Daddy was acting like he’d won some sort of prize, giddy and out of breath as he lifted the chair from the truck—the straps flapping and the wires wrapped around the back—and set it down in our front yard.
He said the chair was justice, it kept bad people from doing bad things. Daddy said without the threat of death hanging over their heads, they would go out and hurt innocent folks like Willie and me. He thought it was a piece of history.
I thought it was a piece of horror.
But out there in the sun, scuffed and scraped, the chair wasn’t much different than any other wooden chair—minus the belt straps on the arms and legs. Still, I couldn’t look at it without seeing some poor soul gripping the armrests, eyes bugging out, veins popping, gritting his teeth into sand as the current zapped away his life.
Why did Daddy want it?
And boy did he want it. He marveled over the chair. He set it in the basement and ran his fingers over the edges. “Old Sparky,” he said, as he told me all about how it was built by prisoners. I stood near the door, wondering if he was making it up or not. Imagine building such a thing. It made the hairs on my arms stand up.
Mama said it belonged in a museum. Probably her way of saying she didn’t like it in the house. I thought it belonged in the dump, buried beneath soil and banana peels, where I wouldn’t have to look at it every time I was sent to the basement to fetch a jar of peaches.
Daddy told us they were no longer “frying ‘em”. Now they used a shot. Lethal injection. He’d watched a few of them, told me what it was like even when I begged him not too. Willie would squeal and giggle, more to impress Daddy than anything else. I could tell by the way he wouldn’t go near it he was just as scared of it as I was.
Daddy believed in the Old Testament. An eye for an eye. But I didn’t care what the Bible said. I didn’t care about what Daddy said. I just didn’t want to see that chair. I knew it was bad luck from the moment I saw it.
And I was right.
On the first night we had it, strange things started happening. Or at least I imagined they were happening. It was late, pitch black outside and we were all asleep when the light flickered on and off. I bolted upright, thinking I’d imagined it all when they flickered again. Willie was sleeping soundly in his bed, his raspy breaths in perfect rhythm. I looked around in the dark, up above my head. I was sure I’d seen that light go on, but now everything was still.
The next morning, I kept it to myself. If I said something to Daddy he’d laugh and call me a baby. He liked to do that even though I hated when he did, he was always nudging Willie to tease until Mama told them both to cut it out. I knew Daddy wasn’t being mean, that he just didn’t know what to say to me without teasing, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.
When I asked Mama about the chair, why it was in our house, her face went tight. But I already knew what she thought. Through the walls I’d heard her asking Daddy what he was thinking bringing it into our home. She asked him what would God think of us having that chair in the house?
I thought more about that. What did God think about it? Daddy kept saying how it had only hurt bad men. But that was just the thing, it had hurt men, killed them. And now it sat in our house like a trophy. Where did God sit on that?
Only one person could answer such questions. So that day after school, I dragged Willie to see Reverend Peterson at First Baptist. Willie groaned and griped all the way there, dragging his feet and complaining. He was hungry and what were we doing going to church when we didn’t have to? I told him to hush, set him in a pew in the back. When he started kicking his feet I shot him a glare I’d seen Mama do a million times. That kept him still.
Reverend Peterson was older than Daddy by a mile, with silver hair that strained to cover up all that skin on his head. I found him in the back, sitting at his desk and humming a hymn He adjusted his glasses once he saw me. He wore a shirt and tie and looked out of place without the robe I was accustomed to on Sundays.
“Hello Lucy, what brings you here?”
“Well.” I looked back towards the sanctuary, where Willie was sure to be getting restless. I hadn’t thought much on how to start such a strange conversation, what I’d actually say once I got here. In church, all those angels watching, it felt like I was ratting Daddy out to God.
“Oh, I just had a question, something on my mind.”
“Ah, I see,” he said, when he couldn’t have seen much at all. There was no way he’d ever heard of such a thing. A contraption like that sitting in someone’s house had to be an original problem.
But the reverend, nice as he was, looked like he had things to do. Which got me thinking about how nice it would be to find work somewhere so peaceful, reading scripture and tinkering around in the chapel. But I quickly shooed away such thoughts. A woman preacher, I could hear Daddy laughing from two towns away.
“Reverend, you know how my Daddy works at the jail?
“Yes, I do,” he said, looking eager to be getting somewhere.
“Well, how do you feel about the death penalty?”
The words left my mouth before I could catch them. Reverend Thompson, flipping through some papers, marking words and scribbling, quickly looked up to me.
He removed his glasses. “Well, I… Hmm, Lucy that’s a powerful subject to be on a young girl’s mind.”
I nodded. “I know. It’s just something I’ve been thinking over. I’d really like to know.”
Something banged in the sanctuary and I stuck my head in to shush Willie. The reverend took the time to gather himself. “Well, Jesus himself says to turn the other cheek. However, it’s not so simple as that. I…”
Another bang in the pews and I knew I was on borrowed time. And that was just fine, because if Jesus said turn the other cheek, far as I could see, that was the right answer anyhow. Of course, being a reverend, old Thompson went on hemming and hawing, but I’d gotten what I needed, heard what I needed to hear. When he finally rambled to an end, I thanked him once more, gathered up that noise-making brother of mine and hurried home.
Reverend Thompson followed us out, looking more confused than convinced as he bid us farewell. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”
Soon as we got in the yard the door swung open. Mama started asking us where we’d been. One look at big mouth Willie and I knew to spill the truth, ‘cause he was about to do it anyhow. I told Mama we’d paid Reverend Peterson a visit.
She shot me a sideways glance. “Church?”
Yes. Church. Of all things. Here I’d gone to church on my own accord and my own mama was acting like I’d done something terrible. In fact, she was nearly as surprised as Reverend Thompson himself, asking me what that was all about.
Before I could come up with something Willie had started blabbing. “She was asking about the dead penalty.”
I cut a look at my brother, but it was cut short by the look Mama gave me.
“Now Lucy. You went down to church talking like that?”
“Well, I… I thought it was the right place to ask about right and wrong, that’s all.”
She shook her head. Her cheeks flushed red and she was awfully mad. Madder than I would have thought she’d been. “I swear, if that don’t beat all. Took Willie with you, too.”
“But Mama, that chair.” I lowered my voice so my spying little brother couldn’t hear. “Why did Daddy bring it home?”
Mama cheeks kept right on flushing. She looked away from me, turned her head and waved me off like I was a bug at a picnic party. “Well, that’s your father’s business. He thinks it’s a collector’s item.”
“Only thing it’s collected is people’s souls.”
Mama slapped me hard and fast, sparks spraying across the left side of my cheek. Tears spilled from my eyes. It took me a minute to realize what had happened.
Willie started crying on the spot. Mama wiped her hand on her apron, like she wanted to rid her palm of the zap of my cheek. She took a breath, talking about respect and manners. Though it was clear by the look on her face she wanted to reach out and take it back. I was backing away, wiping my eyes. Mama had smacked me. I couldn’t believe it. I ran right out the door for the creek.
She’d never hit me before. Even Daddy had never laid a hand on me, more than maybe nudging me in my room when I needed it. I fell to my knees, a twig snapping as I sobbed. I wasn’t even mad at Mama. I knew the chair had made her do it.
I stayed in the woods for at least an hour, then two. Until the bugs started singing and the sun dipped below the trees. I was still there when the shade stretched over me like it was setting in for the night, when I heard some rustling. Steps too heavy to be Willie, to light to be Daddy.
My body rushed with relief at the sound of her voice, until the jolt of my memory caught up with me. I turned away. Her steps stopped. I suppose she was trying to figure out what to do with me. Then. Softer. “Lucy, I’m sorry.”
I looked down to my lap. It wasn’t Lucy, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to figure it out. Or, Lucy I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. It was, Lucy. I’m sorry.
I swallowed down whatever anger I still had left at her. My nose stung and the tears came again as Mama took me in her arms. She was warm, with traces of sweat, swipes of flower. She smelled like our house. I let her hold me, with nothing but the creek gurgling past us, over the rocks it had smoothed with time. She reached up and touched my cheek, wiped away my tears and sang into my ear.
Eventually we got to our feet and hiked back to the house. When I saw Daddy’s truck was still gone, I looked up at Mama. She gave me a small smile. “He’ll be back later.”
It was odd, Daddy being out so late. Usually he came home beat from work. He’d eat dinner, toss Willie around then go off to bed. Mom stopped in the gravel driveway, gazing out at the open road. “He took the chair.”
I broke free from her hand. “He took the chair?”
It wasn’t quite dark out but the sun was gone. I found the makings of a smile on Mama’s face in the gloaming. I smiled bright, because it felt like I’d been pardoned of something awful. Mama shook her head. “Now, now, you’re going to wake up Willie.”
“How did you… Where did he take it?”
Mama started for the porch. “I don’t know and I don’t care. Let’s get you some supper.”
We walked in and Mama was saying how I was too old to be running off like that. But I could tell she was happy all was good between us. And it was going to stay that way. Because while Mama didn’t make many demands—she mostly stayed clear of things and let Dad run the house—I knew she must’ve done something this time, though. And she’d done it for me.
I launched into her with a hug. She let out a grunt. “Don’t suppose it was doing us any good, was it?”
“No, I smiled, knowing I would sleep like a lump, knowing that chair wasn’t underneath us. Knowing I could always turn the other cheek because my mama loved me. “I don’t guess so.”
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