinkled and turned leathery around bulging eyes and a razor-blade mouth. She was very slender and wore leather pants and a smart, matching jacket. It was good and cool out, February, after football season, and workers were burning sugar cane along 715. Far from the burn, there at the lake, I could smell soot in air.
Maria had come close. We were positioned, the four of us, on the front porch. They hadn’t invited us in because the daughter remained inside, marking her territory. The son, James, had taken a seat at a little smoker’s table and kept shuffling the ashtray. Leslie sat in front of the big window, eventually asking for the tray so that she could light up. Maria and I stood off by the porch steps.
From the cigarettes, a new habit after her husband’s murder, a rasp had grown in Leslie’s throat, same as me, and she noticed mine, asked whether I had a cold.
I explained, “Constant soreness. It’s a good thing I write for a living.”
She looked me up and down. “You’re too young for the parts to stop working.”
“He’s my age,” James put in.
“Older than that one.” She pointed a Virginia Slim at Maria. “She’s shy. You’re too shy, young lady.”
All Maria did was giggle. She hadn’t spoken much to me—in fact, had only answered questions, and usually with a yes or no or some quick explanation, but in a lovely voice, with a middle pitch. My voice, back during my twenties, had been soothing, masculine, thick—tenor as a stout. But on my recordings, it is a rumbling tractor. And now, it is a chopped and mangled yowl, delirious. I can seem engulfed by my voice, captive to its lunatic crackle.
“She expected to grow old with my father,” the son explained, as Leslie fell quiet. “They had a lovely life together, nice enough children, never mind my sister. But she was always terrified of that store’s location. Right on Martin Luther King.
“Dad kept smart hours. You have your Dixie Fried, and you have the two law and tax people, so during the day, bars on the windows or not, it’s quiet, looks like a poor neighborhood in another country. But at night? Terrible. Everyone goes inside except the shadows. There’s no sense being out there. Dad kept daylight hours, but I remember Mom’d lose sleep over it, especially while she was raising us. He could’a hired someone, and Mom told him just that, but he said relationships with customers paid for the roof and food. Mom didn’t let it be—”
“I said no each time,” Leslie put in.
The son glared at her for interrupting. His monologue turned: “Dad had a shotgun—back behind the counter. But he handed over the money. The goddamned boy just shot him. That boy was a football player. He wasn’t some dropout gangbanger. His voice wasn’t a ruffian’s. I play back his plea for mercy at sentencing, and yes, I do get angry. Bitter. I think maybe that’s why my father handed over the money. Heard that clean voice and thought, ‘This kid ain’t gonna hurt me.’ Who knows, anymore,” James concluded. “What’s the slant of your article?”
“We want to see whether healing has taken place. I assume it has.”
Maria moved close enough now that her shoulder was touching mine. My heart leaped. But her proximity was from fear, for James had developed a good, solid scowl.
“My father was a martyr. He did great things for the Belle Glade. Was generous to a fault with those people. You want me to say what? That we’ve moved past the racial divide?”
“Would it have been better if his murderer had been white, James? I’m sorry, but it’s my job to ask. You don’t have to answer.”
“Yes, sir, it would have been,” James said without hesitation. “Maybe a white man, or maybe a crazy man, or maybe a man who didn’t get the money. I don’t know. Maybe some thug. Dammit, yes, it would have been better! Anyone but a civilized person, a normal person—listen to that kid talk! Dad’d pulled that shotgun if he’d felt the boy would have squeezed the damn trigger!”
“That kid was no bum,” Leslie cut in. “Came from a solid family. The father is a religious man. But, remember, James, the grocery store accepted food stamps.”
When I met her eyes, big and black and intelligent, she dropped her glance to the ground.
“Yes, it somehow would have been better,” she whispered. Her voice shook. “I would prefer you not print what we just said.”
I glanced inside. The daughter had come closer, was sitting on the couch before the window, a slim thing like her mother. She turned and studied me. Sure, her eyes grew harder, colder, fiercer as a the seconds passed, but at first, it was a quiet, soft countenance I confronted, as though she’d done a bad deed, had not been caught, and was touched by the guilt of so easily moving on. If she had spoken, in that moment, it might have been to forgive me, but all we had were our expressions, which we had not mastered.
On the drive back to Clewiston, where the sugar company has its headquarters and there are nice hotels and passable restaurants, the ash of burned cane fell like the soot of bodies, thick enough that here and there I had to turn on my windshield wipers. I marveled at the young, beautiful, silent Maria sitting beside me, with her round face and geisha eyes, and how she only once took her hands from her lap to gesture as we finally had a conversation, as though she had been trained to be as mild as the Virginia Slims Leslie burned.
For a while, we talked about my dying voice, which she described as “a chainsaw.”
She told me, “I feel for you. You have kind eyes. You want the best for people. Your wife must care for you very much.”
She clamped shut, so I coaxed other, less comfortable opinions out of her. She had not been in Belle Glade when the murder occurred. She’d been visiting Mexico. When I asked, “So you were seeing family there?” she nodded and added, “Sebastian.”
“Is he your husband?”
“No. No, my husband is from here.”
“Who is Sebastian?”
“A boy I loved.”
“You were visiting him?”
“What happened to him, Maria? Why didn’t you marry him?”
“Yes, he was murdered,” she said, oddly, as though agreeing with me. “The Sicarios killed him for his father, as a… vendetta, I think is the word.”
She dropped her eyes to her lap and played softly with her fingers. She wore a sweat suit. It was bone colored, a cloudy kind of cotton, made to look aged.
I didn’t speak for a bit, ran the wipers to clear the ash that was falling. “So you were in love with Sebastian?”
“And your husband now?”
She glanced out the window. We were in no man’s land, with burning cane crackling off the road out my window and the Everglades, jagged and ferocious, out hers. “He is a hard worker. Thirty-seven. Owns a house.”
“And you have a son together?”
Suddenly, she grew animated. “He does not let me do anything. From the college to home. I cannot work. I can’t go out with friends. From the college to home with the baby! I took this job because this job is temporary, and even then, I had to beg him and sit on his lap.” She choked down how detestable it was. “In work jeans. He never takes them off. They smell like chemicals. He never takes them off for dinner, even around the baby. I say, ‘Those chemicals are no good for the baby.’ But he never takes them off until he takes a shower, at the end of the night, and comes to bed and gets on top of me. I hate it! I hate him!”
She caught herself.
“Why don’t you leave?”
She went on; all it took was a sympathetic glance. “After college. He does not know. I have to leave here. Miami, where he cannot find me. He would hurt me. He likes when I scream. I don’t know if I can leave, like with Sicarios. Maybe he would find me. But I hate him. I can’t look at him. He knows. He hates me. Screams at me and makes the baby scream. I will not leave, and that way, I will be like Sebastian.
“Maybe he will die young, from all the chemicals, or get sick and become too weak to hurt me. I don’t want our son growing up with him. He is Sicarios. Sebastian never did nothin’. They murdered him for his father leaving their gang. I wish I knew him, still. He used to write the most lovely letters. I talked with him at night when I was a girl. I never got older from there. My husband says I’m beautiful because I look young. But I want to be seen as a woman, and if I was with Sebastian, I would have grown up—or if I just knew he was out there, I could go to him.”
She was fighting back tears, though her face refused to tremble, and she turned inward, stoic. Up ahead, I saw signs for Clewiston, and further in the distance, the town rose out of the blankness and vastness of sugar cane, and I knew I’d better just take her to lunch on the paper’s nickel and have her go back to the hotel to type up the transcripts, alone in the room with the voices of others.
While she worked, I went down to the swimming pool and did some laps. The chlorine singed my throat. I moved back and forth, from the pool to the hot tub, trying to ignore the gleeful cries of two families on vacation together. I thought briefly of my own wife and children, but I put them out of my mind. I was a man suddenly without guilt, which made me a hollowed shell, and it was easy to know that Leslie hadn’t loved Jimmy the way she should have—or, that was how Leslie felt. Surely, during arguments, she had said the words, “You’re gonna get shot one day!” So when it happened, it was like a prayer she had come to believe would be answered. Or like Maria, who wanted to flashback to middle school, to late-night phone calls with Sebastian, when he would talk her to sleep with dreams of a better future. She believed he died because she did not open her heart to save him: had she confessed her love for him, he would have fled to Florida, and that gang would have sought their vendetta against someone else. Or that her baby boy has to hear and cannot speak, has to hear the cruel words of his father against his beautiful, young mother, words that flow from the ironic jealousy of comparison, Dad’s gnarled working hands and intentional stink to Mom’s silent beauty.
The jeans? To be disgusting. To revolt, then compel: true power.
“Crestor, twenty milligrams, for cholesterol. Lopressor, fifty milligrams, twice per day. Bayer, baby aspirin, the mild stuff, eighty-one milligrams for your heart. Let’s keep those arteries pleasant.”
I’ve learned to do by gesture. Here, with my doctor, a head nod. What’s to say? He’s the expert.
Most times, others don’t want to hear your words, anyway. They want the beauty of their own speech, their own thoughts, which they’ve spent time with. They want you to listen. So a head nod suffices—that and a kind look in my eyes, as Maria pointed out and which I’ve learned to perfect because it and its several cousins make up my arsenal these days.
I speak only when I must.
“If you take Trish to her equestrian lesson, baby, I’ll take Jason to Little League. We’ll switch it up.”
In response to this comment from my wife, I stuck out my bottom lip in thoughtful agreement. What a nice change of pace. For a moment, words seemed superior, but in the aftermath, I knew my silent agreement, garnished with gratefulness, was a more refined choice.
“Daddy, I love you.”
I brought my eyes to meet Trish’s lovely browns, the same color as her mother’s. I am pleased this is my daughter, growing into her riding breeches.
“I should have made that play,” Brian said.
This time, disagreement, but with compassion, understanding.
He continued, “You saw it, Dad. It just got under my glove.”
I gave a look that said, You win some, you lose some.
But what I wanted to say is, I dreamt of lights flickering down the road from Florida State Prison, Starke. The last moment of humanity was the condemned’s mad dance, strapped to a chair, with a hood over his face to blind his eyes, to veil his contorted expressions. There was silence after his last words.
Because it wasn’t the words. The hood was placed because no sane person would ever want to see his last look of reflection, witness his last voluntary silence, the horror in his eyes and all over his face, in the seconds after the words had been spoken, before the switch was flipped, when he knew and was telling you.